Samuel Dickstein was born into a Jewish family in Vilnius, Lithuania, on 5th February, 1885. The family emigrated to the United States in 1887 and settled in New York City. An intelligent student he won a place at the College of the City of New York, and graduated from New York City Law School in 1906. He was admitted to the bar in 1908 and three years later was appointed as a Special Deputy New York Attorney General.
Dickstein was a supporter of American involvement in the First World War. This brought him into conflict with another Jewish politician from Lithuania, Meyer London, who had been elected to Congress in 1914. After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, the government passed the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to make speeches that undermined the war effort. Criticized as unconstitutional by London, the act resulted in the imprisonment of many of the anti-war movement. This included the arrest of left-wing political figures such as Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman.
Meyer London was the only member of Congress that voted against the Sedition Act in 1918. The law made it a crime to criticize by speech or writing the government or Constitution. During the Red Scare (1919-20) over 1500 people were arrested for disloyalty. Most were eventually released but Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Mollie Steimer and 245 other people, were deported to Russia.
Dickstein, a member of the Democratic Party, defeated Meyer London at the election for the 68th Congress in November 1922. It has been argued that "Dickstein's congressional focus throughout his career concerned immigration issues, since he represented a largely foreign-born constituency." He eventually became the chairman of House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. It has been claimed that during this period he became corrupt and received money for arranging people to obtain United States citizenship. NKVD station chief, Gaik Ovakimyan, described Dickstein as "heading a criminal gang that was involved in shady businesses, selling passports, illegal smuggling of people, and getting them citizenship."
In 1933 Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany. Dickstein became concerned about the possibility of German agents entering the United States. He carried out his own investigations into the activities of pro-Nazi and fascist groups in the country. In 1934 Dickstein authored the resolution that established the first congressional committee to investigate subversive activities in the United States. John William McCormack was named chairman and Dickstein vice-chairman. Most of the major figures in the American fascist movement were called to appear before the Special Committee on Un-American Activities. Dickstein personally questioned each witness. According to Gary Kern: "Dickstein's bellicose behaviour as its vice-chairman undermined it. The chairman, John McCormack, wanted nothing more to do with it, and no one wanted anything more to do with Dickstein."
In December 1937 Samuel Dickstein had a meeting with the Soviet ambassador Alexander Troyanovsky to the United States. Troyanovsky's reported back to Moscow: "Congressman Dickstein - Chairman of the House committee on Nazi activities in the U.S. came to the Ambassador and let him know that while investigating Nazi activities in the U.S., his agents unmasked their liaison with Russian Fascists living in the U.S." Dickstein promised to pass on information on these "fascists" for which "he would need 5-6 thousand dollars".
Nikolai Yezhov gave permission for Troyanovsky to agree a deal with Dickstein. However, there was a dispute over money. Dickstein demanded $2,500 a month but initially the NKVD was only willing to pay $500. After lengthy negotiations, Dickstein agreed to a compromise monthly payment of $1,250 in exchange for his assistance, which, he reiterated, came only "out of sympathy toward the Soviet Union". Although they saw he was potentially a valuable agent, they disliked the idea that he was motivated by money. Most agents were ideological who not only did not ask for money, but refused it when offered and accepted it with great reluctance as payment for expenses. To show its disgust, the NKVD gave Dickstein the codename ZHULIK (CROOK).
Peter Gutzeit became Dickstein's handler. He reported on 25th May, 1937: "We are fully aware whom we are dealing with. CROOK is completely justifying his code name. This is an unscrupulous type, greedy for money, consented to work because of money, a very cunning swindler.... Therefore it is difficult for us to guarantee the fulfillment of the planned program even in the part which he proposed to us himself."
On 26th May, 1938, the United States House of Representatives authorized the formation of a successor to the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, by a 191 to 41 vote. "The Speaker of the House of Representatives is authorized to appoint a special committee to be composed of seven members for the purpose of conducting an investigation of (1) the extent, character, and object of un-American propaganda activities in the United States, (2) the diffusion within the United States of subversive and un-American propaganda that is instigated from foreign countries or of a domestic origin and attacks the principle of the form of government as guaranteed by the Constitution, and (3) all other questions in relations thereto that would aid Congress in any necessary remedial legislation."
The first chairman of the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was Martin Dies. Dickstein did not manage even to gain a seat on the new committee. Walter Goodman, the author of The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (1968), argued: "Despite this setback, no cause took more of Dickstein's energies or his passion, than the creation of a committee to investigate subversive activities. If any man deserves the title of Father of the Committee, it is Representative Dickstein. He earned the distinction by relentlessly trying to create such a committee from 1933 to 1938 and had the rest of his life to regret it."
