Were the U.S. Communist party (CPUSA) and its various front organizations legitimate phenomena of domestic American political life, despite the fact that they espoused a radical—even heretical—political program? Or did these forces represent a foreign and essentially artificial growth on the American body politic? Did they merely draw together proponents of an unpopular political agenda, or did their practices and goals constitute a conspiracy to advance the interests of a foreign power?
The debate over the nature of American Communism has turned on this set of questions virtually since the birth of the CPUSA. During the McCarthy era, scholars like the late Sidney Hook argued that, for all practical purposes, the American Communist movement was, in fact, something on the order of a conspiracy—a conspiracy bent on political subversion. As Hook saw it, the Communists were unlike members of any other radical sect, in that their primary allegiance was to a foreign power.
On the other side, the Communists and their defenders—particularly the revisionist historians who have dominated recent scholarship on the subject—have sought to demonstrate that American Communism was a profoundly indigenous radical movement. These historians have rarely gone so far as the slogan adopted by the CP during the Popular Front period of the mid-1930’s—“Communism is 20th-century Americanism.” But the general revisionist thrust has been to depict the party and its many fronts as home-grown political undertakings animated by domestic concerns and by justified discontent over the course of U.S. foreign policy.
An alternative interpretation is that the CP’s devotion to Moscow was a natural byproduct of its quest to bring “genuine” socialism to America. According to this reading, the leaders of the American Communist movement were not, in any sense, conscious agents of Moscow. And the party’s readiness to twist and turn in order to accommodate itself to every shift in Soviet policy (the “zigzag strategy,” to use internal CP terminology) was merely a derivative feature of its program.
To some, the issue may seem too nuanced to matter—a distinction without a difference. After all, the fact that American Communists were among Moscow’s most responsive puppets has long been apparent to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the party’s history.
But, actually, there is a world of difference between ideological kinship and formal allegiance—let alone allegiance grounded in financial dependency. Recognizing this reality, American Communists and their allies were always vociferous in denying that Moscow had ever subsidized their movement.
Even more threatening, needless to say, were accusations that the Soviets had recruited spies from within the ranks of the American Communist movement. Communists did not find it embarrassing, per se, that Moscow had spies in America: all major powers engage in espionage. But that Moscow’s spies should have been American Communists, animated by a primary ideological loyalty to the USSR, was another matter entirely. This explains the enormous need on the part of pro-Soviet “progressives” to insist on the innocence of the two most famous openly Communist Americans charged with espionage: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.1
In this connection, an episode described by Whittaker Chambers in his autobiography, Witness, is illuminating. When he was a Soviet agent, Chambers was instructed to deliver gifts to various key members of the secret Washington, D.C. cells for which he was responsible. Chambers protested to his Russian controller that offering gifts to men whose service to the Soviet cause was inspired by a desire to create a better world would offend their sensibilities. Thereupon, the controller explained to Chambers that the gifts were necessary: “He who pays is the master.”
The end of the cold war and the accession to power in Russia of a democratically elected government have forced the opening of the Soviet Communist party Central Committee’s archive in Moscow. Thanks to this development, documentary evidence concerning the distribution in America of what used to be called “Moscow Gold” is entering the public domain. Beyond these archival revelations, former KGB officials—like Anatoly Yatskov and Major General Oleg Kalugin—are beginning to tell their stories. And information long held closely by the U.S. intelligence community is likewise becoming accessible.
Taken together, this potent combination of sources leaves no doubt whatever that the American Communist movement was, indeed, financed by Moscow. In fact, it now seems plain that even those who charged consistently that the American Communist party, and the causes it supported, were receiving Moscow Gold failed to grasp the full scope of Soviet fiscal control.
By way of illustration, it is interesting that, while conducting a (still-in-progress) criminal investigation of leading Soviet Communist-party (CPSU) officials, Russia’s Deputy Prosecutor-General, Yevgeny Lisov, unearthed and confiscated a number of Central Committee documents concerning Soviet financial support—via the KGB—for the American Communist party. They are at once revealing and disturbing. (Some are also genuinely funny.)
