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Reviews Mark A. Bradley's _A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior_ in the _American Communist History_ (Volume 14, Issue 2), peer-reviewed journal of the academic association Historians of American Communism (HOAC)
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Fascination–Revulsion
David Chambers
Published online: 10 Apr 2015.
To cite this article: David Chambers (2015) Fascination–Revulsion, American Communist History,
14:1, 81-85, DOI: 10.1080/14743892.2015.1013716
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14743892.2015.1013716
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Essay Review
FascinationRevulsion
DAVID CHAMBERS*
A Very Principled Boy is a very thorough biography.
The author Mark A. Bradley received an MA degree in History from the Uni-
versity of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He received a JD degree from
the University of Virginia’s School of Law. He received a BA degree from Wash-
ington and Lee University, Phi Beta Kappa.
1
He served in the Central Intelli-
gence Agency as an intelligence officer. He has worked in the US Department of
Justice, previously in the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review.
2
Currently, he
is Freedom of Information Act director in Justice’s National Security Division,
for which he received a service award from the Attorney General in 2012.
3
The book’s jacket indicates that Bradley spent over a decade in research, with
his main effort during the 2010s. He has many overviews, conclusions, and
comments to share. His voice in the book is strong and even throughout. The
story uncovered is fascinating.
The story is repulsing, too. It is full of actors whom the author does not admire:
there is J. Edgar Hoover at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Bill Dono-
van at Office of Strategic Services (OSS); there is Senator Joseph McCarthy (for
“the distemper called McCarthyism,” p. 249); there are Presidents Franklin
Delano Roosevelt (for his “cold mathematics,” p. 142) and Harry S. Truman
(for playing into Hoover’s hands, p. 135). He notes Hoover’s hatred for Truman
(p. 135) and for Donovan (numerous pages) as particularly destructive. He lumps
Elizabeth Bentley, Louis Budenz, and Whittaker Chambers among some half-
dozen unsavory informers (quoted in a poem by Archibald MacLeish, p. 173).
Lee himself, the protagonist, receives little praise and near-total condemnation.
* David Chambers is a Washington, DC based scholar who has published articles and reviews dealing
with national security. He can be reached at dc25@georgetown.edu.
1
A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior, New York: Basic Books,
2014. http://www.basicbooks.com/full-details?isbnD9780465030095
2
“Profile: Mark Bradley, History Commons, undated. http://www.historycommons.org/entity.
jsp?entityDmark_bradley_1
3
“Attorney General Holder Recognizes Department Employees and Others for Their Service at
Annual Awards Ceremony,” DOJ (October 17, 2012): http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2012/October/12-
ag-1249.html
American Communist History, 2015
Vol. 14, No. 1, 8185, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14743892.2015.1013716
Downloaded by [Mr David Chambers] at 19:21 13 April 2015
He spent years mired in alcoholism. He was unfaithful to and finally lost his first
wife in divorce. He maintained unclear relations with his children. Bradley says of
McCarthy what he might have said of Lee: he “self-destructed” (p. 241). Short
of self-destructing, “In the end, he deceived himself as much as anyone else” (p.
270). He might have said, “he lied himself unto death.”
Readers about to pick up the book might wonder: what carried the years of
research into such bleak history? The answer may be fascinationrevulsion. This
sense the author holds in careful check and never descends into sensationalism.
There are strong, final assessments, too:
The damage Lee did to the national security of the United States is harder to
sum up than his battle with Hoover... The classified information that Lee
passed... went to an ally. Nonetheless, his intelligence alerted the Soviets to
the British and American diplomatic strategy for negotiating with Stalin
over postwar Poland’s borders... The most damaging intelligence... may
have been the information he gathered about the OSS’s internal investiga-
tions of employees it suspected... No matter what the assessment, Soviet
penetrationrenderedtheOSSanopenbook... The NKGB came to under-
stand the OSS’s tradecraft, training, and personnel. (pp. 267268)
The impact lasting is even grimmer:
[Senator Joseph] McCarthy’s allegations that the Democrats had presided
over the biggest ever foreign policy penetration of the U.S. government led to
the Republicans’ claim that the Democrats were weak on national security ...
