Who was Matt Cvetic?

I Was a Communist for the FBI –Here is a link to a film clip from the 1951 film I Was a Communist for the FBI.

Any first hand account of J. Edgar Hoover would be flawed if it did not convey his obsession with the public’s opinion of himself and the FBI. This included pop culture. Many great books have been written about the FBI’s changing place within popular culture and media including, G-Men: Hoover’s FBI in American Popular Culture by Richard Powers, and The FBI and the Movies by Bob Herzberg.

One of the more interesting occurrences in which the FBI’s clandestine operations melded with popular culture was the popularity of I Was a Communist for the FBI, which started as a serial story in the Saturday Evening Post. Both a film and a weekly radio drama of the same name soon followed. The fictionalized film, staring Frank Lovejoy, would even earn an Academy Award nomination for best documentary.

The man behind it was Matt Cvetic, a notoriously short and stout from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had been unsuccessful in various government jobs until in 1941, after three rejections from U.S. Army Intelligence, he was accepted into the FBI under the pretense that

he was fluent in seven Baltic and Slavic languages, including Russian.[1]After he began his career with the FBI, Matt Cvetic became one of their most useful informants. For nine years Cvetic worked his way up the ranks of Pittsburg’s Communist Party becoming a well-trusted member of the community. Daniel Leab writes in his article on Cvetic, “The FBI no doubt

Matt Cvetic was a professional informant for the FBI for nine years.

considered Cvetic an extremely useful informant for much of his tenure with the Bureau. Various Special-Agents-in-Charge of the Bureau’s Pittsburgh office reported to Hoover on Cvetic’s “excellent results.”[2] However, according to Cvetic, the job was starting to become to much for him.

Cvetic claimed in front of the HUAC that his family had begun to shun him because of his affiliation with the Communist Party. He also claimed to be under physiological and spiritual distress because his cover as a Communist had prohibited him from attending church lest he be exposed as a man a faith. For whatever reason, the stressful job seemed to be taking its toll on an already unstable man. From many accounts I’ve read about Cvetic, most accuse him of being an abusive father and husband as well as a raging alcoholic.

By the late 1940s, the FBI was beginning to sense that Cvetic might need to be let go. Due to his well-publicized testimonies in front of the HUAC (including testifying against William Albertson) his effectiveness as an informant was beginning to wane. The FBI was also concerned with his very overt extra-marital affairs. It was not uncommon for Cvetic, while drunk, to publicly brag about his covert exploits as a way to gain female attention.[3] It was in light of his deteriorating relationship with the FBI that Cvetic approached journalist James Moore as a way to cash in on his FBI exploits. Thus I Was a Communist for the FBI was born. It started as a regular story installment in issues of the Saturday Evening Post but was soon picked up by Warner Brothers for a cinematic version. In the FBI files for the film, you can see that throughout the entire production process and after its nation-wide release, the FBI received innumerable amounts of letters of people trying to confirm whether or not the film was FBI sanctioned. The response from the FBI was always the same, “The FBI does not have any ties with Matt Cvetic and will not take any stance on the film.” (that can be read in the FBI vault here)

The whole story of Matt Cvetic and I Was a Communist for the FBI shows the public fascination with FBI covert actions and the counter-communist initiatives of the U.S. government. It is also indicative of something I have discussed many times on this blog, that being the potency of the public paranoia that the FBI and its affiliates cultivated throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.


[1] Daniel J Leab, “Anti-Communist, the FBI, and Matt Cvetic: The Ups and Downs of a Professional Informer.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 115, No. 4. (Oct., 1991) Pp. 542.

[2] Ibid, 544.

[3] Ibid, 547.

What was it like to be under surveillance?

“We had to change our tactics….We had to make every effort to develop live informants, utilize both mike and technical wiretaps, and become more sophisticated in our actual techniques.”- Jack Danahy, quoted in Enemies, 193. 

If the FBI were watching you, would you know it? Would you see shadowy men standing outside your window? Would your phone mysteriously click every time you picked it up? I cannot try to imagine the type of paranoia that would have set itself into members of subversive organizations during the late 1940s and into the late 1950s. The worst part is that many of the people being watched during this time period knew it, and even if they did not know it for a fact, they suspected it. The paranoia pervades the memoirs of the time. It drove many of the famous leftists of the era, like writer Howard Fast or playwright Arthur Miller into the countryside and away from New York City where the FBI knew how to use the urban environment to their benefit.

The first hint in knowing that the FBI investigated you were the people they sent to question your friends. These agents would not just talk to your friends or you employers; they would talk to almost everyone you had ever known well. Through the Freedom of Information Act I, acting on a hunch, requested the FBI files on Rod Serling the creator of the hit television series The Twilight Zone. What I found surprised me for two reasons. One was that Rod Serling, the writer of a television show that often criticized the nature of the Red Scare, was not investigated during the making of the show. The other reason I was surprised was that the file contained notes from a 45-page investigation. Serling was not being investigated for espionage or subversive activities; he had merely applied for a job as a writer on a government operated radio show called The Voice of America.

This is the first page of the Rod Serling file. Here we see J. Edgar Hoover sending out the first memorandum requesting the investigation.

