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Even Worse Than We Thought

SACRED SECRETS: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History, By Jerrold and Leona Schecter, Brassey's: 380 pp., $26.95

June 30, 2002|RONALD RADOSH | Ronald Radosh is co-author with Joyce Milton of "The Rosenberg File" and other books. He is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

It is the claim of Jerrold and Leona Schecter, a husband-and-wife journalist-historian team, that the Cold War was made up "sacred secrets," that is, critical intelligence operations carried out by major nations, in particular by the Soviet Union. These operations were of such vital importance that they virtually demand a rewriting of history, because much of what has been written fails to consider the meaning and effect of these intelligence campaigns.

"Sacred Secrets" is the latest in a reevaluation of the impact that Soviet espionage had on our past, particularly during World War II and the Cold War. The Schecters' work builds on that of previous authors, especially on Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes' interpretation of the Venona decrypts in their 1999 study, "Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America" and Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev's revelations surrounding Soviet espionage in "The Haunted Wood." In their telling, the Schecters provide new information about how widespread the Soviet espionage network was. If true, their reporting--especially the revelation that J. Robert Oppenheimer was a Soviet asset--will change our central assumptions about the Cold War.

"Sacred Secrets" is a historically accurate account not only of how that espionage effectively hurt America's national interest but also of how it served the interests of the Soviet Union. While many Americans have assumed that those accused of spying for the Soviets were victims of false charges brought by McCarthyites, the truth is that most of them were guilty of what they had been charged with. The Venona files and Soviet archives established that Alger Hiss, Laurence Duggan, Lauchlin Currie, William Remington and others working in the U.S. government had been Soviet agents or sources of information for the Soviets, as Whitaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley had charged. The Schecters add to this by providing new details about Soviet espionage success, and they put to an end any claim that, if espionage had occurred, it was of little effect and no harm.Two episodes are of immense importance and show the extent to which the Schecters have mined valuable information from the KGB archives. Since the release of Venona, we have known that Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the Treasury and the formulator of the so-called Morgenthau Plan for postwar Germany, was a major Soviet asset. Critics have argued that it made no sense that White could have been a Soviet agent because he was a major player in creating the International Monetary Fund.

The Schecters look at White and his efforts before the start of World War II to encourage the U.S. to pursue a policy that would counter Japanese expansion, which would keep Japanese troops under pressure in China and therefore clear of Soviet borders near Siberia. The goal was simple: to aggravate strained negotiations between the U.S. and Japan. Formally, White was not a Soviet agent but what the authors call a "star," with satellites working around him who gave the data he supplied to the Soviets. Thus his memoranda to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. was handed to the Soviets by actual Soviet agents in Treasury, including Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, Victor Perlo and others.

Under the pretext of supporting peace and friendly relations with the Soviets, White introduced "Soviet goals into Treasury Department initiatives," for the purpose of gaining support for the "Soviet policy of averting a Japanese invasion of Siberia." That policy led not to peace but to a provocation that led the Japanese to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. Stalin's ultimate goal, the Schecters emphasize, was to try to provoke war between Japan and the U.S., to prevent Japan from striking the Soviet Union and hence to promote Soviet interests in the Far East.

In "Sacred Secrets," the authors also tell the story of how, in 1944, White developed the policy of giving the Soviets printing plates that enabled them to print unlimited amounts of occupation currency in the Eastern zone of Germany. On the face of it, the providing of plates could be justified as part of the reparation for Soviet suffering at Germany's hand during the war. But the Schecters make it clear that Gen. George C. Marshall was opposed to this plan because it would interfere with the Allied currency. But White moved ahead after he received instructions to do so from the NKVD center in Moscow, and the marks flooded the Russian zone and created a black market and inflation throughout Germany.

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