Lee Pressman, the son of Harry and Clara Pressman, was born in New York City on 1st July, 1906. Pressman obtained degrees from Cornell University and Harvard Law School (1926-29), where he came under the influence of Felix Frankfurter.
As Alger Hiss, a fellow student at Harvard, pointed out: "Felix Frankfurter was far and away the most colorful and controversial member of the faculty.... He was always conspicuous, despite his small stature, as he moved about the campus. This was because as he bounced along - short, dynamic, articulate - he was invariably surrounded by a cluster of students. Frankfurter was always teaching, in class and out. His didactic style was challenging, even confrontational. He invited discussion and he reveled in sharp exchanges. These continued after class had ended. But Frankfurter was not popular with the majority of his students or his fellow faculty members. In both cases the reasons, I believe, were the same. Frankfurter was cocky, abrasive, and outspoken. His style was simply not theirs. In addition, Frankfurter was the leader of the liberal wing of the faculty. Most of his older colleagues were politically conservative, as were most of the students." (1)
According to Joseph P. Lash, the author of Dealers and Dreamers (1988) Felix Frankfurter told Pressman and another student, Nathan Witt, "get into the show and help remake the world". (2) Pressman's first job was with the law firm, Chadbourne, Strachfield & Levy. He also worked, pro bono, at night and on weekends, with Hiss at the International Juridical Association (IJA). Hiss described the IJA as an "editorial group specializing in putting out notes on labor causes." (3)
Lee Pressman supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 Presidential Election. In March, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Henry A. Wallace as Secretary of State for Agriculture in March, 1933. Felix Frankfurter suggested that Jerome Frank would be a useful addition to the department. According to William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of The FDR Years (1995), Frank had confided to Frankfurter: "I know you know Roosevelt very well. I want to get out of this Wall Street racket... This crisis seems to be the equivalent of a war and I'd like to join up for the duration." (4) As a result, Wallace appointed Frank as general council to the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Pressman was employed as Frank's assistant.
Alger Hiss, Pressman's close friend, later commented: "In the AAA, these included my colleagues Lee Pressman, Francis Shea, John Abt, Telford Taylor, Nathan Witt, and Margaret Bennett. At all events, throngs of ebullient, cocky, extroverted newcomers were conspicuous in Washington's public places.... As conservative opposition to the New Deal developed in later months, we young lawyers became a conspicuous target for Roosevelt's opponents.... We were the shock troops of the new administration. Hardworking, idealistic, high-spirited, talented, the young recruits did put a stamp on the New Deal that was in keeping with the very name of the regime of which they were so prominent a part." (5)
Frank, like Pressman, held left-wing views. As a result they clashed with George N. Peek, who was the head of the AAA. John C. Culver and John C. Hyde, the authors of American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace (2001) have argued that Peek never liked Frank and wanted to appoint his own general council: "Crusty and dogmatic, Peek still seethed with resentment over Wallace's appointment as secretary, a position he coveted... Frank was liberal, brash, and Jewish. Peek loathed everything about him. In addition, Frank surrounded himself with idealistic left-wing lawyers... whom Peek also despised." (6) Peek later wrote that the "place was crawling with... fanatic-like... socialists and internationalists."
