[This review was published in the Winter 2014 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 522-534.]


Book Review


Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government

M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein

New York: Threshold Editions, 2012


            If now, almost seventy years after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt,  a reader remains convinced that the concern in the United States over “Communists in government” during the FDR and Truman administrations was a product of hysteria, leading to what is commonly called a  “witch hunt,” this book will serve as a much-needed corrective.  It will be welcomed by those for whom the passage of time has created a disposition to make a fair-minded consideration of the evidence.  In Stalin’s Secret Agents, two historians of the Cold War, M. Stanton Evans and Herbert Romerstein, present an introduction to the disclosures that have accumulated from a number of sources, including those from intelligence decrypts and Soviet archives.   The subject justifies a lot of anger, but Evans and Romerstein approach the subject with the unemotional and understated objectivity that is expected in scholarly writing.

            The authors explain that their intention is to “fill in the blanks… of things occurring behind the scenes.”  This is important to what is perhaps the main purpose of their book, which is to make a dent in the “vested ideological interest” that has so long held sway about the role of Communists during those years.  “For decades there has been an established narrative about our domestic Cold War and related security matters, the main theme of which is that the internal Communist problem was vastly overstated, if not entirely nonexistent, and that the people accused as infiltrators were innocent victims.”   They point out, for example, that J. Robert Oppenheimer remains “routinely depicted in our histories as a martyr.”  Oppenheimer, they have us recall, was a “famed physicist” who was during World War II “the scientific leader of the atom project.”  The revocation of his U.S. security clearance has not prevented him from being much celebrated.  Evans and Romerstein, however, say that “it’s clear beyond all peradventure that Oppenheimer was considered by Communist leaders to be a secret member of the party when he went into the atom program.”

            The evidence of Communist penetration into the FDR and Truman administrations is by now massive, with the many sources corroborating each other.  Evans and Romerstein refer to “the archives of the KGB, as disclosed in the 1990s by onetime Soviet operative Alexander Vassiliev… [who] copied down voluminous reports about the goals and tactics of Soviet intelligence, including disinformation schemes….”  They go on to say, further, that the “archives of the Soviet Union and other east bloc nations… were made available to researchers… for a brief period after the Communists were toppled from power.” 

            The Venona dccrypts provide additional inside information from the Soviets themselves.  During the 1940s, the U.S. Army Signal Corps conducted an operation given the code name “Venona” in which “code breakers intercepted thousands of… encrypted messages exchanged between the Red intelligence bosses in Moscow and their agents in this country.”  The decrypts weren’t made public until 1995 (a delay that long blocked  the world’s access to a major source).  Unfortunately, even though highly significant, they are only a relatively limited window into a voluminous traffic: “We have less than three thousand out of hundreds of thousands of such missives,” and the decryptions barely got into the military side of intelligence: “with a few exceptions, cable traffic for Soviet military intelligence wasn’t read at all.”  The authors point out that “since some of the most important Soviet agents, most notably Alger Hiss, worked for the GRU [Soviet military intelligence], this is another sizeable gap in the Cold War record.”  For readers who would like to delve more deeply into the Venona revelations, there are three excellent books available about it.[1]     

            World Communism experienced several shocks in the 1930s that caused significant defections among Communists and “fellow travelers” within the United States.  Among them were the Moscow purge trials, the split between Trotsky and Stalin, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact.  Some of the disenchanted simply turned away from Stalin, while others became active anti-Communists.  Eye-opening revelations came through such defectors as Vassiliev, who followed in the footsteps of others such as Oleg Gordievsky, Stanislav Levchenko and Victor Kravchenko, “along with native American defectors such as Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley.”  Chambers brought forward the famous “pumpkin papers,” sixty-five microfilmed copies of official documents that he testified he had received from Alger Hiss and that he had hidden briefly in a pumpkin patch on his farm.   “These papers,” our authors say, “would be the pivot on which domestic Cold War history turned from that time forward.”  Chambers named a number of Communists who had penetrated the American government.  Evans and Romerstein say “the Chambers information would subsequently be confirmed by other witnesses… and the disclosures of Venona.  Foremost among the witnesses reinforcing his assertions was ex-Communist Elizabeth Bentley, also a former courier.”  Bentley defected in 1945.  Other defectors such as Louis Budenz and Hede Massing provided much additional inside information, again corroborating the other sources.

            Evans and Romerstein observe that the “confidential archives of the FBI” [Federal Bureau of Investigation] are “an underrated resource,” and that “a sizeable trove of information… [was] collected by committees of the Congress.”  

