Category Archives: Anti-Communism

A Slight Detour…

…because, well, Bella Dodd. And SISS counsel Jay Sourwine. And that right flank in the Republican Party back in the 1950s that looked at Republican moderates sort of the way current Tea Party types look at whoever passes for a Republican moderate these days. Back then, though, the grown-ups in the GOP were in charge of most party decisions.

That helped a lot as two icons of the moderate/liberal GOP, Clifford Case of New Jersey and Jacob Javits of New York, were preparing their first runs for the Senate. President Eisenhower – and Richard Nixon – supported Javits and Case as they dealt with the highly public attempts to smear them. While taking hits from their own party, both also found themselves targeted by Democrats all too eager to show off their own patriotism by going after communists. So, yes, just a slight detour: the New York Board of Education investigations reflect the overall political left/right splits in both parties and in the larger political environment.

Case was running to fill a vacant seat in 1954. He’d been in the House, and was president of the civil liberties group Fund for the Republic, when GOP leaders urged him to go for the open seat. His open criticisms of  Joe McCarthy drew angry responses from the senator’s supporters, and the far right within the Republican party tried to get him off the ballot. Then the Newark Star-Ledger quoted Dodd saying that his sister Adelaide Case was active in CP fronts, including efforts in 1943 to get Morris Schappes released from prison.* Turned out the Adelaide Case Dodd knew in 1943  was actually a college professor who had died in 1948 – and the Star-Ledger and other media never bothered to check the facts of a carefully prepared smear campaign. Case delivered a televised response on October 17, and was elected to the Senate in November.

Javits tumbled down the rabbit hole in 1956, courtesy of Dodd, Sourwine, the usual suspects, and assorted rumors. Then New York’s attorney general, he was on the brink of getting the GOP nod to run for Herbert Lehman’s Senate seat when not-so-whispered rumors of a 1946 meeting with Dodd (while she was still in the CP and TU), contacts with the American Labor Party, and fuzzy charges of seeking communist support in his runs for office after he left the Army in 1946 threatened his chances. Rumor suggested that Sourwine was the sole apparent public source for the rumors, although Dodd had testified before SISS in June. She had named several political figures as people she’d known in the CP, but committee chief counsel Robert Morris had refused to say whether she’d mentioned Javits. Javits testified before SISS, denying seeking communist or ALP help, and saying Dodd was one of many people he’s met with as he sought information prior to his run for office. Committee members weren’t all that convinced, but Eisenhower and the New York GOP were. Once again, as with Case, the grown-ups prevailed.

Sourwine, by the way, was also running in the Nevada Democratic Senate primary. He came in last. Herblock did a delicious cartoon on the outcome. It showed him crushed by a rockslide, with an attached labeled that said “smear candidate,” and holding a pail of liquid saying attack on attorney general Javits.

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*Schappes was a New York college professor jailed for perjury after acknowledging his own CP membership but denying that there were still others at City College, where he was a tutor. He was the only person jailed in the 20 or so years of the investigations, which ran from Rapp-Coudert in 1940-42 to 1960.

Information sourced from New York Times, Time Magazine, and other news sources.

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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

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….

 

Democrats, Republicans, and Fighting Communism

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.

Red Diapers, Privacy, FOIA and What This Blog Is About

I wasn’t sure, at all, what I was getting into when I requested and got my parents’ files from the Anti-Communist Series investigations held by New York City’s Municipal Archives. They were teachers, caught up with over a thousand others in New York’s 1950s drive to get communists out of its public school system.

Thanks to those New York files and my father’s FBI file, I’ve added a lot to my memories of my parents as teachers, and as members of the Teachers Union and the Communist Party. I’ve also gone way beyond my family’s story, as one thing after another led me deeper into the details of what happened to teachers and other civil servants in New York and many other cities in the 1950s.

This blog will be adding to the history at the web site www.dreamersandfighters.com, which also has video clips from a planned documentary and current developments relating to the teacher investigations. The focus at Dreamers & Fighters and here at Snoops & Secrets is on taking a clear look at what happened to thousands of lower and mid-level government employees during the McCarthy years.

Along the way, it will also explore the joys of prying information, on those investigations and others, out of government agencies, especially when the information tends to make the agencies look worse than the people under investigation. That’s the case with the New York teachers. A decade before Freedom of Information legislation (FOIA) the teachers and their supporters were making the case for civil liberties and open records while the Board of Education and the city’s Law Department twisted themselves into pretzels trying to insist they were saving democracy while violating some of its basic tenets.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and a half-century or so of FOIA. You can get a lot of good information by filing FOIA requests, but both federal and state FOIA processes are ludicrously cumbersome. And FOIA exemptions are pretty much designed to let any agency deny you anything it feels like denying you. They gotta let you have something, but if they don’t wanna give it to you, for whatever reason, there’s a FOIA exemption that says you ain’t gonna get it.

That’s proved true in a court case I filed (briefs and decisions at  www.dreamersandfighters.com/current.aspx#court ) demanding that the Municipal Archives open full access to that Anti-Communist Series without forcing researchers to sign away their First Amendment rights. For its part, the FBI is equally touchy, especially on identifying informants and other people.  

The inherent and unavoidable tension between privacy and open records is no excuse for what government agencies choose to hold back, whether under FOIA exemptions or by trying to impose prior restraint on what researchers can publish.

In any case, there are open materials on the New York teacher investigations at the Municipal Archives and at other archives, along with records on what happened in other cities. We’ll be exploring much of that information here…..