Spies in History & Literature ~
They Were Communists for
the FBI – The Stories of Matt Cvetic and Herbert Philbrick
By Wesley Britton
Editor’s Note ~
The article below was an expanded extract from my then-forthcoming
book Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction (Praeger
Publishers, 2005). In this version, I add comments from Matt Cvetic,
Jr., which could not be included in the book due to space constraints.
In addition, Matt provided me various publications by and about
his father attached to this article for those interested in learning
more about Matt Cvetic and his times.
As I discussed the television series I Led Three Lives
in some detail in my Spy Television (Praeger, 2004), I
did not go into much discussion here on that series. Copies of
I Led Three Lives episodes can be found from various
video retailers on the internet. The radio series, I Was a
Communist for the FBI, is widely available. The best source
is Jon Foulk at
However, the film version is difficult to find. Neither the Cvetic family
nor I were able to find a copy.
For a larger image, click on the
thumbnails. A new window will open.
“The spy role, despite my aversion to Communism,
frightened me no end. It would be foolhardy for me to say otherwise.
When all is said and done, Communists know no flag but the Red
flag. They sneer at God, and being Godless, they have no
compunctions about resorting to brutal, horrible torture and murder
tactics of the most hardened, sadistic criminals.”
(Matt Cvetic, The Big Decision. 1959, 7)
A poster announcing Matt Cvetic’s lecture appearances.
One story that pulls together many of the themes of
counter-espionage in the 1950s is the life of Matt Cvetic, an
informant for the FBI from 1941 to 1950.
According to Cvetic, FBI agents approached him in 1941
because of his knowledge of Slavic languages and his job in the U.S.
Employment office in Pittsburgh. That position, he wrote, gave him
access to files of Communists seeking jobs in local industries, a target
of the northeastern American Communist party. He stated the Bureau
liked his brief background in criminology and the fact he’d
applied for work in U.S. Army Intelligence during World War II but was
turned down because he was too short for military standards (Cvetic
1959 5). Later he claimed to have attended close to 3,000 secret
meetings and provided the FBI with 50,000 documents, a claim likely
close to fact.
During his seven years working for the FBI as a low-level official
of the Communist Party, his record showed continual praise from
his supervisors. Even J. Edgar Hoover himself noted Cvetic’s
work was excellent. But after Vedic surfaced in 1950, feeling the
time had come for some recognition of his work, the Bureau quickly
distanced itself from Cvetic. While local FBI officials favored his
request, Hoover refused, saying somewhat disingenuously that going
public would be bad policy in all such cases. Despite this
disenfranchisement, Cvetic became an important, if tarnished, witness
at federal, state, and local deportation and loyalty hearings. On top
of this, Cvetic had a quick flash of fame as a celebrity
“professional anti-Communist”, inspiring a film and
radio series very loosely based on his undercover work.
What makes Cvetic’s story of special interest is how
he both used and was used by a media looking for heroes and
voices against Communism in the same years Sen. Joseph McCarthy
took the center stage of American culture. The myth began in 1950
when West Pennsylvania right-wing groups sponsored an interview
with Cvetic for a Pittsburgh paper. This story led to a subsequent
heavily-scripted radio broadcast of both interviews and dramatized
scenes portraying Cvetic as a heroic counterspy whose adventures
were more dramatic than any fictional radio drama (Leab 2000 81).
The show began, “This special broadcast tonight is being
aired in the hope that you, the listening public, will become more
aware of the dangers and the workings of the Communist Party.”
(Leab 2000 75)
Another such program was simulcast on television and radio
on July 14, 1950, on Gulf Oil’s popular The People
Speak program which again emphasized Cvetic’s
heroism and the terror and suspense of his work. Cvetic described
himself as an ordinary guy asked by his government to do a job.
