Childs at Play
The FBI’s Cold War triumph.
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.