Copyright © 2012 Lisa Harbatkin
In early 1953, a New York City teacher called in for questioning confronted Saul Moskoff, the city lawyer who ran the anti-communist investigations from 1951 to 1958.
“Some of this information amazes me very much. I don’t know where it came from….” she told Moskoff, as she challenged his authority to question her loyalty and patriotism.*
The information in her file, “which tends to indicate your membership in the Communist Party,” as Moskoff summarized it for her, in fact came from Mildred Blauvelt, an undercover NY Police Department detective who had infiltrated several Brooklyn Communist Party clubs in the 1940s. “Blondie” and “Operator 51” on the Board’s informant code sheet, she worked with Moskoff in the 1950s. She also testified before HUAC, naming an impressive number of teachers and others, and apparently had extensive contacts with congressional investigators – as did Moskoff.
In addition to officers from NYPD’s Bureau Of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI) and the police commissioner, the cast of characters included FBI agents and state troopers. Board of Education members, superintendent of schools William Jansen, numerous Board of Education assistant superintendents, and several corporation counsels were also deeply involved in the investigations.
Information went back and forth among these agencies and individuals, revving up along with the Cold War spin machine that set the backdrop for the New York investigations and similar ones in cities across the country. (The History tab at www.dreamersandfighters.com offers a narrative description of the New York investigations and of what drew the teachers, and the Teachers Union, to the left and the CP, along with a timeline.)
Basic procedures called for a letter to go out over Superintendent Jansen’s name, directing teachers under suspicion to report for – uh – “interviews” to determine their fitness to teach the children of New York.
School administrators, including Jansen himself on a few occasions, conducted these sessions at first. It appears that the city’s Law Department became involved as the legal issues became more complex and as the Board deemed it necessary to hold public hearings on teachers who refused to cooperate. Moskoff was assigned to the job in July 1951. He remained until mid-1958, but kept his hand in on occasion as first another assistant corporation counsel, and finally his chief investigator, took over day-to-day management of the investigations.
* File accessed at the Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. Additional source materials used in this post are in NY’s Municipal Archives and the National Archives.
Well, to start with, all three court levels in New York, topped off by the Court of Appeals decision in my case calling on New York City’s Municipal Archives to fully open the Anti-Communist Series records in its Board of Education holdings. News coverage reflected the decisive indecisiveness inherent in the opinion: Court grants partial access… Historian can’t access…Court orders release of names…Etc.
The Court of Appeals decision opened all records except those with the names of informers and of teachers promised confidentiality. But the court’s outright refusal to deal with the First Amendment issue, and its FOIA holding, essentially falling for the manipulative “privacy” promise made to the teachers, backed away from the key issues at stake.
Now, admittedly, I’m a First Amendment junkie. And a FOIA junkie. But you don’t have to be either one to take offense at the different versions of the form the Archives has been requiring researchers to sign before they can gain full access to Series 591.
Apparently current just prior to oral argument in the Court of Appeals, the latest version required those requesting full access to the Anti-Communist Series to pretty much agree to prior restraint, and threatens legal action in case of a violation. You can imagine the impact that could have on students and academics toiling away in those piles of archival paper.
Towards the end of the oral argument in the case (Matter of Harbatkin vs. New York City Department of Records and Information Services), one of the judges asked the city’s lawyer if she would withhold the name of the informant who told General Washington about Benedict Arnold. She said yes.
Yesterday’s New York Times lead story, right up there on the upper right of page 1, reported that just over half – 55% – of New York City teachers eligible for tenure following their probationary periods got it this year. Nearly half – 42% – of those eligible were kept on probation for another year, the Times reported, while 3% were fired. In 2007, 97% gained tenure; in 2010, the number was 89%.
After the obligatory reference to the importance of “really strong teachers organized around a common vision,” Education Department chief academic officer Shael Polokow-Suransky told reporter Al Baker that the idea was to keep “pushing” both the teachers and the kids.
It’s way past time to focus on the real causes, the root causes, of problems in the schools: poverty and its related problems. But it’s so much easier for politicians and education bureaucrats to go after teachers and their unions.
It’s also worth noting that a significant number of the teachers investigated and called in for interrogation sessions, and possibly forced out, in the 1950s were still in training and/or were substitutes who did not yet have permanent appointments. The numbers are uncertain because of the Municipal Archives’ refusal to allow full access to the files it holds. But they appear to be large enough to suggest why tenure matters now as much as it did in the Cold War years. Without it, school administrators can fire teachers for political reasons, for union activity, or just because they don’t like them. Or just because.
