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The Strange Correspondence of Morris Ernst and J. Edgar Hoover | The Nation

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The Strange Correspondence of Morris Ernst and J. Edgar Hoover

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Or was it so strange a correspondence? After reading and rereading the more than 300 letters exchanged over twenty-five years by Morris Ernst, the great civil liberties lawyer, and J. Edgar Hoover, a most opposite number, I find myself at a loss to select the precise adjective to describe that cascade of epistles. There are many words that might be applied: bizarre (but that is surely too strong); incongruous (yet often the two men were laboring in the same vineyard); devoted (the appearance of that was there, but it was less than skin-deep); collegial (sometimes, but often not). If at moments Ernst wrote as a petitioner and acolyte, there were also times when he appeared as a magisterial Cassandra, forecasting the fall of the temple--the Federal Bureau of Investigation--or even as indulgent headmaster, catching his favorite pupil, Edgar, with a crib up his sleeve.

Originally published December 1, 1984.

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But the correspondence characterizes itself, and this is true from the first tentative letter (at least the first that has been retrieved under the Freedom of Information Act), written by Hoover to Ernst November 8, 1939. Hoover enclosed, for Ernst's information, a copy of a letter written to him by Lucille B. Milner, secretary of the American Civil Liberties Union, of which Ernst was then general counsel, and a copy of his reply. The exchange dealt with wiretapping, "a matter which we have discussed on recent occasions."

The first Ernst letter we have is dated April 14, 1941. In it Ernst enclosed a copy of a "hatemail" letter addressed to newscaster Raymond Gram Swing, "which may be worth putting in your files." That the Ernst-Hoover relationship was still in the greening stage can be adduced by the fact that Ernst addressed his letter, "Dear John." It would not be until November 21, 1941, that "Dear John" became "Dear Edgar."

The last letter of Ernst's that has been retrieved is dated October 8, 1964, and opens, "My dear Edgar." "For your eyes alone," writes Ernst, "I am sending a copy of a letter addressed by Mr. Pemberton, Director of the ACLU, to Osmond K. Fraenkel [of the A.C.L.U. Board of Directors]." The letter to which he refers deals with civil liberties issues raised by the Warren commission's report on President Kennedy's assassination.

Those letters, of no enduring consequence, are typical of the Ernst-Hoover exchange and indicate a basic feature of it: the secret, unauthorized sharing of letters from third parties.

The existence of an Ernst-Hoover correspondence first came to light in 1977, a year after Ernst's death, in the course of an inquiry by the American Civil Liberties Union into hidden connections between the A.C.L.U. and the F.B.I. The A.C.L.U. retrieved some 45,000 pages of Bureau files under a freedom of information suit, but those included only a handful of Ernst's letters, which gave no indication of the extent of his epistolary relationship with Hoover. Only now do we know about it, thanks to the distinguished scholarly specialist in F.B.I. affairs Prof. Athan Theoharis of Marquette University, who obtained more than 200 items under the F.O.I.A. Included in that oeuvre are Ernst-Hoover letters, Hoover-Ernst letters, letters to Ernst from Hoover's amanuensis, Louis B. Nichols, and F.B.I. internal memorandums. Additional material is contained in the correspondence that Ernst deposited at the University of Texas Humanities Center in Austin. That cache consists of one hundred or so documents, many of them duplicates. This study is based also on the Ernst materials in F.B.I. files on the Galindez case by a handful of other random Ernst materials and by interviews with persons close to Ernst.

The Ernst-Hoover connection involved far more than the "clubby relationship" described in the A.C.L.U.'s official report, which exonerated Ernst of any "overt improprieties." In addition to the hundreds of letters, there were telephone calls and personal visits, of which only a fragmentary record remains. There is, incidentally, no reason to believe that the F.B.I. files have yielded all the Ernst materials they contain. The bulk of the letters should have been placed in Hoover's Personal and Confidential file which was supposedly destroyed by his personal secretary after his death, in 1972. Most of the letters we possess have come from the Official and Confidential file of Assistant Director Louis B. Nichols, who was actually Ernst's primary correspondent. According to F.B.I. regulations these should have been destroyed every six months--but they were not, for reasons that are not clear. They were part of the Bureau's Do Not File files and were not indexed or subject to normal F.B.I. retrieval procedures. Others were part of the Behind the Do Not File files. Memorandums relating to Ernst and the Rosenberg case were filed not under "Ernst," or "Hoover" or "Nichols" but under "Rosenberg." There may be scores of Ernst items still hidden away under other subject headings. In the A.C.L.U. inquiry, only materials filed under "A.C.L.U." were recovered. Thus, A.C.L.U. investigators got just a whiff of the strange correspondence.

The relationship between Hoover and Ernst was not a casual, hit-or-miss thing. It possessed its own inner dynamic and, probably inevitably, declined to oblivion. It was always conditioned by the contrasting personalities of the men and by their differing aims and objectives.

I do not see the correspondence as evidence of a pervasive influence of Hoover on Ernst, or vice versa. Nor is it possible to document the relationship as having had a major effect on the history of civil liberties in the United States. The significance of the correspondence lies in what it reveals about the state of civil liberties and its flawed defenders during a critical time for the Bill of Rights--the McCarthy period. The Ernst-Hoover letters hit their peak between 1948 and 1952, the worst McCarthy years, but they seldom touched on what we would consider the basic issues of that period.

