If you’re looking for a book as a Christmas gift, I suggest an oldie but goodie, and in honor of the fact that it was 20 years ago that this nation quietly honored the subject of the book: a hero, a Cold War spy whose work was so classified that the 1988 ceremony commending him had to be held in secret.
The book is John Barron’s Operation Solo: The FBI’s Man in the Kremlin (Regnery, 1996), which concerns the extraordinary, unheralded work of Morris Childs. That work remained so critical that when Childs died in June 1991 the FBI could not disclose his past at his funeral. At best, the FBI official could announce to a shocked synagogue that this man, whom friends and relatives had thought to have been a lifelong communist—and the second most important person in Communist Party USA—had been an invaluable FBI asset, whose “accomplishments were staggering.” The assembled in the room, particularly the comrades, audibly gasped.
Here’s the remarkable story in a nutshell: Morris Childs, known by only a handful of government officials as “Agent 58,” was born June 10, 1902, outside Kiev. His real name was Moishe Chilovsky. His family, like many Russian Jews, was a victim of the Czars’ pogroms. They fled for America, arriving in Chicago on December 11, 1911.
Morris was radicalized by several forces, particularly at the Chicago Institute of Art and through free lectures at Hull House by the likes of atheist Clarence Darrow—a hero of the communist movement. Chicago was a hotbed of American communism; the party was founded there in September 1919. At age 19, Morris joined the party as a charter member. The party insisted on absolute, unquestioned, religious-like fealty, and Morris obeyed. As his biographer recorded, “whatever the party asked, he did.”
Morris became close to Earl Browder, the face of American communism for a generation. Browder served, as Childs noted, as the primary American agent to the Soviet Comintern: the Communist International founded by Lenin in 1919. From headquarters in Moscow, the Comintern approved all major actions of the American party, from its creation to its leadership to the editors of its publications.
Morris was sent to Moscow in January 1929 to attend the Lenin School, which trained leaders for the worldwide revolution. He learned violent, clandestine techniques to advance the revolution: explosives, robbery, sabotage, firearms, urban guerrilla warfare. He was also recruited into the OGPU (Soviet secret political police) to become an informant.
It would be a while before Morris eventually became a stalwart anti-communist who worked for the FBI. The revelations of the late 1930s were a wake-up call: Stalin’s purges and mass terror, the famine, the odious 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact that launched World War II.
Another character who entered this drama was Gus Hall. By 1959, Hall had been chosen general secretary of CPUSA. Hall was devoted to the Soviet Union until the day he died.
Morris, however, hoodwinked Hall—and the Soviets. He was the most trusted American in Moscow from the 1960s until 1980. He became especially close to Leonid Brezhnev and his regime. The Soviets loved Morris like a brother, eventually bestowing on him the prestigious Soviet Order of the Red Banner—an incredible, hilarious accomplishment for an undercover FBI agent.
What Childs learned from the Soviets is the subject of Barron’s book. I would like to highlight one major item that underscores the remarkable relationship between CPUSA and Moscow, definitively affirming that the American left was dreadfully wrong in claiming that the two sides had little to no connection. We now know what American anti-communists had long suspected: the Soviet Union bankrolled CPUSA.
Morris Childs and his brother Jack (also a spy) were conduits for the funding. The Kremlin gave CPUSA millions of dollars in annual funding. The total approached $2 million annually by 1976—America’s bicentennial—and rose to $2,775,000 by 1980. Barron’s biography lists the exact amount each year, down to the literal penny. The FBI knew the precise amount because it counted every dime at a half-way house prior to when Morris deposited it in a safe for Gus Hall.
Hall and CPUSA were doing all of this illegally; they were, flatly, congenital liars and lawbreakers. They were an arm of America’s chief adversary—a barbaric regime, unprecedented in its destruction of civil liberties and human beings.
The FBI was in a bind as to whether to disclose this information to Congressional committees or senior White House officials. After all, if the public learned, particularly through a leak, that CPUSA was literally kept alive by Soviet funding, the cover on Morris Childs would be blown, compromising the flow of superb inside information Morris was securing from the Soviet leadership.
Summarizing that information is impossible here. If you would like to learn more, get a copy of John Barron’s Operation Solo this Christmas season. And while you’re at it, take a moment to appreciate an unknown American hero named Morris Childs.