How We Got Here: Blacklisting Was Our Business

Part Five in a series: see parts one, two, three and four

On March 7, 1949 the biggest trial of the Red Scare began. Four hundred New York City policemen formed a barricade around the Foley Square courthouse, where eleven leaders of Communist Party USA faced charges under the Smith Act, which forbids advocating the overthrow of the government. Outside, leftist protesters and conservative demonstrators clashed, while the courtroom swarmed with journalists and spectators. Among those indicted were an impressive array of Communist leaders: Eugene Dennis, the Party’s General Secretary; Benjamin Davis, the African-American radical from New York; Jack Stachel, editor of The Daily Worker; and Gus Hall, CPUSA’s future perennial Presidential candidate.

The defendants little expected a fair trial: “The anti-Communist hysteria was so intense…that we were convicted before our trial even started,” John Gates lamented. The men, after all, weren’t being indicted for actual crimes; at the behest of Harry Truman’s Justice Department, government prosecutors sought to prove that belonging to a “subversive” organization like CPUSA was grounds alone for imprisonment. They had the dreary precedent of the Sedition Trial of 1944, a botched mass indictment of American fascists that turned into a carnival. This time, the prosecution worked to shore up their case with various ex-Communist witnesses.

Foley Square Protest
Communist protesters 

There was, for instance, Charles W. Nicodemus, a sad, squat Marylander “wearing glasses so thick as to give him a sinister, Dr. Caligari-like air.” A year earlier, he’d been arrested in Pittsburgh for carrying an unregistered firearm; police dropped the charges when Nicodemus claimed the weapon served as protection against his fellow Communists. This bizarre incident (he’d been accompanied by a much younger woman, Louise Train, causing suspicion that he’d actually been arrested on a morals charge) led to Nicodemus testifying at the Foley Square trial, despite never having met the defendants. He claimed that his Cumberland sect of CPUSA planned to sabotage factories in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and brandished an outlandish accusation that the Red Army planned to “march from Siberia to Detroit” with their assistance.

It was thin gruel, but the anti-Communist climate didn’t require substance for accusations, or even relevance. Certainly not in Harold Medina’s courtroom. Described by Michal Belknap as “combative, abrasive, sarcastic, hypersensitive and an insufferable egoist,” Judge Medina trumpeted his feelings during pretrial maneuvers, telling the press “if we let [the Communists] do that sort of thing, they will destroy the government.” He enjoyed baiting the defendants in the courtroom, once admonishing Benjamin Davis to “be a good boy.” Davis, ever sensitive to racial slights, seethed “I will not be a good boy!” Medina responded by citing Davis with contempt.

Medina2
Judge Medina

Not all informers proved so transparently pathetic as Nicodemus. Louis Budenz had already testified at the 1946 trial of Gerhart Eisler, a German Communist functionary later expelled from the United States. Budenz had once been the managing editor of the Daily Worker; after renouncing his Communist ways for capitalism and the Catholic Church, Budenz became a favorite of the anti-Red inquisitors. He spoke authoritatively about the structure and organization of Communist cells, and alluded colorfully to the “Aesopian language” used by Communists to conceal their true intentions behind code words. Asked by the prosecution to explain CPUSA’s principles, Budenz summarized them thus:

“The Communist Party bases itself upon so-called scientific socialism…as appears in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin…who have specifically interpreted scientific socialism to mean that socialism can only be attained by the violent shattering of the capitalist state, and the setting up of a dictatorship by the proletariat by force and violence in place of that state…This would mean that the Communist Party of the United States is basically committed to the overthrow of the United States as set up by the Constitution of the United States.”

Budenz’s comments were broadly accurate but misleading. During Budenz’s time in the Party, the CPUSA leadership wrestled between Earl Browder, who urged accommodation with the New Deal for an antifascist popular front, and those like William Z. Foster advocating an aggressive pro-Soviet, anti-capitalist stance. In 1945 Browder lost his position to Foster (who missed indictment due to ill health), who then declared Communists in open opposition to the Cold War. Theoretically, CPUSA was an ideological monolith answerable to Stalin and the Comintern; in practice, American Communists undermined solidarity by feuding over ideology, personalities and tactics.

