Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Former Time editor Jerrold Schechter and historian Leona Schechter mine the Soviet archives and U.S. documents declassified in the 1990s, most notably the famed Venona intercepts meant to decrypt Soviet messages, in an effort to shed light on some Cold War mysteries and assess the impact of Soviet espionage on U.S. foreign policy. The usual suspects the Rosenbergs, Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss, and Whittaker Chambers all put in appearances. The book is a touch oversold, however. While it adds some details to the historical literature, little new ground is actually broken. The Schechters do a good job, for instance, in clearing up the riddle of who started the Korean War. (Kim Il Sung did; Stalin agreed, fearing that a resurgent Japan would resume its bid for dominance on the Korean peninsula and thus menace the Communist bloc.) Such insights make the book worthwhile. Yet overall, it is less a path-breaking work than an incremental addition to the Cold War literature pioneered by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes's Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. Recommended for all academic collections. James R. Holmes, Ph.D. candidate, Fletcher Sch. of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts Univ., Medford, MA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
This account draws on recently released Russian archival information and original interviews to cast new light on the attack on Pearl Harbor, atomic espionage, Alger Hiss, McCarthyism, and the Rosenberg case. The authors also reveal details of their own exposure to the world of Cold War secrets. B&w historical photos are included. Jerrold Schecter is a historian, journalist, and author. He was bureau chief in Tokyo and Moscow and covered Southeast Asia from Hong Kong in the 1960s. Leona Schecter is a historian and author. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781574883275
  • Publisher: Potomac Books, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.43 (d)

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How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History
By Jerrold and Leona Schecter

Brassey's, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Jerrold L. and Leona P. Schecter; Brassey's, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1574883275

Chapter One

Stalin's Intelligence Game

Playing the United States and Japan against Each Other

In the spring of 1941, Stalin feared the Soviet Union would become trapped in the vise of a two-front war, crushed between Germany and Japan. To escape the trap, three separate Soviet intelligence operations in Chungking, Tokyo, and Washington, without knowledge of each other, manipulated Japan to attack American forces in the Pacific and bring the United States into World War II. In concerted covert efforts directed from Moscow, Soviet intelligence worked to divert Japanese expansionism south against "colonialist imperialism," so that Japan would take over French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and American interests in the Philippines protected by the U.S. Navy, instead of pushing westward through Siberia. Stalin's desperate purpose was to fend off a unified, two-pronged attack by Germany and Japan that he feared would destroy the Soviet Union. Stalin's nightmare was a German-Japanese "handshake in the Urals."

Attacking Southeast Asia meant the Japanese navy would come into conflict with the American Pacific fleet, which had been moved fromsouthern California to Pearl Harbor in October 1939 and in May 1940. Stalin signed a nonaggression treaty with the Germans in 1939, then a neutrality pact with the Japanese in 1941, playing the pride and duplicity of Berlin and Tokyo off against each other. His goal was to deflect a Japanese attack away from the Soviet Union. War between the United States and Japan was the alternative Stalin favored.

Retracing the reasons for Stalin's frenzy to push the Japanese to attack the United States reveals the answer to one of the great mysteries of the twentieth century. Both communist devotees of Stalin and anticommunist commentators have long wondered why Stalin entered a pact with the devil named Hitler, knowing what a dangerous ally he might become. The 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact of Non-Aggression, signed in August of that year, was a landmark on the path to World War II. The answer to the mystery: Stalin was already fighting the Japanese in the Far East and he feared a two-front war.

Until recently, we had only one piece of the skeleton in the closet of history, the confession of Richard Sorge, a dynamic, heavy-drinking officer of Soviet military intelligence, the GRU (Glavnoe Razvedyovatelnoe Upravlenie), under cover as a German foreign correspondent in Tokyo. A statue of Richard Sorge, clad in a foreign correspondent's trench coat, stands in homage to him on a Moscow back street near GRU headquarters. Sorge enjoyed access to the highest officials of the German embassy and to members of the Japanese prime minister's cabinet before he was arrested by the Japanese and hanged for spying in November 1944.

