H-Diplo Article Review "Framing William Albertson"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1080- "Framing William Albertson" 

Discussion published by George Fujii on Tuesday, December 21, 2021

 

H-Diplo Article Review 1080

22 December 2021

John Haynes and Harvey Klehr.  “Framing William Albertson: The FBI’s ‘Solo’ Operation and the Cold War.”  Journal of Cold War Studies 22:3 (Summer 2020):  63-85.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1162/jcws_a_00951.

https://hdiplo.org/to/AR1080
Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Jason Roberts, Quincy College

It has long been known that in 1964 the FBI framed William Albertson, an official in the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), as an FBI informant.  The reason why the FBI framed Albertson remained a mystery for decades.  John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr provide the answer to this question in their article, “Framing William Albertson,” using recently released FBI files. 

The framing of Albertson by the FBI, as Haynes and Klehr note, was motivated by the fear that two valuable FBI informants were about to be exposed.  Two articles that were published by the labor journalist Victor Riesel in 1964 revealed that there were FBI informants within the CPUSA’s leadership.[1] The article sent FBI officials into panic mode because they feared it would lead to the disclosure that Morris Childs and Jack Childs were FBI informants.

Morris and Jack Childs began their relationship with the FBI in the 1950s in what the FBI termed ‘Operation Solo.’ The Childs brothers had been loyal CPUSA members for decades.  Morris Childs had been trained in espionage work in Moscow.  He forged a close relationship with the CPUSA leader Earl Browder and had risen up the party ranks.  Morris Childs eventually became the editor of the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker.  To his shock, he was sacked after World War Two by the CPUSA after he had a heart attack.  They refused to help Childs pay his medical bills and left him to fend for himself.  The CPUSA’s treatment of Morris Childs was primarily due to the fact that they were suspicious of his close relationship with Browder, who had been removed from his position after the Second World War.  The FBI in the 1950s successfully recruited Jack Childs as an informant due to his anger at the CPUSA’s mistreatment of his brother.  Morris, who was initially wary, also agreed to cooperate after discussions with FBI agents.   

The Childs brothers were able to re-establish their relationship with the CPUSA.  It was an opportune time to re-establish contact as the Party had been devastated by the failure of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign and by the prosecution of Party leaders under the Smith Act 1940.  It was especially opportune for Morris, who, as mentioned, had trained in Moscow and had ties to Communist officials in the Soviet Union.  

Operation Solo proved to be an invaluable operation for the FBI.  The Childs brothers traveled all over the world from the 1958 until 1977 acting as couriers for the CPUSA.  They made 58 trips abroad where they met with international Communist leaders such as Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  The Childs brothers transferred approximately $28 million to the Party.  For two decades, they provided the FBI with valuable information about the inner workings of the international Communist movement.  For example, Morris Childs reported to the FBI in the late 1950s about Mao’s bitter disagreements with Khrushchev’s policies.  As a result of Operation Solo, the FBI had an inside track into the inner workings of the international Communist movement.

As mentioned, the success of Operation Solo was threatened by Riesel’s revelations.  The FBI, at the urging of Fred Baumgardner, who oversaw the FBI’s internal security section, quickly went into action to divert suspicion away from the Childs brothers, forging a letter in which William Albertson appeared to have been communicating with an FBI agent.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover approved Baumgardner’s plan on June 15, 1964.  In an ironic turn of events, CPUSA leader Gus Hall authorized Morris Childs to investigate the charges against William Albertson.  Fortunately for the FBI and the Childs brothers, the CPUSA and Soviet officials concluded that the document was legitimate.  Despite his vehement protesting of his innocence, Albertson was expelled from the Party in 1964.  Even though party officials came to believe that Albertson was framed, he was never brought back into the party ranks.  He later died in an accident in 1972.

