Thomas Sakmyster. American Communist History. Volume 9, Issue 3. December 2010.
According to an article in the Daily Worker of 17 January 1950, John Lautner, head of the Communist Party’s New York State Review Commission, had been expelled from the Party as “an enemy agent of long standing.” Lautner, it was claimed, had made it possible for FBI agents to penetrate the Party and was also guilty of certain other security lapses that did great harm to the Party, a “full disclosure” of which was to be made “at the proper time.” In the meantime, Party members were urged to “heighten their Communist vigilance”. The article was accompanied by a photograph of Lautner, grim-faced and somewhat sinister, so that readers could focus their wrath on this “traitor and enemy of the working class.”
One key fact that the DW article had not revealed was that in expelling Lautner leaders of the Communist Party (CP) had acted largely on the basis of information that had been received from Mátyás Rákosi, leader of the Hungarian CP. In November 1949, Rákosi had sent word that one of the convicted defendants in the recently concluded state trial of László Rajk had identified John Lautner as an American intelligence agent who during World War II had plotted with agents of Marshal Tito and renegade Hungarian Communists. Without hesitation or a request for further information, CP leaders accepted this accusation as true.
From this point on the idea that Lautner was an imperialist agent was taken as proven. Rákosi had requested that Lautner be sent to Budapest to receive the punishment that was being meted out to other “accomplices” of Rajk. When this proved impossible, CP officials subjected Lautner to an improvised “trial” in Cleveland, Ohio at which psychological torture and intimidation were employed to force him to sign a confession. After his expulsion Lautner, who had been active in the Communist movement since 1929, immediately became a pariah. His wife, a Party member, demanded and received a divorce. All his friends in the Party, some of whom were members of the National Committee, abandoned him.
Neither Mátyás Rákosi nor his American collaborators could have imagined that what came to be called the “Lautner affair” would in time have a deleterious impact on the Communist parties of both Hungary and the United States. For, in fact, John Lautner was, like all the defendants in the Rajk trial of 1949, innocent of the charges that were made against him. He had never been a government agent and had not, as Rákosi suggested, cooperated with “Titoist” and “imperialist” intelligence agencies during World War II. On the contrary, he had been a loyal, diligent, and orthodox Communist. However, his bitterness over the way he had been treated was so intense that Lautner, after brooding over the matter for months, decided to retaliate by offering his services to the FBI. As one Party leader would later remark of Lautner: “He had not been a government agent, but his own comrades made him one.” Lautner proved to be a very effective witness at numerous Smith Act trials and government hearings in the 1950s. Among those CPUSA leaders who were found guilty at these trials and served prison terms were several who had been instrumental in organizing Lautner’s “trial” and expulsion.
The “Lautner affair” also had important repercussions at the time of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Among those Party leaders who came to know the truth about the “Lautner affair”, there were some who felt a deep sense of guilt about having collaborated with Rákosi and condoned what they later regarded as Stalinist methods in the CPUSA. As a result, they were harshly critical of the Stalinist regime in Hungary, sympathized with the insurgents in the Hungarian rebellion in 1956 and condemned the eventual Soviet military intervention. Disagreements about how to interpret and respond to the Hungarian uprising greatly exacerbated internal divisions in the Party in late 1956 and 1957 and contributed to the massive decline in membership that then ensued. A study of the “Lautner affair” thus offers insights into the relationship of the CPUSA to Stalinist regimes in the late 1940s and early 1950s, how the Party responded to perceived security threats, and the way in which disagreements over the “Hungarian question” contributed to the decline and disintegration of the Party after 1956.
John Lautner was born in Hungary in 1902, emigrated to the United States with his family and became an American citizen in 1926. Although he was fairly well educated, having graduated from a Hungarian high school and attended a teacher’s college for a year, he found employment in the United States only as a manual labourer, first in a steel factory and later as a skilled bricklayer. None of his five siblings or parents showed any interest in radical politics, but Lautner became attracted to the Communist movement through association with politically active members of the Hungarian American community in New York City. In 1929, he joined the CP and was assigned to the Yorkville unit, the members of which were mostly Hungarian-born. Several of Lautner’s comrades in this unit were to become leading figures in the Communist movement in the United States or in Hungary: József Péter (J. Peters) as head of the CP’s secret apparatus; Lajos Tóth (Louis Weinstock) and János Szánto (John Santo) as leading trade unionists; Sándor Vörös as a prominent member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain; and János Gyetvai and Lajos Bebrits as important officials in the post-World War II Hungarian government.
John Lautner’s career in the CPUSA was to be somewhat less exalted than that of most of his comrades in the Yorkville unit. After attending a CP training school in New York for Hungarian-born members, he became a full-time Party functionary. From 1930 to 1936, he carried out a variety of tasks for the Hungarian Bureau, the Party organization that served as the intermediary to the Hungarian American community and published a Hungarian-language daily newspaper, the Új Előre. He served as district secretary in Detroit, Cleveland and the upper west-side of New York City, managed the CP’s national training school for promising Hungarian American Communists, and became an editor of, and occasional contributor to, the Új Előre. In 1931-1932 he lived for a year in Canada, where he served as the acting secretary of the Hungarian Bureau of the Canadian CP and editor of its Hungarian newspaper. In general, Lautner made a good impression on his Hungarian colleagues, one of whom later recalled him as “a quiet, not particularly gifted, but hard-working young man”.
Completely devoted to the Communist movement, John Lautner unquestioningly carried out all instructions he received from Party national headquarters. Thus, in 1931, he agreed to marry a woman who was in the United States on a student visa. The woman, who was a complete stranger to Lautner, thereby became an American citizen and was able to continue her work for the CPUSA. Lautner never met the woman again after the marriage ceremony, and a few years later Party lawyers arranged a divorce. By the mid-1930s, CP leaders had thus noticed that Lautner possessed the two qualities they deemed most essential in middle-level functionaries who were expected always to be “at the beck and call of the party”: obedience and trustworthiness. Moreover, he was a congenial comrade and formed friendships with several influential Party leaders, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and J. Peters. It was perhaps through the influence of the latter, who in the 1930s was a leading figure in the Organization Bureau of the Party that Lautner in 1936 was named CP organizer for West Virginia. In this position, which he held until late 1940, Lautner had some notable accomplishments. He achieved a substantial increase in Party membership and was successful in gaining the 8000 signatures needed to get the Party on the ballot in West Virginia for the 1940 presidential election. Lautner’s success in the latter endeavour was praised in a DW article and led to his election to the presiding committee at the National Convention in May 1940, “amidst cheers and a rousing ovation”.
John Lautner’s career prospects in the Party were further enhanced when he was chosen to attend the National Training School in New York, which was a wartime alternative to the Lenin School in Moscow for promising middle-level Party leaders. Not long after completing this course of study, Lautner was inducted into the US Army. Because of his linguistic abilities, he was assigned to the Psychological Warfare Branch and was stationed first in Casablanca and later in Oran, Cairo, and Bari. He monitored and translated radio broadcasts, helped prepare leaflets that were dropped over Hungary, and assisted members of Marshal Tito’s partisan army in setting up a news service. During his army service, Lautner had no connection with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) or any other Allied intelligence organization, and, given his modest rank (technician, fourth grade), had no opportunity to come into contact with high-ranking officers who were stationed in or passed through Rome and Bari.
At the time of his induction into the Army, Lautner had not disclosed his membership in the CP. In any case, there were no opportunities for him to promote the interests of the Party during his wartime service. His only contact with the CP leadership was through a regular correspondence with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. While stationed in Bari, aside from the few Yugoslav partisans he encountered, he met only one Communist, Sándor Cseresnyés, a Hungarian émigré who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and ended up in the British Psychological Warfare Branch. After the war, they kept up a correspondence and Lautner even sent Cseresnyés occasional “care packages” when the latter returned to his devastated native country. After his discharge in the summer of 1945, Lautner returned immediately to Party work. At his request he was appointed secretary of the Hungarian National Bureau, a position he held until 1947.
