Consistency never has been a mark of stupidity. If the diplomats who have mishandled our relations with Russia were merely stupid, they would occasionally make a mistake in our favor. -- James Forrestal to Joseph McCarthy, December 1946
FDR Winked at Soviet Espionage
When evidence is presented of America's various sellouts to the Soviet Union in the 1940s, from giving them the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons before we had even developed our own, to the Yalta Agreement conceding domination of half of Europe and giving the Communists a leg up to control of China and Korea, the defense is often made that they were our allies in a life and death struggle with the Axis powers at that time. Misguided though these actions may appear in retrospect, goes the argument, it was all for the war effort, and politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows. But in September of 1939 the Soviet Union was not the ally of the United States. Far from it. On August 23 the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. They were then the allies against the West, and the stage was set for their attack upon and dismemberment of Poland. There was also a very great likelihood that any intelligence that had been gathered by the Soviet Union's espionage service would be made available to the Nazis.
Whittaker Chambers, a high-level operative in a Soviet spy operation that had penetrated much of official Washington, had become disenchanted with Soviet Communism more than a year before, largely as a result of the purges and executions by Stalin of a good part of the Communist Party leadership, in what became known as the Moscow show trials. Chambers, with his family, had first gone into hiding for fear that he would be killed by the Communists for whom he had worked. Under pressure to make a living, though, he had made his way back into New York literary circles and landed a job with Time magazine under his real name, after having used a number of aliases while working as a secret agent.
He had been put in touch with the Russian-born, anti-Communist journalist, Isaac Don Levine, when Levine served as ghost writer of a series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post for a defector from the Soviet intelligence service, Walter Krivitsky. Levine also had important contacts in Washington, all the way up to the White House. When the non-aggression pact was signed, Levine insisted to Chambers that he go public with what he knew about Soviet espionage in the United States. Chambers, fearing imprisonment or worse for his own spy work, agreed to do so, but only with a guarantee of immunity from prosecution, which he could only feel confident about if it came from the President, himself.
Levine was not able to get a meeting for Chambers with the President, but he did get an invitation to the home of FDR brain-truster, Adolf Berle, like Levine a strong anti-Communist, who handled security matters for the president from his position as Assistant Secretary of State. Berle told Levine that the witness, whom Levine did not initially identify by name, needn't fear prosecution, and the meeting, with Levine present, took place on the evening of September 2, 1939.
Chambers fingered a number of government officials as agents for the Soviet Union, most notably in retrospect, the brothers Donald and Alger Hiss at the State Department.
Astonishingly, nothing whatever came of this meeting. Why in the world not, one has to wonder. The problem was apparently what is known inside the U.S. Army as "command emphasis." The command in question was that of the man to whom Berle reported regarding intelligence matters, the Commander in Chief himself, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But you would never know it from what you hear from the American press, or, in at least one very recent instance, from American academic historians. Here's how Kathryn S. Olmsted, author of Red Spy Queen, the 2002 biography of Elizabeth Bentley (another defector from Soviet espionage work), explained the matter:
On September 2, 1939, as the Nazis invaded Poland with Red Army approval, Chambers flew to Washington to meet with Berle at his stately home. Over the course of two hours, Chambers named eighteen current and former government employees as spies or "fellow travelers." Most of the alleged spies, however, occupied relatively minor posts or were already widely suspected of being Communists. The real surprise came with the last two names: the brothers Donald and Alger Hiss, well-regarded mid-level officials in Berle's own department.
After Chambers left, Berle confided to his diary that he planned to "take a few simple measures." But he was not unduly disturbed: Chambers, in his view, had been tentative and unclear and might even be suffering from some "neurosis." Moreover, he had no corroboration. Chambers had decided not to produce his valuable envelope--yet. Years later, Berle would explain that "you didn't go to the President with reports that were relatively so unsubstantial as that. There was nothing offered by Mr. Chambers to back up his story."
