Jack Parsons: Soviet Spy? (Guest Blog by Dr. Richard Spence)

A first at n01r today is a guest blog from Dr. Richard Spence, Professor in the History Department at the University of Idaho. Dr. Spence  has one of the coolest sets of courses I’ve seen which complements a lot of the things I investigate at the site; such as the intersection of the occult, strategic disinformation, and espionage (like Theosophy).

Dr. Spence has done some great work linking Aleister Crowley to espionage networks, and was kind enough to offer a draft article of a circumstantial connection linking Jack Parsons to Soviet intelligence as well.  He makes a great argument for how Parsons might have been manipulated by a skilled handler based on his (apparently narcissistic) psychology.

Such a background seems highly pertinent to my investigation linking the Black Dahlia and Tate-LaBianca murders to a communist plot via the art movement Surrealism and/or the occultist movement of Crowleyan ‘Satanism’. (Suffice to say, I am confident that the good doctor has not read my entire site and you should not construe that his views represent my views or vice versa.)

Jack Parsons and Marjorie Cameron in 1946


Dr. Richard B. Spence

John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons (1914-1952) was an American explosives and rocket engineer.  He’s best known for two things:  being a founding-father of the American space program and an avid occultist devoted to the doctrines of Aleister Crowley.  Parsons Crater on the dark side of the Moon is named for him, and his statue stands at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Parsons worked on classified projects for the US military and associated with persons working on the super-secret Manhattan Project.  But was there another side to Parsons?  Might he also have been a Soviet spy? At various points in his professional career, Parsons was suspected of espionage.  He also had long association with persons linked the Communist Party, some of whom had connection to Soviet intelligence.

Parsons was born into affluence, but the Crash of 1929 plunged his family into near poverty.  Jack Parsons was a mostly self-taught genius, who began experimenting with rockets—and occultism—as a teenager.  As an adult, Parsons regarded himself an arch-rebel.  He was unconventional in his beliefs and habits and drawn to radical ideas. At the same time, he was utterly contemptuous of “regular’ society and its notions of morality and loyalty.  Last, but not least, Parsons had an immense ego and grandiose sense of self-importance covering a mass of insecurities. All in all, just the sort of frustrated, bohemian young man who might take satisfaction in being a spy.

By the late 1930s, Parsons was working with the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) under the direction of Hungarian-born Prof. Theodore (Todor) von Karman.  Von Karman had his own association with Communism.  In 1919, he was deputy commissar for education under the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic.  He’s likely the same Todor Karmann, a Hungarian Communist, who shifted his membership to the German Party (KPD) in 1920, the same year that Theodor von Karman emigrated to Germany.  After coming to the States, von Karman admitted his service to the Hungarian Soviet, but claimed the experience cured him of any naïve illusions about Marxism-Leninism.  That may have been true, but if it wasn’t, what else was he going to say?

Parsons and a group of Caltech students formed the so-called “Suicide Squad” which carried out dangerous experiments with rockets and explosives.  These experiments would ultimately lead to the creation, based mostly on Parsons’ design, of the solid fuel rocket boosters, or JATOs, used by the US military during WWII.  Among Parsons’ closest associates in the Suicide Squad were Frank Malina, Ed Forman, and Tsien Hsue-Sen.

In 1938, Parsons, Malina, Forman and other Caltech people joined a “discussion group.” Most members, including Parsons, already held leftist views. The guiding spirit of the group was Sidney Weinbaum, a Caltech research assistant.  Weinbaum’s pal and co-leader was a Berkeley physicist, Frank Oppenheimer—brother of future Manhattan Project chief Robert Oppenheimer.  Weinbaum and Frank Oppenheimer were already CP members who acted as organizers and spotters.  They reported to “Pop” Isaac Folkoff, a big cheese in the West Coast Communist apparatus. But Folkoff did more than just manage Party finances; he was an active Soviet intelligence agent in direct communication with the NKVD residency in San Francisco.  He was especially good at spotting new assets. It was Folkoff, for instance, who suggested that Frank Oppenheimer be “cultivated.” Under Folkoff’s direction, Weinbaum and Oppenheimer turned the Caltech discussion group into Professional Unit #122 of the Communist Party.  Malina, Tsien and others ended up joining the Party.  Tsien returned to China in the 50s to lead Mao’s missile program.  Parsons later told the FBI that he was offered Communist membership but declined.  During the same period Parsons was a subscriber to the Communist People’s World; ‘just out of curiosity’, he explained.

But in 1939, Parsons abruptly severed ties to the Party and Weinbaum, although he remained friends with Malina and Tsien.  On the surface, there’s nothing especially unusual about it.  Lots of people quit the Party in 1939, the year of the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact.  Still, there might have been more to it.  When open CP membership could impede or compromise clandestine work, comrades were ordered to sever ties.  If need be, these “secret Communists” could even denounce the Party and former comrades.  Was Parsons important enough to merit “secret” status?

Over the next few years, Parsons, Forman and von Karman were involved in the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Aerojet Corporation.  Aerojet manufactured take-off assist rocket engines for the Army.  An important, maybe the most important, part of the USSR’s espionage operation in the United States was the so-called “X-Y Line” which was the acquisition of technical and scientific information.  Paramount in this was anything involving aviation.  In the late 1930s, NKVD officer Stanislav Shumovsky oversaw a successful effort to recruit assets in the American aircraft industry and related scientific community.  The Los Angeles area was a prime focus, and one of the places targeted was the aerodynamics laboratory at Caltech; the same lab with which Theodore von Karman was connected, and the same von Karman who was mentor to Parsons.  Through his work at Caltech and later with Aerojet, Parsons made extensive contacts throughout the US defense establishment and the aerospace industry.  He would have been an ideal X-Y asset. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he was.

