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New International, July 1949


What Mean These Trials?

Hiss, Judy Coplon and the FBI


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 5, July 1949, p. 131–133.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Thousands of Americans have been caused great personal distress, fear and loss of livelihood by incorrect or incorrectly interpreted data spread in the government files by the procedures of the FBI, whereby gossip, rumor and hearsay are gathered from witnesses of unknown integrity or veracity – witnesses who, moreover, are never asked to face those whom they slander and whose very identities are kept secret.

What this means is simply this: that any American can be slandered, his name ruined, his career blasted by any other person who chooses to relay malicious gossip to the FBI. (Dr. Edward U. Condon, director of the U.S. Bureau of Standards)


What mean these trials? From one point of view, a delightful comic opera full of strange, gesturing characters moving about amidst props of pumpkin heads, hotel registers, battered typewriters and the Archangel Michael might be written. Or a mock trial of America’s 145 million people might be staged, with all found “guilty by association,” of course, by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, who – as the ADA has proved beyond any doubt – is damnably “guilty” by inference, association and implication in his own turn.

But while we would dislike to disparage the lighter side of the current “treason trials” stirring up America, with their stimulating byplay in sex, morality and gossip, the matter has its not so amusing side. Both the scope of the trials and the manner in which they have been conducted have long since lifted them out of the category of summer entertainment and placed before us the entire question of civil and democratic rights in America as the real issue. The most serious of all errors would be to isolate the trials from the atmosphere now existing in our country, to consider them as some kind of masterly bungling and thereby accidental and unrelated to other factors. They must be set in their due and proper setting.

At one time it was still possible not to take over-seriously such investigative committees as the House Un-American Activities Committee, etc. But this pattern, spirit and approach has spread to other fields. All we need do to indicate this is to list those activities and deeds all of us are aware of:

  1. The so-called subversive list of Attorney General Clark, arbitrarily drawn up by this Texas Democratic leader. On this devilish index appear organizations never charged, never accused and never permitted a hearing or trial! Not to mention organizations whose existence ended many years before.
  2. The vast, nationwide campaign against the profession of teaching and its historic rights of democratic expression. In college, high school and grade school, the campaign rages. The traditionally conservative National Education Association has been induced to join in.
  3. The various legislative bodies of the country, headed by Congress itself and backed up closely by state legislatures, continue their reactionary activities. Lists of books used in the schools are demanded, Feinberg laws enacted, probe committees without number created.
  4. The FBI continues its activities without check or abatement. Its retreat into silence before criticism has apparently succeeded in stemming the attack upon it so that it may continue its dubious “investigations.”

A Dangerous Phase

All this, and other factors, total up an amount far superior to the petty sums represented by ex-witch hunters Parnell Thomas and Martin Dies and their activities. This is an entirely different order of things and cannot be laughed out of court. This is no matter of venomous individuals or die-hard extracurricular bodies, but the conscious, planned use of the state itself, with its various governmental bodies, for the accomplishment of purposes admittedly not yet too clearly worked out.

It seems to us that we in America are now witnessing the beginnings of a dangerously significant phase in American history – the deliberate sapping and undermining of very powerful American democratic and liberal concepts of individual justice, rights and freedoms. The existence of these concepts in theory and practice has never been denied by Marxists, so often accused of belittling “bourgeois democracy” because of their historic approach. On the contrary, our understanding and appreciation of them have made it possible for us to foresee this day when reaction would prepare its counter-concepts. It seems to us that this day has begun, and that the juridical and sociological basis is being laid for overthrowing what is basic and best in American democratic conceptions.

This attack is accompanied by a preliminary psychological conditioning which would aim at accommodating, accustoming and training American thought to such methods and procedures we have recently been subjected to. Open reaction, wholesale arrests, liquidation of habeas corpus rights and the ultimate setting up of camps – these familiar garments of the modern police state – cannot be hastily imposed upon a nation with such powerful democratic roots as America. A long and careful preconditioning is required. It has begun.

At the moment there are no less than three causes célèbres, all political in varying degrees, stirring America. They are: the trial of the leaders of the American Communist Party, now entering its seventh month in New York; the trial of Judith Coplon and the trial of Alger Hiss.

The trial of the Stalinist leaders is the most frankly and narrowly “political” in nature, and clearly is an effort on the part of the government to prepare the juridical outlawing of the Communist Party and the wholesale arrest of its members whenever that should be considered desirable. Our opposition to this trial and our reasons for this position have been stated often enough not to require repetition here.

Are They Guilty?

It is neither our duty nor intention to sit in juridical judgment on these trials in general, or on the Coplon and Hiss trials in particular. Our concern lies with the broader issues and implications of such trials, and our interest in the trials themselves lies only in their relations to such broader problems. We know not whether Judith Coplon or Alger Hiss are guilty of the specific charges brought against them. We do know (and this we have revealed long before most others and at a time when the present government was allied like a Siamese twin with Russian totalitarianism, which it described as a blood-brother of the “democratic” bloc), that Russia and its Stalinist international movement are more than capable of possessing the souls and services of such types as Coplon and Hiss. It exploits habitually such individuals for its own purposes and discards them when their usefulness is squeezed dry. We repeat: the Hiss and Coplon type are familiar to us.