The NKVD was disappointed when Dickstein was not appointed to the HUAC. Peter Gutzeit wrote that Dickstein "won't be able to carry out measures planned by us together with him." He did provide transcripts of its hearings, lists of American Nazis and details of the war budget, but this was not enough to justify his handsome salary. Dickstein told Gutzeit: "If there was no trust, it was impossible to work. For illustration he told that for some years he had worked for Poland and everything was OK. He was paid money without any questions. A couple of years ago he worked for the English and was paid good money without any questions. Everything was delicate and on the sly. Our case is only trouble.... Apparently, he really managed to fool the Poles and the English -i.e., to promise something substantial and to limit himself to rubbish."
Gutzeit complained that Dickstein had been unable to obtain grand jury interrogations of suspected German agents. Gutzeit reported that when he told Dickstein in July 1938 that his information did not justify his monthly payments: "He blazed up very much, claimed that if we didn't give him money he would break with us ... that he is employing people and he must pay them, that he demands nothing for himself." Gutzeit reminded Dickstein that his other arrangements involved only money while with the NKVD "he is guided by ideological considerations, by the necessity of struggling against a common enemy - fascism."
When the Un-American Activities Committee began to concentrate on communists in the United States. According to Allen Weinstein, the author of The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999): "In response to Peter Gutzeit's request in September 1938, the Congressman publicly denounced the Dies Committee's focus on Communist groups and their allies. Dickstein also provided his Soviet associates with the names of several informants within the ranks of fascist organizations in the United States whom he argued could provide useful information. He even turned over transcripts of alleged tape-recorded hotel room conversations between American Nazi leader Fritz Kuhn and his mistress, the latter a Dickstein snitch. By then, the New York Democrat had begun to speak out in favor of terminating the Dies Committee."
Walter Krivitsky was invited to appear before Martin Dies and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) on 11th October, 1939. Dies asked Krivitsky if Soviet intelligence agencies cooperated with German and Italian agents and therefore faced with "a combined espionage problem?" Krivitsky admitted that even before the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had been co-operating. He argued that an "exchange of military secrets and information, as well as other forms of collaboration, is indispensable to both Hitler and Stalin." After the session he provided additional information in closed chambers on Soviet agents working in the United States.
Peter Gutzeit asked Dickstein to obtain a copy of Krivitsky's testimony in the closed session of the HUAC. He was unable to do this and instead produced a vague summary of what he said. He also insisted that Krivitsky had presented no concrete evidence of espionage on its part in the United States. The NKVD agents, however, found Dickstein's report suspicious when they recognized that portions of it strongly resembled news accounts and Krivitsky's public speeches. Dickstein did agree to attack Krivitsky and he dismissed the hearings as ridiculous and described Krivitsky as "nothing but a phony".
Dickstein contacted James Houghteling, the commissioner of immigration at the Department of Labor (DOL) suggesting that Krivitsky should be deported: "My attention has been called to the activities of a certain Russian General, alias Ginzberg, who entered the country as a temporary visitor, supposedly for the purpose of doing some academic research work at an American university... and instead of doing the research work he claimed he came here to do, he is traveling around the country making all kind of statements which as a visitor in this country he has no right to make."
NKVD decided that Dickstein was a hopeless spy and in memo to Moscow from Peter Gutzeit concluded that Dickstein's only possible future use was in giving speeches in Congress under NKVD direction, receiving for each from $500 to $1,000. The following month NKVD reported: "According to all datat his source can't be a useful organizer who could gather around him a group of liberal Congressmen to exercise our influence and, alone, he doesn't represent any interest. On the other hand, (Dickstein) refuses to give documentary materials and refused to switch to per-piece pay (i.e., for speeches) and we are not going to pay thousands for idleness. Therefore, we decided to break with Dickstein." It is estimated that during his period as a Soviet agent he was paid over $12,000.
Dickstein resigned from Congress on 30th December, 1945 and served as a Justice on the New York State Supreme Court until his death in New York City on 22nd April, 1954.
1. (Dickstein) will get for us documentary materials about fascist work-both from the government organs and private intelligence organizations he is connected with.
2. (Dickstein) agreed to provide us with supplemental data answering our questions following from these materials.
3. (Dickstein) agreed to guide actively the committee's attention to those facts of fascist and White Guard activities we would point out to him.
4. (Dickstein) gets $1,250 from us every month. The first monthly pay was given to him that very day and a corresponding receipt was given by him.
We are fully aware whom we are dealing with. CROOK is completely justifying his code name. This is an unscrupulous type, greedy for money, consented to work because of money, a very cunning swindler.... Therefore it is difficult for us to guarantee the fulfillment of the planned program even in the part which he proposed to us himself.