            Stalin’s Secret Agents is a rather short book at 294 pages, and so is best considered an introductory overview rather than an in-depth explication of all that is revealed by the sources.  It invites the reader, in effect, to make further study.  It would be rewarding to get into much greater detail about personalities and policies, about the impact on twentieth-century history – and into the stories of treachery and human tragedy that are inherent in events such as “Operation Keelhaul,” the betrayal of Poland and the rest of eastern Europe, the promotion of Mao over Chiang Kai-shek in China; and, among many others, the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal’s dishonest shielding of the Soviet Union from blame for the Katyn Forest massacre.  There is much more, and countless personal stories that cry out to be told.

            A major error of Cold War studies, Evans and Romerstein say, is “the seemingly pervasive notion that the major if not the only problem posed by Communists in official positions was that of spying.”  They acknowledge the importance of espionage, which led to the “theft of our atomic secrets, [and of] confidential data such as the dcvelopment of radar, jet propulsion, and other military systems”; but they say that “as important in some respects – and often more so – was the question of policy influence.”  We will see the truth of this as we review what the book tells us about specific personalities and policy choices.           

Although he didn’t hold a cabinet post, Harry Hopkins was “for the better part of a decade [Franklin] Roosevelt’s most powerful adviser,” the closeness exemplified by his living in the White House for three years.   “In a book by British historian Christopher Andrew,” the KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky “was quoted as recalling a lecture by veteran KGB operative Iskhak Akhmerov in which Akhmerov said Hopkins was ‘the most important Soviet war-time agent in the United States.’”  The historian later “modified his account to say Akhmerov meant Hopkins was merely an ‘unconscious agent.’”  For many purposes, as we will see, it hardly matters which sort of agent the Soviet Union considered Hopkins to be.   It may surprise many Americans that President Roosevelt himself – for reasons that almost certainly mixed his personal predilections and the influence of Hopkins, his wife Eleanor, and others around him – allowed himself to serve as the world’s most powerful point-man for Stalin, whom he greatly admired.  Evans and Romerstein write of a “wartime policy that was pro-Soviet in the extreme,” and say that “the President himself was… the most obvious and most powerful influence of this nature.”  Hopkins was there at Roosevelt’s side promoting precisely that attitude.

Roosevelt made Hopkins the overall director of “the Lend-Lease program extending aid to America’s wartime allies,” which “under Hopkins would increasingly be conducted for the benefit of Moscow with British (and American) interests tagging after.”  Major George Racey Jordan of the U.S. Army Air Corps, who was “in charge of wartime shipments to Russia via an air base in Montana,” testified in 1949, according to Evans and Romerstein, about “massive shipments to Russia of official U.S. documents, running to many thousands of pages, concerning technical and scientific matters in excess of Lend-Lease requirements.”   Jordan said the documents “concerned specifications he had seen involving an installation at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a supersecret wartime site for work on atomic weapons.”

The conferences at Teheran in November 1943 and Yalta in February 1945 were in several ways geopolitical disasters for the non-Communist world, as we will see when we discuss them for their own sakes.  Evans and Romerstein write that “Roosevelt at Teheran and Yalta adopted a strategy of distancing himself from Churchill and making common cause with Stalin.”  This included making “a series of unfunny jokes at Churchill’s expense – plus side remarks to Stalin about the evils of British colonialism.”  FDR told his Labor Secretary that at Teheran “Stalin broke into a deep guffaw… I kept it up until Stalin was laughing with me, and it was then that I called him ‘Uncle Joe.’”  Hopkins was present at Teheran (as he later was at Yalta), and we see the parallelism between Hopkins and Roosevelt when we are told that “Hopkins took to denouncing the British for ‘imperialism,’ ‘colonialism,’ and ‘reaction,’ [and] spoke in glowing terms of Stalin.”  It tells us a good deal about the pro-Soviet cocoon in which FDR found himself when Evans and Romerstein say that at Yalta “notably absent were ranking U.S. experts who knew a lot about the Soviets.”  In their place, as counselors “at the highest policy levels,” were Hopkins and the recently-appointed Secretary of State, Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., who was “a foreign policy novice” and who had been “appointed simply because he was a protégé of Hopkins.”

