Commentary Magazine

The Secret World of American Communism, by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov

Out of the Archives

The Secret World Of American Communism.
by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov.
Yale. 384 pp. $25.00.

One day when I was about twelve years old, while rummaging in my father’s bookcase, I came across Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. Not a book for children; but my political interests were rather precocious, and Chambers’s melodramatic way of telling his story gripped my attention.

I did not get down to reading that book from cover to cover until many years later, but even at the age of twelve I had no trouble grasping its principal argument—namely, that a Soviet espionage ring had been placed in the highest circles of Washington before and during World War II, and that one of its most important figures was a man by the name of Alger Hiss.

This was not a particularly exceptionable revelation in the late 1950’s, since by that time Chambers’s assertions had been buttressed by such works of scholarship as Theodore Draper’s The Roots of American Communism and American Communism and Soviet Russia, as well as of Irving Howe and Lewis Coser’s The American Communist Party: A Critical History 1919-1957. These books took off from (but were not limited to) the testimony and memoirs of a number of former Communists, including Chambers but also Benjamin Gitlow, Elizabeth Bentley, Sandor Voros, Walter Krivitsky, and Louis Budenz.

Since then, political fashions in the academy have changed, and a whole new historiography has emerged. Over the last twenty years or so, a small mountain of monographs has been piling up to challenge the older view of American Communism. In many ways a byproduct of the Vietnam war and its legacy of anti-anti-Communism, these works argue that the American Communist party, far from having been a tool of the Soviet Union, was just one more participant (albeit a radical one) in the ongoing evolution of American democracy, with deep roots in our own populist past.

In this interpretation, there was no such thing as Soviet espionage, merely overheated allegations by renegades like Chambers and Bentley whose accounts were unreliable, exaggerated, or driven by a desire to cash in on the postwar wave of anti-Communism, and who were egged on by opportunistic and unscrupulous politicians (McCarthy, McCarran, Nixon, et al.). Even people normally regarded as Communists or fellow-travelers were nothing of the sort, but instead “civil-rights activists,” “union organizers,” “anti-fascist volunteers,” or (lately) “feminists.”

Leading exponents of the revisionist view have been Maurice Isserman, Ellen W. Schrecker, Fraser M. Ottanelli, Robert Rosen-stone, and, in a more popular vein, Vivian Gornick (author of the improbably-titled The Romance of American Communism). All have tended to represent the 1940’s and 50’s as a period in which Americans (in the words of the British revisionist David Caute) lay “sweat-drenched in fear” of a wholly imaginary threat.



Unfortunately for the revisionists, the collapse of the Soviet Union has suddenly made available the archives of the Comintern (Communist International), the Soviet Communist party, and other formerly super-secret sources. Under an agreement with the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History, Yale University Press has undertaken to publish an annotated selection of these materials under the rubric, “Annals of Communism.” The Secret World of American Communism, the first volume of the series, has been ably edited by Harvey Klehr, the author of The Heyday of American Communism (1984), in collaboration with John Earl Haynes of the Library of Congress and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, now curator of the Comintern archives.

This volume contains 92 of more than 1,000 documents which the editors examined in the course of their work. The questions they put to themselves were: (1) Did the American Communist party (CPUSA) conceal key aspects of its organization in a secret apparatus?; (2) did secret members of the party infiltrate U.S. government agencies in the 1930’s and 1940’s?; and (3) did the Communist party and its members commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union? These documents clearly show that all three questions must be answered yes.



Here, in brief, is the picture which emerges. From its very inception the American Communist party was financially dependent on the Soviet Union. It was established, in fact, through a grant of several million dollars’ worth of diamonds and jewelry, converted into hard currency by a covert financial network in which the industrialist Armand Hammer and his father Julius were prominent figures. (The sainted John Reed, he of Ten Days That Shook The World, was even apprehended by the Finnish police while engaged in a bit of jewel-smuggling for the party.)

While the CPUSA operated in the full light of day throughout the 20’s and 30’s, it also possessed a secret apparatus. By the mid-30’s this apparatus had managed to penetrate U. S. government agencies and some mainstream liberal organizations. Not only did individual party members find employment in these places, but they used their positions to advance party agendas. In the case of government agencies, this very specifically included “pilfering government documents and transmitting useful information to Communist supervisors, thereby jeopardizing the integrity of the government process.”

The secret apparatus ranged far and wide, and was engaged in activities not normally associated even with radical political parties. Thus, it tipped off the Kremlin to visiting Soviet citizens who, once in the United States, had decided not to return, and even to “deviationists” in Moscow itself who had come to the attention of American party functionaries. Many American Communist leaders were graduates of the International Lenin School in Moscow, where the curriculum had nothing to do with organizing trade unions or registering blacks to vote. Earl Browder, the chairman of the CPUSA in the 30’s and early 40’s, was a talent scout for Soviet intelligence; his sister Margaret was a Soviet agent. (Browder, who was fully aware of this, chose to lie about it under oath before a congressional committee.)

Most important of all, Comintern files establish that the secret apparatus of the CPUSA had integral links to Soviet espionage against the United States during World War II. The party managed to penetrate both the Office of Secret Services (OSS) and the Office of War Information (OWI), where, according to party leader Eugene Dennis, it played a key role in shaping policy.

Three memos from General Pavel Fitin (head of the NKVD foreign-intelligence directorate, 1940-46) also support Elizabeth Bentley’s charge in the 1950’s that mid-level government officials had supplied her with espionage materials. These were all members of the so-called Perlo Group, named after Victor Perlo, a man whom Victor Navasky, the editor of the Nation, described as recently as 1978 as nothing more than a “New Deal economist.” The papers do not establish exactly what these people did, but one has to wonder—as the editors do—why the NKVD would be asking for information about seven U. S. government employees; surely they were not selected at random out of the thousands then employed in Washington?

The documents do establish beyond doubt the fact of Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. Specifically, they show that Morris Cohen, a party member and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, was the initial contact between Soviet intelligence and an American physicist who eventually supplied the Soviets with most of our nuclear secrets. They also provide additional support for Whittaker Chambers’s case against Hiss by establishing that the man Chambers knew as J. Peters was indeed a key figure in the Washington underground of the Soviet espionage apparatus.



Perhaps the most surprising thing about the revelations in this book is how unsurprising they are—at least for anyone who has followed the traditional historiography of American Communism, or given even minimum credence to the many defectors over the years who have gone public with what they knew. But this is only the first in a number of volumes yet to appear in the series, which will include, most significantly, the copious diary maintained by Comintern chief Georgi Dimitroff. Revisionists will hardly have time to absorb these documents and manufacture rationalizations for the conduct of their heroes before another volley of materials comes bursting forth from Moscow.

Perhaps even more significant, with these volumes it will be possible for the first time to go back and resume the historical controversy derailed by the career of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy. As the editors point out,

because McCarthy and those like him used the issue of American Communist involvement in Soviet espionage to assail liberals and Democrats, some people concluded that anyone who suggested that the CPUSA was involved in covert activities and espionage was a McCarthyite.

McCarthy was engaged in careless, often inaccurate, accusations with no basis in fact; he not only thereby ruined many individual lives and careers, but also performed a backhanded favor for the very forces he claimed to be fighting. But, to cite the editors again, without the “secret world of the CPUSA,” such excesses would not have been possible in the first place. Now, surviving members of the party and, even more, their tenured apologists will be forced to make their case in the face of documentary evidence of a kind they never expected to confront.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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