Five years before the 1951 Rosenberg-Sobell trial began, and shortly after the 1945 Allied victory in World War II, headlines in every world capital began to sound an alarm: the two greatest powers on earth – the United States and the Soviet Union – had begun to trade threats, each accusing the other of seeking world domination.
In March 1946, Sir Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri. The Soviet blockade of West Berlin followed shortly thereafter and the Berlin airlift began in response. In February 1948 the Soviet Union had occupied Czechoslovakia, and events in Greece had raised fears that armed conflict between the Western powers and the Soviet Union might break out in that area of the world.
Tensions also increased internally. Two and a half weeks before Churchill’s speech, a sensational story broke in Canada that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had launched an investigation into allegations that an atom spy ring was operating in Canada. Information would soon emerge that the source of the allegations was a former clerk in the Soviet embassy named Igor Gouzenko. The investigation would lead to dozens of arrests in Canada and the US and to many historians was really the opening salvo of the Cold War.
Prompted in part by the Gouzenko investigations, President Truman instituted a Loyalty Program for all federal employees as early as March 1947; Congressmen Karl Mundt and Richard Nixon had combined to sponsor a bill outlawing the Communist Party; and labor unions were wracked with charges of “Red” leadership, resulting in the wholesale expulsion of many militant leaders.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities played its own role in the political conflicts that were developing. In the summer of 1948, Elizabeth Bentley had submitted to the Committee her tale of Communist conspirators in the country; J. Parnell Thomas, then chairman of the Committee, said, years later, that the chairman of the Republican National Committee “was urging me in the Dewey campaign to set up the spy hearings . . . in order to put the heat on Truman”.
During the early years of the Cold War, the American public was bombarded with barbs and slogans that made communism a dirty word. Press headlines used the words “communist,” “Red,” “traitor,” and “spy” almost interchangeably. News stories, magazine articles, books, comic books, radio programs, pamphlets, academic seminars, press releases, corporate advertisements, legislative proposals, Congressional reports and government pronouncements, including declarations from the White House, speeches by public officials, sermons from religious (and nonreligious) pulpits, and the then-in-their-infancy TV programs — all spoke out, as if in one voice, against the menace of communism. Following the collapse of Hitler’s Third Reich, editors, publishers, and producers all targeted a new kind of villain: the “Red spy.” And yet, despite this barrage of warnings and accusations about “Red spies,” not a single communist had been convicted of espionage in an American court of law.
In February 1949, in another front of the Cold War, the People’s Court in Budapest imposed a life sentence on Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, Roman Catholic primate of Hungary, and several of his fellow co-religionist defendants for treason and other high crimes against the Hungarian communist government. Mindszenty’s case became an instant cause célèbre in the West, spurred by the edict of Pope Pius XII branding the proceeding as “infamous” and excommunicating all involved in the prosecution. In neighboring Bulgaria, the communist regime filed treason charges against fifteen Protestant leaders. Sporadically the American press reported state-sanctioned attacks against church groups in other east European communist governments.
Against such an international news backdrop, the Episcopal Church Council dismissed 74-year-old Reverend John Howard Melish after 45 years as rector of Holy Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, and his son, the church’s assistant pastor, the Reverend William Howard Melish. The younger Melish’s sin: he was chairman of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. The father’s: refusal to dismiss his son for that association.
Canadian Prime Minister Louis S. T. Laurent came to the United States in mid-February at the special invitation of President Harry Truman, and twenty-four hours later the two leaders announced plans to construct a “radar fence” in order to protect the United States, Canada, and Alaska from surprise air attacks. Another special Truman invitee was private citizen Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, who came to these shores on the three-year anniversary of his “iron curtain” speech. Once again, Churchill generated scare headlines when he told a sold-out audience at the Boston Garden that “thirteen men in the Kremlin” were singularly to blame “for the danger of another war.” This notion, that Kremlin schemers were threatening a worldwide conflagration, provided the underlying logic for the United States’s first peacetime, outside-the-hemisphere military alliance. With twelve western European nations, the United States created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Although Harry Truman characterized the NATO treaty as “a shield against aggression,” the Soviets sent identical notes to all signatories branding the treaty as an open act of aggression, in violation of the United Nations charter, “directed against the Soviet Union.” Chinese communist leaders—six months away from controlling all of mainland China—promised that their people would fight alongside their Soviet ally in the event of war. Claiming that the Sino-Soviet complaints were “absolutely untrue,” Truman’s rejoinder was to declare that he “wouldn’t hesitate” to use the atom bomb again if “the welfare of the United States and the democracies of the world are at stake.” Press comment during the early months of 1949 kept NATO—and its potential for turning a cold war into a shooting war—continuously in the news.