Lautner continued to impress Party leaders with his reliability and efficiency, but he was involved in one unsettling incident in 1946. He and several other Hungarian Americans in the Party were able to obtain an appointment to the board of directors of an organization called American Hungarian Relief, which was coordinating the distribution of American aid in war-torn Hungary. Lautner was at least partially successful in channelling the aid to Communist-controlled groups in Hungary. In an internal Party memorandum, he described how the Communists in the relief organization, though in the minority, had been able to undermine the influence of the “reactionaries” and the “fascists” on the board. Steve Nelson, at that time director of the Party’s Nationality Group Commission, was so impressed by the tactics that Lautner and his comrades had used that he distributed copies of Lautner’s memorandum to the heads of all the CP’s nationality bureaus. At some point, one of the copies of this memorandum came into the hands of the FBI and was made available to a leading Hungarian American newspaper, which published it to illustrate the devious methods the CP used to infiltrate organizations. As a result, Lautner and the other Communists on the board of American Hungarian Relief were ousted. The incident caused considerable consternation in the Party, but apparently no one at the time suspected that Lautner might have been responsible for leaking the memorandum.
By 1947, John Lautner was eager to take on a position of greater responsibility at the higher levels of the Party’s administration. Though some Party leaders believed that “he lacked dynamism and the gifts of imagination and leadership,” Lautner, in general, was well-liked and thought to possess “rocklike loyalty” and good organizational skills. He was a Party foot soldier possessing qualities that seemed particularly suited to that sphere of Party work dealing with security and discipline. Accordingly, late in 1947 Lautner was made head of the New York State Review Commission (formerly the Control Commission), which was responsible for enforcing discipline and overseeing the Party’s internal security. Since New York was the largest by far of the CP’s districts, this was a position of considerable importance and influence. Lautner’s specific duties included ferreting out informers and deviationists (especially “Browderites”), handling security at national conventions, and supervising the review of disciplinary cases brought to the State Review Commission.
Although gratified by his promotion, John Lautner was disappointed that at the same time he was not designated a member of the National Review Commission (NRC). He began almost immediately to lobby for this among his friends on the National Committee, especially Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, arguing that in the past the heads of district review commissions usually became members of the National Review Commission. At her Smith Act trial in 1952, Flynn was to assert that, despite his repeated requests, Lautner was never appointed to the National Review Commission. On the other hand, both in his FBI interviews and in public testimony in the 1950s Lautner insisted that in 1949 he had become a member of the national committee. He was able to list the names of others who were on the committee and to recall specific cases that the commission dealt with, including the petition of Max Bedacht for readmission to the Party. Furthermore, Lautner carried out several assignments in 1949 that would likely have been given only to members of the National Review Commission. He was appointed to a small committee that made preparations for Party leaders to carry out their work if forced to go underground. In this capacity he demonstrated and helped distribute compact mimeograph machines and studied ways that Party leaders could communicate by short wave radio without being detected by the FBI or the FCC. At the time of the first Smith Act trial in 1949, Lautner was responsible for checking on the loyalty and trustworthiness of individuals selected to be part of the defence team.
During his tenure on the New York State Review Committee, Lautner dealt with numerous disciplinary cases and complaints brought against members at the branch or unit levels. Among these apparently routine cases, one would later loom as of great importance. In the 1940s, the FBI was successful in infiltrating the CP and installing a number of undercover agents, most of them at lower levels. Almost none of these informants were ever detected. One of them, Angela Calomiris, a photographer, had joined the Party in 1942 and worked her way up to the position of financial secretary in the West Midtown branch in Manhattan and administrative secretary of the Photo League, a Party front organization. Late in 1948, she sought out Lautner and complained to him that some of her comrades, including her branch leader, Rena Klein, were making false accusations against her. As a result, she was being demoted from her position. She demanded that Lautner set up a formal hearing with witnesses so that she could clear her name. When contacted by Lautner, who assumed this was just some sort of minor power struggle in the West Midtown branch, Rena Klein told him that she had been trying to “ease her [Calomiris] out” because she had a “personal problem” that made her a liability to the Party. Asked to elaborate, Klein admitted that the reason she distrusted Calomiris was because she had been seen on Cape Cod in the company of “bi-sexuals”, in other words because she was a lesbian.
As Lautner would later explain, he was not inclined “to go along with Rena Klein’s bureaucratic methods of destroying people” on the basis of charges of “sexual perversion.” Instead, as a compromise he suggested to Calomiris that she accept a re-assignment to work in the Party’s Greek American Bureau or focus on her work in the Photo League. When Calomiris rejected these ideas, Lautner urged her to accept her demotion and continue her good work in the Party. There the matter rested until mid-April of 1949, when a report reached Lautner that Calomiris was apparently assembling information about Party leaders and attempting to photograph them. Since this did seem to be suspicious behavior, Lautner instructed Rena Klein and others to look into the matter. But, before an investigation could be launched, the trial of 11 Party leaders began and, to the shock of CP officials, the prosecution announced that their case would be supported by the testimony of several FBI agents who for many years had worked undercover in the CP, among them Angela Calomiris.
This development caused a kind of “spy hysteria” in the CP leadership, for it was feared that other government informants remained in the Party membership. Party leaders issued calls for heightened vigilance and launched an investigation to determine who was responsible for the appalling fact that several FBI agents had gone undetected for so long. When Calomiris’s superior, Rena Klein, was asked why she had been so derelict, she tried to shift the blame to John Lautner, claiming that he had ignored her warnings. Lautner was thereupon subjected to several intense interrogations, but he insisted that the only charge that had ever been made against Calomiris concerned her alleged “sexual perversion”. No one had ever suggested to him that Calomiris was a government agent. Furthermore, he, Lautner, hardly knew Calomiris. There were other Party officials who had in fact befriended her, including Leon Josephson, a lawyer, who had invited her several times to his farm. Lautner’s explanations were apparently satisfactory, for he was allowed to resume his normal work.
Pre-occupied with their own security concerns, CPUSA members in 1948-1949 could not give full attention to the significant events that were occurring in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and would soon have their impact in the United States. On 12 May 1949, in the opening days of the Smith Act Trial in New York, Noel Field, an American Communist who had worked intermittently for Soviet intelligence agencies over the previous 15 years, was arrested by the Czechoslovak secret police in Prague and handed over to representatives of the Hungarian state security agency (the AVO). He was immediately whisked off to prison in Budapest, where over the following months he was subjected to brutal interrogation and torture by AVO and KGB agents. Field’s arrest was the opening act of a Hungarian Stalinist-type “show trial” that took place later that year. It had been decided by Joseph Stalin and his acolytes in Budapest that Noel Field was to play a central role in the Hungarian show trial. According to the script, or “concept,” of the trial that was being developed in Moscow and Budapest, Field was to confess, falsely, that he had long been an American agent in the service of the OSS and of Allen Dulles’s CIA; that during and after World War II he had worked with and coordinated a network of Titoites, Trotskyites, and other deviationists; and that he had recruited László Rajk, the Hungarian Foreign Minister, and numerous other Hungarian Communists to participate in a plot to overthrow the Hungarian Communist regime and assassinate its leaders.
That Noel Field, László Rajk, and hundreds of their alleged accomplices were swept up in a wave of terror had much to do with the decision Stalin had made in 1948 to launch a full-scale attack on the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Marshal Tito, who during World War II had been acclaimed in the Communist world as one of the great heroes in the anti-fascist struggle, was now denounced by Moscow as a traitor to Communism and a tool of the imperialists. “Titoite” and “Titoism” now became terms of abuse, to be linked with that previous amorphous category of enemies, the “Trotskyites.” Seemingly without demur, Communist parties across the globe, including the CPUSA, immediately joined in the campaign of vilification of the “Titoists”.
Stalin soon made it clear to Mátyás Rákosi and the leaders of the other “People’s Democracies” that vigorous steps needed to be taken to uncover and eradicate the “Titoist cliques” that had supposedly developed in each of the East European Communist parties. Rákosi, who styled himself as Stalin’s “best pupil,” was eager to take the initiative in this campaign and stage a show trial along the lines of those Stalin had masterminded in the 1930s. Rajk was arrested on 30 May, and soon dozens of his “accomplices” joined him in the AVO prisons. How did Rákosi proceed in identifying the “Titoites,” “Trotskyites,” and “agents of American imperialism” who had allegedly embedded themselves in the Hungarian CP? Like his mentor Stalin, Rákosi was driven by an obsessive suspiciousness and the inclination to believe that any Communist who spent an extended period of time in the West must have become “contaminated.” Those most vulnerable to arrest in Hungary in 1949 were Communists who had spent considerable time as functionaries in Western Communist parties or, like Rajk, as volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.
