The Venona Secrets

Traitors, of course, imply treason and that is exactly the charge Romerstein and Breindel substantiate in this book. Specifically, that the American Communist Party was a knowing tool for Soviet espionage; that the alleged anti-fascism of American Communists was a facade unsupported by their behavior during the German-Russian Non-Aggression Pact; that American Communists probably supplied Nazi Germany with military secrets during that period; that the U.S. government of the 1940s was riddled with Soviet agents including Alger Hiss and Harry Hopkins, personal friend and advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and that J. Robert Oppenheimer was among the Soviet spies on the Manhattan Project.

The decoding of Soviet messages from 1940-1948, coupled with documents from the Communist governments of the former Warsaw Pact, provides the evidence for these charges.

Romerstein and Breindel write in a clear prose, and this book can be read fairly easily cover to cover in a few sittings. However, its organization seems more that of a reference book for scholars of Soviet espionage and U.S. political history rather than a straightforward narrative. The individual chapters cover the most famous spy rings operating in the U. S. during the years of the Venona messages, espionage directed toward stealing nuclear secrets, anti-Trotskyite activities, and co-opting journalists for propaganda purposes. The index is comprehensive and includes listing for the many code names used by the NKVD and GRU.

There is some interesting material on the struggle to root Communists out of American unions. The question of Jewish involvement in Soviet espionage is briefly and unsatisfyingly touched on. The authors acknowledge that Jews had a heavy and disproportionate involvement in the early Soviet intelligence services. But it is also true that Jews later became a target of those same organizations and Jews were purged out of them. What was the initial attraction to begin with?

However, there is a repetition of details about individual agents from chapter to chapter and no attempt to give a chronology of their activities. I suspect the authors organized the book around the idea that their fellow scholars would simply pick individual chapters to read depending on their interests rather than completely read the book.

This is not a biographical look at spies. For instance, we get almost no idea why Elizabeth Bentley went from NKVD agent to double agent for the FBI. It was perhaps because her NKVD lover/controller Jacob Golos had died, and she was miffed at the NKVD’s lack of confidence in her ability to continue to run agents. Likewise, we are presented with no explanation for Jack Childs remark “What took you so long?” to the FBI when they confronted him about decades of spying for the USSR.

While the book offers a brief explanation on the interception and decoding of the Venona messages, there are certainly better accounts of it elsewhere.

The book does have a nice appendix where we are presented with several photocopies of the decoded Venona messages so you get a feel of the raw data the authors worked with and what the NSA and its predecessor, the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service, produced in a job that lasted until 1980.


The Espionage page.