How the author became a 23 year old suspected traitor
For every American male of my age there lay waiting just behind the blind curve of the future the attention of his draft board. There were, to be sure, a number of ways to deflect this attention. One could get married, but I had no such prospect. One could claim disability or homosexuality, but I lacked the skill and guile to emulate the necessary injury or inclination. Finally, one could remain in, or return to, school. It is some measure of how dismally I had come to view formal education that I never seriously considered this alternative.
Which is not to say that I welcomed a tour of service. Far from it. For one thing, I had never lived in an all male community other than the atypical one of Harvard U. I had been raised among women, gone to co-educational schools and had only a vague notion of the conversation and conventions of male homogeneity. Further, most of my life I had been protected — albeit restless — in the safe places of my class, where gentility soothed discomfort and polite clichés brushed aside the awkward.
I was certain, for reasons I could not articulate, that the military would find me weak, cowardly and ridiculous. I suppose I imagined service as sort of like an endless game of softball on the unforgiving cement playground of Mifflin Elementary School — only with bigger bullies.
On the other hand, I didn’t really envy the fortune of friends who had attended all-male prep schools. In fact, some seemed surprisingly uncomfortable around women and childishly crude in speaking of them. If I had thought more about it, I would have realized that I was, in some ways, more sophisticated than they. I just didn’t know how to act as though I were.
There was nothing, however, to be done about it. One heard a few stories of a male passing his 23rd year without being snagged but these verged on the mythic and so even as I was happily pursuing a journalistic career I was preparing for it to come to an early and sudden halt.
I carefully investigated various possibilities and eventually settled upon application to Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. The Coast Guard was regarded by those who live near the sea not unlike a small community regards its volunteer fire department. Unlike the other services, the Coast Guard spent much of its time preparing to save human life rather than to eliminate it and although I did not consider myself a pacifist, the thought of actually killing someone sickened me. The root of my revulsion was not so much in ideology as in imagination; every time my mind tried to pull the trigger, the whole image and not the target would explode as though refusing even to tempt me.
I filled out the necessary forms and was interviewed by an ensign who had graduated from a small New England college. He assured me that spending three years as a Coast Guard officer was not much of a hardship, his argument made all the more convincing by his uniformed insouciance. I took an aptitude test which asked, among other things: “There are 24 chickens, horses and cows in a yard. There are three times more legs than heads. How many chickens are there?” The only answer I could think of was “to get to the other side” but that didn’t seem to fit.
Nonetheless, in due course, the preppie ensign informed me that I had been accepted and he welcomed me to the Guard. I needed, he explained, only to take a physical and await my security clearance. After being found without physical flaw, I began to prepare for my new life. I gave notice to WWDC and turned down, with enormous regret, an offer from Hartford Gunn, major domo of Boston’s public broadcast operations, to become station manager of WGBH-FM. Gunn, a pioneer of public broadcasting, was turning his attention to the rapidly growing potential of television and wanted me to take over the Boston public radio station. Later I would write a friend:
“I am becoming interested in WGBH and presently hope to work for them upon leaving the service. I’ve met with Hartford Guun, the manager, several times and am impressed with his goals and aspirations for educational readio and television. His current project is to set up an educational FM network that would stretch from Canada to North Carolina. The possiblities are verging on the limitless.”
Meanwhile, I waited. At first I waited for days and then I waited for weeks and then one day the preppie ensign called me to say that my entry had been delayed until the next OCS class. He was vague as to the reasons but after a couple of years as a Washington reporter such bureacratic delay raised no alarm.
I had, however, neither the money nor the desire to treat the intervening months as an extended vacation and so immediately began looking for work, which I soon found in a basement office of a row house on New Jersey Avenue SE, a few blocks from the Capitol. Out of this long, sunken, slovenly one-room den qua office was published Roll Call, a weekly paper for those thousands who worked on Capitol Hill. In the center of the room, with its low lights, brick wall, overstuffed bookcases and casual furniture, were three desks. The first would be mine for the next several months. The second was assigned to an ad representative who might or might not be employed at any given moment and if employed might or (more probably) might not be in the office depending upon the current status of her not inconsiderable array of personal problems which, according to the frequent testimony of the man behind the third and rearmost desk, were due to alcohol, insanity, sexual dysfunction and various other character flaws which in aggregate left him to sell the frigging ads as well as having to edit the whole damn paper himself.
