As the subject of Russian disinformation comes increasingly to the fore, it is worth remembering Herb Romerstein, who headed the U.S. Information Agency’s Office to Counter Soviet Disinformation and Active Measures from 1983 to 1989 and was the foremost American expert on this important subject.
Herb, who died in 2013, had been a “kid communist” in New York during his teen years in the late 1940s, an experience that led him to be a dedicated anti-communist the rest of his life. He knew the communist system, and its influence techniques, from firsthand experience.
After 18 years as an investigator and professional staff member on the Hill, including five years with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Herb came to USIA in 1983. I had the privilege of working with and learning from him from 1987 to 1991. He was a favorite of USIA Director Charles Wick and others because of his deep knowledge about communism, his innate likeability and his skill as a raconteur.
Herb had a very authoritative, although somewhat rumpled air about him. People would point to him in the halls and say jokingly, “That’s Romerstein. He knew Lenin.” He had the gravitas that came from decades of deep immersion in a highly specialized subject matter. Herb told me a story about how he had told someone, in 1959, that the newly installed Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, was a communist. The person was skeptical, challenging him by saying, “Do you speak Spanish?” “No,” Herb replied, “but I speak communist.”
Herb told me how he and a friend would go to a speakers’ corner in New York. One would argue the communist point of view, while the other would dispute him as an anti-communist. After a crowd had gathered, they would abruptly switch rhetorical positions, with the one who had argued the communist point of view suddenly becoming the anti-communist and vice versa. This took ideological agility and an unconventional sense of humor.
Herb understood the communists better than anyone I had ever met. In June 1988, he and I were visiting Bonn and paid a courtesy call on our then-ambassador Vernon Walters, himself quite an expert on the USSR. This was several years before the August 1991 coup, and Walters asked Herb what he thought was going to happen in the USSR. Herb said, “Anything could happen. They could roll all the changes back, or the whole system could collapse.” Walters was rightly impressed. Herb’s analysis was right on the mark.
Herb was a great boss to work for. He was a great mentor and teacher, due both to his human qualities as a mensch and the insight that his communist training gave him. He appreciated Stalin’s maxim that “cadres decide everything.”
I started working for him in January 1987, and, two short months later, he generously asked me to join him at a conference on Soviet active measures in Jerusalem. We stopped in Paris and London on the way back, where I watched Herb brief journalists, which helped me enormously. I did not discover it until later, but including me on the trip meant that Soviet defector Stan Levchenko could not go. Herb met Stan when Herb was a professional staff member on the House Intelligence Committee. Stan had defected from the KGB in 1979 and became of one of Herb’s best friends, co-authoring a book with him, The KGB Against the “Main Enemy”: How the Soviet Intelligence Service Operates Against the United States.
Herb had an encyclopedic and unparalleled knowledge of Soviet intelligence operations against the United States, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, which he laid out in two books he co-authored, The VENONA Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America’s Traitors and Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government. Both are filled with definitive evidence about the enormous extent to which the American government at that time was thoroughly penetrated by Soviet agents and spies, including Alger Hiss, Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White and dozens of others who are less well known. VENONA was the code name given to the U.S. government programs to break Soviet codes and read secret Soviet cables sent during the 1940s.
Herb was not afraid to take an unpopular stance if he felt he was in possession of the facts. He related how former KGB officer Oleg Kalugin told him that the journalist I.F. Stone had been a Soviet agent before the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, a recruitment that VENONA decrypts later confirmed.
Herb had a steady supply of Soviet jokes. One I recall from 1988 was about how Reagan, Gorbachev, and Bulgaria’s then-leader Todor Zhivkov were summoned to see God. God told them He was very angry with how they had mismanaged mankind’s affairs on earth and, as punishment, He was going to destroy the world in three days. He had summoned them so they could go back and tell their respective governments and peoples. Reagan called a meeting of the Cabinet and told them he had both good news and bad news. The good news is that they were right: there really is a God; he knew this for certain because he had just been at a meeting with Him. The bad news was that God was going to punish the world for our sins and it would be destroyed in three days. Gorbachev called the Soviet Politburo together and told them he had two pieces of very bad news. First, we were wrong; there is a God. Gorbachev knew because he had just met with Him personally. The second piece of bad news was that, in three days, God was going to destroy the world because of our crimes. In Bulgaria, Zhivkov called a meeting of the Bulgarian Politburo and told them he had two pieces of very good news. First, he said, the prestige of the Bulgarian People’s Republic had risen to such an extent that he had just attended an international meeting at the very highest level. The second piece of very good news is that after three more days there would be no more pressure to adopt perestroika.
The insights that Herb had about Soviet disinformation and “active measures” are not merely of historical interest. It is now important, more than ever, to heed the lessons of the past on this issue. In his final book, Herb quoted Whittaker Chambers, the former Soviet underground courier who identified Alger Hiss as a spy. Chambers wrote, in his autobiography Witness, “The power to influence policy has always been the ultimate purpose of the Communist Party’s infiltration. It was much more dangerous, and, as events have proved, much more difficult to detect, than espionage, which beside it is trivial, though the two go hand in hand.” It behooves us to understand this critically important point, which Herb understood very well.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.
This essay, which first appeared as a Public Diplomacy Council Commentary on December 7, 2016, is now republished.
Todd Leventhal worked on countering Soviet, Iraqi, and other disinformation and conspiracy theories at the U.S. Information Agency from 1987 to 1996 and for the State Department from 2002 to 2010 and during 2015 and 2017-2018. He works at the Global Engagement Center, an interagency organization within the State Department that seeks to counter state-sponsored propaganda and disinformation and to use messaging to decrease recruitment to ISIS and other terrorist groups.