Duncan Chaplin Lee

Duncan Chaplin Lee

Duncan Chaplin Lee, the son of missionaries, was born in China in 1913. He was a descendant of General Robert E. Lee. He did not arrive in the United States until 1926. (1) After graduating from the University of Virginia he studied at the University of Cambridge. Lee later admitted that he was deeply influenced by his time in England: "Everyone was acutely aware of the Depression in Britain - the unemployment, the grinding poverty and the despair." Lee also became aware of the threat posed by Nazi Germany and saw hope for the world in the "vast economic and social experiment" in the Soviet Union. (2)

This was followed by obtaining a law degree at Yale University. According to Jacob Golos, while he was at university he joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). (3) Soon after graduating in 1939 he went to work at the New York City firm of Donovan & Leisure, where he became a protégé of William Donovan. (4) While working on Wall Street, Lee had tried "to satisfy the prick of my social conscience" by volunteering his time to the Russian War Relief Association and to the China Aid Council. (5) It was during this period he became friends with Mary Price, a Soviet spy. (6)

In July 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Donovan as his Coordinator of Information. The following year Donovan became head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an organization that was given the responsible for espionage and for helping the resistance movement in Europe. Price reported this to her controller, Jacob Golos, who urged her to get as much information as possible from him. Golos was disappointed with the information obtained by Price and told her to introduce Lee to the more experienced Elizabeth Bentley. She was not initially impressed with Lee who she claimed was "a rather weak individual" who was "nervous and emotionally upset" and was "troubled with a severe conflict of ideas." (7)

According to Kathryn S. Olmsted, the author of Red Spy Queen (2002): "Lee gave her valuable information in two categories: foreign intelligence and internal spy hunts within the OSS. He verbally described OSS activities in Europe, including a top-secret program to parachute agents into Hungary and negotiate a separate peace with the fascist government there. He also helped the Soviets to protect their other sources. After examining the OSS security files, he told her that two of her agents - including Halperin - were under suspicion. The Soviets ordered the agents to be more cautious." (8)

NKVD files show that Lee (codename Koch) provided valuable information during the Second World War. According to this document (May 1943 NKVD memorandum), Lee had described OSS cables discussing such vital matters as Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek's intention to hold a conference at Xian with Communist Party leaders to discuss relations between their forces; a report from the American Ambassador to the USSR about rumors in Moscow that Churchill had told Stalin no second front Would be opened until the Soviet Union initiated war against Japan; and a range of reports concerning European political and diplomatic events." (9) It is believed that Lee was one of the first Soviet agents to penetrate the OSS. Christopher Andrew & Vasili Mitrokhin, the authors of The Mitrokhin Archive (1999), have argued that because of people like Lee, "throughout the Second World War the NKVD knew vastly more about OSS than OSS knew about the NKVD." (10)

In September 1943 Lee's plane had crashed into the Burmese jungle; he was injured but rescued. After Lee returned to the United States at the end of October, the station wrote Moscow that his "wanderings in Burma's jungles frayed him very much, and one will need some time to draw him back into active work with us." However, the following month he was providing details about the political situation in various European countries. On 3rd March, 1944, Lee suggested that movements among high-level U.S. generals suggested that "the second front will be opened between mid-May and the beginning of June." (11)

Duncan Chaplin Lee refused to accept NKVD assignments or provide stolen documents. Nor would he allow his Soviet contacts to write down the information. Elizabeth Bentley reported: "Lee never brings material since he fears writing down information.... He tells me the information he has, and I remember it. A long time ago, I had to promise him that I would not write down data communicated by him. Therefore, I have to remember his data, until I am elsewhere and I can write it down... At present, Lee has access only to reports on Japan which, according to him, are of no interest... At present (Lee) has nothing very valuable for us. However, one must maintain the connection with him, since he has very solid status at the OSS, has friendly relations with Donovan, and can be useful to us in future. Lee needs special guidance - he is... nervous and fearing his own shadow. This, as well as his personal troubles... consider hamper working with him at present." (12) On the surface, Bentley went along with this request: "He (Lee) briefed her orally, never giving her actual documents. Elizabeth had to promise him that she would not write down his information - a promise that she had no qualms breaking." (13)

In September 1944 Lee told Bentley that the OSS suspected that one of their officers, Donald Niven Wheeler, was a Soviet spy. Iskhak Akhmerov reported to Moscow: "About ten days ago (Lee) told us very unpleasant news concerning (Wheeler's) situation... he is included on the list of officials who allegedly provide us with information from their department. (Bentley) says (Lee) is one of the senior people in the department in charge of checking the officials, etc." (14)