Budenz2
Louis Budenz

Here, also, the defense scored a rare point against the prosecution. During cross examination, Richard Gladstein presented Budenz with a check showing that he drew wages from the Daily Worker, borrowed money from comrades, and even embezzled Party funds while preparing his defection. Gladstein further honed in, noting that Budenz also received payments from the Justice Department. “You arranged…for a job before you left the Communist Party?” Not recognizing the trap, Budenz affirmed: “Oh yes, I had a family to take care of.”

“For many days Budenz had been an aggressive, contentious witness,” George Marion writes. “But now he underwent a change. He seemed to be trying to disappear through the back of the witness stand.” Budenz never regained his sang froid in court, with the defense’s prodding compromising his credibility as a witness.

Then came Herbert Philbrick. A reporter recounted his dramatic appearance on April 6th, “wearing a red, white and blue tie and sitting under the Great Seal of the United States with its outstretched wings of the American eagle,” as if he were patriotism incarnate. Philbrick recalled the reactions of his former comrades: “Henry Winston, his big shoulders hunched; powerful hands clasped in front of him, his face brooding and stony. Eugene Dennis reddened with anger beneath his brittle shock of graying hair.” The former Boston ad executive who’d “led three lives” took no pleasure in his duty to inform, regretting the betrayal of men he’d considered friends; but duty it was.

Philbrick Carlson
Herbert Philbrick (left) with Richard Carlson, who played him on TV

Philbrick’s testimony was less expansive than Budenz’s, but more damning. He drifted into the Communist orbit in 1940, opposing American entry into World War II; Philbrick quickly grew disillusioned with his comrades, but was persuaded by the FBI to spend nine years as an informer. He became intimate with numerous leaders of the Party, and elucidated the relationships between cells, members and the Party leadership. His portrait of CPUSA, riven with infighting, affected by a shifting Party line but working towards a general goal of subversion, was more persuasive than the monolith conjured by Budenz.

After several months of testimony, Judge Medina (who complained that the trial’s stress was “more than any human being can stand”) concluded the trial on October 13th. He instructed the jury to consider whether the defendants created “sufficient danger of a substantive evil,” such as intending “to cause the overthrow or destruction of the government of the United States.” Unsurprisingly, the jury convicted all eleven defendants; Medina sentenced them to three to five years, setting in motion a series of appeals, Supreme Court cases and secondary trials of lesser Communists that continued for years.

Budenz and Philbrick profited from their experiences. Budenz published a series of books about Communism; Philbrick wrote the best-selling memoir, I Led 3 Lives (1952), which later became a popular television show. Others took notice: Harvey Matusow, a twenty-four year old Army veteran from the Bronx, noticed that “for the first time in our history, the informer was a hero.” To Matusow, a down-on-his-luck schmuck with big dreams and little direction, the solution seemed obvious: “I climbed on that bandwagon. It was the easy way up – to let the world know that I was not just another guy.”

Harvey Matusow
Harvey Matusow

Matusow briefly flirted with Communism upon leaving the Army; he parlayed that experience into a long career as a professional informant. He surpassed Budenz’s mutterings about “Aesopian language” by claiming that Communists used Mother Goose rhymes to indoctrinate children; he played a major role in the blacklisting of musician Pete Seeger, with whom he was slightly acquainted. He accused the New York Times of hiring dozens of Communists, feeding conservative fears of media infiltration. He bedded Elizabeth Bentley (whose alcoholism and mood swings terminated their relationship) and became an aide to Joseph McCarthy, serving as his “expert” witness on Communism and campaigning for the Senator’s reelection in 1952.

Matusow relished fame (after one hearing, he complained that King George VI’s death “pushed me right off the front page”) but eventually, his conscience caught up with him. He broke with McCarthy and published a memoir, False Witness (1954) – originally entitled Blacklisting Was My Business – admitting that his career was a sham. The government, which had no problem employing his dishonesty to their own ends, soon indicted Matusow for perjury. After leaving prison, Matusow began a strange, vagabond life: he managed several bands, worked as a DJ and professional clown, invented a stringless yo-yo and wrote books railing against the advent of computers.

