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Our Man in Moscow

Operation SOLO: The FBI’s Man in the Kremlin

by John Barron
Regnery, 368 pp., $24.95

John Barron’s book is an account of one of the most remarkable spy cases of the second half of the twentieth century. We have been accustomed to pro-Soviet spies, from Kim-Philby to Aldrich Ames. Here are anti-Soviet spies whose story is in some ways even more astonishing and of longer duration.

Morris and Jack Childs, the anti-Soviet spies, were not ordinary FBI informants. Morris Childs was a ranking member of the American Communist Party. He was born in 1902 as Moishe Chilovsky to Jewish parents near Kiev in the Ukraine; he and his younger brother emigrated to the United States as children. He joined the party when he was nineteen, and by the time he started working for the FBI he had been a Party member for about thirty years, most of them in leading positions.1 His brother, Jack Childs, was also a member of the Party but considerably less prominent. He was born in 1907 and seems to have joined the Party in 1931 during the Great Depression.

Morris Childs rose rapidly in the party. By 1929, he was sent to the Lenin School in Moscow, the finishing school of future Communist leaders. On his return, he was made district organizer in Wisconsin, and in 1935 he was moved to the important post in Chicago as district organizer or state secretary of Illinois, where he stayed for the next seven years. In 1934, Childs had been named to the Central Committee and, in 1945, brought to New York to take charge of the Party’s political action work. He was clearly a favorite of Earl Browder who ruled in those years. In 1946, after Browder’s expulsion, he was made editor of the Daily Worker, but it turned out to be the beginning of his downfall. His worst year was 1947. He was removed from the editorship as the result of a factional struggle within the Party; his wife left him; and he suffered a massive heart attack.

This crisis in his life opened the way for the FBI. But the first one to crack, according to Barron, was Jack Childs, who was selling paint and light fixtures and was something of a playboy. Jack had not been active in the Party since 1947 and struck the FBI as a likely defector. In September 1951, two FBI agents simply accosted him on the street near his home and, without urging, he agreed to help the FBI. Jack led an FBI man, Carl Freyman, to Morris. Freyman agreed to pay for Morris’s medical treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Morris recovered and went to work for the FBI—and for the Communist Party.

As Barron, a former Reader’s Digest editor, tells the story, Morris was by now thoroughly disillusioned. He had been a loyal and high-ranking Party member from 1920 or 1921 to some time between 1951 and 1954. His disillusionment came, according to Barron, mainly from two things. One was a trip to Moscow in 1947, when he was still with the Daily Worker, during which he heard about the persecution of Jewish artists and intellectuals. The other was his dismissal later that same year from the Daily Worker. But his break with the Party did not come until sometime between 1951 and 1954. Barron tells the story so loosely that we are supposed to understand that what happened in 1951–1954 resulted from what had happened in 1947.2

In any case, Morris and Jack had dropped out of active Party work in 1947. Now that Morris had agreed to work for the FBI, he needed to get back to activity in the Party. The opportunity came in 1954 when Morris was suddenly called by Phil Bart, the Party’s organizational secretary. Bart, according to Barron, wanted Morris “to reestablish contact with the Russians” in order to get money from them. In this way, Morris became persona grata both with the FBI and with the American Communist Party.

Meanwhile, the top leadership of the American Communists was going through a period of crisis. Earl Browder had been succeeded by Eugene Dennis in 1945, and Dennis was succeeded by Gus Hall in 1959. Hall, of Finnish background, is still, in his late eighties, the general secretary of an isolated, minuscule Communist Party. Barron describes him as “thuggish, uncultured, avaricious,” but not stupid, and as mainly interested in getting money out of the Soviets.

To get the money, Hall needed someone trusted by Moscow. He hit on Morris Childs, who seized on the chance to represent the American party in Moscow to ingratiate himself with the top Soviet leaders, to get money from them for Hall, and to bring back information gleaned from them to the FBI. For nineteen years, Morris performed all these functions to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Toward the end of 1961, another person entered Morris’s clandestine life. Morris met Eva Lieb, described by Barron as “a cultured lady of means.” They were married in May 1962 without Eva’s knowing anything about Morris’s work. When he took her to Moscow in October of that year, she was still totally ignorant about his secret life. On their return, he introduced her abruptly to two FBI men and revealed his connection with the organization. Unhesitatingly, according to Barron, she agreed to join him in his spying activity. On the Childses’ Moscow trips, she was entertained by the wives of the top Soviet leaders while Morris met with their husbands. On one occasion, she is said to have smuggled out Soviet documents in a piece of plastic wrapped around her waist and to have carried money in a shopping bag. Also in Moscow, she and Morris hid underneath bed covers copying secret Soviet documents, one holding a flashlight while the other wrote. Barron says that she was “perhaps the most effective female spy the FBI has ever had.” Barron is never sparing in his praise for Morris or Eva.

Barron says that in 1977 he learned about Morris, Jack, and Eva from a former FBI agent. Barron went to the FBI for permission to tell their story but was peremptorily refused. In 1982, Morris and Eva approached Barron through an FBI agent; they knew that he had suppressed his knowledge of their operation and that he had written books on the KGB. Since by then the operation had closed down, the FBI replied that it was neutral but would help arrange a meeting between Barron and the Childses, who had gone into hiding under government protection. Just as Barron was about to begin work with Morris and Eva, the FBI changed its mind and prevented them from telling their story. After Morris died in 1991, Eva decided to go ahead, and Barron began work the following year. By then Barron had the cooperation of both Eva and the four FBI agents closest to the Childses.