Now there are new pieces to clarify those events: officially released, deciphered intercepts of Russian intelligence traffic during 1939-1946, code-named VENONA; the memoirs of Vitali Pavlov, an NKVD (Narodny Kommissariat Vnutrennikh Del, predecessor to the KGB) intelligence officer; and secret messages from the Russian archives, which throw new light on the work of Vasili Zarubin, an experienced NKVD intelligence officer sent to China during the tense months before Pearl Harbor. This is a Soviet intelligence success story, which changes the conventional history of the year 1941 and our memory of Pearl Harbor. It is a story that until now none of the participants wanted known.

* * *

In June of 1997, Oleg Tsarev, a Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba Vneshni Razvedke (SVR), formerly KGB) officer turned historian, led a group of well-known Western writers and intelligence specialists on a "spy tour" of Moscow. The authors were among this group. Once everyone was seated on the bus, Tsarev began his presentation with the reassuring statement that in the late 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s, until the first efforts to develop the atomic bomb, "the United States was not a main target of Soviet intelligence except as a balance against Japan." That seemed an odd interpretation of events for any of his guests on the tour who had read the VENONA intercepts of Soviet cable traffic. They knew that the Soviet Union had more than 200 controlled agents in America at that time, many placed in the highest levels of the government. However, not one of the guests asked for further explanation of Tsarev's cryptic statement.

On that early summer day graced by mild sun, Tsarev led his troupe, most of whom were British and American writers on intelligence, filling in details for their new books, others who were enthusiastic readers of spy books who had discovered an unlisted tour, through the KGB museum of famous cases and heroes. In the museum he scoffed at the question of why two noted officers, Gregory Kheifetz and Elizabeth Zarubina, who played critical roles in atomic espionage, were absent from the display case: "He was sent home for inactivity ... she was too nearsighted to be an intelligence officer." Thus did Tsarev attempt to denigrate their roles in establishing the spy ring that plundered the atomic secrets of the Manhattan Project. Both officers had been fired during a purge of Jews from the KGB after World War II.

Later the group stood in dappled light under the trees shading the Kuntsevo cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow, where gravestones identified agents and officers who served the Soviet Union by assassinating its enemies and stealing atomic secrets. A studied silence fell over the writers, a silence filled with the tension of not giving away what they already knew while waiting with wary restraint for scraps of information that might enliven their research. Nobody joked or openly asked significant questions that might reveal what they were writing. Within this uneasy silence, it was Tsarev's job to plant the KGB's latest interpretation of past events. As the group was leaving the cemetery, he offered, without being asked: "Operation Snow never happened." The tourists within earshot did not question him further, but it was clear to those who followed the memoirs of former KGB officers that a sensitive espionage operation had been exposed.

What was Operation Snow? It is the title of a book published in Russian in 1996, but not in English, in which a high ranking retired KGB officer, Vitali Pavlov, recalled his mission to Washington in April and May 1941. Pavlov, then a junior officer on his first trip abroad, was sent to the United States seven months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor to meet with Harry Dexter White, then director of Monetary Research for the Treasury. Did "Snow" mean "White"? Yes, Harry Dexter White had been a Soviet "asset" since the early 1930s, providing information to Whittaker Chambers, a courier for the communist underground. By 1941 White was a top aide and adviser to Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury. Pavlov wrote that the Soviets feared a Japanese attack from the east, and his mission was to discuss with White what could be done to keep the Japanese from joining forces with the Germans. Tsarev's reference to Operation Snow brought back into focus his earlier statement that in the years leading up to World War II the United States was not a main intelligence target "except as a balance against Japan." What did "balance" mean to the Soviet Union?

Before the spy tour, we had already made plans to meet the author of Operation Snow. After listening to Tsarev, we had more questions to ask when we visited Pavlov in his luxurious apartment reserved for retired government elite. We brought a friend to interpret from Russian, but he had no work to do because Pavlov spoke English flawlessly. Pavlov greeted us at the door but warned with a smile to beware: when we crossed the threshold, we were entering the territory of the old Soviet Union.

