The Traitorous Code Clerk, Part One
By David H. Lippman
Above all, he was always a snappy dresser.
No matter where Tyler Kent was stationed, what he did, where he served, or who he betrayed, Tyler Kent always dressed well, with closets full of expensive suits and jackets, all tailor-made.
Naturally he did. Kent belonged to America’s oldest elite, a descendant of English settlers who had come to Virginia in 1760, who had fought and suffered for the Confederacy in the Civil War, “The War for Southern Independence” as Kent called it. Kent went to the right schools - Kent, St. Albans, Princeton - and ultimately graduated from George Washington University. At five-feet, nine inches tall, with wavy brown hair, and fluent in a range of languages that included Icelandic, Kent had the perfect pedigree to be a leader in America’s foreign service – and to betray his country.
Tyler Gatewood Kent was born on March 24, 1911, in Newchwang, Manchuria. His father, Capt. William Patton Kent, was U.S. Consul, related to the Pattons of Virginia, and on his second marriage. Tyler Kent followed his father in the peripatetic career of a State Department officer – Germany, Switzerland, Ulster, and Bermuda, not even touching American soil until 1919, when the elder Kent retired.
But once home, Kent went to the prestigious Kent School in Connecticut, then to St. Albans, with other sons of upper-echelon journalists, diplomats, politicians, and high-ranking civil servants. He starred in soccer and football, and won St. Albans’ top prize for languages. At Princeton it was the same: top marks in languages, with a summer studying Russian at the Sorbonne, then Spanish at the University of Madrid. He was a natural for the U.S. State Department with his fluent languages, aristocratic bearing, and good looks.
Kent’s chance came in 1933, when newly-inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke 19 years of tension with the Soviet Union by recognizing that government and sending William Bullitt to Moscow as the first American ambassador. A Philadelphia Main Liner, a veteran journalist, Democratic wheelhorse, he had longtime connections to the Soviet Union – his wife was Louise Bryant Reed, widow of the Communist journalist John Reed, whose eyewitness account of the Bolshevik Revolution, “Ten Days That Shook the World,” was one of the great descriptions of how the Reds came to power. In 1919 Bullitt had personally negotiated a settlement between the Allies and the new Soviet government to end hostilities. The deal had been vetoed by the Allies at Versailles, leaving the Soviet Union in diplomatic limbo.
Now Bullitt needed supplies and a staff for his embassy. The Army and Navy pitched in to provide Bullitt with medical equipment, bedding, and medicines. The Army provided a plane, pilot, fuel, spare parts, and a crew, while the Navy provided an Electrician’s Mate to sweep the buildings for bugs, and the embassy residence with a full silver service. Bullitt’s staff included such future State Department luminaries as George F. Kennan, Chip Bohlen, and Loy Henderson. Kent would serve as a clerk.
Kent was chosen for his knowledge of Russian, but he had other advantages: a glowing letter of recommendation from Democratic Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd topped a stack of endorsements from publishers, bank presidents, and a Princeton assistant dean. Kent was hired on February 12, 1934, for a salary of $2,500, plus housing and food allowances.
The US Embassy to the Soviet Union opened for business in two floors of the Savoy Hotel, reserved as both the offices and residence of the mission. Bullitt himself moved into Spaso House, a grand mansion, where Marines in civilian clothes stood guard over the safe with the confidential codes. Spaso House was a difficult place to live and work. Soviet-produced matches didn’t light, and there was only one phone. When it rang at night, frequently the only sound was heavy breathing on the other end.
After three months, the Embassy moved to the new Mokhovaya Building, just off Red Square, staying there for the next 20 years. About 30 Americans worked in the building alongside Kent, depending on the American commissary for sugar, flour, coffee, tea, tobacco, and liquor, all in short supply in the “workers’ paradise.” Bullitt flew across Russia in his Navy plane, gathering information on the Soviet Union for Roosevelt, and his top staff enjoyed apartments with at least one Soviet servant, who dutifully reported everything they heard and saw to the NKVD.