“A guy who was scared, but a guy who couldn’t say
no.” (Leab 2000 86)
For the rest of his life, Cvetic parroted these words, repeatedly
claiming his double-life led to his divorce from his wife, Mary, and
that he sacrificed his family in the name of national service. He said
his mother died in 1949 still believing her son had betrayed her
adopted country. These claims expanded when The Saturday
Evening Post ran a multi-part version of his accounts which
lead Warner Brothers to produce a film based on Cvetic’s
self-aggrandizing and melodramatic story, I Was a Communist
for the FBI. Described by Daniel Leab as a tacky, lurid B-movie
in the gangster tradition, the film was intended by the producers to
fit the mold established by the widely praised Confessions
of a Nazi Spy (1939) and not as a didactic propaganda piece.
In a move to recapture moviegoers now finding other
entertainments, Hollywood studios were both seeking new genres
to sell while retaining old formulas. At the same time, Hollywood
couldn’t afford to ignore the urging of politicians like HUAC
member Richard Nixon declaring Hollywood had “a positive
duty” to make anti-Communist movies. (Leab 1996) So
scriptwriter Crane Wilbern and director Gordon Douglas were asked
to sell a story with danger and romance. Douglas had earlier directed
Walk a Crooked Mile, one of the first anti-Communist
films in 1948 in which the FBI and Scotland Yard teamed up to catch
a gang of Commie spies. For Douglas, both Walk and
I Was were mere jobs for him, not means to address
Radio actor Frank Lovejoy was given the role of Matt Cvetic
and Dorothy Hart was the romantic interest. Ironically, according to
Matt Cvetic Jr., the woman she was loosely modeled on wouldn’t
approve of the script unless the studio promised not to use the
real names of her two twin boys, Matthew Jr. and Richard.
A poster describing Matt Cvetic’s background.
As the treatments and screenplay developed, executives noted
the film would be “no House on 92nd Street,”
the film then regarded as the best documentary-style spy effort to
date. Cvetic himself had little to do with shaping the movie. When
filming began on January 6, 1951, with less than half the script
completed, Cvetic was touring the East Coast doing one-night
appearances. Cvetic spoke at women’s luncheons, civic
groups, in school gatherings, graduations, and on radio broadcasts
(Leab 2000 89-102).
But, as even a friendly Pittsburgh reporter declared, Cvetic had
“‘a hard time’ staying away from
‘booze and babes’.” (Leab 1996) On one
such night, he was jailed for drunk and disorderly behavior, an
embarrassment to Warner Brothers. His publicists later claimed
they’d created a monster.
The FBI agreed. They approached Warner Brothers and warned
them about some of Cvetic’s charges, such as the possibility
that a Commie operative was in the position to poison the water
supply of a California city. Quickly, J. Edgar Hoover sent out a memo
to all FBI offices saying the bureau had nothing to do with the film
and told agents to be polite but distant from the project (Leab 2000 91).
Without question, this movie embellished Cvetic’s
story and added a level of evil to the Communist Party, whose
membership and activities were far more mundane than Hollywood
was interested in portraying. In one section, Cvetic has a sincere
interest in a schoolteacher who declares she will name names
when she realizes she has been duped. The party orders her
liquidation, and Lovejoy’s Cvetic saves her in a shoot-out
with CP thugs, a scene not even touched on in Cvetic’s
memoirs. In another scene, Red goons use lead-pipes wrapped in
Yiddish newspapers to beat and silence union leaders (Leab
Like other projects of the era, the party tried to enflame racial
tensions for its own ends. Reds boasted they would infiltrate
churches, force American women to work in brothels to service
Red occupiers of the country, and all Americans would live in harsh
labor camps while being brainwashed in the doctrines of Marx,
Lenin, and Stalin. While most critics blasted the movie, reviewers
tended to get in laudatory words about Cvetic himself, making him
something of a noble folk-hero (Leab 2000 100-2). Inexplicably,
the movie was nominated for an Oscar as the best full-length
documentary of 1951.
The subject of the film, however, wasn’t happy. He
didn’t make the money he hoped for as all his various
managers took large chunks from his earnings. (According to Matt
Cvetic, Jr., his father wasn’t doing that badly –
“He was driving a big sleek car. We didn’t see
any of that money.”) But Cvetic’s fortunes got a
second wind when, between 1952 and 1954, popular actor Dana
Andrews starred as Cvetic in radio’s version of
I Was a Communist for the FBI. Andrews had earlier
starred in Behind the Iron Curtain (1948), another
effort among the first Hollywood films fusing actual espionage
files with early Cold War propaganda.