[and] helped push the United States into the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs,
and the Cuban Missile Crisis and its disastrous escalation in Vietnam. The
Republicans’ charges of weakness and the Democrats’ countercharges remain
very much alive today. (pp. 269270)
Aiding this book is a movie-like prologue that hooks readers. It comes in the
form of a climactic event. Elizabeth Bentley, the catalyst for the principal catas-
trophe in this principled boy’s life, testifies before the House Un-American
Affairs Committee (HUAC) in July 1948.
So well-crafted is this book that, despite being a straightforward biography, it
received reviews not only in industry rags like Kirkus
4
and Publishers Weekly,
5
but also in The Wall Street Journal,
6
The Washington Post,
7
Foreign Affairs,
8
and
even the alumni magazine of Lee’s alma mater, Yale (though he was still called
alleged mole”).
9
4
Kirkus (April 9, 2014). https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/mark-bradley/a-very-princi
pled-boy/
5
Publishers Weekly (April 2014). http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-465-03009-5
6
The Wall Street Journal (April 25, 2014). http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/
SB10001424052702304810904579507432091925694
7
The Washington Post (May 9, 2014). http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-very-principled-
boy-the-life-of-duncan-lee-red-spy-and-cold-warrior-by-mark-a-bradley/2014/05/09/23c5fc3c-ca5b-
11e3-93eb-6c0037dde2ad_story.html
8
Foreign Affairs (May/June 2014). http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141322/mark-a-bradley/a-
very-principled-boy-the-life-of-duncan-lee-red-spy-and-cold-wa
9
“Blue Blood, Red Agent? New Book on Alleged Mole Duncan Lee ’35,” Yale Alumni Magazine
(June 10, 2014). https://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/blog_posts/1810
82 Essay Review
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The decision (by the author and/or the publisher’s editor) to structure the
book with mid-cult hook came with some cost, however, in this reviewer’s
assessment. Two finer ingredients go missing.
First is a scholarly foreword stating the author’s aims, to help readers antici-
pate historiographical bias. Second is an afterword, in which the author
gathers and summarizes his assessments. Assessments do appear throughout
the book, but they lie scattered in sudden (and sometimes quite long) asides.
Both bookends might have helped readers make more finely tuned conclusions
as they finished—allowing them to engage more with the author’s authoritative
tone.
Without such a foreword, we are left in doubt about the nature of the author’s
criticisms. What are the author’s own beliefs and motivations? What are his
thoughts and feelings toward American “misguided idealist[s]” (p. 270) who
served the Soviet Underground during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s? Why
spend so much time and effort on this book?
Without such an afterword, a set of interconnected shortcomings go missing.
These might have catapulted this book’s impact and relevance. The most glar-
ing hole is lengthy comparison to the Hiss Case. This is surprising, too, since
the Hiss Case ran concurrent with the Lee case, as the book notes.
Both cases arose as a result of HUAC testimony by Elizabeth Bentley (the
main antagonist in Lee’s case). In fact, they ran so closely together that Lee
found his first appearance before HUAC on August 5, 1948, usurped by Alger
Hiss. This situation arose because Hiss had insisted on rebutting Chambers’s
testimony of two days earlier (August 3).
Perhaps, this missed opportunity arose in part by falling into the typical Hiss
Case trap. The author defines the Hiss Case as to a two-man confrontation of
Chambers’s “sensational accusations” against Alger Hiss. In fact, Chambers
had started off by naming more than half a dozen former Federal officials. Of
these, Hiss was merely the loudest, whose name survived hearings throughout
August 1948. The more famous Harry Dexter White had died three days after
his own HUAC testimony. Of the rest, all pled the Fifth except brother Donald
Hiss (about whom there seemed never much to say).
