Click Print on your browser to print the article.
Close this window to return to the ANB Online.
Philbrick, Herbert A. (11 May 1915-16 Aug. 1993), anticommunist activist and undercover informant for the FBI, was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Guy Philbrick, a railroad trainman, and Alice May Shapleigh. In 1938 Philbrick graduated from the Lincoln Technical Institute of Northeastern University. He went to work as a sales representative for Holmes Direct Mail Service, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and married Eva Gertrude Luscombe (divorced in 1967); they had six children. In 1940 Philbrick, as he organized and chaired the Cambridge Youth Council, became aware that his communist members were actually directing the policies of the group he supposedly chaired, and he took his suspicions to the Boston office of the FBI. The Bureau asked him to report to them, giving him the informant code name of George Lockwood. To gather more information for the Bureau, he joined the Young Communist League in 1942 and finally the Communist Party, as a secret member, in 1944. He was able to contact or penetrate a large number of the communist-influenced or -controlled groups that countersubversives like Philbrick called the Red Network. Meanwhile, he had become the assistant advertising director for the New England division of Paramount Theaters, a position he held from 1942 to 1949.
In 1948 a New York grand jury indicted the twelve members of the CPUSA's central committee (including William Z. Foster, Eugene Dennis, Robert George Thompson, ex-New York councilman Benjamin Davis, Henry Winston, and Gus Hall) for violating the Smith Act, charging them with conspiring to overthrow the government of the United States.
On 6 April 1949 Philbrick was one of two surprise witnesses for the government; the other was the Daily Worker editor Louis Budenz, who instructed the jury that even seemingly pacifistic Marxist writings were understood by Communists as Aesopian incitements to violence. Philbrick, wearing a red, white, and blue bow tie, told dramatic stories about his nine years as an undercover FBI informant, listening to party leaders lecture on violent revolution and watching prominent Bostonians raise money for those revolutionary activities. His appearance was vital to the government's case in that he was able to testify that Communist doctrine fit precisely within the terms of the Smith Act's prohibition against advocating, or belonging to or organizing a group that advocated, the overthrow of the government by force or violence. He testified that when Communists discussed revolution, they meant "violent revolution to be carried out by bands of armed workers against the existing state or government" [New York Times April 7, 1949, p. 22]; and that "the definition of the state. . . consists of the government, the police, the army, and so forth, and this is the thing that must be overthrown. Therefore the complete government must be smashed. It. . . must be completely destroyed." [New York Times April 8, 1949, p. 14] He also testified that he had worked on the Progressive Party candidate Henry Agard Wallace's speeches during his 1948 presidential campaign, lending credence to the common assumption that the Wallace campaign had been dominated by Communists. The trial ended in the conviction of all twelve defendants and long jail sentences for them and for their lawyers, who were cited for contempt. Philbrick was a hero. The Massachusetts governor Paul Dever designated 27 November 1951 "Herbert Philbrick Day," with a testimonial dinner for Philbrick at the Hotel Bradford, where more than eight hundred people turned out to applaud communism's New England nemesis.
Soon after the trial, Philbrick began working with the New York Herald Tribune editor Fendall Yerxa (later the New York Times's Washington bureau chief) on his story, which was serialized in the Tribune in 1951 and published in 1952 by McGraw-Hill as I Led Three Lives: Citizen, "Communist," Counterspy. The book was a best seller and led to a column in the Tribune, "Red Underground," that ran from 1952 to 1958.
Philbrick also signed on as a technical adviser for a television drama based on his book produced by the syndication service ZIV Television Programs. The series consisted of 117 episodes that ran from 1953 to 1956. Philbrick was heavily involved throughout, submitting story ideas and reviewing all scripts for accuracy. (J. Edgar Hoover, contrary to mythology, did not review the scripts.) The program was modeled on ZIV's radio program I Was a Communist for the FBI, based on the undercover adventures of Matt Cvetic, and so Philbrick became, in a sense, television's Matt Cvetic.
The television show I Led Three Lives began each episode with a mysterious voice intoning that "this is the story. . . the fantastically true story, of Herbert A. Philbrick, who for nine frightening years did lead three lives: average citizen, high-level member of the Communist Party, and counterspy for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This story is based on fact." Sometimes an opening voice-over claimed that Philbrick "has now revealed for the first time his secret files concerning not only his own activities, but those of other counterespionage agents." Philbrick was represented to great dramatic effect by the actor Richard Carlson. Rounding out the rest of the cast were Philbrick's family, a squad of special agents, and a baleful cell of Communist thugs. Although the plots veered in the direction of formula melodrama, Philbrick's exchanges with the producers show that they were intent on rendering accurately the procedures, terminology, and atmosphere of the Communist Party.
Face of the Radical Right
For the rest of his life, Philbrick continued to see current events in the light of what he had learned about the communist conspiracy during his years in the underground. He became one of the central figures in the fifties network of countersubversive anticommunists who argued that the principal threat faced by the United States was subversion by secret communists within the government and educational, cultural, labor, and business institutions. Philbrick lectured widely before patriotic and anticommunist groups and testified on communist subversion before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and in many other state investigations of communism. As such, he and other counter subversives became the face of the radical right decried by liberal democrats as a greater threat to democracy than communism, a charge used to devastating effect against conservative republicans like Barry Goldwater, for whom Philbrick was a 1964 New Hampshire delegate. Philbrick's name became an element in a John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory alleging that Philbrick's book and television series were favorites of Lee Harvey Oswald and promoting the idea that Oswald was, contrary to appearances, a right-wing extremist. In later years, Philbrick was the national director of the United States Anti-Communist Congress and published an anticommunist newsletter syndicated by the U.S. Press Association.
Philbrick was perhaps the best known of the anticommunist defectors and informants who helped turn anticommunism into a grassroots mass movement during the 1950s. He retired to New Hampshire, where he briefly ran a country store. In 1968 he married Shirley Joy Brundige; they had one daughter. Philbrick worked for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency from 1976 to 1977. In his later years, he organized an anticommunist educational association, lectured on the threat of communism, and served as a court reporter for New Hampshire papers. He died in North Hampton, New Hampshire, and was interred at the Rye Center Cemetery, Rockingham, New Hampshire.
Philbrick's papers, are deposited in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. They constitute one of the two great repositories of information on the conservative anticommunist movement in the postwar years, the other being the J. B. Matthews papers at Duke University. The Philbrick collection has an online finding aid and timeline. The papers contain not only the record of Philbrick's anticommunist activities, but also his correspondence with almost all anticommunists of note during his lifetime. His autobiography, written with Fendall Yerxa, I Led Three Lives: Citizen, "Communist," Counterspy, was serialized in the New York Herald Tribune in 1951 and published by McGraw Hill in 1952. Valuable recent research can be found in Veronica A. Wilson, "Anticommunism, Millenarianism, and the Challenges of Cold War Patriarchy: The Many Lives of FBI Informant Herbert Philbrick," American Communist History 8, no. 1 (2009): 73-102.
There is no biography, but Martin Grams, Jr., I Led Three Lives (2007), contains a detailed account of the television show as well as a summary of the major events of Philbrick's life.
Richard Gid Powers
Back to the top
Richard Gid Powers. "Philbrick, Herbert A.";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.