Harry Magdoff

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Henry Samuel Magdoff (21 August 1913 – 31 December 2005), commonly known as Harry Magdoff, held several administrative positions in government during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt while being a Soviet espionage agent in the Perlo group. Magdoff made many false statements regarding his employment in order to obtain a job as an economist with several New Deal agencies. During World War II, as Chief Economist on the War Production Board, Magdoff passed much classified and vital information to the Soviet Union. Magdoff was a dues paying Communist. At the time, U.S. law forbad employment within the United Government of persons belonging to groups which advocated the violent overthrow of the United States Constitutional form of government.

After the war, Magdoff became co-editor of the Marxist publication, Monthly Review, along with Paul Sweezsy.

Early years

Magdoff grew up in the Bronx. In 1929, at age 15, Magdoff first started reading Karl Marx when he picked up a copy of The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in a used-book store. "It blew my mind," recalled Magdoff in 2003. "His view of history was a revelation....that got me started reading about economics. We were going into the Depression then and I wanted to figure out what it all meant." [1] His interest in Marx led him to embrace socialism.

Magdoff studied mathematics and physics from 1930 to 1933 at the City College of New York taking engineering, math and physics courses; he was active in the Social Problems Club with many schoolmates who later joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a Comintern organization that fought in the Spanish Civil War. Magdoff attended New York University after 1933, where he studied economics and statistics, receiving a B.S. in Economics in 1935. He was suspended and later expelled from City College for activities related to editing Frontiers (a radical student magazine not sanctioned by the school), including participation in a mock trial of the school's President and its Director.


In the mid-1930s, Magdoff moved to Philadelphia to take a job with the Works Progress Administration measuring the productivity of various manufacturing industries. David Weintraub assisted him with letters of recommendation to get a job with the government. By 1940 Magdoff was working for the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) as its Principal Statistician. During World War II Magdoff worked on the War Production Board, in the Statistical and Tools Divisions.

Espionage activities

A mass of previously unremarked materials collectively known as the VENONA project was declassified by the U.S. government in 1995. Among these were Army decryptions of Soviet cables which revealed there to be some number of American citizens involved in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. The U.S. government, as well as several historians and researchers, have come to the conclusion that Harry Magdoff was among a number of Soviet intelligence sources within the U.S. government.

The public accusation that Magdoff was working for Soviet intelligence was itself not new; it had originated with defector Elizabeth Bentley who testified to that same effect.

On the date specified I went to the apartment of John Abt, was admitted by him to his apartment and there met four individuals, none of whom I had ever seen before. They were introduced to me as Victor Perlo, Charlie Kramer, Henry Magdoff and Edward Fitzgerald. They seemed to know, at least, generally that they could talk freely in my presence and I recall some conversation about their paying Communist Party dues to me, as well as my furnishing them with Communist Party literature. There followed then a general discussion among all of us as to the type of information which these people, excepting Abt, would be able to furnish. It was obvious to me that these people, including Abt, had been associated for some time and that they had been engaged in some sort of espionage for Earl Browder.[2]

Bentley's charges resulted in many acrimonious investigations of alleged spies, including Magdoff.

In the History of counter intelligence operations in the United States, published by the United States Office of the National Counterintelligence Center (NACIC), lists Magdoff as a member of the Perlo group of Soviet agents.[3] Magdoff was identified by Arlington Hall cryptographers in the VENONA cables and by FBI counterintelligence investigators as being a Soviet information source under the cover name "KANT" as of 1944.[4] The name "KANT" appears in declassified decrypts of cables from New York to Moscow, dated May 5, May 13, and May 30, 1944. The first is described by the decrypters as being sent from Pavel Ivanovich Fedosimov in which he requests a "telegraph a reply to No. 139 and advise about the possibility of a meeting with KANT."