Perhaps the author’s characterization of Chambers led him off the scent:
Chambers, a former courier for the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence
service, was known in publishing circles as the translator of Bambi from Ger-
man into English. He was now a senior editor of Henry Luce’s Time maga-
zine. Badly shaken by Stalin’s savage purges, he had left the CPUSA in
1938. Testifying before HUAC ten years later, Chambers saw himself as a
messiah who had stepped forward to save the republic from communism’s
evils. (p. 158)
There are a number of inaccuracies here, large and small. Chambers was not
generally known at all in 1948. If indeed known in publishing circles, it would
have been for his 1945 Time essay “The Ghosts on the Roof,” which bucked
(then) current US warmth toward WWII ally “Uncle Joe” Stalin. Chambers
American Communist History 83
Downloaded by [Mr David Chambers] at 19:21 13 April 2015
saw himself not as a messiah but as a troubled soul,
10
at one moment proclaim-
ing profound insight, the next gnawed by self-doubt. Finally, Chambers had
only once “stepped forward,” but that was in September 1939, just after the
HitlerStalin Pact, to warn the Government about Communist infiltration.
The government stonewalling that followed led him to retreat further from
cooperation until summoned by subpoena in August 1948. In short, he was a
reluctant witness, as his 1952 memoir clearly states.
Whatever the cause, the author chooses to compare Lee to a crusading
Chambers, rather than to Hiss. He sees Lee and Chambers as flawed characters
who became Cold War warriors. He then notes that Lee’s “rejection of his past
convictions was never powerful enough to convert him into a tormented apos-
tate [Whittaker Chambers] who professed a messianic mission to come forth
and reveal communism’s innate evils” (p. 266).
Hiss was a more logical choice for comparison and contrast. Lee and Hiss
shared patrician backgrounds (or, “patrician-looking” in Hiss’s case, p. 159).
They shared Ivy League legal training and New Deal service. They shared
antagonists who both accused them of Soviet espionage before HUAC, almost
concurrently.
However, Hiss faced in Chambers an antagonist armed with evidence—the
Baltimore Documents, including handwritten notes by Hiss and papers type-
written on Hiss’ Woodstock. Lee faced Bentley, an antagonist unarmed with
any evidence, only scores more names (all of whose acts, maddeningly for the
FBI, fell within the ten-year statute of limitations on treason). Moreover, Bent-
ley fell among a group of publicly known, FBI-paid informants; Chambers
remained independent (and at times often fearful) of Federal agencies.
Perhaps most interesting is to compare similarities in Lee’s and Hiss’s defense
strategies. At his first hearing, Lee pretended he knew Bentley as anything but a
communist or spy. He made ad hominem attacks on her, calling her “very
lonely and neurotic... frustrated... unnaturally intense” (p. 163). (The author
does not note similar language used by Hiss himself against Chambers: “Is he a
man of sanity?”) After attacking Bentley’s character, Lee supported his own
illustrious surname with the names of others as character references, including
OSS founder Bill Donovan. (The author does not note that Hiss used the same
tactic, name-dropping names of Supreme Court justices Oliver Wendell
Holmes and Felix Frankfurter among others.) The author does compare Lee’s
characterization of Bentley (a broken person bent “on a destructive course of
spiteful revenge”) to Alger Hiss, whose “criminal defense team later explained
Whittaker Chambers’s motives in much the same way” (p. 164), but he does
not delve.
10
In its review of Witness,The American Scholar compared Chambers to literary characters Raskolnikov
and Kurtz: “As if one of Dostoevski’s characters—say, Raskolnikov—had written his own life, or as if Kurtz,
insteadofConrad,hadtoldusthetaleofThe Heart of Darkness.” Robert Raynolds, "Of Human Achieve-
ment, The American Scholar (December 1952), p. 492. http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmScholar-1952q4-00492
84 Essay Review
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Interesting legal and tactical questions beg attention. Why were the defense
strategies of Lee and Hiss so similar? Did this arise out of similar Ivy League
law training or legal experience? Or did it come from somewhere else? Since
Hiss testified first on August 5, did Lee simply change his own testimony after
hearing Hiss’s—and after seeing Hiss’s success in the press?