We sat in Pavlov's minimally decorated living room against expansive chair-to-ceiling windows; the flood of daylight etched his story in our memory.

* * *

In the spring of 1941, Vitali Pavlov, an eager 27-year-old intelligence officer, sat nervously in his office on the sixth floor of Lubyanka, NKVD headquarters, torn by fear of invasion. The Soviet Union was facing a two-front war with the threat of attack from Japan in the east and Germany in the west. Pavlov and his colleagues devised a plan for him to go to Washington and help deflect a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union. His mission was to be a "sacred secret" (meaning they would carry it to their graves with no paper trail). The goal: exacerbate tensions between the United States and Japan to divert Japanese expansionism away from Siberia and toward Southeast Asia, where Japan would come into conflict with the United States and its Pacific fleet. Pavlov's plan did not begin and end with him, but was part of a larger Soviet design to worsen relations between Japan and the United States, even if their efforts led to war, to prevent a Japanese invasion of the Soviet Union.

Pushing the limits of discord between capitalist powers was a central tenet of Lenin's foreign policy. Stalin learned it well and used it in the 1939 Non-Aggression Pact. Stalin's contribution was to set up intelligence operations worldwide to capitalize on these rifts to further Soviet interests. In this light we must examine Sorge, Pavlov, and Zarubin in their activities on the eve of the war.

Pavlov's mission in April 1941, when he met with Harry Dexter White, U.S. Treasury Director of Monetary Research, at the Old Ebbitt Grill across the street from the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., was to confirm that White's thinking toward Japan was in line with Soviet interests. Soviet intelligence knew that White formulated all of Morgenthau's recommendations bearing on foreign relations, especially monetary policy toward China, Japan, and the Soviet Union. In the name of peace in Asia, Pavlov urged White to demand that Japan remove its troops from China, which the Soviet Union knew the Japanese would never accept.

The impetus for Operation Snow began in the top leadership of Soviet intelligence. It followed a report from New York NKVD rezident Gaik Ovakimian in January 1941 to Moscow Center suggesting that Harry Dexter White be used to press Soviet aims for the Far East. Ovakimian's report was the seed from which Pavlov's mission grew.

On January 30, 1941, Foreign Intelligence Director Pavel Fitin compiled a spravka (summary), which reported that the NKVD New York rezident, Gaik Ovakimian (code name, GENNADI), had cabled from New York to raise the possibility of using agents and friendly sources in America to influence the formulation of American foreign policy toward Japan. The summary went to Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKV, and his deputy, Vsevelod Merkulov. The text read:

GENNADI reported 28 January from New York about agent possibilities of influencing from outside the formulation of USA foreign policy toward Japan because (1) USA cannot accept unlimited Japanese expansion in the Pacific region which affects its vital interests, (2) Having at its disposal the necessary economic and military might, Washington is capable of preventing aggression, but it prefers to negotiate mutually acceptable solutions under the conditions that Japan (1) stops its aggression in China and areas adjacent to it, (2) recalls its military forces from the continent and halts its plans of expansion in this region.

Signed Fitin (Chief of the Fifth Department, Main Administration of State Security).

On this summary report are handwritten notes:

VERNO [verified] Captain of State Security Grauer under instruction of Comrade Merkulov. In view of the upcoming negotiations with the Japanese by the People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, Comrades Kabulov and Grauer are directed to urgently prepare information for instancia [the leadership, in this case Vyacheslav Molotov and Joseph Stalin]. Also undertake verification of GENNADI's sources, ZVUK [Jacob Golos], RICHARD [Harry Dexter White], and ROBERT [Nathan Silvermaster] in line with data from the First Special Department, special investigation department, and NKVD Lithuanian SSR pending to the fact that they were known to Shpigelglas, Gutzeit, Sobel, now arrested by us.

