Bentley, Elizabeth Turrill (1908–1963)
Bentley, Elizabeth Turrill (1908–1963)
American anti-Communist witness during the McCarthy era in the United States. Born in New Milford, Connecticut, in 1908; died in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 3, 1963; graduated from Vassar College, 1930; master's degree from Columbia University, 1933.
Joined Communist Party (1935) while a student at Columbia University; served as secretary to Jacob Golos, head of a Soviet espionage network; later claimed that as a Soviet spy courier she had uncovered a vast network of treason in Washington, D.C. (1930s–45); played an important role in anti-Communist investigations and prosecutions during early years of the Cold War; described by media as the "Red Spy Queen," her testimony was significant in bringing about the convictions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and William Remington.
By alleging in 1948 that she had proof of treasonous activities of high officials in the United States government, Elizabeth Bentley helped set the tone of American political life during the first phase of the Cold War. A number of rising political figures, including Joseph R. McCarthy and Richard M. Nixon, built their political careers on an aggressive variety of anti-Communism. They benefitted from the national hysteria triggered by the testimony of Bentley and others who declared that the United States was under attack from a vast number of spies, traitors and saboteurs. For several years, Bentley and other ex-Communists, including Whittaker Chambers, upset and fascinated millions of Americans.
Elizabeth Turrill Bentley was born in 1908 in New Milford, Connecticut, into a middle-class Republican family. In 1930, she graduated from Vassar College and went on to receive a master's degree in foreign languages from Columbia University in 1933. While studying in Italy at the University of Florence, Bentley saw the impact of the Fascist regime on the lives of ordinary Italians and was revolted by incontrovertible evidence of repression. Upon her return to the United States in 1935, she joined a Communist cell at Columbia University, where she continued to take courses.
Bentley claimed that she became an underground Communist agent in 1938, being assigned by her party superiors to work for Jacob Golos, a Russian-born American citizen who was an agent of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Using a travel agency known as World Tourists as a front, Golos headed an espionage ring that collected industrial and strategic data of potential value to the Soviet Union. Elizabeth Bentley began working as a courier for the spy network headed by Golos; she also became his lover. She made biweekly trips to Washington, D.C., where her main contact was an economist with the Farm Security Administration, and carried rolls of exposed but undeveloped film back to New York. After Golos' death in November 1943, Bentley continued her espionage chores and worked for several handlers, including the first secretary of the Soviet embassy. For a while, she also worked for a second spy network headed by an economist at the War Production Board. On her own, she collected information of possible strategic importance to the Soviets, gathering most of the data from acquaintances in New York City.
In August 1945, Bentley walked into the FBI field office in New Haven, Connecticut, and told the special agents that she had worked for a Soviet spy ring for a half-dozen years and had decided to break with Communism. Apparently, Bentley did not make a strong impression, for it was 11 weeks before the New York field office of the FBI held a follow-up interview. This was a time when the first chill winds of the Cold War began to blow and a new mood of fear permeated American public life. In September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Canada, defected and told the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that for a number of years he had been part of a network gathering intelligence on the American atomic-bomb project. The public began to regard spy stories as normal newspaper fare as World War II started to fade into history.
Alerted by the Gouzenko revelations, the FBI tracked down Elizabeth Bentley and interviewed her on November 7, 1945. In great detail, she told the story of her life and her work as a courier for the Soviets and provided the FBI with the names of 14 individuals she claimed were Soviet spies. Of these, six had served with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). One of them, she asserted, had been OSS general counsel and was a former law partner of the OSS director William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan. Among the remainder, who were in one way or another connected with the Treasury Department, the most prominent, Bentley asserted, was Harry Dexter White, a close advisor of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. These accusations were dramatic enough, but in subsequent interviews Bentley kept increasing the number of people whom she accused of being Soviet espionage agents: the number went from an initial 43 to more than 100 by the time she became known to the public in 1948 as a result of her appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). In 1947—before Cold War hysteria had totally taken over American public life—Elizabeth Bentley's sweeping allegations seemed so outlandish that an attempt to convene a grand jury, to indict the Treasury Department employees named by her as spies, failed. A year later, however, the psychological climate of the country would change dramatically, and many Americans would be receptive to her accounts of massive subversion in Washington.
In July 1948, Bentley's story of widespread treason in Washington came to the attention of the American public in a series of sensationalistic articles published in the conservative New York World-Telegram. To add spice to the story, she was described as a "Red Spy Queen." Politicians eager for publicity sensed that her information, although rejected by a grand jury a year earlier, now appeared more credible in the light of world tensions. A few weeks later, in August 1948, Bentley became a national celebrity by testifying before congressional committees, repeating the accusations that she had made to the FBI almost three years earlier. By now, most Americans regarded the Soviet Union as an international adversary of the United States in places like Germany, where the Berlin airlift was taking place, and in Greece, where a Communist-led insurrection had plunged that country into a bloody civil war. In Czechoslovakia, the Communists had overthrown a democratic government in February 1948, and in China the Communist forces led by Mao Zedong were rapidly gaining the upper hand over American-backed Nationalist forces. Frightened by sensationalistic press and magazine stories, many Americans were expecting a Third World War to break out at any time. The atmosphere inside the country was charged, and conservative Republicans in Congress were determined to end the New Deal and discredit Democrat Harry Truman, who had succeeded to the presidency upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. Truman's initial response to Bentley's charges was to describe the hearings at which she testified as a "red herring" designed to distract attention from the fact that the Republican-controlled Congress had not been able to bring runaway inflation under control.
