Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials that Shaped American Politics

Stuart Hannabuss (Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 27 June 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials that Shaped American Politics", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 6, pp. 469-471. https://doi.org/10.1108/00242530810886788



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The period in the USA after World War II and from the 1940s to the 1960s, with McCarthyism and the Cold War, remains one of the most fascinating and disturbing objects of historical interest and research. It is also a period easy to over‐simplify as one where Soviet spies conducted espionage activities against a liberal democracy and where the law brought them to justice. The real picture is far more complicated. Even though there were famous names, like Rosenberg and Fuchs and Hiss, that gave their names to a series of trials between 1945 and 1962, there were many more in their spy‐rings and many more who were believed to have spied but did not. The evidence that came forward in such trials, too, was partial, partisan, and often not released by the government for its own reasons of official secrecy – to use evidence to convict would disclose evidence they wanted kept under wraps.

We might add to all this other strands – that espionage attracts its own ideological zealots, whose lives are or often seem sensational (and get sensationalized by the media), that many contemporary accounts (and those since) are themselves biased or self‐apologist or driven by revenge, and that it suits our view of the political machine in a democracy that it protects the public interest, defends the interest of freedom (in this case against internal corruption from American Communists and against external threats from Soviet Russia), and extirpates those who attack the state in a series of fair‐minded just trials. All these are issues considered by Haynes and Klehr in what most readers will find is both an excellent digest of a much larger historiography (including works of their own) and of an increasingly‐documented period of modern history (as more archive material comes to light).

For any student or lecturer in this period of history, as well as for any information specialist engaged with issues of disclosure and censorship and propaganda, Early Cold War Spies is not only a concise survey (the CUP “essential histories” label indicates skilful distillation) but a surprisingly comprehensive account of the personalities and intrigues, in espionage and government circles as well as in the court cases themselves (clearly reported), and so a model of its kind. Their point is that many spied but few were prosecuted, partly because evidence was privileged, partly because the law was piecemeal, partly because the protagonists themselves were often hard to believe. Elizabeth Bentley (called “the blond spy queen”) was dismissed by some, including the media, as a fantasist, and yet, after her trial in 1948 and after years beyond that, her disclosures came to be believed. It was only with the discovery of the Venona cables (decrypted to reveal the extent of Soviet espionage, and discussed in another book by Haynes and Klehr) that Bentley was vindicated.

Appearances masked reality in such trials, as Fuchs was tried for revealing secrets of the atomic bomb, as the Rosenberg spy‐ring was unravelled, as evidence and counter‐evidence was reviewed by the courts, and as counter‐intelligence turned out to be ineffective. Some spies, like Alger Hiss, looked a clean‐limbed American hero and were believed, even though they lied. Only years later, in many cases, after books about the trial (and books by many of the key figures themselves) had multiplied, is it possible to get a fair idea of the truth. Some things will never come out, like whether Oppenheimer, who directed the Manhattan project, was really too left‐wing for the country's good. The trials did not come out of nowhere but grew in a climate of increasing suspicion, starting back with the Amerasia trial of Jaffe (who was left‐wing and had Communist connections). McCarthyism added to the alarums and excursions at the time. Some of the stories are James Bond in their excitement – defections, betrayals, deception and fake passports, illicit love affairs. These episodes, and how they are reported in court, make the book highly readable.

Haynes and Klehr provide an interesting insight, then, into bureaucratic incompetence, but turn it into a richer argument by asking whether the challenges of conducting espionage trials, at the time and at any time, pose complex trade‐offs for any liberal democracy. The trade‐off is one between security and liberty, and it is one which, in the present day, many democracies face under global terrorism. This is so in any situation of war. It is made more complex because the Communist Party in the USA was influential up to the mid‐1950s (above all until Stalin's crimes came out), the departments of state were ill‐prepared, and government itself was keen above all to maintain control of events. There are eight chapters in this book, six on key trials (from Bentley and Hiss to Coplon and Soble‐Soblen), and two on the wider ramifications. For each chapter there is a well‐chosen and annotated bibliography, ideal for students (and good as a checklist for collections). A suitable addition to the university and college library, and for school libraries where this level of detail is required. A portal to higher reaches of research.

Further reading

Haynes, J.E. and Klehr, H. (1999), Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

Klehr, H. and Haynes, J.E. (1992), The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself, Twayne, New York, NY.

Knight, A. (2005), How the Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto.

Olmsted, K.S. (2002), Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Rehnquist, W.H. (1998), All the Laws But One: Civil Liberties in Wartime, Knopf, New York, NY.

West, N. (2004), Mortal Crimes: The Greatest Theft in History: Soviet Penetration of the Manhattan Project, Enigma Books, New York, NY.

Related articles