Stalin’s Secret Agents focuses so specifically on Communist espionage and influence that a reader who is otherwise unversed in such things hardly gets a feel for the larger intellectual atmosphere in the United States in the 1930s.  Many hundreds of intellectuals, such as those who wrote for the New Republic and The Nation, were exhilarated by their enthusiasm for the Soviet Union, a love that actually began in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution.   The 1930s became known as “the Red Decade.”  Hundreds of Communist “front groups” dotted the scene, and for purposes of “influence” it hardly mattered whether someone formally joined the Communist Party or not.  It was this that provided the broader context for the atmosphere around FDR.  It isn’t surprising when Evans and Romerstein tell us that “Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt had around her a coterie of youthful leftists and was a point of contact for outside forces who took a favorable view of Moscow, the American Communist Party, and all manner of pro-Soviet causes.” 

Lauchlin Currie, identified as a Soviet agent in the Venona decrypts, served in the White House as FDR’s economic adviser from 1939 to 1945.   Alger Hiss, who at the time had “fairly junior status” in the State Department, was “singled out [by FDR] as someone who should go to Yalta.”  Although Hiss’s role at Yalta is, typically, treated as minimal in the conventional histories, Evans and Romerstein say “the Stettinius papers are most revealing on the role of Hiss… The documents indicate that Hiss was an outspoken participant…, addressing a wide array of topics.”

It would be a mistake to think that the cocoon around Roosevelt was the sum total of Communist influence.  Harry Dexter White (Venona), for example, was a top economic adviser to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.  He played a leading role in drafting the “Morgenthau Plan” to turn Germany into a purely agricultural country after World War II; was at the center of the successful effort to prevent a peaceful settlement between the U.S. and Japan in 1941 (thus deflecting Japan into war with the United States rather than, as the Soviets feared, attacking Russia); and, in other ways too numerous to mention here, ranked as an equal to (or better than) Hiss as the Soviet Union’s top agent in the United States.  The Evans-Romerstein book’s discussion of a good many others merits attention, and should encourage readers to probe further into the specifics behind policies that in so many ways proved damaging. 

We are told much about the positions advanced by the agents.  They include:

The elevation of Mao and undercutting of Chiang, leading to the Communization of China.  Until mid-summer 1943 – i.e., until Japan “was in retreat and in no position to threaten Russia” – the Communist line toward Chiang Kai-shek was highly favorable.  At that time, however, signals went out to the Communist Left that Chiang was “corrupt, despotic, and… a collaborator with the Japanese.”  “The composite meaning… was that Chiang was now the bad guy in China, and that the only reliable U.S. allies in the country were the Communists serving under Mao.”[2]  The story of how American policy under Roosevelt and Truman led to Mao’s eventual victory is a long and sordid one, with which everyone wanting to understand twentieth century history should become familiar.[3]  It is rarely commented upon, but is nevertheless of major significance that the Communization of China was a sine qua non of the Vietnam War and, before that, of the second phase of the Korean War (the part of the war after MacArthur defeated North Korea and Mao sent his forces across the Yalu).  The policies leading up to North Korea’s invasion of the south also deserve to be widely known, but aren’t part of the Evans-Romerstein book.[4]

The elevation of Tito and undercutting of Mihailovich in Yugoslavia.  Stalin’s Secret Agents devotes a chapter to “Betrayal in the Balkans” in which it tells of the struggle during World War II between Communist forces under Tito and anti-Communist forces under “the pro-Western Serbian General Draza Mihailovich” for postwar control of Yugoslavia.  “When Hitler attacked Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941… Mihailovich led a breakaway group of officers into the mountains to carry on resistance,” assuming “the mantle of anti-Nazi leadership in the Balkans.”  As, however, Communist guerrillas became organized near the end of 1942, “Communist and pro-Soviet propaganda outlets suddenly began portraying him not as a gallant ally but as a collaborator and traitor.  The previously unheralded Tito would be acclaimed instead.”  [The parallel should be noted between this and what was done vis a vis Chiang Kai-shek in China.]   Evans and Romerstein tell us that Communists such as Howard Fast in the United States “promoted this line.”  When the United States’ OSS and the  British intelligence unit in Cairo, part of British agencies “riddled with Soviet agents,” chimed in, even Winston Churchill was persuaded by it.  The result was that at the Teheran conference in 1943 “the Big Three would issue a statement promising generous aid to Tito.”  Mihailovich, one of the true heroes of the war, paid with his life: “In 1946, Mihailovich would be hunted down, given a Red show trial, and put to death by Tito.”[5]

The Morgenthau Plan.  At the Quebec II conference between FDR and Churchill in September 1944, “the two leaders signed off on the ‘Morgenthau Plan’ for Europe… proposing [as we’ve seen] that Germany be demolished as an industrial nation and reduced strictly to agrarian status.”  The plan was named for Treasury Secretary Morgenthau and supported by Harry Dexter White and Harry Hopkins.  It was drawn up prior to the conference by Morgenthau’s staff, “no fewer than six [of whom] would be named in sworn testimony, Venona decrypts, or other official security records as ideological Communists or Soviet agents.”  Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in his memoirs that “when he read the Quebec memo aloud to Roosevelt, the President ‘was frankly staggered by this and said he had no idea how he could have initialed this.’”  Evans and Romerstein say that Churchill, however, “well knew what he was signing,” but retreated from his initial opposition when Morgenthau promised him “a $6.5 billion postwar loan to a financially stricken Britain.”