As 1948 ended, and the new Congress was set to convene, HUAC continued to spawn scare headlines about communist espionage. HUAC spokesmen, chiefly acting chairman Karl Mundt and Richard Nixon, repeatedly hit out at President Harry Truman’s original characterization of the Committee’s investigation as a “red herring.” They claimed that but for the Committee, Truman and his Justice Department would have managed to “cover up” Whittaker Chambers’s spy allegations.
HUAC generated major news stories by releasing, in carefully selected installments, copies of Chambers’s “pumpkin papers” that were offered as solid evidence of Hiss’s guilt. HUAC issued a twenty-five-page summary of its accomplishments during the 80th Congress, boasting that its reports were printed in full or in major part throughout the country, maintaining that communist spies were continuing to supply microfilms of secret government documents to Soviet agents, and charging that the “inadequacy” of existing prosecutorial and legislative “machinery” was alarmingly demonstrated by the fact that no one had been charged with such crimes — with Alger Hiss being “the single notable exception.”
Also published at the end of 1948 was a 120-page HUAC report titled “Soviet Espionage Within the United States Government.” This report reproduced the pumpkin films and the Baltimore papers, claimed they had been decoded from “the most secret diplomatic codes of the United States,” stated that the documents had come from Hiss’s office, and declared that it had been “conclusively established where and on what machine these documents were typed.” Variations on this theme were orchestrated by HUAC in five separate reports published early in 1949 under an overall title “One Hundred Things You Should Know About Communism.”
On December 20, five days after Hiss’s indictment, Laurence Duggan, 44, president of the Institute of International Education and a State Department official from 1930 through 1944, fell to his death from his Fifth Avenue office in New York City. HUAC immediately exploited the tragedy. Senator-elect Karl Mundt issued to the press Isaac Don Levine’s secret testimony of December 8 asserting that Whittaker Chambers had identified Duggan to Adolf Berle in 1939 as “one of six men from whom Communists had obtained secret documents.” A reporter asked whether the Committee would disclose the other names identified by Chambers. Mundt replied: “We will give them out as they jump out of windows.” Duggan’s death was a major story for days on end. Isaac Don Levine staged a press conference of his own to warn that Chambers’s connecting Duggan to the spy apparatus showed that Soviet espionage was much greater than generally believed.
When HUAC was reconstituted under Democratic control in the 81st Congress, with John S. Wood of Georgia as chairman and Richard Nixon as the lone Republican holdover from the 80th Congress, communist-spy hunting became truly bipartisan. The Committee’s first act in the 81st Congress was to issue a report recommending passage of a Communist-control bill, similar to Mundt-Nixon, because, HUAC’s report stated, the two principal goals of the Communist Party were espionage and treason. Mundt and Nixon promptly drafted a joint House-Senate bill, an updated version of their bill that was defeated in 1948. The new measure proposed that all communist and CP “front” organizations register with the Justice Department and affix the label “Communist” to their publications and mailings. It prohibited anyone designated [how? by whom?] as a “communist” or “subversive” from holding public office or obtaining a passport, and proposed that a $10,000 fine and/or ten-year imprisonment be imposed on individuals or organizations for each violation.
Another HUAC proposal, introduced in March by HUAC’s new Chairman Wood, would have made it a crime for any federal or defense-plant employee to read the literature of the Communist Party or of any “front” group.
Throughout the first half of 1949, HUAC issued a stream of reports designed to demonstrate that communist-orchestrated spies were currently operating inside the U.S. government, the United Nations, and America’s defense plants to obtain top military and diplomatic secrets for the Soviets. In the spring of 1949, and continuing for ten weeks until the beginning of the first Hiss trial, the Committee staged a series of hearings dealing with allegations that United Nations employees were engaged in Soviet espionage — charges that were accompanied by reminders that Alger Hiss was the founding secretary of the United Nations.
At the end of April 1949, at the urging of the Justice Department, HUAC called for new legislation to prevent espionage activities and recommended secret hearings for all spy-related matters on the ground that Congressional public hearings helped alert spy suspects. At the same time, the U. S. Civil Service Commission added 36 new organizations to the Attorney General’s “subversive” list—putting further into question the “loyalty” to the United States of anyone who had once supported the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, defended political prisoners, signed a communist petition, and/or belonged to any labor, religious, veterans, or ethnic group that Tom Clark’s Justice Department now deemed a threat to national security.