The clear implication here is that President Roosevelt is completely blameless in this spy episode, because Berle sat on the story and never told him. Alger Hiss continued to be promoted in the State Department and later was a participant with the Roosevelt team at the Yalta Conference
Olmsted is not alone in peddling this snake oil. Here is what the Public Broadcasting Service's NOVA Online has to say about the episode:
In 1939, however, Whitaker Chambers, a former member of the U.S. Communist Party, told Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle that [Alger] Hiss was a communist. Berle, under whom Hiss worked, scoffed at the charge.
As even Olmsted concedes, Chambers went a great deal farther than that in his charges against Hiss, but in either case, the buck stopped with Berle, not FDR.
What's conspicuously absent from both accounts is any mention of the crucial midwife of the Chambers-Berle meeting, the journalist, Levine. One would never guess that Levine wrote a book published in 1973, Eyewitness to History, that contains a full accounting of the meeting and its aftermath. There's no trace of it in Olmsted's extensive bibliography and Levine's name is absent from her index.
Levine leaves no doubt that FDR was not just told about the Chambers allegations: he was virtually hit over the head with them. Here is Levine on the meeting, from its background to the aftermath:
Then, on August 23, the news of the Stalin-Hitler pact burst like a bombshell upon the world. I drove out to Krivitsky's secret shelter, a cottage I had rented for him near Carmel, New York. Krivitsky and The Saturday Evening Post had been under under savage attack because of his revelations on the Soviet-Nazi negotiations, entitled Stalin Appeases Hitler. Even many diplomatic authorities among my acquaintances had shaken their heads skeptically over the story. And now he and his collaborator and the executive editor of the Post were justified with a vengeance.
"It means war! It's world war!" Krivitsky cried out as soon as I crossed his threshold.
He was in a state of intense excitement. I, too, was deeply disturbed, but tried to interpret the news more hopefully. But as far as he was concerned, Stalin had just fired, on August 23, the first gun of another world war.
Wesley Stout, in Independence Square, gave his version of the historic turnabout: "It took two great powers to get together to vindicate Krivitsky's story and The Saturday Evening Post!"
I returned to New York haunted, in the face of the looming crisis, by some appalling information Krivitsky had disclosed to me weeks earlier in the strictest confidence. At least two full-fledged Soviet spies were in the inner sanctums of the British government. One of them was a code clerk in the secretariat of the Cabinet. Krivitsky knew only his last name, King. The other was on the inside of the Council of Imperial Defense. Krivitsky could describe his appearance, he knew something of his background, but did not know his name. Subsequently it appeared that this individual strongly resembled Donald MacLean. He and his friend Guy Burgess were later exposed as spies and fled to the Soviet Union.
The thought that the Kremlin was in a position to funnel to Hitler many of the vital secrets of the free world gave me no peace. I endeavored to obtain from Krivitsky every bit of identifying information about the two British traitors.
During his own all-night meeting with Chambers, it came out that Soviet military intelligence had recruited an American army major, a graduate of West Point, who was attached to the general staff. His premature death from natural causes had terminated his dishonorable career, much to Moscow's dismay.
I pressed Krivitsky for information about any other spies in Washington's defense establishment. Under the pressure of the grave news, he revealed that following President Roosevelt's recognition of the Soviet government, William C. Bullitt, the first American ambassador to the Kremlin, had arrived in Moscow with a large and meticulously selected staff that included at least one Soviet agent on it. Everything that went on in the embassy, especially the major communications between Washington and Bullitt, were quickly relayed to the Soviet secret police.
Upon my return to New York, I sought out Chambers at his desk in the Time offices. He, too, was in a state of agitation over the astounding developments in Moscow and agreed with me that something had to be done in the situation. I gave him a full account of my conference with Krivitsky and urged him to consider making his story with all pertinent details available to the proper authorities.
My conversation with Chambers now took a crucial turn, one which neither he in his autobiographical Witness, nor his unqualified admirers in their various works dealing with his career ever reported. When I pressed Chambers that it was his duty to go to Washington and tell all he blurted out: "The statute of limitations has not yet run out in my case. How would you like to face a fifteen- to twenty-year jail sentence if you were in my boots, with a wife and two children, and without any savings?"
I was startled by this outburst and remarked that now I fully understood what was troubling him.
