Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Joseph C. Goulden's Review Of "A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy And Cold Warrior

I'm thankful that veteran journalist, author and noted espionage expert Joseph C. Goulden offered me his review of Mark A. Bradley's A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior.
Below is the review:
A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior
By Mark A. Bradley
Basic Books.  333 pages.  $34.50
Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden
One of the best espionage books to cross this desk in years, A Very Principled Boy also poses a psychological mystery:  What demons haunted the brilliant mind of Duncan C. Lee, a Rhodes Scholar and Yale-educated attorney who went from a top Wall Street law firm to the inner-circle of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two.  There he spied for the Soviets while working at the right hand of OSS director William Donovan.
Not until after the war ended did investigators uncover this secret part of Lee’s life. His contact with Soviet intelligence was through one of the more notorious figures in the “spy era” of the 1940s, Elizabeth Bentley, a member of the Communist Party USA who acted as a courier for the Soviet NKGB, predecessor to the KGB. She broke with the Soviets in November 1945 and named Lee, among dozens of other persons in the government, as witting sources of secrets she passed to the Soviets.
But Bentley lacked any hard evidence – documents or the like – to back her accusations.  Lee wisely refused to take any papers out of the OSS office. Instead, he would commit key memos to his attentive memory – he boasted of an IQ in the 170s – and relate the information orally to Bentley at his apartment in the3000 block of Dent Place NW in Georgetown.

