Ted Morgan, A Covert Life. Jay Lovestone: Communist, Anti-Communist and Spymaster (New York: Random House, 1999), 403 pp., $29.95.
Throughout the Cold War, no institution of American life was as wholeheartedly committed to the anti-communist cause as was organized labor. Under the leadership of men like George Meany, David Dubinsky, Albert Shanker and Lane Kirkland, the trade union movement advocated an aggressive policy to counter Soviet expansionism and scorned efforts at East-West détente. To forestall communist gains within the international labor movement, American unions launched an ambitious and costly international program to encourage the spread of democratic unions in postwar Europe and the Third World. While most European labor movements tolerated communist involvement, American unions ruthlessly purged party members from the leadership ranks and expelled communist-led unions from the major labor federations. And when American liberals became critics of an anti-communist foreign policy, organized labor remained the only influential force within the Democratic Party coalition to continue to back a robust defense and an assertive anti-Soviet diplomatic course.
As reward for its unapologetic anti-communism, the AFL-CIO was treated as a pariah by liberals and the Left. Some scholars actually argue that organized labor's membership decline and collective bargaining impotence was caused by the expulsion of communist union activists and support for America's Cold War goals. And revisionist historians have sought to demonize those labor officials who were principally responsible for the movement's "obsession" with the global communist threat.
For many critics, the major object of hate was Jay Lovestone. From the end of World War II until the mid-Seventies, Lovestone was the central figure behind labor's far-flung international affairs operations. His influence reached well beyond the confines of the trade union movement; it may be an exaggeration to describe Lovestone as an architect of American Cold War policy, but it is beyond dispute that his views played a role in stiffening the backbone of wavering officials during the conflict's early years.
Those views were based on the premise that by its very nature the Soviet Union was bent on world domination. Lovestone liked to say that, "I may be wrong, but I'm never in doubt." Fortified by supreme confidence in the cold warrior's world-view, Lovestone fought communist influence wherever the opportunity arose, and spent little time agonizing over the tactics or alliances required for victory.
Because of his ultra-secret habits, Lovestone's life became the stuff of myth-making. He preferred to work in the shadows; during his lifetime, little was known about his comings and goings, his place of residence, his friends or his relations with women. Although he had a high regard for his own political judgment, Lovestone was utterly indifferent to public recognition. It mattered little who got the credit as long as the result was another setback for the agents of Soviet power.
It is, I suspect, the clandestine nature of Lovestone's life that intrigued his biographer, Ted Morgan. Morgan is not a Cold War specialist, but rather a traditional biographer, with works on Churchill and Somerset Maugham to his credit. There are times when one wishes Morgan was better acquainted with the history of American labor or the intricacies of Cold War politics. But these are minor quibbles, for in fact A Covert Life is an impressive achievement that succeeds in enlightening us about labor's international operations while providing an engrossing portrait of one of the Cold War's most mysterious personalities.
Lovestone's early history was not dissimilar from other radical Jewish immigrants of the early twentieth century. He was born Jacob Liebstein in 1897 in what is now Lithuania. The son of a devout rabbi, he was raised in semi-poverty in New York. He boxed a bit as a youth, under the nickname "The Blond Jew", a tribute to his non-Jewish features. But his principal passion was radical politics. Lovestone shifted allegiance from one socialist grouping to another until he found a home in the Communist Party (CP). He became the perfect organizational functionary, a tireless worker, spirited debater and relentless faction fighter. He moved steadily up the ranks until he attained the party leadership position in 1928. In the course of his meteoric rise, Lovestone made numerous enemies among party notables whose conspiratorial skills were every bit as good as his own. They convinced the Comintern to initiate an investigation of the American party, and this culminated in what can only be described as a "trial" of Lovestone and his followers in Moscow.
