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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.

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