Harold Ware, the son of Ella Reeve Bloor, was a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) and a consultant to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Ware established a "discussion group" that included Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss, Nathaniel Weyl, Laurence Duggan, Harry Dexter White, Abraham George Silverman, John Abt, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, Henry H. Collins and Victor Perlo. Ware was working very close with Joszef Peter, the "head of the underground section of the American Communist Party." It was claimed that Peter's design for the group of government agencies, to "influence policy at several levels" as their careers progressed". Weyl later recalled that every member of the Ware Group was also a member of the CPUSA: "No outsider or fellow traveller was ever admitted... I found the secrecy uncomfortable and disquieting." (7)
Whittaker Chambers was a key figure in the Ware Group. He later argued: "I do not know how many of those young men and women were already Communists when Ware met them and how many joined the Communist Party because of him. His influence over them was personal and powerful.... But, by 1934, the Ware Group had developed into a tightly organized underground, managed by a directory of seven men. In time it included a number of secret sub-cells whose total membership I can only estimate probably about seventy-five Communists. Sometimes they were visited officially by J. Peters who lectured them on Communist organization and Leninist theory and advised them on general policy and specific problems. For several of them were so placed in the New Deal agencies (notably Alger Hiss, Nathan Witt, John Abt and Lee Pressman) that they were in a position to influence policy at several levels." (8)
Susan Jacoby, the author of Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (2009), has pointed out: "Hiss's Washington journey from the AAA, one of the most innovative agencies established at the outset of the New Deal, to the State Department, a bastion of traditionalism in spite of its New Deal component, could have been nothing more than the rising trajectory of a committed careerist. But it was also a trajectory well suited to the aims of Soviet espionage agents in the United States, who hoped to penetrate the more traditional government agencies, like the State, War, and Treasury Departments, with young New Dealers sympathetic to the Soviet Union (whether or not they were actually members of the Party). Chambers, among others, would testify that the eventual penetration of the government was the ultimate aim of a group initially overseen in Washington by Hal Ware, a Communist and the son of Mother Bloor... When members did succeed in moving up the government ladder, they were supposed to separate from the Ware organization, which was well known for its Marxist participants. Chambers was dispatched from New York by underground Party superiors to supervise and coordinate the transmission of information and to ride herd on underground Communists - Hiss among them - with government jobs." (9)
Lee Pressman, Jerome Frank and Alger Hiss, decided to draw up legislation that would protect sharecroppers from their landlords. They were aware that Chester R. Davis, the head of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), did not support this move. They therefore persuaded Victor Christgau, his second in command to send out details of the change in the name of Henry A. Wallace. Davis was furious when he discovered what had happened. He later recalled: "The new interpretations completely reversed the basis on which cotton contracts had been administered through the first year. If the contract had been so construed, and if the Department of Agriculture had enforced it, Henry Wallace would have been forced out of the Cabinet within a month. The effects would have been revolutionary."
Davis insisted that Frank and Pressman should be dismissed. Wallace was unable to protect them: "I had no doubt that Frank and Hiss were animated by the highest motives, but their lack of agricultural background exposed them to the danger of going to absurd lengths... I was convinced that from a legal point of view they had nothing to stand on and that they allowed their social preconceptions to lead them to something which was not only indefensible from a practical, agricultural point of view, but also bad law."
Chester R. Davis told Frank: "I've had a chance to watch you and I think you are an outright revolutionary, whether you realize it or not". Wallace wrote in his diary: "I indicated that I believed Frank and Hiss had been loyal to me at all times, but it was necessary to clear up an administrative situation and that I agreed with Davis". According to Sidney Baldwin, the author of Poverty and Politics: The Rise and Decline of the Farm Security Administration (1968), Wallace greeted Frank with tears in his eyes: "Jerome, you've been the best fighter I've had for my ideas, but I've had to fire you... The farm people are just too strong." (10)
Wallace sacked Pressman and Jerome Frank but Alger Hiss survived the purge because at the time he had been seconded to the Munitions Investigating Committee that had been established by Gerald P. Nye. In 1935 Pressman was appointed general counsel in the Works Progress Administration by Harry L. Hopkins. Later that year Rexford Tugwell appointed him general counsel of the Resettlement Administration.
In 1936 Pressman went into private law practice in New York City. Soon afterwards John L. Lewis made him chief counsel for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). (11) He also worked for Harry Bridges, who was elected president of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) in 1937. Lewis appointed Bridges as the West Coast Director for the CIO. However, over the next few years Pressman was busy providing legal arguments showing why that Bridges should not be deported. (12)
In August 1939, Isaac Don Levine arranged for Chambers to meet Adolf Berle, one of the top aides to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After dinner Chambers told Berle about government officials spying for the Soviet Union: "Around midnight, we went into the house. What we said there is not in question because Berle took it in the form of penciled notes. Just inside the front door, he sat at a little desk or table with a telephone on it and while I talked he wrote, abbreviating swiftly as he went along. These notes did not cover the entire conversation on the lawn. They were what we recapitulated quickly at a late hour after a good many drinks. I assumed that they were an exploratory skeleton on which further conversations and investigation would be based." (13)
According to Isaac Don Levine the list of "espionage agents" included Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss, Donald Hiss, Laurence Duggan, Lauchlin Currie, Marion Bachrach, Harry Dexter White, John Abt, Nathan Witt, Julian Wadleigh, Noel Field and Frank Coe. Chambers also named Joszef Peter, as being "responsible for the Washington sector" and "after 1929 the "head of the underground section" of the Communist Party of the United States.
