The hidden life, in plain sight, of a Communist spymaster.
Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By HARVEY KLEHR
Quickly joining the Hungarian Federation of the CPUSA, he dropped his Jewish-sounding name for József Péter, and within a year had been dispatched to the Midwest to organize Hungarian-American workers. Better educated than many of his comrades, and possessed of a quiet competence, he was tapped by the party leadership to run the federation in 1926; his biggest triumph was to disrupt the dedication of a New York statue to the Hungarian national hero Lajos Kossuth on the grounds that it was a propaganda ploy of the Horthy regime. More significantly, his use of federation funds to solve the financial problems afflicting the Daily Worker earned the plaudits of the CPUSA leadership, and he was soon hobnobbing with them on national committees and being selected to attend meetings in Moscow. When the Communist International denounced his patrons as revisionists in 1929, Péter immediately turned on them and proclaimed his fervent support for the new party leaders, earning promotion to organizational secretary of the New York district and leaving the insular, ethnic world of the Hungarians behind.
In his new post, Péter demonstrated the talents that would endear him to Soviet intelligence agencies. He enforced party discipline on recalcitrant or treacherous members, recalling in one private memoir that he ordered “spies” to be beaten up. He was also responsible for organizing groups who disrupted meetings of Socialists and other party enemies, and was assigned the task of setting up an illegal apparatus, for which task he traveled to Moscow on a false passport in 1931. In the Soviet Union he worked at Comintern headquarters, helping to supervise Americans in the country and receiving training in konspiratsia. He returned to the United States in mid-1932, now using J. Peters as his name and assumed his new role; as he told one comrade, the open CPUSA was like a periscope, but below the surface was the most important part of the organization, the one he directed. As confirmation of his status, he became a member-at-large of the three most important legal committees of the CPUSA, even while supervising the party’s preparation for illegal work, ferreting out spies and traitors in its ranks, and serving as liaison with Soviet intelligence agencies.
Sakmyster’s discussion of Peters’s supervision of the illegal apparatus is the most detailed portrait yet written about this little-known but key aspect of party life. One of Peters’s most ingenious operations was an effort to obtain false passports for Soviet intelligence agents, Comintern emissaries, and Americans traveling to fight in the Spanish Civil War. A team of Communist women pored over vital records in the New York Public Library to find children who had died soon after their births and then requested copies of their birth certificates. Trusted Communists would then apply for passports, accompanied by witnesses who would vouch that they had known the applicant the required five years.
In a pinch, Peters used contacts in local governments in New York and Atlantic City to enter false information in municipal records. He obtained several thousand fake passports over the years, selling many of them to Soviet military intelligence for money used to support the CPUSA’s illegal apparatus. Peters also recruited scores of CPUSA members and sympathizers to cooperate with both the KGB and GRU. In addition to Chambers, he enlisted such diverse figures as Ted Fitzgerald, later a member of the Silvermaster group of spies, Frederick Vanderbilt Field, scion of one of the wealthiest families in America, Hideo Noda, a Japanese-American painter sent on a spy mission to Japan, and Joseph Losey, a future Hollywood director who worked as a courier between the United States and Europe. Sakmyster provides a detailed picture of Peters’s espionage ring, carefully explaining how it was set up, why it sometimes malfunctioned, and what kinds of information it provided to the Soviets.