Spying in America: Espionage from the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War
“. . . the author lays out a history few Americans know and some barely even suspect. . . . finally revealed the full extent of Soviet espionage: at least 349 covert agents extending literally from Los Alamos to the White House.”
Last summer I testified before the House Judiciary Committee about the Espionage Act of 1917. Was that statute still adequate to protect American national security when a New York Times reporter felt free to exploit, publish, and profit from the sale of our most sensitive military secrets?
While Americans have a long history of deploring any limitation on freedom of expression, wasn’t this just another chapter in the continuing saga of espionage, often described as the world’s second-oldest profession?
But my congressional audience exhibited a characteristic that historian and former CIA counterintelligence officer Michael J. Sulick finds depressingly familiar: “American disbelief regarding espionage has persisted throughout the nation’s history.” Mr. Sulick’s timely and valuable book, Spying in America: Espionage from the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War, should have been required reading before those ladies and gentlemen ever sought national office, because in its succinct, well-written chapters, the author lays out a history few Americans know and some barely even suspect. While you probably studied Benedict Arnold in junior high school, did you know that Edwin Bancroft, private secretary to Benjamin Franklin, was an English spy? As America’s prototypical ambassador, Franklin’s greatest achievement was the Franco-American military alliance. And yet, “When the final version of the treaty was signed . . . King George III had a copy on his desk two days later, thanks to Bancroft.”
Civil War espionage was costumed in the tradecraft of a romance novel: false mustaches and messages hidden under ladies’ tresses and petticoats, concealed still further by amateur ciphers. Such intelligence as there was often proved inaccurate, particularly when Allan Pinkerton—chief of Union counterintelligence—conjured up troop estimates. His Union colleague, Lafayette Baker, “a power-hungry zealot” was not only corrupt but incompetent. “. . . Baker rounded up hundreds of suspects, trampled civil liberties and missed genuine spies operating not only in the Union government but also in his own counterespionage service.”
The Confederates were not much better and the war ended as “. . . spy hunter and spy shook hands.”
The book’s third section, 1914 to 1945, summarizes America’s forced entry into global politics and accompanying loss of innocence. As Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson could shut down its code-breaking office with the lofty assertion that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”
But just 15 years later, Stimson, now recast as FDR’s Secretary of War, presided over a security establishment avidly exploiting the old/new disciplines of code breaking, espionage, and intelligence.
Those battles and the overlapping struggles spanning World War II and the Cold War comprise the real heart of the book in its final section, The Golden Age of Soviet Espionage. The Soviets cynically exploited the divided loyalties of a generation of Jewish immigrants who had strong cultural and intellectual ties to the utopian claims of Marxist ideology. That group included not only Julius and Ethel Rosenberg but also the rogue’s gallery of moles in and around the Los Alamos laboratories: Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, and Theodore Hall.
Their network singlemindedly provided the Soviets with the roadmap used to develop the atomic bomb, “the US government’s most closely guarded secret of World War II.”
But the Russians were equal opportunity employers, also recruiting a string of luminaries from prominent All American families with impressive Ivy League credentials. That group included Harry Dexter White (assistant treasury secretary); Lauchlin Currie (a member of FDR’s brain trust); and most notoriously, Alger Hiss (FDR confidant, State Department director, and secretary general of the United Nations founding conference).
Told on several occasions that Hiss might be a Soviet spy, FDR reacted angrily, “I don’t want to hear another thing about it. It isn’t true!” Alas but it was, a point Mr. Sulick carefully documents in a short chapter devoted to the “Venona” intercepts: Russian messages to their American agents. That painstaking decryption project finally revealed the full extent of Soviet espionage: at least 349 covert agents extending literally from Los Alamos to the White House.
Mr. Sulick’s equally painstaking abilities as a historian have allowed him to produce a book that is unfailingly succinct but richly illustrated and well documented. He also brings his practical experience as an intelligence operator to a thought provoking concluding chapter.
What new opportunities for spying are presented by globalization, in which loyalty to the state is constantly challenged by ethnicity, religion, or aggressive individualism? Have traditional espionage boundaries been forever shifted by hacking, cyber warfare, or a technical infrastructure notoriously vulnerable to terrorist attacks?
Spying in America’s last sentence highlights our need to quickly address these questions: “There has been no moment more urgent in American history to apply these lessons . . . in order to prevent spying by those dedicated to destroying the American way of life.”