Lisov, for example, located letters to high Soviet officials from Gus Hall, General Secretary of the CPUSA. One such letter, written in mid-1981, was addressed to Boris Ponamarev, the member of the CPSU Secretariat long responsible for “foreign parties and allied organizations.” Here Hall explains that “objective developments . . . are creating the most favorable situation for our party being able to influence the mass upsurge.” According to Hall, “Tens of millions [of Americans] have become disillusioned. They are moving toward mass actions.” Hall goes on to tell Ponamarev that the party needs funds “to reach the millions with our message,” and he further notes that “a few hundred dollars can make the difference between victory and defeat in a congressional campaign.”
This plea is curious in at least one special respect. Never in its history has the CPUSA elected a Communist—running as a Communist—to Congress. Consequently, it can only be assumed that Hall is referring to Democratic congressional campaigns in which he intends to deploy Communist cadres. Yet anyone who suggested, at the time, that the Communist party—armed with money from Moscow—was assisting a particular Democratic candidate would have been greeted with outrage and assailed as a practitioner of McCarthyism.
Hall’s letter also reflects a stunning—and comic—lack of political insight. To believe in mid-1981, at the height of Ronald Reagan’s popularity, that there was mass disillusionment with his administration required—to say the least—a highly skewed perspective. Nevertheless, Moscow looked with favor on Hall’s request. He received his annual allocation, estimated by Lisov at $2 million.
A 1983 “Dear Comrades” letter from Hall (addressed to the Soviet Politburo at large) affords more evidence of the U.S. party chief’s inability to grasp the realities of American political life. This time Hall describes, in grandiose terms, the party’s plan to build mass circulation for its newspaper, the Daily World, and to “organize work in the coming 1984 elections.” He explains that “our one single-most serious obstacle . . . is the lack of financial means.”
This letter, too, contains one special point of interest. Hall refers to the CP’s role in a coming rally in Washington, D.C. for “Peace, Equality, and Jobs.” Such a rally did, in fact, take place in 1983. Even then, it was not difficult for students of the hard Left to recognize the Communist hand in the event. The same applies to the various “nuclear-freeze” rallies of the early 1980’s. The nature of the literature distributed at these gatherings, the orientation of the slogans, and—in the case of foreign-policy-related demonstrations—the absence of any criticism of the USSR always served as telltale signs of CP influence.
Yet, again, anyone who at the time called the 1983 “Jobs” rally Communist-dominated—some brave souls on the far Right did so—was promptly dismissed as a McCarthyite fanatic. And to have suggested that the demonstration was actually being funded by Moscow would have been to court even greater opprobrium. Now, however, the truth emerges. Hall got the money; and, in this instance at least, the Soviets got their money’s worth. The rally was billed as a manifestation of discontent on the part of American workers with Reagan’s policies. Nationally prominent Democrats and liberals addressed the demonstrators. From Moscow’s standpoint the event was a striking success.
Still, by 1987, Hall was again forced to plead for money. Writing on this occasion to Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Hall asked for an additional $2 million per year beyond the $2 million he was already counting on. “I cannot overemphasize that the ‘wolf is at the door,’” Hall explained by way of apology for his special request; he even claimed that “we [are] . . . mortgaging our homes.” And, once again, he succeeded—though not fully. Lisov has produced a receipt, signed by Hall and dated March 19, 1988, for $3 million (a million dollars less than the American party chief had sought). The receipt is entirely handwritten, as is an earlier one, also signed by Hall, reflecting a $2-million payment in 1987.
In short, even under Gorbachev, even as late as 1989, Moscow Gold was still flowing into CPUSA coffers.
Also confirmed in the course of the past year was the Soviet role in financing an important Communist front: the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship (NCASF). Some months ago, Alan Thomson, the Council’s executive director—who was arrested in 1987 in a Washington, D.C. hotel room and subsequently indicted for currency-law violations—agreed to plead guilty to reduced charges after learning that the government was prepared to press its case against him in open court.
Thomson had received some $17,000 in American currency from a KGB official in Moscow in 1987. He brought the money back into the U.S. without declaring it, gave it to a trusted NCASF associate, and instructed her to break it up into two deposits in order to avoid a bank inquiry. (Banks are required to inquire into the source of all cash deposits that exceed $10,000.) What Thomson did not know was that his trusted associate was an FBI informant.
In the old days, Thomson would not have been arrested, since making a criminal case would have forced the Bureau to compromise its informant. Now, however, it appears that the demise of the USSR has freed the FBI to serve the cause of historical accuracy. In the Thomson case, the FBI and the Justice Department apparently decided to make it plain that the notion of Moscow Gold financing pro-Soviet fronts was no paranoid fantasy.
