July 6, 2009
A remarkable duo’s pursuit of former spies and historical truth
JOHN J. MILLER
The chase began on Google. Harvey Klehr typed “Russell McNutt” into the search box. Thousands of results flooded his computer. Klehr scoured them. “On about the 895th reference,” he recalls, “we found the clue that led us to him.”
Months earlier, Klehr and his colleague, John Earl Haynes, had spotted McNutt’s name in notebooks smuggled out of Russia. It was linked to a couple of aliases that Soviet intelligence operatives had used for one of their American agents in the 1940s. FBI investigators had known about the aliases — first “Fogel,” later changed to “Persian” — for decades. Researchers outside the government were aware of them as well because they had appeared in the decrypted Venona cables, released to the public in the 1990s. But nobody knew the identity behind the code name. It was a Cold War enigma.
It turned out that McNutt was living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, in an exclusive community that featured a golf course designed by Lee Trevino. McNutt was in his nineties, finishing a life in which he had risen to become chief engineer of a large oil company. He was also the Manhattan Project’s last surviving spy — lost to history, until Haynes and Klehr finally tracked him down.
For Haynes and Klehr, unmasking spies is a vocation. Since 1992, they have co-authored seven books. Most rely on documents unearthed in Soviet archives and break new ground in the study of espionage. The latest is Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, recently published by Yale University Press. It’s based on the notebooks of Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent who snuck them out of Moscow. The double life of Russell McNutt is just one of its many revelations. Other discoveries include new information on the guilt of Alger Hiss (previously well established, now irreversibly certain), evidence that the KGB made contact with Ernest Hemingway (the novelist apparently toyed with his potential handlers but didn’t turn over information), and proof that Soviet intelligence failed to recruit the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (though he was probably at one time a member of the Communist party). Most controversially, Haynes and Klehr show that the journalist I. F. Stone, a hero to American leftists, was a Soviet asset in the 1930s. These new findings, combined with their previous work, confirm Haynes and Klehr as America’s greatest historical spy hunters.
Neither author expected his career to evolve this way. Today, the 64-year-old Haynes occupies a windowless office at the Library of Congress, where he is charged with acquiring the papers of 20th-century political figures — everyone from Donald Rumsfeld to former NR publisher William Rusher. His spy-hunting takes place primarily at night and on weekends. Klehr is a 63-year-old professor at Emory University. He has a little more flexibility with his schedule, but still teaches a full load of courses and also serves on the National Council on the Humanities. In separate interviews, both men use the word “accidental” to describe their professional trajectories — perhaps a coincidence, but more likely an example of how much they’ve come to think alike during their long collaboration. “I doubt we’ve ever disagreed on anything important,” says Haynes. “I’m not sure we’re even capable of it anymore.”
As a graduate student in the 1960s, Klehr attended anti-war rallies. “I was something of a Marxist,” he says. Yet campus protests began to grate at him. He opposed the fiery calls to shut down universities. The experience influenced his scholarship as well. “I began to wonder why the Left always fails in America,” he says. “Why has there been no serious radical movement with political success?” He started to study and publish on the activities of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). His work came to the attention of the historian Theodore Draper, who shared his research notes and encouraged Klehr to write The Heyday of American Communism, which focuses on the 1930s. It came out in 1984, his first major book. By that time, Klehr was thinking of himself as a neoconservative. He had voted for George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, and then Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Shortly before Reagan’s election, Klehr met Haynes at an academic conference in Duluth, Minn. Haynes had attended Florida State University, where he discovered his interest in labor history — an interest that took him north, to the University of Minnesota, for graduate school. He considered himself a socialist, and felt the tug of Democratic politics. First he joined the presidential campaign of Hubert Humphrey, in 1968. Later, he worked for a series of Minnesota Democrats in St. Paul and Washington, D.C. All the while, he toiled away on his Ph.D. dissertation, on Communism in Minnesota. “I used to hear the old Humphrey people talk about how they had run the Reds out of the party in 1948,” he says. “I didn’t believe them at first because I didn’t think there were any Reds to run out. Then I looked at the documentary evidence, which nobody else was doing, and it proved them right: There were a lot of Communists back then.” Like Klehr, Haynes considered himself a Democrat until the Carter presidency.
The pair hit it off in Duluth. “It was immediately clear that our views were compatible,” says Haynes. At a time when plenty of academic and media elites still swore that Hiss was a victim of lies pushed by a psychologically disturbed Whittaker Chambers — rather than a spy who was exposed by a remorseful ex-Communist — Haynes and Klehr agreed on several controversial questions. They believed Communists were active in U.S. politics in the 1930s and 1940s, often in a clandestine way. They also thought that the CPUSA took its cues from the Kremlin. Many of their fellow-traveling peers disagreed. They claimed that the CPUSA was an expression of a home-grown radicalism whose roots lay in the ideals of the American Revolution.
