Elizabeth Bentley in 1948
Elizabeth Terrill Bentley
January 1, 1908
|Died||December 3, 1963 (aged 55)|
|Alma mater||Vassar College (1926-1930)|
Columbia University (1933)
University of Florence
|Allegiance||Soviet Union (defected)|
|Service branch||Communist Party of the United States (defected) |
Elizabeth Terrill Bentley (January 1, 1908 - December 3, 1963) was an American spy and member of the Communist Party USA who served the Soviet Union from 1938 until 1945. In 1945, she defected from the Communist Party and Soviet intelligence by contacting the FBI and reporting on her activities.
She became widely known after testifying in some trials and before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In 1952 Bentley became an informer for the U.S., as she was paid by the FBI for her frequent appearances before different committees and investigations. She exposed two networks of spies, ultimately naming more than 80 Americans who, she said, had engaged in espionage.
Elizabeth Terrill Bentley was born in New Milford, Connecticut, to Charles Prentiss Bentley, a dry-goods merchant, and the former May Charlotte Turrill, a schoolteacher. In 1915 her parents had moved to Ithaca, New York. By 1920, the family had moved to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and that year they returned to New York, settling in Rochester. Her parents were described as a strait-laced "old family" of Episcopalians from New England.
She attended Vassar College, graduating in 1930 with a degree in English, Italian, and French. In 1933, while she was attending graduate school at Columbia University, she won a fellowship to the University of Florence. While in Italy, she briefly joined a local student fascist group, the Gruppo Universitario Fascista. Under the influence of her anti-Fascist faculty advisor Mario Casella, with whom she had an affair while at Columbia, Bentley soon shifted her politics. While completing her master's degree, she attended meetings of the American League Against War and Fascism. Although she would later say that she found Communist literature unreadable and "dry as dust," she was attracted to the sense of community and social conscience she found among her friends in the league. When she learned that most were members of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), she joined the party herself in March 1935.
Bentley initiated her entry into espionage. In 1935, she obtained a job at the Italian Library of Information in New York City; this was fascist Italy's propaganda bureau in the United States. She reported the job to CPUSA headquarters, telling them of her willingness to spy on the fascists.Juliet Stuart Poyntz, who also worked at the Italian Library of Information, approached and recruited Bentley. The Communists were interested in the information Bentley could provide, and NKVD officer Jacob Golos was assigned in 1938 to be her contact and controller. Golos (born Yakov Naumovich Reizen) was an immigrant from Russia, who became a naturalized United States citizen in 1915.
At this point, Bentley thought she was spying solely for the American Communist Party. But Golos was one of the Soviet Union's most important intelligence agents in the United States. At the time when he and Bentley met, Golos was involved in planning the assassination of Leon Trotsky, which would take place in Mexico in 1940. Bentley and Golos soon became lovers. It was more than a year before she learned his true name, and, according to her later testimony, two years before she knew that he was working for Soviet intelligence.
In 1940, two years into their relationship, the Justice Department forced Golos to register as an agent of the Soviet government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This increased his risk in contacting the network of American spies he controlled, and accepting documents from them. He gradually transferred this responsibility to Bentley. Golos also needed someone to take charge of the day-to-day business of the United States Service and Shipping Corporation, a Comintern front organization for espionage activities. Bentley took on this role as well. Although she was never directly paid for any of her espionage work, she would eventually earn $800 a month as vice president of U.S. Service and Shipping, a considerable salary for the time, equivalent to $14,600 in 2019 (per month). As Bentley acquired an important role in Soviet intelligence, the Soviets gave her the code name Umnitsa, loosely translated as "Wise girl". (In some literature it is less correctly translated as "good girl".)
Most of Bentley's contacts were in what prosecutors and historians would later call the "Silvermaster group", a network of spies centered around Nathan Gregory Silvermaster. This network became one of the most important Soviet espionage operations in the United States. Silvermaster worked with the Resettlement Administration and later with the Board of Economic Warfare. He did not have access to much sensitive information, but he knew several Communists and sympathizers within the government who were better placed and willing to pass such information to him. Using Elizabeth Bentley, he sent it to Moscow. At this time, the Soviet Union and the United States were allies in the Second World War, and much of the information Silvermaster collected for the Soviets had to do with the war against Nazi Germany. As the Soviets were absorbing all of the burden of the ground war in Europe, at a frightful cost in terms of people and materièl, they were interested in US intelligence: It included secret estimates of German military strength, data on U.S. munitions production, and information on the Allies' schedule for opening a second front in Europe. The contacts in Golos's and Bentley's extended network ranged from dedicated Stalinists to, in the words of Bentley's biographer Kathryn Olmsted, "romantic idealists" who "wanted to help the brave Russians beat the Nazi war machine".