On the May 13 cable, "MAYOR", according to Arlington Hall counterintelligence is Iskhak Abdulovich Akhmerov, reports on a meeting in which Elizabeth Bentley was placed in contact with the Perlo group for the purposes of obtaining secret government information to transmit to the Soviet Union. Magdoff's surname was transmitted in the clear.[5]

On HELMSMAN'S instructions GOOD GIRL contracted through AMT a new group:
[53 groups unrecoverable]
MAGDOFF - "KANT". GOOD GIRL's impressions: They are reliable FELLOWCOUNTRYMEN ["members of a Communist Party"], politically highly mature; they want to help with information. They said that they had been neglected and no one had taken any interest in their potentialities

Magdoff at the time was ending a prolonged leave of absence due to a gall bladder operation, and was unsure of the type of material he could deliver. As a new recruit, or "probationer" in Soviet parlance, "KANT" was subject to a background check and a request was made. The May 30 cable transmits personal histories of the probationers.

2. "KANT" became a member of the CPUSA a long time ago, being [8 groups unrecovered], works in the Machine Tool Division of the DEPOT.

A number of U.S. government agencies (as well as locations within the U.S.) were also given cover names. In this case, "DEPOT" is said to be code for the War Production Board, where Magdoff worked in the Statistics and Tools Divisions.

In Moscow the request was processed. Evidence was unearthed in the Comintern Archives in the late 1980s, Lt. General Pavel M. Fitin, the head of KGB foreign intelligence operations in Moscow, requested of Secretary General of the Comintern Georgi Dimitrov information to complete Magdoff's recruitment.[6] This document was published in a book by historians Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov,[7] and also in the memoirs of Alexandre Feklisov [8] (the Soviet Case Officer for Julius Rosenberg and Klaus Fuchs), published in 2001.

Moscow then responded to New York KGB headquarters on February 25, 1945 in Venona decrypt #179,180. According to the authors of Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America, researchers Allen Weinstein and ex-KGB officer Alexander Vassiliev, the cover name of "KANT" was replaced with "TAN". Moscow expressed concern that knowledge of some probationers working for various groups was widely known among other CPUSA members, so it was not uncommon for code names to change. The code name "TAN" appears in a memo of Anatoly Gorsky’s, dated December 1948, a document from the KGB archives analyzed by Alexander Vassiliev.[9] Gorsky was then a senior official of the Committee of Information (KI), the Soviet agency at the time supervising Soviet foreign intelligence.[10]

A top secret internal FBI memo dated February 1, 1956 from Assistant Alan H. Belmont to the Director and head of the FBI's Internal Security Section, L. V. Boardman, discussed the advantages and disadvantages of using Venona project materials to prosecute suspects. In that memorandum, which remained classified forty-one years until the Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy obtained its release to the public in 1997, Boardman quotes the May 13, 1944 Venona transcript, which named several members of the Perlo group, including Magdoff. Though Belmont was of the opinion that the VENONA evidence could lead to successful convictions, it was ultimately decided, in consideration of compromising the Army Signals Intelligence efforts, that there would not be prosecutions.[11]

Postwar subversive activities

Magdoff left his employment with the U.S. government, then with the United States Department of Commerce, on December 30, 1946, and went to work for the New Council on American Business in New York, happy to leave government service.[12] Magdoff worked among many business associates until 1948, at which time he began employment with Trubeck Laboratories in New Jersey. He became an economic advisor and speechwriter to former Vice-President and unsuccessful Presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace.

Magdoff began a career in academia in the 1950s. His first and perhaps most influential book, The Age of Imperialism, was published in 1969. It sold over 100,000 copies and was translated into fifteen languages. Two years later, after the death of Leo Huberman, he began co-editing with Paul Sweezy Monthly Review, the leading independent Marxist journal in the United States, and has continued to edit the magazine to this day. Under Magdoff's direction, the Monthly Review has focused more and more upon imperialism as the key unit of analysis for global development and the forces challenging Neocolonialism in the Third World. This perspective put the magazine and its press squarely on the New Left intellectual agenda since the late 1960s. His work has also kept him in the forefront of socialist thought in the U.S. from the 1930s to this day. The Great Depression left a strong impact on Magdoff's perspective on capitalism, as Magdoff recalls a sense of doom felt in the mid-century by pro-capitalists, holding that nothing since 1929 leads him to believe that the economy has become immune to cycles of severe crisis.

