Jansen, Moskoff – and Herbert Romerstein

Herbert Romerstein’s death this past May seems to have drawn little attention outside conservative publications, including American Spectator and Commentary.  But his contacts with the teacher investigations are just one example of how widely the Board of Education reached in its search for potential subversives in its classrooms.

It’s behind Commentary’s paywall, so I haven’t had a chance yet to read Joshua Muravchik’s tribute to Romerstein, headlined “The Man Who Knew Everything.” But when it came to communism and communists, he apparently pretty much did. And Romerstein was, indeed, quite a precocious anti-communist: he had joined the Communist Youth League, then the CP, in high school, and studied at the Jefferson School, but the Korean War disillusioned him with communism. By the time he was 20, in 1951, he was working at Kenby Associates, the “research and editorial”outfit run by ex-FBI agent Kenneth M. Bierly. Bierly, with 2 other ex-agents, was the founder of Counterattack. In False Witness, Harvey Matusow recalled a 1952 SISS adventure that included “a Brooklyn youth named Herbert Romerstein, who had been an undercover informer for Counterattack.”

Romerstein went on to testify before congressional committees and other bodies as an expert witness. He was an investigator for HUAC, worked for the US Information agency, wrote many books, and in general built  a career focused on investigating and rooting out communism.

In 1951, he was already in touch with superintendent Jansen and his aide John Fenety, and then with Moskoff when he arrived. His code name on the Board’s informant list was Italy. Writing to “Mr. Saul Moscov” on the letterhead of Bierly’s Kenby Associates (he’s listed as a staff member) on August 25, Romerstein enclosed “the throwaway titled Mass Youth Rally To Stop Police Terror Against Negro Youth.” Moskoff returned the item via an August 28 letter. Fenety didn’t think Romerstein had much information on teachers, but by 1952-53, when he was in the Army, Romerstein was spelling Moskoff’s name correctly, and writing youthfully quaint letters to him, and apparently receiving answers. Teachers’ names found their way into some of the missives.

And in 1954, Jansen okayed Moskoff’s request to retain Romerstein for 10 days at a day rate of $25 “in connection with the trial of the above named (Paul Seligman, a CRMD teacher) to present proof that the Young Communist League endorses the policies of the Communist Party. To obtain such proof would necessitate extensive inquiry and research into documentation.” Romerstein, Moskoff told Dr. Jansen, “has had considerable experience” in the subject, especially the YCL, and had testified before a congressional committee and helped prepare charges on the Labor Youth League, “which is actually the Young Communist League under a different name.” Romerstein provided his evidence, from May 17 to May 28, 1954, and got his $250.

On June 18, the day set for his departmental trial, reported the New York Times, Seligman resigned. The article didn’t say whether Moskoff was annoyed at not getting to present his evidence or pleased at getting rid of yet another politically annoying teacher.

On June 18, the day set for his departmental trial, reported the New York Times, Seligman resigned. The article didn’t say whether Moskoff was annoyed at not getting to present his evidence or pleased at getting rid of yet another politically annoying teacher.

Seligman explained his reasons for resigning, the Times reported, in a letter to Jansen. “It has become apparent in this age of McCarthy witch-hunting that no one who is smeared with the Red label can ever fully defend himself,” he said, noting the potential consequences for those who would testify for him: “If a person who was a member of the Young Communist League thirteen or fourteen years ago would take the stand and testify I was not a member, that person would run the risk of reprisal and loss of his job due to the frenzy of the witch hunt.”

Contacts with Romerstein apparently continued. In a July 16th, 1956 letter, Moskoff recommended Romerstein to Michael J. Murphy, then chairman of the Waterfront Commission (and later New York’s police commissioner).

Sources: Municipal Archives, NY Times and False Witness, Harvey Matusow


On the Road In the Good Old Days

Saul Moskoff traveled quite a bit during his 1951-1958 years investigating the TU and the teachers. His expense vouchers were every bit as detailed as the records he kept on the investigations, whether they were for his subway fares (30 cents) or for out of town trips to Albany, Washington, D.C., and other places. He would also put in for dinner on late nights. Looked at overall, they indicate the range of his contacts and what was happening in the investigations.

Just an example or two: Moskoff advanced the expenses for a February 8, 1955 trip he and his investigator John Dunne made to Albany in connection with the appeal of four teachers to the commissioner of education. Total costs for both were $29.34, including the train, taxi in Albany, and lunch and dinner.

Expenses were a bit higher when Moskoff and Dunne went to Washington on November 19-20, 1956, “at the request of Dr. Jansen in connection with official business of the Board of Education of the City of New York,” the expense voucher said. Fares, meals hotel, and taxi totaled $97.98. He noted that he was returning $2.22 from the $100 advance he’d gotten. I don’t (yet) know what the “official business” was, but a lot was going on in the city’s hunt for classroom communists. New York State’s education commissioner, James E. Allen, Jr. had handed down his decision against forced informing in August. Moskoff’s to-do list also included also included dealing with the appeals of  the 4 teachers and a principal who had been suspended for refusing to cooperate with his investigation by providing names. As for the reason for the D.C. trip, Moskoff made no secret of his frustrations with the impact of the Allen ruling. His own October 29th deposition in the appealed case of the 5 educators noted that his sources were drying up for a number of reasons, with the Allen ruling being one. Another was that “national security regulations and requirements have made such sources unavailable.”

