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The best books on Communism in America

recommended by Harvey Klehr

Professor of politics and history at Emory University chooses five books on the American Communist movement and Soviet espionage in America - and argues that American spies did pose a genuine threat to national security

Harvey Klehr

Harvey Klehr is a professor of politics and history at Emory University. He is known for his books on the subject of the American Communist movement and on Soviet espionage in America. He has received a number of awards, including Emory’s Thomas Jefferson Award in 1999. He was recently nominated to be a member of the National Council on the Humanities.

Harvey Klehr on Wikipedia
Harvey Klehr at Emory
Harvey Klehr interviewed by Charlie Rose

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Harvey Klehr

Harvey Klehr is a professor of politics and history at Emory University. He is known for his books on the subject of the American Communist movement and on Soviet espionage in America. He has received a number of awards, including Emory’s Thomas Jefferson Award in 1999. He was recently nominated to be a member of the National Council on the Humanities.

Harvey Klehr on Wikipedia
Harvey Klehr at Emory
Harvey Klehr interviewed by Charlie Rose

Save for later
 

Your first book is American Communism and Soviet Russia by Theodore Draper.

That is a fairly old book now. I read it many, many years ago at graduate school. Theodore Draper was the leading light among historians of American Communism.
This book had a major impact, because it was so thoroughly researched and had lots of great detail. It was one of the first books that really allowed you to study the story of how American Communism was shaped by its reaction to the Russian Revolution. 
There are other numerous examples of where disputes within the American Communist Party were resolved by all the participants hurrying off to Moscow and presenting their respective positions to the Communist International. Moscow was the ultimate arbiter of what the American Communist Party did. 

And why is this book in particular important to you and your work?

It set the parameters of the way that I and a lot of other people came to understand how the Communist Party had operated in America and it helped us to understand why it had failed so miserably. And I think that’s because American radical groups have never done terribly well in the United States for many complex reasons that people have been arguing about for many years. In the case of the Communist Party, along with those reasons, another is because it was so beholden to the Soviet Union.

Your next book is The Rosenberg File which looks at that famous case and all the myths that surround it.

The Rosenbergs were executed in the early 1950s on the charge of spying for the Soviet Union, particularly for atomic espionage, and their case attracted worldwide attention at the time, both because they asserted their innocence and because here was this couple that nobody had ever heard of when they were arrested. Then they were convicted of this horrible crime and executed, leaving their two young kids as orphans. There were all kinds of appeals for clemency from European governments, from the Pope and demonstrations around the world, and the case has continued to fascinate scholars.
What the authors do with this book is to provide the first thorough, scholarly and objective examination of the case. They had access to United States government records. They interviewed many people who were involved in the case and they really produced a marvellous book which demonstrated that Julius Rosenberg in fact was guilty and that he had run a very large and effective espionage operation for the Soviets. 
And they also argued that Ethel Rosenberg, although she was involved in her husband’s spying operation, really played a very minor role in it and she had been arrested, convicted and sentenced to death in part to pressure him to name other people involved.
So it is a very significant book and the release of material from Russian archives has proved they were right about their arguments.

Whittaker Chambers by Sam Tanenhaus.

Whittaker Chambers was a key figure in the first major post-World War II spy case. He was a disillusioned communist who is a fascinating man and one of the attractions of this book is that it really gives Chambers his due. He was a very talented writer and a much tormented man who had become a Communist as a young man in college in the 1920s and he went into the Communist Party underground in the early 30s and become a courier for a Soviet spy ring.
By the late 1930s he quit and secreted away some material that he wanted to have to protect himself. He warned the Russians that he had this material and if he was ever harmed he would use it. In 1939, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, he was persuaded by a friend that he needed to tell what he knew to the American government – he did but nobody really believed him.
It was not until 1948 that he was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities against Alger Hiss, formerly a high-ranking State Department official. Hiss’s later trial riveted the country and this was the case that convinced many Americans that there had been significant Soviet espionage. It was shortly after Alger Hiss was convicted that Joseph McCarthy came to prominence, so the case had a huge influence on American public life.

Your next book is about Americans in Russia, The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia by Tim Tzouliadis.

This is a fairly recent book which is wonderful and very depressing. It is an account of a large number of Americans who were living in Russia in the 1930s. Many of them had gone there to work. Others had been taken by their parents who had wanted to help build socialism. And many of these people were caught up in the purge trials and hundreds of them were killed. Tzouliadis oriented his book around a number of young American boys who organised baseball teams in Moscow and who used to play in the local parks. And he traces the fate of what happened to those young baseball players. 

And the sad thing is the US government did nothing to help them.

No, they didn’t. Many American diplomats thought, well these people are communists, and left them to their fates. But, even if the government had tried to intervene, it is not clear they would have been very successful. So it’s a sad chapter in America’s Communist history which is beautifully written and wonderfully researched.

Your last book is Engineering Communism by Steven T Usdin.

At the time the Rosenbergs were arrested suspicion also fell on some of Julius’s friends who were engineers. And we now know that he encouraged a number of them to spy for him. At the time of the Rosenberg case two of those engineers vanished. One of them dropped out of sight and the other fled the United States and was never found. Steve Usdin found out what happened to both of them. They eventually went to the Soviet Union and there they founded the Soviet micro-electronic industry and made the first mini computer. They were responsible for helping to build the Soviet equivalent of Silicon Valley. 
But, their fates were not terribly happy. They ended up being fired from their positions because they were seen as too American. The kind of work rules they followed, emphasising entrepreneurship and hiring Jews, didn’t go down well. One of them died of a heart attack, while the other survived the collapse of Communism. He occasionally went back to the United States to claim his social security payment!

You have written extensively about Communism in the United States, the KGB, and you have obviously read a lot about the subject. What kind of effect do you think Communism has had on the American psyche?

I think that one of the things we have learned in the past decade with archives opening up is that hundreds of American Communists were so devoted and dedicated to the Soviet Union that they were willing to spy for it. We are talking about probably 400-500 Americans serving as Soviet spies. And they did quite extensive damage to American security over the years. 
The American Communist Party was never a particular threat to America in the sense that it might come to power. It was the spying it encouraged and enabled that was the danger. It enabled the Soviets to develop their atomic bomb three to four years before it otherwise would have and at a much lower cost. The Soviets were able to know things about American diplomatic decisions because of spying. And, of course, that is linked to the McCarthy era and the American reaction to this.
Some would say the United States overreacted but the concern was legitimate: there was a very serious threat to national security.

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