The initial “concept” of the Rajk conspiracy required a sizable cast of characters, and the dynamics of all the Stalinist show trials were such that those who confessed their crimes (as almost all those arrested eventually did) were prompted to name others with whom they had collaborated. The prisoners were required to write and re-write personal statements in which they listed all the Communists they had ever collaborated with in their Party activity in the West. These statements were scrutinized by the Hungarian and Soviet interrogators to determine how individuals named could be drawn into the evolving “Titoist plot”.
Because he wished to boost his own importance as Stalin’s surrogate in the supervision of the Rajk trial, Rákosi insisted on taking a direct role in selecting the victims, studying the text of the interrogations and the written statements of the defendants and refining the script. In addition, he sought to spur other Communist parties to action, citing the Hungarian party’s policy of vigilance as a model. Because he spoke excellent English and had visited the United States in 1946 and met many leaders and members of the American CP, Rákosi thought of himself as an expert on American affairs. It seemed self-evident to him that there would be “spies and saboteurs” in the cohort of Hungarians who were returning to their native land from long years of Party work in the United States. Some time in the early summer of 1949, Rákosi alerted Gene Dennis, general secretary of the CPUSA, to the escalating campaign in Hungary against agents of American imperialism. To assist the Hungarian Party, he asked Dennis for a report on the Communist movement in the United States, with comments on the role and political reliability of Hungarian American comrades, both those who remained in the United States and those who had returned to Hungary. This task was assigned to the most prominent Hungarian in the CPUSA, Louis Weinstock, whom Rákosi had met in New York in 1946. Weinstock dutifully prepared a long report that he personally delivered to Rákosi in August 1949.
Weinstock, who was a great admirer of Rákosi, clearly understood that he was being asked to propose names of Hungarian Communists who might in some way be implicated in what he referred to in his report as the “Rajk affair” (Rajk-ügy). Weinstock knew from newspaper reports that Rajk had been arrested in May and that many of his alleged accomplices were in the process of being seized by the Hungarian secret police. He must have sensed that if he made a negative evaluation of any of his Hungarian American comrades, they would probably be placed in great personal danger. Thus, he was careful to avoid directly incriminating some of the individuals he mentioned. The most prominent individual on his list was József Péter, who under the name J. Peters had been, during the 1930s, a very influential member of the CPUSA leadership and a collaborator of Soviet intelligence agencies in espionage work. In his comment on Péter, Weinstock merely noted that, on the advice of CPUSA leaders, he had left the United States for Hungary in May 1949 as a result of the deportation proceedings against him. On the other hand, Weinstock named several Hungarian-born Communists, including Mózes Simon (a British citizen) and John Lautner (an American citizen) who, he claimed, had engaged in activities that had raised some concerns among American Communist leaders. Weinstock made no specific accusation against Simon, who had served as his host during a previous visit to Hungary, except that he had worked for a time in the United States with John Lautner. After a brief summary of Lautner’s career in the CPUSA, Weinstock mentioned the “suspicious circumstances” in which one of his memorandums had been leaked to a “fascist” Hungarian American newspaper. In passing, Weinstock also pointed out that Lautner was known to be on good terms with Sándor Cseresnyés. The latter had been arrested by the Hungarian secret police a few weeks before Weinstock’s arrival in Budapest, and Weinstock would surely have learned of this arrest from other Hungarian Americans in Hungary, though he did not refer to it in his report.
Rákosi apparently paid little attention to the distinctions Weinstock tried to make. In fact he soon convinced himself that every Hungarian Communist mentioned by Weinstock in his report, and even Weinstock himself, was a traitor or FBI spy. He thus ordered the AVO into action against those individuals mentioned by Weinstock who were then residing in Hungary. Mózes Simon had returned to his native land in 1948 from many years abroad in Great Britain and the United States. He had been made a legal advisor in the Hungarian National Bank and served as the Party’s liaison with all returning Communist émigrés. He seemed to have a good working relationship with Rákosi and other Party officials. Nonetheless, he was arrested in September 1949 and accused of being a British spy and one of Rajk’s accomplices. As happened all too often in the hysterical atmosphere of the East European show trials, Simon’s wife assumed that her husband was guilty and denounced him: “Good riddance, he is gone. They took him away.”
Apparently, Rákosi contemplated a move against József Péter (J. Peters) as well. Péter certainly fit the profile of émigré Communists that Hungarian leaders imagined to be likely accomplices of Rajk. Moreover, he was known to be a good friend of Lautner and since his return to Hungary had often socialized with Mózes Simon. For a time in late 1949, Péter thus remained under surveillance and was denied a Party position that had been promised to him. In the end, however, he managed to escape arrest, perhaps because the KGB advised Rákosi that Péter had supervised a successful espionage operation in Washington that had greatly aided Soviet Intelligence.
The case of John Lautner was a different matter. Rákosi had met Lautner briefly during his visit to New York in 1946. But, he knew little about him, except for the negative comment Weinstock had made in his report. However, Rákosi was apparently most struck by Weinstock’s suggestion that Lautner was a friend of Sándor Cseresnyés. After his arrest in June 1949, Cseresnyés had been charged, falsely, with being a British spy. After several weeks of torture, he concluded that the only way to save his life was to capitulate and cooperate with his interrogators. In one of the many autobiographical statements that he was required to write, he apparently mentioned that he had met a number of American soldiers, including John Lautner, while they served together in the Allied Psychological Warfare Branch during World War II in Bari, Italy. In reading through the interrogation file of Cseresnyés, Rákosi noticed the mention of Lautner and apparently decided on a way that he could be introduced into the Rajk conspiracy. Having already agreed to implicate Rajk along the lines demanded by his interrogators, Cseresnyés was now induced to confirm his interrogators’ suggestion that while serving in Bari, he had been introduced to agents of Marshal Tito by John Lautner, whom he knew to be an American espionage agent.
At the public Rajk trial in September 1949, Cseresnyés testified merely that while working for the “British espionage service” in Bari in 1944, he had come into contact with Yugoslav spies, but did not mention John Lautner or the role that he allegedly played. This was a deliberate omission, for any mention of Lautner at Rajk’s trial would have thwarted Rákosi’s plan, which was to lure Lautner back to Hungary, where he, like Mózes Simon, could be arrested. Louis Weinstock had returned to the United States in August, but was summoned for a brief return visit in November, at which time Rákosi informed him that during one of his interrogations Sándor Cseresnyés had confessed that his friend John Lautner was an American intelligence agent who was involved in Rajk’s “Titoist plot.” Weinstock, like most Communists worldwide, believed that all the defendants in the Rajk trial were guilty as charged. Thus, he had no compunction about cooperating with the Hungarian leader. Upon his return to the United States in late November, he passed on Rákosi’s message to CPUSA leaders. All the American Communists thus informed; even several who had been longtime personal friends of Lautner, immediately accepted the idea that he was an enemy agent who must be sent to Hungary to receive his just punishment. Apparently, no one had any hesitation in implicitly trusting the word of the leader of Communist Hungary, even though, as one Party leader later conceded, Rákosi’s warning had been no more concrete than a “veiled reference”.
As a loyal Communist, John Lautner had reacted just as his comrades did to Stalin’s campaign against Tito and the Rajk trial. On several occasions in 1949, Lautner gave talks to CP units about the evils of “Titoism” and the need to deal harshly with those who deviated from the Party line. When the English-language edition of the transcript of the Hungarian show trial became available, he obtained several copies and made them available to members of the National Commission. Lautner seemed firmly to believe that Rajk and his “accomplices” had truly been guilty of the crimes to which they had confessed. Nor, apparently, did the report that two of his friends, Mózes Simon and Sándor Cseresnyés, had been arrested as British spies create any doubts in his mind. Thus, when in December, Louis Weinstock suggested to Lautner that he should take a trip to Hungary and get a first-hand experience of the building of socialism there, Lautner was willing to comply, especially since, as Weinstock assured him, all his expenses were to be paid by the CPUSA and a Hungarian trade union. Other Party leaders also urged him to go, assuring him that he could be spared for such an important assignment: “Have a good time”, they told him, “have a good vacation.” However, Lautner was unable to obtain a passport, since the State Department had placed a temporary ban on travel to Hungary.