Chambers later claimed that Berle reacted to the news with the comment: "We may be in this war within forty-eight hours and we cannot go into it without clean services." John V. Fleming, has argued in The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) Chambers had "confessed to Berle the existence of a Communist cell - he did not yet identify it as an espionage team - in Washington." (14) Berle, who was in effect the president's Director of Homeland Security, raised the issue with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "who profanely dismissed it as nonsense."
On 3rd August, 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He testified that he had been "a member of the Communist Party and a paid functionary of that party" but left after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939. He explained how the Ware Group's "original purpose" was "not primarily espionage," but "the Communist infiltration of the American government." Chambers claimed his network of spies included Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Lauchlin Currie, Abraham George Silverman, John Abt, Nathan Witt, Henry H. Collins and Donald Hiss. Silverman, Collins, Abt, Pressman and Witt all used the Fifth Amendment defence and refused to answer any questions put by the HUAC. (15) Pressman dismissed Chambers as "the stale and lurid mouthings of a Republican exhibitionist." (16)
In 1948 Pressman was fired from his job as CIO counsel, as a result of a factional struggle with Walter Reuther. He now became a close advisor to Henry A. Wallace, and his running-mate, Glen H. Taylor, in the 1948 Presidential Election. (17) The programme of Wallace and Taylor included new civil rights legislation that would give equal opportunities for black Americans in voting, employment and education, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Bill and increased spending on welfare, education, and public works. Their foreign policy program was based on opposition to the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
Harry S. Truman and his running mate, Alben W. Barkley, polled more than 24 million popular votes and 303 electoral votes. His Republican Party opponents, Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren, won 22 million popular votes and 189 electoral votes. Storm Thurmond ran third, with 1,169,032 popular and 39 electoral votes. Wallace was last with 1,157,063 votes. Nationally he got only 2.38 per cent of the total vote. Only one supporter, Vito Marcantonio, won his seat in Congress. Pressman was defeated in the 14th District of New York.
In 1950 Lee Pressman resigned from the American Labor Party and the following year gave evidence to the House of Un-American Activities Committee. This time he admitted he had been a member of the Harold Ware Group and that three other secret members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (Nathan Witt, John Abt and Charles Kramer) had been involved in the group. Whittaker Chambers pointed out: "By 1951, he (Lee Pressman) was prepared to concede that he had been a Communist, that the Ware Group had existed, that he had been a member of it. He named three other members whom I had named. He could not remember four other members whom I had also named, and he insisted that he had never known me in Washington." (18)
The authors of The Secret World of American Communism (1995) have argued that Pressman had not told the complete truth in his testimony: "He (Pressman) admitted that he had been a Communist in the 1930s, had belonged to the Ware Group, and had met with Peters. however, Pressman depicted the group as an innocuous study club of government employees who met to discuss Marxism... A good deal more than the abstract discussion of Marxism, as Lee Pressman would have it, was at stake in their activities. Both the CPUSA and the Comintern expected secret Communists to influence government policy in accord with a secret agenda, and the modes of influence apparently included information to Communist supervisors, thereby jeopardizing the integrity of the governmental process." (19)
The release of KGB documents shows that Pressman was never a Soviet spy but was very much part of the support network for people like Alger Hiss, Laurence Duggan, Harry Dexter White, Abraham George Silverman and Julian Wadleigh, who did steal documents. "He (Lee Pressman) had never been the classic 'spy' who stole documents. Neither his work in domestically oriented New Deal agencies in the early 1930s nor his later role as a labor lawyer gave him access to information of Soviet interest. Instead, he functioned as part of the KGB espionage support network, assisting and facilitating its officers and agents. He gambled that there would not be anyone to contradict his evasions and that government investigators would not be able to charge him with perjury. He won his bet." (20)
Lee Pressman died in November 1969.
Among the Young Turks, Abe Fortas at first served along with me in the AAA during his summer vacation as a law student in 1933. He went on to become an assistant secretary of the interior. Much later, his New Deal friendship with Lyndon Johnson resulted in his becoming a justice of the Supreme Court.
