Silverman, Abraham George (1900 – 1973)

silverman_abraham_george

Silverman testifying before HUAC

Abraham George Silverman was an American economist and statistician active during the New Deal and World War II years.

Silverman was born on February 2, 1900 at Pesaznysz, Poland and immigrated to the United States with his family around 1905. The family settled outside Boston, in Mattapan or Dorchester. Silverman studied at Harvard University (where he received B.S. and Ph.D. degrees) and received another degree (an M.A.) from Stanford University. Prior to 1933, he taught economics and statistics and did economic research in some of the leading educational institutions in the United States, including Brown University. Silverman came to Washington, D.C. around 1933 to seek government employment. Having reached maturity during the Great Depression, he developed left-wing views and probably joined the CPUSA around that time. (No archival record has been discovered.) At the same time, Silverman was described as an enthusiastic supporter of the New Deal. Like many of his young American contemporaries, particularly among New Deal economists, he was also interested in the Soviet model of central planning and growth. There, the absence of unemployment provided a way to avoid the devastation of economic crisis and depression, which Silverman came to see as inherent in the capitalist system.

From 1933 to August 1945, Silverman held a number of responsible technical and administrative positions in various federal government agencies. His first position was that of Chief Statistician with the Labor Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), a post he held from 1933 to 1934. From 1934 to March 1936, he worked as Special Expert for the U.S. Tariff Commission during the negotiation of a Canadian-American trade agreement. Between March 1936 and March 1942, he was Director of Research of the Railroad Retirement Board, which administered old-age pensions and unemployment insurance for railroad workers. In March 1942, Silverman was named Chief of Analysis and Plans of the Material Service Headquarters, Army Air Force, Assistant Chief of Air Staff. He was one of the first civilians in the Army Air Force to receive the Award for Exceptional Civilian Service, signed by the Secretary of War. In August 1945, he retired from government service to take a much more remunerative job with the French Supply Council in Washington D.C., an office of the new French government. He held that job until sometime in late 1946, when he became unemployed. 1

In 1946, Silverman had already been the subject of an FBI investigation of Soviet espionage in the United States, after being named by two defectors from the Soviet cause, Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley. In her first statement, signed on November 8, 1945, Bentley described Silverman as a conduit for the prominent Treasury Department official, Harry Dexter White, in providing “information to the Russians” through an unnamed brother-in-law. 2

Click here for a look at how Bentley’s statement correlates with the evidence from Alexander Vassiliev’s notes on KGB foreign intelligence documents

By early December 1945, Bentley listed Silverman among “the most prolific furnishers of information” for the Communist informational group headed by Nathan Gregory Silvermaster. 3 According to an August 1948 FBI summary of Bentley’s allegations, “after being assigned to the Pentagon building as a civilian specialist,” Silverman “began to bring documents to the Silvermaster home for copying.” But Bentley herself admitted that Silverman “was under the impression that Silvermaster simply read these documents and from memory later transmitted their contents verbally to Earl Browder.” 4

From his first interview with the FBI in 1942, Chambers continually described Silverman as the go-between for Harry Dexter White and himself, claiming that Silverman had, in fact, introduced White to him. Over the years, Chambers added details to this initial skeleton story. 5 In particular, Chambers said that Silverman was one of several recipients of expensive Bokhara rugs given in recognition of assistance to Soviet intelligence.

Silverman was first called to testify in September 1947 before the special grand jury impaneled in New York City to investigate Bentley’s allegations of espionage. By that time, he had already lost his job with the French Supply Council and had moved from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Around the end of 1946, he found a job as Vice President of Ohrbach’s Department Store, thanks to his wartime contact with Jerome K. Ohrbach, the head of that moderately-priced apparel chain.

On August 12, 1948, Silverman was called to testify again – this time before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), where he denied all accusations and refused to answer “all pertinent questions.” 6 He next testified on December 15, 1948 before the grand jury in the Alger Hiss case, again denying all accusations. 7

Click here to read the story of the Bokhara rugs, which Silverman told the grand jury in December 1948

At this time, Silverman was again unemployed – having lost his job at Ohrbach’s because of bad publicity generated by his committee and grand jury appearances. Before the fall of 1950, the FBI had made several attempts to interview Silverman – all with negative results – and had to close his case, regretting that “he is in a position to furnish us considerable information if he could be persuaded to do so…” 8

Despite this reprieve, Silverman’s professional life was ruined by the investigations. A brilliant economist and statistician, he became unemployable. According to his son, “after 1948 he wasn’t doing much of anything. He made some attempts to go into business with his brother-in-law, but nothing really worked out.” He lived for a while at 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, surviving on his and his wife’s pensions and some savings. The family then moved to Upper Montclair, New Jersey. Silverman died of a heart ailment in January 1973.

