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Case Closed

THE HAUNTED WOOD: Soviet Espionage in America--The Stalin Era;\o7 By Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev; (Random House: 404 pp., $30)\f7

January 31, 1999|STEPHEN KOCH | Stephen Koch is the author, most recently, of "Double Lives: Espionage and the War of Ideas."

One of the most startling chapters is "The Reluctant Laurence Duggan." Duggan was a brilliant young Roosevelt-era diplomat in the State Department whose real story is told here for the first time. For the Soviets, Duggan was a great catch: a potential Kim Philby, the infamous British double agent. Or a Hiss. Imagine that Henry Wallace, FDR's vice president from '41 to '45, had become president: a perfectly possible scenario. As a leading figure in the left wing of the Washington diplomatic world, close to Wallace, Duggan could easily have been his secretary of State.

Duggan's story overflows with pity and terror. Here was an exceptionally decent man, luminous with promise, drawn by his own ideals into a kind of agonized corruption. Weinstein and Vassiliev have unearthed the electrifying fact that Stalin ordered the murder of the NKVD defector Ignace Reiss, perhaps the greatest Soviet spymaster of the era, in Switzerland explicitly to prevent him from exposing Duggan. His Soviet contacts liked him; Duggan was hard to dislike. Touchingly, one Soviet control praised him as a "100% American patriot." (Moscow was not amused: "Let him understand that he is really our agent.")

As Duggan grew increasingly terrified of exposure, Moscow debated blackmail to enforce Duggan's subservience. The Moscow Terror of the '30s, when Stalin purged and killed cadre after cadre of leading Bolsheviks and millions in the rank and file, rocked him. He was sure that some doomed apparatchik in the docks would blurt out the truth. As his fear mounted, Duggan's bewilderment deepened. During World War II, he tried to pull back, struggling to retrieve his soul. With the Hiss case, his panic over exposure became more certain.

In late 1948, the FBI and the Soviets paid calls on him within a week of each other. A few nights before Christmas, the wretched man plunged into the snow-blown darkness outside his 17th-floor office window. The cause of his death was once hotly debated, and the authors leave me almost convinced that it was a suicide. Of the Soviet's most highly placed moles, Duggan's life is perhaps the most plainly gripped by tragedy.

Government files do not generally make for irresistible reading, and Weinstein and Vassiliev's just-the-facts style has a price. While their narrative is perfectly coherent, it is everywhere short on context. Take Martha Dodd, the dicey daughter of Roosevelt's first ambassador to Berlin, William Dodd. Martha was a Soviet agent by March 1934, recruited by her Soviet boyfriend, an exceptionally interesting character named Boris Vinogradov, whom the apparatus dubbed "Romeo," snidely designating Martha "Juliet #2" to distinguish her from "Romeo's" unnamed "Juliet #1." When not reading Daddy's mail, Martha was busy seducing an impressively large number of Nazis. One known to me (but not mentioned here) was Rudolf Diels, a founding father of the Gestapo. Hers was obviously passion with a purpose. But what purpose? Clearly, Dodd had something to do with the rich and troubling subject of early Nazi-Soviet relations. We are not told what.

Then there were the defectors. Despite, or perhaps because of, their fear of Stalin's revenge, many defectors wrote books. The best is Whittaker Chambers' magisterial "Witness." Hede Massing wrote "This Deception," Elizabeth Bentley wrote "Out of Bondage," Michael Straight wrote "After Long Silence"--all ferociously controversial. Do the files confirm or contradict these confessions? Weinstein and Vassiliev rarely say. How does the new information change our understanding of the atom bomb in the Cold War? How can we assess the penetrations of the American government by the large network of agents managed by Victor Perlo, Nathan Silvermaster and Bentley's lover, Jacob Golos? There are a lot of unanswered questions here. "The Haunted Wood" is filled with new data but not much new thought about meaning and consequence.

But then the book does not claim to be more than a partial picture. The NKVD was only one of several Soviet services. Hiss worked for Red Army Intelligence or, as the NKVD coyly called it, "the neighbors." The Comintern had its own secret service and propaganda networks, usually connected to the American Communist Party--"the compatriots." An NKVD focus doubtless explains why the book tells us so little about such questions as the Stalinist propaganda and fund-raising networks in Hollywood, even though they were, in their way, as important in Cold War mythology as Hiss and the Rosenbergs. The unendingly controversial subject of Stalinism in the film industry is addressed at length in Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley's new book, "Hollywood Party: The Rise and Fall of Communism in the American Film Industry" (Prima Publishing).

As our sense of political morality mutates, the role of these events in our imagination, our sense of heroism and tragedy, will change with it. The old image of persecuted innocence will flicker and die. What will replace it? Duggan's terrible story is perhaps a place to start. In his eloquent introduction to the revised "Perjury," Weinstein speaks of the Hiss-Chambers story as the great unwritten American novel of its era. He cites George Santayana, as saying that once the time for "arguing or proving or criticizing" is past, there comes a time for fiction, for the imagination to integrate old betrayals and suspicions into a new and persuasive moral perspective. We Americans have finished a long, very ugly quarrel. It is time for a new history. That new history will need to be amplified by a new art with the vision it takes to tell us what is truer than true about this fearsome saga of faith and deception.

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