Since Lautner could not now be sent to Hungary to face Rákosi’s “people’s tribunal,” CPUSA leaders were confronted with the decision of what to do with a Party member whom they were convinced was a despicable traitor. Perhaps, there were some in the leadership who thought it would be best simply to denounce him publicly and immediately expel him from the Party. However, the constitution of the CPUSA stipulated that members threatened with expulsion were entitled to a hearing at which the accused would be given a chance to defend himself or explain his actions. In practice such hearings were not always granted and when they were held they were typically haphazardly organized and seldom allowed for an impartial judgment of the evidence. Nonetheless, Gil Green, the CPUSA national secretary, Alexander Trachtenberg, chairman of the NRC and John Gates, editor of the DW, apparently decided that there should be some sort of secret trial at which Lautner would be confronted with proof of his guilt and threatened “with his life unless he would tell us the truth”. Perhaps Lautner could be forced to reveal the names of other FBI informers still hidden in the Party. Accordingly, early in January 1950, Jack Kling, the Party’s treasurer, a member of the National Control Commission, and a leading organizer in the Midwest, was given the assignment of luring Lautner, who at this point was still unaware of the accusation that Rákosi had made against him, to a house in Cleveland, Ohio. Lautner was to be told that he was being given a promotion: he was to be released from his position as director of the New York Review Committee to take charge of underground preparations in the Midwest, with Cleveland as his new base. This required that he travel immediately with Kling to Cleveland to consult with Midwestern Party leaders on security matters. Although puzzled by one recent incident, Lautner was pleased with this new assignment and immediately travelled with Kling by train to Cleveland.
Their destination was a house in what Lautner, who knew the city well, called “that hole in Cleveland known as Kingsbury Run”. He was instructed by Kling to enter the unheated basement of the house, where Lautner was confronted by two physically imposing men who were playing cards. They immediately accosted Lautner and ordered him to take off all his clothes. Confused, Lautner called to Kling, who now entered the basement along with Joe Brandt and Saul (Solly) Wellman, two hard-nosed Party leaders who were Spanish Civil War veterans. Kling had apparently been instructed by Party leaders to apply what they imagined to be the “Bolshevik methods” that had convinced the “Titoite” defendants at the Rajk trial to confess their guilt. He apparently had chosen Brandt and Wellman for their reputed success in ferreting out “Trotskyites” and anarchists, while serving as political commissars in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Lautner was thereupon forced to strip naked and was subjected to abuse and psychological pressure from his interrogators, who wore heavy overcoats because of the severe cold. For some reason, the faucet at a sink in the basement was turned on and left running full-blast throughout the “trial”. One of Lautner’s inquisitors carried a long, sharp knife, another pointed a pistol at the back of his head, and a third brandished a rubber truncheon, which he constantly banged against the table and walls. A copy of the published Rajk trial proceedings was flashed in Lautner’s face, as his inquisitors shouted: “We know you! We know who you are!” They used the vilest language they could muster to try to intimidate Lautner: he was called a spy, traitor, stool pigeon, Trotskyite, and Titoite. He was, his tormentors insisted, an FBI and CIA agent who had worked with the nefarious Noel Field and had consorted with agents of Marshal Tito during World War II.
When Lautner, bewildered and shocked by what was happening, replied in tears that they were making a “terrible mistake”, he was warned that unless he “came clean”, he would not leave the building alive. To induce him to speak the truth, a primitive (and transparently bogus) lie detector was set up. A tape recorder was on hand to record Lautner’s confession, though it malfunctioned. Nonetheless, Lautner continued to insist on his innocence. Finally, after several hours of abuse, fearful for his life, Lautner agreed to write out in his own hand a dictated confession in which he admitted his “crimes” and declared that he had received a “fair and impartial hearing.” His ordeal over, Lautner was blindfolded and dropped off otherwise unharmed in an industrial part of Cleveland, with the warning that he was to meet his inquisitors the following morning outside a downtown cafeteria. Surprisingly, Lautner kept this appointment. Apparently, he still clung to the hope that either a dreadful mistake had been made, or that perhaps the episode had been some sort of test to see if he could withstand the kind of pressure that the government might inflict on Party members who had been arrested. But no one else showed up, and after waiting for 2 hours in a steady rain Lautner gave up.
When he arrived back in New York, 2 days later, Lautner learned that his fate had been sealed. The DW of 17 January 1950 announced that, on the basis of a recommendation from the NRC, John Lautner had been granted a hearing and expelled from the Party as “an enemy agent of long standing”. For any dedicated Communist who had devoted most of his adult life to the Party, expulsion was truly a devastating personal blow. Desperate to argue his cause, Lautner attempted to contact Party leaders. In a letter to Alexander Trachtenbe he insisted that he had never consciously done anything to harm “my class, the working class”, and abjectly pleaded for mercy: “I will do anything that is wanted of me to prove my innocence.” But his letter and other appeals went unanswered. His former friends in the Party leadership, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, refused to have any contact with him. Perhaps, the cruellest blow was the reaction of Lautner’s wife, who was told by Party leaders that unless she denounced Lautner, she too would be expelled from the Party. As a loyal Party member, she concluded that she could not accept her husband’s protestations of innocence. She thus told him that she could no longer live with him because he had brought disgrace on her and their daughter. She thereupon left him and demanded a divorce, which was granted several months later. In other words, literally overnight, John Lautner had become, in the eyes of the Party, a loathsome creature, a pariah with whom no member should have any contact.
When John Lautner’s expulsion was announced in the DW, readers were told that a “full disclosure” of his crimes would be made public at “the proper time.” In fact, at that point Party leaders had only begun the futile search for evidence that would prove what they already believed: that Lautner was, as Rákosi had first declared, a despicable government agent. While Lautner was in Cleveland undergoing his “trial,” his office desk and files were searched. Here the investigators discovered the only scrap of tangible evidence they would ever find that could be interpreted as a confirmation of his undercover work. This was a piece of paper with a telephone number and the word “FBI” on it. Lautner would later explain that he had written this down when a Party member reported to him that an attempt had been made by the FBI to recruit him. But in the atmosphere of heightened vigilance and “spy hysteria” then prevailing in the CP, the phone number on the scrap of paper was judged to be Lautner’s direct link to his masters in the federal government.
In January 1950, the NRC, headed by Alexander Trachtenberg, began an investigation of John Lautner that lasted more than 5 months. The NRC’s file on Lautner has survived, though in a very disorganized and perhaps incomplete state. Curiously, in building their case against Lautner, the investigators were silent on several key matters. Apparently, a conscious decision was made that there was to be no reference to the message from Mátyás Rákosi that had instigated the expulsion of Lautner. In fact, although many accusations were made against Lautner as an “imperialist agent”, no specific reference was made to his alleged involvement in the “Rajk affair”. Sándor Cseresnyés was mentioned as a friend of Lautner’s, but nothing was said of their alleged wartime collaboration with Yugoslav Partisans. Apparently, CPUSA leaders wished to play down the connection with Rákosi and leave the impression that it was through their own diligence that “the spy” had been uncovered. In addition, in their investigation and deliberations the NRC members made no mention of the “trial” in Cleveland or of the confession that Lautner had written out.
At first glance the NRC’s investigation of Lautner might seem to have been otherwise quite thorough. Over 100 witnesses were supposedly interviewed. Dozens of Lautner’s alleged accomplices were listed, including Yugoslav Communists, OSS officers, and various other “imperialist agents.” But, a closer examination of this material reveals that, in its investigation, the NRC did not apply normal rules of evidence and that, in fact, no real proof of Lautner’s “perfidy” was uncovered. In fact, there is some evidence suggesting that some of Lautner’s colleagues at first found it difficult to accept the idea that he was guilty. The journalist for the New York Times who wrote an article about Lautner’s expulsion apparently was able to interview some of the CP members who knew Lautner well. Though these sources remained anonymous, he reported that some who had “party business” with Lautner regarded him as “an idealistic Communist devoted to the party’s ideology”. Moreover, friends of Lautner believed that “he was being made a scapegoat by party officials whose faces still are red over the revelations that FBI undercover agents had infiltrated the party and had obtained key posts in it.”