Did they dip from the same pool of lawyers—say, members of the National
Lawyers Guild (NLG)? Since 1950, if not earlier, HUAC had accused the
NLG as the “foremost legal bulwark of the Communist Party.”
11
The NLG
included many people involved in the Hiss Case: Ware Group members Lee
Pressman, Nathan Witt, and John Abt; their counsel (and law partner) Harold
I. Cammer; Carol Weiss King (counsel to J. Peters)
12
; and Hiss counsel Victor
Rabinowitz—to mention a few. NLG members often came from the CPUSA’s
International Labor Defense. Hiss himself was a member of the International
Juridical Association (IJA), which folded into the NLG. Pressman, Witt, Abt,
Cammer, and Weiss King were all former IJA members, too. So—did Lee
receive help from the NLG, directly or through other Ivy League lawyer-
friends?
Such tantalizing questions lead to speculation. What might have happened if
Lee had faced proof of espionage, as Hiss faced in the Baltimore Documents?
What would have happened if Hiss had not faced such proof—would he have
escaped jail, as Lee did?
Like Hiss, Lee wrote several memoirs—in Lee’s case, without finishing or
publishing. None admitted to espionage. Bradley concludes “It was unthinkable
for Lee to admit what he had actually done” (p. 261). Rather, to his dying day,
Lee proclaimed his innocence to his children and grandchildren.
Both Lee and Hiss went to their graves in denial: why is that? Why lie to one’s
children? What can they learn, if they cannot learn from their parents’ mistakes?
What can we learn from their denial of basic truths?
Assessments of long-term historical impact are over-brief, too. They leave
readers hungering for more. If “The Republicans’ charges of weakness and the
Democrats’ countercharges remain very much alive today” (p. 270), how is that
so?
Of course, to finish a book filled with fascinationrevulsion and yet hunger
for more, is not a bad thing—not bad at all.
11
Committee on Un-American Activities—U.S. House of Representatives, “The National Lawyers
Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party,” House Report No. 123 (81st Congress, 2d Session
(Washington: GPO, 11/17/1950). http://archive.org/stream/reportonnational1950unit/reportonnationa
l1950unit_djvu.txt
12
J. Peters, born Sandor Goldberg (18941990), was a Soviet spymaster based in New York City, as
alleged by Whittaker Chambers during testimony and in his 1952 memoir “Witness”; see Thomas Sak-
myster, “Red Conspirator: J. Peters and the American Communist Underground”, 2011, University of
Illinois Press)
American Communist History 85
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
born Sandor Goldberg (1894À1990), was a Soviet spymaster based in New York City, as alleged by Whittaker Chambers during testimony and in his 1952 memoir "Witness"; see Thomas Sakmyster
Committee on Un-American Activities-U.S. House of Representatives, "The National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party," House Report No. 123 (81st Congress, 2d Session (Washington: GPO, 11/17/1950). http://archive.org/stream/reportonnational1950unit/reportonnationa l1950unit_djvu.txt 12 J. Peters, born Sandor Goldberg (1894À1990), was a Soviet spymaster based in New York City, as alleged by Whittaker Chambers during testimony and in his 1952 memoir "Witness"; see Thomas Sakmyster, "Red Conspirator: J. Peters and the American Communist Underground", 2011, University of Illinois Press)
The National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party
Committee on Un-American Activities-U.S. House of Representatives, "The National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party," House Report No. 123 (81st Congress, 2d Session (Washington: GPO, 11/17/1950). http://archive.org/stream/reportonnational1950unit/reportonnationa l1950unit_djvu.txt 12 J. Peters, born Sandor Goldberg (1894À1990), was a Soviet spymaster based in New York City, as alleged by Whittaker Chambers during testimony and in his 1952 memoir "Witness";
Red Conspirator: J. Peters and the American Communist Underground
  • Thomas See
  • Sakmyster
see Thomas Sakmyster, "Red Conspirator: J. Peters and the American Communist Underground", 2011, University of Illinois Press)