Did Truman Know About Venona?


Mr. Novak is a newspaper columnist.

DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN, during his long and illustrious public career, did not flinch from controversy. I doubt, therefore, that he would object to my having inserted him posthumously into an intriguing debate over recent history: Who was responsible a half-century ago for opening the door to McCarthyism and imposing a burden on the Democratic party from which it never has fully recovered?

In a column following Sen. Moynihan's death, in which I praised his uniqueness as a political figure, I concluded with this paragraph:

A few years ago when I was recuperating at home from a broken hip, the Senator dropped by and brought a copy of "Secrecy," one of 19 books he wrote. He pointed out the book's disclosure that Gen. Omar Bradley had dogmatically kept secret from President Harry Truman the result of communications intercepts revealing Soviet espionage in the United States. "How that would have kept the Democrats from the embarrassment of defending Alger Hiss and saved us from McCarthyism," said Moynihan. I can't imagine another U.S. Senator exploring this, but there was only one Moynihan.

As I entered my office the morning my column appeared, historian and journalist Jerrold Schecter telephoned me with a complaint. A former Time diplomatic editor and National Security Council spokesman during the Carter administration, Schecter contended that "Moynihan was dead wrong." He said that six weeks after he became president in 1945, Harry Truman "was told about the secret decoding of Soviet messages," adding: "It was not the bureaucracy that held back the secrets, but the president himself."

That dispute is not trivial, addressing as it does a serious political omission by a president who has become admired and indeed beloved across the ideological spectrum. Was Harry Truman victimized, or did he victimize his own party?

When Pat Moynihan paid his sick call on me in February 1999, he had more than small talk on his mind. He had brought me an autographed copy of Secrecy, published the previous year, not just to give me a little light reading, but to send me a message.

The book was an outgrowth of Moynihan's service in 1995 and 1996 as chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, created by act of Congress in 1994. It is an eloquent essay on how bureaucracy breeds secrecy, poisoning government and a free society. Moynihan opened the book for me to pages revealing a specific problem.

As the Moynihan commission acquired the first Venona decryptions revealing Soviet espionage, the senator engaged in speculation. Was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had been sending Truman unsubstantiated claims of Communists throughout the government, now holding out on the president "when real evidence became available"? When Moynihan asked the FBI that question, he related, "agents came round one morning and professed not to know much about the matter, but promised to look into it. They were never heard from again." Such bureaucratic secrecy infuriated Moynihan, who complained to then FBI director Louis J. Freeh. Ordered by Freeh "to sweep the basement," the director's personal staff "produced a loose-leaf binder of Top Secret files: some thirty-six documents, now at last available."

MOYNIHAN'S smoking gun was an October 18, 1949, memorandum from FBI agent Howard Fletcher to Hoover assistant D. Milton (Mickey) Ladd describing a conversation with Brig. Gen. Carter Clarke, chief of the code-breaking Army Security Agency (ASA). Clarke was a career officer who worked behind the scenes in communications intelligence for almost his entire career. He was no ordinary staff officer. As a colonel in 1944, he was entrusted by Gen. George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, to put on a civilian suit in wartime to visit New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican nominee for president, in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, hotel room on a confidential mission. Dewey had learned that decrypted Japanese communications should have alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Pearl Harbor attack and was about to make this a campaign issue. Clarke pleaded that the disclosure would reveal to the Japanese U.S. code-breaking progress. Dewey reluctantly agreed to keep silent, and FDR was elected to a fourth term.

Japanese and German codes were not the only targets of American cryptanalysts during World War II. When Stalin and Hitler signed their infamous "nonaggression" treaty in 1939 that led to their joint invasion and partition of Poland, U.S. Army intelligence secretly ordered American telegraph companies to turn over Soviet diplomatic messages to and from the United States. They were placed in canvas bags and ignored for over three years. In early 1943, the White House approved a decision by Gen. Marshall, recommended by Col. Clarke, for the ASA to start attempting to decode the messages to and from Moscow. The reason was Stalin's obsessive secrecy. Although the United States and the Soviet Union now were allied in fighting Germany, Washington was kept in the dark about the Kremlin's war plans and operations. The Americans hoped the diplomatic traffic (which continued to accumulate through the war years) would shed some light on what the Russians were up to militarily and whether Stalin was seeking a rumored separate peace with Hitler. As the traffic was decoded, by what became known as the Venona project, the U.S. military learned something it had not expected: Soviet intelligence agencies had penetrated deep into the U.S. government for purposes of espionage.

