A COVERT LIFE
Jay Lovestone, Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spymaster
By Ted Morgan
Random House. 402 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by David Corn
Was the Cold War all black and white, no gray? Jay Lovestone thought so. He was an American Communist leader before he switched sides and became a fiercely anticommunist union official who plotted with the CIA. As the subject for a biography, Lovestone poses a challenge. His world was so small and unique that he was hardly emblematic of other Cold Warriors. His view on global events was so stark -- Soviets evil, all else of lesser consequence -- that it does not require much explanation or exploration. Moreover, he was an unlikeable fellow without much to him besides his ideological battles. Consequently, Ted Morgan, who has written on more noble souls such as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, assumed a difficult task in chronicling Lovestone's life.
Born Jacob Liebstein in Poland in 1897, Lovestone came to New York City with his family in 1906. As an adolescent, he was drawn to the socialism popular in Jewish immigrant circles. At City College he dove into left-wing politics. Much of the early chapters cover the bickering and in-fighting among the reds in the 1920s. In retrospect, these squabbles come across as absurd. Morgan reminds the reader of the concerns that animated American leftists of this era -- better working conditions and pay for laborers. But the Communists, few as their numbers were, could not agree on a political strategy and split into two parties. Anyone who thought the commies were a real threat in America was wrong.
As for Lovestone, Morgan depicts him as an s.o.b., a conniving bickerer who lived for factional conflict. Making use of his talents for scheming, he became the head of the American Communist Party in 1927 at the age of 29. But he was too independent for Stalin and dared suggest that the United States, with its booming economy, was not ripe for revolution. Stalin bounced him out of the Party. Lovestone, the factionalist, had become the victim of a more ruthless factionalist.
Lovestone formed an opposition communist party that never amounted to much. He still praised Stalin's domestic policies, hoping the Soviet leader would reinstate him. It was to no avail. Lovestone was "very much like a man without a country," Morgan writes, "banished from the Soviet system he admired and living in the capitalist America he despised." In the late 1930s, Lovestone became a fervent anticommunist, substituting one crusade for its opposite. He assumed a new mission: to rid the labor movement of reds. And toward the end of World War II he finally found a replacement for the party: the American Federation of Labor.
For 30 years, Lovestone managed the union's foreign policy shop as if he were running an underground CP cell. Scheming far from the limelight, he did battle with international trade unions influenced by Moscow. He developed a crew of mixers who trotted the globe to oppose the Soviet Union by slipping money to anti-communist unionists. Lovestone saw plots everywhere; the Soviet Union was bent on global domination and had to be beaten back. He was a union man who devoted little time to working conditions in America -- or those in other countries, such as Italy and France, where his operatives meddled.
Naturally, Lovestone came to the attention of the CIA. Beginning in 1948, the Agency provided millions in dollars to Lovestone's posse, and Lovestone passed his agents' reports to the CIA. Morgan's most important contribution is detailing the decades-long secret relationship between the AFL (which in 1955 merged with the CIO) and the Agency. Morgan shows that George Meany, the union leader, knew and approved of the arrangement, even though in later years he and Lovestone repeatedly denied the CIA link. To cover the money trail, Lovestone cooked the union books.
Just as Lovestone never questioned his worst-case assumptions about the Soviet Union, he never wondered about the propriety of a union covertly cooperating with a government spy agency. How could he justify mounting an operation kept secret from dues-paying members of what was supposed to be a democratic federation? Lovestone didn't worry about such justifications. He focused on ends, not means. He was a Leninist for anticommunism.
At the CIA, his main connection was James Jesus Angleton, the notoriously paranoid CIA counterintelligence chief. (Angleton long claimed that the Soviet-Sino split was a ruse designed to confuse Americans.) The two men, who both thought they were one of the few to perceive the real Soviet threat -- developed a close relationship. According to Morgan, Lovestone's reports to Angleton contained "valuable intelligence not to be found in diplomatic files." But Morgan does not provide much evidence that these reports -- one noted that Tito ordered eight pair of shoes for a visit to the UN in 1961 -- made a great difference in the Cold War.
Despite Lovestone's service to the Agency, the FBI investigated him for seven years in the 1950s, suspecting him of being a Soviet agent. The Lovestone inquiry is more proof of how absurd the spychasers could be. Once he flipped, Lovestone never wavered from his ferocious anticommunism. He was a cheerleader for the Vietnam War. He claimed that the antiwar protests were "communist-inspired." He scoffed at Nixon and Kissinger's overture to China.
In the 1970s, an era of detente, Lovestone's operation unraveled. His pal Angleton got the boot at the CIA, and an agency analysis concluded that many of Lovestone's reports to Angleton were merely gossip concerning American politics. Through Lovestone, Morgan notes, the CIA was breaking the law by collecting domestic intelligence.
Lovestone died in 1990. At his memorial service, according to one witness, "there were more CIA men . . . than labor men." That said much about Lovestone. After his death, a friend observed, "There never was anyone like Jay, though he had an apparatchik mentality, deceitful and omissive." To fans of the Cold Warriors, Lovestone will come across as a super-hero. But throughout the book, Morgan is reserved in his judgments of the man, and he passes on the opportunity to use Lovestone's life to examine the Cold War and its extremists. It's a two-dimensional portrait, but that may not be Morgan's fault, for his subject was a two-dimensional man who perceived life as only two-sided.
David Corn, Washington editor of the Nation, is author of "Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA's Crusades" and the forthcoming novel "Deep Background."
CAPTION: Jay Lovestone in the 1970s