Once the NRC began its investigation, however, those who were called as witnesses must quickly have realized how dangerous it would be to express any doubt about his guilt. All felt under pressure to help build the case against the “enemy agent” by remembering some incident that, in retrospect, revealed Lautner’s traitorous inclinations. The testimony of Ralph Shaw was typical. He had been Lautner’s room-mate and “close friend” when they were students at the National Training School in 1940. Shaw recalled that at the time Lautner was secretive about his past life and, in general, “cagey, unsettled, and on edge”. By coincidence Shaw and Lautner were inducted into the Army at about the same time and ended up at the same training area, Camp Ritchie. Midway through his training, Shaw was abruptly transferred to another post. He did not understand the reason for this at the time, but now he realized that it was Lautner, “that bastard,” who had arranged for the military police to have him transferred. After the war Shaw saw Lautner from time to time and even got him to intervene with the Party leadership on his behalf, since he had come under criticism for his work in St. Louis. But it was clear to Shaw now that Lautner had betrayed him and, in fact, was responsible for prejudicing the national leadership against him.
Others who gave testimony to the NRC found a way to re-interpret even Lautner’s acknowledged successes. Jack Kling reported that he knew a Party worker who had worked with Lautner in the successful drive to get the CP on the ballot for the 1940 election. She and many others who were involved in that campaign were subsequently arrested and imprisoned, but not Lautner. The obvious explanation was that Lautner had avoided arrest because he was a government agent. Others now remembered incidents that, in retrospect, were indications of Lautner’s lack of commitment to the goals of the Party. He had, for example, “hindered [the] fight against white chauvinism”. Throughout his Party career, Lautner had generally been praised for his organizing abilities. However, in collating the testimony of a number of witnesses the NRC concluded that Lautner had in fact lacked true leadership skills. He was “disorderly” in his work, “superficial” in his investigations, and “dictatorial” in his decision-making. He was accused of a variety of specific shortcomings and malfeasance: he had shown an “irresponsible attitude toward handling [of] party documents and influential mailings”; had “displayed [a] startling lack of initiative for a person who seemingly had a wealth of experience”; had “failed, deliberately or otherwise, to give attention to suspects and leads brought to his attention”; and never showed a “vigilant attitude toward suspected individuals- always gave them the benefit of the doubt.” Moreover, he “never participated in discussions of [a] political nature”, which showed that he was “politically backward.”
None of the numerous witnesses had anything good to say about Lautner, but one voice of support did appear inadvertently in the material collected by the NRC. This came in the form of a denunciation made against Alex Stone, a Hungarian American activist based in Chicago. Stone had apparently told another Hungarian American Party member that he found the accusations against Lautner to be “incredible.” “Look”, Stone said, “you can trust me. I am a member of the Party and I don’t quite accept the plausibility that Johnny could have been a stoolpigeon. I know him too well, and we all liked him.” Not only was Stone’s testimony dismissed by the NRC, but he himself came under suspicion because he was too “strongly influenced” by his brother, who was not a Party member.
The only witness consulted by the NRC who claimed to be able to provide evidence supporting the accusation that Lautner was in league with “Titoists” and “imperialist” intelligence agencies was Lydia Enfield, but her testimony was highly problematic. A former Party member, Enfield had been expelled for unknown reasons, but had continued to socialize with Party officials, including Lautner. Perhaps in order to ingratiate herself with Party leaders and gain re-instatement in the Party, Enfield claimed that she had an intimate relationship with Lautner, who had told her about his secret activity during World War II. She also claimed to have learned a good deal about Lautner’s connections to Tito’s partisans and US intelligence agencies from one of her boyfriends, who was a Yugoslav activist. According to Enfield, during the war Lautner had worked with several “imperialist agents.” He was on close terms with Col. Fitzroy Maclean, the British liaison to Tito’s Partisan headquarters; he was the “best friend” of Major Linn Farish, an important OSS agent; and he considered John Hamilton (the pseudonym of Sterling Hayden, the film actor) his “best pal.” These wild and highly implausible accusations coming from such a dubious source apparently did not raise any doubts in the minds of Trachtenberg and his colleagues on the NRC. They no doubt found Enfield’s information credible because Maclean, Farish, and Hamilton had in fact been identified at the Rajk trial as Allied espionage agents.
The surviving NRC file on the investigation of John Lautner does not contain a formal decision, and it is possible that no such document was ever drawn up. However, the Commission’s findings were circulated to Party members in May 1950 in the form of a “Statement on Lautner.” In addition, Gil Green expounded on the “Lautner case” in an article published at about the same time in Political Affairs. It is clear from these sources that Party leaders intended to use the “Lautner affair” to heighten vigilance against what was described as “the infiltration of the working class” by “the hired tools of the bourgeoisie”. The strident wording of the “Statement” reflected the anxiety and alarm felt in the immediate aftermath of the first Smith Act trial, at which the Party’s top leaders were found guilty and given prison sentences. According to the “Statement”, because world capitalism was “closer to death than ever before,” the capitalist rulers were increasing their violence against the “democratic and socialist-minded masses.” American imperialists, with their command of great wealth and productive forces, had learned their lessons from and synthesized the experiences of the “Pope, the Czar, Mussolini, Hirohito, Churchill, and Hitler with their Jesuits, Okrana, Scotland Yard, Sûreté, and Gestapo.” They presided over a world-wide system and network of “agents, provocateurs, stoolpigeons, strikebreakers … intelligence men, and assassins organized on the mass production lines of American capitalism and financed out of the heavy cold-war taxation of the American people”. It was, the “Statement” dramatically declared, “from this slimy rat-infested underworld that the snake Lautner received his instructions.”
No attempt was made in the “Statement” to present anything like a legal case against Lautner. The underlying assumption was that there could be no doubt that he was a spy and traitor. No mention was made of Mátyás Rákosi’s accusation or Lautner’s “confession” in the Cleveland trial. Instead, it was merely stated that during World War II Lautner had boldly “consorted with fascist elements, Trotskyists, FBI agents and Titoites,” and that as a government agent after the war he had “prevented the exposure of Calomiris.” In fact, the authors of the “Statement” admitted that there were still some gaps in their knowledge of Lautner’s perfidious conduct, that “every T has not been crossed.” For example, it was unclear when Lautner first became an agent of the imperialist forces. Perhaps while serving in the Hungarian Red Army in 1919, he had been recruited by the “Trotskyist, Béla Kun.” Or when he was arrested and briefly imprisoned in the early 1930s, he may have secured his release by promising to cooperate in the future with the police and FBI. In any case, there was no doubt that by the time of his service with the OSS during the Second World War, he had become a link “in the chain of world-wide espionage organized as part of American imperialism’s war preparations.”
Most of the “Statement” was devoted to a discussion of what conclusions could be drawn from the Lautner case. In particular, how was it possible that such a “snake” and “prize fink” could have remained for so many years undetected by the Party? The answer provided was that there had been a “lack of revolutionary vigilance of our Party as a whole, our State leadership and in the first place our State Secretariat …” Complaints about Lautner by Party members had not been pursued and it was assumed that his army service during the war should be counted as a point in his favor. No one drew the appropriate conclusions from the “alarming weaknesses” he had demonstrated in his work. His political “flabbiness” and “bureaucratic tendencies” were not recognized. In fact, whenever doubts arose about Lautner, they were disposed of for his benefit and “not for the benefit of the Party.” In short, “rotten liberalism was substituted for revolutionary vigilance.” The solutions to this problem were obvious. The warfare against “left sectarian and right opportunist tendencies” had to be intensified. Every Party member and especially every leader had to be “thoroughly verified from the viewpoint of their loyalty to the working class, history of political work, background, personal life and habits and working class morality.” The entire CP membership had to apply itself to an even more rigorous study of Marxist theory in order to be able to carry on the struggle against “Social Democracy, Browderism, Trotskyism, Titoism, right and left opportunism, white chauvinism and bourgeois nationalism, Freudianism and psychoanalysis, and other imperialist ideology.” Towards this end, members were urged to study recent Party publications on the Rajk trial, Communist vigilance, and stool pigeons.
During 1950, Party leaders strove to implement the measures deemed necessary to rectify the mistakes that had prevented early detection and exposure of John Lautner and Angela Calomiris. Because of the fear that other “scummy stoolpigeons,” even more important to the FBI than Lautner or Calomiris, still remained hidden in the Party, a programme of “loyalty checks” was instituted. Party members had to fill out comprehensive questionnaires, which were then scrutinized so that what one historian has called the “suspect, the unenthusiastic, and the easily frightened” could be weeded out. This led to the expulsion from the Party of probably thousands of members. Among them were those who had served in the OSS or military intelligence during World War II. Previously, this sort of war service by Party members had been deemed commendable, but after the Rajk trial the consensus among CPUSA leaders was that such individuals were likely to be secret Titoists and imperialist agents.