This aggrieved man was Sid Yudain, the editor. He was tall, of medium build with wavy swept back hair and heavy black horned rimmed glasses He smoked a pipe and talked out of the tiny space remaining between his pipe stem and the right corner of his mouth and generally affected the manner of a Catskills comedian engaged in contract negotiations.
Roll Call was a free paper supported by advertising. Some of the advertising was paid for, some was run and not paid for, and some was published and eaten. Sid was a bachelor whose sole interest in cooking consisted of making coffee when no one else was around to do it for him. Among the purposes of the paper, therefore, was to feed the editor. Sid traded restaurant ads for free meals. It was a shrewd business move. While plenty of advertisers failed to pay for their ads, none refused to serve him.
Sid regarded my arrival as a possible break in his ill-deserved fortune and set me to writing what would sometimes be as many as a half dozen stories a week on such topics as a new 300-car parking lot for the Senate, hiring prospects in the next House of Representatives, and how the great iron dome of the Capitol gyrated several feet a day in response to the thermodynamics of the sun. One of my scoops was the discovery that 1,200 people could go to the bathroom at the same time in the brand new Rayburn House Office Building.
I enjoyed the work. Some of my siblings weren’t sure. My older brother wrote supportively that “most of the paper is junk” and my older sister noted that “you’ve joined the local rag sheet.” In a letter back to my family I defended myself:
“While objectively, both of you are correct in a way, I look at the matter in a different manner. Journalism has never been the art of the ideal. Its basic problem is that it attempts to perpetrate the truth, relying for financial support on readers, listeners, and advertisers, who have relatively little interest in the pursuit of this goal. It’s a bit like a priest being supported by the proceeds of a whorehouse. . . This paper is an unpretentious, happy addition to the lives of those it serves. I think you will find that it does not seek to delude, exagerate, or magnify.”
Sid also let me try my hand at writing humor and a column of whimsical shorts about life on the Hill, including this transcript of a conversation overheard in a House office building:
Matron (whispering) Could you tell me where the reading room is?
Guard (also whispering): We don’t have a reading room
Matron (still sotto voce): Isn’t this the Library of Congress?
Guard (stilLlikewise): No ma’am
Matron (out loud and with force): Then what are we whispering for?
Guard: (louder still): I don’t know, you started it.
On another occasion, I reported that “we’ve heard about parties that are so hip, everyone dances to Mort Sahl records.”
Even more pleasing was Sid’s acceptance of my contributions of light verse. One went:
I like to go down to the zoo
And there I sit and watch the gnu.
I’ve also noticed recently
The gnu has started watching me.
For hours we just share a stare
A happy unproductive pair
Economists we might impress
With our total uselessness.
Still it’s the G-N-U for me.
Let others boost the GNP
I went after the tobacco industry:
Salem says their cigarettes
The season’s change each year begets
But if one puff brings springtime, then,
Will a pack bring snow again?
Red hunters were the target of Waiter, I Think There’s a Subversive in My Soup:
Little men of little faith,
Claim they’ve seen the nation’s wraith
Fearing not atomic war,
But a coup by those next door
Everywhere lies hidden danger
Doubt the friend, doubt the stranger’
One fine day their cause they’ll smother
When they start to doubt each other.
And I filed this report on a national conference:
With whereas and with wherewithal
The graying ladies sternly call
Upon the past to come alive.
We listen not and still survive
Without a bruise, without a scar,
Conventions of the DAR
Literary weaknesses aside, the fact that such verse was published at all was somewhat surprising. While Senator McCarthy was gone by this time, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was still in operation and not generally considered something to laugh about.
Although Sid was a Republican, and a former aide to a GOP congressmember from Connecticut, he considered politics first and foremost a fraternity and entertainment; its ideological content was of tertiary concern at best. He seemed to know just about everyone on the Hill and treated them as neighbors and friends whose gossip he relayed in his paper. This did not mean he was unmindful of the business of politics — in fact he knew the specifics of elections as well as anyone I’ve ever met. In 1960 he correctly predicted the outcome of 426 of the 437 house races. He was 96.5% accurate and even declared five too close too call. They were, in fact, still in doubt several days after the election. Sid also found politics funny and had no objections if one of his writers wanted to suggest that the funny had, on a particular occasion, slipped into the absurd. After all, it was Sid who would take me over to the Carroll Arms Hotel to enjoy Mark Russell, a discovery he shamelessly promoted in the paper.
