The Magazine

Childs at Play

The FBI’s Cold War triumph.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES & RONALD RADOSH
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For more than 30 years the broad outlines of one of the FBI’s most successful counterintelligence operations have been widely known. Exposed by historian David Garrow in his 1981 book The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. and elaborated by journalist John Barron in his 1996 book, Operation Solo: The FBI’s Man in the Kremlin, “Operation Solo” involved two brothers, Morris and Jack Childs, who reported to the FBI while serving as the Communist Party of the United States’ (CPUSA) main couriers to the Soviet Union. Recruited in the early 1950s, the Childs brothers had become disillusioned with communism; over the years they gave American intelligence an insider’s view of Communist plans, thinking, and priorities. 

Morris Childs Picture

Morris Childs

Morris Childs was by far the more significant figure. A member of the CPUSA since 1921, onetime head of the Chicago party and editor of the Daily Worker, Morris had drifted away from the organization after losing a power struggle in the late 1940s and because of serious heart problems he developed soon after. Persuaded by the bureau to reestablish his ties to a party reeling from defections, government prosecutions, and severe financial shortfalls, he managed to persuade Eugene Dennis, leader of the CPUSA, to allow him to establish connections with Moscow to ask for money. By June 1957 he was head of the CPUSA’s Foreign Affairs Committee, the party’s “ambassador” to the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, and later Cuba. Gus Hall, who became the party’s general secretary in the 1960s, referred to Morris Childs as his “secretary of state.”

The Childs brothers became the conduits through which Moscow financed American communism, receiving large sums of cash from Canadian Communist couriers and KGB officers serving in the United States. Morris happened to be in the Kremlin when it got word that Lee Harvey Oswald, who had defected to the Soviet Union from 1959-62, had assassinated President Kennedy; he was able to assure his FBI handlers that the Soviets were stunned and had no hand in the operation. Their contributions were so important that Ronald Reagan awarded both brothers the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Jack Childs received posthumously.

At the time of Garrow’s exposé, Operation Solo was still active, although Jack’s death in 1980 and Morris’s age and ill health had largely curtailed its reach. The FBI put Morris and his wife into a protective custody program and maintained an official silence. The CPUSA reacted with horror, officially pooh-poohing the revelations, but some members used the case to castigate their aging leader, Gus Hall, whom they wanted to replace. Last month the FBI finally released the first portion of its file on the case. It amounts to more than 3,000 pages, tracing the operation from January 1958, when Morris made his first trip to Moscow, to 1960.

Although there are no stunning revelations, there is plenty of fascinating detail in the file about a remarkable American intelligence coup and the difficulties and challenges it presented. The material exposes a few secret party members. On one trip to Moscow, Morris’s fellow-delegate, the black Communist James Jackson, asked that Coleman Young, a future mayor of Detroit and a secret CPUSA member, be invited to Russia to study Marxism-Leninism; the Soviets vetoed him as too old. 

One group of secret Communists in the States was led by Arthur Kinoy, a radical lawyer who ended his long career as a distinguished professor at Rutgers Law School, and included Dr. Jeremiah Stamler, a pioneering cardiologist at Northwestern Medical School, whose lawsuit marked one of the first successful challenges to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). And, contrary to Garrow’s earlier judgment that Stanley Levison, a key aide and supporter of Martin Luther King Jr., had terminated his role as a financial source for the CPUSA, Eugene Dennis told Morris in 1958 that the Levison “group,” active in the NAACP and the American Jewish Congress, still provided money from party businesses it controlled to a New York functionary and activist, the African-American Communist leader Benjamin J. Davis.

During this period Morris and Jack made seven trips to Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and Cuba. They met with high-ranking party leaders, ranging from Otto Kuusinen, Mikhail Suslov, and Boris Ponomarev to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, bringing back official documents and reports of their hosts’ views on issues from Berlin to Taiwan to the Sino-Soviet split, information that was extremely valuable to American policymakers in assessing Soviet and Communist Chinese motives and policies. J. Edgar Hoover regularly sent summaries to Vice President Richard Nixon, aides to President Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary of State Christian Herter, and CIA chief Allen Dulles, along with a warning about how sensitive the source was.

The Chicago FBI office, which handled the day-to-day details of Operation Solo, occasionally locked horns with FBI headquarters, worrying that the dissemination might endanger the brothers. The Chicago agents developed a warm relationship with Morris, fretted constantly about his health—at one point they obtained Washington’s approval to send him to the Mayo Clinic for a checkup—and periodically asked Hoover to write him letters of appreciation. One report praised Morris for his patriotism. It brought tears to his eyes when he read it, since it vindicated his decision to turn against communism and work for the bureau. Headquarters chastised Chicago for being too lax with Morris, reminding them that the FBI, not Morris, was in charge of the operation.

