Copyright © 2012 Lisa Harbatkin
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
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.