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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2187

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...

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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 journey to the Communist stronghold of Yenan. That same year, Jaffe founded Amerasia, a more scholarly, and slightly more independent, successor to China TodayAmerasia s readership was small, but influential. For a time, Jaffe enjoyed the intellectual respect he craved. Yet a combination of the dislocations brought on by World War II, doubts about his pro-Communist editorial line, and Jaffe’s own prickly personality dried up contributors to and contributions for Amerasia. By 1945, Jaffe and his assistant editor, Kate Mitchell, were writing virtually everything in the magazine. To generate material for his journal, Jaffe cultivated a small circle of contacts in Washington, D.C. Among them was Andrew Roth, a twenty-five-year-old lieutenant attached to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). A Navy review board, after investigating Roth’s background, had concluded that he was a Communist, and recommended that he not be assigned to the ONI. Despite this, he was posted to the ONI, and, by 1944, was the ONI liaison to the State Department. Roth introduced Jaffe to Emmanuel Sigurd Larson, a man who, while living a colorful life in China, had developed an encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese political figures. On the strength of this talent, he had been hired by the ONI. In late 1944, Larson transferred to a job in the State Department. Roth and Larson began passing documents to Jaffe, for use as background for his magazine. Jaffe was not the only person to benefit from this traffic in government documents. He gave some of them to a friend, Mark Gayn, a journalist who shared his political sympathies, and who published in such popular magazines as Colliers and Time.

While the activities of Jaffe, Roth, Larson, and Gayn were illegal, they did not initially constitute espionage. When the FBI first began tracking Jaffe and his associates, it appeared as if the case might merely concern an overzealous journalist and some profoundly indiscreet government employees. Yet late in April, events took a more ominous turn. On April 22, Jaffe held a meeting at his home, which was attended by a member of the Communist Chinese delegation to the United Nations conference in San Francisco. The FBI believed that this private gathering gave Jaffe a perfect opportunity to pass documents to the Chinese Communists. Even more disturbing, a former employee named Joseph Bernstein contacted Jaffe on April 30 and made a lunch date for two days later. According to the secretly recorded account that Jaffe gave to Andrew Roth, Bernstein identified himself as a Soviet agent and asked for Jaffe’s help in acquiring information on the State Department’s attitude toward China. After checking out Bernstein with some contacts in the CPUSA, Jaffe decided to cooperate with Bernstein. The FBI now had evidence that Jaffe was set on embarking on a career as a spy.

Complicating the case at this point was the entry of John Stewart Service. Service was the son of American missionaries in China. After spending most of his youth in China, he joined the State Department and quickly established himself as an able and promising foreign service officer. He became one of the “China Hands,” a group of State Department experts on China who doubted the prospects of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government and advocated building better relations with Mao Tse-tung’s Communists. Service’s anti-Chiang opinions finally brought him afoul of Patrick Hurley, a conservative Republican whom President Franklin Roosevelt had named ambassador to China. Hurley engineered Service’s reassignment to Washington, D.C., in April, 1945. Almost immediately, Service was cultivated by Jaffe and his circle. Service responded warmly, so much so that Jaffe could not at first believe his success with this new contact. Service’s generosity, however, was not a tribute to Jaffe’s charm. After conferring with friends, including Lauchlin Currie, an adviser to the president, Service had decided to wage bureaucratic war against Hurley and his supporters in the State Department through a campaign of leaks. By passing on to Jaffe information embarrassing to Hurley and the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Peking, he hoped to help undermine their position and set the stage for a new direction in China policy. Service had no idea that he had decided to leak confidential information to a man who had decided to become a spy for the Soviet Union.

On June 6, the FBI arrested Philip Jaffe, Kate Mitchell, Mark Gayn, Emmanuel Larson, Andrew Roth, and John Service. The FBI’s case was largely built on wiretap evidence, the legal validity of which was quite unclear in 1945. Nevertheless, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his subordinates believed that the bureau’s extraordinary measures would be sustained in court for reasons of national security. Yet, almost immediately, the case began to unravel. One difficulty faced by the FBI and the Justice Department was the reluctance of other government agencies to allow confidential materials to be entered as evidence against the defendants. The government was caught in a dilemma; to protect its secrets, it would have to reveal them. Much of the most damning evidence against Jaffe and his associates was removed from consideration. Further, many members of the press perceived the Amerasia case, the full details of which could not be revealed, to be merely a rather heavy-handed attempt by the government to silence leakers. Maladroit public relations by government officials served to fuel this perception.

Philip Jaffe shrewdly retained as his legal counsel the law partner of Congressman Emmanuel Celler of Brooklyn, a Democrat well known for his weight with the Truman Administration. Kate Mitchell’s doting uncle, a politically powerful attorney in Buffalo, New York, secured first-class legal representation for her as well. Most decisively, however, John Service’s friend Lauchlin Currie intervened. He called Ben Cohen, a famous New Dealer who was legal counsel to the State Department. Anxious to avoid an embarrassing scandal, Cohen in turn enlisted his long- time associate Thomas Corcoran, a legendary political “fixer.” Although out of government, Corcoran had lost none of his clout. He moved rapidly and effectively. Corcoran had reasons of his own for involving himself in the Amerasia case. He had business interests with the Kuomintang, and Chiang’s men did not want a trial which might air criticisms of their regime.

Ironically, the FBI was listening in as Corcoran wrecked their case. Suspicious of the quintessential Washington insider, President Harry Truman had ordered an illegal wiretap of Corcoran’s office phone. Corcoran cut a deal with attorney general designate Tom Clark. In return for assistance in guaranteeing Clark’s confirmation, the Justice Department would back off charges against John Service and go easy with the other Amerasia defendants. A prosecutor was brought in from New York State who showed little enthusiasm for his job. Later, he would take a job as partner in Kate Mitchell’s uncle’s law firm. Espionage charges were dropped. In the end, Jaffe and Larson paid fines for a lesser charge. Service and the others walked away.

The Amerasia affair had a long afterlife. Conservatives smelled a rat, and, occasionally encouraged by an irate J. Edgar Hoover, made the case a symbol of “Red” influence in Washington, D.C. A series of congressional hearings followed, in which Democrats loyally covered up the true facts of the matter, and some Republicans concocted increasingly hysterical conspiracy theories. Ultimately, Senator Joseph McCarthy would make the case a centerpiece of his accusations of Communist infiltration of the State Department. Radosh and Klehr argue that the Amerasia case helped prepare the ideological ground for McCarthyism. One set of lies begat another. Lost in the machinations in Washington was the American people’s right to the truth.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. June 9, 1996, XIV, p. 3.

Choice. XXXIII, July, 1996, p. 1859.

History: Reviews of New Books. XXV, Fall, 1996, p. 13.

Human Events. LII, July 12, 1996, p. 12.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, December 1, 1995, p. 1685.

The National Interest. Fall, 1996, p. 101.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, March 31, 1996, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, December 11, 1995, p. 64.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 17, 1996, p. 8.

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