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Digital History ID 3416

 

In the 1930s, the Communist Party and associated organizations attracted the support of a glittering array of novelists, screenwriters, critics, and artists. Within the Communist Party, these individuals had found comradeship, acceptance, and a sense of mission.

From its earliest days, the American Communist Party received substantial funding from the Soviet government. In January 1920, the Communist International (or Comintern) supplied the Communist journalist John Reed with approximately $2 million dollars worth of gold, silver, and jewelry to foster Communism in America. The party also received a constant stream of Soviet political directives that it implemented without question.

In the early 1930s, some 35 states had criminal syndicalism laws, and foreign-born Communists (a large proportion of party membership in the 1920s and early 1930s) were in danger of deportation. In a California case, a young woman was sentenced to ten years in prison for raising the Communist banner on a flagpole at a children's camp.

During the 1930s, the U.S. Communist Party’s involvement in espionage was ad hoc, amateurish, and sporadic, and mainly involved pilfered State Department documents. But during World War II, Soviet intelligence agents successfully penetrated the Manhattan Project, the top-secret program to develop an atomic bomb.

Perhaps as many as 300 American Communists were accomplices of Soviet espionage during World War II. From small beginnings in the 1930s, Soviet espionage efforts in the United States increased exponentially during the war years. Pro-Soviet Americans, many of them secret members of the Communist Party working within such sensitive agencies as the State Department, the Treasury Department, and the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA), provided K.G.B. agents with information ranging from well-informed political comments to purloined classified documents. Recently declassified government files indicate that Alger Hiss was involved in passing on government documents; while others, who had been accused of links with the K.G.B., including the head of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the journalist I.F. Stone, were innocent.

With the end of World War II, the Soviet Union's most valuable sources within the U.S. government dried up. The defection of Elizabeth Bentley, the notorious "spy queen" who gathered information for transmission to Moscow from dozens of Federal employees, was a critical blow. Some departed under suspicion and pressure.

Spying and Communist Party membership were not identical categories. Of the approximately 50,000 party members in the war years, only about 300 were involved in spying. Some members refused to disclose knowledge when approached for information; others used indiscretion in the company they kept; while others convinced themselves that the information they leaked was intended chiefly for Communist Party leaders in New York.

Most of the Americans who betrayed their country did not participate because they were blackmailed, needed money or were psychological misfits; they joined in because of a "romantic anti-fascism" notion--a commitment to such causes as civil rights and improvement in the lives of the working class.

Following the war, support for the Communist Party rapidly declined. In 1956, following the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, three-quarters of U.S. Communists, including many of its most dedicated members, left the party.

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