Yes, teachers with tenure lost their jobs back then, as the investigations intensified through the early 1950s. But forcing them out involved more complex processes, and for the most part it was harder for the city to get rid of them.
Funny, isn’t it, how things keep repeating…and repeating….and…..
The New York Times article can be accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/18/nyregion/nearly-half-of-new-york-city-teachers-are-denied-tenure-in-2012.html?_r=1&hp
Bella Dodd went from left-wing darling and Teachers Union fireball to right-wing darling and left-wing pariah in the few years after she was thrown out of the U.S. Communist Party in the late 1940s.
A friendly repeat performer in numerous congressional hearings during the McCarthy years, she made frequent appearances in the newspapers. Headlines like “100 City Teachers Listed as Commies By Dr. Bella Dodd” in the September 12, 1952 New York World Telegram, along with the suspicions of teachers who had known and worked with her, has made it easy to see her as an informer .
But it may not be that easy. I’ve read a lot of Dodd’s testimony before HUAC, SISS, and other congressional committees, both open session and executive session, at the National Archives. (Some is also available online, along with other information on Dodd, some of it downright mystical, if not outright weird.)
At least from these sessions, it’s not clear whether she named New York teachers. She did name CPUSA leaders and other people she’d known in the party. Much of her testimony consisted of her descriptions of the party’s inner workings, and she repeatedly asserted that CP teachers inevitably slanted their lessons and propagandized their students. Missing so far, though, are those 100 or so commie New York teachers the headlines said she named.
Add to this what Abraham Zitron and Celia Lewis Zitron, both strong leaders in the Teachers Union, told researcher Linda Cirino when she asked about Dodd in a 1979 interview: “It never became clear that she gave names of teachers,” Abraham Zitron said. “She gave a list of names of people in the CP. Maybe she added names of teachers who had already been named.”
At the same time, Dodd provided information, which could likely have included teachers’ names, to Saul Moskoff, the New York assistant corporation counsel who ran the Board of Education investigations for much of the 1950s. On the Board’s informer lists, she is code-named “77” and “Falcon.” Moskoff on several occasions asked congressional investigators not to call his informers and undercover agents to testify before their committees, saying that it would hamper his efforts.
In his Reds at the Blackboard, Clarence Taylor notes that Dodd testified before congress and claimed in her own School of Darkness that the CPUSA manipulated the Teachers Union and essentially turned it into a communist front.
And, possibly, Bella Dodd named teachers in other venues – she did testify at least once before a grand jury – or in congressional testimony I haven’t seen, or in private meetings with investigators. There is more to find out.
You have to wonder. Cities have been playing “gotcha!” with teachers for more than a century. The latest rounds use flawed tests and inaccurate evaluation scores to drive education DEform, privatization, and union-busting.
In the early 20th century, in the years surrounding the 1916 founding of the Teachers Union (TU), charges of insufficient Americanism and too much internationalism led to teacher loyalty oaths, dismissals….and union-busting.
Held behind closed doors, the 1940-1942 Rapp-Coudert hearings called in and questioned some 500 college faculty and staff members and students. The goals were to route out communists and others perceived as dangerous subversives from public schools, colleges, and universities….and union-busting.
With time out for WW II, the investigations ramped up again in the late 1940s, and continued into the early 1960s. Cold War chill set in on teachers and other civil servants who were communists, socialists, or otherwise on the left. Or none of those. In New York, and cities around the country, local officials and often police departments got help from the FBI in deeply intrusive searches for names and more names. Once again the goals centered on getting rid of people with annoying political views. …and union-busting.
The parallels to current events – in education and in the broader political world – are all too clear Teachers, and other public workers, are in the political cross-hairs again, for still having reasonably strong unions and because of the persistence of school problems. Rather than attacking the root cause of those problems – poverty and its related social conditions — public officials in both major parties these days are teaming up with for-profit private interests against the public schools. From Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, Chris Christie in New Jersey, and other (mostly) Republican governors to the likes of Arne Duncan at the Department of Education and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the anti-education, anti-teacher private interests continue their crusades. Once again the goals are diverting attention from the impact of poverty. …and union-busting.
The more things (don’t) change…..