Is Allen Weinstein too Secretive to Become the Chief Archivist of the United States?Historians/History
President Bush's intention to nominate Allen Weinstein as Archivist of the United States has raised a few eyebrows.
Weinstein is best known for Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (1978) and The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999), co-authored with Alexander Vassiliev who was given access (for a substantial fee) to KGB archives. The KGB closed their archives to other researchers who therefore cannot check the accuracy, context or interpretation of the notes made by Vassiliev and written up mainly by Weinstein. Except, that is, if Weinstein were to grant access to his files.
But what is disturbing about Weinstein as Archivist of the United States is that he is so notoriously reluctant to open up his own archives. These include his original KGB notes and his taped interviews with witnesses who have challenged his selective quotations. He made an exception with Sam Tanenhaus whose Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997) lionises a self-proclaimed Soviet spy turned right-wing nemesis of Alger Hiss. Because Chambers was a chronic fantasist, having assumed at least ten false identities from the age of 19 (long before his professed involvement in espionage), he scarcely warrants the trust that Weinstein and Tanenhaus have vested in his various conflicting testimonies.
In a 1997 edition of Perjury Weinstein adds material from the recently declassified VENONA papers. In particular, he insisted triumphantly that Alger Hiss was the person code-named ALES in a March 1945 Soviet cable. This has since been hotly disputed and few scholars now accept the official NSA line that ALES was “probably Alger Hiss.”
Major-General Julius Kobyakov, deputy director of the KGB's American Division in the late 1980s, has stated categorically (Diplomatic History, H-Diplo, website, October 16, 2003) that ALES was not Hiss. He also searched the KGB archives for evidence that other individuals named by Weinstein as spies, notably Lauchlin Currie, economic adviser to President Roosevelt, and Harry Dexter White, Assistant Treasury Secretary and architect of the IMF. Kobyakov concluded that nothing in Currie's file suggests he had ever wittingly collaborated with Soviet intelligence. He was no more than a “sub-source,” or someone whose conversations with trusted colleagues were reported to Moscow without his knowledge. Kobyakov wrote that “in the spirit of machismo, many [KGB officers] claimed that we had an ‘agent' [Currie] in the White House.” They included Iskhak Akhmerov in whose reports Weinstein placed so much store or interpreted in the most sinister possible way.
Kobyakov, unimpressed by Weinstein's surmises and over-confident identification of “agents” in The Haunted Wood, has written: “equally unimpressive was a file on White. There was no record that someone had pitched or otherwise recruited him.” In another message to H-Diplo, February 10, 2004, Kobyakov wrote:
I undertand that Currie or White, who were branded as subversives in the McCarthy era and stigmatised again by the VENONA cables, would hardly be considered heroes by the present day American historical establishment. But if a professional opinion is called for, as to whether those people were Soviet agents, my answer is no…. It is easy to badmouth the people who no longer can defend themselves, and to overlook the fact that they in their own way may have helped the anti-Hitler coalition to win the bloodiest war in history.
In similar vein, the distinguished Berkeley economist Brad DeLong recently listed the ten Americans who he considered did most to win the Cold War. Harry White was his number one, ahead of George Kennan and George Marshall. He had “laid the groundwork for the greatest generation of economic growth the world has ever seen,” based on political democracy and the mixed economy. If he was a spy, “never did any intelligence service receive worse service.” Victor Navasky, long-time defender of Alger Hiss, asked (in the Nation, October 16, 1997 ) why Weinstein was so intent on his “quixotic” mission to find certainty in the Hiss case when the record exudes uncertainty (as too in the cases of Currie, White and others). He suggests:
It could, of course, simply be a predilection for what he regards as the winning side. Thus in the early seventies, when campuses across the country were questioning cold war pieties, he represented himself as sympathetic to Hiss and succeeded in getting a grant from the progressive Rabinowitz Foundation…. In the late seventies, as the political pendulum began to swing back to the right, he declared himself reluctantly persuaded by the weight of evidence against Hiss. By the eighties he was on Reagan's transition team, and in the nineties, with the centrist Democrats back in power, he succeeded in conscripting Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan as the keynote speaker for his Venona Conference.
Today the power is with George W Bush. Just as in 1984 when Ronald Reagan gave the Medal of Freedom to Whittaker Chambers, will 2004 see a similar political award with Allen Weinstein as Archivist of the United States?