Thomson himself had no way of knowing, when he was arrested, that his NCASF colleague was an FBI informant. Nor could he have guessed that the U.S. Attorney would press the case against him. This explains the bravado with which he greeted the announcement that charges had been filed against him by the government. Back in 1989, Thomson told the press that the FBI was trying “to put a scare into the peace movement.” He insisted that his organization was committed to cultural exchange, not to the dissemination of Soviet propaganda; he denied that the NCASF was financed by Moscow; and he vowed that “the McCarthyism of the 1950’s is not going to return.”
But by May of this year, Thomson had changed his tune. In entering into a plea agreement, he even acknowledged the validity of a 1987 videotape in which he makes reference to the complicity of a Soviet embassy official, and a prominent District of Columbia political activist, in his illegal financial dealings.
The NCASF cannot have been an isolated case. According to Lisov, the support apparatus in Moscow was geared toward propping up no fewer than 98 parties and front organizations in 80 countries. And Alexander Yakovlev, a key adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev, recently told Izvestia that the apparatus was necessary because the entire international Communist movement was “an absolutely artificial, unviable formation . . . salvaged by the money of the Communist party of the Soviet Union.” There is no doubt that more information about “progressive” organizations like the NCASF will be emerging from the Central Committee archive.
Meanwhile, beyond the CPUSA and the NCASF, ex-KGB officials have provided American scholars and journalists with an indication of the other uses to which Moscow Gold has been put here in America.
The most controversial revelation stems from a speech delivered earlier this year in England by General Kalugin. The ex-KGB general declared: “We had an agent—a well-known American journalist with a good reputation—who’d severed ties with us in 1956. I myself convinced him to resume them.” But then, in 1968, “after the invasion of Czechoslovakia,” the journalist in question would not even let Kalugin buy him lunch.
A former USIA official, Herbert Romerstein, in an article in the right-wing weekly Human Events, claimed that the journalist in question was the late I.F. Stone. Kalugin later confirmed the identification. But such was the storm of protest in the mainstream American media—the New York Times and the Washington Post published angry editorials—that Kalugin, at least according to the left-wing weekly, the Nation, has begun to retreat. In one especially bizarre article—a Nation piece by Stone’s would-be biographer—Kalugin is reported to have explained that “when he’d used the term ‘agent’ . . . he’d simply meant someone who was willing to meet with him from time to time.” This claim has been repeated in the New York Review of Books.
But obviously, the notion that when a KGB general calls someone an “agent,” he really means an occasional lunch companion is preposterous—just as preposterous in its way as Gus Hall’s letters.
On the other hand, before the controversy arose, Kalugin had tried to explain that financing Stone did not entail telling him what to write. The KGB, according to Kalugin, was merely enabling Stone to do what he would have done anyway—had he enjoyed independent access to financial resources. Nor, it is clear, was Stone forbidden to criticize Soviet policy. And, from time to time, he did so. Kalugin’s original point, it seems, was that I.F. Stone—and, presumably, others—were idealists, not mercenaries. When such people differed with Soviet policy, they spoke out, notwithstanding their apparent need for KGB funds.
This, of course, was not the case with Gus Hall, Alan Thomson, and their ilk. Their fealty to the Kremlin was absolute. Nor has Hall, for one, repented or changed his tune. Thus, responding to the documents and attendant revelations concerning the movement to which he has devoted his life, Hall announced at the 1991 CPUSA national convention: “As far as I’m concerned, [all of this] is just another of the many ‘Moscow Gold’ slanders that have been appearing in the mass media for some 70 years.”
But for anyone but a true believer, the evidence is becoming harder and harder to deny or evade; and that evidence shows that Sidney Hook was right: the Communist party and a handful of front organizations did represent a conspiracy. Furthermore, this conspiracy was funded from abroad. It remains only to be seen—and documents, in Moscow and in Washington, will, before long, provide the answers—exactly which other groups took Moscow Gold, and exactly which individuals served as witting agents of this tiny but influential conspiracy.
1 Revelations from Moscow—including the recent emergence of the self-confessed KGB spymaster Anatoly Yatskov (as Anatoly Yakovlev, Yatskov was the “missing defendant” in the Rosenberg case)—will likely render this effort increasingly difficult. See my column in the New York Post of October 8, 1992.