Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Strange Case of Harry Dexter White

I was bemused to find Anne Applebaum calling out Harry Dexter White as a Soviet spy in her recent book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956.  Apparently, she drew her conclusion from Allen Weinstein's and Alexander Vassiliev's The Haunted Wood, from a few years back, which called out a number of top officials in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, based on the release of the Mitrokhin Archives.  However, many of these allegations have been challenged and refuted, notably that of White, who was fundamental in shaping Roosevelt New Deal policies and the creation of the International Monetary Fund.

James Broughton argues effectively in his paper, The Case Against Harry Dexter White, published in 2000, that these allegations are largely circumstantial, as White was dealing with a number of Soviet officials in his capacity as undersecretary to Morgenthau during the Roosevelt administration.  The Roosevelt administration treated the Soviet Union as an ally during WWII, exchanging information and in hashing out a post-war economy at Bretton Woods.  Although, Broughton concedes that in the end one can read whatever he wants into the "revelations" that were made by Mitrokhin.

White has been the subject of several books in recent years.  One of the major responses to the allegations was Treasonable Doubt by Bruce Craig, published in 2004.  Like Broughton, he defends White saying that the undersecretary's decisions were consistent with the policies being set by Morgenthau.  White was an internationalist and believed strongly in the integration of the Soviet Union in a new global economy, especially with Britain reduced as a result of the war.  Truman regarded White well enough to make him the head of the newly created International Monetary Fund in 1946, a post White held for one year before allegations swirling around about his Soviet sympathies resulted in his resignation.  He died in 1948, shortly after being cleared of any conflicts of interest.

It seems Anne Applebaum was content to take the VENONA decrypts at face value in regard to White.  She tossed out his name loosely, and has yet to circle back to note why she chose to mention him, unlike Walter Duranty, who she felt purposely downplayed the Ukranian famine that was occurring as a result of Stalin's policies.  She insists he was fully aware of it at the time.  Duranty was later exposed as a Soviet agent in the VENONA decrypts.  Broughton and Craig argue that one cannot draw such clear distinctions in regard to Harry Dexter White.


  1. I tried to read the Applebaum book but felt like I was being drawn into an extremely dark anti-communist work of propaganda. That's not to suggest what she was writing about wasn't true ... but there didn't seem to be any distance that time can afford. At least not in the opening 100 pages or so.

    I don't remember White, but he may have come in later or it may not have impressed me since I know nothing about him. She does tell the interesting story of the Pole who was arrested so that he could report on the conditions of the concentration camp before escaping again-- that was an amazing story.

  2. This sounds like yet another neocon revisionist history of the 30s and 40s. Amity Shales' The Forgotten Man is another example. Since Roosevelt is responsible for so many things the neocons hate, especially Social Security, it makes sense. I think it is safe to say that these authors, whose credentials as historians are not exactly sterling, are preaching to the neocon choir. At least I hope so. Shales' book is bosh from beginning to end.

  3. She's a journalist, but has pretty impressive credentials -- speaks and reads Polish and maybe Russian, too. But she's married to (I think) a Polish ambassador or diplomat ... some connection like that. She tells a powerful story, and she's a good writer, but I'm not sure she's the right person to read if you want the big picture about that period. It just made me uncomfortable (but then I'm sure that was her goal).

  4. She won a Pulitzer for Gulag so I thought I would give her book on Eastern Europe a try. When she focuses exclusively on the degree to which the Soviet Union manipulated the governments of Eastern Europe, she's fine since it appears she has a mountain of work to back her up, but when she starts to stretch you see the neocon roots come out.

    This book is very pro-Polish, which I'm sure her husband loves her for. Unfortunately, she completely botched Vilnius, which left a pretty sour taste in my mouth, but I'm trying to read on, since she said the focus of her book was Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and East Germany. But, yea I'm left to wonder if one of her main sources was Zbigniew Brzezinski.

  5. Oh good -- I'm glad it wasn't just me. I forgot the Lithuanian connection.

    The way I read the opening was how did these beautiful, free spirited, independent women become cogs in the communist machine? At some point I didn't want to go down that road with her any longer.

    On the other hand, I read a review she wrote about some recently translated Polish books and she made a very good argument about why that period of history was so important. If she had started her own book that way, I might have stuck with it.

  6. The period is important, and too easily passed over. She chides Hannah Arendt for underestimating the totalitarian nature of the Eastern European regimes, and provides a necessary antidote to Stone's and Kuznick's treatment of this era in Eastern European history. Nevertheless, one all too quickly sees where her sympathies lie.