There were myriad difficult decisions and thorny problems to solve. The bureau helped Morris procure a false passport to use on his first trip. When Jack had to apply for a passport, the bureau was nervous because he had been named in a HUAC report for using a false passport in 1932 when he had attended the Lenin School. Since both brothers regularly violated U.S. laws on money transfers, the FBI tried to keep careful records of the flow of Soviet money. Some of the stickiest problems came when Jack and Morris obtained information that dealt with other FBI informers in the CPUSA.

In March 1959 a Soviet security officer asked Morris why the Americans had done so little to root out FBI agents in the CPUSA. The bureau dithered about whether Morris should mention this concern to Gene Dennis, worried that it might lead to a campaign that would uncover some of their many informants. If he kept silent, however, the Russians might get suspicious or upset. In 1960 the Soviets named Clarence Hathaway, a long-time Communist and newly appointed head of the New York District, as an FBI agent (there is no evidence that he was one). When Morris told Gus Hall and Dennis, they were too stunned and afraid to do anything. After the Russians were unable to come up with any evidence, Hathaway was left alone.

Soviet money flowed freely and copiously into the CPUSA’s coffers. Until the spring of 1959 most was ferried to New York by Elizabeth Mascolo, the common-law wife of Canadian party leader Tim Buck. Soviet couriers made regular trips to Canada with the money. In April 1959 Vladimir Barkovsky, a KGB officer, handed Jack Childs $50,000 in cash at Jack’s office in the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. The following January he returned with $72,885 in bills of $50 or less, “the dirtiest and oldest money” Jack had ever seen. The Childs brothers secreted the money in safe deposit boxes and doled it out to Dennis and, later, to Gus Hall. One shipment went to publish the Worker, support ailing party districts, and buttress union organizing and work among black Americans. Morris assured Boris Ponomarev that the CPUSA kept two sets of books. Soviet money was entered as donations from individuals. From December 1959 to April 1960 alone it amounted to $410,000.

Not even this substantial subsidy was enough to stave off political disaster for the CPUSA. It continued to be plagued by factionalism and a tone-deafness to American life that occasionally startled even the Russians. At a Moscow meeting with a group of Russian writers, James Jackson denounced William Faulkner as “a plantation owner,” while the bemused Russians praised his writing.

Another key concern was what the Communists called “the Negro question.” In the 1930s, following Stalin’s lead, the CPUSA had declared that American Negroes in the Southern “black belt” were a nation and could decide to secede from the United States. Self-determination for the black belt remained official Communist policy into the 1950s, even though it had long been discreetly ignored. That did not stop Suslov from telling James Jackson in 1958 that the CPUSA could not “base its theories and policies on resolutions adopted by the Communist International more than thirty years ago.” The aging Russian lectured the black American Communist about the “great changes” in the status of American Negroes and warned Jackson that if the CPUSA did not ditch the “Negro liberation” theory, it would make “terrible, catastrophic or abrupt mistakes.” He instructed Jackson to eliminate the policy originally imposed on the CPUSA by Moscow—which the party soon did.

The Childs brothers’ reports made it clear that the American Communist party was at all times beholden entirely to the Soviets, both in its politics and finances. In one 1958 report, top Soviet Communist leaders told Morris Childs that the American CP had to consider itself “a revolutionary party” and that it had to “get rid of anyone who says anything to the contrary.” Moreover, Childs was told to instruct the comrades that the CPUSA “has to have as its final aim the overthrow of the bourgeois(ie) and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” They added that party members had to “accept this principle even though it may be disguised when it is incorporated in the party program.” These instructions came at a time of ferment in the American party’s ranks, as the Soviet invasion of Hungary had produced a group of dissidents and a new group of “revisionists” led by John Gates who sought to reform the CP and make it into a democratic socialist vehicle, ditching Leninist doctrine in the process.

In the fall of 1960, KGB agent Vladimir Barkovsky complained to Morris Childs that someone reading the Worker might think they were reading Pravda. The CPUSA press reflected the positions of Moscow so well that a Soviet reader could not detect any difference in it from his own country’s propaganda organs. Morris Childs, hearing Barkovsky’s words, no doubt smiled to himself.

Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes are coauthors of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. Ronald Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is coauthor of The Rosenberg File.

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