In this third installment of a revisionist look back at the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the focus is on communist infiltration of FDR’s administration both before and during World War II and its impact on American foreign policy. In particular, this is the tale of the two Harrys: Harry Dexter White and Harry Hopkins. White was by most accounts a conscious agent of the Soviet Union (though never a Communist Party member) who as a key Treasury Department official influenced U.S. policy to favor Soviet objectives and provided classified information to his Soviet handlers. Hopkins was at best a dupe or “useful idiot,” and at worst a pro-Soviet agent of influence, who was President Roosevelt’s closest adviser during the war. The two Harrys, along with numerous other Soviet agents of influence in a plethora of New Deal and wartime agencies, in James Burnham’s words, “assembled in Washington under the careless scepter of Franklin Roosevelt.”
Beginning sometime in 1935, White, who worked as a chief monetary expert in Treasury, began passing classified information to Whittaker Chambers, a courier for a Soviet spy ring in Washington. Chambers photographed the documents provided by White, then returned them to White, who placed them back where they belonged. Chambers recalled that White “was perfectly willing to meet with me secretly,” and Chambers got the impression that White “enjoyed secrecy for its own sake.” After Chambers broke with the Communist Party in 1938, he retrieved documents and microfilm, including copies of documents provided by White, and eventually secreted them in a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. He later provided those documents to federal investigators during the investigation and prosecution of Alger Hiss, a one-time high-level State Department official and Soviet spy who accompanied FDR to the Yalta conference. Hiss, too, had provided classified information to Chambers during the mid-to-late 1930s.
But espionage was not the most important service Harry Dexter White provided to the Soviets. White was Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau’s key adviser, and, as Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel note, in that role he was able “to assist other members of the [communist] underground group in getting jobs and promotions in the department.” Through Morgenthau, who was a friend and Hyde Park neighbor of FDR, White influenced policy before and during the war through his own work and that of other agents working at Treasury. White was also Morgenthau’s representative in a planning group at the Office of Strategic Services, our wartime intelligence agency. (READ MORE: The Failed Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt)
When Chambers defected and informed the State Department’s security officer that White was part of a communist cell, White was temporarily deactivated by the Soviets. That changed after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The initial success of the German invasion placed Stalin’s rule, and that of the Soviet Communist Party, at risk. And in order to focus singularly on stopping the German onslaught, the Soviets had to ensure that Germany’s ally Japan would not attack the USSR in the east. (Soviet and Japanese troops had clashed in 1939 along the Manchurian–Mongolian border). Thus was born “Operation Snow,” in which Harry Dexter White played a principal role on behalf of the Soviets.
The best account of White’s role in “Operation Snow” is John Koster’s book Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor. Other useful accounts of White’s treachery in this operation include Benn Steil’s The Battle of Bretton Woods and Romerstein and Breindel’s The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America’s Traitors. White’s Soviet handler in this operation was Vitaly Pavlov, a young NKVD officer assigned to the American Section of the spy agency. Pavlov got the assignment because many of the older NKVD operatives had been killed or imprisoned in the Gulag as a result of Stalin’s purges. (READ MORE: The Failed Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt: William Bullitt’s Warning)
The goal of Operation Snow was to influence U.S. policy in a way that would maintain Washington and Tokyo on a collision course. White was told to draft policy and negotiating positions for the administration designed to further antagonize the Japanese government, including demands that Japan pull all of its troops from China (including Manchuria, where Japan had established a puppet state in 1931) and Indochina, sell and lease to the United States half of its warships and military aircraft, extend a huge loan to China, expel German military advisers and technical assistants from Japan, and negotiate a non-aggression agreement with China, the U.S., Britain, and the Dutch government.
White drafted two memoranda for Secretary Morgenthau, including one that suggested a complete ban on imports from Japan and tightening the U.S. oil spigot, and warned FDR against succumbing to a “Far East Munich.” White forwarded them to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who used these Soviet-inspired demands as part of his ultimatum to Japan on November 26, 1941. As Koster notes, this American ultimatum “strengthen[ed] the hand of the war party in Tokyo” at the same time that some in the State Department were counseling a more nuanced negotiating position to avoid, or at least delay, war with Japan. Under FDR’s stewardship, the U.S. up to that point was wholly unprepared for war, especially in the Far East. White’s ultimatum was one that no Japanese minister could agree to without risking almost certain assassination. Koster concludes that White “changed history by engineering the diplomatic responses that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor and stranding, consequently, thirty thousand Americans in the Philippines to be decimated by the vengeful Japanese.” As Romerstein and Breindel note, White carried out Operation Snow “with Soviet, not American, interests in mind.”
During the war, according to Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (a former KGB agent) in The Haunted Wood, their fascinating study of Soviet espionage in the United States during the Stalin era, White continued to work for the Soviets via a spy network headed by Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, an economist with the War Production Board, who in turn reported to Iskhak Akhmerov, the Soviet head of espionage efforts in the United States. White continued to provide classified information to the Soviets through Silvermaster and Elizabeth Bentley. Koster writes that White also had a role in drafting the so-called “Morgenthau Plan,” which would have imposed what Secretary of War Henry Stimson called a “Carthaginian peace” on Germany, leaving the entire country vulnerable to Soviet conquest. FDR recommended the plan to Churchill, who was aghast at the president’s lack of strategic insight. Fortunately, the Morgenthau Plan was never implemented.