Magdoff and the late Paul Sweezy together produced five books. Magdoff's most recent book is Imperialism without Colonies, published when he was 89. Today Magdoff co-edits the Monthly Review with John Bellamy Foster.

Magdoff has two sons. His son, Fred Magdoff, is an expert in plant and soil science. His wife of almost 70 years, Beatrice, died in 2002.


  • 25 February or 5 March 1944, a rainy Sunday, Elizabeth Bentley meets with Harry Magdoff and others in John Abts apartment in New York, the initial contact with the Perlo group (Haynes and Klehr, Venona, 1999, pg. 409); "the group specifically discussed the information they would be able to furnish her and with respect to Magdoff, Bentley advised, '.....Magdoff, who had just returned from a period of approximately six months hospitalization, expected to return to the War Production Board but was uncertain as to what specifically he would be able to furnish.....' " (pg. 182, paragraph 3)
  • 5 May 1944, Venona decrypt 629 KGB New York to Moscow asks to "Urgently...advise about the possibility of a meeting with KANT"; KANT identified as Harry Samuel Magdoff. [1]
  • 13 May 1944, Venona decrypt 687 KGB New York to Moscow reports on Bentley's contact with a new group in Washington, "MAGDOFF - KANT"..."reliable"...politically highly mature"..."they want to help with information". KANT identified as Harry Samuel Magdoff. [2]
  • 30 May 1944, Venona 769, 771 KGB New York to Moscow, addressed to KGB head Pavel Fitin the probationers of the new group gives personal histories, " 'KANT' became a member of the CPUSA a long time ago...works in the Machine Tool Division of the DEPOT" [3]; KANT identified as Harry Samuel Magdoff. [4]
  • 29 September 1944, in Moscow, Fitin to Dimitrov Memo asks to Comintern General Secretary to provide any information to KGB head on members of the Perlo group, including "Magdoff, works on the WPB."
  • 25 February 1945, Moscow Center to Venona to New York 179, 180 KGB Moscow, uses code name "TAN"; subsequent researchers identify TAN as Harry Magdoff.
  • 20 December 1946, "Magdoff indicated that he was happy to be leaving the Commerce Department..." (pg. 176).
  • 30 December 1946, Magdoff retires from government service.
  • December 1948, Anatoly Gorsky, senior official of the Committee of Information (KI), the agency then supervising Soviet foreign intelligence reports in KGB file 43173 vol.2 (v) lists Magdoff as number "3. 'Tan' – Harry Magdoff, former employee of the Commerce Department" of Elizabeth Bentley's contacts in his report on compromised American sources and networks; NKVD operatives are ranked either alphabetically or in chronological order, beginning with pre-WWII names, followed by WWII names, with the Soviet Case Officer himself the last in line.
  • 1 February 1956, FBI Belmont to Boardman Memo discusses prosecution of the members of the Perlo group, including " 'Kant' (Harry Magdoff)" but weighs the disclosure of Government techniques and practices in the cryptography field to unauthorized persons and would compromise the Government's efforts in the communications intelligence field.