"Suppose I get you a promise of immunity from prosecution as a reward for your service to your country?" I countered.
"That would be fine, but who can give it to me? In my condition, I wouldn't trust anybody's word but that of President Roosevelt himself."
"In that case, I'll go to Washington and try to get the President interested in the case and to guarantee immunity to you."
Chambers agreed to disclose everything to President Roosevelt if I could arrange a private visit to the White House. He jotted down for me his Long Island home telephone number on a Time office blank—a number which he had kept a deep secret—so that I could reach him from Washington. That blank is still in my files.
I left for Washington to try to take the White House citadel by storm. President Roosevelt's appointment secretary, Marvin H. McIntyre, was an acquaintance and readily accessible. He knew about my collaboration with Krivitsky and was deeply impressed by my agitated account of my discovery of a former Soviet agent who had for years tapped the secrets of the State Department, where Stalin had built an espionage nest. The man, I told McIntyre, was willing to tell all only to the President himself if guaranteed immunity by him. I urged McIntyre to arrange a private audience with the President, who knew me slightly as a result of a brief off-the-record talk with him in 1936.
My call on McIntyre took placed on or about August 30. War clouds were ominously gathering all over the globe. McIntyre pointed out that it would be virtually impossible to arrange such a meeting on short notice. He informed me that the President had entrusted the handling of such security matters to Adolf A. Berle, Jr., then Assistant Secretary of State, and suggested that he was the best person for me to see. I told him that I knew Mr. Berle fairly well.
Mr. Berle's office was next door, in the old State Department Building. (Now the Old Executive Office Building. ed.) I went there and had to wait quite a while before he was free to receive me. Fortunately, McIntyre had telephoned Berle to inform him that I was there on an important errand.
I sketched the whole case for Berle, telling him that my informant had an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the State Department and could not be brought to his office lest he be recognized by some member of the ring with which he had been connected. I made it clear that he would talk only on one condition—that he should not be turned over to the Department of Justice for prosecution. Berle assured me not to worry on that score.
Mr. Berle then suggested that I bring the stranger to his home for dinner on Saturday evening, September 2. I told him that his guest, who was known in the underground as "Carl," was on the editorial staff of Time. I withheld his real identity—the name of Whittaker Chambers—for fear that some leak might disrupt the rendezvous.
Returning to New York to report to Chambers my failure to arrange a meeting at the White House, I was worried about whether he would look with favor upon Berle as a substitute for Roosevelt. Berle's public reputation was that of an original member of Roosevelt's Brain Trust, a New Deal crusader. Very few were privy to the knowledge of Berle's critical attitude toward the Soviet regime and its zealots in this country. All of this promised well for my mission, since Chambers was then still very much of a liberal. Moreover, he was evidently flattered by the invitation to have dinner at Berle's home—Woodley House—the historic estate belonging to ex-Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Chambers was familiar with the landmark.
"To me, Berle's word is as good as Roosevelt's," he said to my great relief.
Hitler struck at Poland early Friday morning, September1. For the next forty-eight hours the question whether Great Britain would enter the war to live up to her pledge to come to the aid of Poland hung in the balance. World tension was almost unendurable. I was back in Washington, where last-minute efforts were still being made to smother the ignited global conflagration.
Whittaker Chambers flew in and joined me at my hotel, the Hay-Adams House, Saturday afternoon. We took a cab to Woodley House. Entering the grounds, I wondered what the Berles would think of the short, chunky man who did not look the part of an editor on a slick magazine. Mrs. Berle received "Carl" and me most graciously and explained that her husband would be late to dinner because he had been putting in twelve to fifteen hours a day in the Department during the crisis. He showed up at eight o'clock, looking rather haggard. He had nothing optimistic to offer us in response to our anxious inquiries about the chances of avoiding a general war.
After dinner, when Mrs. Berle had retired, the three of us took up for the first time the real subject of our conference. It was a very warm evening. The scene of the conversation, and of the startling autobiographical story unfolded by Chambers, was first the study, then the lawn under a magnificent old tree, and finally the study again when Berle began to make notes.
