The larger part of the CPUSA was invisible: secret memberships, clandestine meetings, encrypted messages to and from Moscow. “Among important features of the Communist apparatus,” write historians Stan Evans and Herb Romerstein, “was its interactive, global nature: the degree to which it collaborated with its sponsors/paymasters in the Kremlin and pro-Red forces in other countries.”
The USSR, through a vast and often successful propaganda effort, portrayed “the CPUSA as a well-meaning indigenous outfit.” In fact, it was a terrorist organization.
The group acted in multiple ways. On the one hand, it was “a domestic menace.” As such, it sought, in its own words, a “violent” revolution: it hoped for a “coup d’état or revolution in the streets, as happened in Russia.” This resulted in “the prosecution of its leaders for violation of the Smith Act.”
Historians debate “whether there was any realistic chance of similar dire events occurring in a U.S. context.” There probably wasn’t.
On the other hand, a more serious threat was posed by “the CP’s far more important Cold War role as fifth-columnist agent of a hostile foreign power.” The CPUSA was better at espionage than at whipping up the masses to overthrow the U.S. government.
The CPUSA’s covert operations fell into several categories. First, there was “spying — the theft of military or diplomatic secrets.” Second, there was “the overarching Communist goal of influencing U.S. policy in favor of the Soviet interest.” A third task was using the group’s hidden influence to shape the media’s reporting about the Soviet Union.
The visible CPUSA was laughably small, and some segments of the public dismissed the organization as harmless lunatics. But, although it did not succeed in overthrowing the U.S. federal government, it did inflict real damage when it influenced U.S. policy makers: bungled responses to Soviet aggression cost lives in several countries.
The CPUSA’s action led directly to the deaths of innocent civilians.