Copyright © 2012 Lisa Harbatkin
New York’s 1950s mix of the usual left-wingers, right-wingers, and assorted bigots intersected with Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups, clergy, and individual citizens. Professional red hunters made their own contributions to the overall frenzy and to the teacher investigations.
No surprise that the motives and opinions of those running the investigations covered the same range and more. As the Cold War intensified from the late 1940s on, so did the concerns and opinions of many over the perceived and/or real dangers of communism.
Saul Moskoff, the assistant corporation counsel assigned to run the investigations for most of the decade, was a four-letter word to the teachers caught up in the investigations, along with superintendent of schools William Jansen, Board of Education member George Timone, and others who played roles in the search for teachers considered unfit to teach because of their political leanings.
So it would’ve been a surprise to my parents and their friends to learn that Moskoff was a pretty conventional liberal democrat (note the small “d”) and that Jansen was a pretty conventional bureaucrat who was more interested in, well, being a bureaucrat than in chasing communists. More than once, Moskoff expressed his frustration in trying to raise Jansen’s enthusiasm level.
For his part, Moskoff was also a capital “D” Democrat, and, it seems, a pretty partisan one. Along with other Democrats, Socialists, and a varied assortment of political moderates, he consistently asserted that communism was inherently incompatible with democracy. To a good extent, they all felt this justified the teacher investigations: communists, they argued, would inevitably slant their lessons and damage the children in their classes. Communism, Moskoff said, aimed for world domination.
But a steady stream of self-justifying internal memos, letters, speeches, press releases, newspaper interviews, and articles in Strengthening Democracy, a Board of Education magazine, made it just as clear that Moskoff and at least some Board members and officials were not all that sure that what they were doing was all that compatible with democracy either.
But things were complicated. It’s more than likely that Moskoff would not have welcomed being associated with McCarthyism or with Republican anti-communism. In October 1954, he tossed off a memo to Michael A. Castaldi, another assistant corporation counsel involved in the investigations, arguing that the Democrats were more effective than Republicans in fighting communism:
“Communists know they have more to fear from a Democratic Administration than from a Republican Administration,” Moskoff wrote. “They know that the wild, rushing, bull-dozing, inaccurate and indiscriminate tactics of publicity seeking Republicans have gained adherents and sympathizers to the ranks of Communists. On the other hand, they dread the plodding, judicious, honest, fair, effective and determined efforts of the Democrats to dislodge Communist Party members from positions of sensitivity in industry and public employment. They are aware that the decimating of their ranks has occurred not through the ravings and rantings of ambitious Republican politicians but rather through statesmanlike, legal and constitutional processes employed by Democrats in performing the duties of public office.” *
In news interviews, Moskoff expanded on this point by asserting that the best way to fight communism was to insure good living standards and economic security for all citizens.
* Accessed at New York City Municipal Archives.