Skip to main content

Also Present at the Creation
Review by Justus D. Doenecke

Red Spies in America: Stolen Secrets and the Dawn of the Cold War. By Katherine A.S. Sibley. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004). Pp. xiii, 370. $39.95 cloth.)

Scholars have written a small library of books about various individual Soviet spies. Few, however, have focused on Russian espionage as a whole. Katherine A.S. Sibley, chair of the history department at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, and author of several works on Soviet-American relations, offers a strong and comprehensive volume on this topic. To do so, she utilizes such hitherto neglected sources as the long-classified case files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; materials of the Senate’s Special Committee on Un-American Activities, popularly known as the Dies Committee; and Soviet archives from the period before World War II. She also uses manuscripts from army and navy intelligence, the State Department, the Criminal Records Division of the Department of Justice, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sibley makes several major observations. First, she effectively challenges the popular myth that American officials only focused on Soviet espionage when the Cold War began. She shows that American officials were cognizant of such spying from the outset of World War II, though their knowledge was always fragmentary and their success always limited. Once the United States recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, Moscow gained access to America’s secrets, for scores of Russian technicians inspected US plants, gathered major intelligence, and groomed the entry of numerous agents. Surveillance by the FBI and military caused some Soviet representatives to return home and hindered others from conducting more espionage than they did. True, American counterintelligence had little knowledge of such rings as those led by Nathan Silvermaster and Julius Rosenberg. They did, however, investigate the Amtorg trading concern as well as operations at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory and the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory.

Success was limited, in part, according to Sibley, because the FBI bungled revelations made by turncoat agents Whittaker Chambers and Walter Krivitsky. Here she lays direct blame on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who ignored crucial data. To say that a courageous FBI was being stymied by naive pro-Soviet New Dealers is sheer myth.

Second, Sibley finds that American knowledge of Soviet spying during World War II influenced the mindset and activities of US counterintelligence agents well into the Cold War. Indeed, the legacy continues down to the present. With increasing defections by Soviet agents and the code-cracking Venona project becoming more effective, authorities gained a more complete picture of the Russian network. Sibley is particularly able in discussing such cases as Judith Coplon, William Perl, and Klaus Fuchs. Her coverage of the controversial Elizabeth Bentley is fascinating. The FBI kept tabs on other individuals who were never indicted because evidence gained by wiretapping was inadmissible in court.

Third, Sibley hones in on Soviet military and industrial targets, a topic that until now has been relatively neglected. While much attention has been given to espionage related to the atomic bomb, this book goes into considerable detail on such matters as electronics, aircraft engines, and processes for making synthetic rubber and producing film. Although the Cold War ended in 1989, foreign espionage is still very much with us, although cash, not Communist ideology, is now a spy’s prime motive. Given the almost universal passionate desires for the best in “high tech” innovations, there is little chance that such endeavors will be curtailed.

Factual errors are few but must be highlighted. Hamilton Fish was not speaker of the House in 1930; Nicholas Longworth held this post. The correct name of Whittaker Chambers’s employer is the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the last name of the New York Post labor columnist is Reisel. Congressman Vito Marcantonio was not a Democrat but represented the American Labor Party. Corliss Lamont was no mere socialist but an ardent Communist fellow-traveller. The first name of historian Schwartz is given as Steven in the text, Stephen in the bibliography. Protofascist William Pelley always used his middle name, Dudley. The references to a vision of the “beautiful mind” propounded by Nobel laureate John Nash is most oblique.

On the whole, however, the book is exhaustively researched and imaginatively conceived. It is a landmark study and one essential to our understanding how the Cold War unfolded.End.


Justus D. Doenecke is Emeritus Professor of History at the New College of Florida. He is a specialist on American foreign relations, 1914-1960, and American religious and intellectual history. He has written a number of books, including Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941


Comments are closed.