It was my understanding that this information would be conveyed by Berle directly to the President and that Chambers would suffer no ill consequences from his revelations. It would have been unseemly on my part to jot down there and then the names of the government official and the Communist agents involved in the Soviet underground rings described by Chambers. Most of these came as news to me. I endeavored, however, to memorize as many as possible.
The general picture drawn by Chambers that night was of two Soviet undercover "centers" or rings which, according to his firsthand knowledge, had operated in Washington for many years. One was concerned with infiltrating unionized labor and getting Communists into the federal service; the other, with political and military affairs. Both groups were gathering and supplying confidential data to Moscow.
We learned that the business of filching from State Department and other secret government files had been well organized by the Communist "apparatus." Most of the time important papers would be microfilmed and replaced before they had been missed, and the material would be delivered to Soviet couriers, operating under aliases, for transmission to Russia.
It was clear that Chambers knew his way about official Washington, and he exhibited unusual familiarity with the inside of the State Department. He named six of its officials as having knowingly furnished confidential data to Soviet undercover agents. Mr. Berle and I were shocked by the list, which included the Hiss brothers, then in minor positions.
As a result of questioning by Berle, it was explained by Chambers that the great majority of the government employees collaborating with the Communist rings were doing so out of idealistic, and not mercenary motives. Their devotion to the Soviet Union took precedence over their oath of office, accounting for their disloyalty to the United States. At that time this was still a novel doctrine even to such a well-informed public figure as Berle.
Subsequently, seven years later, the Canadian Royal Commission, investigating a famous espionage case in which officials of trust had acted as agents of the Soviet government, made much of this point. That idealists and fanatics can and have served as spies has since become a commonplace fact.
When Chambers cited as an illustration of this phenomenon the case of Harry Dexter White, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, who, though not a Communist, was collaborating with the Soviet underground in transmitting to it confidential matters of national policy, Mr. Berle exclaimed: "But I know Harry Dexter White very well, and I cannot believe it!"
I, too, was shaken by the argument which followed. Chambers tried to impress upon us the nature of totalitarian espionage, that Moscow would prize information about pending government policies and decisions more highly than routine military blueprints. The contents of a telephone conversation, for instance, between President Roosevelt and our ambassador to Paris or London would be worth more to Stalin than the design of some new ordnance. The name of this deputy Cabinet officer, however, remained engraved in my memory.*
Upon my return after midnight to the Hay-Adams House, where I took leave of Whittaker Chambers, I jotted down on a sheet of hotel stationery most of the names that had been revealed during the evening. I could not recall, for example, the first names of all those mentioned in my list of State Department officials. (pp. 191-195)
In the meantime I had been confidently expecting that the explosive Chambers story would be laid before the President and that drastic action would follow. Days passed. The civilized world had the jitters. Hitler's armies were triumphant. Poland was torn limb from limb in an unholy partition between Russia and Germany. But on the subterranean Soviet front on the Potomac, all was serene. I was anxiously watching, with the help of sympathetic vigilant friends in the State Department, for a move from the White House.
When I called on Berle a couple of weeks later, he indicated to me that the President had given him the cold shoulder after hearing his account of the Chambers disclosures. Although I learned later, from two different sources who had social relations with Berle, that Roosevelt, in effect, had told him to "go jump in a lake" upon the suggestion of a probe into the Chambers charges, I do not recall hearing that exact phrase from Berle. To the best of my recollection, the President dismissed the matter rather brusquely with an expletive remark on this order: "Oh, forget it, Adolf."
But I could not forget it. So I spent the winter in Washington trying to open a door that would lead to a responsible investigation of the Soviet espionage network in Washington and to judicial action in the case. One of the first friends to whom I had confided the Chambers secrets was Loy Henderson, then chief of the Russian section of the State Department, who later served with distinction as United States ambassador to India, Iraq, and Iran. Another was Senator Warren R. Austin, with whom I had formed a close friendship during our joint tour of the already embattled Near East in 1936. Senator Austin, although a Republican, attained international prominence when President Truman appointed him as Ambassador to the United Nations. As time dragged on and I suffered one rebuff after another, I sought out William C. Bullitt, then American ambassador to France, who was on a visit to Washington. I had known him since 1918. He invited me to breakfast at his apartment hotel.
