On Our Soil: The Liquidation Of Juliet Poyntz

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To this day, anti-anti-communists from the Cold War period and their tenured academic counterparts scoff at the idea that Soviet communists liquidated their American agents on US soil.

While grudgingly admitting that Stalin did carry out wet work against those who dared to oppose him (I’ve heard professors actually defend it), they argue that such actions were exclusively conducted overseas–i.e, Leon Trotsky pickaxed in Mexico or the death-by-torture of loyalist soldier Bob Simile in Spain.

But on at least one instance, Stalin used a Soviet assassination squad to undoubtedly kidnap and murder an American agent in New York City for the “crime” of defecting from the spy ring.

The victim was Juliet Stuart Poyntz, who spied for the Soviets, but later defected because of Stalin’s Purge Trials. While in Russia, she witnessed firsthand the frame-up and subsequent murder of those she knew to be innocent, and refused to engage in any more espionage work for the Soviets after returning to the United States.

On June 3, 1937, a year after her defection, Poyntz, now living in New York, was never seen again.

Although we are certain of the culprits, the manner in which she was killed has been debated. Some, like fellow spy Whittaker Chambers, believed that a Soviet squad kidnapped her, placed her aboard a ship to Russia, and subsequently murdered her. Others such as writer Benjamin Gitlow asserted that Poyntz was killed and buried on American soil.

Soviet intelligence convinced their agent and Poyntz’s one-time lover, Shachno Epsteing, to arrange a meeting in Central Park. Poyntz came. According to Gitow, “they met at Columbus Circle and proceeded to walkthrough…Shachno took her by the arm and led her up a side path, where a large black limousine hugged the edge of the walk…Two men jumped out, grabbed Miss Poyntz, shoved her into the car and sped away.”

Poyntz was taken to Duchess County, where, according to Gitlow, she was murdered, and then buried near the upstate New York home of the Roosevelts. The reasons offered for her murder have varied between her defection from the Soviet spy ring to her kiss of death associations with the verboten Trotskyites.

Anarchist Carlo Tresca, who allegedly was told by Poyntz about her horrified reaction to the Purge Trials, asserted that she was kidnapped by the Soviets because of her defection.

Walter Krivitsky, who eventually died under mysterious circumstances himself after defecting from Soviet Military intelligence to the United States, theorized that she was murdered because of her romantic associations with Vitovt Putna, a Soviet military commander, who was accused by the Soviets during the Purge Trials of being part of a worldwide Trostkyite conspiracy. Putna “confessed” to his alleged crimes and was executed.

The Soviets, according to Kritivisky, murdered Poyntz to prevent her defection once she learned of her friend’s execution. But according to her comments to friends, it was her plans to out Soviet espionage in a book that sealed her fate.

Poyntz’s “disappearance” had far-reaching consequences for the Cold War. Both Soviet spies Elizabeth Bentley and Chambers were so scared by Poyntz’s fate that they too defected from the Soviet espionage ring (Chambers was summoned to Russia, where he undoubtedly would have been liquidated for supposed Trotskyite “tendencies”). A decade later, they would testify before Congress and expose members of the cell they once labored for, several of them New Deal officials like State Department official and long-time Roosevelt ally Alger Hiss.

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.

  • Whittaker Chambers (my grandfather) discussed the impact of Poyntz’s liquidation in his memoir Witness, which predates his own defection by month. But Bentley was really USA getting started in Soviet espionage at tat time and would not defect for nearly a decade, so how can you say that Poyntz’s liquidation affected Bentley’s decision to the fact?

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