The Manipulative Confidentiality “Promise”

By asserting third-party privacy for the teachers investigated by the Board of Education, the Municipal Archives succeeded in making the issue, and my court case, about names. And New York’s Court of Appeals fell for it, ruling that records of teachers promised “confidentiality” when they were questioned by investigators can remain hidden. Indefinitely, apparently.

Now, unlike today’s researchers, investigators back then were really just after names, after more teachers they could toss out of the schools. “Promising” not to name those called in encouraged alleged or actual communists to resign, getting them out of the schools. An added bonus was saving the city the costs of departmental trials.

Confidentiality was a tactic, not a long-term promise.

The proof is in the Municipal Archives records – those that contain no names or the names of teachers whose names were all over the newspapers during the investigations. These records are open. Let’s take a look.

Saul Moskoff jotted down a few notes to himself, likely in the spring of 1955 as HUAC was preparing to hear testimony from New York undercover detective Mildred Blauvelt. He was especially concerned that committee members not ask Blauvelt to publically reveal any teachers’ names. His handwritten notes were essentially an outline for two memos that preceded Blauvelt’s HUAC appearance. Point by point:
“Success of invest. thus far has been due to secrecy.
Encourage resignations.
Won’t resign if they know names are to be made public.
Difficulty of presenting legal proof.” *

The follow-on memos, in April and May, and other items in the Municipal Archives and the National Archives follow the script. So in an April 21, 1955 memo to the corporation counsel, Moskoff wrote:  “We have found that if Communist teachers know that they will be the subject of publicity they will use every device to thwart dismissal but will resign if no publicity is given. We encourage resignation because it dispenses with the expense and difficulties of trials and at the same time protects the identities of other teachers who, while once Party members, have since demonstrated their complete loyalty to our democratic institutions and spares them from the smear and pillory of the Communists who would denounce them as rats, stool pigeons, and spies.” * He concluded by asking that the CC urge the committee not to require Blauvelt to name “teachers either now under investigation or who have resigned while under investigation. Of course, we would be willing to reveal the names of those who stood trial and were dismissed.” * This, of course, this was a spectacularly meaningless offer, since the names of the teachers subjected to the departmental trials were regularly in the newspapers.

A long May 2, 1955 memo summarizing a conversation he had with HUAC chief clerk Thomas W. Beale, Sr. about the need to withhold names during  Blauvelt’s planned appearance (apparently written by Moskoff but referring to himself as SM), contained another little gem: “…and in some of the cases the legal proof sufficient to sustain the charges was not present although for all practical purposes membership in the Communist Party was apparent.” *

We can also go back further. In a November 30, 1953 letter,  Moskoff wrote to New York Daily Mirror columnist Edward Zeltner thanking him for something he’d written about Moskoff and the teacher  investigations:  “I am particularly appreciative …that you as a newspaper man recognize the effectiveness of the policy of my investigation to retain in confidence the names of those under investigation. It might interest you to know that this policy has led to a financial saving to the city in that teachers who might otherwise face charges and trial with the accompanying expense have instead resigned to avoid the publicity.” *

Confidentiality was a tactic, not a long-term promise.

* Accessed at New York City’s Municipal Archives

A Henry Foner Celebration

People more than filled Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archives on February 27  to celebrate Henry Foner and his new book,  Songs and Poems (For Better or Verse). Henry spoke and sang, people cheered and laughed at his humor.

Before and after the (somewhat!!!) more formal part of the get-together, everyone crowded around to talk with him as he autographed their copies.

It was a special time.

The book was published by LaborArts. You can get it through their website,  http://www.laborarts.org/fonerbook

U.S. Supreme Court Misses Important Opportunity…

…to make the point that government agencies holding important historical records shouldn’t be allowed to violate the First Amendment by inventing contrived reasons to keep them secret. The records at issue are the New York Board of Education McCarthy-era Anti-Communist Series investigation files. The government agency involved is the city’s Municipal Archives.

In an earlier post (https://snoopsandsecrets.com/2012/08/19/whos-afraid-of-the-first-amendment/), I noted that New York’s three court levels had refused to deal with the First Amendment issue raised in my case, filed back in 2009, calling for the Municipal Archives to fully open the Anti-Communist Series records.

The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, issued a confusing opinion which nevertheless did open more, probably most, of the records under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Specifically, the court ruled that all records except those of teachers promised  confidentiality should be open.* At this posting, though, the Municipal Archives has apparently not understood that and is apparently not complying with the CoA ruling.

The Supreme Court hears perhaps 1 percent of the cases appealed to it, so its refusal to grant certiorari on the First Amendment question raised by my appeal was not exactly surprising. But the denial represents a loss on two fronts: the First Amendment issue and the refusal of New York’s courts to address it, plus just the simple point that it’s way past time for government files from this difficult period to be fully open. (Oh – and that goes for FBI files too – another agency that’s been really annoying on the open records front. Although in some ways less annoying than the Municipal Archives.) Fifty to 70 years after the McCarthy years, in the middle of more crackdowns on civil liberties, we (the people) should be able to do our own investigations into why and how our government goes on these mindless  rampages every few decades or so.