After reading the letters one is overcome with awe at the extraordinary recuperative powers of American society which enabled it to emerge from the sickness of McCarthyism despite the efforts of a man like Hoover, who mouthed cliches of freedom while slipping documents into the hands of its enemies, and the equivocal role of Ernst, a champion of civil liberties who had, in a rather complicated way, succumbed to the conviction that Hoover with his F.B.I. stood as a bastion against the threat of Soviet communism.

We know enough about Hoover's background to require no extensive reprise, but who was Morris Ernst in 1939, when the strange correspondence began? He was a positive fighter for freedom of expression and would remain so, by his own lights, until his death, on May 21, 1976. Had he not been a giant in defense of the Bill of Rights the Hoover connection would not concern us.

In fact, Ernst was a pioneer in the American Civil Liberties Union. He served as its general counsel from 1929 to 1955, was a member of the A.C.L.U. board and argued many cases that led to landmark decisions. Perhaps his most famous victory came with the reversal of the ban on bringing James Joyce's Ulysses into this country, which loosed the shackles of "obscenity" and "pornography" that were fettering American letters. Ernst was counsel for the Authors League of America and the Dramatists Guild, and special counsel for the American Newspaper Guild. He led the fight to free sex from puritanical corseting and did much to clear the way for birth control. He won the fight against suppression of Marie Stopes's book Married Love. He was a liberal Democrat, a friend and supporter of New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and a backer of Franklin D. Roosevelt from the days when F.D.R. was Governor of New York. When Roosevelt entered the White House, Ernst played an important behind-the-scenes role, handling many delicate matters for the President.

It is against the achievements of this extraordinarily talented and often quixotic man, warmly devoted to his family and friends ("You didn't know Morris until you came to him in trouble," a Harvard law professor once said), that the Ernst-Hoover relationship must be evaluated.

How did it come into being? It was the by-product of a bit of shoddy New Deal politicking by F.D.R., but there was more to it. Ernst was a person of influence who understood and was fascinated by power and its uses. Roosevelt and Hoover were only two of many powerful men whom Ernst cultivated and who, in turn, cultivated him. To some extent, no doubt, Lord Acton's famous dictum applies here, but it was not just a mutual interest in power that drew Ernst and Hoover together; it was fear and hatred of communism. That was the bridge between the principled civil libertarian and the man long since exposed as a primitive racist, a wiretapper of Presidents, a blackmailer of politicians and a sympathizer of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Born in Alabama into a German-Jewish immigrant family, Ernst was not religious. He was active in several Jewish causes, but his bent was ecumenical. He grew up in New York City, attended Horace Mann High School and obtained his Bachelor of Arts at Williams College. On graduation he went into business, following the family tradition, as a manufacturer of shirts and then as a furniture salesman. But his mind was restless and searching. He attended New York Law School at night and graduated in 1912. In 1915 he became a partner of Greenbaum, Wolff and Ernst, which would become a very distinguished firm. Herbert Wolff was the conventional partner, providing a link with corporations, banks and Wall Street. General Greenbaum brought in a number of "Our Crowd" clients, including New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger and his wife, Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger. Ernst was the man-about-town of the trio, a frequenter of the Stork Club and "21," friend and often counsel of leading lights in the literary and publishing world. He kept his nose in politics, relished the latest gossip and was a confidant of every New York Mayor from Jimmy Walker on. Attractive to women (and attracted to them) he was, nevertheless, a family man, with a wife and three children. His house in Greenwich Village became a salon of sorts, and beginning in the 1930s he spent long summers at a compound in Nantucket, sailing, working at his carpentry (he was talented at that) and carrying on his practice by telephone and the briefest of trips to New York.

Ernst was a member of the Greenwich Village generation that came after the one of John Reed, Max Eastman, Eugene O'Neill, Mabel Dodge and The Masses. His was the Village of the late 1920s and the 1930s, bubbling with life, talent, nonsense and, as the Depression wore on, hard-core left-wing politics. No more the gaiety of Louise Bryant, now the tone was set by William Z. Foster and Earl Browder; it was a time when the American Communist Party was a real power, particularly in New York City. It attracted many of Ernst's friends and clients (the two were often the same).

Among Ernst's friends, none was warmer, closer, more treasured than Heywood Broun, the rumpled radical columnist of the New York World (as well as The Nation) and founder of the American Newspaper Guild. Ernst represented the guild before the Supreme Court in the Watson case, which extended the provisions of the Wagner Labor Relations Act to the newspaper industry. (Morris Watson, a senior reporter, had been fired by the Associated Press for union activities.) In those days Ernst's gods were Justice Louis Brandeis and Franklin Roosevelt. Broun stood somewhat to the left of Ernst, but when the Communists tried to take over the guild they joined forces and repelled the challenge. Ernst also did battle with the party in the National Lawyers Guild, but that time he lost. Those struggles deeply colored his outlook. He came to believe that the Communists posed the greatest threat to American liberties. From that perspective J. Edgar Hoover looked like a knight on a white horse.

In 1940 the A.C.L.U., with Ernst in the vanguard, drove the veteran Communist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn off its board, declared war on fellow travelers and approved a resolution that put party members beyond the pale. They were deprived of A.C.L.U. support or sympathy because, in effect, they were part of a foreign conspiracy. The line was drawn exactly where Ernst wanted it drawn, and he would stand on it to the end of his days.

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