- Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case
Harry Dexter White, who served as assistant secretary of the treasury under both Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, is best known for being one of the highest-ranking government officials accused of espionage and for his stirring defense of himself before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in August 1948. However, White died only a few days after his testimony, diverting both contemporary and historical attention away from him. A measure of the relative neglect is that R. Bruce Craig's biography of White is only the third, and by far the best researched, account of his life and work. Craig opens the book by declaring that the evidence that has emerged since the end of the Cold War, particularly some 3,000 Soviet intelligence cables from the 1930s and 1940s that were decrypted by U.S. signals intelligence analysts, indicates that White did indeed spy for the Soviet Union. A book that begins with an acknowledgment of the facts in order to develop a sophisticated understanding of the motives and character of the subject would be a welcome addition to the historical literature on American Communism. Unfortunately. that is not the type of book that Craig has written. Although his study is worth reading for its wealth of details, it suffers from a strange dichotomy, accepting proof of White's espionage on the one hand while seeking to dismiss specific charges and generally minimize the extent of the espionage on the other. A subtheme running through the book suggests that White may not have been a spy at all but an unwitting agent manipulated by the real Communists and spies among his close friends and associates.
Craig treats his subject thematically, dividing the book into three broad sections. The first section, titled "The Making of a New Dealer," presents a brief biography of White and details his early career at the Treasury Department. The next section, "Harry Dexter White and the Subversion of American Foreign Policy," discusses the allegations that White used his government position to advance Soviet interests. The [End Page 111] final section, "The Search for Collaboration Five Decades and Beyond," further examines the evidence against White. Craig's arguments follow a set pattern. He begins a section by discussing a period of White's life, acknowledges that White was engaged in "some form of espionage" at the time, and then presents the evidence a piece at a time while poking as many holes as possible in the individual pieces. In a chapter titled "Whittaker Chambers, Harry Dexter White, and the Washington, D.C., Communist Underground," Craig traces White's rapid rise in the Treasury Department thanks to his razor-sharp intelligence and despite his often abrasive personality. Craig then shifts gears and states: "It was during this period of Harry Dexter White's rise to preeminence in the Treasury Department (1934–1938) that, according to Whittaker Chambers, White became entangled in the Communist underground" (p. 40).
Nothing in the paragraphs that came before this statement prepares the reader for the abrupt shift, and nothing in the record of White's career as presented by Craig foreshadows such a development. However, Craig assures his audience that circumstantial evidence does support the claim and devotes the next thirty-eight pages to meticulously examining everything Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley ever said about Harry Dexter White. He spends two full pages assessing the famous story of the Bukhara rugs, expensive central Asian carpets that Chambers's controller asked him to present to his four most valuable agents as thanks from the Soviet people. Craig devotes another two pages to a close analysis of the "White memorandum," a four-page document in White's handwriting containing conversational comments on a number of issues united by the common thread of U.S. policy toward Japan. Craig dismisses both bits of evidence, noting that the rug was given to White by Chambers not as a gift from the Soviet people but as a present from his...