Another Convenient Death that Changed History – Harry Dexter White

History offers examples of convenient deaths. Some famous figures died at the precise moments their deaths could benefit powerful people nations.

Examples of such deaths include Subras Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist leader whose fiery demise at the end of World War II made life easier for both British imperialists and rival Indian nationalists. Another was Admiral François Darlan, the French Naval commander. Darlan’s assassination on Christmas Eve 1942 made General Charles De Gaulle, the undisputed leader of the Free French forces in World War Two.

American history offers one of the most perfectly timed convenient deaths that of Harry Dexter White in 1948. White’s death came at the exact moment to benefit both Soviet intelligence agencies and powerful Americans.

Spy or Victim

On 13 August 1948 White appeared before the notorious Unamerican Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives (popularly known as HUAC).

The Committee subpoenaed White to respond to charges he had been passing information to Soviet spies for years. White was one of America’s most important public servants.

Thus, White was one of the designers of the post-World War II global financial system. However, one of the greatest economists of all Lord Maynard Keynes attended Bretton Woods and objected to most of White’s proposals.

History proved Keynes right decades later. White’s monetary system which made the US the dominant player in the world economy collapsed in the 1970s

A Guilty Man in a Witch Hunt

Unlike most of the people HUAC accused of treason, White probably was guilty of passing US government secrets to Soviet agents.

Soviet communications decrypted by US military codebreakers listed White as a source of intelligence. Moreover, former Communist Party member and Soviet courier Whitaker Chambers had accused White of working for the Soviets as early as 1939.

However, the intercepted Soviet communications were unknown to HUAC and the American public in 1948. The American breaking of the Soviet Codes by the Verona Project was not declassified until 1995, 47 years later. To elaborate, American military commanders wanted to keep their intelligence edge over the Soviets secret, in case of war.

President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) went along with the Pentagon. Consequently, many Americans thought HUAC was persecuting an innocent man when White testified.

The HUAC called White to testify because he was one of several high-level US government officials Elizabeth Bentley accused of passing secrets to the Soviets. Bentley had been a courier for a Soviet spy ring in Washington.

The HUAC hearings set off a major controversy. The allegations made were explosive; important Americans; including members of some of the nation’s elite families, had betrayed the country for years.

Worse, important political leaders including Morgenthau, late President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York), and Truman seemed to be covering up their activities. History shows Roosevelt and Truman had good reasons to keep the Verona Project secret, namely an important source of intelligence about America’s biggest enemy. However, the public was unaware of those reasons in 1948.

A Convenient Death

White denied the charges and left Washington DC for his summer home in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. Three days later on 16 August 1948, White was dead.

White’s doctor named a heart attack as the cause of death and wrote that White had a heart condition. In the 1940s, early deaths from heart attacks were common because there were no good treatments for heart disease. White was 55 in 1948, the age at which men often died of heart disease at the time.

However, the timing of White’s death was convenient. His death made HUAC look bad in the American media. Shortly after White’s demise, a New York Times editorial accused HUAC of killing White by aggravating his stress.

The death prevented White from returning and changing his testimony in the future. The death also prevented criminal charges and a trial that could have driven White to change his story.

The last thing Soviet Intelligence wanted in 1948 was an American of White’s status admitting Bentley’s charges were true. Likewise, White could have named other prominent Americans as Soviet sources and cut off important sources of intelligence.

Thus, the possibility that the NVKD, Joseph Stalin’s secret police, killed White is there. The timing of the heart attack is suspicious. Somebody could have feared White could change his mind and reveal what he knew about the Soviet spying.

The Mystery of Harry Dexter White

There are many mysteries about Harry Dexter White. For instance, White was not a  known member of the Communist Party yet historians think he passed U.S. government secrets to Soviet intelligence for years.

Oddly, White’s behavior suggests a patriotic American, hardly the kind of man who would help one of the nation’s greatest enemies. Yet circumstantial evidence shows White helped Soviet intelligence.

Questions arise, was White a double agent working for an American intelligence agency, such as the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)? In the 1930s, the FBI used double agents to infiltrate German spy rings operating in the United States.

Or was White following orders from some high-level American official, perhaps President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York)? Notably, ex-Communist and former Soviet courier Whitaker Chambers claimed to have told the FBI of White’s activities as early as 1939, yet White remained in important offices for years afterward.

After all, there were good reasons for US officials to help the Soviets against the Nazis in World War II. However, White’s activities reportedly began much earlier when the Soviets were allied with the Nazis. Chambers claimed to have named several Soviet agents to the FBI when renounced Communism after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.

A final possibility is that White was on the Soviet payroll. There are Soviet documents that mention payments to White. The NKVD could not trust a paid traitor who would betray his own country to keep its secrets.

Another possibility is that White committed suicide because of the scandal. White’s survivors had a good motive to hide a suicide. They could have had trouble collecting life insurance if White committed suicide. However, life insurance policies usually pay out fast for deaths from heart attacks.

 The Aftermath

White’s death did not end the allegations of high-level spies in the US government. Indeed, the allegations grew and triggered the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s.

In 1950, a federal jury convicted a former State Department official named by Bentley, Alger Hiss of perjury. The US Attorney charged Hiss with lying to HUAC about passing State Department secrets to the Soviets. However, they did not convict Hiss of spying because the Pentagon refused to give the evidence that could show Hiss was a spy, the Verona decrypts, to the U.S. Justice Department.

One person who noticed the publicity surrounding the Hiss and White cases was U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wisconsin). In 1950, McCarthy began making unfounded allegations that there were 205 Soviet agents in the U.S. State Department.

However, McCarthy never offered a shred of evidence to support his claims. On the other hand, authors Jerold and Leona Schecter think McCarthy had some knowledge of the Verona Decrypts. The Schecter’s theory is somebody with knowledge of Verona; possibly McCarthy’s friend FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, told the Senator about intercepts of Soviet communications.  

If that is true, McCarthy was not only smearing Americans he was exposing classified military secrets for personal gain. Hence, McCarthy, the so-called anti-communist hero could have alerted the Soviets to US code-breaking efforts. Thus, McCarthy was an even worse person, than the Left makes him out to be.

The result was a long witch hunt in which many harmless people; including Hollywood actors and screenwriters, had their careers and reputations destroyed. One terrible aspect of the McCarthy era was that innocent people were imprisoned or hounded out of the country only for having left-wing political opinions.

A horrendous development in the 1950s was that some real Communist traitors and Soviet assets got away while innocent people suffered. To explain, the Justice Department was unable to convict some Soviet agents because it lacked access to the Verona Data.

McCarthy’s career eventually ended in disgrace when fellow Republicans turned on him. However, other prominent politicians that aided McCarthy, including U.S. Representative (later US Senator, Vice President, and President) Richard M. Nixon (R-California) and a young Robert F. Kennedy went on to have illustrious careers. RFK, now an icon of the American left worked for McCarthy’s committee as a lawyer and regarded McCarthy as a good friend and mentor.

However, the mythology of the Red Scare and the groundless witch hunt of the 1950s entered American history, and persists to this day. The US National Security Agency (NSA) did not disclose Verona’s existence until 1995 four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the same time, retired Russian intelligence agents and Russian historians verified many of the Verona claims. However, the mystery of Harry Dexter White and his death remains.

The American Left regards Hiss, who died in 1996, as a martyr to McCarthy. Yet White’s case is forgotten. Whether White’s death was a convenient coincidence or the work of an NKVD assassin may never be known.

For a good overview of the Verona Documents and Soviet Spying in 1940s America, see Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American Historyby Jerold and Leona Schecter.