Herbert Romerstein died last week after a long illness. With Herb’s passing, we lose not only a good guy but a vast reservoir of knowledge that is not replaceable.
Born in Brooklyn in 1931, he had been a communist, having joined the Communist Youth League before becoming a card-carrying member of Communist Party USA (CPUSA). He broke ranks over 60 years ago, the final straw being the Korean War, which made clear to him that he was dealing with inveterate liars, whether in Korea, Moscow, or among communists here at home. He went on to become one of America’s best anti-communists and most respected authorities, regularly testifying before Congress. He became a chief investigator for the House Committee on Internal Security. In the 1980s, he joined the Reagan administration, where his full-time job at the U.S. Information Agency was to counter Soviet disinformation, a duty for which few were so well-equipped or enthusiastic. Later, he did the highly touted analysis of the Venona transcripts, which he published as The Venona Secrets.
I first met Herb in June 2005. I was writing a book on Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War, which became The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism. I was nearing the end of the manuscript when I got a remarkable e-mail from Marko Suprun, whose father had survived the 1930s Ukrainian genocide perpetrated by Stalin.
I didn’t know Marko, but he brought to my attention a stunning document, a highly sensitive May 1983 letter from the head of the KGB, Viktor Chebrikov, to the head of the Soviet Union, the odious Yuri Andropov. The letter concerned a secret offer by Senator Ted Kennedy that, in effect, sought to undermine President Reagan’s security policy and perhaps his reelection bid. It allegedly came from Soviet archives in Moscow.
I embarked upon a long process of confirming the letter’s authenticity. I exchanged e-mails with Walter Zaryckyj, who had turned the document over to Marko for translation. Walter immediately recommended I contact Herb Romerstein. If anyone could confirm this, it was Herb, said Walter, describing Herb as a “national treasure.”
I talked to Herb. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “It’s real. Take it to the bank.” I spent the next few months confirming what Herb had told me from the outset. Yes, it was real.
This began a partnership and friendship. Herb loved the fact that I was a Cold War researcher half his age and planning to do more, including a book on Cold War dupes – a unique category of Cold War individual Herb knew too well. He took me under his wing, eager to provide counsel on anything related to the Cold War. Having access to his mind was like having the Library of Congress, the FBI files, the Soviet archives, Daily Worker microfiche, thousands of congressional reports, and CPUSA holdings all rolled into one, retrievable by a quick phone call or e-mail from my BlackBerry.
We would meet during my visits to Washington to do research. Herb introduced me to the Soviet Comintern Archives on CPUSA. He showed me how to use them, helped me get my library card – covering all bases. I fondly remember when he first introduced me to M. Stanton Evans. We spent hours at Stan’s office one summer afternoon going over everything imaginable on Soviet penetration of the Roosevelt administration and other vital areas in the 1930s and 1940s.
Why their interest in me? Because, as they openly admitted, they were getting old and “wouldn’t be around much longer.” They were hoping I would be. There weren’t many of them left. I was one of a very small few to whom they might pass the torch.
Fittingly, on my desk right now is a copy of Herb’s final work, Stalin’s Secret Agents, co-authored with Stan Evans. It’s a superb must-read. We’ve waited years for the book’s material on Alger Hiss alone.
Certain Herb aphorisms related to the Cold War stick in my mind, resounding there in the sound of his scratchy, whispery voice:
I asked him if there was a particular group of Americans most susceptible to being duped by communists. His immediate answer: “The Religious Left, Paul, especially from the mainline Protestant denominations. They were the biggest suckers of them all.”