This event must rank as one of the most remarkable episodes in the annals of Soviet communism. A blue-ribbon committee of world communism--its members included Molotov, Kuusinen and Bela Kun--was convened to determine the fate of the American party. Serving as chairman was Stalin himself, flush with success after having purged his leading rivals for Soviet party leadership. Even in pre-show trial days, his words had an ominous ring. "Let me remind you that Zinoviev and Trotsky also at one time played trumps with percentages", he reminded the Lovestone majority, "and you know in what a farce the vainglory of Trotsky and Zinoviev ended. . . . Today, you have a majority. Tomorrow, you will have no majority at all."
These cautionary remarks did not, however, produce the expected results. The Americans did not cringe before the leader of world communism. Lovestone brought along a delegation of ten "ordinary American workers" to buttress his claim to leadership of the proletariat, and the Lovestoneites proved to be quite thoroughly American in their lack of respect for authority and their loyalty to their chosen leader. After the Comintern had rendered its decision to remove Lovestone from his leadership position, the Americans were asked to step forward and declare acceptance of the verdict. One by one, they rose and informed Stalin that he had no right to dictate to Americans who their leader should be. One Lovestoneite, an athletic-looking black named Eddy Welsh, actually refused to shake Stalin's hand after the session had ended. Lovestone himself acted more like an American than a seasoned communist, stubbornly--and naively--challenging and insulting Stalin and other Comintern leaders, and committing enough blunders to warrant execution ten times over. Never before or after was Stalin treated so rudely.
Lovestone's troubles continued even after the trial concluded. While the rest of the American delegation was allowed to return home, Lovestone was forced to remain in Moscow to await an assignment from the Comintern. No assignment was forthcoming, and after several weeks, a panicked Lovestone began to wonder if he would ever see America again. He escaped only after securing the connivance of a party official who provided him with false papers and an airline ticket.
Lovestone's career in the CP was over. He soon began his second life, this time as an anti-communist. The weapons he employed included those he had perfected during his party days--factionalizing, splitting the opposition, mobilizing loyal cadres, developing a network of informants and agents. His first patron was David Dubinsky, the anti-communist president of the garment workers union. Dubinsky was sufficiently impressed with Lovestone's abilities to recommend his services to George Meany, at the time the de facto leader of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the man who was to dominate American labor for over thirty years.
Meany proved the ideal boss. He too hated communism and was determined to rid the labor movement of party influence. Meany agreed with Lovestone that in the postwar period the Kremlin would use its followers in the world labor movement to advance the Kremlin's interests. He didn't mind Lovestone's clandestine tactics, and invariably supported his lieutenant when labor liberals like Walter Reuther demanded his removal. Reuther's people hated Lovestone for the tactics he employed in a campaign to drive the CP out of the auto workers union in the late 1930s. Reuther eventually conducted his own anti-communist purge of the union. But he regarded Lovestone as slippery and devious, a man, as Reuther's brother Victor put it, who if invited somewhere, would "come in through the transom even if the front door was open."
To prevent further Soviet gains, the AFL established its own foreign policy independent of the American government and placed Lovestone in charge. Lovestone's first priority was postwar Europe, and his initial battleground occupied Germany. There, American communists had worked their way into strategic positions in the occupation government. Their goal was to bring the German labor movement under communist control by promoting a new generation of "grass roots", i.e., pro-communist, labor leaders instead of reinstating the old pre-war social democratic trade unionists. For a time they had the ear of the military men in charge of the American zone, including General Lucius Clay, a man of anti-labor instincts. Eventually, however, Lovestone's people won out, ensuring that West Germany's unions would be led by pragmatic anti-communists for the duration of the Cold War.
In France and Italy, communists presented a more serious threat. They dominated labor in both countries, and in France threatened to use trade union power as a weapon against the Marshall Plan. The CGT, the principal French labor federation, called several strikes in key industries as part of a Kremlin-directed attempt to thwart France's membership in the emerging Western alliance.
Lovestone dispatched Irving Brown, his chief operative, with instructions to break the communist labor monopoly in the key industrial sectors. Brown first set about to split the French union movement, splitting being a tried-and-true Lovestone tactic honed in struggles against communist influence in American unions. Brown convinced several eminent non-communist labor leaders to leave the CGT and form a new federation, called Force Ouvrire. To counter communist influence in the dock workers union, which had refused to unload European Recovery Plan goods, he hired a longshoreman official with contacts among the Marseilles underworld. After a few threats and some judicious muscle-flexing, the material began to reach its destination. In Italy, Brown pulled off another successful splitting operation, with the result that while communists retained a large influence in labor, they would face serious competition for worker allegiance in the future.