Eventually, Haynes and Klehr decided to join forces. Their first book, The American Communist Movement (1992), put them squarely on the side of “traditionalists” who believed the threat of domestic Communism was real, as opposed to “revisionists” who embodied anti-anti-Communism. Despite this distinction, Haynes and Klehr made an important concession: “In practice few American Communists were spies,” they wrote, and “espionage was not a regular activity of the [CPUSA].” The historical record, and their devotion to it, wouldn’t let them say more. But they soon changed their minds. As they would write a few years later: “The CPUSA was indeed a fifth column working inside and against the United States in the Cold War.”
Their second thoughts arrived just as that first book was rolling off the printing press. The fall of the Soviet Union led to the opening of Russian archives that contained a mountain of documents on the activities of the CPUSA. Haynes and Klehr made trips to Moscow to mine this fresh material. Haynes had to spend his vacation time to do it. The result was The Secret World of American Communism (1995), co-authored by Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov. It became one of those rare books whose content is the subject of news stories in advance of book reviews. The CPUSA, it revealed, was deeply involved in espionage throughout its history. The book also showed that John Reed (author of Ten Days That Shook the World) and Edmund Stevens (a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist) received payoffs from Moscow. Haynes, Klehr, and Firsov didn’t merely summarize their discoveries. They reprinted the documents in translation. It was impossible to read their volume and maintain that members of the CPUSA were starry-eyed innocents who leaned a little farther to the left than ordinary liberals.
One of their readers was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Democratic senator from New York. He wanted Congress to review secrecy laws in the wake of the Cold War and sought expert testimony. At a hearing in 1995, Haynes and Klehr described the paradox of having better access to national-security records in the former Soviet Union than in their own country. Moynihan turned to CIA director John Deutch, who was at the hearing, and asked him to look into the matter. Two months later, at a press conference attended by Deutch, Moynihan, and Haynes, the government released a batch of messages from the Venona Project, a top-secret effort to decrypt Soviet cable traffic between Washington and Moscow in the 1940s. One immediate revelation involved Julius Rosenberg. The documents showed that he was without question a Soviet spy — contradicting the assertions of leftists who had viewed him as a martyr of anti-Communist hysteria. Over the next two years, the National Security Agency made available nearly 3,000 more deciphered messages. Haynes and Klehr went on to publish Venona (1999), their summary and interpretation of what it all meant.
While they were writing about dead drops, many leftists wanted them to drop dead. William Kunstler, the radical lawyer, demanded that the Venona messages be treated as forgeries. Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University and Maurice Isserman of Hamilton College condemned Haynes and Klehr for accepting grant support from conservative foundations and taking part in “a broader campaign to delegitimize the academy.” The academics were in fact doing a pretty good job of delegitimizing themselves. As each new book by Haynes and Klehr came out, revisionist detractors sounded more desperate. Schrecker once claimed that America’s fifth columnists weren’t traitors to their country. Instead, they were “internationalists” who “did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism.”
Haynes and Klehr responded to such moral equivalence with In Denial (2003), a brief against historians who insisted on lying about spying. It felt like a coda — a final, score-settling statement by Haynes and Klehr on what they’d learned about their chosen field. As it happened, however, they weren’t yet done.
In 2005, Haynes received an e-mail from Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer who was living in London. Vassiliev had previously worked with Allen Weinstein on The Haunted Wood, a book about espionage during the Stalin era. But he also owned a set of notebooks that nobody else had seen before — 1,115 pages of transcriptions of material Vassiliev had looked up in the KGB archives, when they were still open to him. For years, he had stashed the notebooks in Russia, fearing confiscation if he tried to remove them from the country. Eventually, he had them shipped out by DHL. Vassiliev invited Haynes and Klehr to check them out. They flew over about a week later. “We quickly saw the chance to write a more detailed portrait of Soviet intelligence than was ever before available,” says Klehr.
They started work on Spies right away. Haynes, the meticulous librarian, created a concordance so that he and Klehr could keep their footing amid the proliferating number of aliases and secret identities in a growing pile of source documents on Soviet espionage. Klehr began drafting chapters. Vassiliev offered his own insights, translations, and corrections. The three men also convened a small group of historians and national-security experts to authenticate the notebooks and function as peer reviewers.
The book’s section on atomic spy Russell McNutt — one of the most important disclosures in Spies — takes up only a few pages, and Klehr’s call to him only a sentence. “His wife answered the phone,” remembers Klehr. “She told me that he had good days and bad days. He came on and admitted to knowing Julius Rosenberg, but he didn’t answer my question about whether he had passed classified information to the Soviets through Rosenberg.” Instead, McNutt asked Klehr to identify himself. Klehr promised to mail Venona and call back. When they connected a few weeks later, McNutt wouldn’t acknowledge even receiving the book. They didn’t speak again, and McNutt died last year. Members of his family insist that he didn’t spy, though they offer no exculpatory evidence. “Maybe he really couldn’t remember,” says Klehr. “Or maybe he just didn’t want to.”
Today, thanks to the efforts of Haynes and Klehr, forgetting about the Soviet Union’s spies and their treachery is no longer an option.