There is fitting irony that Matt Cvetic (1909-1962) died while waiting to renew his driver’s license. For nine years as an undercover informer for the federal government, and then as a public speaker, he had dedicated much of his life to fighting a bureaucratic vision of society, advocated by men and women who, as Ludwig von Mises put it in Bureaucracy (1944), “promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office.” Endless, soul-sapping hours waiting in drab official rooms while, under the demands of efficiency and equality, an individual is reduced to a number and processing by a machine: Cvetic believed society must stand for life more expansive and expressive.
Cvetic’s brief life went from obscure son of Slovenian immigrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to national celebrity, with decades of smoking and drinking taking a fatal toll. Vitiating his cloak and dagger reputation are reports of marital infidelity and spousal abuse that caused his wife to file for divorce. As a friend of his put it in the racy slang of the day, Cvetic had a weakness for “booze and babes.”
An alcoholic has been described as an egomaniac with an inferiority complex, and Cvetic’s self-importance and insecurity drove him to claim more for himself than was his due. His sometimes exaggerated, sometimes vague autobiographical assertions became easy prey for cross-examination in courtrooms and Congressional hearings. Equally skeptical have been historians unsympathetic to Cvetic’s covert work against the Communist Party in the United States.
In 2000, the late Daniel J. Leab published a biography of Cvetic, arguing that Cvetic was an unreliable witness to the history of the domestic front of the Cold War. According to Leab, Cvetic was a loathsome cad who “lived a deceitful, generally unattractive life, marred by alcoholism, womanizing, and emotional instability,” while Communists in America “put themselves unstintingly and heroically on the line for a wide variety of admirable causes.” Leab made a point about Cvetic’s limited formal education, notably Cvetic attending what Leab called “St. Vincent’s (a parochial high school).” What follows adjusts and supplements Leab’s description of Cvetic’s time at Saint Vincent.
As a result of his fame for exposing Communist infiltrators, in the 1950s Cvetic was in demand throughout the country as a public speaker, and one of Cvetic’s speaking engagements was at Saint Vincent College. A leafy place with red brick buildings, it is a small liberal arts college that still stands just outside Latrobe, Pennsylvania, about forty miles east of Pittsburgh, and it is on the extensive grounds of a Benedictine monastery founded there in 1846 by monks from Bavaria. In Cvetic’s day, the school was all male, and most of its administrators and professors were priests from the monastery.
When Cvetic first made headlines for his patriotic service, the college underscored its connection to him. In March, 1950, editors of The Saint Vincent Journal reported that Cvetic had studied at Saint Vincent College from 1922 to 1924. “Although not officially listed in the Alumni Directory,” the editors wrote, “several older members of the [monastic] community remember ‘small and high-strung’ Matt,” and they also remembered one of his brothers attending Saint Vincent.
The following year, on 8 February, 1951, Cvetic spoke at Saint Vincent as part of the college’s Sociological Forum. He talked about his life of intrigue as a mole within the Communist network of western Pennsylvania, and he alarmed the audience by declaring that the country harbored some half a million Communists. Five years after Winston Churchill told college students in Fulton, Missouri, that an Iron Curtain had descended across Europe, Cvetic depicted the international conflict between Communism and the free world as a spiritual struggle, and The Saint Vincent Journal reported that “he stressed the importance of education in combating the forces of materialism.” The Journal also described Cvetic as “famous FBI undercover agent and St. Vincent graduate.”
As the Journal had mentioned in 1950, Cvetic did not appear in the college’s alumni directory, and for good reason. Academic records published in Saint Vincent’s annual bulletins for the early 1920s listed him and an older brother, Louis Cvetic, as enrolled at the college’s prep school, but there is no trace of them graduating.
Why the Cvetic brothers never completed their studies there is now a mystery. They were good students and were registered for the prep school’s Classical Course, and for first-year students, religious instruction focused on the Ten Commandments and Old Testament history, while Latin classes drilled the students in basic Latin grammar. If, when he spoke at Saint Vincent twenty-seven years after having studied there, Matt Cvetic recalled his days as a prep school student, the Journal made no mention of it.
While Cvetic’s speech at Saint Vincent, as well as his two years studying there, has faded from memory, his legend lives on. Cvetic survives as a character in American folklore thanks to film and radio versions of his exploits being available commercially and on-line. Occasionally the film, Warner Brothers’ I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), will appear on television, and just as Leab deplored its embellishments, he lamented that “the radio shows bore even less relationship to reality than the film had.”
However much it may be based on actual events, a radio drama must engage the imagination. John Dunning, in Tune in Yesterday (1976), has described the radio adaptation of I Was a Communist for the FBI (1952-1954) as “packed with tension, producing plots within plots as Cvetic’s relationship with the [Communist] party changed.” At the end of each episode, its star, Dana Andrews, stepped out of character and spoke in his own name to warn Americans of the Communist threat to their country.
As for the movie I Was a Communist for the FBI, its entertainment value is in the eye of the beholder, but historians can learn something from it. While polishing its flawed hero, it provides a perspective on ideals and fears of the time, and the scenes filmed on location give invaluable glimpses of Pittsburgh in the early 1950s. Still, no one should view it as historical documentary, any more than one should regard another Warner Brothers movie, PT 109 (1963), as anything other than a propaganda relic from an era when a President and his many admirers were fabricating around him an image of an American Camelot.
A longer, annotated version of this essay appears in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Westmoreland History.