[Marxism] Re: Harry Magdoff as a Soviet Spy?

Brian Shannon brian_shannon at verizon.net
Mon Jan 9 20:01:31 MST 2006

On Jan 9, 2006, at 8:08 PM, George Snedeker wrote:

> The following statement comes from the NYT obit for Harry Magdoff.
> "Harry Magdoff fell in love with Marxist thought at 15 and became  
> an influential socialist economist, author, editor and commentator  
> - and, some said, a Soviet spy."
> Who besides Nixon has made the claim that he was a Soviet spy?

Lauren Kessler's 2003 biography of Elizabeth Bentley (“Clever Girl,”  
Harper-Collins) tells us about this period and has a little bit of  
information on Magdoff.  Bentley was drawn into spying for the USSR.  
She turned to the government in 1945 and for several years provided  
information to the FBI and various government agencies. It is an  
interesting biography and presents a useful evaluation of what made  
Elizabeth Bentley tick.

Unfortunately the author has little understanding of the Communist  
Party, makes no attempt to situate Bentley's activity within the  
context of WWII, and makes no attempt to interpret Bentley's claims  
within that context.

In fact, very little of what Bentley "revealed" was of any use to the  
government. My recollection is that no criminal charges were filed  
and indeed some of those "accused" managed to hold on to their jobs.  
One even successfully sued her. Bentley, however, had an excellent  
memory and some of her testimony dovetailed with other testimony  
involving the Rosenbergs and helped convict them.

That Bentley reported to representatives of the Soviet Union is  
unquestioned. However, it is not clear how many of those who provided  
her with information knew what her role was regarding the Soviet  
Union as distinct from the American CP. It is even less clear whether  
a person who may have been in a "group" that she had contact with,  
but who had no personal contact with Bentley, knew of Bentley's role  
or of the role of the leader of the "group."

Many of the members of the CP or in its periphery felt that passing  
on information regarding the Soviet Union's ally during the war was  
completely legitimate. They saw little or no patriotic conflict.

The U.S. government bureaucracy was formed in the 20s and 30s and  
earlier and was made up of people who were completely hostile to  
socialism or communism. They were the educated elite at a time when  
only a small percentage of the population graduated from college.  
Although many books have been written about the Left on college  
campuses, we should not forget that that group was relatively young  
and had little impact on the government. In fact, after college most  
of the young leftists worked with antigovernment associations.  
However, at the beginning of WWII, a few did enter or were drawn into  
government work, primarily at low level positions

The alliance with the Soviet Union meant that those who supported the  
new alliance had to work with—and around—the older entrenched  
bureaucrats. This was most obvious regarding various "missions" to  
Moscow, which were created by Roosevelt in order to work with Stalin.  
Most of the State Department bureaucrats were too inflexible to  
understand that they needed to change their colors during the war,  
whatever their attitude was before, and would be after, the war.

In some respects, the post-war McCarthy period was an effort to get  
rid of the few people that believed there could be peace between the  
two systems. McCarthy himself was only one element in this. The purge  
of those neutral to the Soviet Union began as the war was winding  
down. Truman, of course, became part of it

Magdoff's association with the so-called Victor Perlo group of  
economists working in the government should be understood in this  

The material below is retyped from "Clever Girl."

Brian Shannon


The [Perlo] network consisted of Victor Perlo, a Columbia University- 
trained mathematician and economist who was, at the time, a  
statistician with the War Production Board.... At the first meeting,  
Bentley also met Edward Fitzgerald and Harry Magdoff, both War  
Production Board employees like Perlo, and Charles Kramer, an  
economist with the Senate Subcommittee of War Mobilization. ...

Like the Silvermaster network, the Perlo Group was less a phalanx of  
trained spies than a loose association of men who knew each other  
through their work.... Although Perlo was more often than not the one  
who made the trip, a number of the others did as well, which meant  
that, in flagrant violation of professional tradecraft, a least six  
members of the group knew that Bentley was their handler. ... They  
brought minutes of the War Production Board and its different  
committees, interdepartmental economic summaries, plans and proposals  
for the occupation of postwar Germany, documents on trade policies  
after the war, and reports on commodities in short supply in the  
United States. Kramer contributed Capitol Hill gossip; Glasser  
supplied Treasury Department information; and Wheeler provided copies  
of OSS reports about worldwide political development. (pp 98-99)
At one point, agents worked assiduously to verify a meeting that  
Bentley said took place. She remember that it was a rain Sunday in  
March, and she remembered that one of the men at the meeting, Harry  
Magdoff, had been off work recovering from an operation. Agents ...  
found confirmation that he'd been on sick leave following gallbladder  
surgery ... (137-38)
Within the various government departments, some positions were  
abolished, some people were forced out, and some were allowed to  
resign. ... Magdoff and Fitzgerald left their Commerce Department  
jobs. (143)
In April of 1953, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee called  
hearings to investigate what it referred to as the "interlocking  
subversion on government departments," using Bentley's pas testimony  
as a guide.
On April 16, Nathan Gregory Silvermaster took the stand, proclaiming  
in an opening statement that he was "a loyal citizen [who] never  
betrayed the interest of the United States." ... Silvermaster not  
only refused to answer questions about his activities and  
associations, he also declined to tell the subcommittee the subject  
of his doctoral dissertation (Leninist economics).* ... The parade of  
witness that spring also included [several names], Harry Magdoff,...  
all named by Bentley, all of whom consistently took the Fifth.
That summer, the subcommittee issued its report, a fifty-page summary  
of thee years of investigation and three and a half months of  
hearings. There was, indeed, the committee concluded, a communist  
conspiracy. Communists had infiltrated the federal government, helped  
each other gets jobs and promotions, and protected one another from  
exposure. ... The so-called Jenner Report echoed much of Bentley's  
past testimony, lending official credence to her allegations. But in  
fact, the committee had gotten nothing from its witnesses. No one had  
admitted anything. No one had slipped up. No indictments resulted.  

* Legal advice is often to simply take the Fifth Amendment for  
everything. Otherwise, you may waive refusing to answer follow-up  

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