Not for another half-century would this widespread treason in high places be revealed to the American public. The question is whether Harry Truman as president knew about it. The 1949 "smoking gun" memo by FBI agent Fletcher said Adm. Earl E. Stone first learned about Venona in 1949 when he took over the new Armed Forces Security Agency (later the National Security Agency), created as part of U.S. defense unification. Stone was described as "very much disturbed" to learn about the ASA's progress in decoding the Soviet traffic. He "took the attitude" that President Truman and Adm. Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency, "should be advised as to the contents of all these messages."

"Gen. Clarke stated that he vehemently disagreed with Adm. Stone," the memo continued, telling Stone that "the only people entitled to know anything about the source were [name deleted] and the FBI." Clarke is quoted as saying that Gen. of the Army Omar Bradley, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, agreed with him. Clarke quoted Bradley as saying "he would personally assume the responsibility of advising the president or anyone else in authority if the contents of any of this material so demanded." According to the memo, Bradley wanted to make sure the FBI did not "handle the material in such a way that Adm. Hillenkoetter or anyone else outside the Army Security Agency, [name deleted] and the Bureau [FBI] are aware of the contents of these messages and the activity being conducted at Arlington Hall [ASA headquarters]." Senator Moynihan's conclusion (as described in Secrecy): "President Truman was never told of the Venona decryptions. It gives one pause now that all Truman ever 'learned' about Communist espionage came from the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the speeches of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, and the like." For this, Moynihan blamed the fetish for government secrecy in general and Omar Bradley in particular.

IN 2002, four years after Secrecy appeared, Jerrold and Leona Schecter published a fascinating book called Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History. The Schecters, who have become leading Cold War historians, totally reject Moynihan's thesis. They contend that the senator misinterpreted the Howard Fletcher memo. The account by the Schecters:

When the ASA experienced its first success in decoding the Soviet messages in 1945, "Marshall urged Clarke to advise President Truman of the project." On June 5, 1945, Truman--in office for only six weeks--met with Gen. Clarke in the Oval Office for 15 minutes. The general told the president that the code-breakers were decrypting messages that revealed massive Soviet intelligence operations in the United States, though it was too early to identify operatives or operations. Clarke described this meeting as "NDG" (no damn good). The president told the general that his account of code-breaking sounded "like a fairy story." Truman obviously did not understand the brief explanation of how Soviet messages were decoded.

In February 1948, Bradley met with Clarke and other ASA officers as the American cryptanalysts made progress. It was agreed that Bradley would control Venona's secrets and keep President Truman informed. At this meeting, Bradley said he understood Truman's failure to comprehend cryptanalysis. The five-star also expressed his opinion that wild rumors about Communists in government passed to the president by Hoover had made Truman skeptical of Venona.

Bradley did keep Truman informed of new material coming out of Venona. Bradley and ASA officers met with the president's aides at places selected by the White House. As Truman told Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, there were "too many unknowns" in the partially decoded Soviet messages. "Even if part of this is true, it would open up the whole red panic again." Truman told Forrestal he could not believe that President Roosevelt could have been taken in by traitors in his midst. At any rate, Truman said he did not believe that Russian penetration of the government could be as widespread as Venona indicated.

In 1950, Bradley informed Truman that Venona had identified two senior U.S. government officials--Alger Hiss at the State Department and Harry Dexter White at the Treasury--as Soviet agents. "The president was most upset and agitated by this," said Bradley. According to Bradley, Truman said: "That goddamn stuff. Every time it bumps into us it gets bigger and bigger. It's likely to take us down." "In the coming decade," the Schecters write, "the nation would pay heavily for Truman's failure to expose Soviet intelligence networks within the United States. By treating the successes of Venona as a 'fairy story,' the president ceded control of the issue of Communist influence in the U.S. government to the political enemies from whom he had hoped to keep it secret. The result turned America inward against itself, creating a paroxysm of name-calling, finger-pointing, and informing on former party members or suspected Communists."

