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  • A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior by Mark A. Bradley
  • John Earl Haynes
Mark A. Bradley, A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

Duncan Lee descended from the Lees of Virginia, two of whom (Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee) signed the Declaration of Independence. Another, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III, was one of George Washington’s leading cavalry officers. Most famous of all was Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia. Duncan in the 1930s attended Yale, became a Rhodes Scholar, and in 1939 joined the prestigious Wall Street law firm headed by William J. Donovan. After the United States entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt chose Donovan to head the country’s first comprehensive intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Lee followed Donovan to the OSS and was soon one of its rising officers, serving as assistant chief of the OSS Secretariat, which coordinated all OSS activities, and as secretary of the OSS’s executive committee. He also served as chief of the Japan-China Section and executive officer of the OSS’s Secret Intelligence Branch. [End Page 150] By the end of the war he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and was highly regarded by Donovan and other senior OSS officials.

But in the fall of 1945 Elizabeth Bentley turned herself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), claiming to have been the chief liaison for the American Communist Party (CPUSA) with secret Communists in the U.S. government and Soviet intelligence. One of those she named as a Soviet spy was Duncan Lee. In 1948 Bentley made her allegations public in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Many of the individuals Bentley named invoked the Fifth Amendment and declined to respond to her charges under oath (thereby looking guilty). Lee, however, firmly and without qualification denied the allegations and accused Bentley of making up the charges out of personal spite. OSS veterans and the Washington establishment rallied around Lee, trashing Bentley as deranged or a liar and attributing the charges to anti-Red hysteria. The FBI’s own investigation, however, convinced the bureau that Bentley’s charges were true, a judgment reinforced when the National Security Agency’s Venona project decrypted wartime Soviet intelligence cables regarding Lee’s espionage. But Venona, then secret, could not be used in court, and neither the FBI nor the Justice Department believed that the publicly admissible evidence would be sufficient to warrant a formal prosecution.

Nonetheless, the FBI made sure Lee was forever barred from further government service. The bureau convinced the U.S. Army to revoke his reserve officer commission and provided the State Department grounds to delay renewal of his U.S. passport. Publicly, however, Lee appeared to have weathered the charges, continued to have the support of prominent members of the Washington establishment, went on to a well-compensated life as a corporate lawyer, and died in 1988 still firmly proclaiming his innocence and largely being believed.

The façade of innocence, however, crumbled in 1995 when the Venona decryptions corroborating Bentley’s charges were publicly released. Bentley’s statements were further confirmed in 2009 with the public release of Alexander Vassiliev’s notebooks, which contain verbatim excerpts from Soviet foreign intelligence archival documents that provide ample additional detail regarding Lee’s work as a Soviet spy.

With A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior, Mark Bradley has provided a superb history that keeps Lee’s espionage for the Soviet Union as a central concern but also offers a biographical portrait of Lee and an extended examination of Lee’s successful campaign to maintain the façade of his innocence. Part of the latter was Lee’s post-1945 transformation into a Cold Warrior by his work for Claire Chennault’s CNRRA Air Transport (later Civil Air Transport), which provided air transport services, often while being subjected to serious anti-aircraft fire, for Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist regime during the...


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pp. 150-152
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