The Silvermaster Spies

Archived on December 9, 2018 from

by John Simkin ( © September 1997 (updated August 2014).

Nathan Silvermaster was born into a Jewish family in Odessa, Russia, in 1898. His family emigrated to the United States in 1914. He studied economics at the University of Washington. He then moved to the University of California. (1)

A committed Marxist, the title of his Ph.D. was Lenin’s Economic Thought Prior to the October Revolution. After 1920 Silvermaster was an active member of Communist Party of the United States (CPUS). However, he showed no interest in returning to his country of birth after the successful Russian Revolution and in 1926 he became a naturalized American citizen. (2) He married Elena Witte (the granddaughter of Count Sergei Witte) in 1930.

In 1934 Nathan Silvermaster met Earl Browder during an industrial dispute in San Francisco. Released KGB archives show that the previous year Gaik Ovakimyan of the NKVD had recruited Browder as a Soviet agent (codename RULEVOY). According to a memorandum sent by Vsevolod Merkulov to Joseph Stalin: “Starting in 1933 and into 1945, Browder rendered the NKGB… and the GRU… help, recommending to our representatives in the U.S. Communist Party for agent work. At Browder’s recommendation, eighteen people were drawn to agent work for the NKGB and… people for GRU. In addition, through the Central Committee’s functionaries controlling illegal groups.” (3)

Nathan Silvermaster: Soviet Spy

Browder worked closely with Jacob Golos. He introduced Golos to members of the Communist Party of the United States who were willing to be Soviet agents. It is believed that this is when Nathan Silvermaster became a Soviet agent. Allen Weinstein, the author of The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) has argued: “It was through Browder that Silvermaster was introduced to Golos and the Soviets’ East Coast intelligence network. Silvermaster’s wife, Helen, a distant relative of the famous czarist Prime Minister Count Witte, shared her husband’s enthusiasm for assisting the NKVD.” (4) A friend remarked that she had “an indefinable air of quality in her tone of voice and in the way she held her head” that betrayed her aristocratic origins. (5)

In 1935 Nathan Silvermaster went to Washington to work for the Federal Resettlement Administration, a division of the Agriculture Department charged with helping migrant farmworkers. He now became one of the leading advocates of the New Deal. (6) He also began working closely with the NKVD and was given the codename (Pel). Nathan and Helen Silvermaster shared their home with William Ludwig Ullmann, who worked at the Treasury Department. He was also a Soviet spy who worked closely with other figures in the Department, including Harry Dexter White and Harold Glasser.

At first, Jacob Golos was the main contact of the Silvermaster group but his failing health meant that he used Elizabeth Bentley to collect information from the house. Helen was highly suspicious of Bentley and she told Golos that she was convinced that she was an undercover agent for the FBI. Golos told her that she was being ridiculous and that she had no choice but to work with her. The Silvermasters reluctantly accepted Bentley as their new contact.

Kathryn S. Olmsted, the author of Red Spy Queen (2002), points out: “Every two weeks, Elizabeth would travel to Washington to pick up documents from the Silvermasters, collect their Party dues, and deliver Communist literature. Soon the flow of documents grew so large that Ullmann, an amateur photographer, set up a darkroom in their basement. Elizabeth usually collected at least two or three rolls of microfilmed secret documents, and one time received as many as forty. She would stuff all the film and documents into a knitting bag or other innocent feminine accessory, then take it back to New York on the train.” (7) Moscow complained that around half of the photographed documents received in the summer of 1944 were unreadable and suggested that Ullmann received more training. However, Pavel Fitin, who was responsible for analyzing the material, described it as very important data.

Elizabeth Bentley became aware that Ullmann was having an affair with his host’s wife.” (8) When Iskhak Akhmerov also discovered what was happening he cabled Moscow: “Surely these unhealthy relations between them cannot help but influence their behavior and work with us negatively.” (9) Akhmerov also reported that other members of the group had become aware of this ménage à trois and that it was undermining his relationship with the rest of the group. However, Ullmann continued to provide important information.

The Second World War

Silvermaster became a key figure in Soviet espionage. He became even more important after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa). Silvermaster was able to provide documents from the United States military attaché’s office in London concerning recent data on the German armed forces. He also turned over information on U.S. military-industrial plans and on the views held by leading American policymakers concerning developments on the Soviet-German front.

