As part of my on-going research for The Enemy Within, I spent yesterday evening reading Herb Philbrick’s bestselling memoir, I Led Three Lives.
Philbrick may have been the most famous of the “professional witnesses” who built careers around being ex-Communists, whether former true believers who rejected Communism or, like Philbrick, spies and informers from the get-go. This was supposedly a terrible sacrifice because if they’d been identified as Communists, the FBI couldn’t have jeopardized its counterspy network by revealing them as agents: They’d have to endure the Communist label and everything that came with it (rejection by society, probably loss of job, etc.).
In point of fact, these people went on to have successful careers writing books or being profiled in movies or TV shows, as well as paid consultant gigs to various committees, agencies and government bodies. As I said, Philbrick probably scored the best: A hit book, followed by a successful movie (which I wish I could find on DVD) and then the TV series starring Richard Carlson as Philbrick.
It says a lot about the time the book came out that it led to anything other than people falling asleep over it, because by today’s standards it is deadly dull.
The Communist Party in Philbrick’s memories isn’t a spy network or a revolutionary cadre, it’s a bunch of people who sit around and talk endlessly, lecturing on Marxism, debating the dialectic, blathering about how capitalism and Marxism must inevitably collide but not doing much to encourage it (for the record, I knew a few Communists in college and this sounds pretty accurate).
Philbrick spends nine years taking photos of Party members, getting their names and debates recorded … and they’re not doing anything that seems to justify it.
Oh, he tries to convince us they’re bad news, attributing them with the blame for losing China, losing ‘nam (I have the slightly updated 1970s edition), pre-war isolationism and the JFK assassination (because party members knew Oswald was a Red, yet they didn’t report him to the FBI, who would have stopped him [unsurprisingly for an FBI agent, Philbrick presents us with a very glowing version of the Bureau of Hoover’s day]) and mentions one Party member who had a “mysterious fall” right after he’d dissented from the latest instructions.
In the television episodes I’ve seen, Philbrick stops Commies from assaulting labor leaders, passing off fake propaganda films as true newsreels and murdering a former Party boss turned informer; in the book, his big triumphs consist of figuring out the exact tack to take in political discussions so that his true allegiance isn’t suspected.
If I ever get the urge to pick up this book again, I hope I’m hit by a train first.