The Man Who Knew Everything
“Are there any anti-Communists in Washington?” I asked as I prepared to move from New York to the capital. In 1974, the question was less odd than it may sound today. Riding a wave of disaffection with the Vietnam War, Congress had blocked aid promised to the Saigon government. All U.S. forces had already been withdrawn, but this was not enough to satisfy the new sensibility. In the name of peace, it was considered necessary also to choke off local resistance to Communist conquest. The very idea of anti-Communism had come to be seen as a Neanderthal obsession that led to needless wars. No, the zeitgeist had not turned pro-Communist, but it had become anti-anti-Communist. Jimmy Carter, elected president two years later, gave it voice when he proclaimed, “we are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism” that had led us to fight “fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water.”
To me, this impulse to abandon anti-Communism along with Vietnam beckoned disaster. Measured in the number of lives it claimed, Communism was the greatest evil the world had ever known. Resistance to it was as necessary to human survival as oxygen.
This view had once been widely accepted. But clinging to it as anti-Communism fell into disfavor came to feel like belonging to a band of gnostics. Most of its members were one-time leftists. Many were former Communists or Trotskyists—who had broken away in small groups, like the Lovestoneites and Shachtmanites, or in solitary intellectual journeys. Others were Socialists of a democratic stripe. I was raised in such a home and had imbibed its precepts. It was to an old Socialist of my father’s generation that I had put my question about Washington. His answer was: “Well, there is a guy named Herb Romerstein. He works for the House Committee on Internal Security.”
The image that sprang to mind of such a functionary was of someone buttoned-down and remote—quite unlike the man I came to know over the following years. Herb, who died in May at age 82, was a man of warmth and laughter. His brother, Bill, 12 years younger, recalls: “If Herb had two dollars in his pocket, he would give me one without my asking; if I asked, he’d give me the other.” And a son-in-law captured well his mordant style in an anecdote recalled at graveside: “After two years of courtship, I went to ask Herb for Shari’s hand in marriage with all the earnestness and nervousness of a hopeful groom. Without missing a beat he deadpanned, ‘We’d really hoped she’d find someone with a sense of humor.’”
I would call Herb often in my research about this or that dark corner of the Communist world, especially its surreptitious activities in our own country. For me, as for many others among the anti-Communist gnostics, he was the richest vein of such information. I always imagined that when the House, acting in the anti-anti-Communist spirit of that era, abolished its Committee on Internal Security in 1975, some of the files ended up in Herb’s basement. I doubt this is true, but his basement archive really was legendary. Of course, archives are useless without a “finding tool,” and the tool here was Herb’s compendious knowledge of Communism and his remarkable memory.
His daughter Becky recalled needing a quotation for a school paper. “Dad said, ‘Go downstairs to the third bookcase on the right, bottom shelf, fourth book from the left, last paragraph on page 36.’” The problem with having such a father, she added, appeared when she reached college and asked the librarian for a quotation. The mortifying response? “The card catalogue is over there. Try using it.”
Like others in our gnostic circle, Romerstein had been a Communist. He grew up in a Brooklyn household of waning Jewish observance. “We were New York kosher: the Chinese restaurant down the block,” jests Bill. Against such a backdrop, the parental reflex to provide the boys with religious instruction backfired predictably. “He had a typical reaction to having been sent to cheder [religious school] and having his knuckles rapped,” relates his daughter Shari. The cheder served its purpose of preparing Herb for his bar mitzvah, but two years later he embraced the faith of Communism, throwing himself into party work in Brooklyn high schools with the energy of a dervish.
His true-believer spirit was to lead him from the party a few years later. In 1949, as the Truman administration began to crack down on Communists, and organized labor set about purging its own ranks, the party chose to respond by ducking and dodging, much to the young believer’s disgust. “My beloved Communist party denied it ever had intended to overthrow the American government by means of force and violence,” he wrote. “This knocked the props from under all my teaching….Stop this shilly-shallying, I yelled at one of my party bosses.” Such protests brought him a swift lesson in party discipline: He was expelled from one branch, then another.
Like many in his position, his first reaction was to think the party had erred, not to doubt the ideology. When, for example, Jay Lovestone and those who remained loyal to him were booted out, they christened themselves the Communist Party (Majority Group). For about a year Herb continued his activity in Communist fronts. By this time the Korean War had ignited. The doubts that had been germinating within him blossomed in the recognition that the party line—that South Korea had attacked the North—was a lie.
He turned on the Communists with the same passion with which he had once served them: He negotiated the draft-induction process so that his past party membership would not keep him from serving in Korea, and he spilled his knowledge to the FBI and penned a three-part series for the New York Daily Mirror under the rubric, “I Was a Kid Communist.” Eventually, he was hired by the House Un-American Activities Committee, forerunner to the Committee on Internal Security.
HUAC was tarred with the opprobrium that McCarthy brought upon the investigation of subversion. Although the committee did not share the senator’s recklessness, the question remained whether this was a fitting role for congressional bodies. By the 1960s, the Communist party was comatose, weakened by government persecution, by the Cold War itself, and perhaps most by Khrushchev’s revelations that the anti-Communists had been right about Stalin all along. A New Left arose that was less beholden to foreign powers but nonetheless championed America’s enemies. When the Congressional investigations were halted in the 1970s, the burden of exposing and combating such affinities rested where it perhaps best belonged—with polemicists rather than officials. For those who took up this task, Herb was an invaluable resource.
He was careful with facts and impatient with those who were not. I recall a briefing by a woman whose private-security firm had produced a voluminous and damning report on the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a Washington think tank devoted to lacerating America and extolling Communist movements in developing countries. Alas, to those of us who hoped for new dope on this outfit, the material looked recycled. One giveaway was its treatment of IPS’s funder, the Samuel Rubin Foundation, named for the creator of Fabergé cosmetics and run by his daughter, Cora Weiss, a devotee of Moscow’s. The report included the piquant detail that Rubin had secured essential attars in a part of civil-war Spain under Soviet control. This suggested that the Rubin fortune had been engineered by the Kremlin for its own purposes.
Herb had heard this story from an old Socialist whose brother had been in Spain, and he had repeated it to me and others; from those tellings it had, apparently, found its way into the report at hand. But I had traced it to Herb’s source, and to my dismay and Herb’s, he told me a different version: the attars had come from Fascist, not Communist, Spain.
The briefer relied heavily on an assistant, a retired government agent straight from central casting, down to the trench coat. Herb asked the basis of the report’s assertion about the Rubin fortune, and the trench coat responded, “That’s not public information.” Herb shot back, “It’s not private information, either.” The performance was discredited.
Nonetheless, Herb’s passion could get the better of him. I heard him defend McCarthy: “He may not have been able to shoot straight, but he aimed in the right direction.” And John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, historians of American Communism less engagé than Herb, fault him for occasionally over-interpreting evidence. They argue convincingly, for example, that Herb was wrong to call the atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer a Soviet agent, although the subject is tortuous because, in contrast to some portraits of Oppenheimer as a persecuted innocent, persuasive evidence shows him to have been a secret party member, an accusation he denied mendaciously.
In 1979, at one of our occasional lunches, I told Herb that although I was still a Democrat, I was more than ready to support a Republican against Jimmy Carter. But I wanted to know if there were any anti-Communists among the Republican presidential contenders. This, too, may sound odd today, but in the 1970s the GOP was the party of détente. Advocacy of strength against the Soviets came primarily from the likes of Senator “Scoop” Jackson, labor chief George Meany, and former officials Paul Nitze, Eugene V. Rostow, and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt—all Democrats. Herb told me he thought that one candidate offered what I was seeking, Ronald Reagan.
He proved right, and through Reagan, the cause of anti-Communism was not only rehabilitated but crowned with victory. Herb served in Reagan’s administration by heading the U.S. Information Agency’s Office to Counter Soviet Disinformation and Active Measures—which seems to have been created for him. One of his specialties was Soviet forgeries, which led to a case in which he, himself, was the intended victim, but succeeded in upending his adversaries.
In 1985, a letter was leaked to reporters in which the U.S. commander for Latin America asked Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for troops for the wars in Central America. Herb testified before Congress that this was a forgery, and in his testimony he mentioned a letter he had written on the subject. A Czech diplomat then asked him for a copy of that letter. Since it was not classified, Herb complied but marked the copy in a subtle, unique way. The next year, another letter surfaced, this one on Herb’s letterhead and bearing a likeness of his signature, instructing the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman to join a campaign to make the Soviet Union look bad over the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. (Added Herb, with characteristic sardonicism, when he wrote about it later, “Presumably, if we had no such campaign the Soviets would have looked good in connection with Chernobyl.”) This letter, however, replicated the unique mark Herb had put on the document he had provided the Czech diplomat, proving it a forgery and thus providing a neat example of this Soviet practice.
In 2008, Herb suffered a small stroke, the first of many of increasing severity that over four years gradually destroyed his memory before claiming his life. Aware of the loss, his humor endured. “So, remind me, what is this thing called Communism?” he asked his friend, conservative journalist Allan Ryskind—making light of his own condition. Nor did he lose his warmth. Toward the end, a massive stroke confined him to a nursing home. Though no longer able to speak, he reveled in the visits of his children and grandchildren. The five-year-old would climb onto his bed, and “he communicated with them by shrugs and smiles. Those were his happiest moments,” recalls his wife, Pat.
The graveside funeral moved me deeply. His three daughters and one granddaughter eulogized him with eloquence and adoration. There were also some ironic touches. Although Herb had been remote from religion, two of his children had become observant adults, and the rabbi who officiated with sensitivity and respect was Shari’s husband, the same son-in-law who told the funny anecdote of asking Herb for her hand. A military honor guard presented Pat with the flag that shrouded Herb’s coffin, expressing thanks for his service “on behalf of President Obama”—whose youthful Communist entanglements Herb had painstakingly documented in 2008.
As I watched the mourners taking turns shoveling dirt on the grave, I saw faces that I had not seen perhaps since the Berlin Wall fell, aging veterans of the anti-Communist brigades, offering their own thanks to one of their bravest, fiercest warriors.