No notes of the conversations reported by the Schecters are available. Truman, Bradley, Forrestal, and Clarke are all long dead. So, how did the authors learn these details? From a man named Oliver Kirby, who was a bit player in the great drama of more than half a century ago but has outlived his superiors. Kirby first became engaged in cryptanalysis as an ROTC student at the University of Illinois in 1939. That began a career in communications intelligence extending through his World War II service as an army captain and his postwar civilian service with the ASA specializing in the Soviet traffic. Trace all of the above assertions by the Schecters to the footnotes, and Kirby is the source in each instance. Considering the absence of other sources, notably documentary material, Kirby's assertions cannot be verified--with one exception. The Schecters found White House records confirming that Gen. Clarke did meet with President Truman on June 4, 1945, in the Oval Office, exactly as Kirby reported.

I telephoned Kirby in Greenville, Texas, where he lives in retirement. What he told me was just as the Schecters reported. Kirby said he never talked with Truman himself, but he did discuss the revelations about Soviet intelligence with the president's senior aides. Was Truman specifically informed of the identity of Hiss, White, and other Soviet agents in the U.S. government? "I am absolutely sure of it," he told me.

If the Schecters are right and Pat Moynihan was wrong, a question is raised that goes to the duality of Harry Truman's political personality. The statesman who made the decisions ending World War II and fighting the Cold War is also the Kansas City machine politician preoccupied by partisan considerations. The same President Truman who was so decisive in authorizing the atom bombing of Japan, military intervention in Korea, the Marshall plan, Greek-Turkish aid, and NATO could not come to grips with Soviet espionage at home. Truman despised Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers as informants, even though their allegations of Soviet spying were confirmed by Venona. The Truman White House was more interested in bringing perjury charges against Chambers than in probing espionage by Hiss.

As a Truman admirer, Pat Moynihan wanted to believe that bureaucratic secrecy had blinded the president to the reality of Soviet espionage. Unfortunately, the failing may have been in Harry Truman himself.

Response by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes Mr. Klehr and Mr. Haynes are co-authors of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America.

What did Harry Truman know about Soviet spies in America and when did he know it? Although he fought the Cold War abroad, domestically Truman regarded J. Edgar Hoover as an alarmist and treated Republican complaints about internal subversion as partisan demagoguery. He did, however, implement a sweeping security program for federal employees, and his Justice Department prosecuted Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. Even in the later years, though, Truman seemed ambivalent about the seriousness of Soviet espionage.

Several years ago, Senator Moynihan suggested a factor contributing to Truman's attitude may have been that he was not informed the United States had broken into Soviet coded-cable traffic and had highly reliable information identifying scores of Soviet spies. Moynihan uncovered a 1949 FBI memo indicating that Army Chief of Staff Omar Bradley had decided not to inform the president about the top-secret Venona program. The FBI had told Truman the information contained in the messages, but not that it came from decoded Soviet cables. Given Truman's mistrust of Hoover, this denied the president any assurance that the information was reliable and may have misled him about the seriousness of the problem.

In "The Origins of McCarthyism" June 30), Roben D. Novak charged that Moynihan got it wrong. Basing himself on Sacred Secrets, a book by Jerrold and Leona Schecter, Novak argues that Truman was told that decryptions had uneanhed massive Soviet spying as early as 1945 and he refused to respond, motivated partly by disbelief and partly by domestic political concerns. Novak suggests that Truman, not bureaucratic secrecy, bears responsibility for the failure to move vigorously against Soviet spies.

Novak and the Schecters base their claims on interviews, 50 years after the events, with former National Security Agency officer Oliver Kirby. Kirby claims Truman met with General Carter Clarke, who supervised the Army's code-breaking activities, on June 5, 1945, and learned that the cryptanalysts were breaking messages indicating "massive Soviet intelligence operations" although no names were yet available. The president was unimpressed and responded that it sounded "like a fairy story." Kirby also alleges that in 1948 Bradley agreed to keep: Truman informed but worried that the president did not understand cryptanalysis. Bradley and Army intelligence officers supposedly met with White House aides to inform them of the progress of Venona. But Truman remained a skeptic, telling Defense Secretary James Forrestal that the decrypts were too partial; he couldn't believe that Roosevelt had been deceived by the people accused of spying, and in any case making them public would ignite a red scare. In 1950, Kirby alleges, Bradley told Truman that both Alger Hiss and Harry White had been identified as Soviet spies, and Truman complained that the news would be a political albatross.

