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10 December 2018


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A Very Principled Boy

By Mark Bradley (Basic Books, $29.99, April)

Speaking of moles, Duncan Lee was in a similar position to Bazhanov, working as a top aide to US intelligence chief “Wild Bill” Donovan throughout World War II. As such, he was the Soviet Union’s most senior mole inside US intelligence during the war.

Lee stopped working for the Soviets in 1945, but his spying was publicly revealed in 1948 when defected Soviet spy Elizabeth Bentley testified to the HUAC. Under oath, Lee denied all charges of espionage and treachery, a position he would maintain for four decades. Decrypted Soviet cables, available at the time thanks to the top-secret Venona program, confirmed Lee’s betrayal, but the FBI could not use them to prosecute Lee without revealing the source and extent of Venona to the world.

Lee’s story is by now a common one — of the idealistic youth who becomes radicalized then blindly serves a power that has little regard or relation to his ideals. Bradley’s tale (fluidly told and meticulously documented) is of how this Yale and Oxford educated son of missionaries first justified his personal treachery, then regretted it, and how it destroyed his life and those around him (or, as Bradley puts it, how “he never freed himself totally from the tar baby of his past”). But it is also a larger tale of the vast scope of Soviet espionage operations in the US, of Hoover and the FBI’s dogged counterespionage efforts, of what happens when conscience and country collide.


— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2014