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.
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.
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.