As the Cold War recedes, distance is clarifying our understanding of many controversial episodes in that bitter conflict. The opening of archives, in Russia, the United States, and elsewhere, has shed much light on these events, providing facts where assertion and assumption once held sway. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ebbing of Communism into irrelevancy, and the remorseless passing of generations, the passions which once distorted any account of the struggle between East and West, socialist and capitalist, are rapidly withering away. It is possible now to study those days with the objectivity born of genuine detachment. Soon the story of the Cold War, shorn of its ideological immediacy, will take its place in the larger stream of human memory, becoming the stuff of tragedy and of comedy, providing provender for philosophers and dramatists. Historians, whose concerns merge the philosophic and dramatic, will also search the record of the Cold War for insights into the enduring limits of the human condition.
Ronald Radosh and Harvey Klehr’s The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism is a compelling product of this new era in Cold War historiography. Making brilliant use of newly released Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files, they vividly re-create the first of the spy cases which rocked Soviet-American relations in the years immediately following World War II. Yet the focus of their interest is less the fervent political enthusiasms of the time, than the varied characters of the men and women involved in the Amerasia case. In the hands of Radosh and Klehr, this tale of attempted espionage becomes a meditation on pride, ambition, and greed. The story they tell is not a pretty one, and neither old cold warriors nor their critics will be able to draw much comfort from Radosh and Klehr’s book. As the authors themselves point out, “it has few heroes, many villains, and more than a few knaves. None of the participants emerges with an unscathed reputation.” What remains is a sobering study of corruption, both personal and political, a disheartening chronicle of idealism, and justice, gone awry.
Radosh and Klehr write with authority. Radosh is the coauthor of a ground-breaking study which argued that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were indeed guilty of espionage. Although Radosh was vilified by partisans of the Rosenbergs when his book appeared, subsequent research has borne out his conclusions. Radosh’s work was anything but a simple right-wing assault on two treasured icons of the left. At the same time that Radosh conceded the guilt of the Rosenbergs, he also criticized the unscrupulous tactics of the federal prosecutors in the case. Klehr is the author or coauthor of several books on the history of American Communism. He has been especially interested in showing the connections between the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and the Soviet Union, with particular emphasis on the support officials of the CPUSA gave to Soviet intelligence agencies. Between them, Radosh and Klehr bring a wealth of knowledge to bear on their subject.
The Amerasia affair was set in motion in February, 1945, when the chief of the Southern Asia section of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), picked up the January 26 issue of Amerasia and read an article on Thailand which had obviously been plagiarized from a highly classified report he himself had written. Alarmed at this breach in security, he notified the OSS’s Domestic Intelligence Division. Agents were swiftly assigned to watch the offices of Amerasia. On the night of March 11, confident that nobody was working late, a team of operatives surreptitiously entered the offices. What they found astonished them. Scattered throughout the rooms were hundreds of government documents, many of them stamped “Top Secret.” Among the documents were records of the locations of enemy warships and plans for bombing the Japanese mainland. The agents retrieved a few of the papers, believing that they would not be missed amid the clutter, and left as stealthily as they had entered. Their discoveries caused consternation in the upper reaches of the American government. The case was put into the hands of the FBI, which immediately began an elaborate investigation.
The prime suspect for the government was Philip Jaffe, the editor of Amerasia. Jaffe was a study in contradictions. Born in the Ukraine to a poor Jewish family, Jaffe came to the United States as a boy. He soon demonstrated remarkable energy and entrepreneurial skill. Forced to abandon youthful hopes of an academic career by financial pressures, Jaffe made himself a millionaire marketing greeting cards. Despite his capitalistic success, Jaffe early became an enthusiast for the Soviet experiment. Although he apparently did not join the Communist Party, he became a committed fellow traveler, actively laboring in a number of front organizations. Ironically, he was never much appreciated by the Party leadership.
Jaffe finally found his niche as editor of China Today, a small journal that parroted the Communist line on Chinese affairs. This began Philip Jaffe’s transformation into an expert on the Far East. He was only able to visit China once, in 1937, during which he made a perilous...
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