In I Was a Communist for the FBI: Matt Cvetic The True Life and Times of Undercover Agent Matt Cvetic, one attains an understanding of spy life through the journey of Matt Cvetic. The book focuses on the life of Cvetic, particularly as he served as an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), successfully infiltrating the Communist Party in Pennsylvania for nine years. It seems that the purpose of this book, besides presenting Cvetic’s life as a spy and the impact of Communism in the United States, is to justify, glorify, and redeem Cvetic. The presentation of Cvetic throughout is uniform: courageous, survivalist, made tough decisions, and “a man of instinct not thought” (10). There is no problem with R. E. “Gus” Payne’s portrayal of Cvetic as a spy, but conflict arises where man meets job and vice-versa. Basically, the idea that the character of a man defines his job success, or how well a man performs at his job displays his character, must be ruled out.
To the dismay of Payne, Cvetic was an average man, and Payne’s efforts to highlight Cvetic’s spy success could not lift Cvetic’s reputation as a man to commendable. Unfortunately for Payne, it was precisely Cvetic’s weak character traits that made him such a great spy, so successful, and maybe even kept him alive during his career as a spy. The traits that allowed Cvetic success are obvious: submissive, compliant, docile, people-pleaser, and credulous. These traits allowed Cvetic to accurately live his double life, obediently playing communist and FBI agent unwaveringly. Classifying these character traits as weak naturally causes one to deem them as negative, so to others Cvetic is painted as an unproductive or unsuccessful spy. Payne attempts to redeem Cvetic by providing his numerous accomplishments as a spy, but most importantly illustrated when he voluntarily left “CP headquarters with nearly a hundred pounds of documents, including the party’s bank statements, minutes of meetings correspondence, confidential notes and names and addresses of members and fellow travelers” (12). In all, this wraps up Cvetic’s successful nine years as an undercover agent with clarity: only a trusted, credible, and essentially, a communist, could leave the headquarters with such documents. A spy’s task is to provide information and that is exactly what Cvetic did; he excelled with this duty: “FBI agents valued the depth of his weekly written reports, some of which were 50 pages or more” (50). Information is key; Cvetic was an exceptional spy, but this did not make him a great man.
If Payne kept his goal limited to highlight Cvetic as a great spy, he would have been successful, but attempting to weave Cvetic’s personal life and character into his job while claiming those attributes steered Cvetic to success ruined Payne’s presentation. Claiming Cvetic as courageous or a strong man highly misrepresents him and contradicts the characteristics of what makes a great spy. To be a great spy one must have those weak personalities as mentioned above, principally a puppet. Ironically, his first name was Matt, in most interactions and relationships he had, he proved to be a mat: “it appears as though Cvetic let everyone take advantage of him” (36). Moreover, Cvetic failed to successfully assert himself in his dealings with the FBI and was unable to persuade proper recognition of his actions with them to the public. Cvetic continually fell short; he was also unable to receive fair compensation for his movie and book rights. Toward the end of Cvetic’s story Payne shifts to pity, suggesting pity should be the motivation to love Cvetic and appreciate him, and concluding, “he did what many others could not do” (76).
Perhaps, the word that fits Cvetic best is martyr, in the sense of a sufferer for a cause. Even if Cvetic failed to gain fame or money, he successfully provided vast information, which should have been Payne’s focus. Payne should not have attempted to coat Cvetic as a noble man, let alone great American. This clouded the story and lost the focus of Cvetic’s real value—the ability to acquire information, which makes an exceptional spy.
Charles Halton Thomson
Armstrong State University
Charles Halton Thomson, a senior student in the History Department of Armstrong State University. He is a member of Phi Alpha Theta.
Charles Halton Thomson, review of I Was a Communist for the FBI: Matt Cvetic The True Life and Times of Undercover Agent Matt Cvetic, by R. E. “Gus” Payne, Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History2, no.1 (Jan. 2012).