Philbrick Herbert Arthur

views updated

Philbrick Herbert Arthur

(b. 11 May 1915 in Rye, New Hampshire; d. 16 August 1993 in North Hampton, New Hampshire), FBI informant whose testimony was key to the landmark convictions of eleven top leaders of the American Communist Party in 1949 and whose book about his undercover life became a best-seller.

Philbrick was one of two children, and the only son, of Guy Philbrick, a conductor for the Boston & Maine Railroad, and Alice May Shapleigh, a nurse. He spent his early years in northern New Hampshire, and the family moved to Boston before he was ten years old. He attended high school in Somerville, Massachusetts, and his social life revolved around the Baptist church there. He worked at odd jobs to attend night school at the Lincoln Technical School of Northeastern University in Boston, earning a civil engineering degree in 1938. He married Eva Luscombe on 3 September 1939 and they later had five girls. Unable to find engineering work, he took an advertising job with Holmes Direct Mail Service. Seeking new clients in 1940, he called on the Massachusetts Youth Council in Cambridge.

Philbrick got involved in the council’s pacifist work but suspected it was secretly run by communists. He contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and agreed to inform. Over the next nine years he was in a series of suspect groups. In 1942 he took a job in Boston as assistant advertising director for a movie theater chain and joined the Young Communist League. In 1943 he joined American Youth for Democracy, and a year later he joined the Communist party. Throughout, he taught Sunday school at the First Baptist Church in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and read the Bible to avoid succumbing to Communist propaganda. Initially he did not even tell his wife of his secret work.

On 6 April 1949 Philbrick’s undercover life became national news. He appeared as a surprise witness in the trial of eleven communists charged with violating the 1940 Smith Act by advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Philbrick wore a red, white, and blue bow tie when he took the stand in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. He was thirty-three years old, clean-cut, and bespectacled, prompting Time magazine to say he seemed more like a “carefully dressed clerk than a secret government agent.” Philbrick, then living in Melrose, a Boston suburb, testified that party officials taught that the revolution would come at some unknown time: “We were instructed that the revolution will not take place next week or next month or two o’clock Wednesday afternoon, but will take place under two circumstances: In case of a heavy depression, or in case of a war.… It would result in the overthrow of the capitalist class and the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The defendants denied the charges and their lawyers challenged Philbrick, who swore, “I never received any money from the FBI except for my actual expenses.” The jury convicted party general secretary Eugene Dennis and his codefendants. Philbrick’s testimony was the nation’s first on current Communist Party activities at the local level.

Afterward, Philbrick worked in Boston as the advertising manager of Maintain Store Engineer Service. He obeyed FBI instructions not to discuss the case pending appeal. He turned down several publishing offers until 1951, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the verdict. In 1952 he published a series on his undercover life in the New York Herald Tribune and also a best-seller, I Led Three Lives: Citizen, “Communist,” Counterspy. Reviewing the book, the New York Times said, “Mr. Philbrick writes clearly and briskly, but without humor or charm. His book has no sensational interest. Its genuine importance lies in its description of the typical behavior of American Communists.” The biographer Oliver Pilat said in the Saturday Review that the book had “considerable documentary value” but “does not provide details of actual espionage by anybody.” Philbrick disparaged “amateur red hunters, ambitious politicians, demagogues, and rabble-rousers.”

In February 1952 Philbrick publicly criticized Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican, as exaggerating Communist strength and injuring innocent liberals. Philbrick, then of suburban White Plains in Westchester County, New York, said he merely wanted to sell ads for the Herald Tribune and lead a “normal life.” But anti-communism became Philbrick’s lifelong career. FBI files show the bureau paid him $6,823 for services and $359.38 for expenses through the trial’s resolution. In May 1951 the FBI helped arrange Philbrick’s job at the newspaper and his book deal. Philbrick submitted drafts of the book and series to the FBI, editing them at the bureau’s request. The series ran in seventy-five newspapers in 1952 and earned Philbrick $17,287. In February 1953 Philbrick sold a thirty-nine-episode television version of I Led Three Lives, which the Times said “relied too much on trite preachment and corny melodrama.” Philbrick earned $141,015 in royalties from the show and $24,525 from the book, according to uncontested testimony in his former lawyer’s successful 1958 suit for commissions. In the early 1950s Philbrick began a biweekly column on communism for the Herald Tribune, “Red Underground.” The paper canceled it in 1958, and Philbrick ran a country store in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, until the mid-1960s. He still spoke and wrote widely on “the deadly menace of Communism,” appearing around the country with Dr. Fred Schwartz’s Christian Anti-Communist Crusade through 1965.

Philbrick won more than fifty civic awards, including a 1954 Freedoms Foundation citation, but drew claims that he recklessly impugned people’s loyalty. In March 1957 Minnesota’s Democratic senator Hubert H. Humphrey complained to the FBI that Philbrick insinuated he was a communist. The National Farmers Union dropped its slander suit in 1957 only after Philbrick retracted claims about the group. In 1967 Philbrick moved to Washington, D.C., and ran the United States Anti-Communist Congress, which described Vietnam War protests, racial unrest, and flag burnings as evidence of a Communist plot.

Philbrick’s crusade weighed on his home life. At a 1961 meeting of Constructive Action, an anticommunist group, he met Shirley Joy Brundige. They had a daughter out of wedlock in 1963. On 10 August 1967, two days after divorcing his first wife, Philbrick and Brundige married. They ran the private U.S. Press Association in Washington, D.C., distributing conservative editorials. In 1976 the couple and their daughter moved to Rye Beach. He continued to track communism, keeping his phone and address unlisted and traveling under aliases. The year before he died at his North Hampton home of cancer, Philbrick said he never slept through the night and that because of the communist threat “we remain in grave danger.” Philbrick is buried at Rye Center Cemetery in Rye.

To some observers, Philbrick was a self-sacrificing hero of the cold-war era. To others he represented excesses of a time when dissent was suspect. His testimony figured in other trials: he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and 1953 and before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in 1952. In July 1957 the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ended Smith Act prosecutions, barring surprise witnesses and holding that to be criminal, speech must incite specific violence and not merely advocate political belief.

More than 1,600 pages of previously secret FBI files on Philbrick are available from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. His book, I Led Three Lives, is out of print but available through libraries. The most comprehensive magazine article is “The Fourth Life of Herbert Philbrick,” Yankee (Feb. 1992). The 1949 New York Smith Act trial was extensively covered by the New York Times. Obituaries are in the Boston Globe and New York Times (both 18 Aug. 1993), and in the Manchester (New Hampshire) Union-Leader (20 Aug. 1993).

Seth Rosenfeld

About this article

Philbrick Herbert Arthur

Updated About content Print Article