Spy Fever

Joseph R. McCarthy
Joseph R. McCarthy; drawing by David Levine


No big industrial nation was less troubled on its home soil by the birth, rise, and collapse of communism as a political movement than the United States. Of the millions killed in the Gulag or in back alleys, only a handful were Americans. Communist parties strained social and political life in Germany, Italy, and France for decades and sometimes even threatened outright revolution and takeover, but in the United States Communist presidential candidates were a joke, Communist unions were strong in few industries, and then only briefly; and Communist front groups backed the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War to modest effect, and otherwise supported mainly a kind of earnest vanilla activism on matters of race, social justice, and public welfare.

Indeed, among the Communist parties of the world few were smaller, poorer, or weaker than the CP-USA, despite secret cash subsidies from Moscow until the last days of the cold war. At the outset, when the American party was founded in 1919, Communist ambitions in the United States ran high for organizing the masses and preparing for revolution. But soon Stalin switched lines, retreating to the slogan of socialism in one country, and thereafter the task of the American party was to support the Soviet Union through every twist and turn of the Moscow line at home and abroad. The Party was often noisy but none of it amounted to much. About the only thing American Communists ever really achieved was to help Soviet intelligence officials recruit and service a battalion of spies, including some who stole the secret of how to design an atomic bomb, but that, as Ted Morgan makes clear in Reds, his exhaustive new history of communism and its enemies in the United States, was enough to precipitate a kind of American national nervous breakdown.

There is something deeply unsettling in the discovery of a spy. During the decades when the Soviet Union was aggressively seeking to penetrate the governments and intelligence organizations of the West every president and prime minister came to live in sober dread of the day when his chief of intelligence would arrive through a back door with a somber mien to break the awful news of a spy uncovered at the heart of government. Britain, France, and West Germany at different times all endured the ghastly moment, sometimes more than once. Most governments lived through it, more or less, while others, like Willy Brandt’s in Bonn, were overthrown. In the United States, where the Soviet genius for recruiting spies first came to light in the late 1940s, the experience was both worse and not as bad—worse, because of the sheer numbers of probable traitors unmasked in the span of only a few years—exactly how many is a secret still buried in the Russian intelligence archive. What American officials knew was scary enough. The codebreakers who defeated the Soviet cypher…

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