Every human life is special, unique, unrepeatable — to borrow from Pope John Paul II. Every loss of life is a loss. Some losses, however, seem larger, leaving a void no one else can fill. When some people go, too much goes with them. That’s undoubtedly the case with the loss of Herbert Romerstein, who died this week after a long illness. With Herb’s passing, we lose not only a good guy, but a vast reservoir of knowledge that is not replaceable. If only we could have downloaded the man’s brain. Alas, we could not, and our knowledge of the 20th century is suddenly less than it was.
Herb knew the Cold War and communist movement unlike anyone. He understood it because he lived it and breathed it. Born in Brooklyn in 1931, he himself had been a communist, having joined the Communist Youth League before becoming a card-carrying member of Communist Party USA (CPUSA). He broke ranks over 60 years ago, the final straw being the Korean War, which made clear to him that he was dealing with inveterate liars, whether in Korea, Moscow, or among communists on the home-front. He went on to become one of America’s best anti-communists and most respected authorities, regularly testifying before Congress. He became a chief investigator for the House Committee on Internal Security. In the 1980s, he joined the Reagan administration, where his full-time job at the U.S. Information Agency was to counter Soviet disinformation, a duty for which few were so well-equipped or enthusiastic. He relished the role of taking on professional Soviet propagandists such as Georgi Arbatov and Valentin Falin. Later, he did the highly touted analysis of the Venona transcripts, which he published as The Venona Secrets.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I cannot do justice to how this translated into action. I never tire of listening to stories from Herb’s longtime friend Charlie Wiley on how they penetrated the communist-run World Youth Festivals in the 1950s, or challenged a Soviet official successfully spooning the Party line to open-mouthed progressives at the All Souls Church in New York, or tossed a wrench into this or that meeting of communist youth leaders. Guys like this were one of a kind who lived life to its fullest. They were warriors — unafraid, cheerful, colorful Cold Warriors.
I first met Herb Romerstein in June 2005. I was writing a book on Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War, which became The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism. I was nearing the end of the manuscript when I got a remarkable email from Marko Suprun, whose father had survived the 1930s Ukrainian genocide perpetrated by Stalin. I didn’t know Marko, but he brought to my attention a stunning document, a highly sensitive May 1983 letter from the head of the KGB, Viktor Chebrikov, to the head of the Soviet Union, the odious Yuri Andropov. The letter concerned a secret offer by Senator Ted Kennedy that, in effect, sought to undermine President Reagan’s security policy and perhaps his reelection bid. It allegedly came from Soviet archives in Moscow. I embarked upon a long process of confirming the letter’s authenticity. I exchanged emails with Walter Zaryckyj, who had turned the document over to Marko for translation. Walter immediately recommended I contact Herb Romerstein. If anyone could confirm this, it was Herb, said Walter, describing Herb as a “national treasure.”
I talked to Herb and he assuaged me. “Don’t worry,” he assured. “It’s real. Take it to the bank.”
I spent the next few months confirming what Herb had told me from the outset. Yes, it was real.
This began a partnership and friendship. Herb loved the fact that I was a Cold War researcher half his age and planning to do more, including a book on Cold War dupes — a unique category of Cold War individual that Herb knew too well. He took me under his wing, eager to provide counsel on anything related to the Cold War. Having access to his mind was like having the Library of Congress, the FBI files, the Soviet archives, Daily Worker microfiche, thousands of congressional reports, and CPUSA holdings all rolled into one, retrievable by a quick phone call or email from my BlackBerry. The process would go something like this: “Hi, Herb. A question on Arthur Miller: Did he ever join the Party?” The response was instantaneous: “In 1956, Arthur Miller testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. They published his Party application card. You can find it in the official report on the hearings. He wrote for New Masses, the Daily Worker loved him….”
We would meet in-person (less often, unfortunately) during my visits to Washington to do research. Herb introduced me to the Soviet Comintern Archives on CPUSA. He showed me how to use them, helped me get my library card — covering all bases. I fondly remember when he first introduced me to M. Stanton Evans. We spent hours at Stan’s office one summer afternoon going over everything imaginable on Soviet penetration of the Roosevelt administration and other vital areas in the 1930s and 1940s. We also had lunch at the Hawk n’ Dove on Capitol Hill, a favorite place of Herb and Stan.
Why their interest in me? Because, as they openly admitted, they were getting old and “wouldn’t be around much longer.” They were hoping I would be. There weren’t many of them left. I was one of a very small few to whom they might pass the torch.
Fittingly, on my desk right now is a copy of Herb’s final work, Stalin’s Secret Agents, co-authored with Stan Evans. It’s a superb must-read. We’ve waited years for the book’s material on Alger Hiss alone.
Certain Herb aphorisms related to the Cold War stick in my mind, resounding there in the sound of his scratchy, whispery voice:
I asked him if there was a particular group of Americans most susceptible to being duped by communists. His immediate answer: “The Religious Left, Paul, especially from the mainline Protestant denominations. They were the biggest suckers of them all.”
And what of American communists, especially those who went so far as to join CPUSA? Said Herb: “They were loyal Soviet patriots.” As Herb knew, they were dedicated first and foremost to Mother Russia. CPUSA members “were not the useful idiots,” not the “suckers;” they were not the dupes. Quite the contrary, said Herb: “They were fully aware of exactly what they were doing. They manipulated the useful idiots on behalf of Soviet interests.”
Another: “from 1919, when it [the American Communist Party] was formed, to 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was under total Soviet control.”
And then there were his judicious warnings about this or that suspected communist: “Be careful, Paul. That guy was not a communist. He was a fellow traveler, to some degree — a dupe — but not a communist. And the other guy, he was a small ‘c’ communist who never joined the Party.”
That last warning holds a crucial lesson very revealing of Herb Romerstein and his work: He was no bomb-thrower. He was the epitome of responsible, informed anti-communism. He was careful about drawing the necessary lines of distinction between a liberal, a liberal anti-communist, a genuine progressive, a closet communist masquerading as a “progressive,” a socialist, a small “c” or big “C” communist/Communist, a Party member or non-Party member, and so forth. He never wanted to falsely accuse anyone. I doubt his detractors on the left will pause to credit him for such prudence. For many on the left, every anti-communist rightly concerned with Soviet agents or agents of influence was merely another burgeoning Joe McCarthy. (Click here for a particularly cruel piece on Herb by Dana Milbank.)
Herb Romerstein was anything but. And he wanted those of us who follow in his footsteps, or who are concerned about communism still — and about truth above all — to be likewise as careful and thoughtful. Perhaps our best tribute to Herb’s memory would be to do our best to expose what he exposed and remind Americans and the world of what he reminded.
Herbert Romerstein, indeed a national treasure. A happy warrior who fought the good fight, and left the wrong side for the right side. Well done, my friend. Rest in peace.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons