The Magazine

Red Puppeteer

The hidden life, in plain sight, of a Communist spymaster.

Apr 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 31 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Over the years, Peters moved back and forth between the legal CPUSA and its more shadowy auxiliary. Following Chambers’s defection in 1938, fearing exposure, Peters stepped down as head of the secret apparatus and resumed work in the open CPUSA. But in 1939 the indictment of a number of people involved in his fake passport scheme convinced him that he had to once again disappear from sight. He assumed a new identity, Alexander Stevens, severed his ties with the open party, and tried to avoid any open Communist activity that might bring him to the attention of authorities. Ironically, a secret mission as liaison to a clandestine Communist group in Hollywood brought Stevens onto the FBI’s radar screen. But while the FBI had futilely been searching for J. Peters since the late 1930s, it was not until 1943 that it figured out that he was Stevens. By the time it began a far-ranging investigation, he had resumed open party work under yet another alias, Steve Miller. When his old comrade from the underground, Louis Budenz, named him in public testimony, Peters once again went into hiding in 1947.

Arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in late 1947, Peters spent one night in detention—the only imprisonment he ever suffered in America—before being released on bail. Despite hopes that he might be induced to cooperate with the government, when summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee, he took the Fifth on almost all questions. Indisputably guilty of traveling on a false passport, linking the CPUSA and Soviet intelligence agencies, and trying to infiltrate the armed services, he blandly denied in public statements that he was anything more than an advocate for workers and a devoted anti-fascist, insisting that he was the victim of persecution and lies told by those who wanted to “trample upon the Constitution.” But he was deeply worried about the escalating Hiss-Chambers case and consulted to no avail with comrades about how to pressure Chambers to keep quiet about his old Washington networks. Although he very much wanted to fight his deportation to Hungary, high-ranking Communist officials feared that, if he remained in America, he would only give the government more ammunition with which to pummel the CPUSA as a foreign conspiracy. After 25 years, Peters left the United States in 1949.

Lucky in America, Peters was just as lucky in Hungary. He arrived just as the purge trials in Eastern Europe were decimating the Communist movement. And except for his longtime cooperation with Soviet intelligence, he might well have been put in the dock with other Jews and returning émigrés who had lived abroad. Another black mark on his record was his close friendship in the CPUSA with John Lautner, another Hungarian American who, after being falsely accused of being an American agent by the Hungarian regime, was kidnapped, interrogated, and then expelled by the CPUSA—at which point he did become a government informant. Peters avoided arrest and was given a job in a state publishing house, enabling him to live a quiet and comfortable life until his death in 1990, not long after the cause to which he had devoted his life imploded.

Thomas Sakmyster not only unearths many of the remarkable details of that long life lived in the shadows, but exposes the credulity and stupidity of those who closed their eyes to Peters’s long crusade to undermine the United States and aid its enemies. From those who naïvely believed that the CPUSA was mostly about labor organizing and combating racism and fascism, to the writers from the Nation who visited him in Hungary and innocently accepted his bland denials of having anything to do with underground or espionage activities, they determinedly averted their eyes from what J. Peters knew was the heart of the Communist movement. Thomas Sakmyster thoroughly details the fact that people like Whittaker Chambers told the truth. It is a story well worth reading.

Harvey Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory and the author, with John Earl Haynes and Alexander Vassiliev, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.

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