As far as CP leaders were concerned, by the end of 1950, the expulsion of John Lautner and its ramifications within the Party were a settled issue. Nothing more had been heard from Lautner himself and the Party had other more pressing concerns to deal with. But, in fact, two of the main participants in the “Lautner affair” were by no means satisfied with the way events had played out. One of them was Mátyás Rákosi. The Hungarian leader’s scheme to bolster his own self-image as the arbiter of the fate of Hungarian Communists who had been connected with the CPUSA had certainly succeeded in the short term. He had arranged for the arrest, torture, and long-term imprisonment of Mózes Simon and other innocent Hungarian American Communists living in Hungary. Although the Hungarian leader had not succeeded in luring Lautner to Hungary to share the fate of other “accomplices” of Rajk, he had provided the information that led to Lautner’s humiliating expulsion from the CPUSA.
Yet, Mátyás Rákosi seemed to regret he had not yet been able to ensnare one of the other Hungarian Americans, he suspected of being a traitor, Louis Weinstock. It is possible that Rákosi had been mulling the idea of having Weinstock arrested during his several months visit to Hungary in late 1949. At that time, Hungarian trade union officials learned, presumably from Rákosi that “not everything was in order” with Weinstock. Nonetheless, Weinstock had been permitted to return home so that he could persuade Lautner to visit Hungary. It appears that early in 1950 Rákosi sent word to Weinstock that he would like to confer with him again in Budapest, but Weinstock, as a member of the National Committee of the CPUSA, was too busy to make another visit to Hungary so soon after his previous one. In any case, since CP officials were apparently under constant surveillance by the FBI, it was unlikely that he would be issued a passport to leave the country. However, by chance his wife, Rose Weinstock, who was also a Hungarian by birth, travelled to Hungary in October 1950 with their 11-year-old daughter, Susan. Both of them were American citizens. Rose Weinstock was a delegate to the world congress of a Communist women’s group. After the congress, she intended to remain in Budapest for several months, contributing in any way she could to the work of the Hungarian Party.
Unable to take action against Louis Weinstock himself, Rákosi decided to punish his family. In November 1950, about a month after the arrival of Weinstock’s wife and daughter in Budapest, several Hungarian secret police agents paid a midnight visit to their apartment and ordered them to pack up their belongings. Without any explanation, they were exiled to Nagyléta, a small town on Hungary’s eastern border. There, they were given a room in the home of a local resident. Soon, thereafter, the daughter became ill with influenza. When Louis Weinstock learned of this development through a cautiously worded letter from his wife, he immediately wrote to Antal Apró, a leading trade union official, whom he perhaps felt would be more sympathetic and helpful than Rákosi himself. But Apró, aware that Weinstock was regarded by the Hungarian Party leadership with suspicion, merely passed on Weinstock’s message to Rákosi, assuring him that “naturally we will not respond to this letter”. In fact, no explanation was ever given to Weinstock for the treatment of his wife and daughter, whose exile and house arrest in Nagyléta ended only in June 1951, when they were finally allowed to return to Budapest and, later that year, to the United States.
Mátyás Rákosi’s suspicions of and animosity towards Louis Weinstock would, in time, cause much consternation among some CPUSA Party leaders. Of more immediate concern, however, was the response of John Lautner to the treatment he had received at the hands of his former comrades. Unlike many other American CP members who had been unjustly expelled, John Lautner did not simply fade away quietly, perhaps with the hope that things might change and, in the future, he might gain re-admission to the Party. For many months he brooded over the treatment he had received, especially the brutality of his “trial” in the Cleveland basement. During the summer of 1950, he made frequent visits to the New York Public Library, where he read intensively and attempted to re-assess his political beliefs.
When in August 1950 Lautner received word that the divorce demanded by his wife had been granted, he felt that he had suffered the final indignity. Convinced now that he had wasted his entire adult life in serving a political movement that “had no respect for the dignity of the human individual”, he decided to launch a personal counter-attack. In September, he addressed a letter to J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, in which he offered to give his “fullest cooperation to the aims and objectives of your organization.” Lautner soon became in reality what the CPUSA had falsely accused him of being: a government informant, a “stool pigeon.” In the following months, Lautner met frequently with FBI agents and provided valuable insider information about the leaders and inner workings of the CPUSA. But the greatest blow he dealt to the Party was the testimony he was to give as a government witness at a series of Smith Act trials in the 1950s, at which CP leaders were charged with advocating the violent overthrow of the American government. He appeared at over 20 such trials and other hearings all across the country, the most important of which occurred in New York in 1952. Among the defendants at this Foley Square trial were his former friend Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and several of those responsible for his expulsion, including Louis Weinstock, Mark Trachtenberg, and Jack Kling (as a co-conspirator).
The defendants at the Foley Square trial regarded John Lautner as a truly sinister figure, looking “vengeful, grim-faced, with tinted glasses that concealed his eyes,” even though privately some of them would later admit that his testimony relating to Party structure and practices was “essentially true”. To the dismay of the defendants and their attorneys, Lautner proved to be a very effective and believable witness who was “a dangerous man to cross-examine concerning theory.” He seemed to have a prodigious memory and related his experiences in the Party in a straightforward and fluent manner, though at times he came off as a bit pedantic. Unlike many other ex-Communists who became government informants, Lautner refrained from histrionic condemnations of Communism and was relatively cautious about identifying individuals as Communists. Although he monotonously emphasized his belief that force and violence were intrinsic to the Communist movement, in general he lacked the “zeal of the reformed sinner.” Lautner’s testimony was calm and workmanlife, delivered with “an almost complete absence of passion.” His chief contribution to the prosecution’s case was the evidence he offered that the CPUSA engaged in a variety of conspiratorial activities that belied the democratic provisions of the Party’s constitution.
The lawyers for the defendants at the 1952 Smith Act trial and later trials and hearings, who were either Commission themselves or strong Party sympathizers, apparently were given access to the materials collected by the CP’s National Review Commission and, at least in the early 1950s, accepted as true the results of the Rajk trial and all the allegations against Lautner made by the CPUSA at the instigation of Rákosi. In attempting to discredit Lautner as a witness, they apparently were motivated by the belief that he truly had long been a government spy and that his testimony would accordingly be replete with lies and distortions. Yet, they were able to cite only a few incidents where Lautner may have been embellishing the truth or suffering from a faulty memory. On the other hand, they were unable to offer any credible evidence that he had previously been an FBI informant, let alone that he worked with American and “Titoite” intelligence services during World War II. Therefore, they had to rely on other arguments to undermine his credibility.
For example, the defence lawyers attempted to portray Lautner as an immoral philanderer who had a string of failed marriages and abandoned children. One attorney, Mary Kaufman, even tried to blame Lautner for the fact that his wife divorced him in 1950, asserting that he was “an enemy of the family and the working class”. When that tactic proved ineffective, the defence lawyers decided to emphasize that, since Lautner was being paid by the government for his testimony, he would tell whatever lies his masters required. Despite the intensive cross-examination he endured on many occasions, Lautner remained largely cool and unflappable. His vivid account of the “trial” to which he was subjected in Cleveland posed a particular problem for the defence lawyers, since they realized that the story would likely have a strong impact on the jury and provide fodder for journalists seeking to expose Communist malfeasance. Yet, here too, they had no evidence to bring forward that would discredit Lautner’s dramatic account. Moreover, they were doubtless reluctant to call as witnesses those Party leaders, such as Trachtenberg and Kling, who had knowledge of Lautner’s treatment by the Party, since they would then be subjected to cross-examination that could be damaging to the case of the defendants.
John Lautner’s testimony at various trials and hearings in the 1950s thus went largely unchallenged, and it appears that it usually carried a good deal of weight with judges and juries. In the second Smith Act Trial, which ended early in 1953, all the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms of 1-3 years. In 1954, when a US Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions, the judges cited Lautner’s testimony, especially that concerning the “Cleveland incident”, as particularly persuasive in supporting the government’s argument that the CPUSA was not an ordinary political party, but functioned “in a covert, deceptive, violent, and highly disciplined manner, such as might be expected of a revolutionary organization”.