The Carroll Arms had been a ‘railroad hotel,’ situated between Union Station and the halls of Congress. Shelby Scates in his book, Maurice Rosenblatt and the Fall of Joseph McCarthy, reported that rooms in the hotel – where McCarthy aides Roy Cohn and David Schine lived on the top floor – went for as little as $10 a night as late as 1961. On the second floor was the notorious Quorum Club, a hangout for favored lobbyists of Senate Secretary and LBJ capo Bobby Baker. And in the bar was piano-playing comedian Russell who later told Scates that “In those days there was no satire on television, no irreverence. The barometer was good old Bob Hope.”
I had no trouble enjoying Russell’s puns, one-liners and dubious rhymes. In fact, I saw him as a challenge, which I finally fully met near Christmas time with an lyric work that, so far as I know, has yet to be surpassed. Called A Representative Christmas List, it was an ode containing the name of every member of the House of Representatives. The poem took a full page in Roll Call, with the print superimposed on a screened clip-art picture of Santa Claus. It committed such unpardonable offenses as rhyming bacchanal with Chesapeake & Oho Park Canal as well as asking “Herlong, oh Herlong America, must we suffer this?”
About 390 names into the poem, I ran short of ideas and copped out with “we might write a line that ran ” and then listed most of the remaining names followed by “”You see it’s going to rhyme but will it scan?” Then I closed out with:
Forget about that, let’s dance the flamenco
We made it from Abbott all the way to Zelenco
Only Christmas Day will tell
Whether Santa did as well.
I would continue to write columns and verse for Roll Call throughout my time in the Coast Guard using a pseudonym, but not long thereafter my muse crashed when my new wife hinted that she didn’t think it such a good idea to send out Christmas cards like the one that went:
Down the little snowflakes fall
Bringing hazards to us all
Spreading for the years to come
Particles of strontium.
Gently landing helter skelter
On each roof and fallout shelter
Permeating corn and beans
And eventually genes.
I really wouldn’t give a hoot
But three-eyed kids just don’t look cute
My career as a published poet was over.
Sid also believed, in a plain straight-forward fashion, in liberty. The silent part of the deal between us was that I was to be as free as he wanted to be himself. At WWDC, working for liberals, I had been ever conscious of the rules and limitations within which I functioned. Now, at Roll Call, working for a Republican, I felt far more free to do what I wished. It would not be the last time that I would stumble across such a paradox with conservative editors, one probably related to the way we sometimes treat a foreigner in a far more forgiving fashion than we do a relative or next door neighbor. We presume to know how the latter should act; the stranger is granted more leeway. I also came to suspect that many liberal editors had a hidden authoritarian streak while many conservative ones were covert anarchists.
In any case I soon had a chance to test fully the silent deal. One day the preppie ensign from the Coast Guard called and in a halting, embarrassed manner, told me that some questions had come up in my security investigation and that I would be receiving a letter about them. From his voice I knew I was no longer a much desired pledge talking to one of my future fraternity brothers. Something bad had happened. He said there was nothing more he could do and hung up.
On November 24, 1960, I turned 23. On November 25 I received a letter from the Commandant of the Coast Guard. Its subject: “Alleged associations or attributes of security significance.”
In military jargon, replete with passive voice and numbers and letters in parentheses, the Commandant of the US Coast Guard questioned my loyalty to the United States and indicated that he thought I might be a traitor.
My stunned eyes quickly darted to the accusations. Not one word concerned anything I had allegedly done, said or believed. I stood accused, in brief, of having been born to, and raised by, the wrong parents. My father had belonged to the National Lawyers’ Guild, my mother to the League of Women’s Shoppers. They had sent contributions to several organizations that later turned up on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations. Most seriously it would turn out (although there was no mention in the letter) they had known Alger Hiss and been good friends of his brother, Donald.
I was only momentarily relieved by the lack of personal accusations because in those days disloyalty was considered an inherited trait. The gods, said Euripides, “visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.”
I further knew, though shame’s iron no longer literally branded, that I had been indelibly marked. With the letter I held in my moistening fingers, I had become one of the permanently suspect.