Thus in framing William Albertson the FBI successfully prevented the exposure of the Childs brothers.  Operation Solo functioned smoothly for another decade until 1977, when Morris and Jack Childs retired due to health problems.  They were revealed as FBI informants in 1981by historian David Garrow.[2] Gus Hall and other CPUSA officials were initially dismissive of the revelation but eventually accepted the fact that Morris and Jack Childs had for decades spied on their interactions

Haynes and Klehr give us greater insight into the steps that the FBI was willing to take in order to protect Operation Solo.  Their article is consistent with other scholarship in recent years by historians such as Katherine Sibley and Kathryn Olmsted that shows that the FBI’s concerns about the CPUSA were not the paranoid ravings of Director J. Edgar Hoover.  Instead, its view of the Party was influenced by the top-secret Venona decrypts that broke the Soviet code used by Soviet intelligence officers to send messages to their agents as well as the accounts of former Soviet spies like Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers, and Harry Gold.[3]  In the case of Operation Solo, the FBI’s perceptions of the CPUSA were influenced by Morris and Jack Childs.

Haynes and Klehr excel at examining recently declassified sources and writing cutting-edge scholarly books and articles on Soviet espionage and the CPUSA.  While it would undoubtedly have led to a longer article, it would have been interesting if Haynes and Klehr had compared the framing of William Albertson to other such FBI cases.  As Haynes and Klehr have pointed out in their previous works, the FBI preferred to work behind the scenes and did not like spy cases to go to trial.[4]  They could have noted (as they have done in their previous works) that one of the challenges for the FBI was proving that suspected Soviet spies were guilty in court due to the fact that the evidence could be inadmissible.  For example, the FBI knew that many people were Soviet spies through the Venona decrypts but did not want it to be revealed in court because it was top secret and they did not want Soviet intelligence to know about Venona.  In other cases, the FBI illegally obtained information through break-ins and wiretaps.  In the case of Judith Coplon, federal courts overturned her espionage conviction due to the fact that the FBI had acquired some of their information through illegal bugging.[5]   Haynes and Klehr could also have compared the Albertson case to the FBI’s surveillance of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Martin Luther King Jr.[6]

Overall, “Framing William Albertson” provides a fascinating look into how and why the FBI framed William Albertson.  Readers would be well-advised to avoid the latest spy thriller and instead read “Framing William Albertson.”

 

Jason Roberts is the Professor of History/Government at Quincy College.  He received his PhD in nineteenth and twentieth century American political history from George Washington University in 2007.  He has researched and written about Soviet espionage, the Alger Hiss Case, radicals in the 1960s, and the American presidency.

 

Notes

[1] Victor Riesel, New York Journal American, April 14, 1964; “FBI Bares Red Plotting,” New York Journal American, May 14, 1964.

[2] David J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr: From Solo to Memphis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981).

[3] Elizabeth Bentley, Out of Bondage (New York: Devin-Adair, 1956); Whittaker Chambers, Witness (New York: Random House, 1952).  For an excellent biography of Whittaker Chambers see Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997).  For a solid biography of Elizabeth Bentley see Kathryn Olmsted, Red Spy Queen (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[4] The writings of John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr are quite extensive.  Below is a representative sample of their work.  Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Haynes, Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); Klehr and Haynes, The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself (Woodridge: Twayne Publishers, 1992); Klehr, Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); Klehr, Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); Haynes and Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Haynes and Klehr, Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Haynes, Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

[5] Maria Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell, The Spy Who Seduced America: Lies and Betrayal in the Heat of the Cold War (New York: Invisible Cities Press, 2002); Haynes and H Klehr, Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[6] For further information on the surveillance of Judith Coplon, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Martin Luther King Jr. see the following works.  Mitchell and Mitchell, The Spy Who Seduced America; Haynes and Klehr, Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (New York, Holt Paperbacks, 2003); Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005); Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Categories: Essay or ArticleReviewH-DiploPub

Keywords: FBICold WarWilliam Albertson

 

Thanks for this review. I have a small query relating to the comment that the FBI did not wish the Venona decrypts "to be revealed in court because it was top secret and they did not want Soviet intelligence to know about Venona." I understand the unwillingness to rely on the Venona decrypts in court, but did not the FBI know that the Soviets were aware of the Venona operation and therefore that their codes were broken (thanks to Washington cryptanalyst and Soviet agent William Weisband)?

As usual, Drs. Haynes and Klehr have made a very significant contribution to our scholarship and our understanding of the CPUSA and the FBI's counter-intelligence activities. For those who might be interested, the FBI HQ main file on William Albertson (2552 pages, of HQ 65-38100) is available online here:
https://archive.org/details/ALBERTSONWilliamHQ6538100/mode/2up