The communist on J. Edgar Hoover’s payroll

By Tim Weiner
March 1, 2012

This is an excerpt from Enemies: A History of the FBI, published this month by Random House.

J. Edgar Hoover’s most valued secret agent was a Russian Jew named Morris Childs. The operation the FBI built on his work was code-named SOLO. It posed great risks and the promise of greater rewards.

The FBI’s first debriefings of Childs were declassified in August 2011. They illuminate several mysteries of the Cold War, including the origins of Hoover’s hatred for Martin Luther King, the reasons for Dwight Eisenhower’s failure to approve the CIA’s plans to invade Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and the beginnings of Richard Nixon’s thoughts about a détente with the Soviets.

Morris Childs was an important figure in the Communist Party of the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, serving as the editor of its newspaper, the Daily Worker. He had fallen out with the Party in 1948. Three years later, the FBI approached him as part of a new program called TOPLEV, in which FBI agents tried to talk top-level Communist Party members and officials into becoming informants.

Childs became a Communist for the FBI. He rejoined the Party and rose higher and higher in its secret hierarchy. In the summer of 1957, the Party’s leaders proposed that he serve as their international emissary in an effort to reestablish direct political and financial ties with the Kremlin. If Moscow approved, Childs would be reporting to Hoover as the foreign secretary of the Communist Party of the United States.

The FBI’s intelligence chief, Al Belmont, could barely contain his excitement. If the operation worked, he told Hoover, “it would enhance tremendously the Bureau’s prestige as an intelligence agency.”

On April 24, 1958, Childs boarded TWA Flight 824 to Paris, on the first leg of his long trip to Moscow, at the invitation of the Kremlin. He met the Party’s leaders over the course of eight weeks. He learned that his next stop would be Beijing. On July 6, he had an audience with Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Was the United States planning to go to war in Southeast Asia? Mao asked. If so, China intended to fight to the death, as it had during the Korean War. “There may be many Koreas in Asia,” Mao predicted.

Returning to Moscow that summer, conferring with leaders of the Party and the KGB, Morris received a formal invitation to attend the 21st Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and he accepted promises of cash payments for the CPUSA that would come to $348,385 over the next few months. The money was delivered to Morris by a Soviet delegate to the United Nations at a restaurant in Queens, New York.

Though the trips exhausted him, leaving him a physically broken man, Morris went abroad two or three times a year over the course of the next two decades. He undertook fifty-two international missions, befriending the world’s most powerful Communists. He controlled the income of the American Communist Party’s treasury and contributed the insights for its foreign policy. His work as SOLO was undetected by the KGB and kept secret from all but the most powerful American leaders.

SOLO’s intelligence gave Hoover an unquestioned authority in the White House. The United States never had had a spy inside the high councils of the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China. Morris Childs would penetrate them at the highest levels and provide the FBI with insights no president had ever possessed.

Hoover first briefed President Eisenhower about the SOLO mission on November 6, 1958. For the next two years, he sent summaries of his reporting directly to Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon. Hoover reported that the world’s most powerful Communists — Mao Tse-tung and Nikita Khrushchev — were at each other’s throats. The breach between Moscow and Beijing was a revelation to President Eisenhower. It had been the consensus of American intelligence that the Communist leaders were of one mind. For years, Eisenhower had been relying on flawed intelligence from the CIA and the Pentagon about the military and political strengths of his enemies. SOLO’s reporting provided Ike with insights that no eavesdropping satellite or spy plane ever could deliver, portraying Communist leaders as confused and quarreling.

Hoover reported that Moscow had decided that “the main task of the Communist Party, USA, is to fight for Negro equality and integration.” He pointedly noted that the Kremlin asked for a copy of Martin Luther King’s first book, the newly published Stride Toward Freedom, written with the help of Stanley Levison, King’s close adviser and a former member of the Communist underground.

This evidence of ties between international communism and the American civil rights movement was electrifying to Hoover. The idea that they were connected through covert operations was an elemental part of his thinking and his conduct for the rest of his life.

Hoover told the White House that SOLO had met with Anibal Escalante, a political leader of the newly victorious revolution in Cuba, a confidant to Fidel Castro, and the most highly regarded Cuban Communist in Moscow. Escalante said that the Cubans knew the United States was planning a paramilitary attack to overthrow Castro. This reporting gave Eisenhower pause as he weighed the CIA’s proposal to invade the island with a force of anti-Castro Cubans undergoing training in Guatemala. He never approved the plan; that was left to President Kennedy, who went ahead with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.

Hoover reported directly to Nixon as the vice president prepared to go to Moscow in July 1959, where he would engage Khrushchev in a public discussion on the political and cultural merits of communism and capitalism. SOLO had met with the top Communist Party officials responsible for American affairs. Hoover distilled their thinking about the leading candidates in the 1960 presidential election.

Moscow liked Ike: he understood the meaning of war and he was willing to risk the chances of peace. But Senator Kennedy was judged as “inexperienced” and potentially dangerous. As for Nixon, the Communists thought he would be a capable president, though he was “cunning” and “ambitious.”

Nixon learned from the SOLO debriefings that Moscow could conduct rational political discourse; a decade later, the lesson served him well as president when he sought a rapport with the Soviets.

Nixon personally introduced Khrushchev to Hoover at a state dinner in the Eisenhower White House on September 15, 1959. The jet-lagged Soviet leader wore a medal in his lapel. Nixon, already preparing to run for president, was formal and unctuous; Hoover was all ears as a translator leaned in to join their conversation with Khrushchev.

“When I introduced him to Hoover, he immediately perked up, and he says, ‘I think we know some of the same people,’ ” Nixon remembered. “I think it was a very astute comment on Khrushchev’s part: ‘We know some of the same people, so don’t trust anybody.’

They did know one man in common. Morris Childs returned to Moscow with Khrushchev the week after the state dinner at the White House.

The counsel of the world’s top Communist — “Don’t trust anybody ”— sounded like wisdom to Hoover as he prepared for the election of the next President of the United States.

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The role of the Communist Party in furthering Martin Luther King’s career and the civil rights movement is generally unacknowledged in the United States. Although the topic came up repeatedly in the 1960′s it was widely regarded as a paranoid smear fomented by right-wing racist groups. As it happens, they were on to something although the facts were unknown to them.

At the very time that the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were imprisoning dissidents and their own human rights activists, and China was on the verge of starving perhaps 50 million of their own citizens, American Communists were happily chattering about the “negro struggle” and ending segregation. They were less interested in these movements as a force for increased civil rights than as a tool for civil turmoil and their usefulness in promoting a Marxist revolution in the United States.

At the time of his assassination King himself was beginning the process of coming out as a Marxist in his own style, although there is no evidence that had anything to do with the killing. Many of his close confederates like Stanley Levinson and Hunter Pitts O’Dell, both closely associated with the CPUSA, had been working to influence King for many years. The anti-war demonstrations and radical student movement were helping to convince him that the time had come.

The late 1960s were a period ripe with possibilities for increased violence and civil disorder. Had Martin Luther King lived the American civil rights movement may have taken the form of an insurgent class warfare movement. His death and the widespread reaction to the riots that followed had a tempering effect on the radicalization of the movement. Formal Marxist sentiment faded outside of small radical circles on college campuses where it still festers to this day.

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