|Mark A. Bradley, photo by Sam Kittner|
Q: How did you come to write about Duncan Lee?
A: I was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s legislative assistant for foreign affairs and intelligence matters [in the 1990s]. He and I were having lunch one day.
He had been instrumental a few years earlier in [the release of documents relating to a U.S. counterintelligence program], Venona. It was started in 1943 against the Soviet Union; [the organizers] were afraid the Soviets would cut a separate deal with Hitler. About 350 Americans had spied for the Soviet Union in World War II. This was of great interest to Senator Moynihan; he had come of age when Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs [were in the news].
During lunch, he said, Have you heard of Duncan Lee? He reminds me a bit of you! He was a Rhodes Scholar at the same Oxford college, Christ Church; you were in the CIA and he was in the OSS. We were both from Virginia; I had gone to Washington and Lee. He said, You should look into it!
Q: You write of Lee, “He was a misguided idealist who chose his conscience over his country.” What motivated him to spy, and what impact did his espionage have?
A: I tried to explain in the book that he felt a great burden from his heritage and his parents. He was from a long line of people who dedicated themselves to causes greater than themselves. Duncan was a direct relation to Richard Henry Lee, who signed the Declaration of Independence, and stood up to Great Britain. He was descended collaterally from Robert E. Lee.
Also, he was from a missionary background. [His parents’ work as missionaries in China] was almost quixotic. His parents expected him to find something greater than himself to serve. The timing was perfect: In the 1930s, capitalism seemed to be collapsing, and Fascism was [on the rise].
About the impact: In World War II, the Soviet Union was critical to our being able to win the war. FDR understood that, and so did [OSS head Bill] Donovan. The discussions in the early 1940s could seem almost treasonous by the late 1940s! There were many people, especially in the late 1940s, who believed that the Soviets were able to have Americans working in the government, to subvert it. He’s one more stepping stone on the road to McCarthyism. A lot of Americans were already accused.
A: The key evidence we had against him was the codebreaking program. The Soviets were able to penetrate that... It was penetrated, but not all the way. We didn’t want the Soviets to know [anything more]. It couldn’t have been done in court.
Lee was so savvy. He never passed any documents to [his handler, Elizabeth] Bentley. He was able to say [when questioned], I am a Rhodes Scholar, a Lee of Virginia, a member of the OSS, and this woman [Bentley] is insane.
Q: So people believed him.
A: That’s right. Also, Lee was adept at getting close personal allies to circle the wagons [around him].
Q: You write, “Lee’s chameleon-like personality also saved him, allowing him to spy for the communists before 1945 and become a Cold War warrior immediately afterward.” How did that transformation happen?
A: He had his last meeting with his third Soviet handler in 1945. He was complaining about [possibly] getting caught, and that his conscience was not clean. He was never quite at ease with what he was doing. He wanted to atone for what he had done, and this was a useful way to insulate himself from what he had done.
Q: How believable was he as an anti-communist?
A: I write a bit in the book about what Tommy Corcoran, Claire Chennault [and others he worked with after the war] thought. These men believed in actions more than words. They saw no indication that he had any communist leanings at all. His work [with them in China] was very effective.
There were times when I was writing this book that I thought I was writing about different people. He was so able to wall off parts of his life that when [information about him] became public, no one believed that he’d done that.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen?
A: Basic Books asked me for five or six titles. I had a working title, “Torn Asunder,” but that sounds like a Harlequin romance! They asked, Can you come up with a quote?
In August 1948, Donovan was in Greece investigating the murder of reporter George Polk. He was met at the dock in New York harbor by reporters, who asked about [the accusations against] Lee. Donovan said, He would never have done that. He’s a very high-principled boy.
You feel sorry for Donovan. The Wall Street Journal [review of the book] was right: This is a dark, sober book. This is such a third rail in U.S. history. I was trying to write a book that neither the left nor the right would be particularly comfortable with. It is a very nuanced, complicated period of history.
Q: Does Lee’s story have any lessons for the current day?
A: He was an ideological spy. Most people you see in the modern era spy for money, for narcissism, ethnic loyalty, sex, but every now and then, somebody will spy for Cuba—they’re upset about the way we’ve treated that country.
Ideological spying is still around, but I can’t see many Americans in the intelligence community spying for al Qaeda.
The lessons are still there…you can’t have people with top secret clearances deciding on their own what to release. [It’s important to have] very thorough background checks, to make sure you have the right people with access to secrets. OSS had 22 people identified as Soviet agents, maybe as many as 32.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m a civil servant—I have a full-time job at the Department of Justice. My wife, Liza Mundy, is the real writer in the family. I did this because it was a compelling story. Lee’s children gave me access to his letters and private papers, and I decided it was important to get it written….It’s hard to do, working full-time and writing.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I was speaking at the National Archives, and there was a good question about how Lee’s children deal with this. He, for many reasons, could never admit what he had done. He was a lawyer with five kids to support, and it was easier [not to admit anything]. The book helped them come to terms with how their father was. It’s a hard thing—I think about how I would feel if my father was found to be a Russian spy. They’ve been extraordinary.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb