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‘A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior’

by Mark A. Bradley

Basic Books, 384 pp., $29.99

During World War II the U.S. government was betrayed by high-level employees who spied for the Soviet Union. That country was our ally against Nazi Germany, and the Roosevelt administration was not interested in irritating it by uncovering its spies.

The story of the theft of U.S. military and diplomatic secrets, including secrets of the atomic bomb, came out at the war’s end. The spies were mostly Americans, believers in communism who had done it to help the Soviet Union against Hitler.

Duncan Lee was one of them. He and his wife had been leftists at Oxford University in the 1930s. They had gone on a political pilgrimage to the Soviet Union and had secretly joined the U.S. Communist Party.

Despite his politics, upon graduation from Yale Law he went to work at a New York law firm. When World War II came, the head of the firm, William Donovan, was tapped to head America’s new intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services. Donovan took Lee with him, inadvertently providing Stalin with eyes at the highest levels of America’s intelligence agency.

Lee’s story is told by Mark Bradley, who worked for the descendant of the OSS, the CIA. What makes the story fascinating is not so much what Lee did — there aren’t many details of what secrets he stole — as what his government did and didn’t do about him, and why. It hired him without a security check, and during his time as a spy it didn’t catch him.

“The FBI failed during World War II to uncover any American communists who were spying for the Soviet Union,” Bradley writes. “The legends [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover fostered and conjured about the FBI’s competence” — nabbing gangsters — “inflated the country’s sense of what the bureau could actually do.”

Hoover was famously anti-communist, but his focus, Bradley writes, was on keeping tabs on people who wanted to overthrow the government. That wasn’t the danger. It was espionage.

The FBI learned about Lee from his American handler, Elizabeth Bentley, who quit working for the Soviets and gave herself up. Lee also quit working for the Soviets, but did not give himself up and was never convicted or jailed. He made a political right turn, going to work on behalf of Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. Lee always denied he had been a spy, though U.S. and Russian archives confirm that he was.

Lee is not the central figure of the spy cases. Much of the value in Bradley’s book about Lee is in telling the military and political story of the 1940s, showing how the abrupt changes in the political climate played out in the life of a lonely man who chose a course he came to regret. Bradley is neither a conservative out to make Franklin Roosevelt look soft on Stalin, nor a liberal who would limit the story of communists in government to “witch hunts.” He is a professional telling the story of infamous breach in intelligence, and in “A Very Principled Boy,” he tells it well.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle writer.