Lovestone's campaign to weaken communism in the European labor movement must be judged a success--the high water mark of his career. Unfortunately, his forays in the Third World had a much different, and sometimes tragic, outcome. Lovestone and Meany shared a strong anti-colonial bent, and both feared that communists would dominate trade union movements once Third World countries attained independence. Lovestone first turned his attention to North Africa. He persuaded American labor to support independence for Tunisia, Morocco and even Algeria, where the war against France had just begun. Lovestone brought delegations of North African union leaders to the United States, where they were honored as leaders of what many predicted was a coming democratic revolution in the developing world. He gave them financial assistance and pleaded their case to American government officials. He also launched a similar campaign for the non-communist trade unions of the major colonial states of black Africa.
Lovestone's Third World project proved a noble failure. To be sure, communists did not seize control of the trade unions in the countries selected by Lovestone for American labor support. But Lovestone's goals went beyond the defeat of communism; he remained a firm believer that a union movement independent of the state was a precondition for freedom. Yet in one country after another, the new post-colonial political leaders emerged as more repressive than the old colonial masters. Rather quickly, they absorbed the trade unions into the dominant party structure and either coopted labor leaders or had them arrested.
Throughout the Cold War, the AFL-CIO devoted a remarkably high percentage of its budget to international affairs. Until the late Sixties, this money was supplemented by generous contributions from the Central Intelligence Agency. Revisionist critics have pointed to labor's ties with the intelligence community to advance the argument that support for America's anti-Soviet objectives served to corrupt labor by involving it in the dark side of foreign policy--the coups, the repression of non-communist leftists, the support for right-wing strongmen and juntas. Morgan doesn't buy this interpretation. He regards Lovestone's relations with the CIA as neither unusual nor worthy of condemnation. By his account, Lovestone was happy to take the CIA's money but seldom did the CIA's bidding, and seems to have regarded the CIA officials he encountered as self-important dilettantes--"Park Avenue socialites and incompetents and degenerates."
The one exception was James J. Angleton, the CIA's legendary chief of counterintelligence. The two became fast friends, united by a shared world-view and the conviction that they were the "guardians at the gate" who had a "higher understanding of the Soviet threat." Lovestone provided Angleton with intelligence reports from his vast network of agents and contacts; Angleton siphoned money to Lovestone from a special slush fund he controlled. Some of that money paid for the services of Louise Page Morris. Morris was the daughter of a blue-blood New England family and a one-time model--she was the Lucky Strike girl in magazine advertisements. She eventually became an American spy, and for several decades worked for Lovestone under the cover of the Free Trade Union Committee, a Lovestone creation. According to Morgan, Lovestone had many affairs, beginning with the wife of a leading CP comrade (during the 1950s his romances were carefully chronicled by the FBI, which investigated this leading anti-communist on the incredible belief that he might be a Soviet agent). But Morris was the love of his life, a beautiful woman who enjoyed the clandestine world every bit as much as he did.
Like Angleton, who never accepted the existence of the Sino-Soviet split, Lovestone was seriously off the mark in interpretations of many world events, especially as he grew older. But when many of our elites were inclined to sneer at the cold warrior's mentality, Lovestone was still there to remind those who would listen that communism, whether under Stalin or Brezhnev, represented one of the great evils of history.
His most important legacy was his role in persuading American trade unionists that communism was the chief adversary of free unions and their members. And in the end, it was a workers' struggle in Poland that helped bring the Marxist-Leninist edifice crashing down, and it was the AFL-CIO that sustained the Solidarity movement in the bleak days of martial law. Lovestone was right to never doubt his convictions. As for the AFL-CIO, it has no apologies to make for its prominent role in the Cold War triumph of the democratic West.Essay Types: Book Review