Throughout the period of the Smith Act trials, and especially once it became clear that Lautner’s testimony was playing a key role in the conviction of many Party officials, the ex-Communist was vilified in CPUSA publications as a loathsome creature who testified falsely against his former comrades purely for monetary gain. At least a few Party leaders knew, of course, that Lautner’s account of the “Cleveland incident” was not a fabrication, but other officials, including most members of the National Committee, were apparently never apprised of this at the time. This seems the only explanation for Louis Weinstock’s willingness to focus on Lautner’s account of his “trial” in his public condemnations of the “stoolpigeon”. In a DW article in the summer of 1952, Weinstock sarcastically described Lautner’s account of what happened in Cleveland as an “idiotic concoction”, a ridiculous “cloak and dagger tale” based on cheap Hollywood gangster movies and the “best comic book tradition.” This was the kind of fantasy, Weinstock observed, that one would expect from a “cheap stoolpigeon, labor spy, and provocateur.” It seems that another member of the National Committee, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, also did not learn at the time about the true nature of Lautner’s “trial” in Cleveland and had only a garbled understanding of the antecedents of his expulsion. In 1953, she issued a statement in which she branded Lautner “a cunning low F.B.I. stool pigeon” who was out to get Louis Weinstock because the latter had “helped to expose his double-dealing role in the Communist Party”.
Yet, even as Weinstock and other CPUSA officials continued to fulminate against Lautner in 1952 and 1953, a few Party leaders had begun to have some misgivings about the “Lautner Affair”. Among them was Joseph Starobin, foreign affairs editor for the DW, who early in 1951 had passed through Budapest on his way to interview Soviet leaders in Moscow. During a conversation with Rákosi Starobin asked for an elaboration on the evidence for the charges against Lautner. The Hungarian leader could offer nothing more than what he had told Weinstock: that Lautner had been implicated by one of Rajk’s accomplices. To Starobin’s amazement Rákosi then went on to volunteer his belief that Weinstock was also not to be trusted, because he too was a government agent. How else could it be explained, for example, that after his visit to Hungary in 1949 Weinstock did not accept the invitation for a return visit in 1950, but instead had sent his wife? In insisting that this was highly suspicious behaviour, Rákosi cited an old Hungarian saying: “When you don’t have a horse, send an ass”.
That Rákosi could make such a vulgar and capricious accusation against Weinstock, one of the most respected leaders of the CPUSA, greatly shocked Starobin, who would no doubt have been even more disturbed if he had been aware of the action that had been taken only a few months earlier by the Hungarian secret police against Weinstock’s wife and daughter. He thus returned to the United States with the conviction that an “extraordinary paranoia” prevailed in Hungary and that the leader of the Hungarian CP was not trustworthy. This led him further to conclude that John Lautner had been “framed”. Starobin must have sensed that giving an accurate report to the CPUSA National Committee on his encounter with Rákosi and his misgivings about the “Lautner affair” (and perhaps the Rajk trial as well) might have undesirable repercussions, given the fragile state of the Party and the prevailing revulsion towards Lautner as a “stool pigeon”. Furthermore, Starobin knew that some Party leaders already regarded him as too independent a thinker and a potential “deviationist”. Thus, he seems to have related his experience in Budapest and the conclusions he had drawn only to a few close associates, including George Charney and John Gates. Other Party leaders, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Louis Weinstock, apparently remained unaware of what Rákosi had told Starobin, and the campaign of vilification of Lautner continued unabated. Typical of this attitude were the views privately expressed in 1954 by Betty Gannett, a member of the National Committee. Her explanation to a Party member (who happened to be an FBI informant) of the meaning of the “Lautner affair” showed that she remained convinced that Lautner was guilty. She provided the FBI informant with an accurate description of how Lautner’s “trial” in Cleveland had been conducted, stating that Lautner had been stripped, beaten, and tortured, but had refused to confess and had been released. That was a mistake, she suggested, and in the future once the Party learned the identity of a spy, he would not be allowed to walk out alive.
In the period of 1951-1956 those in the CPUSA leadership who had concluded that Rákosi had misled them in the “Lautner affair” turned to other urgent matters confronting the Party. The process of de-Stalinization that slowly began to develop in Eastern Europe not long after Stalin’s death in 1953 did not receive much scrutiny by American Communists until events in Moscow and Budapest in 1956 riveted their attention. Historians have tended to concentrate on the traumatic effect that Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of February 1956 had on members of the CPUSA, but months before the full text of that speech became available to Party members in June, an intense debate had already been triggered by rumours about the speech and by developments in Hungary. In the 3 years after Stalin’s death, Rákosi had to contend with growing pressure for de-Stalinization coming from both Moscow and from factions within the Hungarian CP. Finally, in a desperate move to dissociate himself from his former mentor, Rákosi announced in March 1956 that László Rajk had been rehabilitated. Though refusing to take any personal responsibility for what had occurred, he admitted that the defendants at the 1949 trial had been innocent “victims of a frame-up” and that there had been no vast “Titoist” conspiracy.
Rákosi’s speech naturally had an electrifying impact in Hungary, but it also was a great shock to many American Communists, especially those who even earlier had suspected that they had been duped by Rákosi in 1949. Among those on whom the news had a profound effect was John Gates, who could justifiably feel that in the “Lautner affair” he and other CPUSA leaders had been personally manipulated and lied to by Rákosi. Compared to more orthodox members of the CPUSA leadership, Gates and his fellow editors of the DW “felt a greater sense of guilt for the past and a greater sense of responsibility to alter the public image of the party”. As chief editor of the Party newspaper, Gates was in the position to express the outrage that he and many other American Communists felt. As a rule, no Communist newspaper ever criticized the leaders of other Communist states, except as part of a campaign inspired by Moscow. For this reason an editorial in the DW on 2nd April, entitled “The Rajk Case”, astonished many readers of the newspaper. The editorial bemoaned the fact that a socialist government had employed “the age-old capitalist method of frame-up, sending innocent persons to their death or to prison”. The public had a right to know how such a “terrible miscarriage of justice” could have happened and who had instigated it: “Not one, not some, but all those responsible should be brought before the bar of justice.”
Since early in 1956, when news of Khrushchev’s indictment of Stalin first reached the CPUSA leadership, there had been an increasing willingness on the part of the editors of the DW to allow a relatively free and open discussion of issues in letters to the editor, called the “Speak Your Piece” section of the paper. After the 2nd April editorial, there appeared many letters from Party members, most of whom expressed support for the position taken by the DW and asserted that they were exhilarated by the chance finally to voice opinions that they had long held but previously were fearful of expressing. The name of John Lautner, who at this time was still serving as a government witness at trials of Party leaders, was of course never mentioned. But, at least some of the letter writers seemed to know, or suspect, the true circumstances surrounding Lautner’s expulsion, including the false information that had been supplied by Mátyás Rákosi. The writer of one letter argued that it had been a mistake to blindly accept everything that had come from prominent European Communists: “Not only did we actively defend abuses where we had no proof of guilt, merely a statement from the Soviet party, unsubstantiated by fact—where, with perhaps some justification, we gave the leaders the benefit of the doubt and assumed they had good reasons why they couldn’t make such proofs public—but we even went so far as to defend things that we knew were outright lies”. Others demanded explanations, not just from the Hungarian government, but also “from the leaders of the American Communist Party”. A few, including a journalist who had attended and reported on the Rajk trial, confessed their gullibility and blind willingness to “accept the mere accusation as justice” and “to shun anyone who dared protest”. One writer even suggested that the time had come for a re-examination of the cases of those who had previously left the Party and “yes, even some of the expulsions.”
