Communists and Spies During Nixon Era

Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 09:59 AM

By James C. Humes

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“You Republicans see communists everywhere.” So said John Chancellor, a then NBC commentator, to me.

Chancellor and more than 50 other Americans, including my wife and me, were the guests of a reception hosted by Edmund Stevens, the Newsday correspondent in Moscow. I had known his son, Ed Stevens Jr., at Williams College.

I was the head of Young Republicans at Williams and had visited my fellow classmate Stevens (who was always wearing his Russian fur cap). Although Stevens was not particularly political, he believed that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage, were innocent and that Eisenhower was a tool of the capitalist lawyer John Foster Dulles.

I had left the State Department a month before, following a stint as a Nixon speechwriter. The elder Stevens had singled me out at the reception, describing me as “a close adviser and friend of that great statesman Richard Nixon.”

I was a political nobody, and Chancellor was puzzled by Stevens, not only by Stevens’ mention of me but more so by his praise of Nixon.

Chancellor, in front of me, later said, “Ed, how could you praise Nixon? I remember you describing him to me in 1948 as a fascist pig.” Replied Stevens, “Ed, he’s matured. He’s a great president.” (Stevens at that time was helping to run former Vice President Henry Wallace’s campaign for president against Harry Truman. The Soviets were supporting Wallace.)

When Stevens left, I said to Chancellor, “Don’t you understand? He’s a Communist, and he’s spouting the party line.

“Look, Mr. Chancellor, at this house; one of the very few houses, not apartments, in Moscow. It’s a log house, about the only one left by the Swedes who had first occupied Moscow. Note the gardener mowing the lawn — servants in Soviet Russia? And most of all, did you take note of the AP/UP news ticker tape in his house? No Western media representative has access to such an uncensored news outlet, particularly in his own house.” Chancellor shook his head.

Months before, Nixon had concluded a nuclear arms reduction agreement with Chairman Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviets were obviously favoring Nixon in his 1972 election against leftist George McGovern. I had spent two days at the Soviet American Institute in talks with its director, Anatoli Gromyko, the son of the Soviet Foreign Secretary. The Institute had contempt for American liberals, who they characterized as “soft and dreamy.” The Soviet self-interest was with Nixon’s re-election, a man they could "pragmatically work with.” Gromyko had said, “We always prefer to deal with the right wingers than with the fuzzy left.”

With his development of the ICBM missile and his opening to Red China, President Nixon had dealt from strength in his dealing with the Soviet Union. Now both Red China and the Soviet Union were counting on Nixon and favoring his re-election.

Recently, a book, “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB In America,” by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, has been published by Yale University. It is based on the notebooks by a former KGB agent who smuggled them out of Moscow. He reveals in those papers that “Edmund Stevens, a Pulitzer Prize journalist,” was on the Soviet payroll.

“Spies” names other spies, including Russell McNutt, who had worked on the Manhattan Project and I.F. Stone, the journalist and hero to the American left.

Former KGB agent Alexander Vassiliev had sent his notebooks to Haynes and Klehr because they had written in Verona in 1999 a summary of decrypted Soviet cable traffic from Moscow. They conclusively showed that Julius Rosenberg also was a spy.

Vassiliev had earlier given material to Smith Professor Allen Weinstein , whose book “Perjury” (Knopf, 1978) made the incontrovertible contention that Alger Hiss was a Soviet operative. Weinstein, a liberal Democrat, had begun his work believing in Hiss’ innocence. Arthur Schlesinger, FDR biographer and leading Democrat, said later the “case was closed.” Yet the left wing in “the professoriat” or literati in Greenwich Village and New York’s West Side, as well as lawyers such as William Kunstler, continued to proclaim his innocence. The New York Times, in Hiss’ obituary, confessed its doubts about his guilt.

This former Nixon staffer actually met Hiss once. In about 1972, traveling on a metroliner going to New York City from Washington, I recognized Hiss. Curiosity overcame my revulsion. He still retained his elegant look and lean frame, despite his prison sentence.

In answer to my question, he answered that he was going to New York “to call on some publishers.”

I learned later that he was a salesman for print. It was an ideal job for the one-time darling of the Eastern establishment press. The name Alger Hiss would open doors and gain an appointment where he could sell printing style for books. I have to say that Hiss was the consummate gentleman and the soul of courtesy. One could see why the media preferred the slim and elegant Hiss to the rumpled and corpulent Chambers.

In a similar vein, on that August day in Moscow, Ed Stevens and his wife were charming and gracious to my wife and me. His wife Tanya was a stunning blonde claiming Cossack ancestry. Stevens was interested in Nixon’s writing habits in preparing for speeches. When we returned to Washington, a cultural attaché from the Soviet Embassy invited me for lunch. I made a call to an FBI friend in order that my name would not be put into any file. I did have the lunch and reported our conversation to the FBI.

Professor James C. Humes is the author of “The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln,” recently released as a bicentennial edition. A former White House speechwriter, Humes is a fellow at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

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