Truman’s inaugural address on January 20, 1949, promising that the United States would continue to challenge Soviet aggression, was so strident in anti-communist, anti-Soviet rhetoric that former vice president Henry A. Wallace publicly denounced it as “a declaration of war.”
One of the sharpest indicators of the now-solidified bipartisan approach to communist issues, foreign and domestic, was revealed when a question arose at a White House press conference in early February about the current prosecution of the entire leadership of the American Communist Party. Truman was asked to comment on a statement made by two defendants, William Z. Foster and Eugene Dennis, warning that “American imperialism” threatened to “plunge the world into war” and proclaiming that the CPUSA would oppose such “unjust, aggressive” action and would “cooperate with all democratic forces to . . . bring such a war to a speedy conclusion.” Asked by a reporter what he thought of the statement, Truman replied: “I have no comment on statements by traitors.”
In The New York Times’s lead front-page story, W. H. Lawrence speculated that the President’s comments meant that the government might be planning “even stiffer prosecution” of Communists.
Back in 1947, Attorney General Tom Clark made news in February 1947 when he revealed to the House Un-American Activities Committee that currently under investigation as suspected spies were 833 foreign-born American citizens. Soon afterward, at a White House press conference, Clark revealed that the Justice Department was submitting legislative proposals for the incoming 81st Congress to strengthen the Espionage Act of 1917 by expanding the FBI’s ability to track down “subversives,” by loosening legal requirements for wire-tapping, and by eliminating the statute of limitations in espionage cases. The Justice Department’s annual report revealed that between March 1947, when Truman’s Executive Order Number 9835 went into effect, establishing the loyalty program, and the end of 1948, 2,342,922 government employees had been investigated by the FBI; and that 7,667 government employees were currently being questioned about “derogatory information” uncovered about their political activities.
Truman’s Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) played a significant role — through press releases, official reports, legislative proposals, criminal prosecutions, deportations, etc. in intensifying public fearful concerns about communists, spies, and traitors.
At the beginning of 1949, the Justice Department initiated a series of prosecutions in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., against eight American citizens, charging them with acts of treason committed during World War II in Germany, Italy, and Japan, anywhere from four to eight years earlier. With their attendant indictments, pleadings, trial testimony, verdicts, imposition of prison sentences, etc., these prosecutions put treason — the only crime defined in the Constitution—into almost daily public awareness prior to Hiss’s first trial and beyond. These treason cases helped strengthen the public’s everyday acceptance of the concept that Americans of privileged family background, and products of the nation’s finest universities, were willing to betray their own native country for an enemy nation..
The public’s anxieties about communists were heightened further during the spring of 1949 by three months of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The subject was an anti-Communist bill proposed by Democratic senator Patrick A. McCarran of Nevada, the powerful, conservative chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A parade of FBI informants, former communists, and ex-Soviet officials presented headline-grabbing variations on the theme of communist espionage. Defectors from the embassies of Poland, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union testified that Soviet and Eastern bloc diplomacy in the United States was, as one defector worded it, “nothing but a legalized espionage and subversive network.” The result was the Internal Security Act 1950. The law set t set up detention camps, allowing indefinite detentions in the camps of people never tried for any crime solely because there was “reason to believe” that they might in the future aid a communist takeover etc etc. Ironically, under the act, the number of Communist Party detainees would be a vanishingly small percent of the number of people detained, so in effect in the guise of attacking a “foreign” ideology, the McCarran Act perpetrated an attack on an entirely indigenously American ideological system based on the Constitution and, in particular, on the Bill of Rights.
Inevitably, such Cold War–propelled events, escalating week by week, gave rise to a great many assaults on the First Amendment freedoms written into the Constitution of the United States. Tenured professors were fired. Reporters on major newspapers were required to sign a “loyalty” oath as a condition for obtaining a press card. State legislatures enacted laws subjecting communists to imprisonment for the “crime” of belonging to the Communist Party. In California ten Los Angeles residents were sent to jail for refusing to answer a grand jury’s questions about their political beliefs. In some states the signing of a loyalty oath—denying present or past membership in any organization on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations—was a precondition for practicing law.