Not all leaders of the CPUSA approved of the audacious opinions expressed by John Gates and his like-minded colleagues at the DW. They might agree that the actions of the Rákosi government had been deplorable, but nonetheless questioned why the CPUSA should meddle in the affairs of the fraternal party in Hungary when American Communists had very pressing problems of their own, including continuing prosecutions of Party leaders by the government. In fact, even as debate about the crimes of Stalin and Rákosi raged in the pages of the DW, those Party leaders who had been tried in 1952 were undergoing a re-trial in New York. But the perspective of a few of them had been changed by the shocking revelations of the past months, and at least one of them was undergoing a political crisis of conscience. At his first trial in 1952 George Charney, despite certain misgivings, did not believe that Lautner’s testimony could be true. In any case, “he was a rat and deserved no consideration.” By Charney’s second trial in 1956, however, the revelations from Budapest, and the memory of what Rákosi had said to Joseph Starobin in 1951, convinced Charney that Lautner had been telling the truth. This created in him a “feeling of guilt,” for he could only conclude that Lautner’s experience in “the dark cellar in Cleveland” formed “a link with the frameups, the darkness at noon history of Stalin’s party”. The CPUSA had subjected Lautner, an innocent man, to a “horrible nightmare” and pressured his wife to abandon him, which forced Charney to ask himself: “What kind of morality was it that allowed an institution to blot out family integrity and the lives of people”?
For some CPUSA leaders and members like George Charney and John Gates, the discovery of the truth behind the “Lautner affair” contributed to their growing disillusionment with the Party. Their disgust over the crimes and duplicitous behavior of the regimes presided over by Stalin and Rákosi began slowly, and imperceptibly, to erode their commitment to the CP. The events that unfolded in Hungary in the autumn of 1956 reminded them once again of the iniquity and treachery of the Rákosi government. In their reaction to the Hungarian uprising, many CPUSA leaders were ambivalent and preferred to remain silent until it was clear how the Soviet government would react. But members of the “John Gates wing” of the Party, who had for some months been feuding with those whom they considered to be too wedded to the Stalinist past, did not hesitate to express sympathy for and encouragement of the Hungarian insurgents. Editorials in the DW declared that the Hungarian people were justified in seeking “changes to democratize their country and improve the standard of living”. What was happening in Hungary was not, as some Communists were arguing, a “counter-revolutionary plot,” but “primarily a people’s upheaval arising from the failure of Hungarian socialism to base itself on the people”. Thus, the Hungarian uprising was not to be explained as a plot manipulated by outsiders, but as the inevitable result of the failure of Hungarian Communist leaders to dissociate themselves from the repressive methods of Rákosi and his Stalinist comrades.
When in early November, Soviet troops were dispatched to crush the insurgency in Hungary, the response of the editors of the DW was unprecedented. In a 5th November editorial, the Soviet intervention was condemned as retarding rather than promoting the development of socialism in Hungary, since “socialism cannot be imposed on a country by force.” Inspired by a group of editors who, partly because of their personal experience of Rákosi’s malevolence, had come to loathe the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Hungary, the DW thus became the only Communist newspaper in the world that denounced the Red Army’s military suppression of the Hungarian uprising. This editorial greatly exacerbated the rift in the CPUSA leadership, for many Party veterans regarded such criticism of the Soviet Union as reprehensible and unacceptable.
Debates among CPUSA factions continued to rage through the first half of 1957, with the “Hungarian question” often the focus of controversy. In June, the orthodox wing of the Party was bolstered by the appearance of a book entitled The Truth About Hungary, written by Herbert Aptheker, a noted Marxist historian. Aptheker, who did not read Hungarian, had no first-hand knowledge of Hungarian affairs, and viewed Hungarian history through a Stalinist prism, fully backed the interpretation of the Hungarian uprising that had been proposed by Moscow and the Soviet-backed regime in Budapest. The events in Hungary, he argued, had been a counter-revolution fomented by Western imperialists and fascists. Aptheker conceded that one of the sources of popular discontent that led to the uprising of 1956 was the “violation of socialist law” that had occurred in the late 1940s, but he dealt with this topic very briefly and insisted that “such inhumanity was alien and hostile to Socialism”. Aptheker’s conclusions were challenged by a reviewer in the DW, but spokesmen for the orthodox wing, which now seemed to be in the ascendancy, came to his support. Among them were Rose and Louis Weinstock, who apparently bore no resentment over the persecution that Rose and their daughter had suffered in Rákosi’s Hungary. Indeed, they insisted that they had had “the good fortune” to visit Hungary and were first-hand witnesses to “the great transformation that took place during the first five years after fascism was crushed”. They acknowledged that some “mistakes, shortcomings, [and] violations of socialist law” had occurred under the Rákosi regime, although they did not mention the fact that Louis Weinstock had collaborated with the Hungarian leader in identifying some of Rajk’s alleged accomplices in 1949.
These developments were dispiriting to members of the “John Gates wing”, who now began to leave the Party in large numbers. But, even as ex-Communists, some of them continued to feel a sense of guilt over the “Lautner affair” and its ramifications. They realized that none of the leaders of what remained of the CPUSA were ever likely to give an accurate account of the “Lautner affair”, let alone rehabilitate him. Thus, the first public explanation of how and why Lautner had been expelled from the CPUSA came in George Charney’s memoir, published in 1968. Charney expressed shame that he had been a loyal member of a party that had employed such Stalinist methods. Yet, he could not forgive Lautner for having offered his services to the FBI in order “to destroy the party that had destroyed him” and to enjoy his “brief moment of revenge and infamy.” John Gates proved more forgiving. At a university conference that both attended in 1969, Gates sought out Lautner and apologized for the role he had played in his expulsion from the Party. Gates’ last act of atonement came in 1973, when, in a nationally broadcast television interview on NBC, he admitted that Lautner’s account of his expulsion had been accurate and that he, Gates, was ashamed of his role in organizing the “Cleveland incident”.
After 1957, most of the other Party leaders who were responsible for the “Lautner affair” remained loyal to the CPUSA, which was shrinking rapidly in membership and becoming an inconsequential political factor. None of them ever acknowledged the truth of Lautner’s story or expressed any regret over their role in his expulsion. In 1985, when his memoirs were published, Jack Kling continued to insist that the Party was justified in taking action against Lautner because it had received incriminating evidence “through various channels”. He acknowledged that Lautner had been lured to Cleveland, but gave no details about his “trial,” except that “the facts at our disposal were so complete that the trial committee voted to expel him from the Party as a government agent.” In his unpublished autobiography, composed in the early 1990s, Louis Weinstock failed to mention his collaboration with Mátyás Rákosi in the identification of Rajk’s “accomplices”. Instead, he simply asserted that “almost every word Lautner swore to in court was untrue.” Kling, Weinstock and other CP leaders involved in Lautner’s expulsion could never bring themselves to admit publicly, or apparently even privately, that the party to which they had dedicated their lives had employed what George Charney had called “darkness at noon” methods.
During the Smith Act trials of the 1950s, CPUSA officials had argued that theirs was an independent political party that did not receive its marching orders from Moscow. Yet, the actions of the CPUSA leadership at the time of the Rajk trial demonstrated otherwise. In the late 1940s, CPUSA leaders joined without hesitation in the campaign against “Titoism” that Stalin launched. They accepted, at face value, the preposterous accusations made against László Rajk and his “accomplices”. At the snap of Rákosi’s fingers, they offered up for sacrifice several Hungarian Communists who had worked in the United States. On the flimsiest of evidence provided by Rákosi, they convinced themselves that John Lautner, a loyal Party official, was in fact an imperialist agent and “Titoite”. When, by chance, Lautner was able to avoid the horrible fate awaiting him in Budapest, they felt justified in applying their own version of “Bolshevik justice” in a Cleveland basement.
Yet, as has been seen, Rákosi’s political machinations had consequences that neither he nor his CPUSA collaborators could have imagined. Completely shattered by his brutal expulsion from the Party, John Lautner was in time emboldened to offer his services to the FBI. In part because of his persuasive testimony and dramatic recounting of the “Cleveland incident”, several of the Party officials who had organized his expulsion were found guilty in Smith Act trials and received prison sentences. Later, when some more independent-minded CPUSA leaders learned of Rákosi’s duplicitous methods in the Rajk trial and his regime’s repressive policies, they were able to persuade themselves that the Hungarian uprising of 1956 was not an “imperialist plot” but a genuine popular revolt against Stalinist tyranny. As a result, the DW was the only Communist newspaper in the world to endorse the motives of the Hungarian insurgents and condemn the Soviet military intervention. The bitter debates among American Communists about the “Hungarian question” contributed to the shattering of the CPUSA. This was the final result of Rákosi’s attempt to act as “Stalin’s best pupil” and to persuade American Communists to help him find additional victims for the Hungarian show trials.