To investigate this World War II veteran, the FBI dispatched agents to Albany, Cincinnati, New York, Cleveland, Springfield, and Miami, anywhere were Serling had spend any prolonged period of time in his entire life. Neighbors, employers, family members, co-workers, all were interviewed and asked to characterize his talent as a writer, his diligence, but especially his loyalty. Dozens upon dozens of people were interviewed and each FBI document concludes with the thought, “no information of a derogatory nature concerning loyalty which could be identified with the applicant was found.”[1]

In some instances the investigation became very specific and very personal. In a memorandum sent from Cincinnati, where Serling went to college, an FBI agent interviewed the director of a children’s summer camp where he had once worked. The director furnished the FBI with the only negative piece of information found in the entire investigation, “He said that applicant received an unsatisfactory rating during his employment period at Camp Treetops, Lake Placid, New York, due to his poor judgment in associations with his present wife at the camp when they were both single students and co-op employees during the summer of 1947.” And that, “they spend too much time together in front of the children of the camp.”[2] No dirty detail was left unrecorded.

The other ways in which a person knew they were being surveyed was, as Arthur Miller found out, the appearance of personal information and references to their FBI files while before the HUAC.[3] After the emergence and popular pulp stories of FBI informants, any new person, or old friend for that matter, could be an informant. The writer and Communist Party member Howard Fast had many overt run ins with the FBI. In his Memoir, Being Red, Fast remembers a dinner party that he threw. He writes, “On one occasion, on the day

Author and CP member Howard Fast testifying before the HUAC

before we gave a large fund-raising party, I received a drawing in the mail with the legend: “This bastard is FBI. He’s crashing your party. Throw him out.” It was a good drawing, and when the FBI man turned up, he was immediately recognized. He left quietly; if there was one thing you could give the FBI point for, it was politeness.”[4]

There are numerous memoirs written by those who were surveyed and all purvey the same sense of paranoia. As we see from the Serling records, the FBI’s investigations were often too deep and too thorough to go unnoticed.

[1] Washington Field Office-FBI, “Special Inquiry- Rodman Serling,” 5/21/1951.

[2] Cincinnati Field Office-FBI, “Special Inquiry- Rodman Serling.” 5/8/1951

[3] Christopher Bigsby, Arthur Miller. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. 532.

[4] Howard Fast, Being Red: A Memoir. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1990. Pp. 168.

Tim Weiner’s NPR Interview

One of the most important secondary sources for this project has recently become Enemies: A History of the FBI by Pulitzer Prize winner Time Weiner. Earlier this year NPR conducted a great interview with the author about his new book.

You can find the interview here: http://www.npr.org/2012/02/14/146862081/the-history-of-the-fbis-secret-enemies-list

Who “Green Lighted” Modern Surveillance and why?

In 1942, the FBI discovery of 8 Nazi Spies in the U.S. helped to add to FDR's paranoia.

“A free people must have both security and liberty. They are warring forces, yet we cannot have one without the other.”  -Tim Weiner. Enemies, xv.

I want to start by asking you a question. Was Surveillance right? Is it morally justified?  Many people will tell you it was unconstitutional and evil, others will say it was a necessity against the communist threat in America. Historians and authors have argued over this issue from both sides of the proverbial aisle for decades. The answer probably lies, like in most issues, somewhere in the middle. For now though, it’s useful to go off the premise that there is just no right answer.

I find it more productive to ask questions whose answers can be found in historical evidence. For example, the question that titles this post. It turns the political issue on its head for instance, to know that one of the most progressive figures of the 20th century was the person who first gave director of the FBI,  J. Edgar Hoover, the go a head on technically illegal and unconstitutional wiretaps as well as other systems of surveillance. That progressive man was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the reason why he thought intelligence so necessary is rooted in the fear of the Soviet and Nazi spies that lurked within the United States. These spies and saboteurs were very real and very well documented.

Journalist Tim Weiner’s new book Enemies: A History of the FBI is the first book of its kind and gives a detailed and concise narrative of the FBI as an intelligence and surveillance organization rather than a crime fighting institution. Weiner chronicles the serious backlash that occurred after the 1920s when Hoover’s overzealous and shockingly illegal attempts to prove a conspiratorial link between American Communists and the Soviet Union backfired. After this period, often called the First Red Scare, the power of the FBI was drastically rained in by the legislative and judicial branches of the government.[1]

Just as the FBI’s espionage operations seemed to have been overtaken by the more constitutional crime fighting wing, the new president Franklin Delano Roosevelt stepped in to re-grant the FBI secret powers that would have made the fledgling ACLU cringe. FDR, afraid of America’s lack of intelligence organizations and scared of Nazi spies and saboteurs on American soil, began funneling money under the table and without the approval of Congress straight to the FBI. In 1938 the FBI had only 587 full time employees and wiretapping, mail opening, and bugging, were still declared unconstitutional and illegal. By mid 1940 however, in the name of national security and with direct permission from President Roosevelt, the FBI had all but doubled its amount of agents, as well as planted almost 7,000 wire taps and nearly 2,000 bugs without warrants.[2] Memorandums from FDR to his Attorney General Robert Jackson authorizing wiretapping of “suspected subversives” are well documented and often turn up in Government investigations as a root of unconstitutional behavior in the FBI.[3]

These actions were justified by the necessity of surveillance and intelligence during a time of world conflict in order to maintain national security. It was this precedent (aided by Hoover’s public relation campaigns to expose the domestic communist threat in the post-war period), that kept America in a perpetual state of extenuating circumstances.

Movie Poster-"Confessions of a Nazi Spy" (1939)

[1] Tim Weiner, Enemies: A History of the FBI. New York: Random House, 2012. Pp. 59.

[2] Weiner, 88.

[3]Committee, Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans: 1976 US Senate Report on Illegal Wiretaps and Domestic Spying by the FBI, CIA, and NSA. St. Petersburg: Red and Black Publishers, 2007. Pp. 26.