That autumn, the Bolsheviks seized power and created the world's first totalitarian regime. On October 26 (on the Russian calendar), the day after the "storming" of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Lenin pronounced in Pravda that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" had commenced. If hardly a democratic society, Czarist Russia was even so a reasonably open one. (Pravda, which began publication on May 5, 1912, was freely circulated.) All this was now supplanted by terror, violence, and above all, secrecy. If something like the Soviet regime had been envisioned, both by those who had great hopes for it and those who instinctively feared it, none seem to have anticipated that secrecy would be its most distinctive feature. Everything that went on in government was closed to public view. Civil society ceased to exist. Only the nameless masses and the reclusive leaders remained.56
Soviet secrecy carried over into foreign affairs. The new regime was both threatened and threatening. Early on, American, British, and French expeditionary forces were sent to overturn the new Bolshevik Government and so, somehow "keep Russia in the war." (It could be fairly remarked that the United States took this intervention rather too offhandedly. Nothing came of it, so that we may be said not to have assumed that it would affect Soviet attitudes and conduct. As it was, the United States did not recognize the Soviet government and exchange ambassadors until 1933.)
Even while under attack, however, the Soviets began recruiting secret agents in foreign countries. They saw themselves as leaders of a worldwide movement--the red flag, symbol of universal brotherhood--and anticipated early success as other regimes began to collapse at the close of the War. Some agents were undercover, some quite public, some both.
John Reed, a 1910 Harvard graduate, was of the latter sort. In 1913, he joined the staff of the Masses, a socialist journal published in New York. (Its fame is in large measure accounted for by the illustrations of John Sloan and other painters and illustrators of the Ashcan School.) In August, 1917, Reed wrote an article, "Knit a Straight-Jacket for Your Soldier Boy." This brought upon him prosecution under the Espionage Act and, with his acquittal, a measure of fame in his own circles.57
But the great event was his trip to Russia, where he witnessed the Bolshevik coup. His account, Ten Days that Shook the World, appeared in 1919 (soon after his acquittal in the Masses trial) and was a master work of what would come to be known as agitprop. He attended the All-Russian Soviet convention in January 1918. In the summer of 1919 he was expelled from the Socialist Party of America at its convention in Chicago and thereupon helped found the Communist Labor Party. He died in Russia of typhus on October 17, 1920, and was buried in the wall of the Kremlin in Moscow, the equivalent--then--of interment in St. Peter's in Rome. Lenin wrote an introduction to one edition of his book, although he did not live to see the movie (Reds, 1981).
Reed was a Soviet agent. On January 22, 1920, he received from the Comintern gold, jewels, and other valuables worth 1,008,000 rubles for Party work in the United States.58 The United States Government did not know this. It has only just been discovered in Soviet archives. (That and much more.) For the next seven decades the United States Government would be the object of a sustained Soviet campaign of infiltration and subversion. There would be, as with Great Britain, a measure of success among elites, but in the pattern now already seen, an ethnic factor would be the most prominent.
In the beginning, most American Communists would be Russians. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) was organized at Moscow's behest in 1921, merging Reed's Communist Labor Party with the Communist Party of America, organized by a former socialist, Midwesterner Charles Emil Ruthenberg. The membership was not large and was overwhelmingly foreign-born.59 Theodore Draper, in The Roots of American Communism, estimates that 10 percent spoke English. Harvey Klehr et al., make that 12 percent.
Draper comments: "It is just to say that the American Communist movement started out as a predominantly Slavic movement. . . ." In a familiar pattern, immigrants brought their politics with them, or responded sympathetically to political changes in their homelands.60 He goes on to state that this situation changed as "Americans" and "other nationalities" joined the movement.61 But the ethnic dimension of American Communism never ceased, albeit at times it was overshadowed by the likes of John Reed.
Perhaps a quarter of a million persons passed through the Communist Party between 1919 and 1960--with emphasis on passing through.62 Nathan Glazer estimates that at the peak of popularity there were "considerably fewer than 100,000 Communists."63 Nor did the Party, or parties in the first instance, have an auspicious beginning. Fear of radical revolutions got out of hand in 1919-20. There was a good deal of disorder, and no small amount of criminal behavior. On May Day, 1919, some 36 bombs were sent by mail to prominent politicians, judges, and other "enemies of the left."64 The New York Times wrote of a "nationwide bomb conspiracy." The Washington house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was damaged by a bomb which went off prematurely and blew up the bomber.