Matt Cvetic also fared well. Pittsburgh’s notorious informant was a second generation immigrant (his parents were Slovenian) possessed by delusions of grandeur. Ill health caused his rejection by Army intelligence; he also suffered from what a psychiatrist dubbed “anxiety neurosis.” He was a womanizer who regularly cheated on his wife, and a drunk who embarrassed himself through public intoxication. In 1939, his sister-in-law Anna Barsh accused Cvetic of assault, battery and attempted rape. “When…was [it] a crime to beat up your sister-in-law, anyhow?” Cvetic sneered; he badgered Barsh into an out-of-court settlement.

Cvetic
Matt Cvetic (center, holding hat)

When Cvetic couldn’t strike, joke or bribe his way out of a squeeze, he simply lied. “He may indeed have believed the stories he told,” writes Daniel J. Leab, “which often lent credibility to the most outrageous stories.” His more plausible stories about Communist union presence mixed with absurd falsehoods, like his claim to have foiled Nazi saboteurs during WWII. The FBI seemed unaware of this when, in 1943, two agents from their Pittsburgh field office contacted Cvetic, asking him to infiltrate the local Communist Party. J. Edgar Hoover worried that Cvetic “might be the source of some embarrassment to the Bureau”; nonetheless, the Bureau kept him on their payroll through 1950.

Pittsburgh’s steel mills, coal mines and electrical plants made it a focal point for union agitation, and consequently for Red Scare rhetoric. A coterie of right wing businessmen and politicians, led by Judge Blair Gunther and attorney Harry Sherman, formed a pressure group called Americans Battling Communism (ABC) designed to enforce loyalty oaths and anti-Communist statutes within the city. Father Charles Owen Rice, the city’s most influential Catholic priests, campaigned to steer workers away from Communist-affiliated unions. Some even dreamed that Stalin himself might arrive: Judge Michael Musmanno warned that “the steel city of America is reportedly listed in Moscow as the number one target of Russian aerial invasion.”

Workers School

More menacing than Soviet paratroopers were native Communists, who boasted a strong presence among Pittsburgh’s immigrant population. Their leader, Steve Nelson, was a charismatic, Croatian-born veteran agitator of legendary status. He’d organized coal miners in Pennsylvania and Illinois, auto workers in Michigan and longshoremen in California; run missions for the Comintern in Prague and Shanghai; served as Commissar to the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in Spain and was wounded in action. During World War II he served as a source and conduit for Soviet agents in the United States; he befriended J. Robert Oppenheimer and attempted, successfully, to recruit the scientist into the Communist Party. 

In January 1951, Nelson and fellow organizers Andrew Onda and James H. Dolsen were indicted under a Pennsylvania Sedition Law. Nelson’s case was severed in May after a car accident; nonetheless he spent several months in prison, enduring solitary confinement and abuse by guards and other inmates. His wife Margaret and children suffered harassment, including gunshots fired into their Hill District home. Nelson, released to a hospital for surgery, woke from anesthesia to find a man aiming a gun at him. Fellow patients and Nelson’s wife wrestled his gun away; police, however, refused to press charges against the vigilante, who sought vengeance for a son killed in Korea.

Nelson Friends
Steve Nelson (with pipe) and comrades in 1930s Wilkes-Barre. Back row: a woman identified as “Lucy” and Harold Spencer. Front row: Margaret Nelson (Steve’s wife) and B.D. Amos.

Meanwhile, Cvetic penned several Saturday Evening Post articles which made him a household name. These inspired a popular radio show, I Was a Communist for the FBI, starring Dana Andrews as Cvetic. A film adaptation followed in 1951, starring Frank Lovejoy, which bizarrely received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. The movie received a gala premiere in Pittsburgh on April 19, 1951; Mayor David Lawrence declared a Matt Cvetic Day, inviting the informer to a black tie banquet at the William Penn Hotel. Later, Cvetic marched in a parade downtown, waving to thousands of cheering, patriotic Pittsburghers. Steve Nelson heard the parade passing the courthouse where his first trial was being held, and complained that the hoopla prejudiced his case.

