“False Witness” Harvey Matusow

in History by
   

During the blacklist period, anti-anti-communists cast doubt on the sincerity of red-hunters, arguing that anti-communism was just a means for them to get publicity and money. They even peddled the legend that once Senator Joseph McCarthy was no longer a force to be reckoned after the Senate stripped him of his powers in 1954, he abandoned his red-hunting crusade and tried to get mileage out of promoting civil liberties.

But this claim was false. Even with Cold War tensions abating in the mid-50s, McCarthy to his dying day still bellowed about the communist menace, but now to empty chambers.

Anti-anti-communists would have been on surer ground had they cited the career of Harvey Matusow. Matusow, who died 15 years ago this month, was an American Communist who informed on the Party to the FBI, became a paid government witness/expert on Soviet infiltration into daily life, and then a whistle-blower on FBI and McCarthy corruption.

When Matusow contacted the FBI in 1950, his position in the Communist Party was hardly in its high echelons, He was not deemed worthy enough to become an underground spy, the highest promotion for a Party member; nor was he allowed to do propaganda work. Instead, he clerked in a New York Communist Party bookstore.

His journey from stacking books to informing on the Party for the FBI was hardly momentous. He merely strolled out of the bookstore and into the New York office of the FBI in 1950 (by contrast, Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers was truly running for his life when he defected, hiding out in Florida with a holstered gun).

As with other moments in his life, his timing was impeccable. For 1950 was arguably the nadir of the Cold War. The Soviets had acquired the atomic bomb; China had fallen to the communists; Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were exposed as Communist spies, and McCarthy was just getting started with his crusade.

The FBI must have sensed that Matusow was bush league, for they gave routine, even pedestrian, tasks. They assigned him light surveillance, placing him at a dude ranch in New Mexico, a favorite gathering place for Party members and fellow travelers. He filed reports about who showed up at the ranch and took down their license plate numbers. But Matusow left out authentic Party members like Jessica Mitford.

Within the year, the FBI dropped him from the payroll, and the Party expelled him. The former easily penetrated his claim that the New York Times employed 126 communists by noting that the paper only employed 100 members.
Suddenly out of work, he sought more profitable digs, offering his services as a “paid witness/expert” for the House Un-American Activities Committee. This was the high-tide of his importance for the government. He was suddenly a member of McCarthy’s staff and helped put, among others, leftist folksinger Pete Seeger in jail for perjury.

But he couldn’t stop embellishing. During this time period, he accused, among others, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts of having communist sympathies. For once, his timing was off; by the time Matusow exposed Seeger, a card-carrying communist, in the early 1950s, the folk-singer, disillusioned by Stalin, had left the Party (in 1949) and was arguing with those who remained.

But Matusow sought more profitable digs and offered his services as a “paid informer” to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He gave information on those he claimed to have known in the Party. He accused, among others, CBS, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and the Young Women’s Christian Association, of having communist sympathies. From there, other opportunities opened up.

From the early 1950s till his death in 2002, Matusow was a Zelig of the Cold War, always correctly popping up in the zeitgeist. He appeared beside McCarthy when the Senator’s investigative powers and popularity were at their peak. He had a relationship with an actual communist-spy-turned-government-informant, Elizabeth Bentley, and provided historians with a keyhole into her out-of-control alcoholism in the last years of her life. In the counter-cultural 60s and 70s, he was managing an avant-garde band, working at a hippie commune (where he married the ex-wife of the commune’s spiritual advisor and mystic) and found time to work in the then-burgeoning computer industry.

In the 1980s, the era of “All Things Considered” (a National Public radio chat show), he was starting up a PBS-type television program in Utah. As kamikaze Branch Davidian David Koresh was settling into a Texas commune, Matusow was sharing land with his own sect, The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints, where he melted ammunition into religious chimes.

Matusow was always trying to keep pace with historical trends, but his most unique role, anticipating Watergate witness John Dean by 20 years, was that of government whistle-blower. As revealed in his 1955 book False Witness, in which he recanted his previous testimony, he stated that the FBI and McCarthy paid him to lie about Communist Party members.

Ironically he mirrored the fate of those he accused and actual spies like Alger Hiss when he was imprisoned for perjury. Upon his release, he was not championed by the Left as was Hiss, or by the Right, as was Chambers, but pioneered a new form of blacklist. He was hated by both the Left (for working with McCarthy) and the Right (for recanting his anticommunist testimony and for calling into question the validity of other anti-communist witnesses).

When one examines the career of Matusow it is apparent that the figure he most resembled wasn’t those who sought to cash in on the Cold War like McCarthy’s right-hand man Roy Cohn (who moved from hunting reds to defending mobsters and never publicly regretted his service with McCarthy).

Instead, to a limited degree, it was Lee Harvey Oswald. Both sought to transcend their circumstances; Oswald, the dyslexic loner, tried to become the world’s first communist Marine, spouting Marxist rhetoric during basic training. Matusow became one of the first whistle-blowers on FBI activities when the Bureau was at the height of its prestige. The Russians Oswald defected to found him unworthy of a high position, and parked him at a factory in Minsk–The FBI put in a hotel and fired Matusow within a year. The FBI found Oswald so harmless that they put him under a sporadic, light surveillance. Oswald cranked out pro-Castro pamphlets while claiming to be one of many members of the New Orleans’ Fair Play for Cuba (he was the sole member, who when distributing “Hands Off Cuba,” had to hire people to help)– Matusow edited a one-sheet anti-communist paper called Counterattack. Armed with guns and communist pamphlets, Oswald anticipated the Weathermen by a few years—conscience-ridden, Matusow betrayed the FBI and McCarthy, anticipating government informers by twenty years.

But of the two, Matusow was the bigger failure. Both shelved books—Oswald at the infamous School Book Depository; Matusow at the Communist Party bookstore. But Oswald shot his way into History, while Matusow merely changed his.

Enjoyed the article? Make a contribution to support our work via Patreon!

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

  • Hanzo

    Good article. Thing is, McCarthy was right, vindicated by the FBI Venona Files and KGB archives released in the late 90’s. As a matter of fact, McCarthy didn’t even scratch the surface of Soviet espionage and American collusion. “American Betrayal”, by Diane West, is a great read as well as a wealth of knowledge on the subject.