(look, more from the espionage bookshelf)
The Venona decrypts (which I explain in the previous post, so if you don’t know what they are, well, you’ll have to go back and read that; I’m not going to tell you about them again!) are also at the center of Mortal Crimes, Nigel West’s 2004 explanation of Soviet infiltration into the Manhattan Project.
I picked the word “explanation” for a reason, because I’m not sure how else to describe this book. It’s not a story. It’s not an “exploration” or a “discussion.” It’s really more a laying out of available facts, and that’s about it. (And btw, if I seem somewhat brusque, disorganized and disheartened today, well, it’s because I am. Apologies.)
The book opens with a description of the research and discoveries that led to the belief that a practical atomic weapon could be constructed, most of the major work taking place in England. Then West tells how Britain and the US decided to pool their resources to actually develop the weapon, all because of their fears that Germany might do so first. Meanwhile, they kept their Soviet ally in the dark—or so they thought.
West uses excerpts from the Venona decrypts to show that the project was corrupted from the very beginning. Really, there were no secrets. Seemingly just about every lab had some insider smuggling out not just a few , but thousands and thousands of pages of documents.
Of course once the cryptographers at Arlington Hall (the predecessor to the NSA) began to decrypt the Soviet intercepts, the race was on to try to identify and track down the spies in question. Clues in the decrypts that pointed to locations, travels, and personal connections in the choice of names helped bring in some, though not all, of the spies. Sometimes the codenames were laughably obvious—giving someone named Ernest the codename “ERNEST” is either incredible stupidity or incredible let’s-really-throw-them-off-the-trail brilliance. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to guess that those codenamed “HURON” and “ERIE” were probably located at the Chicago lab rather than Los Alamos. Calling nineteen year old Ted Hall “YOUNG” isn’t exactly a huge leap either (though I guess “FOYER” would have been a bigger clue). There are lots and lots of names to keep track of, but don’t worry—one of the best parts of the book is the appendix that lists all the codenames and their real life identities, as well as those mystery code names that still have not been conclusively linked to anyone. I also appreciated the list of acronyms and their meanings at the beginning of the book; after all, you don’t want to mix up your NKVD with your GRU.
(I should note that I would be the most annoying spy when it came to codenames. I’d constantly want to change and would drive my poor handler crazy. “Dear Comrade J—I no longer feel like ALBERTINE. Today I am ANTARCTICA.”)
Okay, enough of the niceties. I had a lot of problems with this book. The biggest is simply that there is no story or compelling structure to the book. It starts with early atomic weapons research, but then doesn’t progress along a timeline. Then it seems to be covering infiltration at each location…but then it isn’t. Maybe the chapters each deal with a different network of spies? No, that only seems to hold up for one or two chapters. Looking again at the table of contents, I guess the latter half of the book is supposed to be based on different groups of Venona decrypts but that doesn’t make for particularly helpful reading. I guess what I’m complaining about is that there is such a wealth of dramatic material here, with so many interesting characters that I find it almost inconceivable that this couldn’t have been organized as some kind of narrative. Why not concentrate on the story of one or two of the spies or spy networks, with the other material spun around them? Or why not just proceed through WW II and into the Cold War chronologically? Isn’t there some way this could have been made into a good spy story? Fiction writers would kill to dream up this kind of stuff. And trust me, I’ve seen a lot of nonfiction writers dig stories out of more jumbled masses of material. It’s so frustrating—this has such amazing and obvious potential yet there seems to be no effort here to construct a book. Rather, it’s just an assemblage of episodes.
To make things worse, the disconnectedness of the chapters seems to have resulted in some very, very weird bits of repetition. A decrypt listing the locations of different labs and the head of each lab appears on page 78 and the exact same decrypt and list appear again on page 121. We are told twice the same facts about spy couple Morris and Lona Cohen (he fought in the Spanish Civil War, she was working in an aircraft factory when they got married) but when the information appears the second time it’s inserted as blithely as if we had never seen it before. One time I picked up the book and found I had left off on page 173, which mentioned how Comintern agent Artur Adams had been badly beaten by the Russian police in 1905. I flipped open to a random page, searching for something else, and on page 78, what did I find? A note about how Artur Adams, a Comintern agent had been badly beaten by Russian police in 1905. I’m not making this up.
Those are cases where I found myself reading something thinking, haven’t I read this before? In another situation, I found myself reading something and thinking, I haven’t read about this before. In a chapter about J. Robert Oppenheimer, a sentence begins, “Apart from the Chevalier episode…” I’ve read an Oppenheimer bio (the excellent American Prometheus) so I knew Haakon Chevalier was a friend of Oppenheimer's who was accused of recruiting Oppenheimer to pass atomic secrets to the Soviets (or of just tipping him off that there were spies in the lab, depending on whose version you choose to believe). However, this story hadn’t yet been told in this particular book, though it does appear later. But that phrase, “Apart from the Chevalier episode…” seems to imply that the reader should know about it. So what happened? Were the chapters originally in a different order? Was West making a rather large assumption of readers’ knowledge? It’s very peculiar.
Finally, the small gripes—at one point West mentions a book written by H.G. Wells in 1956, which would have been quite some feat, considering that Wells died in 1946. Niels Bohr’s name is misspelled at least once. The index is shaky, for example listing only two entries for J. Edgar Hoover although he’s mentioned at least five or six times that I can remember. This may seem like nitpicking, but little things like these can shake your faith in a nonfiction book—if these are the mistakes I caught, what else is there that I didn’t catch?
And yet…and yet…whatever the flaws in this book, they don’t diminish the thrill that comes with reading the Venona decrypts. Imagine, here are these messages that were written long ago, in another language, then locked in a cipher for safekeeping. Full of secrets, they were only meant to be seen by the eyes of a shadowy agent with a codename who read them undercover while living a double life. Instead, though, here they are more than half a century later, plainly available to lowly me. That’s what I always love to think about whenever I am reading any kind of history—that what I am reading was once a moment like any other moment, with no knowledge of how that moment would be perceived in the future, how it would affect the next moment, how any of it would all turn out. No one knows what will become an artifact worth seeing, reading, touching and no one yet knows what will fade away forgotten. Maybe someday I will look back and say, “Ah yes, the night of February 28, 2007, when I sat writing a scatter-witted book review…if only I had known that would be the night I—“