The New York State Assembly banned the use of public property to any organization included on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations. The public utility giant Consolidated Edison pressured the militant Utilities Workers Union (a member of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO) to agree to a contract requiring all job applicants to sign a loyalty oath. Four other CIO labor unions discharged a preeminent labor attorney, Harry Sacher, who had been their lawyer for many years, because of his representation of two defendants in the ongoing trial of Communist Party leaders. In Germany, the U.S. Army dismissed a political analyst for the American Military Government in Berlin for his radical politics even though, as he complained, he was vociferously anti-communist. The state chairman of the California Committee on Un-American Activities released a 709-page report identifying as Communists and CP sympathizers scores of Hollywood luminaries, including Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, John Houston, Katharine Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Artie Shaw, Danny Kaye, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Such news stories stiffened public attitudes, but the event that mattered most of all was the first trial in American history of an American political party. Since its founding in 1919, the U.S. Communist Party had presented candidates for public office and had operated legally and openly. But now, in 1949, its entire leadership found itself in the dock. For ten months, from January until October, the trial of eleven leaders of the Communist Party in the federal courtroom at Foley Square in New York City before federal judge Harold Medina was a major news story.
The government charged the CP leaders with having conspired to teach and advocate a program for the overthrow of the U. S. government by force and violence. A parade of government witnesses—mainly ex-communists (many having become FBI informers before joining the Party) and interpreters of the writings of Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin—took the witness stand. They avowed that the CP was directed from Moscow and dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government; that cadres of Party leaders were sent to a Soviet espionage training school; that Party schools in the U.S. instructed members on such subjects as the use and construction of bombs, means and methods of stirring up hatred against corporations, the army, and police, and to expect that American streets “must run red with blood” as they had in Russia in 1917. Further, they testified that plans were in place for a second American revolution, this one to coincide with the Soviet Union’s invasion of the United States through Alaska.
No such truly subversive attitudes and policies were apparent to the naked eye, prosecution witnesses explained, because the Party employed “aesopian language” to mask its true intentions. Week after week, such allegations were a continuing major news story—oftentimes positioned by establishment newspapers alongside a Congressional “spy” revelation. All this resulted in more demonizing of communism and Communists, capped by the jury’s verdict of guilty against all eleven defendants —and Judge Medina’s prompt sanction against the entire defense counsel for contempt of court, resulting in prison terms of six months to a year for six attorneys who had been guilty of mounting a vigorous defense of their clients.
The political case with arguably the most powerful impact on existing public opinion at the time of the Hiss trials was that of Judith Coplon, a 27-year-old employee of the Justice Department. A native of Brooklyn, New York, and an honors graduate of Barnard College, Coplon first came under suspicion in September 1948, when the FBI learned that she had been seeing a 32-year-old Russian, Valentin A. Gubitchev, a diplomat employed by the United Nations. For the next six months the FBI kept her under surveillance and tapped her office and home telephones. On March 4, 1949, FBI agents arrested Coplon and Gubitchev [the couple] in the dark of night on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The Justice Department announced that she had in her purse secret government documents she had unlawfully removed from her office, and that for months she and Gubitchev had been plotting together to commit espionage. The couple’s arrest, blazingly reported in 48-point banner newspaper headlines across the nation, served as clear, unmistakable proof that Soviet penetration of the U. S. Government was still very much ongoing in 1949, inside the Justice Department and on the sidewalks of New York.
Coplon was a defendant in two lengthy criminal trials: in Washington, D.C., for the alleged unlawful removal of government documents from the Justice Department; and in New York, for allegedly conspiring with Gubitchev to commit espionage. The indictments, pleadings, pretrial hearings, and courtroom testimony made the case a major news event for more than a year. Coplon was convicted in the Washington trial and the couple was convicted in New York. But neither Coplon nor Gubitchev ever served a day of a prison sentence. He was to return to the Soviet Union on condition he file no appeal to the verdict, and both of her convictions were set aside on appeal because of many illegalities alleged to have been committed by FBI agents—a court verdict, it may be inferred, that the government did not challenge, for it never again brought her to trial.
In February, 1950, less than three weeks after the conviction and sentencing of Alger Hiss, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy told an audience that he had in his hand a list of 205 known members of the Communist Party who were influencing policy in the State Department, and suddenly the anti-communist hysteria had a face and a name.
In September, 1948, HUAC held executive-session hearings on what a Committee spokesman announced three weeks before the hearings began was “evidence in Committee hands point[ing] to the fact that the atom bomb secret was handed over to the Reds.”