***

In 1995 and 1996, at the time of the release of Soviet intelligence cables from the World War II period that were partially decrypted in the course of the U.S. government’s Venona operation, Venona translators identified the cover name “Aileron” [Eleron] as belonging to Abraham George Silverman. “Aileron” appeared in a few cables from New York to Moscow Center from June 30, 1943 to January 4, 1945. In a cable sent on June 30, 1943, “Aileron” was mentioned as an intermediary for information from “Page” [Pazh], which “Polo” passed to “Sound” [Zvuk]. In communications from July 3 and 6, 1943, “Aileron” appears as a source of statistical information on the numerical strength of the U.S. Air Forces, and, in a cable from August 10, 1943, as an intermediary who passed on a political position memorandum prepared for the Department of State. On August 31, 1944, New York operatives reported that their proposal to use “Aileron” as a “group leader” could not be realized, because the branch he was assigned to was to be transferred to “a provincial town.” The decryption of fragments of an October 14, 1944 cable (itself the final part of a non-decrypted, multi-part message), mentions “Aileron” among recipients of information from “Page” which could “curtail the group’s work” for the Soviets “for a few months.” Finally, on January 4, 1945, in a discussion of the prospects for a group headed by Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, “Aileron” is mentioned among other members of that group with whom “direct liaison” could possibly be set up. 9

Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer and journalist who conducted research during 1994 and 1995 on KGB foreign intelligence documents, made notes which are now posted on the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project website 10. Vassiliev did not turn up a special file for George Silverman. However, Silverman’s name did appear in Vassiliev’s notes on a few other files, shedding some light on his rather complicated relationship with Soviet intelligence.

In a summary report written in Moscow in the fall of 1944 by Vassili Zarubin – who had been the NKGB resident in the United States from January 1942 to August 1944 – for Vsevolod Merkulov, the head of the NKGB, “Aileron” is described as “a compatriot” [zemlyak], that is, a member of a fraternal [“bratskaja”, a cover name for the national Communist Party], “with a relatively long record of service, who… is considered to be a tested and reliable compatriot.” Zarubin confirmed that “Aileron” provided “valuable information,” but at the same time described him as “very cautious” and not knowing “that he is working for us.” 11

Zarubin’s surmise is confirmed by a few progress reports, and evaluations of them by Moscow Center, which were discovered among Vassiliev’s notes. For instance, on July 27, 1943, the Center summarized that “‘Aileron’ doesn’t wish to make use of all of his capabilities and provides almost nothing on his line,” since he “fears for his life.” There is a disconnect between this estimate and the translations of decrypted fragments of cables sent from New York to Moscow only three weeks earlier (on July 3 and 6); there “Aileron” appears as a source of statistical information on the numerical strength of the U.S. Air Forces. Further complicating matters, the Center informed its American resident that it called “Aileron” a “probationer” [“stazher“, a cover name for an agent] “provisionally, since the office has not done any direct work with him.” 12

As of June 1945, Moscow Center was still dissatisfied with the input from “Aileron”: “See to it (through ‘Pilot‘),” Moscow instructed its New York resident, “Sergei,” – “that ‘Aileron’ becomes more active.” A month and a half later, the situation had deteriorated further. The New York station informed Moscow Center that “‘Aileron’ is not doing any work for us.” 13

By September 3, the situation with “Aileron” had become “worst of all,” as the New York station complained to Moscow. This judgment reflected the fact that “a few days ago ‘Aileron,’ of his own accord, resigned from his government job and went to work as an adviser to the French purchasing commission with a salary of 20,000 dollars a year (twice as much as he was making in the previous post).” 14

According to Vassiliev’s notes, on October 1, 1945 “Aileron” finally met with a Soviet intelligence operative for the first time in his life. There was another meeting two days later. Vassiliev’s notes on the reports of these meetings are rather detailed, with what look like verbatim transcripts. The only indication of the identity of the Soviet individual with whom “Aileron” met, however, is Vassiliev’s comment in brackets: “apparently by Sergei.” He is referring to the New York resident, Vladimir Pravdin, whose cover job was head of the TASS bureau in New York.

The first meeting, which reportedly lasted for two and a half hours, finally put an end to the Soviet operative’s doubts about Silverman, who confirmed: “I have been working for you for many years.” Silverman added, however, that throughout that time he had had no idea if his work was of any importance. The report on the second meeting went further, stating that “all in all, A. [Aileron] worked with us and the Neighbors for over ten years (according to him) and did not have a direct connection with us that entire time.” “Working with the neighbors” without a direct connection may mean that, as part of a Communist informational group, Silverman was conscious that his information, in some roundabout way, had once gone to the NKGB’s “neighbors,” Soviet military intelligence. But this account could also just be the Soviet operative’s version of what Silverman said. Since this is not a verbatim quote from Silverman, it is open to both interpretations.

