Copyright © 2012 Lisa Harbatkin
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.)
…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.
In early 1953, a New York City teacher called in for questioning confronted Saul Moskoff, the city lawyer who ran the anti-communist investigations from 1951 to 1958.
“Some of this information amazes me very much. I don’t know where it came from….” she told Moskoff, as she challenged his authority to question her loyalty and patriotism.*
The information in her file, “which tends to indicate your membership in the Communist Party,” as Moskoff summarized it for her, in fact came from Mildred Blauvelt, an undercover NY Police Department detective who had infiltrated several Brooklyn Communist Party clubs in the 1940s. “Blondie” and “Operator 51” on the Board’s informant code sheet, she worked with Moskoff in the 1950s. She also testified before HUAC, naming an impressive number of teachers and others, and apparently had extensive contacts with congressional investigators – as did Moskoff.
In addition to officers from NYPD’s Bureau Of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI) and the police commissioner, the cast of characters included FBI agents and state troopers. Board of Education members, superintendent of schools William Jansen, numerous Board of Education assistant superintendents, and several corporation counsels were also deeply involved in the investigations.
Information went back and forth among these agencies and individuals, revving up along with the Cold War spin machine that set the backdrop for the New York investigations and similar ones in cities across the country. (The History tab at www.dreamersandfighters.com offers a narrative description of the New York investigations and of what drew the teachers, and the Teachers Union, to the left and the CP, along with a timeline.)
Basic procedures called for a letter to go out over Superintendent Jansen’s name, directing teachers under suspicion to report for – uh – “interviews” to determine their fitness to teach the children of New York.
School administrators, including Jansen himself on a few occasions, conducted these sessions at first. It appears that the city’s Law Department became involved as the legal issues became more complex and as the Board deemed it necessary to hold public hearings on teachers who refused to cooperate. Moskoff was assigned to the job in July 1951. He remained until mid-1958, but kept his hand in on occasion as first another assistant corporation counsel, and finally his chief investigator, took over day-to-day management of the investigations.
* File accessed at the Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. Additional source materials used in this post are in NY’s Municipal Archives and the National Archives.
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.
You have to wonder. Cities have been playing “gotcha!” with teachers for more than a century. The latest rounds use flawed tests and inaccurate evaluation scores to drive education DEform, privatization, and union-busting.
In the early 20th century, in the years surrounding the 1916 founding of the Teachers Union (TU), charges of insufficient Americanism and too much internationalism led to teacher loyalty oaths, dismissals….and union-busting.
Held behind closed doors, the 1940-1942 Rapp-Coudert hearings called in and questioned some 500 college faculty and staff members and students. The goals were to route out communists and others perceived as dangerous subversives from public schools, colleges, and universities….and union-busting.
With time out for WW II, the investigations ramped up again in the late 1940s, and continued into the early 1960s. Cold War chill set in on teachers and other civil servants who were communists, socialists, or otherwise on the left. Or none of those. In New York, and cities around the country, local officials and often police departments got help from the FBI in deeply intrusive searches for names and more names. Once again the goals centered on getting rid of people with annoying political views. …and union-busting.
The parallels to current events – in education and in the broader political world – are all too clear Teachers, and other public workers, are in the political cross-hairs again, for still having reasonably strong unions and because of the persistence of school problems. Rather than attacking the root cause of those problems – poverty and its related social conditions — public officials in both major parties these days are teaming up with for-profit private interests against the public schools. From Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, Chris Christie in New Jersey, and other (mostly) Republican governors to the likes of Arne Duncan at the Department of Education and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the anti-education, anti-teacher private interests continue their crusades. Once again the goals are diverting attention from the impact of poverty. …and union-busting.
The more things (don’t) change…..
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…..