How the Cold War Began


By Amy Knight

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On September 5, 1945, cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko severed ties with the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, reporting to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police allegations of extensive Soviet espionage in North America, providing stolen documents detailing Soviet intelligence matters to back his claims. This action sent shockwaves through Washington, London, Moscow, and Ottawa, changing the course of the twentieth century. Using recently declassified FBI and Canadian RCMP files on the Gouzenko case, author and Cold War scholar Amy Knight sheds new light on the FBI’s efforts to incriminate Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White in order to discredit the Truman Administration. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover seized upon Gouzenko’s defection as a means through which to demonize the Soviets, distorting statements made by Gouzenko to stir up “spy fever” in the U.S., setting the McCarthy era into motion. Through the FBI files and interviews with several key players, Knight delves into Gouzenko’s reasons for defecting and brilliantly connects these events to the strained relations between the Soviet Union and the West, marking the beginning of the Cold War.




The KGB: Police and Politics in the Soviet Union (1988)

Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant (1993)

Spies Without Cloaks: The KGB's Successors (1996)

Who Killed Kirov?: The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery (1999)



With an Author's Note for U.S. Readers



To Molly Knight Raskin


June 1943 Igor Gouzenko arrives in Ottawa with GRU team.
October 1943 Anna Gouzenko joins her husband.
September 1944 Gouzenko hears he is being called back to Moscow. His boss Zabotin manages a post-ponement.
August 6, 1945 United States detonates atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
September 5, 1945 Gouzenko leaves the Soviet Embassy for the last time, with the intention of defecting.
September 6, 1945 Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King learns of the defection.
September 7, 1945 Gouzenko arrives at RCMP headquarters for debriefing.
September 29, 1945 Mackenzie King travels to Washington to meet President Harry Truman.
November 8, 1945 Elizabeth Bentley signs her first statement, revealing an espionage network in Washington and New York.
February 3, 1946 Drew Pearson breaks the Canadian spy story.
February 13, 1946 Royal Commission on Espionage begins taking testimony from Gouzenko.
February 15, 1946 Canadian spy suspects arrested and interrogation by the RCMP begins.
March 2, 1946 The first of the spy suspects is formally charged.
March 4,1946 First Interim Report of Royal Commission appears.
March 5,1946 Alan Nnnn May arrested in London; Winston Churchill gives his "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri.
June 1946 Fred Rose trial and conviction.
July 1946 Final Report of Royal Commission on Espionage appears; last of Soviet diplomats suspected of spying leave Canada.
March 1946-1947 Trials of Canadian spy suspects.
January 1947-July 1948 U.S. Federal Grand Jury hears testimony from Bentley and Whittaker Chambers.
August 1948 Harry Dexter White testifies before HUAC; dies.
November 1948 Chambers produces documents to back up his charges against Hiss.
December 1948 Alger Hiss indicted for perjury before a Grand Jury
January 1949 FBI arrests Sam Carr.
May 1949 Senator Pat McCarran's Subcommittee on Immigration interviews Gouzenko in Ottawa.
May-July 1949 First Hiss perjury trial, ending in a hung jury.
January 1950 Hiss found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison; Klaus Fuchs confesses to espionage.
September 1950 FBI requests report on Herbert Norman from RCMP.
May 1951 Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess defect to Soviet Union.
August 1951 Herbert Norman mentioned in Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) hearings.
March 1953 Stalin dies.
January 1954 SISS takes testimony from Gouzenko in Ottawa.
March 1957 Norman's name again brought up at SISS hearings.
April 4, 1957 Norman commits suicide.
January 1963 Kim Philby defects to Moscow.
June 1982 Gouzenko dies.

NOTE: I have used the Library of Congress system of transliteration from the Russian Cyrillic. Exceptions are well-known names, such as Gouzenko, which appear in the more familiar Anglicized forms.


When I first started my research on the Gouzenko affair, I did not expect that it would involve rethinking the sensational Alger Hiss case, which polarized American public opinion during the McCarthy era and aroused heated debate among historians in the United States in the past five decades. Ever since new documentation emerged in the 1990s, said to prove conclusively that Hiss was a spy, many historians have considered the Hiss case closed.

