A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

The Venona Project and
Atomic Espionage

John Earl Haynes

Harvey Klehr

Historians’ interpretations of the past are shaped by the sources available to them. For that reason, writing about the Cold War has been an especial challenge for historians. Before 1991 and the end of the Cold War, most records of the Soviet Union, for obvious reasons, were not available to U.S. historians. But neither were many of the records of the U.S. government. For reasons of national security, large numbers of important U.S. documents were classified and kept secret from researchers and the American public alike.

Among those classified documents were almost three thousand telegraphic cables between Soviet officials about Soviet spies in the United States. These cables, decrypted in the years following World War II in a project code-named Venona, were among the most closely guarded secrets of the American Cold War until 1995, when the National Security Agency, acting as part of a Clinton administration initiative, began to open these files to historians.

These cables, when read in conjunction with FBI files, congressional hearings, and documents from Soviet archives, proved something long disputed by many historians: There were a large number of spies within the United States passing information to the Soviet Union.

Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr are careful to distinguish their history of espionage from McCarthyism and its effects. They see McCarthy as a demagogue and a liar and McCarthyism as a partisan attack by conservative Republicans on the loyalty of the Truman and Roosevelt administrations. But they also make a strong claim: Our understanding of Cold War anticommunism and the domestic Red Scare has been fundamentally warped. The Venona Project, they argue, proves that there was a “fifth column” working inside the United States during the Cold War. Thus, the anti

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