Late in 1943, Jacob Golos suffered a fatal heart attack. After meeting with CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder, Bentley decided to continue her espionage work and accepted Golos's place. Her new contact in Soviet intelligence was Iskhak Akhmerov, the leading NKGB Illegal Rezident, or undercover spy chief working without a diplomatic cover. Under orders from Moscow, Akhmerov wanted to have Bentley's contacts report directly to him. Bentley, Browder and Golos had resisted this change, believing that using an American intermediary was the best way to handle their sources, and fearing that Russian agents would endanger the American spies and possibly drive them away. With Browder's support, Bentley initially ignored a series of orders that she "hand over" her agents to Akhmerov. She expanded her spy network when Browder gave her control over another group of agents. This was the "Perlo group", with contacts in the War Production Board, the United States Senate, and the Treasury Department.
Bentley had been noted since her days in Florence as suffering from bouts of depression and having a problem with alcohol. Now, despondent and lonely after the death of Golos and under increasing pressure from Soviet intelligence, she began to drink more heavily. She missed work at U.S. Service and Shipping, and neighbors described her as drinking "all the time".
In early June 1944, Browder acceded to Akhmerov's demands and agreed to instruct the members of the Silvermaster group to report directly to the NKGB. Bentley later said that this was the event that turned her against Communism in the United States. "I discovered then that Earl Browder was just a puppet, that somebody pulled the strings in Moscow," she would say. Her biographers suggest that Bentley's objections, rather than being ideological, were related more to a lifelong dislike of being given orders and a sense that the reassignments of her contacts left her with no meaningful role. Late in 1944, Bentley was ordered to give up all of her remaining sources, including the Perlo group she had recently acquired. Her Soviet superior also told her that she would have to leave her position as vice president of U.S. Service and Shipping.
In 1945 Bentley began an affair with a man whom she came to suspect to be either an FBI or a Soviet agent sent to spy on her. Her Soviet contact suggested that she should emigrate to the Soviet Union, but Bentley feared this might end with her execution there. In August 1945, Bentley went to the FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut and met with the agent-in-charge. She did not immediately defect. She seemed to be "feeling out" the FBI, and it was not until November that she began to tell her full story to the agency. In the meantime, her personal situation continued to worsen. In September she met with Anatoly Gorsky, her latest NKGB controller, and was recorded as arriving drunk to the meeting. She became angry with Gorsky, berated him and his fellow Russian agents as "gangsters", and obliquely threatened to become an informer. She soon realized that her tirade could have put her life in danger. When Gorsky reported on this to Moscow, his recommendation was to "get rid of her".
Moscow advised Gorsky to be patient with Bentley and calm her down. A few weeks later it was revealed that Louis Budenz, editor of the CPUSA newspaper and one of Bentley's sources, had defected to the United States. Budenz had not yet revealed any of his knowledge of espionage activity, but he knew Elizabeth Bentley's name and knew she was a spy. Imperiled on both sides, Bentley made her final decision to defect and went back to the FBI on November 6, 1945.
In a series of debriefing interviews with the FBI beginning November 7, 1945, Bentley implicated nearly 150 people in spying for the Soviet Union, including 37 federal employees. The FBI already suspected many of those she named, and some had been named by earlier defectors Igor Gouzenko and Whittaker Chambers. This increased FBI confidence in her account and person. They gave her the code name "Gregory," and J. Edgar Hoover ordered the strictest secrecy measures be taken to hide her identity and defection.
Hoover advised Sir William Stephenson, head of British Security Coordination for the Western hemisphere, of Bentley's defection, and Stephenson duly notified London. But Kim Philby was the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service's (SIS or "MI6") new Section IX (counter-espionage against the Soviet Union). He was a Soviet double agent who would escape to the Soviet Union in 1963. Philby promptly alerted Moscow about Bentley, and they shut down all contact with Bentley's network, just as the FBI was beginning surveillance of them. Bentley's NKGB contact Gorsky again recommended to Moscow that the American be "liquidated", and again Moscow rejected the idea.