The First Amendment question centered on the Municipal Archives’ requirement that requesters asking to see the full range of the records should agree to prior restraint on what they could say and write. Specifically, the archives requires them to sign its Form D, which has gone through a few versions. The current version:
I agree that I will not record, copy, disseminate or publish in any form any names or other
identifying information that I obtain from the restricted materials, concerning those school
personnel who were interviewed relating to alleged support of or association with the
Communist Party, and who received a promise and/or assurance of confidentiality. This
confidentiality agreement is being made pursuant to the New York State Court of Appeals’
ruling in Harbatkin v. New York City Department of Records and Information Services et a!.,
decided on June 5, 2012.

Form D also cautions (warns?) :
Researchers are cautioned that violation of the terms of the agreement set out below may result
in possible legal action against them and the organization, if any, that they represent.

Think about your average professor or grad student or citizen confronting those words. A wee bit threatening, no?

Archives, and archivists, are supposed to make the past available, not hide it. Would be nice if the Municipal Archives got that point. They claim they’re protecting the privacy of the 1,000-plus teachers investigated by the Board of Education back in the 1940s-1960s. They’re not protecting the privacy of these teachers – they’re denying them their voices.

Court briefs and decisions are posted  at  http://www.dreamersandfighters.com/current.aspx#court.

* The so-called “confidentiality promise” was manipulated by the investigators to increase pressure on the teachers questioned to cooperate. More on this in a future post.

Disappointing News

The Supreme Court denied certiorari in the case I brought to fully open the anti-communist files held by New York City’s Municipal Archives.  Two important things here — the First Amendment, which was the basis of the appeal — and just the plain need to more fully open all records from the mid-20th century McCarthy era so more research can be done into its impact on the people directly affected, and on the political and social impact on the country.

More to come….


“Why They Called Us Communists”

“They threw everything they had at us,” dismissed English teacher Arthur Newman told researcher Linda Cirino* in recalling his experiences as one of  those subjected to the investigations. Along with several other teachers subjected to the Board’s highly public and widely reported departmental trials in  late 1952, Newman was dismissed in January 1953. He was among 10 teachers reinstated in December 1976.

Newman had worked closely with parents on trying to improve school conditions and make things better for the children. Describing the forces opposing the TU and driving the Board of Education’s investigations, he acknowledged that “Many of these people felt, truly felt, that communists were destroying our civilization…” But, he added,  “it was also a pretext that helped them avoid reform of the schools and solidify their own positions…That’s why they were so rabid against us…because we were showing them up…The communist issue was a means of getting rid of us.”

The TU fought for decent schools in ethnic minority areas – black, Irish, Italian, Poles – another teacher said, as he described the poverty-stricken children he taught. “We were defending the school system. This is why they called us communists…” Dismissed after refusing to name names before a congressional committee, he recalled rumors flying all over the place. People were wondering “When would our turn come,” he told Cirino as he recalled the fears so many teachers felt.

“I’m quite sure there were communists in the union – so what?” this teacher said. “If they were willing to join our union and help with programs they’d be welcome.”

*Linda Cirino’s interviews with teachers and others involved in the investigations took place in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

In Their Words

Earlier posts (see https://snoopsandsecrets.com/2012/08/26/teachers-under-investigation  and https://snoopsandsecrets.com/2012/10/24/building-on-rapp-coudert/) outlined the basics of the investigations, and how they were conducted. In future posts, as noted then, I’ll draw on archival and other materials and on interviews with some of the teachers and others who lived through and had to deal with the anti-communist-era New York Board of Education investigation and its impact on their lives.  In their own words, you’ll learn their views on the politics of the investigations, and their feelings about the children they taught.

Sandy Hook

A long time ago, maybe the late 1960s or so, some kid in New York crossed what was then thought to be an inviolable, uncrossable line. I don’t remember the exact details, but he attacked a nun. The shock felt around the city was the shock of disbelief that this kind of violation could happen.

Assorted news sources, numerous academics, and all kinds of other experts have done some counting. It seems that 5 of the deadliest U.S. shooting massacres have taken place since the 2007 slaughter at Virginia Tech.

Including Sandy Hook: 20 first-graders, their school principal, and 5 of the teachers. Plus the shooter and his mother.

It seems, now, there is no line that violence doesn’t cross, no end to the disbelief and pain.

I Sympathize With Moskoff

Sending the missive via special delivery, Saul Moskoff wrote to New York Herald Tribune education editor Fred Hechinger on December 9, 1953, apparently in conjunction with a planned article. He noted that he was enclosing the only photo he had available of himself, and then made a request: “If it is possible for your photographers to touch it up so as to remove the ‘bags’ from under my eyes, it might result in eliminating the possibility of frightening children who may happen to look at the page.”

Accessed at the New York City Municipal Archives.