I did not know at the time, when I recited to him the entire Chambers saga, that some months earlier, in 1939, Premier Daladier of France had informed him that French counterintelligence had come upon the trail of the two State Department officials, brothers named Hiss, who were Soviet agents. Bullitt laughed it off as a tall tale, never having heard their names. But he now took my disclosures very much to heart, and I was sure that he would call them to the attention of President Roosevelt, who at that time was very fond of him. Bullitt, however, fared no better than Berle.
I next turned to labor leader David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a frequent guest at the White House, who came to dinner at our Wardman Park apartment with a ranking colleague. Dubinsky, like Bullitt, was wise in the ways of the Communist world. He also took up the Chambers matter with the President at the first opportunity and was brushed off with an amiable slap on the back.
Another favorite of F.D.R.'s in those days was Walter Winchell. I saw him that winter at the Roney Plaza Hotel in Miami. In the course of an afternoon's talk, he assured me that he had the President's ear. Without furnishing him any names, I described to him a ring of six Soviet agents operating within the State Department alone. In his broadcast of December 12, Winchell announced that he had carried my information to President Roosevelt. Still there was no action.
(On page 294 of his 1978 book, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Allen Weinstein notes that in his memoirs the influential journalist Winchell confirmed that he alerted FDR.)
Finally, early in March, 1940, when I was ready to abandon my crusade, I made an eleventh-hour attempt, in a conference with Martin Dies, Chairman of the controversial House Committee on Un-American Activities, and his two top aides, to interest them in employing a dozen ace investigators to obtain the evidence on the Communist espionage cells in Washington. Again without naming names, I sketched the rings as described by Chambers to Berle and me. Within two days, on March 10, I was astounded to read an Associated Press dispatch in which Dies announced that he had uncovered a "lead" on a far-flung Soviet espionage network and that he would soon have on the stand "the head of the Ogpu" in this country. But it was not until August, 1948, eight and a half years later, that the Un-American Activities Committee caught up with Chambers and subpoenaed him for the testimony that rocked the nation. (pp. 197-199)
Several important things had changed by 1948, of course. Franklin Roosevelt was long dead, control of the Congress, and thus, of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), had passed to the Republicans in the 1946 elections, and the Soviet Union was shaping up as America's primary enemy.
The big question is how, in the face of the evidence presented here by Levine, could anyone conclude that Berle did not notify the President of the serious spy allegations from Chambers. The historian Olmsted does it by taking at face value Berle's 1948 HUAC testimony and his later testimony at the first Hiss perjury trial. The source for her Berle quote about not taking such "unsubstantial" charges to the President comes from the New York Times report on the HUAC hearings.
Levine was well aware of Berle's testimony, some nine years after their meeting with Chambers. Here is what he has to say about it:
Between the two trials—the first one having ended in a deadlocked jury—I had occasion to refresh Mr. Berle's testimony in a way which led to the discovery of a momentous document in the government files in Washington.
Mr. Berle had baffled many observers with his sworn testimony that Chambers had on the night of September, 1939, described to him a group engaged merely in the study of Communism. I ascribed this at first—perhaps too charitably—to a fading memory of an event which had taken place late at night when he was in a state of almost utter exhaustion. While on the witness stand, Berle was asked by no one why he should have invited to his home to dinner an anonymous stranger in the critical days of the outbreak of the war and why President Roosevelt's secretary should have troubled to call him about the matter presented by me, if it was just to listen to a yarn about a Communist study group.
I now drew a diagram for Berle, to indicate the position of the desk at which he sat down as we entered the house from the garden where we spent most of the evening talking, how he picked up a sheaf of common copy paper, how he scrawled in a large hand on leaf after leaf the highlights of "Carl's" disclosures, and how I had warned him of our understanding not to put down in writing Chambers's name or alias.