The breach of secrecy around Bentley's defection foiled a year-long attempt by the FBI to have her act as a double agent. Additionally, because of the shutdown of Soviet espionage activity, the FBI surveillance of the agents Bentley had named turned up no evidence that could be used to prosecute them. Some 250 FBI agents were assigned to the Bentley case, following up the leads she had provided and, through phone tap, surveillance and mail openings, investigating people she had named. The FBI, grand juries and congressional committees would eventually interview many of these alleged spies, but each of them would either invoke their Fifth Amendment right not to testify or maintain their innocence.
For J. Edgar Hoover and a few highly placed FBI and army intelligence personnel, the definitive corroboration of Bentley's story came some time in the late 1940s to early 1950s, when the highly secret Venona project succeeded in decrypting some wartime cables sent between Soviet intelligence agents and Moscow. In these cables, Bentley was referred to by the codename which she had told the FBI, and there were discussions of several of her known contacts and documents which she was known to have passed on to the Soviets.
The Venona project was classified and was considered so secret that the US Government was unwilling to expose it by allowing any material from it to be used as evidence in any trial. Neither presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt nor Harry Truman were aware of the Venona project by name, though they received some of its conclusions as summarized by J. Edgar Hoover in weekly intelligence reports.
With the chances of successful prosecution looking unlikely, Hoover gave the names of some of Bentley's contacts to certain U.S. Congressmen, with the understanding that the accused spies would be questioned before congressional committees. He believed that the publicized suspicion and accusations would be sufficient to ruin their careers. Additionally, Attorney General Tom C. Clark decided to present the Bentley case to a grand jury, although he thought there was little chance they would be able to return any indictments. Bentley testified before this grand jury on several occasions, lasting until April 1948. During this period, some details of her case began to leak to the press.
Bentley decided to reveal her full story herself, to exert more control. She met with Nelson Frank and Norton Mockridge, journalists from the New York World-Telegram. During four consecutive days, the newspaper published a series of front-page stories about the unnamed "beautiful young blonde" who had exposed a ring of spies. The articles were:
Almost immediately following the World-Telegram articles, Bentley was subpoenaed to testify at a public hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on July 31, 1948, (see hearing transcript).
According to Olmsted's biography, reporters' accounts and analyses of Bentley's testimony varied with their politics. The strongly anti-communist New York Journal-American described Bentley as a "shapely" "blonde and blue-eyed New Yorker" who "lured" secrets from her sources, while A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker ridiculed her story and called her the "Nutmeg Mata Hari." For her part, Bentley portrayed herself as naïve and innocent, corrupted by her liberal professors at Vassar and seduced into espionage by Golos.
Starting on August 3, 1948, during additional HUAC hearings, Bentley received some corroboration from Whittaker Chambers. Under subpoena by HUAC, he testified that he knew at least two of Bentley's contacts, Victor Perlo and Charles Kramer, as communists and members of his earlier Ware Group. He also supported her accusation that Harry Dexter White, a prominent economist who had worked in the Treasury Department, was a communist sympathizer. Comparing their testimony, Chambers wrote in his memoir:
I knew that I was simply back-stopping Miss Bentley, that hers was the current testimony. The things that I had to tell were ten years old and I had only to let the shadows, dust and cobwebs conspicuously drape them to leave the stand unscathed.
Many reporters and commentators were skeptical about Bentley's claims. Since some of those she accused were prominent figures in two Democratic administrations, Democrats in particular were eager to have her discredited. President Truman at one point characterized her testimony as a Republican-inspired "red herring." Republicans, in turn, accused Truman of "covering up" communist espionage. Conflicts of this nature, along with fears of Soviet communist power in Europe and the increasingly publicized hearings of HUAC, were the background to the rise of McCarthyism. The witch hunt for communists initiated by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) became a central factor in domestic American politics in the 1950s.
