The 2016 presidential election was hardly the first time that a foreign government sought to interfere with an American political campaign. When it still existed, the Soviet Union used the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) as its proxy to influence American politics.
By mid-century, however, the CPUSA was far too feeble and isolated to wield any influence in American life. In 1970, the Soviet Union used a political chameleon and well-known international businessman to gain access to American politicians.
David Karr had a remarkable career that ranged from the newspaper business to the Office of War Information, from a New York public relations firm to the CEO of Fairbanks Whitney, from Hollywood and Broadway impresario to general manager of the George V hotel in Paris. In the last position he became close friends with the American Ambassador, Sargent Shriver, who introduced him to Armand Hammer, with whom he travelled to the USSR. Karr began brokering business partnerships between the USSR and American and European companies. During one of his many trips to Moscow in the early 1970s, Karr was recruited as a source by Soviet intelligence- a KGB document leaked following the collapse of the USSR called Karr “a competent KGB source.”
Karr had no access to American military or diplomatic secrets but he did have one very useful asset for the Soviets- his connections to prominent politicians. He had a talent for connecting with powerful people like Shriver, a Kennedy in-law who was the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1972. Gearing up for a presidential run in 1976, Shriver visited the USSR in 1975; his host, Andre Pavlov, was Karr’s KGB controller. After the collapse of the USSR, Pavlov joined the board of the Special Olympics, the athletic organization created by Shriver’s wife. An FBI investigation in 1985, sparked by a tip from a Soviet defector, that there had been a KGB agent on his staff, concluded that the most likely suspect was David Karr.
When Shriver’s presidential campaign failed to gain traction, Karr shifted his affections and contributions to another old friend, the hawkish Senator from Washington, Henry, “Scoop” Jackson, but ditched him and later transferred his support to Governor Jerry Brown of California.
Not only was Karr close to Brown, but both California Senators in 1976 were confidants—Alan Cranston had hired him at the OWI in 1941 and John Tunney became Karr’s business partner after leaving the Senate. Karr was most likely the source of information provided to the Russians about a meeting among Cranston, Brown, and Jimmy Carter in California during the general election.
Even as he was insinuating himself into the campaigns of various Democratic candidates, Karr was stroking the Ford Administration. He offered press secretary Ron Nessen the use of his Mediterranean yacht for a vacation cruise, sent plush George V robes to several government officials, provided tidbits about Soviet views on arms control to national security advisors, and put himself forward as a back-channel for contacts between President Ford and Soviet leaders.
While Karr’s efforts to insinuate himself next to Presidents and would-be presidents never yielded many concrete returns, they did give the Soviets entrée to prominent politicians. The leaked KGB memo identifying Karr as a Soviet source also noted that he had helped Senator Ted Kennedy to communicate confidentially with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Kennedy, in turn, urged the Soviets to do business with a California company run by his friend and former Senate colleague, John Tunney. In 1979 Karr and Tunney jointly controlled the North American rights to Misha the Bear, the symbol of the Moscow Olympics.
Why did Karr agree to work with the KGB? An obvious answer would be ideology. As a young man, Karr wrote for the Communist Daily Worker and was probably a member of the CPUSA. In Washington he associated with other left-wingers, left the OWI amid accusations of Communist ties, and was denounced by Senator Joseph McCarthy as Drew Pearson’s KGB controller.
And yet, despite years of investigations, the FBI was never able to prove he was a Party member or had anything to do with espionage in the 1940s and 1950s. He worked for FDR’s reelection in 1940 at a time when the CPUSA denounced him as a war-monger. As pro-communism became toxic in American life in the late 1940s, Karr swung to the middle. His early affinity for communism did not trump his unswerving commitment to his own interests.
A more plausible motive is Karr’s penchant for living dangerously. As a businessman in the 1950s he gained a reputation as an unethical and dishonest manipulator. His co-workers in a public relations firm accused him of blackmail. His assistance to the KGB might well have been just another example of his willingness to take risks.
But the most obvious reason David Karr worked for the KGB was that he handsomely profited from the arrangement. In 1974 Karr set up a Swiss holding company that negotiated a number of lucrative financial and business deals with the USSR, contracts that made him a rich man. Misha the Bear was hardly the most valuable asset. Karr arranged the financing for the Kosmos Hotel, the first western-built hotel in the USSR since the Revolution, and, in partnership with Hammer, earned the contract to market Olympic commemorative coins. When he died mysteriously in 1979 at 60, he left an estate worth more than $15 million.
Spying paid well.
Harvey Klehr, Ph.D. is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Politics and History and former chairman of the political science department at Emory University, where he taught from 1971 to 2016. He is the author, co-author, or editor of thirteen books, three of which have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent publication is The Millionaire Was A Soviet Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr (Encounter Books, July 16, 2019). He has also written more than 120 articles and reviews for professional journals as well as for Commentary, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, and The Weekly Standard. Dr. Klehr served on the National Council on the Humanities from 2005-2011. He was the recipient of the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award for Emory College in 1983 and was recognized as the University Scholar-Teacher of the Year by Emory in 1995. He also served a six-year term as a member of the National Council on the Humanities.