Allegedly a labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was actually a Soviet front organization. Over the next few decades, the USSR would establish a number of such ‘front’ organizations: groups with ostensibly benign or salutary purposes, but which in fact functioned as intelligence-gathering, propaganda-spreading, or policy-influencing organs of the Soviet Union.
Such front organizations might be cultural or historical societies, labor unions, professional associations, academic groups, political committees, or any other seemingly harmless assembly. Some members of a front would be key leaders, aware of the group’s true purpose. Others might have no idea that their efforts or donations were going to support an enemy government.
In the early years of the Cold War, the Communist Party (CPUSA) was a center for networking many Soviet agents. The CPUSA was not merely expounding a political view, but rather stated in writing that it sought a “violent” revolution in the United States.
Then as now, most Americans wanted to preserve freedom of speech and freedom of the press for all citizens. But the CPUSA was not interested in ideas: is deliberately used the word ‘violent’ in its publications. It wanted to cause the deaths of U.S. citizens.
Later in the Cold War era, the CPUSA had been largely discredited, and Soviet agents used other, more secretive, ways of networking. Historians Stan Evans and Herbert Romerstein write:
Considering only its larger aspects, the Cold War story is of course well-known and doesn’t need much elaboration. With the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, conflict between the new Soviet rulers of Russia and the non-Communist nations was foreordained and, despite numerous tactical zigzags, would persist for generations. The hostility stemmed in part from conditions on the ground in Europe during World War I, but mainly from the belief of Soviet commissars Lenin and Trotsky that their victory would be the precursor to Red revolution elsewhere, and that the new Communist state would lead the way in making this happen. Soviet methods of secret warfare were developed to advance this revolutionary vision.
The United States faced a greater threat than many citizens realized at the time. Only after the end of the Cold War could previously classified reports be released, both by U.S. intelligence agencies, and from the files of what had been the Soviet government.
As the details became more widely known, the American public learned that the danger had been much greater than previously imagined. In 1995, details about the “Venona Project” became declassified. This project was carried out by the intelligence community in the United States, and managed to intercept and decrypt a small percentage of messages sent and received by Soviet agents in the U.S.
Although the KGB may be the most famous Soviet intelligence agency, it was organized in 1954. Several other agencies operated prior to it, including the NKVD and the MGB, going back to 1934.
The Soviet espionage network inside the United States was well developed. An editor of the University of Michigan's Michigan Law Review wrote:
The scale of the conspiracy was unprecedented. Hundreds of Soviet spies honeycombed the U.S. government throughout the forties and fifties. America had been invaded by a civilian army loyal to a hostile power. There was no room for denying it. Soviet operatives were stealing technical information from atomic, military, radar, aerospace, and rocket programs. The cables revealed the code names of the spies, their technical espionage, and the secret transmission of highly sensitive diplomatic and strategic policies.
While the direct members of the international communist conspiracy were willing and knowing agents, other “dupes” unwittingly aided the Soviet effort by supporting what seemed to be innocent and benevolent humanitarian organizations - organizations which were actually fronts.
American counterintelligence efforts proceeded with great caution. Much of what it learn about the Soviet espionage network was not revealed, even to other branches of the government, because the information would become useless if the Soviet learned what the Americans knew.
Different offices within the State Department, and in the Department of Treasury, were staffed by agents from the USSR. Paid Soviet spies held positions in the U.S. government and ranked high enough that some of them, like Alger Hiss, had face-to-face meetings with President Roosevelt.
Other agents gained access to the most detailed information about atomic weapons. Through the work of spies like Klaus Fuchs, Julius Rosenberg, and Ethel Rosenberg, the USSR gained the technology to build its own atomic bomb.
In hindsight, the international communist conspiracy held an incredible position inside the United States government, and almost succeeded in its desire to kill Americans and bring an end to political liberty.