In November 1944, Anatoly Gorsky reported to Moscow that according to Elizabeth Bentley, Lee had begun a sexual relationship with Mary Price. "(Price) established an intimate relationship with (Lee), and she did not tell us about it until recently." Gorsky was concerned that this affair might result in Lee's exposure as a spy because his wife, who was also a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), knew about his spying. "(Lee) and (Price) met in two places, at her flat and at his. The meetings were held in the presence of (Lee's) wife, who was aware of her husband's secret work." (15)

The NKVD was concerned about the affair because of what happened to another agent, Victor Perlo, a few months previously. Perlo divorced his wife and became involved in a bitter dispute over the custody of their daughter. In April 1944 Katherine Perlo sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt naming her husband and several members of his group, including Henry Hill Collins, Harold Glasser, John Abt, Nathan Witt and Charles Kramer, as Soviet spies. Although she was interviewed by the FBI the people named were not arrested. Kathryn S. Olmsted has argued: "Possibly, the men of the FBI discounted the tale of an unstable, vengeful ex-wife. Or perhaps the tale of Russian espionage did not seem so sinister in 1944, when the brave Soviet allies were battling the Nazis. In any event, Katherine Perlo failed in her quest to destroy her ex-husband." (16)

Lee's wife discovered her husband's love affair and complained in a series of jealous scenes. The NKVD became worried about these developments and ordered her to stop serving as his courier. Earl Browder told Iskhak Akhmerov that Price's "nerves had been badly shaken" by these events. (17) However, as Kathryn S. Olmsted has pointed out: "Mary Price... continued the love affair, hoping that Lee would divorce his wife and marry her. Distraught over his deteriorating marriage, the pressures of the love affair, and intensified security probes at the OSS, Duncan Lee, by late 1944, had become an extremely reluctant Soviet source. Moreover, he distrusted Elizabeth Bentley, who now acted as his primary courier and contact with Soviet intelligence." (18)

In September 1944 Lee heard that the OSS Security Division was compiling a list of Communists and Communist sympathizers in OSS. Elizabeth Bentley reported that Duncan Chaplin Lee was "on the verge of cracking up... so hyper cautious that he had taken to crawling around the floor of his apartment on hands and knees examining the telephone wires to see if they had been tampered with." (19)

Duncan Chaplin Lee did not get on with Elizabeth Bentley so it was decided to transfer him to Joseph Katz. However, on 3rd February, 1945, Katz reported to Anatoly Gorsky: "Saw (Lee) last night. After beating his chest about what a coward he is, how sorry he feels about it, etc., he told me he must stick to his decision to quit. Though I agreed to meet again in case of necessity, in my opinion, there is no sense in using him. He is totally frightened and depressed. He suffers from nightmares where he sees his name on lists (of accused Communists within OSS), his life is destroyed, etc." (20) NKVD instructed Gorsky to use Lee as a "talent-spotter" within the OSS. However, after Judith Coplon in the Justice Department of the FBI warned that investigations would soon begin on all previous leads on Communist sources within the government, Gorsky was ordered to cease all contact with Lee. (21)

On the 7th November 1945, Elizabeth Bentley provided a 107 page statement to the FBI that named Duncan Chaplin Lee, Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, Mary Price, William Remington, Harold Glasser, Charles Kramer, Joseph Katz, Ludwig Ullman, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Cedric Belfrage and Lauchlin Currie as Soviet spies. The following day J. Edgar Hoover, sent a message to Harry S. Truman confirming that an espionage ring was operating in the United States government. (22) Some of these people, including White, Currie, Bachrach, Witt and Wadleigh, had been named by Whittaker Chambers in 1939. (23)

J. Edgar Hoover attempted to keep Bentley's defection a secret. The plan was for her to "burrow-back" into the Soviet underground in America in order to get evidence against dozens of spies. However, it was Hoover's decision to tell William Stephenson, the head of head of British Security Coordination about Bentley, that resulted in the Soviets becoming aware of her defection. Stephenson told Kim Philby and on 20th November, 1945, he informed NKVD of her betrayal. (24) On 23rd November, Moscow sent a message to all station chiefs to "cease immediately their connection with all persons known to Bentley in our work and to warn the agents about Bentley's betrayal". The cable to Anatoly Gorsky told him to cease meeting with Donald Maclean, Victor Perlo, Charles Kramer and Lauchlin Currie. Another agent, Iskhak Akhmerov, was told not the meet with any sources connected to Bentley. (25)