Oliver Kirby claims to have heard all this from General Carter Clarke and to have discussed it with some of Truman's senior aides. The only documentary evidence is White House records indicating that General Clarke met with Truman on June 4, 1945. There is no indication of what they discussed. But Clarke supervised all Army code-breaking. World War II was still on, and he had plenty to tell the new president of far greater immediate importance than Venona.

Moreover, Clarke could not have: reported about massive Soviet spying at this meeting. While his code breakers had made progress against the Soviet cables in 1945, they did not yet have any significant readable text. They had broken the one-time-pad additive for a number of messages, a key step, but that only revealed the underlying conventional code, which still had to be broken. Not until the summer of 1946 did Meredith Gardner break enough text from the cables. There was no story, fairy-like or otherwise, for Clarke to tell in 1945.

Further, Novak and the Schecters cannot account for the 1949 FBI memo, which reports that Admiral Earl Stone, newly appointed head of the Armed Forces Security Agency, had proposed briefing Truman on the nature of the Venona project but that Clarke had objected strongly. The disagreement then went to Chief of Staff Bradley, who sided with Clarke. If Kirby's memory is correct, Clarke would have been aware that Truman had already been briefed about the project several times and could hardly have been exercised about yet another briefing.

Kirby also told the Schecters that Clarke informed him that early in 1945 Eleanor Roosevelt complained to Secretary of War Stimson about the Army's attack on Soviet cable traffic and General Clarke responded with a warning that he would expose the first lady's actions to the press. He assens that on General Clarke's orders he briefed House Republican leader Les Arens and Washington Post publisher Philip Graham on Venona, Harry Dexter White, and Alger Hiss. And Kirby insists that he privately warned the Bundy brothers that Alger Hiss was compromised.

This is all extremely unlikely. Oliver Kirby had a long and distinguished career with the National Security Agency and its predecessors. His interviews with the Schecters, conducted more than 50 years later, are, however, unsupported by documentary evidence and, in one case, contradicted. Oral history can be treacherous. Chronology gets confused, and people edit their memories in light of what happened later and in conformity with judgments they later adopted. They also have a tendency to portray themselves in a dramatic and favorable light, at the center of events. Oliver Kirby's unsupponed recollections do not put Moynihan's conclusions into question. The decision to keep the Venona project under tight wraps and to limit those who knew about it, however defensible as a security matter, had unfortunate policy and political consequences.

Response by Robert Novak

HARVEY KLEHR AND JOHN HAYNES, in their letter of July 21 ("Spy Games"), rely on government documents to contend President Harry Truman was unaware of the Venona decryptions of coded Soviet cable traffic that exposed massive Soviet penetration of the U.S. government from 1939 to 1945. Those documents do not reveal an unfortunate political decision by a president who has been posthumously elevated to the historical elite of the nation's leaders.

In "The Origins of McCarthyism" (June 30), I cited Sacred Secrets by Jerrold L. Schecter and Leona Schecter, which points to Truman's culpability. Their book contradicted the claims by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his book Secrecy that Truman was not informed of the Venona decryptions by the "bureaucracy." Klehr and Haynes base their conjectures on the Moynihan book. The heart of the dispute is the account by a living witness to these long ago events. Former National Security Agency officer Oliver Kirby told the Schecters and confirmed to me how the "Venona material was presented to Truman by General Omar Bradley. The Schecters say they discussed Kirby's testimony with Moynihan but the senator and his researchers never contacted Kirby. "Although we discussed Kirby's information with him on the phone and tried to make an appointment," the Schecters say of Moynihan, "he was never available, despite promises of a meeting."

Klehr and Haynes contend there is no indication of what General Carter Clarke, head of Army code-breaking, discussed with Truman when he briefed the president on June 4, 1945. Kirby contends that the decoding of the Soviet cables was far enough along at that point for Clarke to discuss its general content with Truman.

Klehr and Haynes contend the Schecters could not account for a 1949 FBI memo in which Admiral Earl Stone, head of the new Armed Forces Security Agency, proposed briefing Truman on Venona. But Kirby, who was not reading the memo for the first time two generations later, describes in detail carefully constructed access to brief Truman set up for Bradley and Defense secretary James Forrestal.

While Klehr and Haynes call Kirby's account "highly unlikely," none of his recollections is contradicted as they claim. Kirby's assertions that Truman knew are based on notes he made at the time he worked on Venona, contradicting the Klehr and Haynes dismissal of Kirby's recollections "fifty years after the event."
The highly praised work by Haynes and Klehr on Venona was based primarily on documents supplied and edited by the government. As serious historians, they would have benefited had they conducted interviews with living participants in the Venona affair rather than engage in unfair and unwarranted attacks on the Schecters and me.