During Nelson’s second trial, Cvetic served as a key prosecution witness. Nelson wasn’t impressed by the informer, “a short, shifty-eyed man with an extra fifty pounds around his midriff, dressed in a gray suit and loud tie…wiping his face with a handkerchief although this was January.” Cvetic claimed that Nelson advocated “the ultimate liquidation of one-third of the population of the United States.” He also made wild claims about Communist assassination squads and characterized a routine Party meeting at the Carnegie Library on the North Shore as a “secret” cabal where Nelson and his comrades hatched nefarious Red plots (the evening’s most nefarious event occurred when American Legionnaires arrived and roughed up several communists).

Representing himself, Nelson pinioned Cvetic during his cross examination. He forced Cvetic to admit he profited handsomely from his writings and their film and radio adaptations. “Isn’t it true that the motion picture you sold to Warner Bros. depicts a murder supposedly done by myself?” Nelson demanded over Judge Harry Montgomery’s remonstrances. He forced Cvetic to admit that he never claimed Nelson committed, or ordered anyone’s murder. (Admittedly, Cvetic didn’t make this claim in his initial articles, but would in future testimony about Nelson – and his memoir, published years later.)

Cvetic2

“Mr. Witness,” Nelson demanded, “do you notice anybody in the courtroom that you helped to frame on the basis of your lies?” An argumentative question, to be sure, prompted by the arrival of Robert Smith and Lester Peay, two workers previously convicted on Cvetic’s testimony. Cvetic complained that “I can’t answer questions while this man is shouting at me.” Nelson, not missing a beat, challenged Cvetic on his earlier comments about Nelson advocating the “liquidation of Americans.” Cvetic was forced to admit that his testimony earlier was the first time he’d ever aired this accusation.

Nelson was a decidedly amateur lawyer, yet he easily tripped the un-clever Cvetic in his own lies and inconsistencies. He boasted that Cvetic “got off the stand and left the courtroom in a distinctly dizzy condition.” Not that it helped Nelson much; he was ultimately convicted, a sentence later overturned by the Supreme Court. The Federal government subsequently charged him under the Smith Act (dismissed when a prosecution witness, Victor Mazzei, committed perjury), then tried to deport him as an undesirable alien. Though Nelson ultimately left the Communist Party, he endured these humiliations and remained a proud, defiant activist until his death in 1993.

Cvetic wasn’t chastened by the experience. Egged on Harry Sherman, he ultimately named over 300 Allegheny County residents as Communists. Dorothy Albert, an English teacher with twenty years at Taylor Allerdice high school, lost her job in part because her brother joined the Communist Party; failing to win reinstatement, she left Pittsburgh. Max Mandel, a violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was also summarily fired on Cvetic’s accusations. “Perhaps the Right’s biggest weapon was its capacity to get people fired,” Nelson observed; many lucky enough to avoid prison still found their lives ruined.

I Was a Communist for the FBI

Cvetic’s heyday didn’t last. In April 1955 the Justice Department instructed Congress to cease calling him as a witness. Cvetic lost his radio royalties to Sherman; he lost a 1954 city council race in a landslide. His family committed him to a psychiatric hospital where he underwent electroshock therapy. In the late ’50s Cvetic relocated to California, becoming a favored speaker of the John Birch Society and publishing a memoir, The Big Decision, notable for its childish prose (“the Red conspirators began to feel the rapier-sharp thrust of an aroused American government”) and flagrant dishonesty. In July 1962 he died from a heart attack, forgotten outside the fringe Right.

Some informers were more respectable. Mary Stalcup Markward, a beautician in the District of Columbia, worked for the FBI in the early-to-mid ’40s. During this time, she “tried to be the best kind of a Communist they wanted anybody to be,” collecting dues, recruiting new members and taking detailed notes on Party discussions in DC and Maryland (notes which she passed along verbatim to the Bureau). Markward remained with the Party through 1949, when her worsening multiple sclerosis rendered it impossible to continue underground. Soon afterwards, she became a public witness.