Nothing, even vindication, could remove the brand. It would be hidden away in official cabinets, waiting for someone to flip through the S files until they came across mine. Would there be a special color on the tab or would one actually have to read the contents to find out that I was not to be trusted?
I knew I was not exaggerating. I had followed stories of the branded not so much out of curiosity about the ideological struggle but because I had come to hate bullying and McCarthy and those of his ilk were the chief bullies of the time. I had even known a few of the branded, such as my parents’ friend John Carter Vincent, one of the State Department “old China hands’ falsely accused of turning that country over to Mao. Each summer my parents would let the Vincents use one of their Maine cottages for a few weeks and as I watched the Vincents over time I knew it didn’t get worse, but it never got any better, either.
Years later, Richard Rovere would write of McCarthy: “He was probably the first American ever to be feared and actively hated on every continent. What he stood for — or was thought to stand for — seemed so ominous to Europeans that Winston Churchill felt constrained to work an anti-McCarthy passage into Elizabeth II’s Coronation speech.”
McCarthy accused the administrations of both Truman and Eisenhower of “treason” and described General Marshall as a “man steeped in falsehood” who was part of “conspiracy so infamous, so immense and infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man” and who would “sell his grandmother for any advantage.” The country’s leaders had long avoided tangling publicly with McCarthy, with Eisenhower saying privately that he would not “get down in the gutter with that guy.” Despite Harry Truman labeling McCarthyism “a method of conduct as hostile to American ideals as anything we have ever seen,” liberals generally acted with fear and trepidation. A young Jack Kennedy running for the Senate in a state with strong McCarthyite sentiment ducked the issue entirely. Only a few had the courage of Paul Porter, managing partner of the eminent Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter, who when asked at a congressional hearing whether it was true that his firm represented communists, replied, “Yes sir! How may I help you?”
At the beginning of 1954, just six years before I applied for the Coast Guard, McCarthy had a 50% approval rating in the Gallup poll. By December of that year he had been censured by the Senate.
In the end it would not be liberals, but practitioners of ancient conservative Yankee ethics like Senators Aiken and Margaret Chase Smith who would bring McCarthy to account. But no one, to the day this is written, would end or even slow the accumulation of dossiers. The man was gone, but the ism had become institutionalized. We would never again stop distrusting each other. o
I knew precisely what had happened to me and felt a sucking out of the soul of the sort that I imagined would precede death. Suddenly, I was only a person playing myself; a pit had opened into which had fallen all real joy, hope and passion. Now they were only things vaguely remembered.
The notion that my parents were communists or anything close was madness. The fact that the US government could take the notion seriously was worse. But before me lay the task of either defending, denouncing, or denying them and, on the slim record of 23 years, proving that I, too, was not what my government feared..
My father immediately hired a lawyer from Arnold & Porter and began scouring his files for evidence to counter the charges. For my part, I went into the basement office of Roll Call and admitted to Sid Yudain what I would tell hardly anyone else for decades — that the US government thought I might be a traitor. He chewed on his pipe and then said in a voice softer than usual, “That’s all right” and asked me what I was going to do about it. I explained about the lawyer and the security hearing and he nodded and then told me about a story he wanted covered. Sid had made up his own mind and nobody, certainly not the US government, was going to tell him otherwise. o
I never heard my parents or any of their friends express the slightest sympathy with the Soviet Union or Communist China. They fully supported — as well they might, since it was a liberal creation — the most costly and most deadly preparations ever made against a potential enemy. The notion that liberals sat around wishing we could be nicer to Stalin largely comes, in fact, from a small coterie of New York intellectuals who made careers of serial naivete — first in their idealism concerning communism and then in the excesses of their conversion to terminal reactionaryism. It paid well for some, but as the radio commentator Elmer Davis once noted, it seemed never to have occurred to them that they might have been wrong both times.
The interrogatory questions that demanded factual explanations of my parents associations were maddening but cut far less deep than some of the later queries:
10. Have your parents ever discussed with you their participation in these organizations which were dominated by Communists and supported the Communist cause?
11. State the names and addresses of Communist Party members and sympathizers with whom you and your parents have associated.
12. To what extent have your parents indoctrinated and influenced you concerning the politics of these and other Communist groups?
14. Did your parents ever make any books, documents or periodicals of the Communist Party or Communist front organizations available to you?
15. Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party? If so, who recruited you and what type of indoctrination were you given?