But a close scrutiny of this new evidence—prompted by my suspicion that the FBI distorted statements made by Gouzenko to help make their case against Hiss—led me to join the small minority of Cold War scholars who remained unconvinced that Hiss was a Soviet agent. The first supposedly definitive proof against Hiss was the now famous March 30, 1945 telegram from the Soviet intelligence chief in Washington, Anatolii Gorsky, to Moscow headquarters. Gorsky's message, deciphered by the U.S. National Security Agency (as part of a secret program called Venona) and made public in 1995, contained references to a spy code-named “Ales,” who was said to be Alger Hiss. As I explain in this book, there were actually far too many uncertainties of meaning in that fragmented message to come to any conclusions about the identity of Ales.

Since my book was published in Canada last year, the NSA has released the original Russian version of the decryption. Far from resolving the ambiguities, as many had hoped, the original makes it even more doubtful that “Ales” was Alger Hiss. To mention one example: the Russian text makes it clear that the group of spies run by Ales consisted of his family members. They had for many years provided such valuable military secrets to the Soviets that they were awarded decorations. It is highly improbable that Hiss's family could have had any military information worth sharing with the Soviets. Hiss's wife, Priscilla, was a stay-at-home mother, and his brother Donald a lawyer for the State Department.

The other much-cited evidence against Hiss appeared in a book called The Haunted Wood by Allen Weinstein (currently the archivist of the United States) and Alexander Vassiliev (a former KGB officer), published in 1999 and based on documents that Vassiliev consulted in the KGB archives. The fact that several of the messages from Soviet intelligence operatives reproduced in The Haunted Wood contained references to Alger Hiss led readers to the conclusion that he was a spy. But it turned out that the original Soviet messages did not mention Hiss by name. Weinstein inserted the name Hiss in place of the Russian code-name Ales. His co-author later observed that he had warned Weinstein against doing this: “I never saw a document where Hiss would be called Ales or Ales may be called Hiss. I made a point of that to Allen [Weinstein].” In addition, Weinstein omitted from the book two important pieces of documentation, written by the above-mentioned Gorsky, that Vassiliev copied and handed over to him. Gorsky's messages (which came to light only recently) seriously undermine the theory that Hiss was the spy codenamed Ales.

Although these new Russian materials do not prove that Hiss was innocent of charges of spying, they make it clear that his case, one of many touched upon in this book, is far from settled. For those who disdain historical ambiguities, this may come as unwelcome news. But the historian's job is not to come up with absolute truths. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. recently observed, “history is never a closed book or a final verdict. It is always in the making.” *

April 2006
Basel, Switzerland

*Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “History and National Stupidity,” The New York Review of Books, April 27, 2006, p. 16. For a discussion among scholars on the Hiss- “Ales” issue, including the recent new evidence, see the postings on the Humanities and Social Sciences Net at, January-February 2004, March 2005, and November 2005. Also see David Lowenthal, “Did Allen Weinstein Get the Alger Hiss Story Wrong?” posted on History News Network at, May 2, 2005.


The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie . . . but the myth.

John F. Kennedy

On September 12, 1945, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent an urgent letter by special messenger to Matthew Connelly, secretary to U.S. president Harry Truman at the White House.1 Hoover had some alarming news: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had informed the FBI that they had learned of an extensive Soviet espionage network in Canada. Their source, a “former employee” of the military attaché's office at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, claimed that Stalin's government had made “the obtaining of complete information regarding the atomic bomb the Number One project of Soviet espionage.” The source also reported that a British atomic scientist working in Canada, who had spent time at a research laboratory at the University of Chicago and was well acquainted with the process for separating uranium, had been a Soviet spy of long-standing. The scientist had furnished the Soviets with a sample of U233, which was immediately flown to Moscow, and also passed on top secret information about U.S. naval technology.

There was more to this disturbing story. The Soviet source had told the RCMP “an assistant to an Assistant Secretary of State under Mr. Stettinius [Edward Stettinius, U.S. Secretary of State until June 1945]” was “a paid Soviet spy.” The spy's name was unknown at the present, but the RCMP was making further inquiries. Hoover told Connelly that “The Canadian situation is being followed closely and any additional information will be brought to the attention of the President and you.”