All this would appear to have been a last surge of anarchism, but it was generally taken for Bolshevism. "Russian Reds Are Busy Here," ran a New York Times headline. Palmer, the "Fighting Quaker," responded with major cross-country raids--the Palmer Raids--on radical organizations, including the New York-based Union of Russian Workers, on November 7-8, 1919, the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. On January 2, 1920, Federal agents arrested more than 4,000 Communists in 33 different cities as undesirable aliens deserving of deportation.65 The Washington Post warned "[t]here is not time to waste on hair-splitting over infringement of liberty." J. Edgar Hoover, a 24-year old Justice Department official, located a U.S. Army trans-port, termed the "Soviet Ark," to take a shipload of radicals home, and invited Members of Congress to see them off at Ellis Island. He now emerged as a national figure, whilst his superior, the Attorney General, began making plans to run for President.
The unrest did not last. May Day 1920 passed without incident. With his credibility badly damaged, Palmer saw his presidential aspirations erode. Warren G. Harding, running for President against Democrat James Cox, said that "too much has been said about Bolshevism in America."66 The Democratic administration, leaderless following Wilson's stroke on October 2, 1919, had become undisciplined and erratic. Such intervals would recur, with both parties involved, but now a sense of civic order returned. Draper observes:
Comintern representatives often traveled on false passports, entered countries illegally, and carried large amounts of cash and valuables to distribute secretly to local party leaders and organizations. The Comintern maintained clandestine courier services, secret mail drops, and systems of coded telegraphic and radio communications with foreign Communist parties. Year after year the Comintern issued instructions and pleas to its member parties to form secret units, train cadres to operate illegally, and prepare systems of safe houses and fake identification documents to protect its key officials in case of repression by hostile governments. Communists, in short, were not novices at the kind of work required for espionage. Soviet intelligence agencies quickly recognized that they could piggyback on these activities for espionage operations.
The United States did not officially recognize the USSR until 1933. Before that date, Soviet money for the American Communist movement had to be sent by way of secret couriers. The earliest known subsidies were sent in 1919. **** Four payments [are recorded as sent to] America; 209,000 rubles to Kotliarov on 16 July 1919, 500,000 rubles to Khavkin on 30 September 1919, [as noted] 1,008,000 rubles to John Reed on 22 January 1920, and 1,011,000 rubles to Anderson on 31 January 1920. ****These four subsidies alone add up to 2,728,000 rubles. The value of the ruble on foreign exchange markets fluctuated wildly from 1919 to 1922 before the Soviets stabilized the "hard" ruble used for international trade at between $1 and $2. The Comintern document records that the subvention for American operations was in "value," a term in Comintern bookkeeping meaning that the sums were transmitted in the form of gold, silver, or jewels rather than currency. Thus, this account reveals that in this period the Comintern supplied the tiny American Communist movement with the equivalent of several million dollars in valuables, an enormous sum in the 1920s.68
There were several consequences of the relative isolation of American Communists. Apart from the intellectual circles in Manhattan and a very few other metropolitan centers, and apart from elements in the American labor movement, Communists were almost unknown. Among intellectuals, and especially within the labor movement, the encounter with Communism produced an often fierce anti-Communist response. (From the beginning of the Cold War to its end, the American Federation of Labor was unmatched in its understanding of Communism and its opposition to it.) In time, an opposition appeared in the form of ex-Communists who had broken with "the Party," or disillusioned "fellow travelers." With a sure sense of things to come, Ignazio Silone predicted that the "final battle would be between Communists and ex-Communists"--such was the insight and loathing of the latter.70
Even so, there was a measure of social distance on the part of most ex-Communists such that their tales when told often seemed too exotic to be true. They were easily dismissed as fantasists or worse. Klehr et al., write of Benjamin Gitlow, an early Communist leader who was expelled from the Party in 1929, in one of the recurrent purges that followed Stalin's exile of Trotsky:
Trotsky was an emblematic figure. He was living in Manhattan when the Bolsheviks came to power in St. Petersburg; rushed home, became foreign minister, commanded armies, might have succeeded Lenin, was exiled by Stalin, and in time was assassinated in Mexico City. In his autobiography, Out of Step, Sidney Hook, professor at New York University and a one-time Communist who, with many a New Yorker, followed Trotsky into opposition to Stalin, relates: "Ironically, it was one of my students, Sylvia Ageloff, who unwittingly gave Trotsky's assassin access to commit the murder."72 Ageloff's sister served for a time as secretary to Trotsky in Mexico City. She visited her sister; Trotsky and his wife grew fond of her. Back in New York, a woman friend casually offered Ageloff a ticket to Paris that she herself could not use. In Paris she met a dashing young Belgian journalist; her first love. He was, in fact, Ramon Mercader, "whose mother was a leading member of the Spanish Communist Party, . . . then living with a general of the NKVD in Moscow."73 In 1940, with Ageloff's guileless help, Mercader made his way to Mexico City, joined Trotsky's household, and thereupon murdered him.