On 30th November, 1945, Elizabeth Bentley was asked the sign a statement that accused Lee and others in her network of being spies. According to the FBI she at first refused to sign: "She characterized the Americans' activities as being motivated by an ideology and that they felt that the information they obtained was to help an ally." Bentley was told that it was too late to back out now. They reminded her that the Second World War was over and the Soviet Union was no longer U.S. allies. Bentley eventually agreed to sign the statement. (26)

On 30th July 1948, Bentley appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. The senators were relatively retrained in their questioning. They asked Bentley to mention only two names in public: William Remington and Mary Price. Apparently the reason for this was that Remington and Price had both been involved in Henry A. Wallace campaign. Bentley was also reluctant to give evidence against these people and made it clear that she was not sure if Remington knew his information was going to the Soviet Union. She also described spies such as Remington and Price as "misguided idealists". (27)

The following day Bentley named several people she believed had been Soviet spies while working for the United States government. This included Duncan Chaplin Lee, Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Ludwig Ullman, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, Harold Glasser, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Charles Kramer and Lauchlin Currie. One of the members of the HUAC, John Rankin, and well-known racist, pointed out the Jewish origins of these agents. (28)

Several people who had been named by Bentley, including Perlo, Kramer, Silverman, Ulmann and Silvermaster, took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer most of the committee's questions. However, Lee, White, Currie and Remington appeared before the HUAC and denied they were Soviet spies. On 10th August, 1948, Lee admitted knowing Bentley but denied he knew she was a Communist agent. He found her an "attractive, well-informed" woman who had been eager to make friends with him and his wife. "We came to the conclusion that she was a very lonely and neurotic woman, that she was a frustrated woman, that her liking and apparent ardent liking for us was unnaturally intense." Lee stated that he never told her state secrets and suggested that she might be seeking revenge for an unrequited friendship." (29) Newspapers at the time overwhelmingly believed Lee. As Christina Shelton, the author of Alger Hiss: Why he Chose Treason (2012) has pointed out: "Lee was a WASP intellectual whose elitist background led the press at the time to find the charge of his being a Soviet agent ridiculous." (30)

Lee was never charged with being a Soviet spy and went on to have a successful career as a lawyer in the private sector. Lee continued to represent clients such as Claire Lee Chennault. In 1953 he joined the insurance company American International Group. He retired in 1974.

Duncan Chaplin Lee died in Toronto in 1988.

Lee gave her valuable information in two categories: foreign intelligence and internal spy hunts within the oss. He verbally described oss activities in Europe, including a top-secret program to parachute agents into Hungary and negotiate a separate peace with the fascist government there. After examining the oss security files, he told her that two of her agents - including Halperin - were under suspicion. The Soviets ordered the agents to be more cautious.

(1) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 51

(2) Duncan Chaplin Lee, memo to his children (15th September, 1983)

(3) Jacob Golos, memorandum to Moscow (8th September, 1942)

(4) Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) page 257

(5) Duncan Chaplin Lee, memo to his children (15th September, 1983)

(6) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 52

(7) Elizabeth Bentley, Out of Bondage (1951) page 252

(8) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 52

(9) Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) page 258

(10) Christopher Andrew & Vasili Mitrokhin, the authors of The Mitrokhin Archive (1999) page 143

(11) Venona File 40457 pages 8 and 9

(12) Elizabeth Bentley, memorandum to Moscow (10th October, 1944)

(13) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 52

(14) Iskhak Akhmerov, report to Moscow (September 1944)

(15) Anatoly Gorsky, report to Moscow (2nd November, 1944)

(16) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 67

(17) Elizabeth Bentley, report to Iskhak Akhmerov (28th July, 1944)

(18) Elizabeth Bentley, Out of Bondage (1951) page 179-180

(19) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 52

(20) Joseph Katz, report sent to Anatoly Gorsky (3rd February, 1945)

(21) Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) page 261

(22) Edgar Hoover, memo to President Harry S. Truman (8th November 1945)

(23) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 464

(24) Silvermaster FBI File 65-56402-8

(25) Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) page 105-106

(26) Silvermaster FBI File 65-56402-66

(27) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (2002) page 130

(28) House of Un-American Activities Committee (31st July, 1948)

(29) House of Un-American Activities Committee (10th August, 1948)

(30) Christina Shelton, Alger Hiss: Why he Chose Treason (2012) page 51


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