Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Priorities of the Soviet Espionage Network in the United States

Communist spies in North America had more than one function. They gathered intelligence, but other tasks often had higher priority.

Beyond stealing classified documents from the government and from the military, and beyond sending such secrets to Moscow, Soviet operatives were tasked with influencing U.S. policy. To this end, they established themselves in both governmental and non-governmental institutions.

This can be seen, e.g., in the intelligence provided by Whittaker Chambers. Chambers joined the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) in the mid 1920s, from which he was recruited into Soviet espionage agencies around 1932. By 1938, he had grown disillusioned with the international communist conspiracy.

He disengaged from the USSR’s intelligence agencies and began offering information to the United States government. He was able to explain that Soviet operatives were often more interested in shaping U.S. policy than in stealing U.S. secrets.

As historians Stan Evans and Herbert Romerstein explain, “Cold War scholars generally are aware of the influence issue.” Yet, in the popular imagination, Soviet spies are generally conceived of as “stealing secrets.”

One Soviet agent, named Alger Hiss, is perhaps best known to the public as the man who stole classified State Department Documents and passed them on to other operatives, including Chambers. But while Hiss’s reputation depicts him as an intelligence-gatherer, he actually did much greater damage as a policymaker.

It is less well known that Hiss, while on the payroll of Soviet intelligence agencies, was a key advisor to President Roosevelt in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Hiss’s influence was responsible for the death of thousands as he enabled Soviet imperialistic expansionism to run amok in eastern Europe.

There is, then, a disconnect between what professional historians know, and what general public’s perception is. Scholars are aware

of the Cold War role played by Chambers, who knew a lot about spying and was involved in it on a professional basis. Yet Chambers repeatedly stressed that spying as such was not the major issue. Rather, he said, with the likes of Hiss in federal office, policy influence was by far the leading problem.

While the Soviet effort to steal classified U.S. documents was a grave danger during the Cold War, an equal and possibly greater threat was posed by communists inside the U.S. who nudged policy decisions in directions which favored Stalin.