In his recently published book, “Harry White and the American Creed,” James H. Boughton maintains he’s out to restore the reputation of Harry Dexter White.
Many say White was instrumental in generating America’s post-World War II prosperity through the Bretton Woods Agreement and the International Monetary Fund.
Boughton says White never received the credit he deserved because he was falsely accused of disloyalty by Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, who broke with the American Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Both made headlines in 1948 with their dramatic testimony of hard-core Communist infiltration of their most strategic governmental institutions.
Whether Bretton Woods and the IMF became key to America’s prosperity, I leave to economic experts.
Though there is evidence that White was soft on the Soviets and eager to channel large sums of money to assist a Stalin-led Soviet Union after the war that can be explained as sympathy for an ally which suffered heavy casualties against Nazi Germany.
But Boughton’s determination to clear White of involvement in criminal espionage on behalf of Moscow is hard to swallow.
History proves that Chambers was the truth-teller when he accused Alger Hiss of being a Soviet spy and it was Hiss, not Chambers, who was sentenced to jail for perjury when he denied Chambers’ accusations. Boughton aside, Chambers’ testimony still holds up.
Over the years, the accuracy of what both Chambers and Bentley said has never been successfully challenged. Never. Nor does Boughton, a scandalously dishonorable biographer in many ways, disprove anything they said.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities before which both Chambers and Bentley exposed a massive Soviet espionage operation in this country, states in its report that the hearings plus its own investigation clearly establish that “Chambers from 1931 to 1938 was a paid functionary of the Communist Party and that from 1934 to 1937 he operated as a member of the Communist underground among government workers in Washington.”
Boughton questions the report’s findings and absurdly suggests that Chambers, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, never even met White. The Committee also stressed that the refusal of those named by Chambers to answer whether they “were members of the Communist Party during that period is in itself strong, corroborative evidence for Chambers’ story.”
So far as Bentley is concerned, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover stated under oath before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, “from the very outset, we [the FBI] established that she had been in a position to report the facts relative to Soviet espionage, which she has done.…All information furnished by Miss Bentley, which was susceptible to check, has proved to be correct. She has been subjected to the most searching cross-examination, her testimony has been evaluated by juries and reviewed by the courts and has found to be accurate.”
Chambers and Bentley accused at least 30 Americans of criminal espionage not just Hiss and White — and none of them ever produced material to demonstrate their innocence. Several later admitted that Chambers and Bentley had been right about their Communist activities, something Boughton doesn’t even address.
Neither does Boughton offer a speck of information that would convince any impartial and informed reader that White was not a Soviet spy. To perform this miracle, he would have to prove that both Chambers and Bentley, as well as witnesses, ex-Communist Party members, the FBI, and Congress, were all engaged in an unbelievable plot to frame White.
He can’t and doesn’t, though he makes a pernicious attempt to do so. Chambers, furthermore, has a long history of telling the truth about the Communist conspiracy in America. Boughton has none.
He accuses Chambers of lying when Boughton must have known that his accusation was false. Chambers also had the upper hand in letting us know what White was up to because White was indisputably an important member of the espionage group that Chambers was in charge of.
Chambers’ copies of White’s own files proved beyond quibble he was spying for Stalin.
William L. Marbury, one of Hiss’s attorneys, accused Chambers of manufacturing tales when he testified that he was part of the Ware Group (an underground organization that had penetrated the U.S. government on behalf of Moscow.)
Here’s how Chambers describes it: “The Ware Group in1934 and 1935, when I knew it best, consisted of a leading committee of seven men. All were Communists and they met to discuss policy, organization, personnel, and projects. Several of the leaders of the Group also headed secret cells.
“The Ware Group was an integral (and highly important) unit of the underground section of the American Communist Party. Until his death, it was under the constant direction of Harold Ware. It was also under the personal supervision of J. Peters (Chambers’ superior in the party), whose visits to it were at least monthly, and sometimes more frequent.”
The members of the Ware Group, Chambers also states, “were dues-paying members of the Communist Party.”
The original purpose of this group, Chambers maintained, was not primarily espionage but Communist infiltration of the American government to influence policy. But spying became central to its functions as well. By 1938, the Soviet espionage apparatus in Washington had penetrated our most important governmental positions, including State, Labor, Agriculture, Treasury, the Bureau of Standards, and the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland used for testing military weapons.
“Active sources,” as Chambers calls these espionage agents, were swarming in these critical institutions. These sources, he said, were those “who supplied the Soviet espionage apparatus with secret or confidential information, usually in the form of official United States Government documents for microfilming.”
Was Chambers delusional, as Boughton would certainly have the reader believe?