Related Links

Harvey Klehr, Review of Jerrold and Leona Schecter's Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History

This article first appeared in the Weekly Standard in June and is reprinted with permission. The responses by Klehr, Johnson, and Novak were published in the Weekly Standard in July.

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More Comments:

Ari Tai - 12/4/2007

What is the status of public visibility of the various papers of these individuals? President Truman, Senator Moynihan, and the others mentioned? If they are recently available, are they available for public inspection, perhaps even online? My sense is it takes 50-70 years for the most sensitive of notes to be declassified, and/or wishes of the deceased to be honored. And some may never be (many nuclear weapons related research papers from the 40s are still classified).

David Right - 10/10/2003

I fail to see what reporting the inappropriate utterances of government officials in 2003 has to do with reporting the treasonous actions of government officials of 50 years ago. Rather than hysterically accusing a reporter of using his soap box to advance what is perceived as his political agenda through unsubstantiated and vacuous charges of felonious activity, I suggest that Ms. Ward resume her Prozac therapy and reread the article she so inappropriately responded to.

Mr. Novak is not an employee of either the New York Times or the Washington Times so in this day and age of Jason Blair and the childish Anti-Arnie battles on the west coast Bob Novak's veracity is a breath of fresh air.

Wesley Smart - 10/2/2003

Your rudeness aside, your question is the one Mr. Phillips ought to have posed. One answer is that Novak did not think that it was a significant matter at all. Another may be that Novak is actually someone who wants to be a Washington, D.C. player, and continue to be one, and was interested and willing in keeping the game going.

From reading the various news accounts today a dispassionate viewer is tempted to conclude that there is a whole lot of information not yet available with which to draw any kind of conclusions.

K.A. Shelton - 10/2/2003

I find the prickliness of Mr. Novak's response puzzling. Klehr's and Johnson's piece lacks ad hominem attacks, vituperative language, or anything else that could be classified as abusive towards either Novak or Kirby. Indeed, they do not attribute any errors in Kirby's statements to personal mendacity, but rather point out that there are problems with oral history generally. Is the very act of disagreeing with Bob Novak now synonymous with being unfair? Instead, Johnson and Klehr argue about substantive issues of fact and chronology, in particular that the process of decryption had not proceeded far enough in 1945 (presumably something that can be clearly established) for there to have been anything to report to Truman, and that Kirby's reading of the 1949 meeting doesn't make sense if Truman had already been briefed. They are thus able to show that Kirby's recollections are faulty. To this Novak can only reassert Kirby's recollections and notes, which were not of Kirby's first hand accounts. Novak's methodology (here and elsewhere) has long seen official government records as less valuable than the private source, which for a journalist is certainly valuable; but he seems unwilling to accept the possibility that such methodological assumptions create special problems when used over a period of time much longer than that with which journalists usually deal. These problems are much clearer to the historian. This is an interesting disciplinary difference in the approach to evidence, but it hardly justifies the tone of Novak's response, which contained the only "unfair" and "unwarranted" remarks in the entire exchange.

John Cuepublic - 10/2/2003

Agent Smart:

"Revealing the name of a CIA agent is a felony. However, the person committing the felony is the source, not Novak, according to the law governing the secrecy of intelligence operatives identities."

Good work, Maxwell. Let's assume the answer to the original question of this thread is "yes" = Novak knew what he was doing. Why did he then abet the felony, when several other journalists declined to do so (i.e. did not reveal the agent's name even though it was leaked to them) ?

Wesley Smart - 10/1/2003

See my above post.

Wesley Smart - 10/1/2003

Revealing the name of a CIA agent is a felony. However, the person committing the felony is the source, not Novak, according to the law governing the secrecy of intelligence operatives identities.

Caroline Ward - 10/1/2003

Novak has much to answer for right now. His specious remarks on the air over the past few days defending his felonious 'outing' of a CIA agent expose his venal political motivations. He should be ashamed of himself, and why should we find his position on Venona believable?

Edward Phillips - 9/30/2003

Why should we believe this convoluted argument excerpted from a notorious right-wing rag ? Does Novak, a contentious political columnist, have any credentials as an historian ?