Copyright © 2012 Lisa Harbatkin
“Teachers On Trial” is the title of an article I wrote for the Winter 2016 issue of New York Archives, the magazine of the New York State Archives, published by the Archives Partnership Trust. It describes the background of the McCarthy-era teacher investigations in New York City. Drawing from archival materials, it goes into the impact the investigations had on the teachers they targeted and details the methods used by the investigators. Illustrations include photographs and a sample of the cards and letters sent to the Board of Education and the Teachers Union. You’ll soon be able to see the full article over at the Dreamers & Fighters web site, where it will be joining the rest of the information on the site.
New York Archives is a pretty terrific magazine. You can get a look at its web site, http://www.nysarchivestrust.org/apt/magazine/archivesmag_winter2016.shtml.
Someone at the Board of Education, likely one of the early investigators, had a busy 2 days in Washington on January 24-25, 1951. A copy of the January 26, 1951 draft report on the visit in New York City’s Municipal Archives has a lot of detail and was “Respectfully submitted,” but there is no indication who “respectfully submitted” it or to whom it was addressed. Even so, it drops a bunch of names while describing visits to a who’s who of federal agencies and congressional committees engaged in the ever-expanding hunt for communists. It gives more than a hint of the incestuous relationships among local, state, and federal investigators as Cold War politics ginned up the New York investigations.
Saul Moskoff entered the picture a half-year later, over the summer. Records in the city’s archives make it clear that he wasted no time in building relationships with congressional committees, state troopers, New York police undercovers, and of course the FBI. I recently got almost 1,000 pages of FBI records via the National Archives some 4 or 5 years after I put in a FOIA request for them to the FBI. References to Moskoff, and working with him, are scattered through the pages.
Also in the Municipal Archives, there’s a “Dear Saul” letter from FBI agent Leo Conroy in August 1953, when he’d been assigned to FBI headquarters after working on anti-communist and security cases in New York. “I am sorry I didn’t get to see you before I left, however I do want to say it was a pleasure to work with you and John,” Conroy wrote. (“John” is likely John A. Dunne, Moskoff’s main investigator for most of his time at the Board.)
Conroy was 103 on the investigators’ Source Code list of police undercovers, FBI agents, and assorted informers, including teachers. Other specific FBI agents had source codes 101,102, 104, 105, and 106; 100 was labeled “genl,” and perhaps used to reference FBI information that didn’t come from specific agents the New York investigators worked with.(The Source Code list is in the Municipal Archives.)
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.
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
…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.
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….
The 1940-1942 Rapp-Coudert hearings in New York’s state legislature ended as the United States entered World War II with the Soviet Union as an ally. But they provided the model for the anti-communist investigations of the post-war period, and in the long term for investigations being carried out today by different government agencies.
Picking up again later in the 1940s, the investigations went local, carried out by city agencies and educational institutions around New York state – and for that matter in cities across the country. The Board of Education and the Board of Higher Education dismissed some teachers and professors in the late 1940s, while congressional hearings helped drum up public concerns over communism, setting the stage for the Cold War fears that dominated the next decade. Some teachers and college professors were caught up in both the Rapp-Coudert hearings and in those from the late 1940s-early 1960s that are the main focus here at Snoops & Secrets.
Superintendent William Jansen testified in some of these late 1940s congressional hearings. So did Board of Ed member George Timone, who was a key figure in driving the New York investigations. Jansen, some of his aides, and Board investigators handled things at first, with Saul Moskoff taking over as the legal issues became more complex. (For additional background on this time frame, see https://snoopsandsecrets.com/2012/08/26/teachers-under-investigation/ ).
The investigations followed a perhaps more legally rigorous, and more carefully planned, pattern once Moskoff took over in mid-1951. His files now held by New York’s Municipal Archives provide a clear record of his organizational prowess and his determination to root communists out of the school system. (It would be interesting – and useful – to know if any such detailed records exist in the other cities where these investigations took place.)
These sessions took place in an office suite Moskoff designed (specs are in the Municipal Archives), and according to procedures he laid out. In some cases, different assistant superintendents conducted follow-up questioning of uncooperative teachers in their offices in further efforts to get them to provide information.
Future posts will continue to draw on the teachers’ words and archive records in describing the investigations in more detail.
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…..