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Washington Gestapo II | The Nation

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Washington Gestapo II

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I first set eyes on a government investigator early in 1940. He was tall, bespectacled, humorless, and he eyed me sharply as he was directed to my desk in the office where I work as a minor government executive. I was cordial in my greeting and rather excited at the prospect of aiding in a man-hunt against some desperate criminal. I sat back in my chair expectantly as he produced notebook and pencil.

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"We are investigating Bill Smith," the investigator said, "and I understand you can give us some information about him." I smiled incredulously. Bill Smith has been a friend of mine since we were boys together, and I know no one more law-abiding, honest, and virtuous. But to the FBI he had become a government employee under suspicion of "subversive connections or being linked to Communist organizations." This was not apparent to me immediately; I suspected it as I was being questioned, and the suspicion was confirmed later by the seventeen-page report on Smith which eventually reached our office, transmitted by J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The investigator asked me a number of routine questions about Smith. His age? How long had I known him? His education? His marital state? Then a curiously fanatical look came into his eyes. Could I tell him why Bill Smith had grown a beard? What did he have to conceal? (He was trying to hide a receding chin about which he is inordinately self-conscious.) Why did he sometimes use an alias instead of his real name? (When we were boys and played on the sandlot baseball team we nicknamed Bill "Hicky" after some now forgotten pitching hero, and the name has stuck.) The FBI had received a report that Smith had installed powerful radio apparatus in his home. What could I say about that? (It was perfectly true that Bill's apartment was cluttered up wlth loudspeakers and amplifiers. But his radio was specially designed to receive high-fidelity broadcasts from a New York radio station that broadcasts record concerts. I said I believed that his set was patterned after specificatlons given by B. H . Haggin in his music column in The Nation.) Did he seem to play only Russian music on his phonograph? (I have often deplored Smith's devotion to Tschaikowsky.)

"You say Smith reads The Nation?" The investigator pounced on my earlier comment. "Why, yes," I replied, "I think he has subscribed to it for years." My questioner made a note of this in his notebook. "Does he subscribe to any other subversive publications?" I said I did not regard The Nation as subversive. What made him think it was? He changed the subject quickly. Why did Smith sometimes have Communist newspaper stories on his desk? (They came in bales from the government clipping agency, which sends us everything that appears in print on the subject with which we are concerned.) Does he make a habit of frequenting Russian or foreign eating places? (I had to confess that Smith had often praised shashlik, but thought it better to suppress his preference for Russian dressing on his salad.)

The investigator seemed stung by my increasing inability to take these questions as seriously as he meant them. I asked their purpose. He said that they were to determine Smith's character and Americanism. Then he became slightly bellicose. Did I think it was good Americanism to be always agitating for unionism? Did I know that Smith was reported to have said that all government employees ought to belong to unions? Was I aware that Smith was said to have supported sending medical aid to the Spanish Communists? Hadn't Smith made radical statements about our government, such as that "men like Mayor Hague are unfit to hold office"?

Seeing that my irritation was doing Smith no good, I adopted a conciliatory manner and told the investigator at length my reasons for knowing that Smith was a good citizen. But he went away no more satisfied with my answers than I was with his questions. And without having ever seen Smith he prepared a report which indicated that Smith had Communist tendencies.

In Smith's case I was easily able to show that the charges against him were completely without substance and provided no grounds for ousting him from government service. Hundreds of other government employees have been less fortunate in the same circumstances. Lacking old friends to defend them, they are out of jobs today, under the undeserved stigma of disloyalty, merely because spiteful and malicious persons have maligned them in secret to government sleuths whose standards of "good character" and "loyalty" are those of Father Coughlm and Elizabeth Diliing. Smith is still working at his job, but the dossier on him remains in government files. It is available to any reactionary Congressman who wishes to attack him or the agency for which he works.

 

My encounter with the investigator who scented subversion in a liking for Russian food and the "Pathétique" was followed by so many similar incidents that I made it my business to find out to what extent my experience was typical of that of others. The chief agencies active against government workers, I learned, are the Civil Service Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "This police work," as Civil Service Commissioner McMillan has called the investigation of government employees (1942/522),* is divided almost equa!ly between these two agencies. The commission assumes the right to authorize the appointment of persons to the federal service or their transfer from one job to another "subject to character investigation" (1943/765). Persons already in the service against whom complaints are made, usually by an anonymous letter or telephone call to the FBI or Civil Service or by undercover informants employed by those agencies, are investigated by the FBI.

This jurisdictional line of demarcation is more apparent than real. Actually, the investigative agencies work hand in hand with each other and the witch-hunting committees of Congress. Civil Service Commissioner Arthur S. Flemming testified before the House Appropriations Committee: "We tie in with the FBI. We tie in with the Dies committee and with Military Intelligence and Naval Intelligence. There is exchange of information all around" (1943/768).

At the same hearing Flemming told Joe Starnes of the Dies committee: "We have had the finest kind of cooperation from the Dies committee on the various investigations we have conducted" (l943/764).