Curtain was a grim, dull film loosely based on the
actual case of Igor Gouzenko (Andrews), a young Russian code
clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. He’d
defected in September 1945 and, in the film, tripped up ten
Russian agents (Strada and Troper 1997 85). In his new radio
role, Andrews’ voice was heard in a series of 78 episodes
enjoying one of the biggest budgets of its day, with scripts by
the likes of playwright Robert Lee, later known for such dramas
as Inherit the Wind.
Producer Frederick W. Ziv found untypical sponsors. The
American Legion, Chambers of Commerce, unions and
veterans’ organizations considered sponsoring the
series as a public service even if the adventures had no basis
in fact. In one episode, Cvetic saved the life of a liberal editor
who learned he’s been duped by the Party, and in
“The Little Red Schoolhouse,” Reds provoke
a riot while a female agent tempts Cvetic to test his loyalty. In
such scripts, Cvetic said he learned nothing about women.
“Why not? Because the women who join the Reds
aren’t interested in being women.” One FBI
agent monitoring the show described it as “the eeriest
kind of cloak and dagger stuff” with poor writing,
loose plots, and the endings juvenile (Leab 2000 111).
Once again, Hoover insisted there be no connection with
the FBI and the series. Again, Cvetic’s public statements
while the series was broadcast overreached reality, as in his
belief that China was asking the U.S. to intervene on its
behalf with Russia and that he personally helped the FBI
capture a Nazi spy, a story he retold in his The Big
At the same time, Frederick Ziv promoted another related
venture, the syndicated television show, I Led Three
Lives, based on the 1952 bestseller built on the actual
files of undercover FBI agent, Herbert Philbrick. Like Cvetic,
Philbrick had surfaced in 1949 after serving as a middle-level
Communist Party official in New York. From 1953 to 1956,
and in re-runs well into the 1960s, 117 half-hour adventures
were broadcast over 600 stations in an overt attempt into
taking anti-Communism into mass culture. One week before
its 1953 debut, it was reported it was scheduled on more
stations than even network offerings (Grace 2003 22).
Unlike Cvetic’s projects, the FBI supported
I Led Three Lives and Philbrick had the Bureau
look over the scripts. To Cvetic’s distress, Philbrick
enjoyed a longer level of fame as he didn’t have
the image problems Cvetic brought on himself. Not only did
Philbrick gain a reputation with his lectures, but the star of
the show, Richard Carlson, also gained an extra income by
speaking about his role (Leab 1996).
I Led Three Lives ended up being the
trend-setting television spy series of the decade. In scripts
written by future Star Trek creator Gene
Roddenberry, “Those sweet little old ladies who lived
in the house on the corner were, it turned out, evil-doing Reds;
the elevator operator was a Commie, too; so were the butcher,
the baker, and the candlestick maker. If the percentage of
Communists to the total population had actually been as high
as portrayed on that series, the Communists could have
elected the president and held a majority in Congress.”
(Grace 2003 22)
While American watchers might have missed this breed of
overkill, international viewers did not. When the show was aired
in Mexico, the Russian embassy filed an official complaint. The
series was barred from distribution in Hong Kong, Australia,
Argentina, Venezuela, and Columbia. The British House of
Commons debated over the implications of the series (Britton
2004 23-4). Later, the series was mentioned in the Warren
Commission report when the half-brother to accused Kennedy
assassin Lee Harvey Oswald told the commission Lee watched
the series faithfully each week, even into reruns (Marrs 1989 98).
Through it all, the FBI proudly touted Philbrick as one of
their own, and had him host What Is Communism,
an early ‘60s short now regarded as a “B movie
classic.” (McKee 2003). The script had two points: to
praise J. Edgar Hoover and demonstrate the dangers of
Communism by, among other techniques, showing viewers
footage from Communist work camps that resembled Nazi
concentration camp film. According to Marty McKee, Philbrick
emphasized and dissected nine key words to understand
Commies – “Lying. Dirty. Shrewd. Godless.