2.

Morris made his first trip to Moscow as an FBI informer in 1958. He met with Boris Ponomarev, head of the International Department of the Soviet party, and Mikhail Suslov, head of the Ideological Department. Later he also consorted with Leonid Brezhnev, head of the Soviet party. In all, Morris made fifty-two trips to the Soviet Union, Jack five. Morris also carried out missions to Peking, Prague, Havana, Budapest, East Berlin, and Warsaw. Jack went to Moscow, Prague, and Havana.

Much of Barron’s book is about Morris’s meetings with Brezhnev, Suslov, and Ponomarev. All of them allegedly treated him as virtually an equal and eagerly sought his advice. Barron suggests that in 1956 Jack obtained the copy later made public by the State Department of Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Congress on Stalin’s Terror. Morris in Peking in 1959 is said to have been made aware of the growing Soviet-Chinese Communist split. Morris increasingly reported on the seriousness of the split, and it is Barron’s main evidence of Morris’s contribution to American policymakers. Morris boasted that the Childs brothers had “duped all of them—Mao, Chou, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Suslov, Ponomarev, the head of the KGB, and the whole KGB.”

One of Morris’s early triumphs came in 1960, during the Khrushchev period. He heard Khrushchev denounce China and Mao Tse Tung for “endangering world peace.” When he brought back word to the FBI that Khrushchev’s denunciations amounted to “a Soviet declaration of ideological war” against Communist China, the FBI transmitted his message to the State Department, which immediately responded: “This is the most important single item the FBI has ever disseminated to the Department of State.” Just how Barron knows what the State Department said is not made clear.

And so it went for the next seventeen years. By the time Brezhnev took over, according to Barron, Morris was treated as if he were an intimate of the Soviet leaders. He happened to be in Moscow when Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy and reported to the FBI that the Soviets had had nothing to do with Oswald’s action. He allegedly discovered that the Soviet leaders believed that the election of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 might be followed by an American nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. He went to dinner almost every night with members of the Politburo or Central Committee. No American ever received the attention and confidences which the Soviet leaders apparently lavished on him.

Morris seems to have led a charmed life. In 1964, he returned from Moscow, and Barron describes what happened next: “Back in Chicago, during the next days, Morris briefed the FBI in detail about all he had learned, helped Boyle [an FBI agent] write reports, and insofar as he could, answered questions posed to the FBI by the State Department, the CIA, the Defense Department, and other agencies. Then he went to New York to brief Gus Hall.” This was typical of Morris’s movements—from the Soviets to the FBI to Hall, or from the Soviets to Hall to the FBI. And he went through the same procedures year after year after year.

In all these years, the Soviets were investing huge amounts of money in the American party through Morris and Jack. Barron claims to give the exact figures, and, if they are correct, they are astounding. From 1958 to 1980, the Soviets allegedly expended over $28,000,000 on the American party. Initially, it is said, the money was transferred through the Canadian Communist Party, which gave it to Jack or Morris in Toronto or New York. Beginning in 1960, KGB officers handed the money to Jack Childs in New York. Later, Jack turned the money over to Morris who gave it to Gus Hall. From $75,000 in 1958, the Soviet contribution rose to $2,775,000 in 1980. After 1967, the amount always exceeded one million dollars; after 1978, $2 million. In addition, in 1960 the Chinese gave $50,000 to Jack.

We now have independent information on Soviet payments to the American Communists in the 1980s. In February 1992, Deputy Prosecutor-General Yevgeny Lisov stated that the American Communists had been second only to the French Communist Party in the receipt of Soviet funds and had received over $20 million in the last decade. Lisov released three coroboratory documents to The Washington Post and two to Ogonyok, the Soviet journal. The documents include a receipt for $2 million in March 1987 and another receipt for $3 million in March 1988, both signed by Gus Hall. Letters by Hall to the Soviets beg for money and boast about all the great things the American Communists could do with it. In 1981, just when Reagan took the country on a more conservative course, Hall wrote to Ponamarev: “Tens of millions have become disillusioned. They are moving toward mass actions, and millions are in an ideological flux. Our party can be an important and even a decisive factor in influencing and moving these masses.” The Soviet subsidies to the American Communists were cut off in 1989 after Hall criticized Gorbachev’s reforms.3

  1. 1

    Barron has a confusing version of when Morris joined the Communist Party. In one place, Barron says that he joined in 1919. In another place, he has Morris joining the United Communist Party at the age of nineteen which would be in 1921. The United Communist Party was formed in 1920 through a merger of the two original Communist parties and lasted until the middle of 1921 when another merger of two Communist parties resulted in the Communist Party of America (Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism, Viking Press, 1957, pp. 218–222, 270–272). Morris probably joined in 1921.

  2. 2

    It is difficult to tell from Barron’s account exactly when Morris went over to the FBI. The nearest date given is September 4, 1951, when Jack was accosted by the two FBI agents, but Morris had not yet been won over. The next date given is 1954, when Morris was brought back into Party work by Phil Bart, the Party’s organizational secretary. The approach could not have been made before the end of 1951 but it must have been made some time before 1954.

  3. 3

    See John E. Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Labor History (Spring 1992) pp. 279–293, for the texts of all five documents and the circumstances surrounding them.

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