On Sunday, September 12, 1948, she appeared on the first-ever television broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, via WNBT, and was the first person interviewed. Journalists included: Nelson Frank, Inez Robb, Cecil Brown, and Lawrence Spivak. Brown asked her three times whether she would accuse William Remington of being a communist, outside of congressional protection, and she finally did so. When he was called before a Truman Loyalty Review Board, Joseph L. Rauh Jr. defended him. His attorney Richard Green asked on Remington's behalf for Bentley to withdraw the allegations by September 30.
When she did not, Green filed a libel suit on October 6, 1948 against Bentley, NBC, and its television sponsor General Foods Corporation, seeking $100,000 in damages. Bentley failed to appear in court in October. On December 29, 1948, Green said he had personally served a summons on her. (The same day, judges and lawyers agreed to suspend Alger Hiss's libel suit against Whittaker Chambers because of Department of Justice indictments of Hiss on two counts of perjury two weeks before).
Most of the people accused by Bentley invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer her charges. A few, however, specifically denied them. Most notable of these was Harry Dexter White. He was already suffering from known heart disease; he died of a heart attack a few days after his testimony before HUAC. Others who denied Bentley's charges were Lauchlin Currie, formerly President Roosevelt's economic affairs advisor; William Remington and William Henry Taylor, both midlevel government economists; Duncan Lee, formerly with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS); and Abe Brothman, a private-sector chemist who worked on defense projects. As noted above, in October 1948, William Remington sued Bentley and NBC for libel. In hopes of discrediting her, Remington's attorneys hired private detectives to look into her past. They produced evidence of her alcoholism, periods of severe depression, and a suicide attempt while a student in Florence; they alleged that her master's thesis had been written by someone else, and that, by the standards of the day, she had been sexually promiscuous since her college days. Bentley declined to testify at a Remington loyalty board hearing, and NBC settled the libel case out of court for $10,000.
Bentley testified in the trials of four accused spies: The perjury trial of William Remington, a case against Abe Brothman for obstruction of justice, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trials on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. Bentley was peripherally involved in the Rosenberg case. She was used by the prosecution to develop two points: first, the actions of American Communists in becoming spies for the Soviet Union; and second, to establish, if only vaguely in the jury's mind, a connection between Julius Rosenberg and Golos. She testified that she would receive calls from a man who identified himself as Julius, after which Golos would go out to meet him.
After defecting to US authorities, Bentley's personal life became increasingly tumultuous. She continued to drink heavily, was involved in car accidents, and had a relationship with a man who beat her severely. She avoided subpoenas on a number of occasions. These incidents, along with generally erratic behavior, resulted in her FBI handlers worrying that she was "bordering on some mental pitfall".
But she was invariably calm and professional on the witness stand, earning praise from the prosecutors whose cases she was supporting. As Bentley repeatedly testified before grand juries, congressional committees and jury trials, however, she refined and embellished some details of her story. Information passed to her about a process for manufacturing synthetic rubber that was originally "vague" and "probably of no value" became "super-secret" and "an extremely complicated thing." She would also assert that her espionage gave her advance notice of the Doolittle raid on Japan and the D-Day invasions of France, both claims that appeared to have been exaggerated.
Remington's first trial began in late December 1950. Roy Cohn, later to become famous as chief counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy's Government Operations Subcommittee and already a noted anti-communist, joined the prosecution's legal team. Bentley later supplied a wealth of detail about Remington's involvement with her and the espionage conspiracy. Remington's defense was that he had never handled any classified material, hence could not have given any to Bentley.
But she remembered all the facts about the rubber-from-garbage invention:
"We had searched through the archives and discovered the files on the process. We also found the aircraft schedules, which were set up exactly as she said, and inter office memos and tables of personnel which proved Remington had access to both these items. We also discovered Remington's application for a naval commission in which he specifically pointed out that he was, in his present position with the Commerce Department, entrusted with secret military information involving airplanes, armaments, radar, and the Manhattan Project (the atomic bomb)." 
During the trial eleven witnesses claimed they knew Remington to be a communist. This included Bentley; ex-wife Ann Remington; Professor Howard Bridgeman of Tufts University; Kenneth McConnell, a Communist organizer in Knoxville; Rudolph Bertram and Christine Benson, who worked with him at the Tennessee Valley Authority; and Paul Crouch, who provided him with copies of the southern edition of the communist newspaper, The Daily Worker.
