One of the biggest blind spots of the US government from 1918-1945 was its underestimation of communism’s public appeal. Many officials thought the doctrine so obviously pernicious—and foreign—that it would find followers only among the foolish, the desperate, and the criminal. In fact, many American converts to communism were well-placed intellectuals, social elites, and civil servants. The proximate cause of their attraction to communism was the catastrophe of the Great Depression, which led many in the western world to believe that capitalism and democracy were no longer viable.
Men in the FBI and intelligence services often simply refused to believe the evidence before their eyes that intelligent, privileged and well-placed Americans not only sympathized with communism but were prepared to work for the Soviet Union. When the truth finally emerged, it instigated shock leading both to determined awareness and paranoia that some erstwhile traitors used for their own purpose. The story of Elizabeth Bentley provides a case in point.
Born in 1908 in New Milford, Connecticut, Bentley went to undergraduate school at Vassar, and then to graduate school at Columbia University. In 1933, she won a fellowship to study at the University of Florence, Italy. So far, so good; but Bentley’s loneliness and emotional instability—and growing problems with alcoholism—led her to look for acceptance in political cliques on the right and left. Back in the United States after graduation and moving to New York, she fell in with an antifascist discussion group that led her in turn to join the Communist Party.
Bentley rewarded the sense of acceptance that she got from her fellow communists with total dedication to party work. This in turn impressed Soviet intelligence, which contacted her through the person of a mysterious individual named Golos, actually Russian Jacob Raisin, who had escaped from the tsar before World War I and then become a Bolshevik agent in the United States. He and Bentley became lovers even as he recruited her to spy on the fascist groups to which she had once belonged, and to serve as a contact among other American agents in and out of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.
Bentley’s contacts were important. They included Whittaker Chambers, who in turn maintained contact with Alger Hiss; Nathan Silvermaster, who worked in the Agriculture Department; William Remington, who worked for the War Production Board; George Silverman, who worked in the Treasury; and Harry Dexter White, who devised the International Monetary Fund and World Bank while also shipping information to Stalin. Golos got her a job at a company called the US Service and Shipping Corporation, headed by pro-communist millionaire John Hazard Reynolds. The Soviet Union backed the company through Golos, and it served as a cover for communist espionage in the United States.
Although many of these individuals spied out of a sense of idealism, Bentley’s motives were more mixed. She gladly accepted money to support her fine clothes, partying and drinking. This became a problem as the Soviet government tried to establish direct control over Golos’s operations, which Stalin’s cronies saw as dangerously amateurish. Golos probably escaped execution only by his death of a heart attack in 1943. Losing her lover, and disappointed by the coldly bureaucratic approach of his replacements, Bentley became increasingly difficult to deal with. In August 1945, she decided to go to the FBI.
The FBI did not at first believe her confessions; partly because she only admitted bits at a time, and partly because nobody was willing to believe the degree to which the Soviets had infiltrated the American government. When J. Edgar Hoover’s men finally decided that her overall story was true, it was too late to make proper use of her. British double agent Kim Philby informed Moscow of her betrayal in time for Stalin to cut his losses and forge new networks. He lost Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and many others, but they had done their damage and were expendable.
Bentley’s identity was revealed in 1947 to the American press in the course of a feud between Hoover and the Justice Department, and became a celebrity known as the “Red Spy Queen.” But Bentley exploited her celebrity in the atmosphere of the Red Scare to blackmail the government for money. She laced her testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee with lies in order to impress the media. Bishop Fulton Sheen engineered her very public conversion to Catholicism, but it was insincere. She used his contacts to earn money on the speaking circuit and get teaching jobs, and also to add credence to her memoir, Out of Bondage, which told more lies in order to project an image that she was an innocent victim of the Soviets rather than a traitor.
Eventually the media lost interest, and Bentley succumbed to alcoholism and died in 1963. With hindsight, it’s possible to see her both as victim and villain. Coddled, narcissistic and weak-minded—but genuinely hoping to improve upon a system that progressive thinkers proclaimed had failed—she fell prey to hollow visions propagated by the missionaries of unscrupulous foreign masters. Ultimately, though, her idealism withered and she embraced the corruption that embodied her chosen cause. Many more would tread her path.