Authors: Tim Weiner
By May 1947—a few weeks after Hoover testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities—Gardner had read two messages showing that the Soviets had had a spy inside the general staff of the War Department during the last months of World War II. Moscow had penetrated the heart of the American military.
At that point, General Carter W. Clarke, the assistant chief of army intelligence, shared the secret of the code-breaking effort with Hoover.
The FBI began collaborating with the army at Arlington Hall in July 1947. Meredith Gardner worked in daily liaison with a talented thirty-year-old FBI agent, Bob Lamphere, who delivered Amtorg cables stolen by the Bureau’s black-bag artists. Their work came to have its own code name: Venona.
Venona was one of America’s most secret weapons in the Cold War—so secret that neither President Truman nor the CIA knew about it. On the occasions that Hoover sent intelligence derived from Venona to his superiors, it was scrubbed, sanitized, and attributed only to “a highly sensitive
source.” Hoover decreed: “
In view of loose methods of CIA & some of its questionable personnel we must be most circumspect. H.”
For nearly five years, the FBI had been trying to uncover the depths of Soviet espionage. The Bureau had not broken a single case against a Soviet spy. Soviet intelligence had started lying low after the end of World War II, alerted by their agents inside the Anglo-American alliance. But now the Soviets were starting to reactivate their networks in the United States, and the FBI was starting to pick up faint stirrings, like the fading sounds of footsteps down a dark street. Hoover was practicing the same stoic patience that the Soviets possessed.
By the summer of 1948, Venona was building a critical mass of broken Soviet ciphers, codes, and cables—clues to the twenty-year history of Soviet espionage in the United States. The investigation was on the verge of discovering evidence against the international conspiracy to steal America’s atomic secrets.
We now had dozens of entire messages in the clear,” Lamphere recalled. “We were inside the enemy’s house.”
RIAL BY FIRE
At this moment, Harry Truman’s political power was at its lowest ebb. “
I am going through a terrible political ‘trial by fire,’ ” Truman wrote to Winston Churchill on July 10, 1948. “We are in the midst of grave and trying times. You can look with satisfaction upon your great contribution to the overthrow of Nazism and Fascism in the world. ‘Communism’—so-called—is our next great problem. I hope we can solve it without the ‘blood and tears’ the other two cost.”
Truman put communism in quotation marks. Hoover put it in bold headlines.
Hoover knew how to work in secrecy. Now he chose publicity. As he once had used the movies to build the power and the reputation of the FBI in the war against gangsters in the 1930s, he now used politicians and newspapers and television in the war on communism. His strategy had nothing to do with law enforcement. His witnesses were unreliable; the information he gathered with warrantless wiretaps and illegal bugs was inadmissible; the broken cables were too secret to be shared.
But Hoover knew how to use intelligence as an instrument of political warfare. He furnished a powerful weapon to the Republicans and the Red-hunters in Congress, who in turn delivered a hammer blow against the president and the Democrats.
He sent assistant director Lou Nichols, who ran the FBI’s public relations office and served as Hoover’s liaison to Congress, to meet with members and staff of the House Un-American Activities Committee and a Senate investigations subcommittee. Nichols carried a sheaf of secret and confidential FBI files. He leaked the names of two FBI informants to congressmen and their staffs. His work was no secret in Washington: the muckraking newspaperman Drew Pearson soon reported that Nichols was flying in and out of HUAC’s headquarters “
like an animated shuttlecock.”
On July 31, 1948, Elizabeth Bentley appeared before HUAC. She was not the ideal witness. The FBI had deemed her unreliable for years; from 1942 to 1944 her claims about Soviet espionage had been filed in the nut box. Her testimony was unusable in a court of law because of her instability and alcoholism. Any trial based on her testimony would lead to “
an acquittal under very embarrassing circumstances,” one Hoover aide warned.
Nonetheless Hoover sent her to Congress. She talked at length about her work as a courier for the Soviet intelligence service during World War II. She named names, thirty-two in all, including the assistant treasury secretary, Harry Dexter White; seven members of the headquarters staff of Wild Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services, including Donovan’s personal assistant, Duncan Chaplin Lee; and Roosevelt administration figures from the military to the White House. Though much of her testimony was hearsay, it was the first public disclosure that the American government knew it had been penetrated by Soviet spies. And that knowledge flowed from Hoover.
The next day the committee subpoenaed a
senior editor named Whittaker Chambers.
Chambers often spoke the truth but not the whole truth under oath. He had told his story to the FBI and to Assistant Secretary of State A. A. Berle more than six years before. Back then, the FBI had listened to Chambers in disbelief. Hoover and his men simply could not accept the word of a man who once had been a committed Communist. They did now.
He was rumpled and red-eyed and his tale was riveting. He had joined the Communist Party in 1925, and he had served as an agent of Soviet intelligence
for six years in the 1930s. He said the Soviets had had highly placed spies in the Roosevelt administration.
One was Laurence Duggan, a chief of the Latin American division of the State Department, who had worked on the formation of the FBI’s Special Intelligence Service. Another was Alger Hiss, another State Department standout, who now ran the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The endowment’s chairman was John Foster Dulles, who would be the next secretary of state if the Republicans won the presidency in November.
On the morning of August 3, 1948, the House Un-American Activities Committee’s chief investigator, Robert Stripling, took Chambers to a closed hearing room to begin the interrogation. First question: Had Chambers been “aware at any time when you were a member of the Communist Party of a so-called espionage ring that was being set up or functioning in Washington?”