Two years after Marbury had mocked Chambers for his supposed Walter Mitty-like performance in claiming he had been a member of this secret group, Lee Pressman testified before HCUA that Chambers had been telling the truth about the Ware Group. He confessed that he, too, had been a member of the Communist Party, that there had indeed been a Ware Group, that he had been a member, and that Nathan Witt, John Abt, and Charles Kramer had also been Communist Party members, several of them having already been previously identified by Chambers.
Chambers, in short, had been proven right again on a critical issue. Pressman’s testimony, as Chambers writes, “settled once and for all the basic question of the existence of the Ware Group.” It also settled Chambers’ credibility if not Boughton’s.
I defy anyone with an open mind to read “Witness,” Chambers’ autobiography, and come away thinking, as some certainly thought about Hiss, that White was innocent of Soviet espionage and wasn’t knowingly passing secret information through Chambers to the Soviet Union. His meetings with White are too detailed, too frequent, and too personal to be disbelieved. Here are just a few examples:
As Chambers describes his break with the Communist Party in the fall of 1938, he said he had decided to tell several comrades of his decision and persuade them to break as well. He called White.
In his office at the Treasury Department from a nearby store which served coffee and sandwiches. White had not heard of his break and came down to meet him.
He was friendly and communicative but turned unhappy after Chambers informed White that he had broken with the party and “I am here to break you away from the apparatus. If you do not break, I will denounce you.” As they left the store, a street photographer pointed a camera at them, with Chambers suddenly spinning White away from its direction. The maneuver protected White from being photographed with a Communist Party defector, which could raise suspicions of his loyalty to the Communist cause among the party faithful. White, Chambers said, was “abjectly grateful.” (Does anyone except Boughton believe that Chambers made this all up?)
Chambers thought he had scared White out of the underground with that visit and believed that “the flow of documents from the United States Treasury must have dried up temporarily. But, according to Elizabeth Bentley, White was active again in her apparatus a few years later.”
Chambers discusses an earlier encounter with White that’s also relevant. Col. Boris Bykov, Russian-born and his superior in the espionage apparatus, gave Chambers a thousand dollars to buy expensive Oriental rugs to give to three members of Chambers’ spy ring. Chambers asked an old college friend, whose taste was impeccable, to buy the rugs, which his friend then shipped to Washington.
Chambers was expected to give one to White, another to George Silverman, a Communist Party member and White’s best friend, and the third to Alger Hiss.
For someone who keeps suggesting that Chambers may never have even met White, Boughton, surprisingly and certainly unintentionally, puts him squarely in the underground with Chambers, since he accepts as fact White’s view of how he got his rug.
“He [White],” Boughton says, “had obtained the rug as part of a shipment of four that Chambers had asked him (to) take to Washington. White had returned two of the rugs to Chambers, had kept one, and had given the other to the Whites.”
Chambers, White, and Boughton tell very similar stories about the rugs, with Chambers stating that the idea came from Bykov. He not only gave him the money to buy the rugs, Chambers says, but told him whom to give them to — one of them being White. Boughton’s belief that Chambers gave White the rugs blows a gigantic hole in his entire thesis: that Chambers invented his stories about the underground and that White was never part of it.
The Soviet espionage apparatus in Washington, of which Chambers said White was a part, maintained close contact with the national underground of the American Communist Party. It was headed by Alexander Goldberger, a Hungarian Communist, known in America under various pseudonyms, including J. Peters. Through the Ware Group and others, Peters, Chambers claims, knew how to secure secret government documents. He proposed to connect Chambers with those who would turn such documents over to him.
The immediate transaction Peters had in mind, Chambers tells us, “involved Harry Dexter White, the monetary expert at the Treasury Department. White, a fellow traveler, was a great friend of one of Harold Ware’s contacts, whom I shall call Wilton Rugg. Rugg had assured Ware that White was willing to turn over to him certain official Treasury documents which could then be photo-graphed. Ware introduced me to Rugg. Rugg made his arrangements with White who gave him documents. Rugg gave them to me in Washington. I photographed them.” If true, of course, White was, as Chambers testified, guilty of espionage.
“Harry Dexter White, then the chief monetary expert of the Treasury Department,” Chambers writes, “had been in touch with the Communist Party for a long time, not only through his close friend, George Silverman, but through other party members whom he had banked around him in the Treasury Department. He was perfectly willing to meet me secretly….Since White was not a party member but a fellow traveler, I could only suggest or urge, not give orders. This distinction White understood very well, and he thoroughly enjoyed the sense of being in touch with the party, but not in it, courted by it, but yielding only so much as he chose.”
Also, according to Chambers, Col. Bykov met both White and his CP friend, George Silverman, in Washington. Bykov, as noted, was Chambers’ superior in the espionage apparatus. Those meetings were important, Chambers says, “chiefly as they marked the beginning of intensive espionage.” Chambers then adds: “Only in the case of Harry White did Bykov stimulate any enthusiasm that was lacking before. For, more than any of the others, White, the non-Communist, enjoyed the feeling that he was in direct touch with ‘big important people. ‘”
At one point, Chambers states, the Soviets became disenchanted with White’s productivity in securing secret documents from the U.S. Treasury that would eventually wind up in Soviet hands. Col. Bykov thought White was holding back because he was a fellow traveler instead of a gung-ho Communist.
