Harvey Klehr's "The Secret World of American Communism"

Harvey Klehr's "The Secret World of American Communism" dishes up old Russian documents proving that the CP assisted Soviet intelligence. The documents show that leaders of the CP met with Soviet agents while rank-and-file party members went underground as "moles". Typically the moles dropped formal CP membership while stealing military and diplomatic secrets after they took various civil service jobs.

The most evil of these CP turned agents, according to Klehr, were the Rosenbergs who stole the "secret" of the A-bomb while employed in top-secret government projects. The Rosenbergs were typical in the author's view of many CP'ers who transformed themselves into spies at the party's beck-and-call.

Historians like Klehr and Theodore Draper represent the earlier generation of historians who try to depict the CP as a puppet of Moscow. Klehr is a reactionary scumbag while Draper is an anticommunist liberal. Historians such as Maurice Isserman, Mark Naison have a much more nuanced view of the CPUSA and pay close attention to the ability of the CP to lead grass-roots struggles. Moreover, they are Marxists, and this can only help their work as historians.

Klehr's subtextual agenda is to show that Isserman et al are dupes of international Communism. Klehr's trump card is the documents he and a Russian associate dug up from a Kremlin now all too willing to kiss Washington's feet. The documents paint a picture of deceit, espionage, and treachery. Woooo. Scary stuff.

Contrary to Klehr's witch-hunting, these documents paint an entirely different picture. Instead of showing that the CP was a puppet totally loyal to Moscow, to the point of setting up spy networks, the documents show a CP just as loyal to FDR and his New Deal as to the Kremlin. What they demonstrate is a CP that sought more than anything else to ingratiate itself with the liberal-minded wing of the bourgeoisie. They also reflect a certain, how should we put it, enfatuation with the CP on the part of the Unites States military-industrial complex. Stalin loved Roosevelt and his love was requited. How touching all this was back in the glorious days of the Popular Front when good capitalists and their Communist allies were making the world safe for democracy.

Let's take a look at a few examples.

In Chapter six, an NKVD document reports on communications between Earl Browder, the head of the CPUSA, and Franklin Roosevelt. FDR congratulates Browder and the CPUSA for conducting its political line skillfully and helping US military efforts. Roosevelt is "particularly pleased" with the battle of New Jersey Communists against a left-wing Labor Party formation there. He was happy that the CPUSA had been able to unite various factions of the Democratic Party against the left-wing electoral opposition and render it ineffectual.

In Chapter 7, entitled "The American Communist Underground Fights World War II" we get clear evidence of an incestuous relationship between the CP and the American state apparatus. In Document 71, General Fitin of the NKVD reports on a meeting between Lincoln Brigade veteran Milton Wolff and William Donovan. Donovan, founder and head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner to the CIA. Wolff has offered the services of Spanish Civil war veterans to "diversionary" work in Axis territories. The document states, "In the recent period WOLFF has provided American intelligence with 10 Americans, 1 Greek, and 3 Yugoslavs, who are [officially] considered on active duty in the army and undergoing training in special ("commando") groups. Apart from the party members indicated, WOLFF has provided 6 nonparty Hungarians and 4 Czechs to American intelligence." (p. 261)

Wolff ended up in the US army, but was dissatisfied with his duties and requested reinstatement into the OSS. Top spy Donovan agreed and Wolff received a commission in 1943. He found himself working in Italy with a number of Lincoln Brigade veterans whom he had originally recruited for the OSS.

According to Klehr, the OSS initiated contact with the CPUSA. "Not only did Donovan approach Wolff, but he remained in contact with [Eugene] Dennis specifically because of Dennis's role as the CPUSA liaison with American intelligence." (p. 270) This is a most peculiar sort of subversive spy network that has an official liaison with this most secretive and strategic of American government institutions. I do not recall SDS'ers or Black Panthers maintaining such a liaison during the 1960's. Klehr tries to explain away Donovan's cooperation with the CP as wartime "expediency."

The problem with this interpretation is that it does not place the CP's role in US history in the proper context. Klehr looks back at the "secret world" of American Communism opened up by Kremlin archives from the perspective of a cold warrior. However, the Cold War did not start until 1945. The role of the CP before the Cold War was certainly one of loyal servant to the Soviet Union, but it was also a willing servant to American liberalism. Anyone without an ideological ax to grind would tend to view the CP as a key pillar of the New Deal, not as a collection of moles burrowing away at government institutions. If they were half as subversive as Klehr claims, we might be living under world communism today. Sigh...

The documents in Klehr's book do not paint the picture of a dedicated, revolutionary cadre trying to undermine bourgeois democracy. We see instead a left party with allegiances to the Soviet Union and to Washington. This was the essence of the Popular Front: Communism as 20th century Jeffersonian democracy.

Stalin, no doubt, would have preferred that this cozy relationship continue but Truman and Churchill jilted him and the rest is history. To really unravel this history, it would be necessary not only to gain access to Kremlin archives but CIA and FBI archives as well. Someday the same type of circumstances that allowed Klehr to gain access to Kremlin archives will allow us to gain access to our own closely guarded secret archives. Watch out for the lawnmowers!