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Engineering Communism by Steven T. Usdin

June 2010
Reviewed by Dr. R. Norris Keeler, SIGNAL Magazine

While extensive work has been published on the U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons programs, very little has been said about Soviet electronics and its related espionage until author Steven T. Usdin’s book, Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley. Usdin has brought readers into this intriguing world in a thorough and insightful way by revealing how the two U.S.-born spies nearly created a Soviet version of Silicon Valley.

Usdin was able to become personally close to Joseph Berg—one of the two major spies he illuminates in his book—not only eliciting much of Berg’s story but also, even more amazingly, accompanying him in 1995 to FBI offices. Usdin also used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the bureau’s complete files on Berg, which eventually were delivered to the author.

Joseph Berg was born in the United States to Benjamin and Rebecca Zbarsky, Russian-Jewish émigrés whose last name was promptly anglicized to “Barr” by officials on Ellis Island. Berg grew up in New York as Joyel (Joel) Barr. The reader should appreciate that when the book discusses the two spies in the U.S. environment, the author refers to them as Sarant and Barr; when they are re-created in the Soviet Union, he refers to them as “Staros” and “Berg,” the names they were assigned by the Soviets.

Usdin’s stated goals were three. First, he wanted to tell a personal story of Cold War espionage; second, he wanted to indicate what intrinsic shortcomings prevented the Soviet Union from taking full advantage of its tremendous assets of personnel and natural resources to equal the accomplishments of other developed countries; and finally, he wanted to study why Barr and his colleagues became ardent communists, granted they lived in a world that no longer exists and possessed mindsets that are difficult for today’s citizens to fathom.

The author addresses his last goal first. He takes readers back to that vanished world of New York in the 1920s and 1930s, when it was filled with Jewish émigrés living in grinding poverty and thoroughly convinced of the utopian nature of communism. They read the Daily Worker and Soviet-friendly articles by Walter Duranty in the New York Times, joined the Young Communist League, and identified themselves with the Soviet Union. World War II arrived, and many of these people—such as Barr—became well-educated at the City College of New York (CCNY), a thoroughly radicalized campus. There, political arguments were between Stalinists and Trotskyites.

It was amidst all of this activism that Barr met Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the author describes the genesis of a widespread spy ring directed by Julius Rosenberg. As the war progressed, many of these radicalized students began to find their way into key government and industry positions. Along with his colleague, Alfred Sarant, Barr turned over to the Soviet Union secrets of radar, proximity fuses, jet engines and analog computers, which were of great help to the Soviets in the early years of the Cold War.

In 1948, fearing arrest, Barr left the United States for France and points beyond, not to return to the land of his birth for years. In 1950, he was given a new name and identity in Czechoslovakia, becoming Joseph Berg. He eventually was joined in Moscow in 1950 by Sarant, who became Philip Staros. Both established their bona fides and became close collaborators. Sarant had his own escape story, fleeing to Mexico with a neighbor’s wife and then through Poland eventually to Moscow, where he was reunited with his colleague “Berg.”

So in 1950, the newly minted Joseph Berg and Philip Staros began their long and productive careers in the Soviet Union. The author chronicles them in detail and notes that in 1977 the FBI closed the case on them. This happened because after the two vanished in 1948, no trace of them surfaced for 30 years. It was during this time that they started the microelectronics industry of the Soviet Union.

The author describes in great detail how these two brilliant and entrepreneurial engineers tried to cope with the Soviet system. In the long run, they did not succeed even after obtaining strong support from then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. After Khrushchev was deposed, Russia entered the “Period of Stagnation,” which eventually led to the collapse of the communist government in 1991. In the United States, a prime driving force is the free market: If your product can sell and you can make a profit, then nothing stops you. In Soviet Russia, there was no such environment. An additional handicap was the excessive security and secrecy imposed on Berg and Staros by their Soviet administrators.

Sarant/Staros died in 1979. Around 1980, at least one astute U.S. scholar made the connection between Barr and Sarant and Berg and Staros. Amazingly, about a decade later, Berg—having revealed himself as U.S. citizen Joel Barr—was able to regain U.S. citizenship and allowed to return on a visit. Protests took place in Congress upon Barr’s visit, but one congressman, Stephen J. Solarz (D-NY), was active in helping Barr in this effort. No attempts were made to interview Barr or to detain him, which seems strange in view of his espionage activities. Barr/Berg died in St. Petersburg in August 1998 shortly after his KGB control revealed the complete depths of his spying activities.

Also amazing are the extraordinary details the author has uncovered about the Julius Rosenberg spy network. In fact, three chapters of the book are named “FortMonmouth,” “Western Electric” and “Sperry Gyroscope,” describing much of the espionage that took place at these activities from 1940 to 1948. This book should put to rest forever the hope of leftist historians looking for some way to exculpate the Rosenbergs from their crimes.

Usdin leaves the reader to judge how Barr and Sarant should be viewed. He obviously is impressed with Barr as a person, which is clear from the way he describes him. But in their desire to further the goal of communism, Barr and Sarant inflicted serious damage on the United States.

This remarkable account of the careers of these two spies engenders a full appreciation for author Steve T. Usdin far more than for the ordinary author. In reading his story about these men’s lives, we get the sense that the spies themselves are speaking to us.

Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut 2005, 329 pages