Koster also notes that after the war, White imposed restraints on U.S. aid to the Nationalists in China, thereby, in Koster’s words, “contributing to the communist victory in China.” President Truman appointed White to head the International Monetary Fund even in the face of FBI memos detailing White’s suspected communist associations — by that time both Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley had identified White as a Soviet agent. White resigned from that position in June 1947. After Chambers’ and Bentley’s accusations became public, White appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he denied any Soviet connections, despite a grilling from Representative Richard Nixon. Three days later, on August 16, 1948, White was dead. Some say the cause was a heart attack. Others, including Koster, contend that it was likely suicide by an overdose of heart medicine. White’s work for the Soviets was later confirmed by the Venona interceptions of cable traffic between Moscow and its American agents.
Robert Nisbet, in his short but compelling book Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship, wrote that “It is impossible to understand the wartime White House or even Roosevelt’s leadership in the war without reference to Harry Hopkins as friend, adviser, envoy and trusted confidant to the President, beginning in 1940.” Soviet KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky in KGB: The Inside Story, a book he co-authored with Christopher Andrew, recalled attending a lecture given in the 1960s by Iskhak Akhmerov, who told his audience that FDR’s top presidential adviser Harry Hopkins was “the most important of all Soviet wartime agents in the United States.” Gordievsky also recalled discussing Hopkins with other KGB officers, all of whom “believed that Hopkins had been an agent of major significance.” Gordievsky, however, concluded that Hopkins was not a “conscious agent” of the Soviet Union. During the war, Hopkins met with Akhmerov on several occasions, though Hopkins may have thought Akhmerov was just one of Stalin’s political intermediaries. Andrew and Gordievsky write that, whatever the full truth is, “What is certain is that Hopkins came to feel an extraordinary admiration for, and confidence in, Stalin.”
Romerstein and Breindel in The Venona Secrets concluded that Hopkins was a conscious agent of influence for the Soviets. They based this conclusion on Hopkins’ unconditional Lend-Lease shipments to the Soviets during the war, including ordering the shipment of uranium to the Soviets over the objections of military authorities in the U.S. (FDR put Hopkins in charge of overseeing Lend-Lease during the war); Gordievsky’s recollections of Akhmerov’s lecture; certain Hopkins-supported appointments of pro-Soviet personnel in New Deal and wartime agencies; and Venona messages that some scholars say implicate Hopkins as a Soviet agent (Agent “19”).
The alleged references to Hopkins in Venona have been challenged by John Earl Haynes, a respected scholar of Soviet espionage and communism within the United States. Haynes wrote that his study of Alexander Vassiliev’s notebooks indicated that Agent “19” was not Hopkins, but rather Lawrence Duggan, a State Department official. Akhmerov was also Duggan’s Soviet handler at one time.
In 1999, Christopher Andrew provided additional information about Hopkins’ Soviet connections in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. The archive was assembled by former KGB officer Vasili Mitrokhin, who began his work in Soviet foreign intelligence in 1948. Mitrokhin gradually became disillusioned with Soviet policies and quietly sympathetic to Soviet dissidents. He secretly began compiling his archive in 1972. He retired in 1984, and in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, he fled with his archive to Britain. The archive includes information that in 1943, Hopkins, after having been informed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “warned the Soviet Embassy in Washington that the FBI had bugged a secret meeting at which [a Soviet intelligence officer] … had passed money to … a leading member of the US communist underground.” Andrew also notes that information sent to Moscow on talks between FDR and Churchill in May 1943 “had also probably come from Hopkins.” Perhaps the most damning and comprehensive indictment of Hopkins is found in Diana West’s American Betrayal, where she compiles the relevant pieces of information about Hopkins’ pro-Soviet opinions and conduct and concludes that Hopkins, the closest wartime adviser to FDR, was a “conscious and conscientious agent of the Soviet Union.” West’s conclusions about Hopkins have been hotly debated and challenged by, among others, Ronald Radosh, who essentially described her book as updated “McCarthyism” and scolded conservative scholars and outlets for supporting and favorably reviewing her book.
But even if West, Romerstein, Breindel, and other scholars were and are wrong about Hopkins having been a conscious Soviet agent (and here, even the skeptical John Earl Haynes writes that “the notion that Hopkins had a knowing and covert link to Soviet intelligence should [not] be entirely dismissed”) what is clear is that Hopkins was a dupe — what Lenin referred to as a “useful idiot” — who went to what Haynes calls “exaggerated lengths … in attempting to win the Soviets’ trust and make them into working partners with the United States in winning the war and in constructing the peace to follow.” Even Radosh acknowledges that “Hopkins was the most pro-Soviet of Roosevelt’s close advisers and believed that Stalin could be a working partner in wartime as well as during the peace that would follow.”
The two Harrys represent two strains of Roosevelt’s failed presidency: a careless susceptibility to communist infiltration at the highest levels of the administration and a worldview and outlook that terribly misjudged Soviet intentions before, during, and after the war.
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