Hoover's letter must have caused considerable consternation at the White House. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just a month earlier had demonstrated the terrible destructive power of the atomic bomb. The thought that the Soviets might gain access to the secrets of its production was frightening. On top of that, America's closest ally and neighbor to the north, with whom it shared many secrets, was penetrated by Stalin's spies, and the Kremlin was very possibly getting information about what was going on at the highest levels of decision-making at the State Department. Six days later, Hoover, who had dispatched an FBI agent to Ottawa immediately upon hearing about the case, had enough information to transmit a formal FBI report, “Soviet Espionage Activity,” to Frederick Lyon, chief of the Foreign Activity Division at the State Department.2

The top secret report, dated September 18, 1945, described the source in Canada. His name was Igor Gouzenko. He was a cipher clerk at the Soviet Embassy, who had “severed all his relations with his employers” on September 5 and was now in hiding with his wife and fifteen-month-old child. Gouzenko had “furnished considerable information regarding Soviet espionage activity directed against the United States and Canada.” In addition to the British nuclear expert, there were spies in Canadian government offices and agents in the United States, and an American scientist currently working for the U.S. Navy was being developed as “a possible Soviet agent.” Moreover, although Gouzenko had worked for Red Army Intelligence (known as the GRU), he had learned that the other Soviet intelligence branch under the notorious security police, the NKVD, had also “penetrated departments of the various governments.”

As for the traitor in the State Department, the FBI report repeated what Hoover had said in his earlier letter to the White House: “an individual identified to date only as an assistant to an Assistant Secretary of State under Stettinius is a paid Soviet spy” [italics added]. Up to this point, the RCMP had been debriefing Gouzenko. But shortly thereafter, the FBI conducted its own interview with the defector. The results were provided in a second FBI report on Soviet espionage, dated September 24, and sent again to the State Department.3 Anyone who saw both reports would have noticed immediately that the description of the spy in the State Department had changed: “Guzenko [sic] was questioned carefully regarding the possible identity of the individual in the Department of State under Stettinius who is a Soviet spy. Guzenko stated he did not know the man's name but that he had been told that an Assistant to Stettinius was a Soviet spy” [italics added].

This change was highly significant, as it narrowed down the list of possible State Department spies considerably. There were many assistants to the six Assistant Secretaries of State, but only a handful of assistants to Stettinius himself. One of them was Alger Hiss, a brilliant Harvard-educated lawyer who had played a key role in the founding of the United Nations. Hiss had been appointed director of the State Department's Office of Special Political Affairs the previous March and had worked directly under Stettinius. A “New Dealer” from the Roosevelt era, Hiss was already on the FBI's radar screen. A former Soviet agent named Whittaker Chambers, an American, had told the FBI that Hiss had been a member of a communist group in the mid-1930s. The statements of the defector in Ottawa gave the Chambers allegations new weight.4

But Gouzenko had told the RCMP initially that the spy was an “assistant to an Assistant Secretary of State.” This was cited specifically in Hoover's letter to the White House and in the first FBI report, so the FBI must have thought that the RCMP had recorded Gouzenko's statements accurately. Given that the change came after the FBI questioned Gouzenko directly (through a translator), is it possible that the interviewer already had Hiss in mind and suggested to Gouzenko that he might in fact be talking about an assistant to Stettinius? Whatever the truth (and we will probably never know), this seemingly minor alteration in Gouzenko's description would acquire huge significance. The charges that Hiss was a Soviet agent took hold, and his case eventually became a cause célèbre for both sides of the American political spectrum in the turbulent McCarthy era.

The spy in the U.S. State Department, however much it preoccupied Hoover, was just one element of a case that would involve Canada, Britain, and the United States in a concerted and protracted effort to respond to the threat of Soviet spying. For the Canadians, the immediate problem was what to do about their over twenty civil servants and scientists implicated by Gouzenko. And the British, of course, had to deal with Gouzenko's allegation that one of their top atomic experts was engaged in espionage. In short, the Gouzenko defection, which remained a closely guarded secret, quickly assumed enormous proportions for those in the upper echelons of the three allied governments. Indeed, Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was so alarmed by Gouzenko's revelations that he traveled to Washington to see President Truman personally at the end of September and then continued to London to discuss the problem with newly elected British prime minister Clement Attlee. For the next several months, in the corridors of the White House, Whitehall, and the Canadian Parliament Buildings, the revelations of Igor Gouzenko would be a source of deep concern.

