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.


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

If the Soviets spent almost $50 million on the American Communists between 1958 and 1989, they were largely wasting their money. The American Communists split after the Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956, and split again after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. From the 1970s on, American Communism was hardly worth the efforts of the FBI to destroy it. Barron himself calls the American Communists a “ragtag party,” and Morris thought that the Soviets “ludicrously overestimated the influence of the American party.” Yet we are also told by Barron that the Soviet Union “maintained armies of spies and legions of diplomats—most of them intelligent, well educated and fluent in English—to study and supply information about the United States.” What in the world did those armies and legions tell Brezhnev & Co. about American Communism in the 1970s and 1980s when so much Soviet money was going to a “ragtag party”?4 Barron does not explain what the American Communists did with the money, except to suggest that Hall wanted some of it for his own use.

Morris and Jack each eventually received about $30,000 a year from the FBI.5 Jack, according to Barron, took 5 percent from all the Soviet money that he brought in. Morris posed as a wealthy businessman and bought a penthouse in Chicago; Eva furnished it with “art, antiques, Oriental carpets, and fine crystal.” Morris also maintained apartments in Moscow and New York.

We are told that Brezhnev made extravagant statements in praise of the American Communists in general and Morris Childs in particular. In 1977, after Morris had been spying on Brezhnev & Co. for about twenty years, Brezhnev told Gus Hall that “The CPUSA was the only party in the capitalist world that truly upheld the principles of Marxism-Leninism.” Brezhnev also toasted Morris on his seventy-fifth birthday as “a great man, the last of the true Bolsheviks, our beloved comrade, Morris.” That Brezhnev would have used such words—“the last of the true Bolsheviks”—about an American Communist who did nothing more, if we can believe Barron, than give Brezhnev advice about sundry matters and take Soviet money to Gus Hall overstretches the imagination.

Brezhnev and his associates must have been unusually gullible if, according to Barron, “Morris and Jack regularly told the Soviets tactical or operational lies,” though never “substantive disinformation.” Brezhnev asked Morris about what he should wear during a trip to the United States. Barron comments: “A man who held the power of life and death over the inhabitants of one sixth of the world’s land surface needed to be told by a little seventy-year-old Jew from Chicago what kind of clothes to put on!” Morris told Brezhnev that most Americans “wanted to wear clothes like those of a British prime minister or a fashion model.” One doesn’t know whether Morris intended this advice to be taken seriously but Barron passes it on as if he had no doubt about it.

Sometimes Barron’s version of Brezhnev’s conversation with the Americans strains credibility. In 1974, Brezhnev is supposed to have confided to Gus Hall: “I have been seeing all kinds of people, senators, etc., all good friends of your party.” Hall allegedly responded: “Many people are beating a path to Comrade Brezhnev’s door…. You are seeing more senators than Nixon.” Could Brezhnev have known so little that he thought there were senators who were good friends of the American Communists?6

In 1978, when the FBI thought it was time to bring Operation SOLO to an end, President Jimmy Carter and Attorney General Griffin Bell insisted that it should be continued, despite the increased risk to Morris and Jack.

Jack Childs died on August 12, 1980, at the age of seventy-three. Morris Childs died on June 2, 1991, at the age of eighty-nine. Eva Childs died in June 1995, probably in her eighties. And they died in their beds.


Barron’s story is, potentially, stunning. There is no doubt that Morris Childs was a leading figure in the American Communist Party. From 1958 to 1977—nineteen years—he traveled back and forth to Moscow and other Communist capitals and apparently brought back information based on conversations with the top Communist leaders. He was the highest-ranking Party member ever to defect to the FBI. He was allegedly responsible for transferring millions of dollars from the Soviet Union to the American Communists. Morris Childs is the only spy who has been decorated by both the Soviet Union and the United States. Brezhnev awarded Morris the Order of the Red Banner in 1975; President Reagan gave him the National Security Medal.7

Yet Barron’s book is seriously flawed. One does not know where almost anything in it came from. Much of the book is written in directly quoted dialogue form. Meetings of twenty or more years ago are reproduced word for word. The entire book is composed in a high-pitched Reader’s Digest style, as befits a writer who was an editor there for twenty years. The popular style of the book may make it easier for some to read, but it works against trusting the book as history. With almost no indications of sources, the reader must wonder again and again how Barron knows what he has put on the page. Though we are told that Eva Childs read every word of the manuscript, she could not have known about most of the events in the book.