The consequence of my prodding was that copies of the incriminating memorandum were found in the archives at the FBI and the State Department, under the original caption handwritten by Berle: "Underground Espionage Agent." This memorandum was introduced as evidence in the second trial. Berle had listed in it some forty names, including my own. But nowhere is there any reference to Chambers except in the disguised caption. More than half of the names were of Soviet agents and collaborators. (pp. 209-210)
In his 1952 book, Witness, Whittaker Chambers reproduces Berle's memorandum in full, and follows it with this commentary:
These notes are obviously rambling and garbled. Even I can no longer remember what some of the references mean and how I came to know of them—for example, that the Russians had obtained the plans for two super-battleships in 1937. For while I have remembered a great deal, many facts that were fresh in my mind in 1939 have dropped out of it beyond recovery.
But if the notes are studied carefully, it will be seen that the essential framework of the conspiracy is here, even down to such details as the fact that [Vincent] Reno was working as Colonel Zornig's assistant at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. It is equally clear that I am describing not a Marxist study group, but a Communist conspiracy. The Communists are described as such. The reader has only to ask himself what he would have done, if he had been a security officer of the Government, and such information had come into his hands, or even if he had been told no more than the address for cables to the Soviet apparatuses, which is the meaning of one of the entries, or the fact that a Communist was working on the [top secret ed.] bombsight. (emphasis added, pp. 469-470)
Weinstein, describing Berle's HUAC testimony in Perjury is less generous than Levine about Berle's motives.
...Berle's recollections of his 1939 meeting with Chambers and its aftermath were surprisingly inaccurate....
Berle's memory of his conversation with Chambers and Levine differed from their earlier testimony before the Committee. Berle asked the group to excuse any "discrepancies in detail" between his version of that meeting and the previous accounts: "I am testifying from recollection about something that happened nine years ago...please lay it [any discrepancy] to faulty memory and not lack of desire to tell the story." (Actually, Berle kept a diary, which contained a long entry on the 1939 visit and which he had every reason to consult before testifying.) Berle referred to his informant as "Whittaker K. Chambers"—apparently believing that the pseudonym "Karl," which Chambers had used throughout their talk, was actually the man's middle name. He did not think Levine had accompanied Chambers to the interview, "but that may be an absence of memory." He believed the visit took place in late August, not September 2, and confirmed that "Karl wished to disclose certain information about Communist activities in Washington."
According to Berle, Karl said he had been "a member of the underground Communist group from 1934 to [the] end of 1937," after which he had defected and gone into hiding for a year "in fear of some sort of reprisal...[He] was obviously under some emotional strain." Karl told him about the Communist Party's efforts "to develop a group of sympathizers" within the government, but there was never in his informant's story "any question of espionage. There was no espionage involved in it. He stated that their hope merely was to get some people who would be sympathetic to their point of view...."
If accurate, Berle's testimony would obviously dampen considerably the overheated climate of HUAC's investigation by suggesting to the Committee, the press, and the public that Chambers's "revelations" in 1939 had been small potatoes, hardly worth fussing over, and certainly nothing that involved the question of underground Communist Party cells capable of influencing government policy or committing espionage. But the FBI later produced a copy of Berle's 1939 memorandum on Chambers's visit, which he had retained for four years before sending it to the Bureau in 1943.
His four-page series of notes, titled "Underground Espionage Agent," contradicted almost every specific point Berle made in his HUAC testimony. It contained a list of individuals mentioned by "Karl" during their conversation, including major Communist espionage agents and underground government contacts as well as "sympathizers...."
Nor did Berle's 1939 memorandum describe a collection of Communist sympathizers casually connected in an innocuous "study group." It proceeded name by name, department by department, to show that Chambers had stressed actual espionage already committed rather than the mere possibility of future action or secret involvement with Communism....