16. List all contributions made by you to the Communist Party, USA or any of its front organizations, and any remuneration you may have received for services rendered by you to it.
17. What are your views on Communism and the Communist Party?
I answered the questions and provided a narrative that attested to my parent’s loyalty, my outrage at the thought that anyone would question it and some samples of commentaries of a atypical conservative ilk carefully culled from WHRB and WWDC broadcast scripts. Then I addressed the questions of communism:
My parents, like myself, are completely and unalterable opposed to Communism and the Communist Party. But to call my parents anti-Communist is a little like calling a professor an anti-illiterate. It is just not an adequate description. An adequate description of my parents must take account of their steadfast effort to keep America a worthy alternative to Communism, Fascism, and every other dogmas that duels with freedom. To assert the contrary is unkind, unfair, and untrue. . .
If you could possibly believe, after studying the facts presented here, that any [subversive] attempt was made by my parents, the evidence strongly indicates that they failed miserably.
What questionable organizations have I joined? None.
In the more than one million words I have written for broadcast, where are those that show a softness on Communism?
In the weeks spent by USCG investigators talking to my friends and acquaintance was any predilection towards subversion discovered? I think not . .
In processing my application for Officer Candidate Schools, officials of the USCG passed favorably upon my intelligence, capability and physical soundness, all qualities any reasonable man has self-doubts about from time to time. Yet it is the things of which I am certain — my loyalty to my country, my opposition to all ideologies that would deny to men the freedoms granted by my country, and my desire to defend both my freedoms and my country — that are being questioned. It pains me that his should be so, but I do not shun the opportunity to reply with confidence. When this matter is completed, I hope it will be a confidence in which you will share.
My father, for his part, was no less angry at being impugned by the US government. He wrote a lengthy defense, emphasizing his family’s 300 year history in America, the loss of his brother in WWI and the similar fate of my mother’s brother, the numerous honors he had received, Supreme Court justices for whom he had worked, and important people who had written him nice letters. He noted other prominent individuals who had belonged to the Lawyers Guild (including several Attorneys General and two Supreme Court justices) and why his participation in various other organizations and friendship and/or contacts with communists were insignificant:
One question was addressed to my son as to the Communists or Communist sympathizers with whom we have associated. I met, casually, Lee Pressman, John Abt, and some others in the pre-1941 period. . . .
My son was asked about Alger Hiss, whom I knew but not intimately. We have known, and do know, Mr and Mrs. Donald Hiss. With regard to Alger Hiss, I contributed to his legal defense fund in the belief that he was entitled to a fair, full legal defense, and should not be prevented from it by a lack of funds. . . On the other hand, I told his counsel and others at the time, and at other times, that I was not convinced of his innocence, or of his guilt, but wanted the chips to fall fairly. . . .
There was something else in my father’s response whose significance I was too overwhelmed to note at the time but leaped out much later when I reopened my security file for the first time in years. It came in the part where my father was explaining his work at the Justice Department:
I stimulated the drafting by the Solicitor General’s department of the opinion . . . under which we seized, among other things, 10,000 copies of Lenin’s teachings. I reviewed for the Attorney General all the legislation relating to espionage and sabotage, and on July 2, 1941, made detailed suggestions covering (a) Nazi, (b) Communists, and (c) Italian and Japanese and other Fascist groups…
I led in Congress the successful submission by Justice in support of the broadening of the coverage of the Foreign Agents Registration Act to cover Nazis, Fascists and Communists when directed from abroad.
Prior to the outbreak of the war, with the FBI and the Attorney General, we established policies, and classified thousands of individual cases of Nazis, Japanese, Fascists, and Communists, in terms of danger. Incidentally, the FBI, on outbreak of the war, was able to arrest 3,000 persons in three days, an outstanding record…
I was also criticized by IF Stone in the Nation and by some in the department for my toughness on subversives.
In Justice at War, Peter Irons describes my father’s role this way:
Agents in all three intelligence agencies collaborated in compiling lists of “subversive” and “dangerous” aliens. These lists were funneled to L. M. C. Smith in the Special Defense Unit of the Justice Department, who prepared a master list
By mid-1941, the names of over 2,000 Japanese aliens appeared on the “ABC” list. This list received its informal name from the three categories into which it divided suspect aliens. Those in Group A were identified as ‘”known dangerous” aliens and had been the subjects of individual investigation. Many of those in this group achieved this designation because they occupied positions within the Japanese American an community considered to be influential, or because their work made them likely “fifth column” agents. According to Kumamoto, “those identities deemed sinister enough to warrant top billing included fishermen, produce distributors, Shinto and Buddhist priests, farmers, influential businessmen, and members of the Japanese Consulate.”
