FDR and Soviet Spies: How could he not know?

When evidence is presented of America’s various sellouts to the Soviet Union in the 1940s, from giving them the wherewithalto make nuclear weapons before we had even developed our own, to the Yalta Agreement conceding domination of half of Europe and giving the Communists a leg up to control of China and Korea, the defense is often made that they were our allies in a life and death struggle with the Axis powers at that time. Misguided though these actions may appear in retrospect, goes the argument, it was all for the war effort, and politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.  But in September of 1939 the Soviet Union was not the ally of the United States.  Far from it. On August 23 the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.  They were then the allies against the West, and the stage was set for their attack upon and dismemberment of Poland.  There was also a very great likelihood that any intelligence that had been gathered by the Soviet Union’s espionage service would be made available to the Nazis.

Levine leaves no doubt that FDR was not just told about the Chambers allegations: he was virtually hit over the head with them.  Here is Levine on the meeting, from its background to the aftermath:

Then, on August 23, the news of the Stalin-Hitler pact burst like a bombshell upon the world.  I drove out to Krivitsky’s secret shelter, a cottage I had rented for him near Carmel, New York.  Krivitsky and The Saturday Evening Post had been under under savage attack because of his revelations on the Soviet-Nazi negotiations, entitledStalin Appeases Hitler.  Even many diplomatic authorities among my acquaintances had shaken their heads skeptically over the story.  And now he and his collaborator and the executive editor of the Post were justified with a vengeance.

“It means war!  It’s world war!”  Krivitsky cried out as soon as I crossed his threshold.

He was in a state of intense excitement.  I, too, was deeply disturbed, but tried to interpret the news more hopefully.  But as far as he was concerned, Stalin had just fired, on August 23, the first gun of another world war.

Wesley Stout, in Independence Square, gave his version of the historic turnabout: “It took two great powers to get together to vindicate Krivitsky’s story and The Saturday Evening Post!

n the meantime I had been confidently expecting that the explosive Chambers story would be laid before the President and that drastic action would follow.  Days passed.  The civilized world had the jitters.  Hitler’s armies were triumphant.  Poland was torn limb from limb in an unholy partition between Russia and Germany.  But on the subterranean Soviet front on the Potomac, all was serene.  I was anxiously watching, with the help of sympathetic vigilant friends in the State Department, for a move from the White House.

When I called on Berle a couple of weeks later, he indicated to me that the President had given him the cold shoulder after hearing his account of the Chambers disclosures.  Although I learned later, from two different sources who had social relations with Berle, that Roosevelt, in effect, had told him to “go jump in a lake” upon the suggestion of a probe into the Chambers charges, I do not recall hearing that exact phrase from Berle.  To the best of my recollection, the President dismissed the matter rather brusquely with an expletive remark on this order: “Oh, forget it, Adolf.”

But I could not forget it.  So I spent the winter in Washington trying to open a door that would lead to a responsible investigation of the Soviet espionage network in Washington and to judicial action in the case.  One of the first friends to whom I had confided the Chambers secrets was Loy Henderson, then chief of the Russian section of the State Department, who later served with distinction as United States ambassador to India, Iraq, and Iran.  Another was Senator Warren R. Austin, with whom I had formed a close friendship during our joint tour of the already embattled Near East in 1936.  Senator Austin, although a Republican, attained international prominence when President Truman appointed him as Ambassador to the United Nations.  As time dragged on and I suffered one rebuff after another, I sought out William C. Bullitt, then American ambassador to France, who was on a visit to Washington.  I had known him since 1918.  He invited me to breakfast at his apartment hotel.

I did not know at the time, when I recited to him the entire Chambers saga, that some months earlier, in 1939, Premier Daladier of France had informed him that French counterintelligence had come upon the trail of the two State Department officials, brothers named Hiss, who were Soviet agents.  Bullitt laughed it off as a tall tale, never having heard their names.  But he now took my disclosures very much to heart, and I was sure that he would call them to the attention of President Roosevelt, who at that time was very fond of him.  Bullitt, however, fared no better than Berle.

I next turned to labor leader David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a frequent guest at the White House, who came to dinner at our Wardman Park apartment with a ranking colleague.  Dubinsky, like Bullitt, was wise in the ways of the Communist world.  He also took up the Chambers matter with the President at the first opportunity and was brushed off with an amiable slap on the back.

Another favorite of F.D.R.’s in those days was Walter Winchell.  I saw him that winter at the Roney Plaza Hotel in Miami.  In the course of an afternoon’s talk, he assured me that he had the President’s ear.  Without furnishing him any names, I described to him a ring of six Soviet agents operating within the State Department alone.  In his broadcast of December 12, Winchell announced that he had carried my information to President Roosevelt.  Still there was no action.

The big question is how, in the face of the evidence presented here by Levine, could anyone conclude that Berle did not notify the President of the serious spy allegations from Chambers.  The historian Olmsted does it by taking at face value Berle’s1948 HUAC testimony and his later testimony at the first Hiss perjury trial.  The source for her Berle quote about not taking such “unsubstantial” charges to the President comes from the New York Times report on the HUAC hearings.

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