In his testimony to the HUAC subcommittee, Berle stated that he was testifying from memory alone, apparently suggesting (unpersuasively, for a man who kept well-ordered files) that he had not retained a copy of his 1939 memorandum. But there was also his diary, and the first entry after his visit with Levine and Chambers belied Berle's assertion to HUAC that he did not know Chambers had been a highly placed espionage agent:
Saturday night [September 2] I had, to me, a singularly unpleasant job. Isaac Don Levine in his contact with the Krivitsky matter had opened up another idea of the Russian espionage. He brought a Mr. X around to my house....Through a long evening, I slowly manipulated Mr. X to a point where he had told some of the ramifications hereabout; and it becomes necessary to take a few simple measures. I expect more of this kind of thing, later. A good deal of the Russian espionage was carried on by Jews; we know now that they are exchanging information with Berlin; and the Jewish units are furious to find out they are, in substance, working for the Gestapo....
Berle's memory lapse was to some extent intentional. "I hope what I said was sedative," he confided to his friend (and Alger Hiss's onetime superior at the AAA) Judge Jerome Frank in a September 9, 1948 letter. "This was the intention but it is hard to get sanity into a super-charged emotional atmosphere. It seems the great question was not whether there was treason to the United States, but whether Alger Hiss goes to heaven when he dies—and I cannot contribute anything to that decision...."
His major concern in 1948—at a time when Berle was a Liberal Party leader in New York working for Truman's election—was to defuse, if possible, the influence of anti-Communist sentiment and of the case itself in that election year. "I hated to appear to be in the 'red-baiting business,'" he noted when composing a diary entry on his HUAC testimony. (pp. 55-58)
One can hardly fail to note, as well, that had he told the full truth about what he had learned at the meeting with Chambers and Levine, he could hardly have supported his claim that he took no further immediate action and that the President had been kept completely in the dark. Thanks to Adolf Berle's partisan and mendacious testimony, the big story that might have come out of those 1948 HUAC hearings, that the President of the United States, just days after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact, was told in detail about a large Soviet espionage ring that reached the highest levels of the government, and he did absolutely nothing about it. Chambers revealed this shocking fact in Witness in 1952, but it has apparently never been picked up on by the mainstream press or by the nation's history textbook writers.
Speaking of "partisan and mendacious," we must share with the readers the account of the professional polarizer, Ann Coulter, of the 1939 Chambers-Berle meeting in her 2003 book, Treason, Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism:
After meeting with Krivitsky, Chambers said, "I knew that, if the opportunity offered, I would inform." Soon thereafter, the Hitler-Stalin Pact was signed. Days later, as Hitler's armies marched into Poland, Chambers was on a plane from New York to Washington, D.C.
A friend of Chambers had arranged a private audience with President Roosevelt's assistant secretary of state, Adolf Berle. After dinner at Berle's home, Chambers spent several hours detailing the Communist espionage network of which he had been a part. He gave Berle the names of at least two dozen Soviet spies, working for the Roosevelt administration. Among them was Alger Hiss, a top State Department official, as well as his brother Donald Hiss. Berle urgently reported to President Roosevelt what Chambers had said, including the warning about Hiss. The president laughed and told Berle to go f--- himself. No action was ever taken against Hiss. To the contrary, Roosevelt promoted Hiss to the position of trusted aide who would go on to advise him at Yalta. Chambers's shocking and detailed reckoning of Soviet agents in high government positions eventually made its way to William C. Bullitt, former ambassador to Russia and confidant of the president. Alarmed, Bullitt brought the news to Roosevelt's attention. He, too, was laughed off.
To be sure, Coulter gives a far more accurate account of what transpired than does the college professor, Olmsted, which one would think would be quite embarrassing for a professional historian. But for some reason, Coulter has taken some pains to air brush Levine out of the picture. She (or whoever writes her books) clearly knows of Levine's role in the episode as she shows when she speaks of the "friend" of Chambers having arranged the meeting with Berle, yet mention that Levine was also at the meeting is left out, and later she speaks of the news about the spying having "made its way" to Bullitt. Her use of the passive voice there conceals the fact that it was Levine who told Bullitt.
Why does Coulter do this? It looks like she might just be playing the partisan rabble rouser and intentionally weakening her case. Her references for this episode are conservative favorites Chambers, William Rusher, and Ralph de Toledano when the only really solid firsthand reference that FDR was told of the spying is the more neutral journalist Levine.