Silvermaster reported on a discussion that took place between Navy Secretary Frank Knox and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. in July, 1941. This information convinced the NKVD that Morgenthau sympathized with the invaded country. Silvermaster was also able to get a copy of a confidential report written by Harry Hopkins about the invasion. It is believed that this came from another Roosevelt adviser, Lauchlin Currie, who was also a member of Silvermaster’s network. (10)

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Soviet Union became an official American ally in the war effort. American policymakers were wary of the Soviets and kept many secrets from them. Silvermaster was told in April 1942: “We are interested in the (U.S.) government’s plans for the country’s foreign and domestic policy, all machinations, backstage negotiations, intrigues, all that is done before this or that decision of the government becomes known to everybody… The task is to penetrate into those places where policy is born and developed, where discussions and debates take place, where policy is completed.” (11)

Vassily Zarubin, the NKVD station chief told Silvermaster that the information that Harry Dexter White could provide was of great importance. He also wanted Silvermaster to discover details of meetings that took place between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. In one cable, Zarubin asked: “What questions did Churchill discuss with Roosevelt… What are the divergences between the English and Americans on the main matters of the war?” Zarubin was also very interested in any discussions on opening-up a second front in Europe. (12)

Nathan Silvermaster investigated by HUAC

Nathan Silvermaster informed Jacob Golos at a meeting on 26th March, 1942, that the House of Un-American Activities Committee had listed him among a hundred government officials suspected of being secret members of the Communist Party of the United States. An investigation by the Civil Service Commission could not confirm Silvermaster’s Communist associations nor could an Office of Naval Intelligence inquiry. Lauchlin Currie used his position as special adviser on economic affairs to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to help quash the inquiry. (13)

Vassily Zarubin reported in October 1943: “Recently (Silvermaster) told us that (Currie) made every effort to liquidate his case: when (Silvermaster’s) case was given for examination to the committee (White House security personnel) attached to Captain (the President), (Currie) managed to persuade the majority of members of the committee to favor repealing this investigation… He believes that the investigation will be stopped.” (14)

With the help of influential friends, Silvermaster was able to get a job with the War Production Board (WPB). Established by the Roosevelt government, the WPB directed conversion of industries from peacetime work to war needs, allocated scarce materials, established priorities in the distribution of materials and services, and prohibited nonessential production.” Silvermaster was now in a good position to provide the Soviets with detailed reports on arms production.

On 15th March, 1944, Iskhak Akhmerov arranged a meeting with Silvermaster. He reported to Moscow five days later that Silvermaster was “a man sincerely devoted to the party and the Soviet Union… politically literate, knows Marxism, a deeply Russian man… known in Washington as a progressive liberal… and understands perfectly that he knows for us.” In December 1944, it was reported that Silvermaster “has sent us a 50-page Top Secret War Production Board report… on arms production in the U.S.” (15)

Elizabeth Bentley names Nathan Silvermaster

On 7th November, 1945, the Soviet agent, Elizabeth Bentley, met with Don Jardine, FBI agent based in New York City. On that first day she talked for eight hours and gave a thirty-one-page statement. She gave a long list of Soviet spies that included Nathan Silvermaster, Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, William Remington, Harold Glasser, Charles Kramer, Duncan Chaplin Lee, Joseph Katz, William Ludwig Ullmann, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Mary Price, Cedric Belfrage and Lauchlin Currie. 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. (16) Some of these people, including White, Currie, Bachrach, Witt and Wadleigh, were named by Whittaker Chambers in 1939. (17)

There is no doubt that the FBI was taking her information very seriously. As G. Edward White (article has been scrubbed), has pointed out: “Among her networks were two in the Washington area: one centered in the War Production Board, the other in the Treasury Department. The networks included two of the most highly placed Soviet agents in the government, Harry Dexter White in Treasury and Laughlin Currie, an administrative assistant in the White House.” (18) Amy W. Knight, the author of How the Cold War Began: The Ignor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies (2005) has suggested that it had added significance because it followed the defection of Ignor Gouzenko. (19)

House of Un-American Activities Committee

On 30th July 1948, Elizabeth Bentley appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Over the next two days she gave the names of several Soviet spies including Nathan Silvermaster, William Ludwig Ullmann, Donald Niven Wheeler, William Remington, Mary Price, Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Duncan Chaplin Lee, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, Harold Glasser, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Charles Kramer and Lauchlin Currie. Silvermaster, Ullmann, Perlo, Kramer and Silverman took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer most of the HUAC’s questions. (20)

Nathan Silvermaster before the House of Un-American Activities Committee.

Silvermaster was never prosecuted and according to Allen Weinstein, the author of The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) that Silvermaster and “his faithful housemate, William Ludwig Ullmann, had become by 1951 prosperous home builders on the New Jersey shore.” (21) Later, he lived in Loveladies, Long Beach Island, where he was an executive in a construction, land developing and dredging company. (22)

Nathan Silvermaster died at Jefferson Medical College Hospital in Philadelphia on 7th October, 1964.

By John Simkin ( © September 1997 (updated August 2014).


See also:  Jewish Soviet Spy Rings & US Technology Theft

Insider Col. L. Fletcher Prouty discusses the JFK Assassination and America’s Clandestine History



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