Back in New York, there now commenced yet another raging battle between Stalinists and Trotskyites. Who/whom into an eternity of commissions, and conventions, and contentions. As ever, the party-line Communists lied about everything; we now know that Mercader was indeed a KGB agent, and that in 1943, the KGB even planned a commando raid to free him from Mexican prison.74 Life and death issues in New York City; little noticed in the rest of the nation.
In 1948 Whittaker Chambers, at one point in the early 1930s a contributor to the Communist publications the Daily Worker and the New Masses, later an editor at Time, would startle the nation with the assertion that in the mid-1930s he had been an undercover agent of the Soviet Union and a member of a Washington "cell" that included, most prominently, Alger Hiss. A great controversy arose. Could Chambers have possibly been telling the truth? Again to cite Sidney Hook, "everyone" in New York in the 1930s knew his past. (". . . I assumed--and I am confident that I was not the only one--that Chambers was engaged in underground work after he left the New Masses.")75 He broke with the Party; then he realized the penalty for this could be Death.
Hook advised a complicated "‘life insurance' policy" whereby Chambers would "draw up a detailed list of all the Soviet operatives he knew, all the ‘sleepers' in Washington and elsewhere, anyone who had given him any information" and send this to Earl Browder, then head of the American Communist Party, with the further information that if Chambers were murdered the list would be made public. Hook continues: "When Chambers first publicly identified his fellow-conspirators in 1948, the names were quite familiar to me." They were the same names he had given to a mutual friend, Herbert Solow, in 1938. They were the same names Chambers had given to Adolph Berle, then Assistant Secretary of State, in 1939.
And so the interval of 1918 to 1939 concluded and the Great War resumed. During that interval the Soviet Union had put in place a fairly elaborate espionage apparatus, more or less reflexively. From the Soviet perspective the United States was a somewhat marginal power, but even so, spies might in time prove useful. As indeed they would, however briefly. For its part, the United States Government was not much interested in such matters. The anti-Communist hysteria of 1919-1920 was seen, especially within the circles of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, as something of an embarrassment. As President Harding had stated, "too much has been said about Bolshevism in America."
Looking back on that period, David Riesman wrote in 1952:
Besides, the Bolsheviks were now the established rulers of a major power; potential opponents in the East of the Nazi regime in Germany, which had begun its devastating conquests in the West. And, of course, the great secret of American Government at this time was that, some military matters apart, it had none.
54 "Memorandum on the Cabinet Meeting," (20 March 1917), Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 41:438.
55 Ibid., 41:440.
56 There was a quality of openness in 19th and early 20th century civil society that is all but forgotten today. Weber, a reserve Army officer called back to duty during the War, sensing the outcome, wrote a friend in 1917:
English 1,900* Non-federation Language members 1,100 Estonian 280 German 850 Hungarian 1,000 Jewish 1,000 Lettish 1,200 Lithuanian 4,400 Polish 1,750 Russian 7,000 South Slavic 2,200 Ukrainian 4,000 Total 26,680*Including 800 of the Michigan organization which soon dropped out. Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc. 1957), 189.
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