February 25, 1921 Fellow Traveler

In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. The capitalist west was plunged into a Great Depression that it couldn’t seem to get its arms around, while the carefully controlled propaganda of Stalin’s Soviet Union did everything it could to portray itself as a “workers’ paradise”.

In the wake of the “Great War” and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, American authorities became increasingly alarmed concerning the rise of radical Leftism.

00000744Far-left anarchists mailed no fewer than 36 dynamite bombs to prominent political and business leaders in April 1919, alone. In June, another nine far more powerful bombs destroyed churches, police stations and businesses.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had one hand delivered to his home by anarchist Carlo Valdinoci, who did something wrong and somehow managed blow himself to bits on the AG’s doorstep. Palmer attempted to suppress these radical organizations in 1919-20, but his searches and seizures were frequently illegal, his arrests and detentions without warrant, and his deportations questionable.

436398aceb9a0d77db5df9e6439394aa--red-scare-open-handsTo this day there are those who describe the period as the “First Red Scare”, as a way to ridicule the concerns of the era. The criticism seems unfair. The thing about history, is that we know how their story ends. The participants don’t, any more than we know what the future holds for ourselves.

Looking over the international tableau of the time, the largest nation on the planet had fallen to communism, in 1917. The Red Army offensive of 1920 drove into Poland, almost as far as Warsaw. The “Peace of Riga”, signed in 1921 split off parts of Belarus and Ukraine, making them parts of Soviet Russia. On this day in 1921, Bolshevist Russian forces occupied Tbilisi, capital of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.

In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. The capitalist west was plunged into a Great Depression that it couldn’t seem to get its arms around, while the carefully controlled propaganda of Stalin’s Soviet Union did everything it could to portray itself as a “workers’ paradise”.

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Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers was one of those who believed the winning side to be on the political Left, and joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in 1925. Chambers worked for a time as a writer at the Party’s newspaper “Daily Worker”, before becoming editor of “New Masses”, the Party’s literary magazine.

From the early to mid-thirties, Chambers delivered messages and received documents from Soviet spies in the government, photographing them himself or delivering them for Soviet intelligence agents to photograph. At some point, Chambers’ idealism began to waver, with the realization that he was supporting a murderous regime. By 1939, he joined the staff of Time Magazine, where he pushed a strong anti-communist line.

A series of legislative committees were formed between 1918 and the outbreak of WWII to investigate this series of threats, though these committees sometimes did more to construct the image of a threat than they did to stop one. It was in this context that HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was formed in 1938, becoming a “standing” (permanent) committee in 1945.

Alger Hiss
Alger Hiss

Whittaker Chambers warned about communist sympathizers in the Roosevelt administration as early as 1939, the FBI interviewed him in 1942.  Government priorities began to change n the wake of WWII, and Chambers was summoned to testify on August 3, 1945, where he named Alger Hiss and others as Communists.

A graduate of Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School who had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alger Hiss seemed an unlikely communist. He had gone on to practice law in Boston and New York before returning to Washington to work on President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, winding up at the State Department as an aide to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, former President Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law. By this time Hiss was a high ranking official in the State Department.

Hiss flatly denied Chambers’ charges, filing suit for defamation of character in December. Chambers escalated in his 1948 deposition for the suit, claiming that, not only was Hiss a communist sympathizer, he was also a spy.

pumpkinBefore defecting from the Left, Chambers had secreted documents and microfilms, some of which he hid inside a pumpkin at his Maryland farm. The collection was known as the “Pumpkin Papers”, consisting of incriminating documents, written in what appeared to Hiss’ own hand, or typed on his Woodstock no. 230099 typewriter.

Defending himself, Hiss claimed to have given the typewriter to his maid, Claudia Catlett. When the idiosyncrasies of Hiss’ machine were demonstrated to be consistent with the documents, he then claimed that Chambers’ team including freshman member of Congress Richard M. Nixon, must have modified the typeface on a second typewriter to mimic his own.

woodstockHiss’ theory never explained why Chambers side needed another typewriter, if they’d had the original long enough to mimic its imperfections with a second.

Alger Hiss’ first trial for lying to a Grand Jury ended with a hung jury, 8-4.  A second trial began on November 17, found him guilty of perjury on January 21, 1950.  Hiss maintained that he was innocent but lost his conviction, and served 44 months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary before being released in 1954.