Another Soviet spy of the era, Alger Hiss of the State Department, was not so cautious. He gave reams of documents to his underground contact, Whittaker Chambers - evidence that resulted in his conviction and imprisonment for perjury
Once the first evidence of his NKVD link emerged, Lee performed a deft political flip-flop.  Working for the renowned Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran, he played a seminal role in creating Air America, the CIA proprietary airline that played an important role in many covert Cold War operations.
Mark A. Bradley, a former CIA intelligence officer who is now a lawyer with the Department of Justice, performs a masterful job of exploring the tangled and confusing life of Lee.  And he surveys the definitive smoking-gun proof of Lee’s guilt that the government possessed in the 1940s and 1950s but could not use without revealing our ability to decipher Soviet intelligence cables to Moscow.
He also makes skilled use of Soviet intelligence documents snuggled out of Russia by historian Alexander Vassiliev several years ago.
Lee boasted of a distinguished lineage. Two of his ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence. Another kinsman was Confederate General Robert E. Lee. His strongly religious parents were serving as missionaries in China  when Lee was born.
The several sides of Lee began to emerge during his student days . Walter  Pforzheimer, a Yale  classmate (and later a founding father of CIA) asserted that as an undergraduate,  Lee “always screwed more than a silkworm.” He was a chronic philanderer even when married with five children. His seemingly endless  string of bedmates included a woman who was both a Soviet espionage courier and a secretary to columnist Walter Lippmann.
At Oxford, Lee made two discoveries. He courted, and wed, a lissome – and very leftist -- Scottish woman named Ishbel Gibbs, who shared his views on sexual freedom. Perhaps because of her influence, he made a reappraisal  of religion. He stunned his parents by writing, “I find the Communist Party a fear nearer embodiment of what I regard as genuine Christianity than any organized church.”  Further, he planned to join the party’s secret underground. Not doing so, he asserted, would force him into “ineffectual armchair pinkness,” which  would be cowardly. According to NKVD documents unearthed recently, he and Ishbel joined the Communist Party in 1939.
The same year, after he finished Yale Law School, Lee went to work for Donovan Leisure, a prestigious Wall Street law firm headed by Donovan, who in a few years would be his boss at OSS. Here again, Lee had serious second thoughts. He worried that it would find it difficult to reconcile his dreams of working for what he called the “cause” and practicing in Wall Street. As he wrote his mother, “I am haunted by the specter of the Babbit-brained lawyer and all he stands for.”
When the war began, he entered the military and eagerly followed Donovan to Washington. He was assigned to a secretariat responsible for handling incoming reports. 
Lee’s importance to the Soviets is revealed in a Soviet document dated September 8, 1942, which boasts of a source, code name “Kokh,” in the OSS. The cable states that “agent reports from Europe and all over the world go through him. He chooses among them and shows them to Donovan for his consideration.”          
Unfortunately, U. S. code breakers could not decipher the cable and identify “Kokh.” for several more years; hence Lee went undetected. 
But his secret world began to crumble in the autumn of 1945 when Elizabeth Bentley broke with the communists and gave the first of a series of statements to the FBI. She related the same charges in testimony to Congress and grand juries. 
Although her targets – and especially Lee  – denounced her as deluded, even crazy, history proved her to be on-target. As Bradley writes, “Twenty-nine Americans she named as Soviet spies appeared in the NKGB’s intercepted traffic. One of them was Duncan Lee.” 
In his testimony, Duncan admitted to knowing Bentley, but only casually, and not as a spy.  He denied they ever discussed OSS affairs. He said much the same before a grand jury, which declined to indict him. Not until 1995 did the intelligence community release the intercepted Soviet cables from the 1940s clearly branding  Lee as a spy. By then, of course, Lee was dead. 
But Lee’s problem in the late 1940s was that he bore the stigma of “spy,” the lack of prosecution notwithstanding. In what Bradley rightly describes as an opportunistic maneuver, Lee aligned himself with the famed Washington insider,  Corcoran, a fierce Cold Warrior and a prominent member of the so-called “China Lobby” working to protect the struggling Nationalist Chinese government.
Corcoran – and through him, Lee – worked closely with Col. Claire Chennault, who during  the war created the famed “Flying Tigers,”  air arm  of the  Nationalist military. Lee did much of the legal work that in effect privatized  the air operations, which then  flew both military and commercial cargoes in China. When communist forces ousted the Nationalists in 1947, Mao Tse-Tung laid claim to 83 planes  that had been moved to Hong Kong, calling them the “sacred property of the People’s Republic of China.” 
Chennault and partner Whiting Willauer warned that Mao would use the air fleet for a paratroop assaults on Taiwan. They also struck a deal with the Nationalists to buy the planes.  Lee did the paperwork. He worked “almost exclusive” on recovering the planes from 1949 t0 1952. When money ran short, the CIA opened its coffers – an association that eventually marked the birth of Air America, which thereafter was a proprietary company. 
The Red Chinese fought back in the Hong Kong courts, and they won nine times. But the Privy Council in London, Britain’s highest court, ultimately upheld as legal the contracts drafted by Lee.  As Willauer later wrote “The importance to the [anti]-Communist cause of obtaining these airlines cannot be over-exaggerated.”  
But as Bradley asserts, Lee acted for motives other than patriotism.  “To keep J. Edgar Hoover’s agents from knocking on his front door or the HUAC’s investigators from slapping another subpoena into his hands, Lee had cloaked himself in the mantle of anticommunism and surrounded himself with men with unassailable anticommunist credentials….As importantly, it had allowed him to dry-clean his conscience. Perhaps Lee believed, if his father was right about a forgiving God, he had finally broken even.”
But given the U. S. wartime alliance with the Soviets, did the stolen secrets really do any harm?  Bradley’s answer is an emphatic “yes.”  As he writes, “his intelligence alerted the Soviets to British and American diplomatic strategies for negotiating with Stalin over postwar Poland’s borders and the United States’ diplomatic activities in Romania and Bulgaria, especially with those nations’ pro-Western politicians, who were in great danger once they found themselves behind the Iron Curtain.”  
Soviet penetration made an open book of the OSS. “It gave the Kremlin a clear look into the previously obscure activities of the foreign intelligence service of its most important wartime ally.  As John le Care observed, an intelligence service discloses its own ignorance when it reveals its targets.”  The exposure extended to the CIA when it was formed in 1947, given that it drew heavily on the OSS for manpower and operational techniques.
Lee spent his last years working abroad for an international insurance company. Wife Ishbel tired of his constant affairs and divorced him (and married a man seventeen years her junior).  
Lee protested his innocence to the end, writing for his sons a “memoir” that tied to explain away the charges against him. In the end, even his sons were unconvinced of his innocence. The family gave Bradley documents which he uses in the book.
Lee sought relief in heavy drinking. He died in 1988. Perhaps his only solace was that Donovan never denounced him, commenting only that he was a “very principled boy.” 
Classify this as a five-cloak, five-dagger read.
A Chinese language edition of Joe Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, is being published this summer by Bejiing Xiron Books. 
Note: I interviewed Joseph C. Goulden for Counterterrorism & Homeland Security magazine a while back. You can read the interview via the below link:

1 comment:

  1. I very much look forward to reading this one, another study in which the black, white, and gray ethics of espionage are examined. Spying, of course, in all of its forms, is always a puzzle, especially when it comes to motives, methods, and outcomes. As a former CT, I still ponder the puzzle.