Murderous. Determined. International Criminal Conspiracy.”
Cvetic’s jealousy over the FBI’s treatment
of Philbrick was but one reason for a decade full of personal
problems. Cvetic checked into rehabilitation centers to deal
with his alcoholism, resulting in electric-shock therapy, a
condition the Communist press happily capitalized on. In 1954,
he tried to run for Congress but lost the primary to a more
respected Republican candidate.
In a time when first-person memoirs from informants and
agents were filling bookshelves, including those of Philbrick,
Elizabeth Bently, and Whittaker Chambers, Cvetic talked with
various publishers about a book of his own. After a series of
rejections, Cvetic issued his The Big Decision
himself in 1959. Again, the FBI wanted nothing to do with the
manuscript, fearing both claims of censorship as well as claims
they had authorized it. While critics felt, largely unfairly, the book
was influenced more by the film and radio show than the true
story of Cvetic’s undercover work, The Big
Decision benefited from Cvetic’s late-life
associations with right-wing groups like the John Birch Society
and the Christian Crusade, who promoted Cvetic in their
In the book, Cvetic made obvious attempts to both show
himself in the best light possible while also pointing to his human
weaknesses. For example, he remembered the Edgar Allen Poe
story, “The Purloined Letter,” which he thought
was similar to his renting a hotel room just blocks from Communist
headquarters but he was never found out. Going to his first
meeting, Cvetic briefly thought of himself as a hard-boiled
detective type when he lit a cigarette on a bridge. Unfortunately,
the matches exploded in his hand and he went to the meeting
Again, Cvetic was largely a pawn for the interests of others,
in this case political fringe groups. Cvetic wrote articles for
The American Mercury and Christian
Crusade where he accused comedian and Tonight
Show host Steve Allen, former First Lady Eleanor
Roosevelt, and Dr. Linus Pauling of Communism. All this
occurred long after the heyday of McCarthyism and Cvetic was
unable to stir up the fervor of old.
Still, in October 1961, one of his articles, “Communism
in Agriculture,” was read by a John Birch member who
happened to be a Congressman into the Congressional Record.
Before his death in 1962, many of Matt Cvetic’s earlier
claims about himself and his official testimony also became matters
of debate. His theme of self-sacrificing patriotism was challenged
when critics noted Cvetic was guilty of avoiding child support,
spousal abuse, and beating his sister-in-law (Leab 2000 18).
(According to Matt Jr., the claim of attacking his aunt wasn’t
all that dramatic. “I think Dad pushed her when she asked
for money she’d loaned him.”)
While his sons still believe his motives were patriotic, Matt
Jr. remembers his mother’s complete disbelief her
husband worked for the government and said he turned in Reds
to save his own skin. She refused to call Matt Jr. by his given
name. “She called me Murray,” he said. He
remembers the family discord seemed more a matter of his
father being away most evenings to go to meetings and remembers
his mother’s anger for all the Daily Workers
According to Daniel Leib, no Cvetic supporter, Cvetic liked
intrigue, began his work as a patriot with a minimal stipend, but
as time progressed, Cvetic pressed the FBI for larger sums of
money (Leab 1996). It seems the Bureau valued what he
provided and continued to give him raises as the years went by.
Technically, of course, Cvetic was not a trained FBI agent but
more accurately a “confidential informant,” a term
not always clear in subsequent reports on his activities. The fact
he lacked any experience or education in his work and that he
was largely left to his own devices during his years as a
double-agent should earn him a level of respect and sympathy
for his burdens.
Still, while not publicly known until 1991, the FBI fired Cvetic
before he rose to fame apparently because of his alcoholism
and his indiscretions revealing his work to clergy, family, and
friends (Leab 2000 2). While there seems little question Cvetic
was a valuable plant in Pennsylvania Communist operations,
his use in subsequent trials and hearings is less praiseworthy.
