Spies in History: The Story of Elizabeth Bentley
In 1945, American-born Elizabeth Bentley defected from her role as a Soviet spy and ousted more than eighty associates in her network, many of whom held positions in the government of the United States. She had contacts in the Office of Strategic Services, War Production Board, Board of Economic Warfare, U.S. Senate, Foreign Economic Administration, U.S. Army and Army Air Force, Treasury Department, State Department, Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and the White House itself.
A Self-Made Spy
Bentley’s career in espionage began of her own volition in 1935, when she took a job at the Italian Library of Information in New York City, which was colloquially known as fascist Italy’s propaganda bureau. During her time working there, she expressed interest to the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in spying on fascists. An NKVD officer named Jacob Golos was assigned as her primary contact.
When Golos was forced to register as an agent of the USSR, he was not able to manage the bulk of his work and so he gave Bentley some responsibility of the network. She was primarily in charge of the day-to-day business of a front organization – the United States Service and Shipping Corporation. Most of her contacts were part of what was known as the Silvermaster Group, which was a network of agents centered around Nathan Gregory Silvermaster.
After Golos died in 1943, Bentley continued her work in espionage and ultimately took his place. Her new point of contact was the leading NKGB undercover spy chief, Iskhak Akhmerov. Her network expanded when CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder gave her responsibility of the Perlo Group, which had contacts in the War Production Board, United States Senate, and the Treasury Department
She resisted the order to have her contacts report directly to Akhmerov rather than a chain that went through her to him. Eventually she was forced to give up her sources and quit her position at U.S. Service and Shipping.
A year later, she met with her newest NKGB contact, Anatoly Gorsky, and threatened to become an informant – after which, Gorsky recommended that the next course of action be to eliminate her as a threat. The real impetus came when Louis Bedenz, one of her sources at CPUSA newspaper, had made the decision to defect. Thus, Bentley likely feeling that she was stuck between a rock and a hard place, ultimately made her choice to defect on November 6, 1945.
When Bentley defected, she exposed her former networks to the FBI, including more than thirty individuals who worked in the government. The FBI briefly contemplated using Bentley as a double agent, but they discovered within the year that it would not work. News of her defection had reached leaders in Moscow through Kim Philby, a high-ranking member in MI:6 – later known as a double agent. It was timed just so that the FBI could not gather any direct evidence of the espionage. So, the FBI moved to their next choice – urge the accused to confess. That failed as well, because Moscow ordered that Bentley’s sources had to cease espionage activity, destroy incriminating material, and to prepare for FBI scrutiny. Bentley’s sources were under strict orders to not confess.
Much of the doubt surrounding Bentley’s testimony had to do with the fact that she had no ‘smoking gun’ evidence, as it was only private corroboration and classified documents that substantiated her claims – as such, it came down to her word vs. the accused in court. Her testimony did, however, launch a lot of investigation into the names, and it was found that her story corroborated many of the FBI’s suspicions. One FBI agent later recalled that “We had files here, there, and everywhere … and she kind of sewed it all together.” (Red Spy Queen, p. 100) This was in conjunction with the project conducted by the FBI called Venona. Ultimately, Venona absolutely corroborated the information that Bentley gave, however it was not until the USSR collapsed that Venona became declassified and – by then, Bentley’s case was a distant memory.
The Public Response
Something else to consider was simply that Americans were struck with disbelief by the magnitude of her testimony. The people that Bentley named as associates were so deeply entrenched in all avenues of American politics and management, that it was difficult for the public to suddenly consider that these people were feeding information to a foreign power. Bentley appealed to the public fear of Communism, suggesting that communist spies had a plan to overthrow the government and they represented a threat as real as Fascists. This is particularly important in the context of the period, as the United States had just come out World War II, so whether it was Bentley’s intent to scare her listeners, that would have been a simple way to get the message across.
The wave of fear that washed over the American public led to serious doubt in the Truman administration. Historians Haynes and Klehr suggest that the testimony made Americans believe that the government had been complacent about Soviet espionage, and that the CPUSA in their home was an instrument of a hostile power. This has depth when considering the historical context. While there were anti-communist sentiments rising in Europe over the division of post-war Germany, the memory of the alliance with the Soviet Union only a few years prior was still fresh in the minds of the American public. So, finding out that the USSR was conducting espionage in their home would invite a sense of betrayal.
Both sides of American politics took the opportunity presented by Bentley’s defection to criticize their opposition. Because Venona was unable to be used as evidence for her claims, many Americans saw the accusations as a symbol available to be interpreted and used for the benefit of any party, even if they were in opposition. Some saw it as part of a conspiracy by the conservatives to uproot the Truman administration’s New Deal programs, which were topics of much contention at the time. Conversely, the proponents of the New Deal saw Bentley as a threat to the reputation of the men who had supported these reforms, because many of the people she accused were in the government. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) leaped on the opportunity to criticize the Truman administration when it called a congress into session over inflation and not Soviet infiltration. Ultimately, the public response to her testimony propelled HUAC into the McCarthy era. Bentley’s accusations and the fear they elicited served as a stage for Senator Joseph McCarthy to stand upon while preaching the danger of Soviet infiltration.
Why is this important?
Her testimony is important in history as it was one of the first of accusations of the Cold War to shed light on espionage conducted by another world power. Her defection alone named a vast number of spies and put a hold on Soviet espionage in the U.S.A. In her testimony, Haynes and Klehr mention how professionally she described her role and listed the names of her former associates, many of whom had been federal officials that “handed over government military and diplomatic secrets to the USSR.” (Haynes & Klehr, pp. 72-73) The hold on espionage came from a Soviet desire to protect its intelligence by shutting down its active contacts in the United States. They withdrew their officers and many others, even outside of Bentley’s network. Knowledge of the magnitude of this shutdown was only available after the collapse of the Soviet Union and declassification of documents, so Olmsted suggests that scholars before that time under-appreciated the extent of how Bentley affected Soviet espionage in America. Now that documents have become declassified, we know with certainty that Elizabeth Bentley’s testimony was accurate, and can now truly assess the impact she had on the Cold War.
Fried, Richard M. “The “Red Spy Queen” in a Male World”. Diplomatic History Journal, Vol. 7, Issue 5: Blackwell Publishing LTD. (pp. 741-745)
Haynes, John Earl and Harvey Klehr. Early Cold War Spies. 1st ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print. (pp. 60-89)
Kessler, Lauren (2003). “Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era”. Harper Perennial. (pp. 144-147)
Olmsted, Kathryn S. “Blond Queens, Red Spiders, and Neurotic Old Maids: Gender and Espionage in the Early Cold War.” Published online: 25 May 2006 (pp. 78-91)
Olmsted, Kathryn S. Red Spy Queen. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. (pp. 7-204)
Weinstein, Allen; Vassiliev, Alexander (2000). The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America–The Stalin Era. Modern Library. (p. 102)
Wilson, Veronica A. “Elizabeth Bentley and cold war representation: Some masks not dropped”. Intelligence and National Security 14, no. 2, 1999. (pp. 49-63)
This article was written by Kristina Weber, Content Supervisor of Centry. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History from the University of Calgary.