Bentley also testified that Harry Dexter White was responsible for passing Treasury plates for printing Allied currency in Occupied Germany to the Soviet Union, which used them to print millions of marks. Russian soldiers exchanged these marks for goods and hard currency. They were catalysts for a black market and serious inflation throughout the occupied country, and costing the U.S. a quarter of a billion dollars.
Bentley wrote in her autobiography Out of Bondage (1951) that she had been "able through Harry Dexter White to arrange that the United States Treasury Department turn the actual printing plates over to the Russians." In her 1953 testimony before McCarthy's Senate subcommittee, she elaborated, testifying that she was following instructions from NKVD New York rezident Iskhak Abdulovich Akhmerov to pass word through Ludwig Ullmann and Nathan Gregory Silvermaster for White to "put the pressure on for the delivery of the plates to Russia."
Bentley had not previously mentioned the printing plates in any earlier debriefings or testimony. There was no evidence at the time that she had any role in the transfer of the plates. Bentley biographer Kathryn Olmsted concluded that Bentley was "lying about her role in the scandal". She cited historian Bruce Craig's conclusion "that the whole 'scheme' was a complete fabrication"; i.e., that neither Bentley nor Harry Dexter White had a role in the plate transfer.
After Olmsted's 2002 biography was published, a memorandum found in the newly accessible Soviet archives and also published in 2002, corroborated Bentley's testimony in this matter. In it, Gaik Ovakimian, head of the American desk of the NKVD, cites an April 14, 1944 report reporting that, "following our instructions" via Silvermaster, White had "attained the positive decision of the Treasury Department to provide the Soviet side with the plates for engraving German occupation marks."
Since Bentley was the Soviets' contact to Silvermaster at this time, her involvement in this incident is substantiated.
After her defection, Bentley was frequently asked to provide testimony before various bodies investigating communist espionage and influence in the US. She continued occasional consultations with the FBI for the rest of her life. In 1952, she began accepting payments for times when she testified, making her a "paid informer" for the FBI. Biographer Olmsted writes that she received frequent requests from Catholic and veteran groups "happy to pay her $300 fee."
Though she had been a successful executive with a profitable shipping company while she was with the Communists, she changed fields after her defection. First she supported herself through secretarial work and then through a variety of teaching jobs. In 1948 she was converted to Roman Catholicism by Fr. Fulton Sheen, later Auxiliary Bishop of New York. She was frequently invited to lecture on Communism, and her experience of the Communist movement, by Catholic groups.
Bentley died on December 3, 1963, aged 55, from abdominal cancer at Grace-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. Obituaries were published in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Olmsted notes in Bentley's biography the marked contrast between the notice paid to Bentley's death and that of Whittaker Chambers two years earlier.
The National Review devoted a special memorial issue to Chambers' death. It allotted only a paragraph to Bentley. Time magazine had devoted two pages to its Chambers obituary, but gave Bentley's death a two-sentence mention in its "Milestones" section.
Although Bentley did not name Whittaker Chambers in her late July 1948 testimony, Robert E. Stripling said her testimony had made him "think of Chambers." He had him subpoenaed and Chambers appeared only a few days after Bentley, thus launching the Hiss Case.
In sum, Bentley exposed two networks of spies, ultimately naming more than 80 Americans who had engaged in espionage for the Soviets. Her public testimony, which began in July 1948, became a media sensation and had a major effect on prosecution of cases of Soviet espionage in the 1950s. It also added to American fears of a widespread communist conspiracy within the government, fanned by Senator McCarthy.
Bentley provided no documentary evidence to support her claims. Reporters and historians were divided for decades as to the validity of her allegations. In the 1990s, declassification of both Soviet documents and the U.S. codebreaking Venona project lent some credence to Bentley's allegations. After she defected, the Soviet Union temporarily suspended espionage activities in the United States. But some of Bentley's claims remain controversial due to questions about the accuracy of translations and the vague nature of identities, given that agents were identified by code names in encrypted records captured in Venona.
She was born in Connecticut, graduated from Vassar (1930) and had taken an M.A. degree at Columbia.
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Elizabeth Turrill Bentley, 55, onetime Communist whose disclosures of wartime Soviet espionage led to the conviction of more than a dozen top Reds between 1948 and 1951; following surgery for an abdominal tumor; in New Haven, Conn.
Currently, two biographies of Elizabeth Bentley have been published:
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