The Communist Party in Maryland, 1919-57, by Vernon L. Pedersen, University of Illinois Press, Urbana & Chicago 2001.

The Communist Party in Maryland, 1919-57, is a strange book by an even stranger author.

Vernon Pedersen appeared in Maryland in the middle 1980s seeking help with his PhD thesis, a historical study of the state’s Communist Party. He hailed from Georgetown University, alma mater of countless FBI and CIA types, but this raised fewer alarm bells than perhaps it should have.

The modest, wholesome qualities displayed by Pedersen and his wife, and their ready participation in Party campaigns, public events, discussions and seminars, seemed genuine.

Pedersen’s ingratiating manner persists in the introduction to his book, as he warmly, and by name, thanks the Maryland people who assisted his study by relating their experiences.

Yet a paragraph later he reveals the real “thesis” of that study – his Maryland hosts were the well-intentioned dupes of a Soviet spy ring and their cause is dead – the same tired fantasy that all 254 pages of his book, like so many others, fail to prove.

The whole thing is couched in Pedersen’s gracious style. This approach guarantees that some will call this a scholarly work, but research without sound judgement is not scholarship.

Chronologically, the book traces in detail the history of the Party in Baltimore from the early 1900s to World War II. But it dismisses this history as a series of personality clashes among Party leaders and orders from Moscow.

The problem, aside from his bias, are Pedersen’s sources:

• FBI and CIA reports, which he apparently had no trouble obtaining;

• Baltimore Sun stories dating back to the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, and slanted accordingly;

• The House Unamerican Activities Committee testimony of FBI plants in the Party, who show lurid fictional talents;

• And (to quote the author) “the American Party records recovered from remote storage in Siberia … [consisting] of 4,400 separate folders representing the virtually complete files of the Central Committee of the American Communist Party from 1919 to 1944.”

Obviously during Pedersen’s junket to post-Soviet Russia – under whose auspices is unclear – he was solicited by a gaggle of operators of “document” mills, now a booming Russian industry.

It is no surprise that Pedersen’s account of the Party pioneers in Baltimore is a novelette about conspiracy covered up by naive idealism, rather than a story of courageous men and women attempting to fight racism, build democratic unions, oppose repressive laws and work for peace in Maryland.

Typically, FBI and other “security” types cannot conceive of people honestly working for socially advanced goals. Pedersen is “different.” He allows that “it is impossible not to like [the] dedicated individuals who shaped the Party in Maryland. This work gives them their due, but it also records that the cause to which they devoted their lives ultimately proved to be false.”

How does he give them “their due?” He acknowledges that the Party initiated the fights for access to city housing, recreational facilities, jobs and elected office for African Americans in Baltimore, among other struggles. Of course, he then calls this work a Soviet plot.

As the question goes: With “friends” like this, who needs enemies?

– Howard Silverberg