Markward attempted to provide listeners a more reasoned understanding of Communism, more reliant on facts than knee-jerk hostility. She explained for interrogators “the communist belief that the revolution would emerge out of the contradictions of capitalism and that while violence was inevitable, the Party did not need to trigger it – official repression would.” Her assessments were, indeed, roughly in accord with those made by William Z. Foster, Eugene Dennis and other Party leaders. To those eager to prosecute communists, however, such distinctions as Markward drew amounted to hairsplitting.

Markward
Mary Stalcup Markward

Markward became the primary witness in another Smith Act case in 1952, consigning six Maryland Communists to prison. Joe McCarthy used her testimony and FBI reports to investigate Communists within the Government Printing Office (GPO) in 1953. One historian not at all sympathetic to McCarthy calls the GPO case the “high point of McCarthy’s career”: the Office had promoted Edward Rothschild to a sensitive position despite longstanding, and credible suspicions of espionage. Rothschild was dismissed from the GPO on Markward’s testimony; the government, however, failed to prosecute him.

Even Markward wasn’t above recklessness. She once targeted Marie Richardson, a black labor leader who’d played a key role in organizing transit workers in DC; she’d also served as the first woman representative to the CIO’s national conference. Her role as an organizer for the radical Civil Rights Congress, however, placed her under suspicion. In 1950, Markward named Richardson a communist, without any firm evidence. Convicted of perjury, Richardson served four years in prison and retired from public life. An unrepentant judge said Markward “deserves to take her place alongside of Molly Pitcher, Barbara Fritchie and Clara Barton.” Instead, she afterwards found obscurity.

Others found audiences by embracing conservative causes. Manning Johnson, a one-time Communist organizer in Harlem, abandoned the Party in 1940s and became an informer. Besides serving as a key witness at the trial of Harry Bridges, the Australian-born labor organizer, and becoming a fixture at HUAC, he gained further notoriety for defending racial segregation. Like other segregationists, Johnson pointed to an old Commintern proposal from 1928 to foment black rebellion in the South as if, twenty-plus years later, it was still an operative strategy. An articulate black ex-Communist, Johnson became a favored cat’s paw for White Citizen’s Councils across the South.

Manning Johnson2

“Stirring up race and class conflict is the basis of all discussion of the Communist Party’s work in the South,” Johnson warned, diagnosing his fellow blacks with a “persecution complex” that “the white man’s prejudices, the white man’s system, the white man’s government is responsible for everything.” He also castigated white allies of the civil rights struggle as “Communists, crypto-communists, fuzzy-headed liberals, eggheads, pacifists, idealists, civil disobedience advocates, socialists, do-gooders, conniving politicians, self-seekers, muddle-headed humanitarians, addle-brained intellectuals, crackpots and plain meddlers.”

What prescription did Johnson carry for his fellow African-Americans? Naturally, to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. “The Negro bitten by the integration bug is so naïve that he thinks that boycotting his own race and spending his money in a place where he is unwanted and isolated is “putting his own best foot forward,” he complained. Instead, he suggested that blacks should patronize only black businesses and attend black schools, following the example of a model minority: “The Negro can learn much from the Chinese.” Long after his death in 1959, Johnson’s writings remained popular among the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups.

The most destructive informer, by far, was Paul Crouch. Dubbed the “West Coast Whittaker Chambers,” Crouch had joined the Communist Party in 1920s Hawaii while serving in the Army. The Army imprisoned him, leading to a national campaign for clemency. President Calvin Coolidge assented, and Crouch emerged from jail in 1924 as a prized lecturer, denouncing American imperialism in Latin America and Asia.

Crouch Speech
Paul Crouch, Communist

For seventeen years, Crouch served as a devoted, if often ineffectual organizer for CPUSA. He traveled to the Soviet Union, where he met several Soviet leaders but found his self-aggrandizing behavior so unpalatable that they paid him to leave. He organized miners in Utah; tried to recruit black dockworkers in Norfolk, Virginia; published a Communist magazine in Alabama; and ran for Senate in North Carolina, winning zero votes. He and his wife Sylvia often suffered imprisonment; their son battled hemophilia, while Crouch endured bouts of ill health that seemed psychosomatic.