If fanning the left-right flames while keeping confidence in the nation's basic institutions intact is what Coulter (or her handlers) is all about, this would not be the only—or the best—example of it. Her book is supposed to be largely about the "treason" of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, but there's no hint of Major George Racey Jordan's very credible account of how the Roosevelt administration virtually gave the Russians the atomic bomb, which we mention at the beginning of this article. Why would she pull her punches like this if she's really interested in the truth?
Coulter's propensity to cover up while pretending to attack and expose was shown best, though, in her first book, High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case against Bill Clinton. Because of what she wrote—and surely knew better than to write—about the death of Clinton's deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster, I was prompted to write a short review at the time entitled "New Foster Cover-up Book."
* In contradiction to this recollection by Levine, Chambers wrote on p. 470 of Witness, "Two names I deliberately omitted from my conversation with Berle. They were those of George Silverman and Harry Dexter White. I still hoped that I had broken them away from the Communist Party." It is also quite indisputable that White's name is not in evidence in the list of names in Berle's damning memorandum, lending credence to Chambers's assertion. R. Bruce Craig, in an endnote in his 2004 book, Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case, sides with Chambers and Berle on the question of whether White was named:
Isaac Don Levine's summary notes...reflect a reference to White [in contradiction of Berle's notes and Chambers's Witness assertion]. While Chambers probably mentioned White to Levine—perhaps before or after dinner—it is highly unlikely that Chambers mentioned him to Berle. The Assistant Secretary of State knew White fairly well and, consequently, had Chambers named White, in all likelihood it would have clearly stuck in Berle's mind and would have been reflected in his notes.
Craig is clearly wrong about this. As we see from Levine's account, the mention of White did make a strong impression on Berle, and he openly expressed his disbelief. That disbelief and his friendship with White would explain quite well why Berle would not include White in the notes that would go to the proper authorities for follow-up and possible prosecution for espionage. As for Chambers, we must remember that he was writing from memory more than a decade later, and he was, indeed, ambivalent about White because White was not a Communist Party member, even though he did cooperate with the Communist espionage ring. Since he only had Berle's notes—which were public by that time—to work with, it's easy to see how he might have convinced himself that he did not include White among the many names that he revealed that September night more than a decade before. To be sure, Levine was a mainstream journalist and should not be believed implicitly, but in this case he had no reason to shade the truth, and his version of what was said has the ring of truth.
January 13, 2007
Since the initial publication of this article, the wall of protection around President Roosevelt concerning this vitally important episode has been built even higher. It has been built, in Ann Coulter fashion, in books that are highly critical of the Roosevelt administration for its softness on Communist subversion. These are The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in the Soviet Gulag, by Tim Tzouliadis (2009), FDR Goes to War: How Expanded Executive Power, Spiraling National Debt, and Restricted Civil Liberties Shaped Wartime America by Burton W. Folsom, Jr, and Anita Folsom (2009), and Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government, by M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein. All use versions of the techniques employed by Olmstead and Coulter. They all leave out any mention of Isaac Don Levine and his book and they all give the impression that Roosevelt himself was left in the dark about the nest of spies around him. How Tzouliadis and Evans and Romerstein did it is discussed near the end of each of my review articles of their books to which I have linked above. The Folsoms do it with the following passage on page 244:
The hundreds of Soviet spies in the U.S. government, all working to influence American policy, had a potential setback in 1939 when fellow agent Whittaker Chambers quit spying for the Soviets, changed his allegiance, and told Adolf Berle in detail about some of the communist sympathizers in government. He specifically fingered [Alger] Hiss, [Lauchlin] Currie, [Harry Dexter] White and [Laurence] Duggan. An astonished Berle took notes and gave them to Marvin McIntyre, the White House secretary. Berle also told Dean Acheson. But they apparently dismissed Chambers as a crank, and nothing was done with his revelations during the war.
Readers of either the Levine or the Chambers account of the meeting and its aftermath will recognize the characterization of the people named as mere “communist sympathizers” and the account of what Berle did with the information as simply false. One can be virtually certain that such falsehoods are not told out of inadvertence.
March 24, 2013