What many saw as a devoted civil servant maligned by the anti-communist hysteria of the 1940, others believed to be a liar and enemy agent.  Alger Hiss went to his grave in 1996, protesting his innocence.

Soviet-era cables, decrypted through a now-declassified program called the “Venona Project”, seem to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt of being a soviet agent. Venona transcript #1822, sent in March 1945 from the Soviet Washington station chief to Moscow, describes the subject codenamed ALES as having attended the February 4–11, 1945 conference at Yalta, before traveling to Moscow. Hiss attended Yalta on these dates, before going to Moscow with Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.

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Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr report that the Venona transcripts tie approximately 349 Americans to Soviet intelligence, though fewer than half that number were ever identified.  The Office of Strategic Services alone, precursor to the CIA, housed between fifteen and twenty Soviet spies.

The CIA’s official conclusion, based on the CIA.gov on-line library is that “Although no specific file on Hiss has been released from the KGB or GRU archives, enough material has been found in other files–in Moscow, Eastern Europe, and Washington–to enable historians to write several new works that leave almost no room for doubt about Hiss’ guilt”.

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October 22, 1962  Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was never reflected on the doomsday clock.   The deadlock had broken before circumstances could be fully determined and the clock reset.  The events of October 1962 brought us closer to the brink than any time in history, before or since.  Seconds to go, to nuclear extinction.

doomsday clock, 1In 1947, members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists envisioned a “Doomsday Clock”, a symbolic clock face, to dramatize the threat of global nuclear catastrophe.  Initially set at seven minutes to midnight, the “time” has varied from seventeen minutes ’til with the 1995 collapse of the Soviet Union, to two minutes before midnight with “Operation Ivy”, the first American thermonuclear detonation, in 1952.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was never reflected on the doomsday clock.   The deadlock broke before circumstances could be fully determined and the clock reset.  Yet the events of October 1962 brought us closer to the brink than any time in history, before or since.  Seconds to go, to worldwide nuclear extermination.

All that needs to be known about Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista, is that he fled office with $300,000,000 US, on December 31, 1958.  The triumphant rebel columns streaming out of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, were quick to establish themselves in power.  By February 1959, Fidel Castro had installed himself as Prime Minister.

Castro dismissed the need for elections, proclaiming his government to be a “direct democracy”.  The Cuban people could assemble demonstrations and express their democratic will to him personally, he said.  Who needs elections?

“Trials” were carried out across the country, some in sports arenas, in front of thousands of spectators.  Hundreds of Batista supporters were executed or imprisoned as Castro’s “Revolutionary Socialist State” purged itself of the former regime.  When Castro didn’t like the outcome, he’d personally order a retrial.

Earl Smith, former American Ambassador to Cuba, described the Ambassadorship as “the second most important man,” in Cuba.  Now, the Castro administration distanced itself from the US, adopting an increasingly leftist posture and seizing US controlled oil installations, banks and sugar refineries.  By October 1960 the government had “nationalized” 166 such businesses, including Coca Cola and Sears, Roebuck.

bay-of-pigsSince the Presidency of James Monroe, US foreign policy has opposed outside intervention in the American hemisphere.  The government was not about to permit a communist state, 90 miles from its shore.

A secret operation to overthrow the Cuban government was conceived and initiated by the Eisenhower administration, and put into motion in April 1961.  1,400 CIA backed Cuban exiles landed on Cuba’s “Playa Girón“ (Bay of Pigs), intending to overthrow the communist government.

The effort was doomed to failure.  The New York Times had been reporting on the “secret invasion”, for a month.

Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy administration sought other means of removing communists from power.  “Operation Mongoose” sought to embarrass and discredit Castro personally, with tactics ranging from print & radio propaganda, to hallucinogenic chemical-laced cigars.  Someone even had the hare-brained idea of lining Castro’s shoes with thallium salts, to make his beard fall out.

The Communist government consolidated power, taking control of trade unions, jailing opponents, suppressing civil liberties, and sharply limiting freedom of speech and of the press. Secretary of State Christian Herter described Castro’s single-party political system as “following faithfully the Bolshevik pattern”.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev concluded from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, that the American President was impotent and indecisive.  One Soviet adviser described Kennedy as “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations… too intelligent and too weak.”

