J. Peters and the American Communist Underground
by Thomas Sakmyster
Illinois, 280 pp., $50
Readers might react to news of yet another biography of a Communist involved in the Hiss-Chambers spy case with a tired shrug and dismissive comment about how, surely, we have learned everything there is to know.
That would be a mistake, as Thomas Sakmyster’s fascinating account of the remarkable life of Sandor Goldberger, better known in the United States as József (or J.) Peters makes clear. Most biographies of American Communist apparatchiks have been accounts of the lives of party leaders like Earl Browder, William Foster, Eugene Dennis, or stories of rank-and-file figures. There are a handful of biographies of party cadres like Steve Nelson or Hosea Hudson—but most of their activities took place outside of New York and party headquarters, and both were mostly involved in mass activities, not internal party machinations. And unlike Whittaker Chambers, his onetime friend and comrade in the underground, Peters remained, to the end of his long life, a devoted Communist, intent on taking his secrets to the grave.
Based on careful and extensive digging in American and foreign archives, particularly in Hungary, Red Conspirator is both a lively and well-written book, and the best life story yet published in English of a particular Communist type: the professional revolutionary who lived virtually his entire life in the shadowy netherworld where legality shaded into illegality and loyalty to Moscow and the world revolution trumped national identity. That its protagonist was a central figure in the most explosive American espionage case in the 20th century only adds spice to the mix.
J. Peters was the most common of the many names Goldberger used. He figures in many books dealing with the history of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), a shadowy personage who emerged from the obscure and balkanized world of the foreign-language federations that enrolled the bulk of the party’s membership in the 1920s to become an important figure in the CPUSA’s organizational department in the 1930s. His most lasting literary achievement, A Manual on Organization, was hailed as a classic statement of Bolshevik organization when it was published in 1935; it enjoyed a much longer afterlife as the prize exhibit for anti-Communists of the rigidly Stalinist and anti-democratic nature of the CPUSA.
Known for much of his life only within the confines of the CPUSA—and even then only to those focused on inner-party life—Peters became a public figure after Whittaker Chambers testified in 1948 that he was an important cog in the machine connecting the CPUSA with Soviet espionage. Chambers identified Peters as the supervisor of a group of government employees in Washington called the Ware Group that had included Alger Hiss and had served as a training ground for espionage. After taking the Fifth Amendment in response to all pertinent questions about his activities, Peters voluntarily accepted deportation to Hungary, where he dropped out of sight, emerging only briefly in the 1980s to deny vehemently any involvement in “secret work.” He died in obscurity in 1990, having survived long enough to witness the collapse of the Communist dream to which he had dedicated his life.
Born into a poor Jewish family in a Hungarian town in Ruthenia in 1894, Sandor Goldberger had completed three semesters of law school when World War I broke out and he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army; with some higher education he became a lieutenant in the infantry and served honorably in Italy for four years. Returning home, he quickly became radicalized after learning from friends about the Russian Revolution; his life was likely spared because his hometown was ceded to Czechoslovakia by the peace treaties and he missed the White Terror that decimated the ranks of Hungarian Communists in 1920. Along with his family, he emigrated to the United States in 1924. Sakmyster speculates, not unreasonably, that Goldberger had concluded that he would never escape identification as a Jew in Europe; for not the last time, he lied to obtain his visa, hiding his Jewish identity and claiming to be a physician.