Attorney General Biddle likewise hailed this cordial entente: "The Dies committee has been most cooperative. They have given us everything that they had" (DJ1943/189).** The FBI's area of cooperation also takes in Military and Naval Intelligence, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and contact men on "practically every law-enforcement agency" throughout the country (DJ1943/189). One of these contact men, it turned out, was the notorious labor spy and chief of the Los Angeles "red squad," William F. (Red) Hynes.

Commissioner Flemming has told Congress that he spends practically all his time now on war matters, that the investigation of government employees "is a function that I have been very much interested in," that he personally reads the reports of his investigators (1942/522, 528, 529). A passion for investigating government workers developed in the commission almost immediately after he became a member in 1939. Previously, Flemming had been associated for over four years with David Lawrence, who has often used his column to attack the personnel of the New Deal.

Before Flemming took the investigation of government workers under his wing, the commission's Division of Investigation confined itself to the verification of references, qualifications, and other statements made by applicants for government employment. For this necessary task four or five investigators and two dozen clerks and stenographers sufficed until 1939. In December of 1941 the number of investigators had grown to 400. Soon Flemming reported to Congress that he could use at least 1,000 (1943/766-67). Since then the staff of subversion-seekers has been steadily augmented.

On several occasions Hemming has discussed the philosophy of his investigations with Congress—always enveloping the subject in the pseudo-scientific lingo dear to the hearts of personnel men. His investigators are not seeking violations of law, he has explained; they are trying to detect persons of "weak character" and prevent them from serving the government and causing "bad situations" (1942/330). "It is important," he has insisted, "to do everything we can to prevent undesirable persons from getting into the service and creating difficult situations" (Ibid.). "They may have had no association with Communists, Bunds, and so on, but if they have a weak character . . . we are eliminating that type of person . . ." (1942/529-30).

"Weak character" and "difficult situations" are ingenious euphemisms, as is proved day in and day out by the investigators' questionings and the reports they write. Having read more than fifty reports of Civil Service hearings and talked to more than one hundred investigators, I can say flatly that "weak character" is double talk for liberal or progressive views, while "difficult situation" means that a person of liberal views has obtained government employment despite the vigilance of the Civil Service.

An applicant may be eliminated from the service on the basis of information obtained not only from former employers but also from unfriendly neighbors. A man who plays his radio after neighbors are in bed, or has a crying baby or barking dog, or refuses to lend money or a lawnmower to a neighbor, does so at the possible peril of his livelihood. In one case a Scotty slipped his leash and uprooted plants in a neighbor's garden. The neighbor told an investigator that the dog's owner was obviously a man of "low moral character," and this was solemnly reported by the investigative agency to the man's employers.

That rare fellow who is the darling of his neighbors, employers, foremen, superintendents, and janitors may none the less be listed in the files of the Dies committee, which are largely based on mailing lists, subscription lists, and newspaper clippings. If so, he is subject to another blackballing procedure. The Civil Service Commission values so highly the dubious files of Martin Dies—said by Representative Stefan to contain 750,000 names (DJ1943/19, 128)—that it has maintained a full-time employee in the filing rooms of the committee merely to facilitate its use of information assembled by Dies.

We shall perhaps never know how many American citizens have been the victims of Civil Service investigative hysteria. One report to Congress, however, indicates that the number is in the tens of thousands. On December 11, 1941, Flemming told the Appropriations Committee that since June, 1940, the commission had declared "approximately 8,000 [persons]—7.5 per cent [of those investigated]—ineligible on loyalty grounds or because of connection with subversive organizations. This indicates, of course, that subversive connections are one of the primary items we take into consideration in connection with our investigations" (1943/766). It should be remembered that there is no legal definition of "subversive connections" or even of "subversion." Flemming's investigators apparently rely chiefly on their library of such texts as Elizabeth Dilling's "The Red Network," Joseph J. Mereto's "The Red Conspiracy," Lucia R. Maxwell's "The Red Juggernaut," R. M. Whitney's "The Reds in America," and Martin Dies's "The Trojan Horse in America."

 

The operations of the FBI against federal employees have seen a growth parallel to that of the Civil Service Commission. In January of 1942 Attorney General Biddle told Congress: "I was confirmed on September 6, 1941. One of the first things I did was to...[institute] a new system of examination of all alleged subversive employees in the government." Soon afterward $100,000 was made available by Congress to the FBI to finance this large-scale inquiry. A list of 1,300 government employees was obtained from the Dies committee, and according to J. Edgar Hoover, 3,700 names were immediately added to the list by the FBI (DJ1943/127). "When we hear of some particular government employee who may belong to a 'subversive' organization we add that name to this list for investigation. In other words, this list is not closed" (DJ1943/129). The source of these names was indicated by Biddle: "Of course many of these complaints are without foundation. Thus we get quite a percentage of complaints from disgruntled employees without any foundation, and many of the complaints have charged employees with belonging to certain organizations. When examined, it has developed in many instances that the employees had never heard of the organizations'' ( D J1944/17).