Chambers said he went to J. Peters to help resolve the problem. He told Peters to put a Communist in the Treasury Department who could “control” White. Peters suggested Dr. Harold Glasser since, as Chambers noted, he was White’s assistant, “one of several Communists whom White himself had guided into the Treasury Department.”
But White had not been short-changing his Soviet masters after all, for Glasser soon convinced Chambers that “White was turning over everything of importance that came into his hands.”
Chambers believes that what eventually sunk Alger Hiss were the so-called “pumpkin papers” documents he had left with his good friend Isaac Don Levine, retrieved in the second Hiss trial and publicized to prove that a massive Soviet espionage operation had existed in the United States for at least a decade, and that Hiss and White were part of it.
In preparing for his break with the party, Chambers had “secreted” government documents “copied in the Hiss household, memos in the handwriting of Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, microfilm of documents transmitted by Alger Hiss and the source in the Bureau of Standards.”
Sometimes, Chambers says, “Hiss would make penciled copies of important documents or notes from their main point, which he wrote down hastily on State Department memo pads. These he turned over to me also.” Chambers then says, “It was a number of these typed documents and penciled memos in Alger’s handwriting that I secreted during the days when I was breaking with the Communist Party.” He then adds: “Harry Dexter White, in addition to giving original documents, also wrote a weekly or fortnightly longhand memo covering documents that he had seen or information that had come to him in the course of a week’s work at the Treasury Department. One of the memos, running into four or five pages, I also secreted.”
Chambers felt some relief from all the pressures he had been experiencing. He had the evidence that would prove the existence of the enormous Communist conspiracy he had unfolded before the Committee and in front of the nation. The package he had left with Levine, he believed, led directly to Hiss’s downfall. After he had put the documentary evidence in the hands of the Justice Department, Hiss, he reminds us, was promptly indicted.
Thomas F. Murphy, who believed in Chambers’ story, was chosen by the Government to try the case. Hiss was convicted and his appeal opposed and denied. And he was imprisoned.
Case closed. But not to author James Boughton.
Boughton’s effort to defame both Bentley and Chambers reveals a less than honorable biographer. He had to know that much of what he was conveying was provably false. George Silverman, White’s close friend, testified on Aug. 12, 1948, before HCUA: “I am innocent of any charges of espionage or other criminal conduct. With regard to my accuser [Elizabeth Bentley], who has done me such irreparable harm, I am compelled to conclude that only a mind distorted by fear or greed or deep frustration could construct an edifice of such monstrous falsehood.”
But Silverman lost all credibility when Rep. Richard Nixon (R-CA) subjected him to rigorous cross examination.
Two of the major charges that have been made by Elizabeth Bentley, Nixon began, were “(1) that he gave information concerning the impending breaking of the Russian code to Mr. Silvermaster, and (2) that he gave to Miss Bentley confidential information which he obtained in his official position (at Treasury). He (Silverman) has made the statement — and I quote from that statement — ‘I am innocent of any charges of espionage or criminal conduct.’ Both of the charges made by Miss Bentley would constitute criminal charges. And yet when this witness is asked whether or not he will say that these specific charges are false and that he is innocent of those specific charges he refuses to answer.”
“Are all these charges made by Miss Bentley false?” Nixon asked.
Silverman’s response: “On advice of counsel, I refuse to answer that question.” He took the Fifth like some ordinary criminal. An exasperated Nixon concludes: “Under the circumstances, I think it is quite clear that the witness has no facts whatever which he is willing to give to the Committee and to the country proving his charge that Miss Bentley’s statements are false.”
In Boughton’s presentation, however, one would think Silverman had won the day. Chambers had accused Silverman of espionage, but without any “corroboration,” Boughton argues, “Chambers’ account cannot be credited.” But there was an abundance of “corroboration” by Bentley as Boughton surely knew. Nixon had shredded Silverman’s pleas of innocence, but Boughton never tells his readers that devastating fact. Instead, he sides with the espionage agent Silverman.
With regard to Bentley and Chambers, Boughton’s book is packed with astonishing ignorance, disproved allegations and untruths that are easily exposed. The result is that Boughton cannot be believed about anything he writes, while Chambers’ and Bentley’s reputations as honorable anti-Communist heroes remain intact.
Allan H. Ryskind, former owner and editor of Human Events, is the author of “Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters—Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler.” Ryskind, who grew up in Beverly Hills, is the son of screenwriter Morrie Ryskind (Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera, Room Service).
Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Newsmax.
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