Cover image for Treasonable doubt : the Harry Dexter White spy case
Treasonable doubt : the Harry Dexter White spy case
Craig, R. Bruce.
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Publication Information:
Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, [2004]

Physical Description:
x, 436 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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HJ257 .C72 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley shocked America in 1948 with their allegations that Communist spies had penetrated the American government. The resulting perjury trial of Alger Hiss is already legendary, but Chambers and Bentley also named Harry Dexter White, a high-ranking Treasury official. (Hiss himself thought that White had been the real target of the House Un-American Activities Committee.) When White died only a week after his bold defense before Congress, much speculation remained about the cause of his death and the truth of the charges made against him. Armed with a wealth of new information, Bruce Craig examines this controversial case and explores the "ambiguities" that have haunted it for more than half a century.

The highest ranking figure in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations to be accused of espionage, White played a central role in the founding of the United Nations' twin financial institutions, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. For years after his death, White was a target of red-baiting by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Eisenhower's attorney general Herbert Brownell. Two Republican-controlled Senate committees even held White accountable for formulating the "pro-Russian" Morgenthau Plan for post-war Germany and for orchestrating the loss of mainland China to the Communists.

Craig draws heavily on previously untapped or underused sources, including White's personal papers, Treasury Department records, FBI files, and the once secret Venona files of decrypted Soviet espionage cables. Interviews with nearly two dozen key figures in the case, including Alger Hiss and former KGB officer V. G. Pavlov, also help bring White's story to life. Sifting through this mountain of evidence, Craig retraces White's rise to power within the Treasury Department and confirms that White was involved in a "species of espionage"--but also shows that the same evidence contradicts Bentley's charges of "policy subversion."

What emerges is an evenhanded portrait of neither a monster nor a martyr but rather a committed New Dealer and internationalist whose hopes for world peace transcended national loyalties--a man who saw some benefit in cooperating with the Soviets but had no affection for dictatorship. Although it still remains unclear whether White leaked classified information vital to national security, Craig clearly shows that none of the most serious allegations against him can be substantiated.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

White became a high-level economist in the Treasury Department under President Franklin Roosevelt and helped establish the framework for the current international financial system at the end of World War II. He was also a firm believer in international peace and a Soviet sympathizer. During the McCarthy era, White was accused with Alger Hiss of being a Communist spy and died a few days after testifying before Congress in 1948. Craig, executive director of the National Coalition for History, here presents a polished version of his 1999 dissertation for American University. In investigating White's case, he conducted considerable archival research and was able to get many important documents declassified. Though he does not always cite specific evidence, sometimes simply giving his evaluation, his work is extensively documented. In it he argues that the documents show that White passed along information but had nothing vital to give away and that he did not subvert U.S. policy. He also provides a good context of the times and of Soviet conspiratorial techniques. With all the documents now coming available, it would take some time to do the research and confirm that Craig's assessment is correct. But Craig is not just presenting a whitewash, and amid the growing volume of literature on Soviet espionage at the beginning of the Cold War, he poses a bigger, more important question: exactly what did the Soviets do with the information from their American agents, and how did it benefit them? Suitable for all libraries. Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the treasury under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, was the highest-ranking official to be accused of espionage during the era of McCarthyism following WW II. This evenhanded account brings a dispassionate analysis to a case characterized by vitriolic denunciations by Eisenhower Attorney General Herbert Brownell, and more recently by renewed allegations in the aftermath of the publication of the Venona transcripts of Soviet message traffic from the war years. Craig (executive director, National Coalition for History) acknowledges that White passed information to the Soviets, but denies that this places him in the same category as Alger Hiss, another high-ranking official fingered by admitted communist Whitaker Chambers. White, Craig argues, was not a traitor; he believed that the best course for postwar Soviet-American relations was one of cooperation, and he sought that end. Craig found no evidence that White ever used his influence to fashion policy damaging to the US. This is a masterful historical investigation that examines the evidence in the White case, lays out an historical analysis that neither condemns White nor exonerates him, and encourages readers to tolerate the ambiguities that emerge in the historical record. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. A. J. Dunar University of Alabama in Huntsville