Cuban and the Soviet officials reached a secret arms agreement in July, 1962.   By late summer, American intelligence discovered Soviet Ilyushin Il-28 jet bombers in Cuba.

Worse yet, construction had begun on several missile sites.  On October 14, ultra-high-altitude Lockheed U–2R reconnaissance aircraft photographs revealed the presence of medium and intermediate range ballistic nuclear missile sites under construction in Cuba.

1st_Reconnaissance_Squadron_Lockheed_U-2R_80-1068
A redesigned version of the U-2, the U-2R, was used from the late 1960s through the 1990s

President Kennedy warned of the “gravest consequences” resulting from the introduction of Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba, while Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko insisted that Soviet aid was purely defensive. U-2 photographs gave lie to Gromyko’s protestations.  Images taken on the 17th revealed the presence of 16-32 missiles.

The administration went to great lengths to portray “business as usual”, while behind the scenes, policy makers wrangled over options from quarantine to tactical air strike to outright military invasion.  President Kennedy himself suddenly departed a political event in Chicago, his aids concocting a “cold” diagnosis to explain his sudden absence.

Cuban Missile Crisis, coldIn a televised speech on October 22, Kennedy publicly revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and called for their removal.  A naval quarantine would close off the island, Kennedy said, until Soviet leaders agreed dismantle missile sites, and to make certain that no additional missiles were shipped to Cuba.

From the Soviet perspective, Cuba was a small ally behind enemy lines, the same situation the Americans experienced, in West Berlin.  Besides, the Americans had missiles in Italy and Turkey.

Kruschev had gambled and lost, that he could “[I]nstall nuclear warheads in Cuba without letting the United States find out they were there until it was too late to do anything about them”.

The President warned “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”  There was no mistaking American intent.

Kruschev replied, “I hope that the United States Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace…”

Distances of Major Cites from Cuba
1962 — This newspaper map from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis shows the distances from Cuba of various cities on the North American Continent. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Soviet nuclear submarines moved in response to the quarantine, as Cuban waters became the scene of a tense, naval standoff.

Kruschev responded on the 24th, describing the US blockade as an act of aggression.  Castro urged the Soviet leader to initiate a nuclear first strike, should the Americans invade his island. The Joint Chiefs of Staff announced a “Defense Readiness Condition” status of DEFCON 3.  The United States Air Force was now ready to mobilize in 15 minutes.

U-2 photographs of the 25th & 26th showed accelerated construction on the island, with several silos approaching operational readiness.  US air forces were placed at DEFCON 2.  War involving Strategic Air Command, was now “imminent”.

Cuban Missile Crisis, contest

On day twelve of the standoff, October 27, an American U-2 was shot out of the sky by a Soviet supplied surface-to-air missile.  The pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson Jr, was posthumously awarded the first Air Force Cross in history, as well as the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Cheney Award.

Anderson’s was the only combat death of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he wasn’t alone.  Three reconnaissance-variant Stratojets crashed between September 27 and November 11, killing 11 airmen.  Seven more died on October 23, when their C-135B Stratolifter stalled and crashed delivering ammunition to the Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay.

The most dangerous phase of the Cuban Missile Crisis ended on October 28, when Radio Moscow announced that Cuban missiles would be removed in exchange for an American pledge not to invade.  In a secret “side deal”, the Kennedy administration also agreed to remove American “Jupiter” missiles, from Turkey.

Cuban Missile Crisis, mushroom cloud

The most dangerous thirteen days in world history, had passed.  The American quarantine would continue until November 20, when the Soviets agreed to remove their bombers.  The Americans removed Turkish missiles, the following April.

Throughout this period, a blizzard of communications both direct and indirect, were exchanged between Washington and Moscow.  With little to go on but mutual distrust, Kennedy, Kruschev and their aids sought to understand the true intent of their adversary.

If there is no intention,” wrote Kruschev, “to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.”

The American and Soviet governments established the Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link in 1963, from a mutual desire that we never again, get that close to the brink.  Contrary to popular culture, this “hotline” has no “red phone”, and never did.  The Moscow–Washington hotline was at first a dedicated teletype, replaced by direct-link fax machine in 1986. Since 2008, the Pentagon maintains a secure computer link with the Russian Federation, and messages are exchanged by email.