At the same time, our acquaintance with the American state (we are well acquainted with states in general), makes it impossible for us to exclude definitively the possibility that either or both trials may be reactionary frame-ups for propagandistic purposes. The history of America tells us of many frame-up affairs, particularly involving the labor movement. (Sacco-Vanzetti, Debs, Mooney-Billings, etc.) Who are we to say that American imperialism, to gain a point in its anti-Russian cold war, would not stoop to frame-ups and juridical farces? All our senses have long since become blunted to virtuous protestations by states and governments, even though outward appearances certainly do not place the current trials in the same class as traditional reactionary frame-ups in America.

L’affaire Judith Coplon, for example, has revealed much more to us about the activities of the FBI than it has of the inner workings of the Russian spy system in America, or elsewhere. This curious and rather pathetic creature, with a flair for exhibiting her troubles to the world, could hardly have been of much consequence in the inner working of any system. The trial was launched apparently to introduce Americans to the existence of such a spy system, but its evidence has told little beyond the sordid details of FBI technique.

Fellow Traveler: 1938–1949

L’affaire Hiss is clearly a more elaborate matter, with internal political implications. To have been a fellow traveler in 1938 and the prior period of being a fellow traveler in 1949, the epoch of the cold Popular Frontism, etc., is infinitely different from war. If the FBI were to set up a trial for every government official and every ambitious intellectual who, in the late 1930’s, traveled with the Stalinists, our law school mills would have to speed up operations to meet the demand. One of these gentlemen, who was as deeply involved in this activity as Hiss has ever been accused of being, is now openly publishing his memoirs of the period in the New York Post! His explanation of the seductive influence of Stalinism at that time is clear and sufficient. We are forced to conclude that, regardless of Hiss’ particular innocence or guilt, his trial was primarily an anti- Roosevelt, anti-New Deal smear campaign, conducted at this late date in an effort to embarrass an administration which still has ties with that past. This accounts for the confused struggle within the government and the conduct of the trial judge. A variety of forces pulled this peculiar trial in a multitude of directions, with the jurors most confused of all.

But what a portrait of the American FBI has emerged from these trials! Shall we console ourselves by saying it is neither a Gestapo nor an NKVD? A grim solace, if we do not grasp the drift and direction of this secret branch of the state apparatus. With its 5,000 well-paid agents, the FBI forms, in the words of the New York Times, “... a monolithic, tightly disciplined organization.” A secretive body, not subject even to legislative review and control? Let us recall how violently it objected to revealing the contents of the documents found in Judy’s pocketbook, even considering dropping the whole case for a time rather than reveal these items. It demanded that the jury accept its mere word as to their “vital importance”! Like any such body, the FBI treasures above all else the inviolability and secrecy of its dossiers. Let us give Judge Reeves credit for rejecting this insolent demand, and providing a juridical basis for opening up the dossiers of the FBI to public light by insisting that the documents be produced and read.

A System of Stooges

A system of nationwide stooges? The long-known fact has now been made public knowledge that the FBI retains a network of paid “confidential informants” who collect gossip and rumors which are indiscriminately placed in dossiers by FBI headquarters. And, insolence heaped upon insolence, the FBI dares to object to public revelation of such material even though it makes vital decisions regarding the “loyalty,” “employability,” etc., of individuals based precisely upon this information culled by its stooges! All secret police institutions, in their effort to free themselves from the slightest public control, invariably develop their own “standards” of behavior, jurisprudence, morality and procedure. Ours in America is hardly an exception.

Now we do not believe that the period of the “police state” is upon us in America. The vitality of living American democratic forces is still powerful, although often diverted into reactionary channels by the confusing factor of Stalinism. But on a thousand levels, reaction – headed by the growing power of the bureaucratic state – gnaws away at this hard-earned democratic tradition, and behind apathy and confusion slowly builds up its semi-totalitarian techniques and methods. This is a transitional period, with all concepts at stake. To those who agree with us and who share our awareness and understanding of what is going on, we would suggest that the specific threat of the moment is the FBI and its system as a whole. This is the single most reactionary institution in America; the focus of anti-democratic and anti-labor tendencies. While the enforced resignation of G-Man Hoover, demanded by many liberals, would be a step in the proper direction, it would hardly satisfy.

The FBI must be brought strictly and accountably under public control. This means, among other things, a stripping of its large share of immunity from legislative control. Its dossiers and reports must be made available to all those accused, implicated or involved in any way.

The aura of secrecy and conspiracy must be removed from this body, and it must be forced to explain and account for its activities in open court and before the public. It is the FBI which should be put on trial by American labor, democratic and socialist forces, object as it may.

This, we submit, would be an excellent beginning in the struggle for the preservation and deepening of what is best in our militant democracy.

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