Sometimes Barron says that Morris took “copious notes” of conversations with Soviet leaders. In 1971, for example, Morris met with Mikhail Suslov and Barron has almost two pages directly quoted from these notes.8 Morris died in 1991 before Barron began working on his book. The notes were by then twenty years old. Barron must have had the physical notes at his disposal, because he did not have Morris to tell him about them any more, even if Morris could have remembered dialogue going back to 1971. If Morris kept such notes for twenty years, it would be important to know where they are and how Barron was able to quote passages from them. Such information is never revealed in this book, and the lack of it deepens the mystery of Barron’s methods. One would imagine that the appendices of Barron’s book would contain copies of notes, such as the meeting with Suslov in 1971 if they were available to Barron, but there is nothing of the kind.

Sometimes Barron’s tale is inherently implausible. In 1964, Jack Childs went to Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. By that time, Cuba was wholly dependent on the Soviet Union. But Barron tells the reader that Jack gave “the Soviets the hidden link they wanted.” Yet Jack never went back to Cuba and the link was never used again. It is inconceivable that the Soviets needed Jack to establish a “hidden link” with Castro’s Cuba.

In an appendix, Barron has the exact amounts of money supplied by the Soviet Union to the American Communists from 1958 to 1980. In 1967, for example, the sum was $1,049,069.90 and in 1976 it was $1,997,651.28 (the cents owing to the conversion of other currencies into dollars.) Where did this information come from? Barron gives no hint. It seems unlikely to have come from Morris Childs, because he was not involved in all the transfers of money. Eva Childs, who was Barron’s primary collaborator on this book, could not have known these exact figures for the entire period. The figures may well be right, but they need a provenance in order to be at all convincing.9

In fact, Barron’s documentation is minimal. Only one photograph, of April 21, 1973, confirms Morris’s standing in Moscow; it shows Brezhnev, Ponomarev, Nikolai V. Mostovets, head of the North American section of the International Department, Morris Childs, Gus Hall, and Igor Mikhailov, deputy chief of the North American Section (see page 4). Another photograph of Suslov, Brezhnev, Ponomarev, and Gus Hall lacks Morris, because he was allegedly blacked out. These photographs confirm Morris’s presence in Moscow with the highest Soviet officials but tell us nothing about what happened there. An appendix containing “Secret Communist Documents” is mainly disappointing. A letter from Earl Browder to Georgi Dimitrov, head of the Comintern, in 1938 does not concern Morris or Jack at all. A memorandum by Morris to the International Department has nothing to do with Morris’s activity. Another memorandum is supposed to show that Morris “could talk and write like a communist” but is otherwise irrelevant. The only exception is a “representative operational message” by the KGB to Jack Childs of 1971, but it is not in its original form and does not concern Morris. Virtually all the rest of the book must be taken on faith.

Three aspects of the book are particularly troublesome. The FBI was set up to devote itself to domestic intelligence affairs, the CIA to foreign intelligence affairs. SOLO was largely foreign in its scope; the trips of Morris and Jack Childs to the Soviet Union and other Communist countries were its main raison d’être. Nevertheless, the FBI kept the operation closely restricted to itself and merely passed on information as it pleased to the White House, the State Department, the military agencies, and the CIA. Barron says that the CIA tried “to buy the operation, or but into it, without knowing exactly what it was buying” and “offered the FBI any amount—’there is no limit’ “—in return for “some control” of the operation and “promised to pay the principal source an annual, tax-free salary of $250,000 for starters.” But the FBI had no intention of selling “the family jewels.”

At one point in Barron’s story, assistant director of the FBI Raymond Wannall explained to Morris Childs that “there are two phases in this work: one is foreign, and one is domestic.” The question is: what gave the FBI the authority to engage in the foreign phase? Morris Childs seems to have preferred the FBI, with whose agents he struck up a warm relationship, but the division of labor between the FBI and CIA appears to have been violated.

Another aspect of the book raises a different kind of question. In 1981, the essential story had already come out publicly. Although Barron never says so, it was told by David J. Garrow in his book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.: From ‘Solo’ to Memphis.10 The FBI had been tracking King since 1958 and by 1962 had linked King to Stanley D. Levison, a New York lawyer. Barron says that Levison had already been identified by Jack Childs to the FBI as a member of “the inner circle of the communist underground.” Garrow, on the trail of King and Levison, stumbled on the Childses.11 Garrow heard about SOLO from a retired FBI agent and consulted Professor Harvey Klehr, author of The Heyday of American Communism, about who might be involved. Klehr helped Garrow to identify Morris and Jack Childs. 12

As a result, Garrow was able to reveal the activity of Morris and Jack Childs as early as 1981. “Within a surprisingly brief time of their recruitment by the Bureau—sometime between 1951 and 1954—both Jack and Morris came to be the crucial link by which Soviet funds approximating one million dollars a year were channeled secretly to the American Communist party,” Garrow wrote. “As such the brothers not only came to know the most confidential details of the Soviet-CP connection, details of course passed on to the FBI, but also to have substantial entrée with those in Moscow who supplied this cash.”

Garrow’s book was widely reported in the press. The Washington Post of September 17, 1981, for example, published a page-one article entitled “Soviet Secrets Fed to FBI for More Than 25 Years.” It said that the Post had independently verified the role of Morris and Jack Childs as “FBI informants.” Garrow revealed that “he came upon Solo while trying to learn why the FBI carried out such an extensive campaign to discredit [Martin Luther] King.” Anyone reading this and other articles would have obtained a general idea of the SOLO operation.

Garrow’s book, though it contained the essence of the story, was much less detailed and circumstantial than Barron’s. Nevertheless, Garrow got there first and belongs in the SOLO story. The publication of Garrow’s book and the publicity given to it in the press at about this time were instrumental in persuading the FBI to close down the entire operation. But Barron shields his readers from knowing anything about Garrow’s work as if it had never existed.

Finally, there are John Barron’s citations of alleged statements by Henry Kissinger. Barron says that Kissinger, then President Nixon’s national security adviser, voluntarily went to the FBI and said: “What you are doing is fabulous. You have opened a window not only into the Kremlin but into the minds of the men in the Kremlin. This is unprecedented in modern history.” By “you,” Kissinger meant SOLO and Morris Childs and the information he was bringing back from Moscow. When Kissinger was secretary of state under President Gerald Ford, the FBI allegedly fully informed them about the nature and history of Operation SOLO. Kissinger again supposedly said: “This is a window not only into the Kremlin, but into the minds of the men in the Kremlin. This is fabulous.”

Kissinger is one of the few high officials still alive able to confirm or deny Barron’s statements about him. When he was asked by The New York Review whether he had ever known about SOLO and Morris Childs, as described in Barron’s book, he replied: “Although I was sympathetic to FBI intelligence operations, I have no recollection of the quotations attributed to me or of the specific events to which the quotations refer.”13 In view of this statement, a reader has a right to know how Barron could assert that “on his own” Kissinger “went to the FBI” and said, “What you are doing is fabulous.” If Kissinger had said all the things attributed to him, he would presumably have remembered this “fabulous” entry “into the minds of the men in the Kremlin.”

Barron’s book raises two kinds of problems. Some of the statements and allegations are inherently implausible, and one rarely knows what most of them are based on. Yet there is an undoubted substratum of fact in the book that makes one wish the FBI would permit the publication of a more authentic account of a truly remarkable operation. In reading this book, I was torn between marveling at the ability of Morris Childs to serve his three clients—the Soviet leaders, the American Communists, and the FBI—for such a long period and deploring the almost total lack of substantiation for most of the story. SOLO desperately needs a historian.

This Issue

May 9, 1996