Duncan Lee, right, former OSS employe, listens as Miss Elizabeth T. Bentley, self-styled former Red Agent, repeats before house un-American activities committee on August 10, 1948 at Washington, her charges that Lee furnished communist underground with highly secret government information. (ASSOCIATED PRESS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Duncan Lee went to his grave in 1988 denying that he ever spied for the Soviet Union during World War II. The lawyer, a Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar, had served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as a trusted aide to the intelligence agency’s head, William “Wild Bill” Donovan.

In what he called “A Memorandum to My Children,” written toward the end of his life, Lee repeated all the encrusted lies he had first told decades earlier, at the beginning of the Cold War, when he was investigated by the FBI and Congress. With little evidence available in the public domain, his denials were at least plausible, and his pursuers were tainted by the excesses of the McCarthy-era hunt for Red spies.

But the 1995 declassification of decrypted wartime Soviet cables and the release of the notebooks of a former KGB officer who copied sections of Lee’s file in Moscow left little doubt that the blue-blooded Virginian had betrayed his country. Still, in 1999, Lee’s son, in a letter to the New York Times, dismissed the latest evidence as little more than a warmed-over version of charges that never stuck because “he did not commit any crimes.”

In his swift, absorbing and damning book “A Very Principled Boy,” Mark A. Bradley, a former CIA officer and a lawyer in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, brings the gavel down on Lee’s guilt and explains how he eluded prosecution. Bradley combines a lawyerly ability to build his case with a gift for storytelling to make the life of this cautious, smaller-than-life character more than the footnote it was.

The psychological genesis of treachery is a subject of keen interest for intelligence agencies, and Lee — clever, alcoholic and self-deceiving — is a fascinating if sometimes pallid subject. A descendent of the “Lees of Virginia” and, on his mother’s side, of Mayflower passengers, Lee was born in 1913 in Anqing, China, the son of American missionaries. “He venerated his father as a mystic who had dedicated his life to serving humanity in the finest traditions of his famous family,” Bradley writes. “At the same time his father’s mysticism left the young boy with mixed feelings of awe and alienation.” Lee’s mother possessed a “strong sense of noblesse oblige and ardent Christian socialism,” and her “belief in action” shaped him profoundly.

The front cover to "A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior" By Mark A. Bradley. (Basic Books/Basic Books)

Bradley concludes that Lee spied for the Soviets not for money, ego or revenge — common motives for betrayal — but “because he thought he was helping to save and reform mankind, the same grand mission his evangelical father and Social Gospel-minded mother had undertaken when they went to China.” The catalysts for Lee’s zeal, not uncommon in his generation, were the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War and the fight against fascism. Radicalized by the sense of impending collapse and seeing salvation in the Soviet experiment, he began to consider joining the Communist Party while studying at Oxford. A 1937 visit to the Soviet Union — where he accepted the chaperoned and state-sponsored tour as reality — confirmed his growing conviction: “Moscow surpasses all expectations. Perfectly unbelievable.”

The Great Terror, which was at its height at that moment, was invisible to Lee and his British wife, Isabella Mary Ann Scott Gibb, whose commitment to the cause was much stronger than her sometimes timid American husband’s. Indeed it was Lee’s innate conservatism, his tremorous commitment, that probably saved his skin.

After graduation, he got a job at Donovan’s law firm and followed him into the OSS, where he became chief of the secretariat, a position that gave him access to the most secret communications. He was already a member of the Communist Party, having joined in 1939, probably in New York, but not as an open member.

Soviet intelligence recognized his potential, but he proved to be a frustrating asset. He refused to provide any documents but would instead brief his handler orally and would not allow her to take notes in his presence. He understood that not leaving a paper trail was his best protection. Moreover, as Bradley notes, “Lee was wrestling with a deeply ingrained character trait: his intellectual and emotional inability to give himself fully, be it to his father’s religion, his marriage, his country or communism.”

When his Communist Party handler, an unstable and unhappy American woman, walked into an FBI office after the war and named Lee, among others, it was only her word against his. She was unable to produce even a scrap of paper implicating Lee. He was defended by Donovan and other patrons, including several leading anti-communists he had worked with on a postwar venture in China, a connection that burnished his credentials as a loyal American.

The FBI’s attempts to build a case against him were frustrated at every turn, and Lee became increasingly accomplished at defending himself, including before Congress and a grand jury. The material that might have sealed his fate, the decrypted Soviet cables, were too secret to ever use in court. The government could harass Lee, and did, but it could not convict him.

How damaging were Lee’s disclosures? He was not in the same league as those who turned over critical scientific and strategic information, and Bradley acknowledges the difficulty of making a clear assessment. Lee passed along mostly political information that probably informed Soviet perspectives on U.S. intentions. His is a story of small, serial betrayals — a study in idealism, never fully embraced and turned pitiful.

Peter Finn is national security editor at The Washington Post and a co-author of the forthcoming “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.”


The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy
and Cold Warrior

By Mark A. Bradley

Basic. 348 pp. $29.99