In 1919, after he had captured control of Russia and turned it into the Soviet Union, Lenin created the Communist International, the Comintern for short, as "the general staff of the world revolution of the proletariat." Each succeeding Kremlin government maintained the fiction that it had no control over, and thus no responsibility for, the activities of the "independent" Comintern. But in fact the Comintern soon became essentially an instrument of Kremlin foreign policy, demanding total allegiance and subservience from those who, of many nationalities and in many lands, carried out its intrigues and subversions. In Stalin's era its agents burrowed into the vitals of other nations to steal military, political and economic secrets and to influence policies through the use of fellow travelers, common fronts, blackmail and murder.
On paper, the Comintern was disbanded in 1943 after what Moscow had castigated as "the second imperialist war" became, on Hitler's invasion of Russia, "the great patriotic war." In reality, the Comintern's functions continued, and continue today, under other arms of the Kremlin. It was the Comintern whose activities underlay both the Red Scare in the United States in the 1920s and the uproars of the McCarthy era in the 1940s and 1950s. The recent spy tales in Britain share the same origins. The Reagan administration's view of the conspiratorial hand of Moscow represents a continuum of the Comintern. Hence On a Field of Red is a very relevant book today.
In telling the story of the Comintern, Anthony Cave Brown, a British journalist, and Charles B. MacDonald, an American military historian, have drawn on considerable new material they discovered, most especially in the files of the U.S. Army's Military Intelligence Division (MID), including some items cross-filed from the FBI's early years. Other new information comes from papers collected by General William J. Donovan's OSS, predecessor of the CIA, and from some other scattered sources, but including only limited new British material except as reported via MID files.
This new documentation is woven together with secondary matter from the mass of published sources into a fascinating, indeed often gripping, panorama of the Soviet Union's interrelationships, with the capitalist world, most especially with the United States, Britain and Germany. However, the book at times ranges far afield from the Comintern itself, beginning with Churchill's failed efforts to destroy what he saw as the Bolshevik "plague bacillus," through the campaigns of World War II and ending with the 1953 executions of the Rosenbergs for passing American atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
Just about everything and everyone is in this jam-packed book, from how an alpenstock came to rest in Trotsky's skull in Mexico to John Reed's alleged betrayal of Mikhail Borodin, the first Comintern organizer in America who had a second try in China, from a man named Willi Muenzenberg who cleverly promoted Communist front organizations against war and fascism to General Walter Krivitsky whose defection from Soviet military intelligence led in 1941 to his apparent murder in a Washington hotel room.
Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, Alger Hiss, Gerhardt Eisler and a host of others are fitted into their places as pieces of the Comintern puzzle. The stories of "J. Peters" and his apparat A" (dpolitical and military espionage) and of Jacob Golos' "apparat B" (industrial espionage) are spelled out in fascinating detail. There are illuminating accounts of the uncrowned Edward VIII's dalliance, or worse, with Hitler's Germany, of the Comintern's role in the Spanish Civil War, of fake documents, intercepted messages and decoded telegrams, and of the origins of the Comintern's attempts to penetrate American trade unions, with some success as at Allis-Chalmers in the "phony war" period. There is much, also, that puts into focus how the Comintern played on the growing fears, on both sides of the Atlantic, of rising fascism in Germany and Italy and how that led so many innocents to throw in their lot with communism as the lesser evil.
Much of the writing is vivid ("Lloyd George presided in a sort of Celtic trance") and here one suspects the journalist author. But there are typographical errors and the publishers surely have chagrined the historian author by referring on the cover blurb to "Nikolai" Lenin.
The whole truth about the Comintern is impossible to come by. Defectors, intercepted documents and trial records remain prime sources. Alas, as the authors ruefully concede, much of the secondary material is strewn with "propagandistic obstacles to conceal or at least confuse the truth." Hence it is important to rate the new information. It seems to this reviewer that the MID, FBI and Donovan material reflect rather narrow-gauge viewpoints, however important the substance involved, and that the authors tend somewhat to accept these sources rather uncritically.
A special note: Henry Wallace stands convicted in this book -- on the basis of the FBI-recorded word of Jay Sourwine, well and largely unfavorably known to many in Washington as counsel to the late House Un-American Activities Committee -- of having "furnished Russia with specimens of the isotope vital to the making of a bomb, U-235." My own view of Wallace is that he was a patsy for the communists because of his aversion to the idea of war with Russia, but that is quite different from what the authors label simply as an "allegation" that he passed atomic secrets; maybe, indeed, he did, but it is not proven.
One can pick this way at a book of this scope and magnitude. But I read its every word and footnote with the avid interest of a history buff because it pulls together for the first time in a single volume so many of the strands emanating from the Kremlin in the decades since the Bolshevik revolution. In that sense, On a Field of Red is indispensable to anyone determined to get behind the hysteria and counter-hysteria of recurrent Western world red scares, to anyone trying to see just how the Kremlin operates and to understand the reasoning of those, both the faithful and the disillusioned who have played with or committed treason in the process.