Those in Group B were considered “potentially dangerous” but had not been thoroughly investigated, while those in Group C “were watched because of their pro-Japanese inclinations and propagandist activities.” These lincluded Japanese language teachers, martial acts instructors, travel agents, and newspaper editors.
Six months after my father’s memo to the Attorney General, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and the first of 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to concentrations camps, a move supported by California Attorney General Earl Warren, Walter Lippmann and Time Magazine, which called California “Japan’s Sudetenland.”
Forty years later I would obtain government files containing further hints of my father’s involvement as chief of the department’s special defense unit. Thirteen days after Pearl Harbor, J Edgar Hoover wrote him concerning a German alien about whom the FBI had uncovered some information. Said Hoover, “In view of the above fact, advice is requested as to whether or not the apprehension of this individual is desired.” A note at the bottom, perhaps by my father, says, “Not at this time. 12/22/41.”
In another report, this same alien is ranked:
Will to Aid Enemy: 18 out of 25
Capability to Aid Enemy: 13 out of 15
Opportunity to Aid Enemy: 7 out of 20
Overt Acts: 31 out of 40
Numerical Rating: 69 out of 100
In March 1942 my father wrote Hoover advising him that the alien’s classification had been raised from B-2 to A-1, adding that “if additional information is received concerning this individual which necessitates further change in his dangerous classification you will be promptly advised.”
My father also assisted efforts to deport the radical labor leader Harry Bridges who led the longshoreman’s union and was briefly Pacific coast head of the CIO. The efforts failed.
And I found a directive to Hoover and the Assistant AG from the Attorney General in July 1943 that refers to one of my father’s memos in which he had reviewed the “history, development, and meaning of the special case work and of the danger classifications that were made as a part of that work.” The Attorney General declared:
It is now clear to me that this classification system is inherently unreliable. The evidence used for the purpose of making the classifications was inadequate; the standards applied to the evidence for the purpose of making the classifications were defective; and finally, the notion that it is possible to make a valid determination as to how dangerous a person is in the abstract and without reference to time, environment, and other relevant circumstances, is impractical, unwise, and dangerous . . . Accordingly, I direct that the classifications heretofore made should not be regarded as classifications of dangerousness or as a determination of fact in any sense. In the future, they could not be used for any purpose whatsoever.. . .
The Attorney General further ordered that a card be placed attached to each past classification starting that:
THIS CLASSIFICATION IS UNRELIABLE. IT IS HEREBY CANCELED, AND SHOULD NOT BE USED AS A DETERMINATION OF DANGEROUSNESS OR OF ANY OTHER FACT.
In 1999, a new book shed further light: Free Speech in the Good War by Richard Steele. Its underlying thesis was described in a Library Journal review:
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s three wartime attorneys general were lawyers with a reformist bent, and all shared a high regard for free expression. What made their stance unique was the limited framework in which they articulated their libertarian ideology. Enjoying their support were sweatshop workers, sharecroppers, and migrant laborers who coalesced as a group of marginalized Americans protesting workplace exploitation. They were joined by racial and religious minorities who were demanding protection from organized intolerance. Conspicuously absent were political organizations and groups that espoused views at variance with the war effort. The public’s negative perception of the various opposition movements combined with the power of a popular president to produce a Justice Department that selectively enforced the First Amendment. Rights and liberties are often strained during wartime, Steele notes, and World War II was no exception.
Of my father, Steele wrote:
In April 1940. . . the department announced creation of the Neutrality Laws Division. The new agency would be directed by Lawrence M. C. Smith, a 37-year-old graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School who had come to government in 1932 after a short period of private practice. Although he had investigatory experience from service on the Securities and Exchange Commission, there was nothing in Smith’s career suggesting a special interest in either counter-subversion or civil liberties. Jackson gave Smith, who would be remembered as an “idea man” and a planner, considerable latitude, telling him only to survey the situation in regard to sedition and foreign propaganda and do what was necessary to establish department policy to deal with the problems. The unit would review cases brought to its attention by the FBI, survey the statutes, and recommend to the attorney general-and through him to the 85 United States attorneys and the FBI-the appropriate courses of action. It would also compile, from files supplied by the FBI, a list of potentially dangerous persons who might be seized in case of national emergency. Over the next several years Smith would build the Neutrality Laws Division and successor operations into a large and important component of the department’s national defense apparatus. . .
