Nathan Silvermaster was amongst the main players of a Communist spy ring operating within the United States and specifically within the Federal government. Silvermaster was born in Odessa, Russia in 1898 and lived in China for a while before moving to the United States where he attended the University of Washington, Seattle and then the University of California at Berkeley. He became a naturalized citizen in 1926 and was active in a number of communist organizations.
Silvermaster worked for the Farm Security Administration and then the Board of Economic Warfare in 1942. Objections were raised to his being assigned to the second position because of concerns over him being a security risk because of his suspected communist affiliation.
In July 1942, the U.S. Civil Service Commission recommended “Cancel eligibilities… and bar him for the remainder of the National Emergency” (World War II). Silvermaster vehemently denied any communist affiliation and appealed the commission’s recommendation to the Under Secretary of War, Robert Patterson. White House adviser Lauchlin Currie and Harry White, the Assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury intervened on Silvermaster’s behalf. White contacted Patterson directly telling him that the allegations against Silvermaster were baseless and Currie personally phoned Patterson, urging a reconsideration of the matter (the Venona intercepts would later make clear that both White and Currie were active Soviet agents). Silvermaster also had the support of his supervisor, Calvin Baldwin, the head of the Farm Security Administration, who, while not a spy, was a secret Communist. Patterson, relying on these recommendations, overruled the commission and allowed Silvermaster to join the Board of Economic Warfare. In 1942, he became an economist for the War Production Board and was able to pass significant quantities of information related to war production of weaponry , machinery and arms.
The ring is called the Silvermaster Spy Ring based on the FBI’s Silvermaster file. The file was compiled after former Soviet-agent Elizabeth Bentley began providing evidence to the FBI. She designated Silvermaster as the most significant Washington contact that she had. The ring was really a network of spies working within the high echelons of the United States Federal government. While not reporting to or operating under the head of the ring, they passed along information gained through the access gained through their individual positions. Most were employed by the Department of Treasury, but other worked in the Commerce Department, the Office of Strategic Services, the Army Air Force and the White House. Of the number of cables intercepting in the Verona intercept, 1% of them related to the Silvermaster ring.
The FBI had planned to turn Bentley and use her as a double-agent in order to obtain further information that could be used to arrest the spies without having to reveal the existence of the Venona cable. Unfortunately, it was inadvertently leaked that Bentley was talking to the FBI. Instead, the FBI began developing a picture of the network based on Bentley’s contacts with dozens of government officials and following the trail of links between them. The links and list of contacts were compiled over three years and became known as the Silvermaster file.
Among prominent members of the ring were White (who would later serve as the head of the International Monetary Fund), Currie, Solomon Adler, Norman Bursler, Frank Coe, Bela Gold, Sonia Gold, Irving Kaplan, George Silverman, William Henry Taylor, William Ullman, and Anatole Boris Volkov.