If there was no trust, it was impossible to work. For illustration he told that for some years he had worked for Poland and everything was OK. He was paid money without any questions. A couple of years ago he worked for the English and was paid good money without any questions. Everything was delicate and on the sly. Our case is only trouble.... Apparently, he really managed to fool the Poles and the English -i.e., to promise something substantial and to limit himself to rubbish.
In this connection we put forward a general matter of a necessity to have several people of ours among Congressmen and even Senators if we decided to penetrate seriously and actively into the politics of this country. It is necessary to decide this question on principle as very big money will be needed for this purpose.... Helping during the elections with money means to define relations with a future Congressman or Senator, possibly, for some years. It doesn't mean that they should be obligatorily recruited by all traditional rules (some could be recruited), but it does mean that we create a group of our people in the legislative bodies, define their political positions, and insert them there to actively influence events.
The realization of the scheme following from the tasks formulated by you in your latest letter will demand, as it has been already said, huge means. Amounts of these means can't be compared with the expenditures we currently have.
Financing of Congressmen's election campaigns, paying journalists, maintenance of newspapers - all this means expenditures that are impossible to tally beforehand. For instance, expenditures on Congressmen may vary in different cases. It is impossible to say beforehand for what sum we'll manage to buy the pens of popular journalists. It is very difficult to define even approximately the sum necessary for buying newspapers. Besides, the character of all this work is such that it is impossible to know beforehand the limits of expenditures and impossible to say beforehand whether we need one journalist or ten, whether we need one newspaper or two, etc.
Therefore, I frankly claim that I find much difficulty in defining even an approximate estimate of forthcoming expenditures. Proceeding from considerations stated above, I can't say whether these expenditures will be $500,00 or $1,000,000 per year.
The decision of this question must be up to you. It is necessary to decide how much will be allocated on this work for our country. And then, proceeding from this sum, we'll build all our calculations. Or according to this decision, we'll get the expenditures right depending on practical necessities. Surely, in all cases, the expenditures will be carried out with the Center's permission.
It should be taken into account that, if you wish, expenditures for buying a newspaper can be returned without difficulty, though definitely with some losses. It doesn't represent any major difficulty, either, to protect ourselves from any surprises on the part of the so-called newspapers' owners. Controlling shareholdings of these newspapers can be easily reregistered to a Soviet citizen and kept in the Soviet Union.
Congressmen's work must be appraised according to their activity in the directions you pointed out to us (antifascist activities, anti-Japanese position, anti-isolationist, and favoring rapprochement with us). We shouldn't demand more from the Congressmen.
We are going to pay journalists for their positive stands also on the same questions. Certainly, it doesn't rule out using this one or that one among them outside the framework of this scheme.
In response to Peter Gutzeit's request in September 1938, the Congressman publicly denounced the Dies Committee's focus on Communist groups and their allies. Dickstein also provided his Soviet associates with the names of several informants within the ranks of fascist organizations in the United States whom he argued could provide useful information. He even turned over transcripts of alleged tape-recorded hotel room conversations between American Nazi leader Fritz Kuhn and his mistress, the latter a Dickstein snitch. By then, the New York Democrat had begun to speak out in favor of terminating the Dies Committee.
NKVD operations in America had been hurt at this time by arrests in Moscow of key intelligence agents during Stalin's purges. One of those imprisoned and later executed after answering a summons home was Peter Gutzeit, who cautioned his interrogators in Lubyanka Prison that Samuel Dickstein's professed antifascism was a sham justification for his continued work with the NKVD: "Money brought him to cooperation with the USSR."
The NKVD decided to make one last effort to persuade the Congressman to be of greater use to them. One of its leading officials, Zinovy Passov, took the unusual step of writing Dickstein a long letter on April 14, 1939, reviewing their sixteen months of "joint activities in exposing fascism." The Soviets even agreed to provide Dickstein his payments without demanding receipts. They asked him generally to provide "information about all the important political questions regarding your country and its relations with other countries," while also identifying others who "could be of use to us." Passov asked also that Dickstein seek to penetrate U.S. intelligence agencies to obtain information "about our enemies."
After four months, Dickstein replied evasively, noting mainly that he was on the job already and that any attempt to obtain intelligence information would require additional funds from the Soviets." He raised the question of this payment again when the NKVD station in Washington reinforced Passov's letter with a specific request that Dickstein penetrate the FBI for information on Soviet, German, and Italian citizens resident in the United States. Although the Congressman claimed that he had an FBI source willing to assist, his Soviet handlers counterproposed, offering only $300-$400 for "concrete stuff plus a receipt." That ended the discussion.
