Category Archives: Communism

Setting the Stage for Rapp-Coudert and the ‘50s

Heading into the 1920s and the Lusk Laws, the Board of Education’s demands for loyalty, patriotism, and adherence to democracy were matched by Teachers Union assertions that teachers were loyal, patriotic, and democratic. Some New York Times headlines in 1922 could almost provide an outline of the conflicts between the union and the board:

  • “Teachers Decry Secret Reports”
  • “Teachers Secretly Quizzed on Loyalty”
  • “Demands Justice For Two Teachers”

Those 2 teachers were Eugene Jackson and Austin M. Works, and the board was withholding the required certificates as to their loyalty and character that would enable them to continue teaching under the Lusk Laws. Both had served in the army during the war, and both were then teaching at De Witt Clinton. They were among several teachers caught up in the same bind.

Jackson, a modern languages teacher, kept his job, as did Wood. Both are mentioned in school news coverage in subsequent years. Jackson played an active and public role in the Teachers Union through the 1930s and 1940s. He was among the teachers caught in the mid-century probe, retired in 1952 soon after Saul Moskoff took over the investigation.

But the hunt for radical teachers in the schools continued through the 1920s and beyond; in effect it didn’t stop. Governor Al Smith signed the bill repealing the Lusk Laws in the spring of 1923. Even before he did, as the conflict over the repeal escalated, a Times headline proclaimed “Red Outbreak Tale Told to Governor.” And, after the repeal, in 1925: “Radicalism Taints Schools, Says Doty.” (Doty was dean of De Witt Clinton.)

With both communism and fascism ramping up overseas, the following decades saw the board and the news coverage far more concerned about the red menace, even as fascist forces grew more powerful in Germany.

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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

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.

Did She or Didn’t She?

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.

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…..