Signed Merknlov

Merkulov was giving instructions for operational research on the intentions of the Japanese, to identify hidden motives behind the Japanese desire in early 1941 to sign a neutrality pact with the USSR. He was instructing his staff to check on Harry Dexter White's relatives in Lithuania for anti-Soviet activities to make certain of White's political reliability. This was the period following the Great Purges of the 1930s in which Stalin arrested "enemies of the people" who he believed were competing with him for control of the Soviet Union and the world communist revolution. Soviet intelligence organizations were regrouping and vetring their ranks. Moscow Center wanted to make certain that the purge and execution of suspected senior officers such as Shpigelglas, Gutzeit, and Sobel had not affected the loyalty of their own New York-based espionage chief, Golos, or the continued services of two American sources, White and Silvermaster.

At our meeting in Moscow, Pavlov recalled that he was a young, untried officer, impatiently sitting at his desk, raring for an operational assignment. "I wondered what I could do to implement the idea of influencing the Americans to deal with the Japanese," said Pavlov. He mulled it over with his mentor, Iskhak Abdulovich Akhmerov, the chief of NKVD illegals in the United States, who had returned to Moscow. Akhrnerov also used the pseudonyms Michael Adamec, Michael Green, William Greinke, and the "street name" BILL by which he identified himself to his assets without providing a second name. Together they drew up a plan that Pavlov, then deputy director of the American section, submitted to Pavel Fitin, chief of the Foreign Intelligence Department, who passed it up to Lavrenti Beria for approval. Beria gave the go-ahead with the admonition, "No paper. There must be no trace of this mission."

Fitin's summary reveals that the impetus for Operation Snow came from the top, following Ovakimian's suggestion. Fitin's report demonstrates that there are traces of Operation Snow in the NKVD archives, that not every shred of the paper trail was destroyed.

When Pavlov broke his long silence and published Operation Snow, first as an article in 1995, and the next year as a book, he described his mission to Washington, DC, under the cover of a diplomatic courier. His English needed work before taking such a trip alone, and Akhmerov's American wife, Helen Lowry, the niece of American Communist Party leader Earl Browder, was called upon to give Pavlov language lessons.


Excerpted from SACRED SECRETS by Jerrold and Leona Schecter Copyright © 2002 by Jerrold L. and Leona P. Schecter; Brassey's, Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

1 Stalin's Intelligence Game: Playing the United States and Japan against Each Other 1
2 Operation Snow 22
3 The War Years 46
4 Nuclear Furies: A Love Affair and a Storm of Controversy 68
5 Opening VENONA 90
6 Truman Wrestles an Ogre Named VENONA 110
7 VENONA Hits Pay Dirt 134
8 Cases of the Century 158
9 The Fifties 189
10 The Beginning of the End of the Soviet Empire 207
11 The Secrets of Khrushchev's Memoirs 226
12 The Overflight Wars 261
13 Deception and Revelation 288
Conclusion: Looking Back, Looking Forward 299
Acknowledgments 309
App. 1 FBI letter to David Lilienthal on Robert and Frank Oppenheimer's monthly contributions to the American Communist Party, April 21 and 23, 1947 313
App. 2 Letter to L. Beria on Oppenheimer's cooperation with Soviet Intelligence, October 1944 315
App. 3 Letter to NKVD USSR M. G. Pervukhin on atomic espionage reports received from the USA, April 1943 318
App. 4 Excerpts from I.B. Kurchatov's reply concerning the content of intelligence materials received from the USA, April 1943 321
App. 5 Letter to NKGB USSR M. G. Pervukhin on the content of intelligence material from England and the USA, August 1943 324
App. 6 Establishment of Special Committee of the [USSR] State Committee for Defense on the utilization of the internal energy of uranium, August 1945 328
App. 7 Protocol no. 1 of the meeting of the Special Committee of the [USSR] State Defense Committee 332
App. 8 The Morgenthau Plan, from Russian Intelligence Archives 336
App. 9 VENONA message no. 1822, Washington to Moscow, March 30, 1945, identifying Alger Hiss as ALES 339
Notes 341
Index 381
About the Authors 403
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