Saturday, December 3, 2016
(To All, the part of this review concerning Steve Nelson is a repeat from another of my reviews, but the rest of this is original.-HM)
THE VENONA SECRETS: THE DEFINITIVE EXPOSE OF SOVIET ESPIONAGE
IN AMERICA (Regnery History, 2001) by
HERBERT ROMERSTEIN and ERIC BREINDEL
Rev. by Hugh Murray
Why review in 2016 a book published in 2001? Because there is need for another look at this important volume. The main reason for that need is that schools, universities, and media, all ignore the explosive findings presented in this and in similar works. Thus, Marquette U., founded as a Roman Catholic institution by the Jesuits over a century ago, in 2016 invited Angela Davis as a featured speaker for 2017. Ms. Davis, once a prominent member of the Communist Party, USA (hereafter, CP) and who in 2014 sent greetings to that year’s CP convention, will not have to contend with opposition speakers invited to the platform. Her usual fee for such speeches begins at $25,000 = a pittance compared to Hillary Clinton, but a sizable sum for a once most controversial figure, and one probably still very close to the CP.
In November 2016 former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on Fox News praised the appointment of Breitbart News’s Stephen Bannon as President-elect Trump’s Chief Strategist. Gingrich, who earned a doctorate in history from Tulane U. and who taught history himself at the university level, on television extolled Bannon’s appointment, and compared Bannon to FDR’s chief advisor for many years, Harry Hopkins. Hopkins was so close to Pres. Roosevelt, he literally lived in the White House. Had Gingrich read the Venona book, he surely would have avoided the Bannon-Hopkins comparison, because in Venona on learns that Harry Hopkins was a Soviet agent.
One of the most popularly assigned books in high schools and universities is A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Although Wikipedia quotes Zinn’s description of himself as an “anarchist,” “socialist,” maybe a “democratic socialist,” Robert McCain in The American Spectator argued that Zinn had been a member of the CP, at least beginning in the 1940s, that Zinn lied about his membership to the FBI, and he made clear that he would not identify any comrades he might have known. This was his attitude in the early 1950 at the height of Stalinism. Might such views be reflected in Zinn’s history of America – his most influential history of America, today?
To reinforce a pro-Communist approach to American history, Public Broadcasting in some cities has shown “American Reds,” a 90-minute documentary on the American CP. A distributor of the film reports it raises “a number of key issues concerning social change, idealism, ideology and the nature of our economic and political system…” Bill Moyers deemed the film “an important addition to public television’s mission to throw light on obscured corners of our history…” Moyers fails to expose how that film omits, distorts, and spins. This is another reason why we should read, and re-read The Venona Secrets.
Here is an example of how the Venona volume of 2001 can shed light on the pro-Communist propaganda spinning in the schools and on PBS-TV.
One activist interviewed at length (perhaps more than any other in this film) was Steve Nelson, who was born in what is today, Croatia in 1903 to Hungarian parents. He arrived in America in 1919, and was soon working in Pennsylvania slaughter houses and other non-professional jobs. He looks and sounds like a typical American blue-collar worker. For the documentary Nelson describes his efforts to organize laborers into various unions at times when unions were barely legal. Nelson relates one incident when, after his arrest, he was interrogated by police. They beat him. One hit his jaw so hard that Nelson passed out with that question. A cartoon recreated the scene. In the late 1930s Nelson, along with 3,200 other radical Americans, joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, part of the Communist-sponsored International Brigades to defend Republican Spain against Francisco Franco and his fascist rebels. Nelson expresses sorrow at the loss of comrades who fell in the fight. The narrator even interviews Nelson’s adult daughter, who remembers that as a child she was told not to discuss certain topics at home because the family was aware that their home was bugged. No word is said, but the implication is – how horrible that in America children were not free to discuss things at home because the government was listening in.
