Wes Vernon
November 27, 2005
The last of the Cold War spies
By Wes Vernon

In 1978, incumbent Republican Congressman Newton Steers was targeted by a whispering campaign among his constituents in Montgomery County in Washington's Maryland suburbs.

I know because a Democratic Party operative in Montgomery County passed along the rumor to me about Steers' divorce. I wrote it off as so much vicious gossip generated by partisans of his ultra-liberal Democrat challenger of that year, Michael Barnes, perhaps by the Barnes campaign itself. Barnes won the election, but I voted for Steers notwithstanding that he was far too liberal for a conservative of my tastes. (Whatever Steers' faults, I am reasonably certain he would not have signed a groveling kissy-face letter to Nicaragua's Communist dictator Daniel Ortega, as Congressman Barnes later did when Ortega was challenged by the anti-Communist contras.)

At the time, I had no way of knowing that the rumor-mongering may have been originated or at the very least circulated by a KGB agent someone who by definition was skilled in the art of disinformation.

The man's name is Michael Straight who at the time and for four decades had served as a man that Joseph Stalin early-on had "considered a possible long-term prospect as a politician in the United States," to quote Roland Perry in his book, "The Last of the Cold War Spies."

Steers' wedding to the beautiful Nina Gore Auchincloss (21 years his junior) took place June 8, 1957, at St. Johns Church in Washington, D.C., famous as a place for Sunday prayer among American presidents. Secret KGB agent Straight was one of the groomsmen, as were Gore Vidal, a half-brother to the bride; and future President John F. Kennedy and his "sensational" wife Jackie, the bride's stepsister and matron of honor.

Straight had cultivated Steers, a former Atomic Energy Commissioner, "as a friend and tennis partner and had admired the string of attractive women he brought to play on Virginia summer weekends," author Perry reports.

After that promising marriage ultimately broke up, Michael Straight then married Nina, a second marriage for both. At the time of the 1978 election, Steers' marriage to Nina was on the rocks. Straight maintained good relations with the Kennedys, especially with Jackie long before he wedded her stepsister.

All of this is mentioned to drive home the point that an agent of the Soviet KGB throughout most of the Cold War moved among the elites of this country socially, in high government positions, among the media, and in politics both Democrat and Republican.

Straight, who was finally exposed in 1981, was a member of what Perry believes was the most damaging espionage ring of the Cold War, the infamous Cambridge spy ring that originated in Britain, with tremendous influence both there and here in the United States. Its other members included Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby (the latter one of the most famous spies of the 20th Century).

It's not as if intelligence agencies in both countries were not suspicious of Straight all these years, but he kept them at bay, largely by feeding them insignificant tidbits and false leads that would throw them off-track. He told the FBI in 1963, for example, that his covert activity had ceased in 1941 a claim the author conclusively proves was a monstrous lie.

In this book, Perry has accumulated evidence from interviews with former FBI and CIA agents and from the post-Cold War Soviet archives showing that while working at the State Department, Michael Straight passed intelligence to a Russian agent. This included the years when he edited and wrote for his family's magazine The New Republic (which later under different ownership turned on him after he was exposed).

Straight funded several Communist fronts in the United States, an activity that attracted the attention of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. At first the committee was bamboozled by Straight. He had testified as a "friendly witness" or "anticommunist" who urged defeat of anti-Communist legislation. Shortly thereafter, the committee's confusion was cleared up when it looked into the Straight-funded Communist organizations.

Straight carried on his KGB activities and met with Soviet agents around the world while serving Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Nixon. Under Nixon, he was a major player at the National Endowment for the Arts, a sacred cow in liberal elitist circles. Under Straight's direction, the NEA spewed anti-American propaganda. When confronted with complaints about that, he would shrug his shoulders and say he was prevented by law from interfering in any way. The NEA would later become a target of the "Gingrich revolution" that brought the Republicans to power in 1994.