On September 27, after four weeks of secret hearings, the Committee issued a 20,000-word report, claiming that its investigation had established conclusive proof of the existence of four separate atom-bomb spy rings, organized by Russia and made up of “misguided and traitorous domestic sympathizers.” The Committee’s report named eleven Americans as Russian espionage agents.
One ring was made up of Clarence Hiskey, professor of chemistry at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute; his former wife, Marcia Sand Hiskey; and Dr. John H. Chapin, a chemical engineer who had been employed during World War II on the Manhattan Project. The Committee’s report said that the Hiskeys and Chapin had been part of a conspiracy “to divulge secret and classified information relating to the atom bomb project to a Soviet espionage agent.”
Five other Americans were named as conspirators in another branch of the “Communist espionage apparatus” operating in the United States: Victoria Stone, Julius Heiman, Eric Bernay, Samuel Novick and Dr. Louis Miller. They were said to have conspired to obtain for delivery to Russia “highly secret information regarding the atomic bomb plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as well as other vital information regarding the development of atomic energy in other countries.”
A third Communist spy apparatus was alleged to have “operated on the Pacific coast,” and to have involved Steve Nelson, an official of the United States Communist Party, and a member of the faculty of the University of California identified only as “Scientist X.” Nelson was described as a “Communist espionage agent who was engaged in securing information regarding the development of the atom bomb,” and the Committee charged that “Scientist X” had turned over to Nelson for delivery to Russia “a formula of importance in the development of the atom bomb.”
A fourth spy apparatus was said to have centered around Dr. Martin D. Kamen, professor of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis. Assigned to the Manhattan atom bomb project during World War II, Kamen was said to have given “classified information” to two Soviet officials in San Francisco in 1944.
The Committee charged categorically that these eleven American citizens had engaged in wartime espionage, a crime punishable by death. However, it is now apparent that these horrifying charges were false. Not a single one of these persons was ever indicted for espionage. No formal criminal charges were ever brought against Marcia Sand Hiskey, Dr. John H. Chapin, Victoria Stone, Julius Heiman, Eric Bernay, Samuel Novick, Dr. Louis Miller and Dr. Martin Kamen. And what happened to the other three is perhaps most revealing of all. Two years after the issuance of the report, Clarence Hiskey and Steve Nelson were indicted, not for espionage but for contempt of Congress. Brought to trial on this charge, Hiskey was acquitted in April 1951 and Nelson was acquitted in February 1952. In 1951 “Scientist X” was identified as Dr. Joseph M. Weinberg and he was brought to trial in 1953 on a charge of perjury for denying, in secret testimony before the Committee, that he had ever been a member of the Communist Party. Dr. Weinberg was acquitted.
The most shocking part of the report was the responsibility it fixed on the Democratic Party for having allowed such spy activities to flourish. The report accused the Truman Administration of having made efforts “to withhold from the American people . . . information as to the existence of the Communist espionage apparatus in the United States and as to its activities during World War II.” The Administration’s failure to prosecute members of this “espionage conspiracy,” who had handed over to Russian agents “the very secrets of the bomb itself” was proof, according to the Committee, that the Democratic Party was indifferent to spy activities on Russia’s behalf. Thus:
The full story of the Soviet espionage conspiracy in the United States during World War II cannot be told by the committee. It cannot be told because of the Presidential directive. Congress has been denied access to the evidence in the files in the Executive branch of the Government.
The silence up to now as to the existence of that conspiracy and what it sought to accomplish has been tantamount to a representation to the American people that espionage against the development of the atom bomb just did not exist. A representation such as this in a free country, where such representation is palpably at variance with the facts, is un-American.
On September 23, 1949, President Truman announced the Soviet Union had “within recent weeks” exploded its first atom bomb. If an atom bomb had actually exploded on the dome of the Capitol itself the shock could hardly have been greater.
While the news had long been expected among government officials and journalists in the know, HUAC Chairman John S. Wood of George interpreted the President’s announcement to mean that only spies could have made the Soviet explosion possible. He promised a report “proving” that the Russians “had every opportunity to get America’s atomic energy “secrets.”
One week after Alger Hiss was sentenced to prison in January 1950, a page one headline in The New York Times proclaimed, “British Jail Atom Scientist After Tip By FBI; He Knew of Hydrogen Bomb.”
The scientist arrested was Klaus Fuchs. The FBI was now on the trail of his alleged co-conspirators. The Rosenberg Case had begun.