Moscow’s Assaults on American Democracy Began 80 Years Ago


Over the last nine months, headlines have reverberated with questions regarding the Russian role in “hacking” the American electoral process. On January 5, 2017, James Clapper, then Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “The Russians have a long history of interfering in elections. Theirs and other peoples…This goes back to the 60s, from the heyday of the Cold War.” He went on to call Russian interference in the 2016 election “unprecedented.” In some respects — the scale and impact of the accusations — they are. In other ways, however, they are a throwback to an 80-year-old saga.

The role of Russia’s intelligence services in the 2016 election represents the revival of Soviet efforts that predate even the Cold War. “Fake news” and financial assistance to opposition candidates, two measures that define Russian influence operations targeting the West, both date to the Stalinist period and the rise of the Soviet foreign intelligence apparatus. In the 1930s, when these methods were first unleashed, the United States had almost no counterintelligence capabilities. Until the early Cold War, the Soviets proved reasonably adept at influencing American politics towards Russia and acquiring information. Only with the expansion of the FBI and the reorganization of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) did Soviet efforts at directly influencing American elections dwindle.

The Kremlin’s Man in Congress

Ironically, the House Un-American Activities Committee was built upon foundations laid by someone associated with Soviet intelligence. Among those on the payroll of Soviet intelligence (then called the NKVD or the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) in the late 1930s was Rep. Samuel Dickstein, a Democrat from New York City. He first came to Moscow’s attention when he assisted Soviet “illegals” — secret agents without an official Soviet cover identity — in obtaining false passports and visas in 1937. But he soon offered a juicier lure to his Soviet contacts: As founder of the McCormack-Dickstein Committee (formerly called the Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities), the congressman was actively involved in domestic intelligence operations. In particular, he offered to relay information on anti-Soviet activities within the United States by Russian émigrés. His platform for this would be the newly formed body, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, based on the McCormack-Dickstein Committee. Dickstein aimed to get a seat on it, and steer it away from the investigation of communists and towards fascists and anti-Bolsheviks. His NKVD handler Peter Gutzeit, under cover as a diplomat at the Soviet consulate in New York, wrote back eagerly to Moscow. Through Dickstein, Gutzeit said, they could gain information on “not only Russian monarchists, Nazis, Ukrainian nationalists, and Japanese operatives, but also, supporters of Leon Trotsky.” By 1938, Soviet operatives were passing Dickstein $1,250 a month, and planned to “throw him a round sum for the reelection campaign.”

Having a congressman on payroll was a remarkable achievement. But Gutzeit had even bigger plans. Dickstein’s codename — “Crook” — indicated exactly what Soviet operatives thought of him. Beyond Dickstein, Gutzeit saw many other sympathetic political figures in the United States, particularly among New Deal Democrats. The Soviet spook believed the NKVD should consider “helping during elections with money” to carefully vetted candidates for Congress. This would allow Soviet intelligence to “create a group of our people in the legislative bodies, define their political positions, and insert [them] there to actively influence events.” The reaction in Moscow to Gutzeit’s request was positive. In fact, they suggested that he add the purchase of a newspaper to his list of targets. Such a publication could be used to influence events in favor of preferred candidates and also provide a critical window on American domestic politics.

For the time being, the prohibitive costs — estimated at between half a million and a million dollars a year — kept the plan on the drawing board. But Dickstein delivered several pro-Soviet speeches in Congress, including a number of attacks on the House Committee on Un-American Activities for its investigations into known communists in government positions.

However, Dickstein’s connections to the NKVD would soon dry up. Stalin’s Great Purges were in full gear and Dickstein’s main handlers would be recalled in turn to the Soviet Union and shot. By February 1940, the NKVD had largely given up on Dickstein, who demanded larger and larger sums for his work and provided little in the way of concrete documentation to the NKVD.

The Soviet Union and the Fake News Business

The program to purchase a newspaper would go ahead, though not led by Gutzeit, who had been shot during the purges. In important respects, it was this process that marked the birth of “fake news” — false information purveyed as fact to impact political outcomes — as a favorite NKVD (and later KGB) tactic. The Soviet state already had an experienced cadre of “fake news” journalists from their own internal efforts to conceal the horrors of the 1930s within the Soviet Union: a famine that killed more than six million people, declining standards of living, and the Great Terror of 1936 to 1937.

Using journalists to muddy the waters or purvey misleading information would remain a favorite Soviet ploy throughout the Cold War. A Voice of America reporter would note in 1985 that Soviet intelligence “are well aware of the seminal role of the American media….they have exploited their accessibility to the hilt.” Intelligence agents, often in cover roles with Soviet publications, “would approach foreign correspondent, saying ‘I am a Soviet journalist and no one will believe me if I write this story. But if you write it, it will be believed.’” This tactic was first deployed to great effect during the 1930s, through sympathetic left-progressive publications.

Back in the 1930s, the NKVD had a number of “fake news” successes to cheer. The first was the fulfillment of Gutzeit’s plan: the NKVD financed communist agent William Dodd (son of the former U.S. ambassador to Germany), to purchase the Blue Ridge Herald. They also successfully recruited Michael Straight, son of the founder and editor-in-chief of The New Republic in January 1937. Straight used his family fortune to subsidize a pro-Communist newspaper in the United Kingdom, The Daily Worker, but seems to have had little influence at The New Republic at the time. Instead, at the encouragement of his Soviet handlers, he took a position in the State Department, where he passed information primarily on economic affairs. By 1941, he had begun to lose interest in international communism. He left his job at the State Department and became a writer at the New Republic. His Soviet contacts attempted to woo him back into working for Soviet interests from that position, but Straight demurred and eventually severed his contacts with the NKVD.