By the time Dickstein's response reached Moscow, Passov, too, had been arrested. An internal NKVD memorandum expressed regrets that some of the Congressman's Soviet handlers had turned out to be "people's enemies."
No matter. Purge trials or not, Dickstein countered as usual with a request for additional tens of thousands of dollars, supposedly to pay a lawyer to defend Moscow's interests before a commission that had been established in July 1939 to address issues of American financial claims against the Soviets. Again the NKVD declined to fund his proposed services.
Not until late 1939 did the Soviets contact Dickstein, this time in connection with the appearance before the Dies Committee in executive session of a major Soviet defector, Walter Krivitsky (code-named ENEMY), who in 1941 would be found dead in a Washington hotel room. His handlers asked Dickstein to provide them, as apparently he had on earlier occasions, with transcripts of Krivitsky's testimony to Dies and his colleagues. What the Soviets received instead was a short memo purportedly summarizing Krivitsky's testimony, which the Congressman (who was not present for the interrogation) described as helpful to the Soviet Union because Krivitsky had presented no concrete evidence of espionage on its part in the United States.
The NKVD agents, however, found Dickstein's memo suspicious when they recognized that portions of it strongly resembled news accounts and Krivitsky's public speeches: "We treated Crook's report very distrustfully," the Washington station reported on November 5, 1939.
Nor was Dickstein successful in responding to another urgent petition from his Soviet handlers to arrange for Krivitsky's deportation from the United States. The request had come directly from NKVD officials in Moscow in July 1939. Despite Dickstein's efforts to question U.S. immigration authorities concerning Krivitsky's visa, the Dies Committee was able to forestall the defector's deportation.
Nor did Dickstein's accounts of his alleged discussions with leading State Department officials impress his NKVD handlers. A January 1940 memo to Moscow from the New York station concluded that Dickstein's only possible future use was in giving speeches in Congress under NKVD direction, receiving for each from $500 to $1,000.
As it turned out, one of Dickstein's first speeches to follow that suggestion was given on January 16, 1940, in support of increased appropriations for J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which had begun modest if ineffectual counterintelligence efforts directed against Soviet agents in the United States. The NKVD arrived at the inescapable conclusion that, even as a designated speaker, Samuel Dickstein was simply not worth the effort and money that had been spent in cultivating him. "According to all data," observed a February 27, 1940, report to Moscow, "this source can't be a useful organizer who could gather around him a group of liberal Congressmen to exercise our influence and, alone, he doesn't represent any interest. On the other hand, (Dickstein) refuses to give documentary materials and refused to switch to per-piece pay (i.e., for speeches) and we are not going to pay thousands for idleness. Therefore, we decided to break with Dickstein." By then, Soviet intelligence operatives had paid over $12,000 to Samuel Dickstein for his various services, a sum equivalent in 1997 dollars to more than $133,000.
Although his NKVD overseers had long since decided that Samuel Dickstein was "a complete racketeer and a blackmailer" (in the words of Gaik Ovakimyan's June 1939 memo to Moscow), that characterization fails to acknowledge also the genuine antifascist sentiment typical of Americans in that generation who cooperated with the Soviets. That dollop of antifascism doubtless reinforced Dickstein's evident and overriding concern for the money involved.
Possibly the keenest insight into the potential uses of such influential "agents in place" in the United States came from Peter Gutzeit, who, before returning to Moscow, sent his superiors a memorandum in June 1938 regarding "our work here in America in the field of big politics." Gutzeit had been in the country for five years, unusually long for Soviet intelligence chiefs in that decade. He recognized the amounts other major countries, but not the Soviet Union, were spending in the United States "on propaganda" to influence American policies, public opinion, and the press "as well as on bribing political figures in the government, Senate, and Congress.... We are shocked (that Dickstein worked for the Poles and English as well as for the Soviets), but here it is normal."
Gutzeit's memo did not advocate bribing key figures (as in Dickstein's case) or stealing documents, but rather spending significant funds to shape the attitudes of sympathetic political and public sectors toward Soviet interests. In an assessment decades ahead of his time, Gutzeit tried to persuade his superiors in Moscow that such efforts would help to produce within the Roosevelt Administration, Congress, and the American public "a certain number of people (ours) who by their speeches and all their work would influence U.S. policy.""
As for Samuel Dickstein, his brief adventure in the spy trade left no visible mark on his public career at the time. Other than his efforts first to help create and then to oppose the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the veteran Dickstein was best known for his expertise while serving as chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. He ran successfully for the New York State Supreme Court in 1945 and served as a justice from 1946 until his death on April 22, 1954.