California Literary Review

How the Cold War Began: The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies by Amy Knight

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April 10th, 2007 at 9:42 am

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How the Cold War Began: The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies
by Amy Knight
Carroll & Graf Publishers, 355 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★☆☆☆

An Early Cold War Soviet Defector

Readers seeking to learn how the Cold War really began can bypass this book, since despite its title it will not tell them what they want to know. It does, however, provide an account of some significant events that occurred when (when, not how) the Cold War was beginning, just as World War II ended. The book tells the detailed story of the September 1945 defection of Igor Gouzenko, a code clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, and the aftermath of his defection. It is the fourth book published by Amy Knight, a Canadian writer on Soviet affairs. As Dr. Knight says, the Gouzenko case brought out into the open tensions between the Soviet Union and the West that “had been simmering for months…confirming once and for all that the Soviets were enemies rather than friends.”

Gouzenko provided evidence, among other things, that the Soviet Union was intent on stealing the secrets of the atomic bomb. True, many of the Soviet intelligence reports that Gouzenko gave the Canadians were, as Knight makes clear, not very important. The Soviets stole atomic secrets from the West, but Canada was more or less on the periphery of the US-UK atomic weapons program.

In 1945 there was more evidence than what came through Gouzenko’s hands that Stalin now, only a month after the end of a long world war, viewed his wartime allies as his prime enemies. However, before Gouzenko not only war-weary Western publics but Western leaders were reluctant to see this. As Knight might have done well to mention, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had had a mistaken view of how to deal with “Uncle Joe” Stalin; Prime Minister Winston Churchill was naive in proposing to Stalin an agreement that would have put limits on Soviet influence in postwar Eastern Europe.

What Knight does make clear is the naiveté of Canada’s prime minister, William Mackenzie King, who was deeply concerned that the Gouzenko case should not damage Canada’s relations with the Soviet Union, and who was initially reluctant to offer Gouzenko asylum. Six months after the defection, Mackenzie King admitted in a speech in Parliament that he had even considered going to Moscow to ask Stalin in person for an explanation of Soviet espionage efforts in Canada. One wonders what Uncle Joe would have told him.

The fact was that the Cold War was already, inexorably, beginning. How it began had nothing to do with Igor Gouzenko. The cold war was the creation of Joseph Stalin, who believed, or in any case acted as if he believed, that his latter-day Russian empire was threatened by “capitalist encirclement.” The best defense against this, for Stalin, was geopolitical offense. The Soviet Union had extended its borders west through Stalin’s agreement with Hitler in 1939. After Stalin and his Western allies defeated Hitler it was time for the Soviets to move still farther west. It was not politically feasible to incorporate still more pieces of other countries into the USSR, but it proved quite possible in the wake of Hitler’s defeat to make satellites of Moscow’s neighbors to the west–except for staunch Finland; but even Finland had to cede territory and permit serious intrusions on its sovereignty.

The Soviet code clerk in Ottawa, Igor Gouzenko, was 26 years old in 1945. He was at his first post abroad as an employee of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police agency that was the predecessor of the KGB and the KGB’s equivalent in today’s Russian Federation, the FSB. Gouzenko’s immediate reason for defecting to Canadian authorities was that he had learned he was to be recalled to Moscow before the end of his tour of duty in Canada. He was understandably afraid of what might be in store for him, and for his wife and little son. His recall was delayed for several months, a rarely foolish decision on the part of his higher-ups because it both led to Gouzenko’s defection and gave him time to prepare for it. When he finally went to the Canadian authorities–who at first did not understand just what sort of fellow this was–he brought with him well over a hundred messages exchanged between the NKVD station in the Ottawa embassy and NKVD headquarters in Moscow. His defection permitted Canadian authorities to identify a number of Canadian citizens as Soviet agents, including a member of the Canadian parliament, Fred Rose. Several of these agents went to prison; Rose was sentenced to six years.

One of the agents was a young woman named Emma Woikin, who came from a Russian Dukhobor family in Saskatchewan and worked as a cipher clerk in the Canadian Department of External Affairs. Through her hands passed classified messages between the Department and Canadian diplomatic posts abroad. When, decades later, the Canadians finally declassified the texts Gouzenko had given them of messages that Woikin passed on to the Soviets, they turned out to be of little importance. This, says Knight, “was hardly the stuff of serious espionage,” and when Woikin was sentenced to prison for two and a half years “…it was a sad day for the Canadian system of justice.” This reviewer disagrees entirely. Woikin was clearly prepared to give her Soviet handler whatever intelligence she was privy to. What Gouzenko saw of this may have been only a small part of what she provided to Moscow. It is a fair guess that her handler asked her, early on, not only for the texts of messages but for details of the system that encoded them. Woikin sold herself to a regime that posed, then and later, a huge threat to Canada and the Western world. It is not wrong for a government to try such a traitor.

Among other material that Gouzenko provided to the Canadians was information that the Soviets had a spy in Washington who was an assistant to an assistant secretary of state–or was he an assistant to the Secretary of State? Was this spy Alger Hiss, who was eventually imprisoned? Knight is doubtful. She warns that historians should treat carefully the Soviet messages that the U.S. National Security Agency decrypted in its Venona program. It is Venona messages which seem to provide identification of Hiss as a Soviet agent, and it is true that they are not utterly clear; but many, perhaps most experts today think that there can be no doubt Hiss was the spy the Soviets nicknamed “Ales.”

Knight says that one reason to doubt Hiss’s guilt is that a decrypted Soviet message makes clear that the group of spies consisting of “Ales” and other members of his family had long provided military secrets to the Soviets. How, asks Knight, could that be Hiss, since his wife was a stay-at-home mother and his brother Donald only a State Department lawyer? But Donald, as our author tells us later, “had worked directly under [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson at the State Department a few years earlier.” In that position he must have had access to sensitive information, some of it of military importance; and State Department lawyers, as well, have broad access to intelligence.

Hiss’s main accuser was Whittaker Chambers, who knew Hiss in the 1930s and who told a senior State Department officer as early as 1939 that Hiss was a Soviet agent. As Knight notes, many found Chambers an unreliable witness. Knight however ignores the 1995 study published by Yale, The Secret World of American Communism, which examines Soviet documents that became available after the fall of Communism. As this study says, these documents do not prove Hiss was a spy; “What these documents do demonstrate, however, is the accuracy of the chief witness against Hiss, thus greatly strengthening the credibility of that witness.”

Knight would like us to believe that her new book “…renews a debate that began in the McCarthy era and divides historians to this day. To what extent were the people accused of passing secrets to the Soviets during the 1940s really spies, and to what extent were they merely individuals sympathetic to the communist cause and unwittingly drawn into the Soviet espionage network?”

This reviewer’s answer is, What debate? Few other than Knight will deny that the people she describes who were “drawn into the Soviet espionage network” deserved the name and the fate of spies.

Six years ago Amy Knight wrote in The Wilson Quarterly that the account of the defection to the British of a KGB officer in Latvia, Vasily Mitrokhin, “strains credulity.” It was a curious judgment. The book based on the wealth of Soviet intelligence data that Mitrokhin brought with him, which was largely written by Professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge University, was richly documented. So was a subsequent volume, published in 2005. One doubts that even Knight would question their veracity today.

The question for today is why Knight has not written a better book about Gouzenko.

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