According to Whittaker Chambers, Jozsef Peter succeeded Max Bedacht as the head of the Communist Party underground in the United States during the 1930s. Peter denied this, but was eventually expelled from the country. In 1983, while living in Budapest, Peter wrote his autobiography, which is excerpted here, translated from Peter’s native Hungarian. In the portion that follows, Peter discusses Chambers’ allegations and the impact they had on his life.
At the outbreak of World War II, organized workers were employed in each important plant of the trusts. During the labor fights, the number of members of the Party increased five times. In 1938 the Party already had 75,000 members. It could have had much more but the best activists were involved in the organization of the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations], and they did not pay enough attention to the making of the Party. In those days I spent much time in the various centers of the automobile, steel and rubber industries.
Having accomplished the task of concentrating Party activity, the Central Committee charged me with cadre affairs. The effective membership of the Party was appraised, as well as those who were willing to join the Party. The boarding schools of the Party, which offered three-month courses, improved the formation of Party cadres. It was a part of my scope of duties to look after communists and sympathizers in the cultural field. So I got into contact with Hollywood and Broadway. The semi-legal organizations of those in the cultural field (writers, actors, artists) and of other intellectuals, besides having great impact on their own field, gave significant financial support to the Party.
It was my job to unite these groups and to organize their Marxist formation.
The monopolies could not just sit back and watch the triumphal expansion of the CIO. In 1938 they went on the offensive against it. They resorted to the legend of the “red ghost,” their old gun. A committee was established to investigate anti-American activity. It made investigations all over the country. The CIO was accused of organizing communist violence and “assisting the making of Soviet America.” Strike leaders were summoned to appear before the Committee [HUAC] by the dozen.
The Soviet-German Pact was used to boost anti-Soviet agitation. Contemporary to the war against the Soviet Union, there was a campaign against the Communist Party. Communists were arrested and condemned, one after the other. In 1940 Congress passed the Smith Act, which imposed a severe punishment on those advocating the overthrow of the government and organizing subversive actions. The Act ordered the registration of non-citizens. The fingerprints of 3,600,000 immigrants were recorded in FBI files.
“The Handbook of Organization” played a significant role in the chase against the Party. It was used to underline their charges.
The situation required the reorganization of the Party machinery in order to make possible the Party activity under bad circumstances. This task was given to me. I had to work and live underground in some critical moments following from the nature of my task. I worked in a factory for a time. I was in contact with the Party through a member of the Political Committee. I could take up open Party activity only after the end of the war.
The political climate began to change in June 1941, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and the tide was turning after December 7 (Pearl Harbor).
The campaign against the Party calmed, but the building of the underground structure of the Party could not halt. The nature of the task was to make use of those sympathizing with us. I had to establish contacts, usually personally. I toured the country from New York to California.
Browder [Earl Browder, formerly the head of the Communist Party], after the signing of the agreement in Teheran, worked out the so-called Teheran Thesis. He misunderstood the agreement of the Soviet Union, United States and Great Britain, and arrived at the conclusion that “if the Soviet Union can cooperate with imperialist powers, the Communist Party can also live in peace with the capitalists.” There was only a short step from here to his proposal forwarded in 1944, according to which the Communist Party should be disbanded and a Communist Political Union should be formed.
In May 1944, the Party congress adopted Browder’s proposal.
Duclos, the leader of the French Communist Party, criticized harshly Browder’s theory as a “notorious revision of Marxism,” by which Browder distorted the diplomatic proclamation in Teheran. The Party, in a special congress in July, passed a resolution: “Nothing accounts for the dissolution of the Party.” Browder did not accept the criticism. He was expelled from the Party.
The Cold War against civil rights, against the Party and the trade-union movement started right after the end of the war, at the end of 1945 and beginning of 1946. Some 3,500,000 organized workers in 1945, and 4,600,000 in 1946, went out on strike against the freezing of wages. Strikers attained considerable wage hikes in the coal, automobile, steel and electric industries.
Monopolies considered the old anti-Red campaign to be the most effective way to break down the trade unions. A pamphlet from the Chamber of Commerce wrote that “Moscow had conquered the media of radio, films, publishing, theater and television in the United States.” It urged the congressional Committee to examine these fields. And the Committee set to work immediately. Large numbers of writers, scientists, artists, physicians, directors, actors and journalists were summoned.
The public was informed by alarming news through the press and radio channels. “The Red Army is planning the occupation of Detroit,” “Soviet submarines off Californian coasts,” and similar phrases. Many were the victims of this fierce witchhunting. Hundreds of those investigated were laid off, were blacklisted (among them the Hollywood Ten), were imprisoned, because they were not willing to be moles. Due to these examinations, 12 people committed suicide, among them high-ranking government officials, ambassadors, writers, actors. Five died of heart attacks.
Truman ordered the examination of the loyalty of government officials, because Soviet agents allegedly had made their way into the administration. Nobody knew his accuser or the charge.
The FBI had kept me constantly under surveillance since the end of the 1930s, but especially in the last ten years. In those days we lived in the house of a sympathizer. He kept me informed about the activities of the FBI agents who shadowed us from a rented apartment. The press wrote about me endlessly. In articles under shocking headlines, journals blared that Peter is “Soviet spy No. 1, the leader of the underground movement, an agent provocateur inciting to the violent overthrow of the government.”
