The spy exchange between the United States and Russia this past week reminded me of a persistent question--I consider it a persistent question, anyway--about the Cold War. Maybe Victor Davis Hanson, Claire, Matt Continetti, or Steve Hayes can provide an answer. Or maybe Ricochet members will offer some thoughts. Briefly put: Beginning now later than the middle of the nineteen-thirties, we now know, the United States was all but crawling with Soviet spies. Did any of those spies ever do the Soviet Union any real good? Or the United States any real harm?
In asking this question, I except one category of Soviet infiltrators, the nuclear spies. Klaus Fuchs, Julius Rosenberg--we know they provided Stalin with specific, unambiguous assistance, turning over technical material that advanced, very materially, the Soviet nuclear program. But what about all the other spies? The ones we read about in, for example, Witness, the magnificent autobiography of Whittaker Chambers, himself a former spy? Did they ever do the Soviets any real good?
The question first occurred to me back when the Cold War was still hot. Working in the White House during the nineteen-eighties, I got a good, close look at the workings of the federal government. Virtually all the "inside" or "confidential" information I came across was, to put it bluntly, junk. Who was up and who was down in this or that bureaucratic struggle. The State Department's latest effort to undermine U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who simply ignored it. The Treasury Department's most recent objection to reforming this or that page of a federal tax code that even then ran to many hundreds of pages. I myself held a security clearance of "Top Secret," and, performing background research before presidential trips abroad, I read CIA briefing materials on countries to which Reagan traveled. Only once--once--did I find in those briefing books, materials considered so sensitive that I was forbidden to leave them unattended in my office, even to make a trip to the drinking fountain--only once did I come across information I hadn't already learned from newspapers, magazines, and other public materials. That one instance concerned the extramarital proclivities of the prime minister of a tiny island nation in the Caribbean. I later learned that the prime minister's behavior was common knowledge to every diplomat on the island.
Again, I excepted specifically military information. Soviet spies in the Pentagon, I saw, could do untold damage. But spies in the State Department? Or the Treasury? Or, say, the Departments of Labor or of Health and Human Services? There was a good chance, I felt, that such spies would do the Soviets more harm than good, sowing in the Kremlin the same confusion that most of the federal government tended to sow here in the United States.
I may have been wrong, of course. But I still wonder. Victor? Claire? Anyone?