The specter of department excesses in World War I hung over the undertaking. Jackson set aside a room in the Justice Department building in which documentation related to the department’s anti-radical and counter-subversion operations in 1917-20 was gathered for ready reference. The official who collected the data also gave Smith a study, based on these and other records of the era, that provided lessons concerning the things, as he put it, that “good government in time of crisis or war should seek to avoid.”
[Encounters with the past] strengthened Smith’s determination to prevent “excessive zeal against suspects by over enthusiastic United States Attorneys,” and to ensure a relatively disinterested balancing of national security and personal rights. The new office significantly changed the way the department would deal with persons suspected of disloyalty. . . By inserting Washington into the close cooperative relationship that hitherto existed between U.S. attorneys and the FBI agents in their districts, Jackson had undercut the power of both and greatly diminished the role of local political pressure in arrests and prosecutions for “un-American activities:’ . . .
The sub-headline of a New York Times story on the new unit declared “Civil Liberties In Mind, FBI’s Findings Face Scrutiny Before Any Authority for Prosecution Given.” Hoover immediately took exception to the implied criticism. Hurried consultations among officials produced a White House announcement insisting that Smith’s operation was intended to “help” the FBI and “not [to] overlap or subtract from anything.”
Steele also notes:
L. M. C. Smith, whose Special War Policies Unit was chiefly responsible for the department’s investigation of the divisionist press, reported to [Attorney General] Biddle that repeated sampling and analysis had revealed that the newspapers [under investigation consistently reflected only four of sixteen Nazi propaganda themes – not enough to warrant charging their publishers with sedition. Barring the journals from the mails was still possible, but this would have been an empty provocative gesture since none of the daily newspapers relied on the mails. Moreover, all were in a position to fight the government’s attempt and would no doubt point to the effort as further evidence administration’s dictatorial proclivities. The post office continued to monitor the divisionist press. but no issue was kept from the mail.
Biddle, for whom my father worked, was also a critic of plans to incarcerate Japanese on the west coast. Writes W Phillips Davison:
He also fought tooth and nail to prevent the confinement of West Coast Japanese in “relocation centers” after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. His argument was the same as in the case of other minorities. The United States has no right to vioate the civil liberties of law abiding citizens or residents just becauser they are members of a foreign language group. . . Members of thee Special Defense Unit and many other Justice Department personnel worked frantically to demonstrate that the reasons to justify forced relocation were insufficient. But to no avail.
In a 2004 paper, another academic, Takeya Mizuno of Japan’s Bunkyo University, took a look at the Roosevelt Administration’s role in the censorship of the Japanese language press during World War II. He found an internal struggle between what he called the “alarmist-exclusionist” group comprise mainly of the military who wanted all Japanese publications banned and those who were in the “liberal-pragmatic” group:
The other school of thought, which this article calls the “liberal-pragmatic” group, called for a more lenient and moderate approach. . . Liberal-minded officials . . . felt that the federal government was obliged to uphold the First Amendment freedoms even in time of war, although such freedoms need to be balanced against the public order and security. . .
One observer commented on their schism as follows: “There are those — reportedly in the War Department — who would suppress these [Japanese and other foreign language] papers altogether. The Justice Department, and other offices, apparently take a more lenient attitude.” . . .
Smith at that time was the Chief of the Special Defense Unit of the Justice Department and was one of the most active representatives of the liberal-pragmatic group. . . .Himself being a liberal thinker and also a close advisor of the Attorney General who one historian described “served as the administration’s conscience, reminding Roosevelt of the purist view of civil liberties,” Smith played an important role in defeating the alarmist-exclusionist group in this controversy.”
