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'The Haunted Wood' by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev

Spy proof

Sunday, January 17, 1999

By Bob Hoover, Book Editor, Post-Gazette


The Haunted Wood

By Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev

Random House


This book is the product of a rare moment of cooperation (or serious lapse of judgment) on the part of the Russian spy establishment. In the giddy days following the collapse of the Soviet Union, American researcher Allen Weinstein was given extraordinary access to the files of the old KGB.

In return, Random House paid an undisclosed sum to a group of retired KGB agents, who extracted the papers from the old Soviet archives.

From 1994-96, Weinstein and partner Alexander Vassiliev, a journalist and onetime KGB staffer, examined Soviet spy files dating to the 1930s. Providing corroboration for much of this material was a huge pile of recently declassified correspondence between Moscow and its American agents — the so-called VENONA papers — which were decoded by the U.S. Army in the 1940s.

“The Haunted Wood” (the title comes from a poem by Auden) is perhaps the first documented overview of Soviet espionage operations in the United States, operations which began as early as the 1920s.

Diplomatic recognition of the U.S.S.R. by the Roosevelt administration moved the spying to high gear by the mid 1930s, producing such infamous characters as Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Harry Dexter White and the unfortunate Laurence Duggan.

Duggan, a State Department official, is singled out as an example of the “romantic” amateur whose embrace of the communist ideal led him to betray his country. He was a well-connected young man attracted to Washington by the social promises of the New Deal and then recruited by a top Soviet operative to funnel State Department documents to the Russians. He refused money or gifts.

America’s entry into World War II caused Duggan to break off his spying, despite Soviet entreaties. He eventually left the State Department following hints that he was under suspicion, but agents continued to dog him to resume his work.

Following a 1948 meeting with a Soviet contact, Duggan either fell or jumped from a 16-story window.

From the memos and letters in the KGB archive, the authors piece together a jagged picture of an idealistic and naive American exploited by a dogged cadre of professional Soviet agents. People like Duggan and his fellow State Department staffer Hiss provided the bulk of information from Washington, leaving the industrial spying to more mercenary types.

The authors also produce some eye-opening proof that U.S. Rep. Samuel Dickstein, a New York City Democrat, was a paid agent for the Soviets in the 1930s. A Lithuanian immigrant, Dickstein, served 11 terms in the U.S. House starting in 1923, earning a reputation as a master manipulator of the immigrant laws.

Ironically, he sponsored legislation that set up what eventually became the House Un-American Activities Committee, the panel that spent years exposing Red spies, real and imaginary.

The congressman’s reasons for supplying data to Moscow were hardly ideological. His cover name was “Crook,” inspired by his constant demands for money. Dickstein, who also claimed to have sold information to other countries, was never caught and ended his days as a New York state judge, dying in 1954.

Other tales include the rather sad story of Martha Dodd, daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, whose political commitment to communism prompted her to sleep with numerous Nazi officials to obtain secrets.

The high water mark of Soviet espionage was the infiltration of the Manhattan Project in 1945, another sorry chapter which has been told several times previously, but without the “official” stamp of Soviet sources.

The Cold War brought increased suspicion and counter-spy efforts from the United States, effectively wiping out widespread Soviet intelligence efforts, the authors say, and leaving grandstanders like Joseph McCarthy to make political hay from incidents that no longer posed any threat to U.S. security.

In the hands of more skillful writers, “The Haunted Wood” would be a memorable book. However, the plodding style, overuse of exclamation marks and heavy dependence on frequently boring correspondence make this history tough to wade through.

The authors have sympathy for the travails of their subjects, American and Russian, but their serious-minded pursuit of facts shortchanges the personal stories of spies like the Rosenbergs and the German Klaus Fuchs, the prime source of the atomic bomb information.

Still, this is not a book to be forgotten. Reaping the benefits of the brief Russian-American thaw, “The Haunted Wood” gives us a rare look at some of the 20th century’s most critical and virtually unknown episodes.

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