But Kent was left out of this embassy largesse. As a low-ranking clerk, he was shoved out of the Embassy apartments and into the Moscow Hotel by State Department officials who outranked him. Moscow itself was a drab, dreary place – gray buildings, gray paint, gray clothes, and gray people, with red flags the only flash of color. All consumer goods were in short supply. Public transportation consisted of unreliable and overcrowded buses or horse-drawn carts. Above all, Moscow was deathly dull. The legendary Bolshoi Ballet only seemed to perform one show: “Swan Lake.” Bohlen saw it at least 50 times.
Bored beyond words, Kent spent time denouncing Jews, claiming they were driving humanity to a new war. He took to heavy drinking and equally heavy womanizing, pursuing actresses and ballet dancers – some of them NKVD plants – at the Metropole Hotel and a rented dacha. Soon Kent was sharing his bed with Tatiana (Tanya) Alexandrovnaya Ilovaiskaya, a blond, green-eyed part-time translator for International News Service’s Moscow bureau, and full-time operative of the NKVD.
Kent soon found out that his girlfriend was an NKVD agent – she made no effort to conceal it or her privileges – and just as quickly, he was passing on to her tidbits and secrets from the Embassy.
There were plenty of issues for discussion. Within a year of recognizing the Soviet Union, Bullitt complained to Washington that the Soviets had not honored a single promise they had made, particularly on payments for American-owned property seized after the November 1917 revolution. Stalin was also breaking his agreement not to support the Communist Party of the United States.
In 1934, the Soviet domestic scene turned ugly, with the assassination of Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov. Most foreigners believed that Stalin had put a hit on a political rival, but the government insisted it was the work of a man angry that Kirov was having an affair with his ex-wife. Five days later, Stalin had 39 Leningraders shot as accomplices to the assassination, and soon “plotters” were being found and executed all across the Soviet Union. The Great Purges had begun.
Bullitt missed most of the show trials that followed – he was transferred to Paris as Ambassador to France in 1936, but Kent was still in Moscow, stealing copies of classified signals from the embassy code room, and giving them to Tanya and the NKVD. It wasn’t hard – all the safes were left open and the code books lay on the tables, and morale among the poorly paid code clerks was low.
Joseph E. Davies replaced Bullitt as American ambassador in 1937, a reward for donating $16,500 to FDR’s 1936 re-election campaign. Davies was totally ignorant of Soviet affairs and intended to use the position to advance his own political career. He was completely naïve about the Soviet Union, swallowing Stalinist propaganda, which was confirmed to him by the New York Times reporter on the scene, one-legged Briton Walter Duranty, who glorified Stalin and ignored his crimes. Davies dutifully reported to Washington that Stalin’s bloody purges were justified and necessary.
Meanwhile, Kent had expanded his illegal operations from espionage to smuggling, shipping Russian jewelry, furs, and gold to buyers in America in diplomatic pouches. Incredibly, none of these activities were detected.
In late 1938, Kent returned to the United States on bi-annual leave, and took the oral examination to become a Foreign Service officer. He failed, and returned to his Moscow embassy post, and giving away the State Department’s Gray Code to the NKVD.
Kent wasn’t the only hole in the Embassy that the Soviets could exploit. Bullitt was a bisexual, having an affair with his confidential clerk and Embassy Third Secretary, Carmel Offie. Charge d’Affaires Alexander Kirk was gay and a drug addict. And Chief Code Clerk Henry W. Antheil, Jr., was also giving secrets to the Soviets. When the FBI suspected Antheil, his new appointment as Chief Code Clerk at the US Embassy in London was put on hold during the investigation.
The probe came to an end on June 15, 1940, when Antheil was flying in an Estonian airliner for a trip round the Baltic States. The Soviets were moving into Estonia that day, and Soviet fighters spotted the airliner and shot it down, killing everyone aboard including Antheil. The airliner spiraled into the sea just off the Estonian coastline. Before local fishermen could sweep up the debris, a Soviet submarine turned up and removed all the recovered objects. Nobody ever determined if they included Antheil’s diplomatic pouch.
But with Antheil unavailable for the London post, the new United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James – diplomatic parlance for all embassies to Britain – needed a new code clerk and quickly. Kent was available, had good reports from his superiors, and eager to get out of Moscow.
The story continues in Part Two.
David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist
and graduate of the New School for Social Research,
has written many magazine articles about World
War II. He currently works
as a public information officer for the city
of Newark, N.J. We're always pleased to add his work
to our Daily Content.