By 1942, Crouch later claimed, “I found myself increasingly disgusted with the Communist Party” and the “realization that I was working for an organization that was completely dominated by men who had no regard whatever for the American people, and who respected no laws of human decency.” In fact, it appears an unsuccessful stint organizing workers in Oakland, California (his greatest success there came in leading a rally attacked by patriotic sailors) led to Crouch’s expulsion from the Party. One comrade recalled he “devoted much time to playing the jukebox in a bar and staring at the wall.” Despite Steve Nelson’s efforts to remain friends, Crouch declared war on his comrades.

In December 1947, now living in Miami and recently fired from TWA, Crouch approached the FBI. The Bureau hired him as a professional informer, using an obscure civil service code, the General Services and Administrations Act, to pay him a handsome salary of $25/day, plus $4 for each day of testimony. Crouch’s initial appearances before HUAC impressed one observer as “the best-informed witness to appear before the House Committee.” The Militant, a Trotskyite paper, branded him “human vermin who will remember anything if the price is right.”

Crouch
Paul Crouch, anti-Communist

Everywhere Crouch went, it appeared, became the latest hub of the Communist conspiracy. He claimed, for instance, that “Miami has become…the base from which international Communism is going to spread over Central and South America.” He also warned that “the Russian Navy was going to land at Miami Beach because there were so many Jews there.” He testified that Hawaii should be placed under martial law, adding that “anyone who votes for statehood is voting to open the gates so hundreds of subversives…could pour into the mainland.”

Nor was Crouch’s testimony reliable. At one hearing, queried about his military service, “he…did not remember the simple facts of his court martial…in the ’20s.” He claimed that William Z. Foster became chairman of CPUSA in 1928 (he did so in 1930) and named Steve Nelson as participating in a conference in New York when he was a continent away. In his most embarrassing moment, during Clarence Hiskey’s 1954 espionage trial, Crouch claimed that he could not remember testimony he’d made about Hiskey at a hearing one week before.

James O. Eastland
James Eastland

Which didn’t stop Crouch from spreading his poison throughout America. James Eastland, the rabidly segregationist Mississippi Senator, brought him to testify multiple times about Communist penetration of civil rights groups and labor unions. He told Roy Cohn that physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was “using his position, ability and energy to bring about the complete physical military defeat of the United States,” leading to Oppenheimer losing his security clearance (about which, more later). As an adviser to the INS, Crouch helped expel Charlie Chaplin from the United States by falsely accusing the Little Tramp of Communism.

Crouch finally met his match in New Orleans, during a March 1954 Senate hearing. The chief subject was Clifford Durr, a prominent lawyer active in the Civil Rights Movement (his wife, Virginia Foster Durr, was a sister-in-law to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt): Crouch accused him of Communist based, it seemed, on progressive activism. Virginia Durr was appalled at the rehearsed, phony testimony presented by Crouch: “you asked him a question and it was like putting a dime in a jukebox,” she said. “He just played a record.”

Crouch Punch
Clifford Durr (in glasses) loses his cool

Virginia Durr refused to testify, saving her venom towards Senator Eastland and the “dirty piece of Kleenex” Crouch for a memoir. Clifford Durr was more animated, heatedly denying the charges and telling Crouch that “one or the other of us should be jailed for perjury.” At one point, Crouch asserted that Virginia funneled secrets directly from the White House to the NKVD. Clifford leaped over the jury rail and shouted “you goddamn son of a bitch…I’m going to kill you!” Durr then collapsed into a “nervous fit,” with the whole incident captured by incredulous photographers.

Durr was slightly more composed when he had the chance to cross-examine Crouch. He forced Crouch to admit that, as a Communist, “we were trained to lie” and poked holes in the informer’s testimony. Pressing Crouch to recall when he’d met the Durrs, Crouch could only respond that he remembered Durr’s “distinct personality.” He also asked Crouch to prove that he’d left the Communist Party, demonstrating the general uselessness of the informer’s non-disprovable accusations. Despite Eastland’s efforts at damage control, the hearing destroyed Crouch’s credibility.

