Wednesday, January 21, 2015


During the Cold War years, the United States faced the threat of Soviet aggression. Communist agents had infiltrated the federal government, and by the 1930s, spies like Alger Hiss had reached to the top levels of American government: he occupied a post as presidential advisor in the State Department, and had face-to-face meetings with FDR. In 1946, the Klaus Report, issued by the State Department, documented shocking numbers of Soviet agents in the State Department, and the declassified Venona files, made public five decades later, shows that there were even more of them than the Klaus Report suspected.

Agents of the international communist conspiracy extracted classified information from the government, shaped policy decisions, steered the media to form public opinion, and even planned sabotage activities within the United States.

Facing the Soviet threat, Congress passed the McCormack Act, the Smith Act, and the Hatch Act between 1938 and 1940. Yet, because some officials did not believe that the communist menace was real, and because other bureaucrats were actually sympathetic to the communists, they failed to fully implement these bits of legislation, designed to ensure that government employees were properly vetted. In 1954, William F. Buckley wrote:

Moreover, the laws were not enforced; or, insofar as they were enforced, they were enforced tardily and halfheartedly. The Hatch Act bothered nobody. Even after it was passed, no less than 537 members of the American League for Peace and Democracy alone (as palpable a Communist front as ever existed) remained in federal service.

The Communist Party (CPUSA) had, in its official written materials, explicitly stated that one of its goals was a “violent revolution” to overthrow the government of the United States. The CPUSA did not merely contemplate taking life, it planned to do so.

Among those whose actions enabled the spy network inside the United States, some were unaware of precisely what they were doing. As unwitting “dupes,” they were perhaps not alert to the connections between the CPUSA and the seemingly noble goals of “front” organizations. Some of these fronts presented themselves as supporting culture and the arts; others spoke of justice, peace, equality, and rights. Support, in the forms of money or volunteered effort, given to such groups was actually used, however, to smuggle military secrets to Moscow, to influence federal policymakers to act against the interests of ordinary American citizens, or to prepare saboteurs for the anticipated violent revolution.

For the safety of American citizens, it was logical that members of the CPUSA, or those who supported them, should not be hired into governmental posts involving sensitive intelligence or policy formation. This would be true even for those whose support was given unwittingly. Buckley writes:

However, the Civil Service Commission’s “reasonable doubt” criterion for applicants moved toward the heart of the matter. The Commission made a start toward committing us to the principle that the federal government has the right to draw up its own requirements for government service - that employment by the Government is a privilege, not a right.

While such hiring and personnel efforts were correct in their intentions, their implementation was weak. Buckley continues:

The Commission’s effort did not, however, prevent further Communist penetration of the government, much less undo that which had already occurred. For the Commission did not rule on personnel already hired. Moreover, the Commission, under existing statutes and budget limitations, could not use the FBI in its investigations. Consequently, most of the Commission's information was obtained from the files of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The rest came from a handful of its own investigators.

Upon closer examination, it became clear that there was disarray among various agencies and departments concerning how, and to which extent, they vetted potential hires and current employees.

Between 1934 and 1937, two Democratic Congressmen, John W. McCormack and Samuel Dickstein, operated a committee to investigate the influence of foreign agents infiltrating the federal government. It later emerged, however, that Dickstein himself was an operative of the NKVD (a forerunner to the KGB), and was being paid by the Soviets, presumably to ensure that communist agents were not detected as they applied for, or worked in, federal posts. Dickstein also nudged policy discussions in various directions as Moscow requested, and sent documents to the NKVD.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General had entered the field. In 1941, he directed the FBI to probe complaints of alleged disloyalty among Federal personnel. The FBI reported its findings to the appropriate agencies, and these agencies made their own decisions. It soon became clear that standards varied widely from agency to agency. In 1942, therefore, the Attorney General created an Interdepartmental Committee on Investigation to assist in standardizing procedures and evaluative criteria. This Committee, like the Civil Service Commission, confined itself to regulating applications for employment; and even then it recommended a manifestly inadequate standard: rejection on loyalty grounds was to be based on proof that the applicant personally advocates the overthrow of the government; or else that he is a conscious and willing member of an organization advocating such overthrow.

Thus time elapsed until the 1946 Klaus Report disclosed the greater extent of the problem. Democratic Congressman Martin Dies operated a committee from 1938 to 1944, for the purposes of examining subversive operations in the United States. In 1946, this committee was renamed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Concerned with all manner of subversive activities, not only with communist and socialist ones, the HUAC would investigate the KKK as well as Soviet agents.

During the Cold War, the full extent of the Soviet spy network in the United States was never discovered. Enough of it was exposed to alert the nation to stop it. After the 1990 fall of the Soviet Union, the Venona files would indicate that communists infiltrated the United States to an extent not previously imagined.