At the same time Parsons outwardly turned his back on Communism, he plunged deeper into the occult.  He and his wife became members of the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis or OTO.  At the time, it was a group of about a dozen people who followed Thelema, the teachings of English magus Aleister Crowley. The lodge accepted and encouraged all manner of “alternative lifestyles,” particularly sexual. Parsons made himself leader of the lodge by pushing out the old one, Wilfred T. Smith.  Parsons openly proselytized for the OTO among his JPL and Caltech colleagues.  Some were curious; a few joined.  The OTO offered spiritual enlightenment and sexual freedom.  It also offered wonderful opportunities for compromise and blackmail. Parson’s interest in Thelema was sincere, but it could have been manipulated by an astute handler. Among other things, it boosted Parsons’ delusions of grandeur to new heights.  But he also felt put-upon, unappreciated and cheated.  Not without reason.

In 1944, Aerojet was taken over by General Tire & Rubber Company and Parsons and Forman were bought out, or pushed out.  Parsons definitely wasn’t the corporate type.  He and Forman pooled their money to found a new company, Ad Astra Engineering, which got military contracts to build rockets and rocket engines.  However, in 1945 trouble raised its head when Parsons and Forman came under investigation by Army intelligence. They had obtained samples of a special explosive used in a project called “X-Metal.”  X-Metal was the code name for uranium and the project was the Manhattan Project, which had become the holy grail of Soviet espionage.

About the same time, Parsons rented a large house in Pasadena he dubbed “The Parsonage.”  He turned it into a boarding house and crash pad for his OTO friends and Caltech scientists and engineers. Eggheads intermingled with occultists — with Jack Parsons as ringmaster. Imagine the opportunities. One of Parsons’ regular guests was Robert Cornogg, who commuted back and forth from Caltech to Los Alamos.  Cornogg was chief engineer of the Manhattan Project’s Engineering division which was making the trigger for the atom bomb.  In 1947, Cornogg would lose his security clearance while employed by Northrup Aviation.  His own Communist past was mostly to blame, but his association with Parsons and the OTO probably didn’t help.

The Army and FBI cleared Parsons and Forman of any deliberate wrongdoing in the X-Metal case.  But in 1945, Parsons’ life took another abrupt turn.  He walked away from the OTO Lodge if not from Crowleyism.  He was also desperately short of cash and forced to move out of The Parsonage.  To add to his miseries, his girlfriend soon ran off with another “friend” and recently demobilized Navy officer, L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard would later claim that he was actually spying on Parsons for his old bosses in Naval Intelligence.  The supposed suspicion was that Parsons was using his “black magic cult” to corrupt and compromise scientists.  If so, the suspicion wasn’t unreasonable.

On the rebound, Parsons began a tempestuous relationship with another woman, Marjorie Cameron.  Curiously, she’d also worked for naval intelligence during the war. In fact, she once claimed to have been used as the bait in a “honey trap” operation to snare a suspected German agent in Washington, DC.  Parsons believed he had summoned her to be his Scarlet Woman through magical workings.  Or did she really show up on his doorstep, initially, as Hubbard’s replacement?

In 1946, Parsons finally landed a job at North American Aviation working on its Navaho Missile Program for the Army.  That earned Parsons a top secret security clearance.  But in May 1948, North American Aviation dismissed Parsons and his clearance was revoked.  The ostensible reason was his past association with the suspect OTO.  But Parsons was also grilled about Sidney Weinbaum and Frank Oppenheimer, both of whom had been exposed as Soviet agents.  Parsons vouched for Weinbaum’s Communist Party membership which helped convict him of perjury.  Parsons may have just been trying to get the FBI off his back, but if he was a Soviet asset, he did exactly the right thing. Weinbaum was already blown; restoring Parsons’ security clearance was all that mattered.

If so, it worked. Parsons appealed the suspension to the Industrial Employment Board, and in 1949 the clearance was restored.  By that time, he had a new job with Hughes Aviation.  But in 1951, the FBI found out that Parsons had removed confidential experimental notes from the Hughes files.  More than that, he’d paid someone to type them up.  Parsons was fired and his security clearance was again revoked, this time permanently.

Parsons’ rather unconvincing explanation for taking the documents from Hughes was that he needed the information to make a pitch for a new job.  Parsons’ old friend Theodore von Karman had put him in touch with Herbert Rosenfeld who was the Los Angeles representative of something called American Technion. Technion was an Israeli firm that basically served as the research and development lab for the Israeli military. Rosenfeld dangled the possibility of Parsons building rockets in Tel Aviv, but first, apparently, Parsons had to pony up some information. Maybe it was all that simple, maybe not.  The FBI also suspected Rosenfeld of Communist sympathies. There was also the possibility that Technion was penetrated by Soviet agents.  By supplying information to Rosenfeld, was Parsons also—or still—supplying it to the Soviets?

Jack Parsons died in July 1952 in a seemingly accidental explosion in his home laboratory.  That didn’t stop some, including his wife Cameron, from suspecting that he’d been murdered. At the time of his death, Parsons was preparing to move, along with his lab and notes, to Mexico and from there to Tel Aviv.  But was Parsons’ real destination behind the Iron Curtain?  If US intelligence suspected that, would they have moved to stop him?  Did they?  Or, might his former Soviet handlers have not taken kindly to his going over to the Israelis?  The case for Jack Parsons being a Soviet spy remains entirely circumstantial, but it makes a surprising amount of sense.  There was means, motive and opportunity.  If there wasn’t at least an attempt to recruit him, someone wasn’t doing their job.