Efforts elsewhere proved more successful. Kim Philby, of later Cambridge Five fame, became a journalist after starting his career as a Soviet agent in 1934. He first wrote pro-Soviet material for the Review of Reviews, a minor liberal publication in the United Kingdom. But then in 1937, he received an offer to cover the Spanish Civil War as a correspondent for The Times. His Soviet handlers wanted him to report on Franco’s war effort and presumably to continue to cover events in a pro-Soviet fashion. Based on archival evidence, he may also have been tasked with assassinating Franco, a mission he clearly did not fulfill. Philby would join British intelligence’s Special Operations Executive in 1940, then MI6 in 1941. He would serve as the Soviet Union’s most effective agent until his escape to Moscow in 1963.

Philby was but the most famous exemplar of a whole generation of leftist journalists and editors who received funding and direction from Moscow in the 1930s: By 1941, the NKVD had 22 journalists working directly as agents in the United States alone. The list included journalists writing for the United Press, Time Magazine, Reuters, CBS News, and other mainstream outlets. Besides those agents working directly for the Soviet government, there were numerous other “fellow travelers” who swam in the same circles and disseminated similar information. Their dual roles were rendered more difficult by the problem of defending the Great Terror and the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler, but they continued to operate on behalf of Soviet interests as World War II began. For instance, one agent, Time magazine foreign correspondent Stephen Laird, would falsely paint the Soviet occupation of Poland starting in 1944 in glowing terms and described the rigged election of 1947 as “free and fair.”

Moscow Enters Presidential Politics

The recruitment of congressmen and the cooption of friendly journalists were not the NKVD’s or GRU’s (Soviet military intelligence) most blatant attempt to interfere in American politics. Whether or not President Donald Trump, members of his administration, or his campaign officials actively colluded with the Russian intelligence services, he was not the first presidential candidate to receive some form of direct or indirect assistance from Soviet or Russian intelligence agencies. The first documented case is a remarkable one, but little known today.

During the spring of 1944, a cohort of senior Democrats around Franklin Delano Roosevelt began angling to have Henry Wallace, the sitting vice president, removed from the ticket for the 1944 presidential elections. They correctly perceived Wallace as overly sympathetic to communism and emotionally unstable. After some considerable controversy, they succeeded in convincing both Roosevelt and the Democratic establishment. Harry S. Truman, then senator from Missouri, became their favorite. After three rounds of balloting at the 1944 Democratic National Convention (the first round of which Wallace led) Truman finally obtained the vice-presidential nomination.

Wallace viewed his removal as a betrayal. Truman offered Wallace the position of secretary of commerce as a sop, but he remained embittered. After Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Wallace became even more aggrieved. At this juncture, he decided to put to use secret information he had learned as vice president. In October 1945, Wallace reached out to Anatoly Gorsky, then the Washington station chief for the NKGB (later KGB) to set up a secret meeting. Gorsky, of course, agreed.

Wallace began their conversation by discussing the Truman administration’s attitude towards the Soviet Union. He noted that the Truman administration would like to invite Soviet scientists to visit the United States to witness American successes in nuclear power. But his banter soon turned indiscreet, as Wallace caricatured Truman as a “petty politico who got his current post by accident.” He proceeded to highlight his policy disagreements with Truman, including Wallace’s efforts to have America’s nuclear arsenal turned over to the U.N. Security Council. He then explained to Gorsky that there were two main factions “fighting for Truman’s ‘soul’”: a smaller pro-Soviet group (centering on Wallace) and a larger anti-Soviet group, made up of Secretary of State James Byrnes and Attorney General Tom Clark. Wallace, already eyeing the 1948 Democratic nomination, then suggested to the NKGB station chief that the Soviet Union should help the pro-Soviet faction, stating that, “you (meaning the USSR) could help this smaller group considerably, and we don’t doubt… your willingness to do this.”

This remarkable conversation, preserved in the Russian archives, highlights both Wallace’s indiscretion as well as his perception of Soviet influence on the American political establishment. While Gorsky’s report of the conversation was sent to Moscow with alacrity, the NKGB declined to finance Wallace or his supporters. Had he succeeded, his intentions might have turned the U.S. government into an extension of Soviet intelligence: Wallace later suggested that he would have made Laurence Duggan and Harry Dexter White, both long-serving Russian intelligence assets in the U.S. government, his secretary of state and secretary of treasury. The consequences on the course of the Cold War would have been stark.

From Spies to Hackers

Anatoly Gorsky, Peter Gutzeit, and other Soviet intelligence operatives would doubtless marvel at the bold efforts Russian intelligence has made in interfering in European and American elections today. In their heyday, the Soviet Union’s foreign directorates were just learning the principles of their covert art. Although they succeeded in penetrating American political life through both politicians and journalists, their bigger dreams — of buying elections and candidates — remained unfulfilled. But the lessons their agencies learned have been passed through generations of practitioners to the present day. President Vladimir Putin, surrounded by his coterie of silovki (former military and intelligence operatives) have turned these intelligence tactics into a central facet of national strategy, seeking to undermine institutional stability abroad and produce favorable leaders in foreign states. The exact role of Russian intelligence in the 2016 American election remains unknown, but doubtless, the KGB and GRU operatives who built their first networks in America in the 1930s would be proud of their efforts.


Ian Johnson received his Ph.D. from the Ohio State University in 2016. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security and a lecturer in the history department at the University of Texas at Austin.

The author would like to thank two of his students – Haley Holt and Brittany Shoemaker – for their excellent research papers on the subject of Soviet intelligence during the Cold War. With their permission, he has cited here one of the primary source document collections they used.