Gouzenko was not the first Soviet defector to emerge from Stalin's intelligence apparatus with claims about Soviet espionage. Before him was Walter Krivitsky, a rather shadowy figure who had worked for Soviet military intelligence in the Netherlands as an “illegal,” or an agent under deep cover, in the 1930s. Krivitsky sought political asylum in France in 1937 and showed up in the United States late in 1938. The FBI was not particularly interested in him, perhaps because what he said was marred by exaggerations and inconsistencies and because his first step was to sell his sensational story to the Saturday Evening Post. But when he mentioned that the Soviets had a spy in the British government, he was invited to England for a debriefing. Krivitsky's claim that a young British aristocrat was a Soviet mole in the Foreign Office turned out to be true (he was talking about Donald Maclean, one of the notorious “Cambridge Five” spies). But at the time MI5 (Britain's counterintelligence service, similar to the FBI) was also skeptical about the defector. Sir Dick White, who would later become MI5's director, observed, “I did not wholly trust Krivitsky. He wasn't using his real name and he wasn't a general. He hadn't mastered enough to give us a proper lead.”5 In 1939, Krivitsky published a book, In Stalin's Secret Service, about his life as a spy. But once the Soviet Union entered the war against the Nazis, there was less interest in what Krivitsky had to say. As his currency declined in value, Krivitsky became increasingly despondent. In 1941, he committed suicide.6

Another high-profile defector was Viktor Kravchenko, an employee of the Soviet Purchasing Agency in New York. Kravchenko announced his defection publicly in April 1944, but in fact he had been in touch with the State Department and the FBI beforehand, offering to furnish information about Soviet espionage. The FBI listened but was standoffish, which was apparently why Kravchenko went to the press. The State Department actually wanted to send Kravchenko back to the Soviet Union so as not to offend the Russians, America's war ally. But the FBI, which was not worried about diplomacy, managed to keep this from happening. Like Krivitsky, Kravchenko aroused skepticism. The British, for example, were dubious about his claim of being a political dissident. He might have been sincere, they posited, but on the other hand, “he may have been recalled and just decided it was nicer here . . . he may have been caught with his wrists in the till and decided to take the breeze . . . he may have a girlfriend here of whom his superiors disapprove”7

The allied counterintelligence agencies had long known that the Soviets were engaged in espionage against their countries. Although they were distracted by the fascist threat, they had conducted surveillance against the Soviets and their communist contacts throughout the war years. But the diplomatic requirements of the wartime alliance had prevented them from being much more than observers of Soviet spying. Now it was different. The war was over and the alliance was crumbling. Moreover, unlike the others, Gouzenko had concrete evidence to back up his claims about Soviet espionage – a dazzling cache of stolen GRU documents. The intelligence chiefs were not inclined to sweep this defection under the carpet for diplomatic reasons.

This was especially true of Hoover. The FBI chief had been convinced for some time that his country faced a serious threat from Soviet attempts to infiltrate the U.S. government and scientific community. But Hoover felt himself at odds with Truman on the issue. In Hoover's view, Truman and his advisers, especially his new secretary of state, James Byrnes, were soft on communism and more concerned about protecting civil liberties than about unmasking spies in the government. Gouzenko's defection offered Hoover the perfect chance to draw attention to the communist danger. The case, if exposed, would discredit the liberals who surrounded Truman and enable Hoover to play center stage in Washington. In mid-October 1945, Hoover wrote a memorandum to his top aides. The Gouzenko case, he told them, was their “no. 1 project and every resource should be used to run down all angles very promptly.”8

Britain's MI5 and MI6, the agency responsible for intelligence-gathering abroad, also responded urgently to the Gouzenko case.9 MI6 chief Sir Stewart Menzies (who signed himself as “C”) had never stopped fearing Soviet spies during the war. “We have been penetrated by the Communists,” he observed in 1944, “and they're on the inside but we don't know exactly how.”10 MI6's British representative in North America, Sir William Stephenson (later immortalized as the “Man Called Intrepid”), rushed to Ottawa when he heard the news of the defection. Stephenson, like Hoover, had an agenda. His intelligence liaison body in New York, the British Security Coordination (bsc), was about to be dismantled because it was a wartime agency, and Stephenson would soon be out of a job. According to one historian, “The cipher clerk's defection provided him with a golden opportunity to keep the bsc alive until its post-war existence could be guaranteed. For the next months, therefore, he did his best to ensure that the bsc played an active role in the Gouzenko affair.”11


On Sale
Aug 24, 2007
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Amy Knight

About the Author

Amy Knight has a PhD in Russian politics from the London School of Economics. She has been a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. She has written frequently for the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Her previous books include Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant, Spies Without Cloaks: The KGB’s Successors, and Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery. She divides her time between Ottawa and Switzerland.

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