One of the key points of Century City: 1942‘s storyline is the infiltration of the US government by foreign spies. This is a great trope of fiction and gives writers all kinds of tools to play with in their imaginary universes. But in this case the spies were real, and the names I used were not an accident.
In the 1950s there was a lot of very public debate about this very subject with perhaps the most famous example of foreign espionage being the spy couple of Julius and Ethel Rosenburg. They’re famous (infamous is probably a better word) for stealing the secrets of the atomic bomb and giving them to the Soviets. If you’re old enough to remember crawling under a desk at school for a nuclear attack drill then you can thank the Rosenburgs for that.
But before they hit the scene with their spectacular heist of nuclear secrets there were others. Names like Alger Hiss, Lauchlin Currie, and Harry Dexter White became synonymous with foreign spying, but only long after their espionage was over with. Two of them appeared in 1942 so let’s go over what they did.
Alger Hiss was an attorney that worked his way up through several government agencies before ending up at the State Department. There he stood in as assistant to several directors before becoming a director of his own. This is when things get interesting. One of the first things he did as a director in the State Department was standing in as Secretary-General for the organization that would go on to form the United Nations. He personally led the effort to create the charter that would be the foundation and rulebook used by the UN. To say that he was influential in shaping world politics would be an understatement. It was an absolute coup for the Soviets to get him into this position during such a critical time in history.
Hiss would continue acting as a Soviet agent for years without anyone suspecting anything. Even throughout the tumultuous post-war period of the Red Scare. But there was one moment that stuck out and opened the can of worms that would lead to his eventual conviction and imprisonment. In 1948 a former communist spy by the name of Whittaker Chambers took the stand in front of Congress and was questioned by Hiss. In the questioning Hiss asked Chambers if he’d ever sublet a property of Hiss’s to which Chambers answered no. When asked if Chambers ever stayed on the property with his family he said yes. That led to the following memorable exchange:
HISS: Would you tell me how you reconcile your negative answers with this affirmative answer?
CHAMBERS: Very easily, Alger. I was a Communist and you were a Communist.
Talk about walking right into a trap. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury for saying he was not a communist. Because he was put in prison for perjury and not a direct charge of espionage you get a lot of people today who claim that Hiss was not a spy. Mostly that’s because the more damning evidence from the Venona Project was kept secret for half a century. But we’ll get to that later.
Currie became a naturalized US citizen in the 1930s and was part of a group at the US Treasury known as the “freshman brain trust” along with others like Harry Dexter White. What they did there was come up with ideas about future monetary systems. He pushed hard for a stronger central bank and eventually got it. That got White a top position as adviser to the Secretary of the Treasury and Currie would move on to become a personal economic adviser to President Roosevelt.
This is where things got interesting. As the President’s close confidant he would travel to China to set up military aid including a meeting with the Communist side of the civil war going on at the time. He also advised the President on taxation and social spending. Later he would be accused of aiding in the fall of China to the Communists. But he would never get the chance to face those accusations. In 1954 he was refused entry into the US while on an advisory trip to Colombia because of his suspected danger to national security. He eventually became a Colombian citizen and would spend the rest of his life there. He too would one day be named in the Venona Project.
It’s still hard to believe that a Soviet asset could get this close to the President and be in a trusted role giving advice that shaped the world. A lot of Roosevelt’s programs are still running today and with 20/20 hindsight look like they could have been put in place to economically hurt the nation in the long term.
So how do we know that these people (and a whole lot of others) were genuine spies and not just people being implicated by political enemies? Should we trust the word of former communists like Whittaker Chambers? That is a valid question and a lot of the reasoning behind the accusations come from something called the Venona Project.
In the 1940s the precursor to today’s NSA began intercepting and decrypting the diplomatic cables of the Soviet Union. In them they found reports and mentions of various agents working on behalf of the Soviet government within the US government. This effort and all the decoded messages became known as the Venona Project and is a large part of what we know about Soviet spying in the 1940s. This combined with testimony from former communists helped to build the case against the named individuals. But the information was kept secret until 1995. At the time there was a worry that the information would find its way back to the Soviets through leaks. So not even the President had direct knowledge. Just reports sent through various channels.
This, in my opinion, was why the whole period of the “Red Scare” was so tumultuous and even to this day has lingering effects. When public officials couldn’t release the source of the evidence it made it look like they had no evidence. Without evidence they looked like they were just attacking political opponents out of spite. But at least now we know why it happened, and hopefully we can prevent it from happening again.
At the same time it makes us wonder if any of the decisions made by American leadership back then was due to the influence of highly placed foreign assets. Like the fall of non-communist China, firebombing civilian populations, the mass incarceration of US citizens in camps with names like Manzanar, Minidoka, Topaz, and Jerome (See? I didn’t just make that part up).
I hope this was enlightening. It certainly was for me and screamed to be included in my novel. I think it worked out well in Century City: 1942 and I hope you did too.