Category Archives: William Jansen

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

Building on Rapp-Coudert

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.

Deportable?

“Dear Mr. Moskoff,” M.F. Fargione, acting head of the Investigations Branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, started his February 10, 1954 letter. He continued: “This Service is conducting investigation regarding persons who may be deportable or whose citizenship may be amenable to cancellation because of their connections with the Communist Party.” The letter goes on to request Board of Education records on “foreign born or naturalized United States citizens, who resigned during the past two years while under investigation…with particular reference concerning their place of birth and citizenship status.” *

Kinda scary, right? Moskoff sent a memo to schools superintendent William Jansen asking if he was authorized to provide the requested information. Jansen aide David J. Swartz wrote Moskoff that Jansen approved, but with a caveat: “that you be very careful to make sure that the names of those who resigned are kept extremely confidential. He asked this because in some instances we had little data and, therefore, a very poor case.” * 

We’ll leave aside the question of whether the poor information refers just to that on citizenship status or the broader range of material collected on each teacher. We’ll be back to that in future posts, although it’s worth noting for now that, as dedicated to rooting communists out of the schools as he was, Moskoff did, sort of, make an effort to be accurate — at least to the extent possible given some of the sources of that information.

In any case, on February 16, Moskoff responded to Fargione, noting the need for complete confidentiality. “If you will communicate with Mr. John A. Dunne, Chief Investigator assigned to this unit, he will arrange a conference to discuss the details.” *

Additional contacts took place as late as 1959, after Moskoff had left and under a new schools chancellor. It’s not clear exactly when from the archival materials, but at some point lists of teachers’ names were assembled. They first included most of those forced out, and were then winnowed down to include just those born overseas, with  data on them including places of birth, naturalization details, their addresses, marital status, and, of course, their known years of association with the Communist Party. Those born overseas came from Russia, Eastern Europe, and England, and  most were naturalized on their fathers’ papers.

* Accessed at New York City Municipal Archives.