The small group of Americans brave enough to risk their careers to defend the full spectrum of civil liberties guaranteed in the constitution noted that Bentley's congressional testimony was entirely uncorroborated and lacking in documentary evidence. Even FBI director J. Edgar Hoover worried that she was too volatile to be a credible witness in court. Some of the intelligence information she claimed had been passed to the Soviets by her spy ring, such as armament and aircraft production statistics, appeared to be of strategic value, but other data, such as a project to make synthetic rubber out of garbage, sounded far-fetched if not bizarre in the extreme. Although significant discrepancies were found in her testimony, Elizabeth Bentley became a key witness for the government as it prosecuted a number of individuals alleged to have been Communists or Soviet intelligence agents. Needless to say, in return for her cooperation with the FBI and government prosecutors, she escaped indictment for her own espionage activities.
None of the United States government employees whom Bentley claimed had given her information for transmission to the Soviet Union were ever convicted of espionage, but by 1949 she was regarded by government prosecutors as an important part of their strategy to convict the leaders of the Communist Party on charges of conspiring to overthrow the United States government by force and violence. In 1951, she published her autobiography Out of Bondage which received respectful, rather than enthusiastic, reviews. Some critics, including Joseph Alsop, failed to be convinced by Bentley, detecting in the book "a smell of phoniness" at least in part because it had been written "in the prose of True Confessions." Some were suspicious, noting that half the book consisted of long stretches of dialogue purporting to reproduce conversations ten and fifteen years old.
Despite the less than unanimous praise for her autobiography, Bentley continued to figure as a major star of the anti-Communist universe of the early 1950s. As a national celebrity, she lectured throughout the country on the dangers of espionage and world Marxism. Though she had never met either of them, Bentley figured as a key government witness in the 1951 espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg . Both of the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death. Despite worldwide protests against the severity of the sentence, including an appeal for clemency from Pope Pius XII, husband and wife were executed in the electric chair on June 19, 1953.
In the trial of William Remington, Elizabeth Bentley had one final dramatic role to play. Remington, a government official, had received scant mention in her tales of spying in Washington, but he had dared to sue her for libel, and won his case, receiving $9,000 in damages. Although he had appeared before grand juries in 1947 and 1950, Remington was not indicted in either instance, and it appeared that he would be able to resume his career, having also been cleared by the government loyalty review board. But the government was as much interested in rehabilitating the reputation of Bentley, whose effectiveness as an anti-Communist witness was fading, as it was determined to convict Remington on perjury charges. In Remington's 1953 trial, Bentley's testimony was instrumental in convicting him, though it was revealed during her testimony that, six days before, she had signed a contract with her publisher for another anti-Communist book which would contain charges against Remington that could only be safely published if he were indicted and convicted. Despite the questionable nature of much of the evidence presented at the trial, Remington was found guilty of perjury. He was sent to Lewisburg prison, where soon after his admission he was beaten to death by several prisoners who claimed to be anti-Communist zealots.
The Remington trial marked the end of Elizabeth Bentley's career as a Cold War celebrity. In 1954, the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy led to his censure by his Senatorial colleagues led, in part, by Margaret Chase Smith . Slowly, the atmosphere of hysteria that had engulfed the United States for nearly a decade began to weaken if not disappear. The public had heard enough of red scares and spy stories; they strongly desired the demise of an intellectual reign of terror that had cost at least 50,000 men and women their jobs because their opinions were deemed "un-American" by ex-Communist informers, politicians, and J. Edgar Hoover. Few Americans were now interested in hearing what Bentley had already said on eight occasions before Congressional committees or in the testimony she had given in four trials. By the late 1950s, few could remember her name, and she had to support herself not as a Cold War lecturer but as a teacher. Drifting into obscurity, Bentley taught at schools in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, and Hartford, Connecticut. During the last five years of her life, she was an English teacher at the Long Lane School for Girls, a state correctional institution in Middletown, Connecticut. Described by many who encountered her as unstable and unhappy, Elizabeth Bentley attempted to find solace in religion, announcing in 1950 that she had embraced the Roman Catholic faith. In the last years of her life, however, she regularly attended the Holy Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church in Middletown.
Leaving no immediate survivors when she died at age 55 in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 3, 1963, Elizabeth Bentley vanished into obscurity. She had appeared on the American scene at a time when political life was permeated by a malignant spirit of fear and paranoia. Her personal motives are often difficult to separate from those of a society sometimes timid in its commitment to democratic ideals.
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Cook, Fred J. "The Remington Tragedy: A Study of Injustice," in The Nation. Vol. 185, no. 22. December 28, 1957, pp. 485–500.
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"Elizabeth Bentley Is Dead at 55; Soviet Spy Later Aided U.S.," in The New York Times. December 4, 1963, p. 47.
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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia