In 1949 federal prosecutors indicted twelve leaders of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). Eleven of these men would stand trial for violations of the Smith Act, which makes it a crime to advocate violent overthrow of the federal government. (Retired party secretary William Foster escaped prosecution because of his poor health.) The eleven party officers who did stand trial were convicted and sent to prison.
The CPUSA was an agency under direct Soviet control, formed and operated to help the Soviet Union weaken and conquer the United States. But leftist college professors typically forget to mention that part of the story while teaching America’s next generation about the Smith Act trials of the party’s leaders.
Sympathy for the Devil
The freshman history textbook America’s Promise tells the story this way: “The Communist party also came under attack; a dozen of the top party leaders in America went to prison for their political beliefs.” In his A People’s History of the United States Professor Howard Zinn complains that during the 40’s and 50’s in America “The whole culture was permeated with anti-Communism.” In his textbook Give Me Liberty, Eric Foner of Columbia University laments that “The campaign against subversion redrew the boundaries of acceptable Democratic liberalism to exclude both communists (sic) and those willing to cooperate with them.”
There were good reasons for Democrats and liberals to start excluding Communists from their circle, despite what Professor Foner might say about it. A brief history of the Communist party will show why.
All Roads Lead to Moscow
From 1919 to 1943 the Soviet government organized and ran overseas Communists parties under the Communist International, or “Comintern,” which held regular meetings in Moscow. Comintern was formed to fight “by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic.” Comintern was officially “dissolved” in 1943, but continued to function as it had before in all but name.
The struggles for power that roiled the Soviet Union in the 1920’s and 30’s often had traumatic effects on the subordinate Communist parties in other nations, including the one in the United States. In 1924 Vladimir Lenin died, and Joseph Stalin began his bloody campaign for absolute power. In 1929 Stalin fired CPUSA leader Jay Lovestone and replaced him with William Foster. Nikolai Bukharin, the Comintern leader who had supported Lovestone, was kicked out of the Politburo in 1929, and executed in Moscow in 1938.
In 1932 William Foster retired as General Secretary of the party and the Soviets picked Earl Browder to replace him. There is room for debate about the extent of Communist spying conducted in the US before 1932, but it is indisputable that the party under Earl Browder recruited and managed a small army of traitors who worked in all departments of the Roosevelt administration, much to the detriment of American security. It is indisputable because Browder had the misfortune to have two of his high level agents turn against Communism and tell their stories to the FBI.
The Truth Comes Out
In 1943 CPUSA official Jacob Golos died of a heart attack. Golos had worked under Browder as the liaison for a network of spies run by Julius Rosenberg, funneling nuclear weapons secrets from the Manhattan project to the NKVD, the Soviet intelligence service that would eventually be re-organized as the KGB. He was also the Soviet liaison with the Nathan Silvermaster spy group, which operated primarily in the US Treasury Department and US Army Air Corps. He had connections to the Perlo spy network, which reported directly to party Chairman Browder. It is widely believed that Golos was involved with the murder, on American soil, of Soviet defector Juliet Poyntz; and the murder in Mexico of Leon Trotsky.
Upon Golos’ death, Browder assigned all his contacts to Elizabeth Bentley, who had been Golos’ lover. In 1945 Bentley broke with the Communist party and started telling the FBI about her career as a spy, name by name and detail by detail. She identified over a hundred Communist agents, including dozens of US government employees.
Elizabeth Bentley was not the first of Browder’s protégés to leave the Communist party. Whittaker Chambers had left the party in 1938, taking the precaution of keeping copies of some of the sensitive government documents his network of spies had been stealing for him. In the 1940’s he began telling the FBI what he knew. When Elizabeth Bentley came along she unwittingly confirmed much of what the FBI had already learned from Chambers.
When Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers were telling their tales, the FBI was already in possession of fairly extensive evidence of Soviet activities gathered through the US Army’s Venona Project, in which Soviet radio messages were intercepted and decrypted. The FBI never used the Venona documents as evidence in court, as this would have revealed to the Russians that the program existed. But when the Venona decrypts were de-classified in 1995 they provided researchers with never-before seen proof of the guilt of many Communist traitors from the mid-Twentieth Century.
Wikipedia’s article on CPUSA, and the linked article about Elizabeth Bentley, will confirm most of the statements presented in this blog. An excellent book on the subject, chock full of facts and figures that left-leaning history professors would find embarrassing, is Romerstein and Breindel’s The Venona Secrets.
One thing is certain. During the Cold War years, the Communist Party in the United States was not just a political party. It was the center of operations, within our own shores, of a hostile foreign power.