Out in the Cold 2.

            The Great Depression (1929—various dates depending on where you were in the world) dealt a heavy blow to capitalist democracy.  In many minds, it discredited what had been on the surface a thriving engine of prosperity and liberty.  The worst that its critics could muster was accusations that it was tacky and often unjust to those on the margins.  Now it seemed to offer only the freedom to starve.  In many places, rickety new democracies collapsed.  Elsewhere they seemed paralyzed by internal disputes that might well end in democratic collapse.  In the United States, voters eventually turned to the feverish experimentalism of the New Deal. 

            Under these circumstances, Communism and the Soviet Union offered an appealing alternative loyalty—to the extent that people could ignore the reality for the ideal.[1]  Both Communism and the Soviet Union had a particular attraction for educated people who felt themselves estranged from the American society of the day.  Eventually, the Second World War put the United States and the Soviet Union on the same side in an alliance of convenience.  For people already inclined to distrust the American government, keeping information secret from America’s Soviet “ally” amounted to weakening the war effort.  Thus, among the sort of people who ended up in government civilian bureaucracies and universities, there were many people willing to help out the Soviet Union with more than $10 in the donation bucket at a rally. 

            Mildred Fish (1902-1941) grew up poor in the Middle West, but managed to get a BA and then an MA in English literature.[2]  She met and married Arvid Harnack when the German economist was visiting America.  In 1929, they returned to Berlin.  Already people with progressive opinions, they were radicalized by the Depression and, in particular, by the Nazi seizure of power.  Red, white, and black swastika banner billowing everywhere, torch light parades, book burnings, and mass arrests repelled them deeply.  As the Second World War began, the Harnacks came into contact with members of the much larger and multi-national Soviet intelligence operation called “the Red Orchestra.”[3]  In 1940, they became small cogs in that machine.  Arvid Harnack obtained a position in the Ministry of Economics, while Mildred worked their wide range of friends.  They fell when the ferocious German hunt for the larger “Red Orchestra” began to succeed in Summer 1942.  German counter-intelligence in Belgium tracked a Soviet radio operator, captured him, and then read an accumulation of coded radio messages.  Several of these led the police to the Harnacks.  Both were brutally tortured, then executed.[4]  They were two among many who paid with their lives for their political and moral commitments. 

            Among Mildred Harnack’s pre-war acquaintances was Martha Dodd (1908-1990), the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd.[5]  Ambassador Dodd tended to distrust the regular State Department officers, so he let Martha help him with his work.  This opened a gap in embassy security.  The flighty Martha had a series of foreign lovers.  First, they were Nazis, then later anti-Nazis.  In March 1934, one of the latter, a Soviet intelligence officer, received orders to recruit her as a spy.  She fell for it, especially after the “Night of the Long Knives” (Hitler’s June 1934 purge of his enemies) opened her eyes to the reality of the Nazi regime.  She provided what information that came her way to her Soviet contacts until her father ended his tenure as ambassador in December 1937.  At the same time, she socialized with Mildred Harnack without being drawn into her work. 

Martha Dodd stayed in contact with Soviet agents after she returned to the United States, but had little to tell of value.  She encouraged the recruitment of her husband, Alfred Stern (but he didn’t know anything either) and had some contact with other low-value Soviet Agents.[6]  Without any valuable sources from 1937 on and without any real contact after the Second World War, her contacts with Soviet agents ended in 1949.  However, the “Red Hunt” in the United States gathered steam just as Martha Dodd wanted to put her past behind her.  Too late: the FBI already had her under surveillance.  Martha Dodd and Alfred Stern were small-potatoes in the eyes of the FBI, so they weren’t subpoenaed to testify until 1956.  They bolted to Prague.    

None of these agents was particularly important or valuable to the Soviet Union.  Is there anything to be learned from their cases?  There are several lessons.  First, the Soviet Union could call upon intelligent people motivated by a strong ideological commitment.  Unlike German espionage in the United States, they didn’t have to rely upon coercing unstable renegades. 

Second, espionage is a lot easier in peacetime than in wartime.[7]  The “Red Orchestra” fell because it had to rely upon insecure and discoverable radios to handle communications.  In peacetime, information collected and orders could pass back and forth through secure diplomatic communications.  In peacetime Germany and in the United States before and after Pearl Harbor, the Soviet Union had embassies that could serve as secure bases for its intelligence officers.  Those officers could recruit, evaluate, direct, support, and discipline their agents.  Those agents, of very variable quality and temperament, could be built into powerful networks.

A third lesson might be that the Soviet intelligence agencies possessed some very able case officers.  Ishkak Akhmerov (1901-1976) ran NKVD agents in the United States from 1935 to 1945, then went home without having been discovered.  Vasily Zarubin (1894-1972) and his wife Elizabeth Zubilin (1900-1987) ran a network in the United States from 1941 to 1944, only being recalled because of a false report from a disgruntled subordinate.  Arthur Adams (1885-1969) gained the first valuable intelligence on the Manhattan Project, although he was discovered by Army Intelligence.  He still managed to escape to the Soviet Union in 1946. 

            In short, the Soviets succeeded much better than did the Nazis against the same target. 


[1] Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, 1928-1978 (1981) is highly entertaining.  On the other hand, the Communist Party of the United States of America paid for the legal defense and publicized the case of the “Scottsboro Boys.”  Most everyone else just stood around with their hands in their pockets. 

[2] This was back when state universities intentionally offered a low-cost, high-quality education because it was an investment in the common good. 

[3] Understandably, there has been much interest in the “Red Orchestra.”  For an introduction, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Orchestra_(espionage)#CITEREFScheel1985 

[4] Rebecca Donner, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler (2021).  The story has been told before by Shareen Blair Brysack, Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra (2000). 

[5] A lot of her activity is covered in Eric Larson, In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (2011). 

[6] On Boris Morros, see Jonathan Gill, Hollywood Double Agent (2020); on Jane Foster Zlatovski, see her memoir, Jane Foster, An Un-American Lady (1980). 

[7] This, in turn, suggests that a prissy refusal on moral grounds to offer “diplomatic recognition” to a hostile regime just blinds one when it is most necessary to have information.