The threat of such stripping, together with the Allied demand for “unconditional surrender,” stiffened the spine of German resistance against the American-British advance in the West.  This allowed the Red Army time to penetrate more deeply into Germany and central Europe.  The plan, if carried out (which it was for two years after the war ended in May 1945), would have “ensured that there would be no nation on the continent that could hinder the growth of Soviet power.”  As we speak of these effects, the devastating impact on the German people, for whom a deindustrialized economy could not sustain the population, should of course not be thought incidental.  Evans and Romerstein point to a passage in Morgenthau’s diary: “I don’t care what happens to the population… Why the hell should I worry about what happens to their people?” 

When faced with opposition from Stimson and others, “Roosevelt seemingly backed off… [and] the plan was nominally repudiated.”  The rhetoric of “reparations” was substituted for “vengeance”; but de facto the industrial stripping continued, as we have said, until the summer of 1947.

Operation Keelhaul.  This was the code name given by the U.S. military to the forcible return to the Soviet Union of “two million anti-Soviet refugees.”   “Endorsed in a secret protocol adopted on the last day of the [Yalta] conference,” it was “handled purely as a military matter.”  “The people to be treated thus were a mixed assortment.  A sizeable number were Russians who had been imprisoned by the Nazis and pressed into service as troops or work battalions.  Others were anti-Communists who had joined the Germans.”  Many “had left the USSR before the war began, and had long since forsworn allegiance to the Kremlin… Still others included the elderly, the infirm, and women and children caught up in the vast migrations of the war.” 

Evans and Romerstein quote Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister at the time, as saying that British policy was “to send all the Russians home, whether they want to go or not and by force if necessary.”  Eden recognized, as he said, that “we shall be sending some of them to their death.”  The scenes that followed defy description: “The captives… fought desperately to avoid going back to Russia… A number would commit suicide, some first killing their children… British and American soldiers bludgeoned helpless prisoners, herding them into boxcars and forcing them onto ships that would take them to their fate in Russia.”  As with all these subjects, Stalin’s Secret Agents gives an overview, but leaves much more to be said.  They direct readers to Julius Epstein’s 1973 book[6] as “the most authoritative American book about the subject.”

Evans and Romerstein tell of a number of other policies of great importance to the geopolitical outcome of World War II that were influenced  by Soviet agents.  These include the effort to bring the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, agreed to in yet another secret pact at Yalta, which led to the Soviet occupation of Manchuria, into which Mao moved his forces; the seeking of a coup d’etat against Syngman Rhee in South Korea; the bisecting of Poland agreed to at Teheran and Yalta, and indeed the condonation of Stalin’s grip in Eastern Europe in general;  and several others.

It’s unfortunate that there is no discussion of what was perhaps the most vital strategic decision in the European theatre of the war.[7]  This was the decision for the invasion of Normandy rather than to do what Churchill wanted done, which was to have an American/British  invasion of the continent up through the Balkans, getting to central Europe before the Red Army.[8]  The de facto, on-the-ground military control of Eastern Europe was, in fact, much more important than anything agreed to verbally at the later conferences.  Once the Red Army was there, the fate of those countries was sealed until the collapse, decades later, of the Communist system.  Stalin had long pressed for a “second front” in France, not in the Balkans.  It was Stalin and Roosevelt who prevailed in the final decision.  We can reasonably infer, from all that Evans and Romerstein have told us about the cocoon around FDR, that men like Hopkins and Currie were by no means diffident on the subject.