Ultimately, Crouch lost employment with the government, was savaged in the press by columnists Stewart and Joseph Alsop and ultimately rendered a pariah. He furiously wrote J. Edgar Hoover, demanding that the director defend him against “the most audacious and gigantic character assassination plot ever conceived” (Hoover likely didn’t read the letter), sued the Federal government and threatened to blackmail Attorney General Herbert Brownell with vague charges of disloyalty. His stock fell so low that Crouch couldn’t even interest publishers in his memoirs.

Virginia Durr
Virginia Foster Durr (right) with Congressman George H. Bender

It’s difficult to offer sweeping assessments of these informers. Most were sincerely disgusted by Communism, whether through personal experience or ingrained ideology; outright frauds like Harvey Matusow were rare. Yet they varied greatly in motivations and honesty. Budenz, Crouch and Cvetic, in particular, described a labyrinthine conspiracy more reminiscent of Maria Monk’s anti-Catholic exposes of the 1830s, or dread warnings conjured against Freemasonry, the Illuminati and other secret societies. Even when they leveled credible charges, it was heavily qualified by their unreliability.

Even relatively honest sources, like Mary Stalcup Markward and Whittaker Chambers, often embellished their testimony for drama, money or simple carelessness. J. Edgar Hoover was generally wary of informants, realizing that actually prosecuting cases against Communists required credible witnesses. Even when the FBI balked at employing men like Matusow and Crouch, other agencies (the INS, HUAC, Justice Department bureaucrats) showed little hesitation.

When Paul Crouch died of cancer in 1955, his old nemesis Clifford Durr offered a generous, if not forgiving assessment. The villain of Crouch’s life, Durr concluded, wasn’t Crouch but the United States government. “Because he served their purpose, they sheltered and guarded him and paid him in the taxpayers’ money and in fame. They sanctified his words with their benediction of their own exalted positions…They used him, and when he was no longer of any use to them, they threw him aside.” Many of these men and women gained temporary notoriety; few, lasting vindication.

Herblock

Sources and Acknowledgments:

For the Foley Square trial, see: Michal R. Belknap, “Cold War in the Courtroom: The Foley Square Communist Trial” in Belknap (ed.), American Political Trials (1981); Gerald Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party (1993); George Marion, The Communist Trial: An American Crossroads (1949; online here); Herbert A. Philbrick, I Led 3 Lives: Citizen, Communist, Counterspy (1952); and Geoffrey R. Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terror (2004).

For Matt Cvetic, Steve Nelson and Pittsburgh’s Red Scare, see: Matt Cvetic, The Big Decision (1959); Robert Gorczyca, “Sound and Fury: The Sedition Trial of Communist Steve Nelson” (Western Pennsylvania History, summer 2008; online here); Philip Jenkins, The Cold War at Home: The Red Scare in Pennsylvania, 1945-1960 (2014); Daniel J. Leab, I Was a Communist for the FBI: The Unhappy Life and Times of Matt Cvetic (2000); Steve Nelson, The 13th Juror: The Inside Story of My Trial (1955; online here); and Steve Nelson, with James R. Barrett and Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson: American Radical (1981).

For the rest, see: Manning Johnson, Color, Communism and Common Sense (1958; online here); Robert M. Lichtman and Ronald Cohen, Deadly Farce: Harvey Matusow and the Informer System in the McCarthy Era (2008); Harvey Matusow, False Witness (1954; online here); Vernon L. Pedersen, “Perfect Witness: Mary Stalcup Markward and the Dilemmas of Anticommunism” (American Communist History, 2009); Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in 20th Century America (1999); and Gregory S. Taylor, The Life and Lies of Paul Crouch: Communist, Opportunist, Cold War Snitch (2014).

Special thanks to Ellen Schrecker for offering research assistance and guidance, Rob Ruck for his writings and research suggestions on Steve Nelson, and Vernon L. Pedersen for providing his article on Mary Stalcup Markward.

Programming note: next week, we’re taking a break from the Red Scare and exploring an unrelated topic. Thanks as always for reading and commenting!