H-Net Review [H-Diplo]:  Peacock on Lynn, 'Where Is Juliet Stuart Poyntz?: Gender, Spycraft, and Anti-Stalinism in the Early Cold War

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Denise M. Lynn.  Where Is Juliet Stuart Poyntz?: Gender, Spycraft,
and Anti-Stalinism in the Early Cold War (Culture and Politics in the
Cold War and Beyond).  Amherst  University of Massachusetts Press,
2021.  224 pp.  $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62534-547-9; $24.95
(paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-548-6.

Reviewed by Margaret E. Peacock (The University of Alabama)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2022)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Juliet Stuart Poyntz mysteriously disappeared from Central Park in
Manhattan on the evening of June 3, 1937. She was a well-known
suffragist, unionist, and worker for the Communist Party in the
United States (CPUSA). When people finally started to hunt for her,
they discovered that she had not packed up her Manhattan boarding
room and had made plans to see friends later in the week. Something
very wrong had happened. It was the summer of 1937, at the height of
the Stalinist purges. Her friends immediately suspected that Soviet
agents had kidnapped her, brought her back to the Soviet Union, and
liquidated her. She had, after all, been associated with Trotskyists,
had witnessed the show trials of former friends while in Moscow, and
had reportedly told people upon her return to the United States that
she was considering leaving the Soviet underground.

After her disappearance, many journalists, scholars, and activists,
particularly former leftists who denounced Stalin, spent hundreds of
hours writing about the life and death of Juliet Stuart Poyntz. Her
friend, Carl Tresca, a leading Italian
anarchist-turned-anti-Stalinist, told anyone who would listen in the
late 1930s that Joseph Stalin was behind her extradition and murder.
Later, Whitaker Chambers claimed to have inside knowledge confirming
Soviet culpability in her death. Other eventual defectors from
communism corroborated and complicated the story, giving messy and
sometimes contradictory evidence of how and why the Soviet leadership
got rid of Poyntz.

Denise M. Lynn's contribution to the saga of Juliet Stuart Poyntz is
to return to the evidence and piece together a story about her life
that is rooted in primary source research--a task that has been long
neglected amidst the decades of conjecture that have surrounded
Poyntz's story. Lynn does an admirable job of uncovering the details
of Poyntz's childhood, chronicling her roots in a family committed to
education and activism, her role as a student leader at Barnard
College, her early involvement in the suffrage and socialist
movements, her turn to unionism and antifascism, and her eventual
rise to leadership in the CPUSA in the late 1920s. As Lynn shows,
Poyntz's life mapped on to the tumultuous and splintered history of
socialism, unionism, and communism in America. It reflected the
alternative avenues through which women rose to positions of
political leadership and the non-normative paths that women chose in
those years. It also tracked with the power struggles that defined
the Soviet leadership in these years, tying the fate of this woman to
Stalin's consolidation of power beginning in 1927.

Lynn also untangles the details of Poyntz's disappearance, which
remains unsolved. Was she killed in the United States or taken to the
Soviet Union to face the living death of the Gulag? Was she lured
there, and if so, by whom? Was she betrayed by her lover, her CPUSA
handler, or someone else entirely? Or, did she assume another name
(something she had done before) and go into hiding, living out a
quiet, anonymous life in America? To the extent possible, Lynn
tackles these questions, mustering all the evidence we have, but
ultimately concludes that there are no answers.

Where Lynn's book makes a real contribution, however, is in her
telling of the history of the narratives surrounding Poyntz's life
and disappearance. Lynn argues that there is much to be learned from
paying attention to how people talked about Poyntz after she was
gone. This was a woman who bucked feminine stereotypes throughout her
life (never marrying, abandoning her child in order to continue her
political work, maintaining lovers, traveling the world alone, and
taking positions of leadership that were normally reserved for men).
And yet, after her death, those who wanted to talk about Poyntz
usually did not dwell on these traits. Instead, they created a
persona for her that would be useful in the growing anti-Stalinist
crusade. For leftist Americans interested in publicly denouncing
their former communism, the retelling of Poyntz's death became a
vehicle for the rebuilding of identity and the return to mainstream
American acceptance. In an era defined by confession, when one could
stand before the House Un-American Activities Committee and regain
the public trust by recounting one's sins, being able to talk about,
and express disgust over, the death of Juliet Stuart Poyntz was a
vital stop on the path to absolution.

As Lynn argues, in order for that absolution to work, Poyntz had to
take on an identity that was markedly different from reality. As the
1940s and 50s progressed, it was critical that Poyntz be framed as a
victim of Soviet manipulation, a physically attractive,
heteronormative, well-intended American woman who was duped into
working for a cause that she did not really understand. For
ex-communists, this narrative offered a handy tool by which Soviet
power could be indicted. It reinforced gendered tropes that allowed
them to signal their own traditional stance on society and women's
roles in it. It offered a justification for the choices they once
made, but which they now renounced, arguing that they, too, had been
duped. It also offered a path for confession, which was required if
one hoped to participate in the veritable industry of denunciation
that catapulted so many former communists to fame in the 1950s Red
Scare. The stories about Poyntz's life and death took on an existence
of their own.

In many ways, Lynn's book is more a history of those who told those
stories than it is of Poyntz herself, showing how certain former
American communists framed and orchestrated their return to the
anticommunist mainstream in the 1940s and 50s. As Lynn argues, "even
before World War II the anti-Stalinist left was shifting toward the
anti-communist right," and Poyntz's disappearance was critical in
articulating that process (p. 73). In this sense, the book would have
been stronger had more context been offered on how this story fits
into the larger history of the CPUSA. Certainly, not every American
leftist became a rabid anticommunist who wrote books about their
return to the mainstream. More clarification in this regard would
have made the subjects of the story easier to see. Nonetheless, for
scholars and students interested in unraveling this chapter of
American anti-Stalinism and the shift by many former leftists to the
political right, Lynn's book offers an engaging and welcome chapter
in that saga.

_Margaret Peacock is an associate professor of history at the
University of Alabama, specializing in Russian, Cold War, and Middle
Eastern history. _

Citation: Margaret E. Peacock. Review of Lynn, Denise M., _Where Is
Juliet Stuart Poyntz?: Gender, Spycraft, and Anti-Stalinism in the
Early Cold War (Culture and Politics in the Cold War and Beyond)_.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56974

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