The conferences at Teheran, Yalta.  Our authors say the actions taken at Teheran and Yalta were  “the culmination of a process that had been underway, in some respects, since the 1930s.”  Speaking most specifically of Yalta, they consider it “the conference that more than any other determined the contours of the postwar landscape.”  We have mentioned the secret protocol approving Operation Keelhaul, and the secret pact to bring the Soviet Union into the final weeks of the war with Japan.  An action we haven’t mentioned was the agreement approving the use of forced (i.e., slave) labor as “reparations.”  Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin promulgated a “Declaration on Liberated Europe” that reiterated the high-sounding phrases of the Atlantic Charter, but that was window-dressing to put a better face on the bisecting of Poland, which gave the Soviet Union eastern Poland and moved Poland’s western boundary deep into Germany; and on the ratification of Soviet hegemony over what soon became the “captive nations” of eastern Europe.  Fatefully, “the agreements concerning Outer Mongolia and Manchuria were at the expense of China” (setting the stage, as we’ve seen, for Mao’s take-over), and we are told that “this was done though China’s leaders weren’t at Yalta, weren’t consulted, and would learn to their dismay about the concessions only later.”  Roosevelt signed off on the Morgenthau Plan, as we have seen, at the earlier Quebec II conference.

FDR had collapsed at a dinner meeting at the Teheran conference in late 1943, making his physical decline especially apparent.  Evans and Romerstein say that presidential historian Robert Ferrell has written “in some detail [about] the evidence that Roosevelt had long suffered from chronic heart disease.”  The hypocrisies that often flaw American “democracy” come to the fore when we are told that FDR’s declining health was kept secret from the American electorate prior to the 1944 presidential election (just as knowledge of the policy toward Poland was withheld to avoid losing the votes of several million Americans of Polish descent).  By the time of the Yalta conference, FDR was “a dying man,” as shown by his shockingly haggard appearance in a photograph taken at Yalta and included in Evans and Romerstein’s book. The authors quote Harry Hopkins as saying he “doubted that Roosevelt had heard half of what had been said at the Yalta sessions.”  It seems unbelievable, especially in light of FDR’s condition, that the vice president, Harry Truman, wasn’t “made privy to the decisions made at Yalta or Teheran” until after his succession to the presidency when FDR died on April 12, 1945.


Stalin’s Secret Agents is an important book.  It is almost certainly bound to take its place, we’re sorry to say, as part of an immense literature on a great many subjects that is hardly acknowledged as existing by the pundits who, decade after decade, put forward the conventional histories that are absorbed by an unquestioning (“educated”) public.  Those who seek any understanding of the contemporary world will find it necessary to immerse themselves in that alternative literature.  American universities today are emphasizing studies in “critical thinking.”  If they are serious about it, they will direct their students to peruse the alternate realities that are to be discovered on so many things.


Dwight D. Murphey       

[1]   The Venona books are: Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner, eds., Venona: Soviet Espionage and the American Response, 1939-1957 (Washington, DC: National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, 1996); Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, The Venona Secrets (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2000); and John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

[2]   The author of this review read all volumes of the New Republic (except one that was missing from the library shelves) from 1914 to 1983 as part of his preparation for his book Liberalism in Contemporary America, and one of the surprising about-faces that he noticed was that the magazine’s glowing reports about Chiang Kai-shek suddenly turned to bitter condemnation, comporting fully with the shift Evans and Romerstein report.

[3]   See Anthony Kubek, How the Far East Was Lost: American Policy and the Creation of Communist China (1963).

[4]   For a detailed discussion of how U.S. policies set the stage for the North’s invasion of South Korea, see Herbert Hoover (George Nash, ed.), Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath (Hoover Institution Press, 2011), pp. 737-752.

[5]   The authors speak highly of three books by David Martin on the Mihailovich betrayal: Ally Betrayed (1946), Patriot or Traitor (1978), and The Web of Disinformation (1990).

[6]   Julius Epstein, Operation Keelhaul (New York: Devin Adair, 1973).

[7]   U. S. General Mark Clark, commander of the Allied Armies in Italy, felt strongly about its importance.  In his book Calculated Risk, as quoted by Herbert Hoover, Clark wrote “Not alone in my opinion, but in the opinion of a number of experts… [not] pushing on into the Balkans was one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war.”  Hoover, Freedom Betrayed, p. 389. 

[8]   See Hoover, Freedom Betrayed, pp. 358-9, where Secretary of State Cordell Hull is quoted as saying that “Mr. Churchill had argued – and continued to argue up to the Tehran Conference – that the invasion of Europe by the Western Allies should be through the Balkans, the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’… He also felt than (sic) an Anglo-American entry into the Balkans and southern Europe would prevent a Soviet rush into the area which would permanently establish the authority of the Soviet Union there….”  Hoover quotes General Albert Wedemeyer as reporting that “Roosevelt did not believe that the Soviets wanted to take over the Balkan states but wished only to establish ‘kinship with other Slavic peoples’….”