No, I was not,” Chambers replied.
That was a bald-faced lie. But when the committee convened in public that morning, before a crowd of reporters and photographers in the Ways and Means Committee hearing room, the biggest public arena on Capitol Hill, Chambers changed his story. He said he had belonged to “an underground organization of the United States Communist Party” from 1932 to 1938. He named eight members of the ring. The most recognizable name by far was Alger Hiss.
“The purpose of this group at that time was not primarily espionage,” Chambers said. “Its original purpose was the Communist infiltration of the American government. But espionage was certainly one of its eventual objectives.” This was a crucial point. Infiltration and invisible political influence were immoral, but arguably not illegal. Espionage was treason, traditionally punishable by death.
The distinction was not lost on the cleverest member of HUAC. Congressman Richard Nixon asked Chambers the most pointed questions that day. He knew the right questions to ask because he knew the answers in advance. He had been studying the FBI’s files for five months, courtesy of J. Edgar Hoover. Nixon launched his political career in hot pursuit of Hiss and the secret Communists of the New Deal.
Truman derided Red-hunters like Nixon, and he denounced the pursuit of Hiss. But he never once criticized Hoover in public. He would not have dared.
E WASN’T TAKING ORDERS FROM
It was a dangerous moment in American democracy. Hoover was no longer listening to the president.
Hoover did his thing,” said Stephen Spingarn, an army counterintelligence commander newly appointed as a White House security adviser. “He wasn’t taking orders from Truman or anybody else, least of all the Attorney General of the United States.”
Secretary of Defense Forrestal pushed the president to give Hoover sweeping national security powers over law enforcement and intelligence—to make him a secret police czar. The White House pushed back. “
That was contrary to our whole tradition,” Spingarn said. “You did that in Communist and Fascist countries, but you don’t do that in the United States.”
Hoover confronted Attorney General Clark over the FBI’s power to detain thousands of politically suspect American citizens in the event of a serious crisis with the Soviet Union. Now that the broad outlines of Soviet espionage in the United States had been established, Hoover argued, the hour of crisis was at hand.
We began to fall out,” Attorney General Clark said, over the issue of “Communist infiltration.”
The understanding from the first days of the FBI was that the attorney general had to know what the Bureau was doing. That way the president would know. But when Hoover distrusted the White House, he became most secretive. He hid things. In the realm of national security, he took action outside the law and beyond the boundaries of the Constitution.
Hoover now drew up plans for his biggest crackdown on American communism. They included the mass detention of political suspects in military stockades, a secret prison system for jailing American citizens, and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Hoover’s national security assistant, Mickey Ladd, began working out details on “
the program for the detention of Communists” in October 1948, including “a draft of an agreement with the Secretary of the Army” on holding the detainees at military bases in and around New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where the numbers of those arrested would overflow the federal lockups. The agreement held that the FBI, the CIA, and army intelligence officers would divide among them the duties of carrying out the thousands upon thousands of interrogations.
Almost two years passed before Hoover formally briefed the White House and the National Security Council: “
For some months representatives of the FBI and of the Department of Justice have been formulating a plan of action for an emergency situation wherein it would be necessary to apprehend and detain persons who are potentially dangerous to the internal security of the country.” The detentions would begin in time of war, an emergency, a national crisis, a “threatened invasion” or a “rebellion.” Under the plan, the president would sign an emergency order suspending the writ of habeas corpus and instructing the FBI to begin the nationwide roundup. The attorney general would send the president a “master warrant” attached to the FBI’s Security Index, whose existence Hoover finally revealed to the president. “For a long period of time the FBI has been accumulating the names, identities and activities of individuals,” Hoover wrote. “The index now contains approximately twelve thousand individuals, of which approximately ninety-seven per cent are citizens of the United States.” That number eventually would double. “The plan calls for a statement of charges to be served on each detainee and a hearing be afforded the individual,” Hoover advised the White House. “The hearing procedure will not be bound by the rules of evidence.”
Hoover made plans to fill the detention centers in a time of national emergency, and
Congress secretly financed the creation of six of these camps during the 1950s. But no Cold War president seriously considered the mass incarceration of suspected subversives. It took the first president of the twenty-first century to do that.
Hoover, like his fellow Americans, assumed that the Republican governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey, would be elected president in November 1948. Dewey, who had made his name as a crime-fighting prosecutor, would be the first conservative in the White House in a generation. Hoover was working behind the scenes to support Dewey, who shared Hoover’s views on the national emergency that confronted the United States. Hoover had hoped that a new president would grant him new powers, perhaps making him the attorney general while allowing him to retain command over the FBI.
Truman looked powerless and politically spent as the election approached. Crossing through Indiana by train on a long whistle-stop campaign, with the election four weeks away, Truman caught a glimpse of a
magazine poll of America’s fifty most prominent political reporters. Their unanimous prediction:
Dewey defeats Truman. Every poll
and every pundit said the same. Hoover went to sleep on election night confident in that outcome.
on Wednesday, November 3, 1948, the bulletin went out across the world: Truman had won the biggest upset in the history of the American presidency. A shift of only 33,000 voters in California, Illinois, and Ohio would have given Dewey victory.
When Hoover heard the news, he left his desk at FBI headquarters and did not come back for two weeks. His public relations office told the press that Hoover had pneumonia. He simply disappeared.