The language of the intelligence report does not permit us to decide with any certainty if Silverman did indeed use such wording. We do not know if he was aware that, in the person of the worldly, European-looking Pravdin, he was talking not only to a TASS bureau chief functioning as a representative of his country, but also to a resident of NKGB foreign intelligence. The issue is complicated by Silverman’s use of Communist clichés such as “working at any cost” and “in the interest of the cause.” These expressions could refer to the Communist cause – or, more likely, given the context of the conversation, to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan. The second interpretation makes sense in view of Silverman’s words – this time, given in quotation marks – that “with the end of war” he and his friends “would rather work on the fraternal line.” In the latter phrase, the writer of the report replaced Silverman’s actual wording with the NKGB cover name for the CPUSA. Although Silverman did say, by the end of the second meeting, that he “understood the enormous importance of our work and intended to work with us in the future,” the pronouns “our” and “us” still leave room for a different interpretation. 15

Vassiliev’s notes leave George Silverman at this indefinite place in his relationship with Soviet intelligence. His name would appear for the last time in a list of agents and sources compromised by the defection of five former Soviet agents. The list was compiled by Anatoly Gorsky in Moscow in the late 1940s. 16 Nothing more about him is currently known.

  1. Annotated excerpts from the grand jury testimony of A. George Silverman on December 15, 1948, http://algerhiss.com/rugs.html; Ladd to Director, FBI, February 20, 1946, The FBI FOIA Silvermaster File, No. 65-56402, vol. 023, serials 561-573, p. 35; Statement of A. George Silverman before HUAC, August 12, 1948, Ibid., Vol. 141, series 3451-3500,p. 222; phone interview with Richard Silverman by Jeff Kisselof, September 18, 2009.
  2. The FBI FOIA Silvermaster File, Op. cit., vol. 024, serials 574-630, p. 40.
  3. Ibid., vol. 013, serials 270-292, p. 100.
  4. Ibid., vol. 144, serials 3620X3-3646, PDF p. 28.
  5. Whittaker Chambers, Witness, Henry Regnery Company (Chicago, 1952), pp. 29, 40, 68-69, 334, 383, 419, 421-422.
  6. Hottel to Director, FBI, August 12, 1948, The FBI FOIA Silvermaster File, Op. cit., vol. 139, serials 3351-3415, PDF p. 222.
  7. Records of U.S. Attorneys and Marshals: Transcripts of Grand Jury Testimony in the Alger Hiss Case, Record Group 118, Harry S. Truman Library. http://www.trumanlibrary.org/hstpaper/hiss.htm
  8. A.S. Brent to C.E. Hennrich, October 30, 1950, The FBI Silvermaster File, Op. cit., vol. 150, serials 3835-3896, PDF p. 61.
  9. Venona KGB New York to Moscow No. 1028, 30 June, 1943; Nos. 1061, 1062, 1063, 3 July 1943; No 1081, 6 July, 1943; No 1317, 10 August, 1943; No 1243, 31 August, 1944; Bo 1463, 14 October, 1944; Nos 12, 13, 15, 16, 4 January, 1945. The list of Venona “Aileron” cables was published in Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1999, p. 463 (footnote 286.)
  10. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?topic_id=1409&fuseaction=topics.documents&group_id=511603
  11. Vassili Zarubin to Comrade V.N. Merkulov, the People’s Commissar of State Security (September 1944), Alexander Vassiliev, White Notebook No.1, p. 5, ref. to arch. No 35112, Vol. 1.
  12. Moscow Center to Maxim, July 27, 1943, Ibid., p. 42.
  13. Moscow Center to “Sergei,” June 1, 1945, Ibid., p. 56; New York to Moscow Center, July 17, 1945, Ibid., p. 66.
  14. New York to Moscow Center, September 3, 1945, Ibid., p. 71.
  15. Report on the meeting with “Aileron,” October 1, 1945; same, October 3, 1945, White Notebook No. 3, pp. 27, 33, 34.
  16. Report from A. Gorsky – to S.R. Savchenko, December 23, 1949, “Failures in the USA (1938-48),” Alexander Vassiliev’s Black Notebook, p. 77. Silverman appears under No 20 in “Karl“‘s group, under the cover name Gorsky used during his time as the NKGB resident in Washington, D.C.: “14. ‘Eleron’ – D. Silverman, former head of the planning-statistical department of the Air Force.” “D.” stands for the first letter of the Russian spelling of the name George [Dzhordzh].