"The Last of the Cold War Spies" pinpoints Straight as complicit in the 1941 assassination of Soviet agent and defector Walter Krivitsky who "had to die" because he simply knew too much. Krivitsky claimed Stalin's Secret Service had agents planted in all institutions, governmental and industrial. "The armed services have them too," he told the Un-American Activities Committee. Straight, according to Perry, was "directed" by Burgess into "a web of complicity" to the murder. Police at first ruled Krivitisky's death a suicide, but much evidence turned up to the contrary. The problem was that J. Edgar Hoover unwilling to admit Soviet spies could possibly be running rings around his FBI refused to investigate further.

Perhaps most damning is Perry's conclusion that Straight either by action or inaction or a combination of both was also complicit in the deaths of American soldiers in Korea.

In Straight's own self-serving book (after his exposure), he acknowledged that he knew Burgess "would have known of our plans to advance into North Korea. He would have sent the information to Moscow...The Kremlin in turn would have handed it to Peking [Beijing]. Guy could have caused the deaths of many American soldiers."

Perry agrees with critics who saw Straight's failure to denounce Burgess before or at the end of the Korean War "as an inaction that made him complicit in causing the deaths of those America soldiers."

Beyond that, he points out, Straight himself was in Southeast Asia at the time using his reportage for The New Republic as a cover, and could have slipped over the border into Communist China to convince that huge nation to attack U.S. forces in Korea. Left-wing historians have faulted General Douglas MacArthur for failure to anticipate this possibility, but the truth is that if the Soviets had not had so many friends in high places in and out of the U.S. government, MacArthur's strategy would have been right on target. That any field general has every right to expect that others serving his commander-in-chief are on his side is so basic that having to spell it out speaks volumes to need for the much-maligned "Washington witch-hunts" of that era.

"The Last of the Cold War Spies'" raises chilling questions about other well-placed KGB agents in this country and the damage they have done. Documents such as the Venona decrypts contain instances of code-named agents who have not been unmasked to this day.

All the more a pity that such a well-researched volume should be marred by even a few errors some minor, others more relevant.

The small stuff first: 1 The hotel where Krivitsky was assassinated was on E Street, not " East Street." I've lived in the Washington area for years, and there is no "East Street," at least not in that neighborhood. 2 Since the Overseas Press Club is located in New York, it is unlikely to have had held a banquet in Washington. Perhaps he meant the National Press Club which is indeed in the nation's capitol. 3 The former Communist turned anti-Communist "Luis" Budenz is actually spelled Louis Budenz.

Now the bigger stuff: 1 Though the author berates Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations, he does bluntly define Owen Lattimore as a "communist" and the Institute of Pacific Relations as "a communist front." McCarthy's pursuit of Lattimore led to an investigation of the latter's role in aiding the Communist Chinese. The result was that a Senate subcommittee (of which the Wisconsin senator was not a member See our "Murrow, McCarthy, and Enduring Myths-Parts 1 and 2) declared that Owen Lattimore for years had been "a conscious articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy." 2 Although the author pinpoints the nefarious doings of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), he repeatedly refers to it as the "Institute of Pacific Affairs." He uses the correct and incorrect names interchangeably, leading either to annoyance, confusion or both. 3 He quotes McCarthy as calling Lattimore a "top espionage agent" without mentioning that McCarthy quickly withdrew that initial charge but persisted in going after Lattimore for his role in the Communist victory in China a charge in which the author himself wholeheartedly concurs. 4 McCarthy in Wheeling, West Virginia, said there were 57 Communists in the State Department, not 205. The fact that the latter figure has been kicked around a lot does not make it accurate.

These few errors, however, should not get in the way of a serious reading of this book. Roland Perry has done a service to this country by laying out the activities of the extensive damage done by just one KGB agent in high and influential circles.

History demands that we learn from this, especially in the current era, where once again we are hearing the voices of those who pooh-pooh the charges of treasonous behavior in the War on Terror, and where many in high places turn a blind eye to the danger that still threatens us in Communist China which has missiles pointed directly at the United States thanks in part to the subversion of Michael Straight and his cohorts.

© Wes Vernon

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)