Nonetheless, as Mizuno concludes:
This was not to say that the Japanese-language newspapers enjoyed the full protection of press freedom amid the national turmoil after Pearl Harbor. Beginning from the day of “infamy” on December 7, 1941, the FBI conducted raids and arrests of leading Japanese American publishers and editors, which led to termination of a number of smaller publications. Some larger metropolitan newspapers survived this first surge of peril. But after all, they were also destined to stop operation due to the mass exclusion and incarceration policy, with which even the most civil libertarian faction within the administration had to compromise. As a result, the liberal-pragmatic group could save only a few small Japanese papers in Utah and Colorado where evacuation orders did not reach. . . All in all, the outbreak of war in the Pacific severely damaged, if not totally wiped out, the Japanese American ethnic press in the mainland United States.
Decades later, I came across a 1943 letter of recommendation from then Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. My father had been briefly seeking a commission in the Army (until friends convinced him he would be more useful as a civilian than as a Pentagon hack) and Jackson helped:
In May 1940, as Attorney General, I faced the problem of obtaining a chief for a staff to deal with the new and special problems developing because of the war abroad and our probably involvement in it. After rather careful investigation I selected Mr. Smith. He is a man of varied experience and broad learning, of unquestionable loyalty and integrity He remained one of the most trusted and helpful men on my staff until I left the office to become a member of the Supreme Court.
The Solicitor General, Charles Fahy, added some detail in his letter of recommendation:
Mr. Smith was in large part responsible for the formulation of plans for the alien enemy control program of the Department; he has been in charge of the administration, for the Attorney General, of the Voorhis Act; the analysis of the foreign language press; the relations with state officials in connection with cooperative Federal-State war activities; the development with the State Department of a security program. . . the coordination of important aspects of the security of shipping information; the analysis of alleged subversive and seditious publications with a view to prosecution for violations of statutes and restriction upon the use of the mail.
Perhaps Euripides was right. Perhaps the gods had visited me with a taste of what my father and his colleagues had visited upon people who had happened to be born of the wrong parents at the wrong time. If true, I had gotten off easily.
My father, of course, did not know that at home was a little boy who would one day be drawn into madness similar to that which had left him battling Harry Bridges and J Edgar Hoover at the same time or that the scars of that experience would help lead his son almost inexorably towards a career in the “divisionist press” of another time.
My father would never speak of the wisdom of the policies with which he was involved. My mother would strongly rise to his defense when, in her last years, there were increasing public discussions of incarcerated Japanese Americans. But then, neither my mother nor father had ever been given to self-criticism. They had been Cold War liberals even before there was a Cold War.
In the end, the government could find nothing more damaging in my past than a poor choice of nativity. The actual security hearing was not only anti-climatic, it was therapeutic. I found myself not in a room of Kafkaesque tormentors but with Coast Guard officers on temporary assignment to a job they didn’t enjoy that much and glad, in this case, that it was over. The chair of the security board was a Lieutenant Commander who had been buoy tender skipper and his only question was, “Do you think you have had enough math for the navigation course, Mr. Smith?”
Instead of talking about Alger Hiss, I found myself speaking of my teachers Miss Darnell and Mrs. Breuneger, not of my love of country but of my enthusiasm for numbers. The men around the table shook hands with me and wished me good luck. I held no grudge against them; all I wanted to do was to join them as soon as possible.
It was over and yet even as I left the room I knew it wasn’t. Somewhere forever there would be that file. Somewhere forever there would be someone who might remember that once something wasn’t quite right. Even then I knew what it meant. I had gotten in, but just. If I were to make a career of government, it would undoubtedly come up again — maybe years later when the job was something really important or something that I really wanted. If I were to run for public office, it might be irresistible bait to an opponent. And if I were to become prominent in the media, it might also come back. My life had changed forever.
And the scars weren’t only in my mind. When I had taken my first physical I had passed without a single problem. When I returned for a checkup after finally being accepted, my eyesight, blood pressure and blood sugar levels had all deteriorated beyond acceptable levels. I was no longer a security risk, but in the course of a only a few months had become a physical wreck. I knew then how bad it had really been. Thanks to a forgiving Public Health Service doctor, my true state was ignored and I was assigned to the February 1961 class at Officer Candidate School in Yorktown VA.
Over the years, it would stop mattering that much. I promised myself never again to humiliate myself in self-justification. I would avoid anything like this happening again. Now it was I who could not trust my government rather than the other way around. Strangely, a program designed to secure allegiance to the government had profoundly alienated me from it. Henceforth, whatever I did, I knew I would be on my own.
I was in a file.