Behind this increasing chase after me, there was the statement of an informer, W. Chambers, which he gave before the Nixon Committee. He accused a government officer from Washington, A. Hiss, of being a Soviet spy and he involved me, too, in the case.
We learned that Nixon, in the name of the Committee, summoned me under threat of a fine. The Party decided that I would have to avoid the delivery of the summons.
In October 1947, four FBI agents surrounded and arrested me in a town near my underground hiding place. I was taken to New York City. Here, after having taken my fingerprints and photos in the center of the office, I was carried off to Ellis Island. From here, the attorney of the Party liberated me, not immediately, by paying $5,000 dollars security. I was carried back to the Immigration Office building, where the prison van entered the gate to the cellar at the back of the building. I was taken to the head of the office by elevator, where Carol King, a liberal attorney sympathizing with the Party, who took on my defense without compensation, had been waiting for me. After the official procedure, seeing the crowd of journalists and photographers waiting for us at the central gate, the attorney was indignant and protested against the unlawful action of the Office which had informed the press. She demanded that I be able to leave the building unobserved. After a long debate, the office head backed off and I was taken from the building through the cellar by stealth.
After the Ellis Island episode, I went underground on the order of the Party, to avoid Nixon’s citation. First I stayed in a comrade’s 10th-floor apartment in New York, which I could not leave for weeks. Then I was received by an old Hungarian couple. I had contacts with the Party by means of my wife. I could not call the apartment. We could not meet personally. We chose the number of a phone booth on the street. I went to the booth on a given day some minutes before the time stated, and I waited for the call. The next phone conversation: by agreement.
I had to change my place because of certain suspicious signs. I got a new address, which the Party had indicated to my wife during the next phone conversation. It was late evening when I arrived at the apartment on the other side of the city. I rang. The man opening the door looked at me, surprised. I understood that he was unfamiliar with my case. I apologized, saying that I was mistaken. I had to risk going back to the old couple.
I did not call the next day. My wife reported to comrade Dennis, the general secretary of the Party, that l had disappeared. They decided to wait another day. In case l did not give a sign, they would announce my disappearance.
The following day l was able to get in contact with them. The same day, I arrived at the corn farm of a Hungarian comrade about 100 kilometers from New York City. He had machines: it was easy to help him. I listened to the radio news regularly. My case was mentioned in every program. It is clear from the published minutes of the Committee that they hunted for me unceasingly. Finally the Immigration Office set the day of examination, and my attorney received the citation.
The Party told me to appear on the citation of the Immigration Office: otherwise the $5,000 bond would be lost. So I left the farm and I arrived in time. The attorney had been waiting for me, but the citation [subpoena] of Nixon, the member of the Committee, was also there. The Immigration Office called in the witnesses, one after the other. The defectors, the informers who had infiltrated the Party, offered their evidence willingly. One of the defectors, among others, told a stunningly ridiculous story.
According to his statement, armed groups were trained in the cellar of the building of the Party committee in New York State. Their goal was the violent overthrow of the government. The training was lead by Peter.
I had to mention here that the attorney ignored the witnesses’ evidence on the order of the Party. However, it would have been very easy to prove that the witness lied. The building had a cellar indeed, but there was a huge machine where the Party paper was printed. In the cellar, there was not even space for the paper bales necessary for the printing.
It is characteristic of the Cold War atmosphere that this pure fabrication was quoted by the press on the front pages, with alarming headlines. There were other witnesses who claimed to have heard my lecture at the Lenin School in Moscow. Among the evidence, there was a forged passport used in 1931. They could not start a penal procedure against me because of the statute of limitations.
The hearing of the witnesses and the presentation of the evidence ended the same day. There was no decision. In the meantime I had to appear before Nixon. Nixon arrived alone in New York. There was much fuss. Press, television, dozens of photographers. A confrontation with Whittaker Chambers – a former member of the Party and police informer who, among others, had called me a Soviet spy in the course of the interrogation of the Committee. On Nixon’s question, whether I knew the witness, I refused to answer, referring to the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution on the order of the Party. The press, waiting for a scoop, left, disappointed. Nixon put aside my case for a time because the election campaign took all his time.
The Immigration Office made the decision. I was expelled from the U.S. as persona non grata for subversive activity. Comrade Endre Sik, ambassador in Washington, brought my passport personally to New York. The following day I left for home by plane.
After my arrival (May 1949), comrade Rakosi received me. At the end of our conversation, he called in comrade Karoly Kiss and they discussed my future assignment. If I remember well, he mentioned the Department of Party and Mass Organization.
After some time, comrade Kiss took me on a sightseeing tour, and he informed me discreetly about the decision of the Political Committee, according to which comrades returning from the West could not work in the central apparatus of the Party for some time. Later I was assigned to the publishing house of the Party – Szikra, Kossuth. Here I worked for the International Department as head of section, department head, later editor-in-chief. After my retirement I continued to work. I was named chairman of the editorial board of Nemzetkozi Szemle (International Review).
During the past more than thirty years, I have done voluntary work in the National Trade Union, in TIT, in MNDSZ. I was a member of the International Working Committee of the Central Committee, and I have given lectures at the Party Academy, at the Military Academy, etc.
Budapest, December 7, 1983.