Magdoff and Sweezy

  • Imperialism Without Colonies (2003)
  • The Age of Imperialism (1969)
  • Imperialism from the Colonial Age to the Present (1977)
  • The Irreversible Crisis with Paul Sweezy(1988)
  • Stagnation and the Financial Explosion with Paul Sweezy (1987)
  • The Deepening Crisis of U.S. Capitalism with Paul Sweezy (1980)
  • The End of Prosperity with Paul Sweezy (1977)
  • The Dynamics of U.S. Capitalism with Paul Sweezy (1970)


  1. "The Sage of Imperialism" Susan Green, Seven Days, May 3, 2003.
  2. FBI Silvermaster group file, Part 2c, p. 182 (p. 3 in PDF format).
  3. A Counterintelligence Reader, Office of the National Counterintelligence Center, p. 31: "The following were members of the Victor Perlo group....Harry Magdoff: Statistical Division of WPB and Office of Emergency Management; Bureau of Research and Statistics, WTB; Tools Division, War Production Board; Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, Commerce Department."
  4. Venona 629 KGB New York to Moscow, 5 May 1944.
  5. Venona 687 KGB New York to Moscow, 13 May 1944.
  6. Wikisource:Fitin to Dimitrov, 29 September 1944.
  7. The Secret World of American Communism, Yale University Press, 1995.
  8. "A NKVD/NKGB Report to Stalin: A Glimpse into Soviet Intelligence in the United States in the 1940's" Pozniakov, Vladimir, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Cold War History Project Virtual Archive: "Feklisov, pp. 65-105; M. Vorontsov, Capt. 1st rank, Chief Navy Main Staff, Intelligence Directorate, and Petrov, Military Commissar, NMS, ID to G. Dimitrov, 15 August 1942, No. 49253ss, typewritten original; G. Dimitrov to Pavel M. Fitin, 20 November 1942, No. 663, t/w copy; P. M. Fitin to G. Dimitrov, 14 July 1944, No. 1/3/10987, t/w copy; P. M. Fitin to G. Dimitrov, 29 September 1944, No. 1/3/16895, t/w copy. All these documents are NMS ID and FCD Chiefs' requests for information related to Americans and naturalized American citizens working in various US Government agencies and private corporations, some of whom had been CPUSA members. The last two are related to a certain Donald Wheeler (an OSS official), Charles Floto or Flato (who in 1943 worked for the "...Dept. of Economic Warfare"), and Harry Magdoff (War Production Board)-the request dated 29 Sept. 1944-and to Judith Coplon who according to the FCD information worked for the Dept. of Justice.-RTsKhIDNI, f. 495, op. 74, d. 478, l. 7; d. 484, l. 34; d. 485, l. 10, 14, 17, 31, 44."
  9. "Alexander Vassiliev’s Notes on Anatoly Gorsky’s December 1948 Memo on Compromised American Sources and Networks (Annotated)," John Earl Haynes: "3. "Tan" – Harry Magdoff, former employee of the Commerce Department."
  10. Ibid.
  11. "VENONA: FBI Documents of Historic Interest Re VENONA That Are Referenced In Daniel P. Moynihan's Book, 'Secrecy,'" pgs. 68-71
  12. FBI Silvermaster file Vol. 83, pgs. 83 -84 pdf, Hottel to the Director, January 8, 1947. Magdoff indicates he will be very happy to be leaving the Commerce Department.


  • Elizabeth Bentley, Out of Bondage: The Story of Elizabeth Bentley, New York: Ivy Books, 1988. ISBN 0804101647
  • Alexandre Feklisov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs: Memoirs of the KGB Spymaster Who Also Controlled Klaus Fuchs and Helped Resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Enigma, 2001). ISBN 1929631081
  • Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999). ISBN 0300077718
  • Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); p. 312 (Document 90) reproduces a copy of the September 29, 1944 Fitin to Dimitrov memo (RTsKhIDNI 495-74-485). ISBN 0300068557
  • Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). ISBN 0300071507
  • Herbert Romerstein, The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors (Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2000). ISBN 0895262754
  • Herbert Romerstein, Stanislav Levchenko, The KGB Against the "Main Enemy": How the Soviet Intelligence Service Operates Against the United States (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1989). ISBN 0669112283
  • Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era (New York: Random House, 1999). ISBN 0788164228
  • Nigel West, Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War (London: HarperCollins, 1999). ISBN 0006530710


VENONA Documents