In the case of Steve Nelson, the government was indeed listening in. But never does the documentary indicate what the government heard in Nelson’s Oakland abode. Thanks to the release of various government documents, we now know, and thanks to authors like Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel (hereafter R & B), we can readily discover the workings of the Nelson household. For example, in March 1943 the FBI bug revealed that Nelson met with atomic scientist Joseph Weinberg. Nelson instructed Weinberg to gather and send him information from other Party members working with him on the atomic bomb project at the Univ. of California, Berkeley. Nelson also told Weinberg to inform the comrades working there to destroy their CP membership books, and refrain from using liquor.(p. 255)
In April 1943 Nelson received another visitor, a member of the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC. The Soviet official instructed the America Communist to establish an espionage network in the American atomic program. The Soviet counted out specific amounts of cash to fund the project, and told Nelson where he should place reliable Communists for this “special work” in conveying to the Soviets what the Americans were discovering in the US atomic program.(p. 259)
When in 1980 Nelson was interviewed by two sympathetic academics, Nelson assured them, “I never had any links with Soviet espionage in the United States.”(p. 259) And what about any such links in Spain? Because of the release of the Venona documents, we now know that Nelson lied. We have known this for over a decade. But the 2016 documentary ignores Nelson’s treason to portray a poster-boy worker and sympathetic CP activist whose privacy was invaded by an oppressive FBI.
If you read Venona you will learn that the Rosenbergs were not the only atomic spies. That there was good reason to suspend the security clearance of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer in the 1950s, and wonder why it was not suspended earlier. One learns of the power of Harry Hopkins, who lived in FDR’s White House, and that he was a Soviet agent. Even Eleanor Roosevelt sought to close down the Venona project of recording and trying to decipher messages sent to the Soviets. One learns that leaders of the American CP vetted members to find who would best serve as Soviet agents. One learns of Soviet agents in the White House, the State Dept. the Treasury Dept., the Attorney General’s Dept., the Agricultural Dept. etc. These agents probably hastened the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and delayed a possible German surrender to the western Allies in WWII by publicizing the draconian Morganthau Plan to turn a defeated Germany into a backward, impoverished, agricultural land. One learns that Alger Hiss, of the American State Dept., received a Soviet medal on a trip to Moscow for his service to Soviet intelligence.
And after reading Venona, one can conclude that the CPUSA was probably the 3rd most influential political organization in 20th century America. It may have influenced the Communist take-over in China, the Korean War, and Soviet atomic bombs and industrial development as when an American CP member developed the first Soviet computer.
While many on the Left stress the halcyon days of the popular front, the Venona volume reminds us of Communist rhetoric during the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Thus, in 1940 Milt Wolff addressed a convention of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Chicago, in which he damned President Franklin “Demagogue” Roosevelt as a “red-baiting, union-busting, alien-hunting, anti-Negro, anti-Semite.”(285)
One cannot discuss the CP rallies, its skills and bravery in union organizing, and in defying segregation, etc., without discussing how American CP leaders took Moscow money, how the leadership scouted Party members seeking a right fit to place “reliable” Party members in “special work” to supply Soviet intelligence with information.
Those Americans involved in spying for the USSR were so dedicated that “not one broke with Soviet intelligence as a result of the alliance with the Nazis.”(37) Far from being just another left-wing party, the CPUSA provided a pool from which the Party leadership would recruit agents to serve Moscow. “Although any American Communist would have been proud to have been chosen to spy for the Soviet Union, only a small number of Party members had the jobs or other qualifications that the Soviets needed.”(11)
Here I think the authors exaggerate – if every Party member desired to spy, why bother to vet? Part of the leadership’s duties was to choose only those willing to spy; and determine those who, if asked to spy, would not go to American authorities and expose the system. One duty of the CP leadership was to keep the spy system hidden. Even R & B admit few members of the CPUSA were directly involved in such activities. Furthermore, if none of those already involved in spying quit because of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, that was not true of the general membership. The CPUSA lost about one fourth of its members during that period. The film ‘American Reds” notes that about one million Americans joined the CP at some point. Yet, at its high points, the CP had only 100.000 members. Not all Party members were spies-in-waiting. During the popular-front period, some Blacks quit the Party because the Soviets were supplying Mussolini with oil in his invasion of Abyssinia. While many left the Party with the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, some joined during this period because the CP was opposed to intervention in Europe’s wars and created the American Peace Mobilization. Bayard Ruston, who would later organize the 1963 March on Washington, quit the Party when after June 1941 it abandoned its peace policy in favor of intervention against Nazi Germany. A few years later Richard Wright quit the Party. Of the million who joined at some point, perhaps 850,000 quit the CP because they disagreed with its policies. I would suggest that 85% were not willing to mindlessly follow any orders given to them. Clearly, not all members of the CP were so enamored of the Soviet Union.
Overall, Romerstein and Breindel have written a book as pertinent today as when it was first published in 2001. It is a book needed to counteract the propaganda still emitting from the academy and the media.