In each year after 1941 the FBI has allocated $200,000 or more to the scrutiny of government workers' thoughts and opinions. Increasing amounts of the time of the FBI's 14,377 employees are being devoted to this purpose. The results of such a policy may be seen in the fad that in February of this year Department of Justice officials admitted that they were six to nine months behind in the investigation of fraud cases arising out of war contracts and the procurement of war materials, such as falsification of inspection records on munitions for our fighting forces and those of our Allies (DJ1944/111).

The Department of Justice investigators receive guidance both from the standard textbooks on subversion, such as "The Red Network" by the indicted Mrs. Dilling, and from a small group of officials in the department who have made a profession out of hunting what J. Edgar Hoover used to call "ultra-advanced thinkers." Hoover himself, who personally directed the notorious Palmer raids of the 1920's, has always suffered from a "radical" psychosis. He is joined in the Department of Justice by such men as L. M.C. Smith, chief of the War Policies Unit of 237 employees. This unit cooperates with the FBI in the effort "to know about and prepare for any necessary action to protect the country against any illegal activity by the leftist groups in the United States, such as the Communist Party of the United States, the Socialist Workers Party, the Industrial Workers of the World, and so forth" (DJ1944/178).

Dean Dickinson, also of the Department of Justice, has been secretary of the Interdepartmental Committee on Investigations, composed of the Civil Service Commission's legal adviser and representatives of old-line Washington agencies. On June 1 of last year he got out for the use of Washington department heads a mimeographed manual which assembled in convenient form the statutes and regulations which might facilitate firing government workers. Somewhat later he prepared, and Martin Dies put in the Congressional Record, memoranda which made ex parte findings against various organizations as being Communist or subversive. In these one of the most commonly applied criteria of "subversion" was opposition to the Dies committee. Of one organization it was stated that it had aided the C.I.0. "in staging a New Jersey...organizing rally." The National Negro Congress was singled out for criticism in the Dickinson memoranda for having indorsed the defense of the Scottsboro boys, Angelo Herndon, and Tom Mooney and for having "been an agitational force against lynching and all forms of so-called Negro dis- crimination" (my emphasis).

The anti-Negro theme of these memoranda runs through all the investigations of government workers. Washington is a Southern town, and though the Roosevelt Administration has done much to alleviate discrimination, individuals who refuse to adopt the local attitude toward Negroes invite investigation. J. Edgar Hoover, who has steadfastly refused to include Negroes among his 4,800 special agents, has a long record of hostility to Negroes. Representative Ramspeck denounced him in 1940 for playing upon the race prejudices of a committee of Southern Congressmen by saying that the Civil Service Commission had sent "white applicants to colored doctors for physical examination."

Government investigators are imbued with the same prejudices; they apparently consider that the most damning evidence they can present against a government worker is that he has had "mixed parties" or has entertained Negroes at dinner. Needless to say, racial bias is not only against Negroes. Anti-Semitism thrives in this atmosphere of stupid bigotry. In one instance it had to be explained to an investigator from the deep Ku Klux Klan South that membership in the Catholic church and in Catholic lay organizations did not prove the existence of a Popish plot against the security of the United States.

The quality of the work done by the FBI is unfortunately no higher than that of the Civil Service sleuths. It is about what one might expect from detectives diverted from their normal pursuit of bank robbers and white-slavers into the misty world of opinion and intellect. The New Yorker has reported the case of the artist seeking government employment. An FBI man assigned to investigate him suspected that he was a Communist because it was reported that his painting was in the cubist style.

The classic example of what happens when the G-men forsake the underworld of crime to spy on their fellow-workers occurred late in 1940. Representative Howard Smith, who was then, as he is now, investigating the New Deal, found in the files of the National Labor Relations Board, and put in the records of his committee, a letter marked "Personal and Confidential" over the signature of J. Edgar Hoover. The letter was a report to the NLRB that one of its employees was "known to have radical tendencies leaning toward communism." To back up this charge, Hoover reported solely that the employee had "studied anthropology'' and "visited Mexico City, Mexico, to observe the presidential election in that country in July, 1940" (Washington News, editorial, November 30, 1940).

I remember that when that newspaper item appeared few government workers thought it funny. It is hard to laugh when pressure can be applied successfully to take away your livelihood because you play Tschaikowsky on your phonograph, or read The Nation, or argue against lynching, or make cubist drawings, or study anthropology.

"Subversive" is a vague word. But it is being used freely in Washington as a club with which to beat liberals out of town. Attorney General Biddle, who presides over one of the agencies harassing government workers, gave the game away last February when he said to Congress: "What is `subversive'? I do not know. I do not think anyone knows definitely.... I have had only a terrible headache" (DJ1944/21).

Biddle is not the only one.

[This is the second and concluding part of an article on the inquisition in Washington by a necessarily anonymous government executive.]

*Hearings before the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations on the Independent Office Appropriation bill for 1942, p. 522. Other hearings are similarly cited.

**Hearings before the same committee on the Department of Justice Appropriation bill.

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