Even as his name came to national prominence in the media,
his testimony was often questionable and led, like many other
such hearings, to innocent victims being brushed with labels they
didn’t deserve. Matt Jr. recalled seeing people coming
by the Cvetic home begging not to be added to the lists given
to authorities, although most records indicate the provided
names were already well known to investigators.
All these aspects of Matt Cvetic’s career point to
key characteristics of the 1950s beyond adding a sad twist to
the old motif of the “patriotic spy.” (The series
of FBI informants also serve as real-life examples of
“amateur spies” in a grimmer realm than the
fiction of John Buchan and his breed.)
First, America's fears of a Communist takeover were fanned
by the likes of Cvetic and Philbrick, who were first spies, then
public informants in Congressional hearings, and finally
media-driven spokespersons during the Red Scare. Whatever
value their undercover work and testimony afterward, they
became central figures in the media who took their spycraft and
re-wrote history for clearly commercial purposes. As books, films,
television series, and radio shows beat the drums against the Red
Menace, figures like Cvetic and Philbrick gave credibility to the
myths that grew around them as they made public appearances
in every venue possible.
They put a face to the abstractions of the fears of atomic war.
Addendum ~ June, 2006 ~
With deep sadness, I here report that on Friday, May 26, 2006,
Matt Cvetic Jr. died. There are very few details known at this point.
I met Matt through a friend of mine who’d had music
lessons from Matt when he taught at a blind school back in the
‘60s. Researching the information used in the article above,
I came to know Matt’s deep interest in his family history,
the work of his father, and Matt Jr.’s lifelong devotion to
his first love, music. I lost track of how many churches Matt played
organ for or how many choral societies he was involved in. He
might have been in his 80s, but he spent few hours sitting at
I treasured the information Matt mailed to me about his father
and the family memories he shared with me by phone. My
favorite memory of Matt is when I sent him a book about his father
he had never seen and he called me to say he saw a photo of
himself as a boy on the front cover.
He will be missed.
Note 1 – An interesting Lee
Harvey Oswald/Herbert Philbrick connection was discussed in a
“Daily Rant” for a July 2003 online Behind the
Barricades. According to Kenneth Kahn, Oswald may have
been a double agent for the U.S. government infiltrating pro-Castro
Communists groups. Kahn listed the various possibilities supporting
conspiracy advocates who think this had something to do with the
On the other hand, Kahn noted Herbert Philbrick had other ideas
which he included in a 1974 edition of I Led Three Lives.
Philbrick felt the Paine family hadn’t done their American duty
by not reporting Oswald to the FBI when he made his support of
Communism clear in Dallas.
Return to Text
Note 2 – At some point, a fuller
understanding of the relationship between Matt Cvetic and his
sons will be made public if Matt Cvetic Jr. shares the letters he’s
kept from his father. Judging from the extracts Matt Jr. read to me,
the senior Cvetic was full of useful advice and affection for his
namesake – even warning him to be wary of people who
could exploit him for their own ends. Something, Matt Sr. wrote,
he’d learned the hard way.
Return to Text
Britton, Wesley. Spy Television. Westport,
CT: Praeger Pub. 2004.
Cvetic, Matt. The Big Decision. Self-published
by author. 1959.
Grace, Roger M. “Channel 11 Loads Its Schedule
with Syndicated Shows.” Metropolitan
News-Enterprise. 22 Jan 2003: 22.
Kahn, Kenneth R. “Will the Real Ruth and Michael
Paine Please Stand Up?” Behind the Barricades.
Daily Rant for July 25, 2003. 6 Jun 2004.
Leab, Daniel G. I Was a Communist for the FBI:
The Unhappy Life of Matt Cvetic. University Park:
Pennsylvania Univ. Press. 2000.
Leab, Dan. “I Was a Communist for the FBI.”
History Today. 1 Dec 1996: 42-47.
Marrs, Ken. Crossfire: The Plot to Kill Kennedy.
New York: Carroll and Graf. 1989.
McKee, Marty. “Adventures in B-Festing.”
26 Jan 2003. 3 April 2004.
Strada, Michael and Harold Troper. Friend or
Foe: Russians in American Film and Foreign Policy (1933-1991).
Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. 1997.