Fortas was no doubt one of the few who began their working lives as New Dealers, but there were others. My brother Donald joined the Solicitor's staff of the Department of Labor when he finished his year as Justice Holmes's secretary. But most of us had had at least several years of seasoning behind us. In the AAA, these included my colleagues Lee Pressman, Francis Shea, John Abt, Telford Taylor, Nathan Witt, and Margaret Bennett. At all events, throngs of ebullient, cocky, extroverted newcomers were conspicuous in Washington's public places. Our youthful tendency to flock together increased our visibility. George Peek, one of the two original co-Administrators of the AAA, employed a different metaphor. He referred to a "plague of young lawyers" who had descended on his agency.
As conservative opposition to the New Deal developed in later months, we young lawyers became a conspicuous target for Roosevelt's opponents. After Hearst reversed his earlier support for the administration, his press referred to us as the "Happy Hot Dogs," because so many of us had been recommended by Felix Frankfurter. We were well aware that the epithet was a demagogic appeal to anti-Semitism, the printable version of the sally in some businessmen's clubs, "the Jew Deal." We took this and other attacks lightly. Roosevelt was a popular hero on a scale not seen since Jackson's day, and his measures of reform and relief won widespread support no matter who helped in drafting or administering them.
We were the shock troops of the new administration. Hardworking, idealistic, high-spirited, talented, the young recruits did put a stamp on the New Deal that was in keeping with the very name of the regime of which they were so prominent a part.
The Doctor had been assigned to it by Molotov himself. It had resulted from the fact that Stalin had personally inspected the Soviet munitions industry and discovered, to his wrath, that there was no automatic shell-loading machinery. Shells were still being loaded by hand by women. (I no longer believe this part of the story, which I now take to be The Doctor's way of misleading me about the real destination of the shell-loading machinery - Republican Spain.)
The Doctor was in the United States to purchase such machinery. It was not a simple deal. The Soviet Government wanted not only the machines at less than list price. It wanted a mass of technical information along with its order. Would I undertake the task? I explained to The Doctor that that was out of the question.
Then, said Dr. Rosenbliett, I must put him in touch with the smartest Communist lawyer I knew, preferably one who had some experience with patent work. I proposed Lee Pressman. He not only seemed to me the smartest Communist lawyer I know, but he had once told me that he had done some patent work for the Rust brothers, not on their cotton picker, but on some minor patents.
A few days later, I introduced Lee Pressman to Dr. Rosenbliett. The meeting took the form of a late breakfast at Sacher's restaurant on Madison Avenue near 42nd Street, in New York. I soon left Pressman and The Doctor together. I met Lee at least once afterwards. He told me that Dr. Rosenbliett had connected him with a Russian named "Mark." Later on, J. Peters told me that Pressman and Mark in the course of an airplane flight to Mexico City, in connection with arms purchases for Republican Spain, had been forced down near Brownsville, Texas. Mark had been worried that newsmen or security agents might pry into the passenger list.
I also saw Dr. Rosenbliett once or twice again. He was pleased with Pressman. But The Doctor was not destined to spend much time at his daughter's grave. One morning I met him at his hotel to find him gray and shaken. Something, he said, had happened. It was this.
His instructions for his American mission had expressly stated that Dr. Rosenbliett was to have no contact with former friends in the United States. Despite that, The Doctor had paid a visit to someone he knew (I suspect, his wife's sister, the wife of the Trotskyist leader, James Cannon). As he left the apartment house after his call, The Doctor found a loiterer in the lower hall. He recognized the man as a G.P.U. agent whom he knew. The man recognized him. The next morning Dr. Rosenbliett received a cable from Moscow curtly ordering him to return to Russia at once - to be purged, I thought, and so, from the haggard look on his face, did he. But I know that Dr. Rosenbliett is very much alive.
Lee Pressman's recollection of these matters differs materially from mine. Testifying under oath before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in 1951, he denied that he had ever known Dr. Rosenbliett. But, then in 1948, Lee had greeted my first testimony about his Communist membership in the Ware Group as "the stale and lurid mouthings of a Republican exhibitionist."
By 1951, he was prepared to concede that he had been a Communist, that the Ware Group had existed, that he had been a member of it. He named three other members whom I had named. He could not remember four other members whom I had also named, and he insisted that he had never known me in Washington. He had seen me, he testified, only once. That was when he said I had brought into his New York once for legal advice a man named Eckhart, for whom he subsequently did some business. Pressman's files on the subject were no longer extant and his recollection had dimmed. He placed the year of my visit with Eckhart as 1936. I had placed Pressman's meeting with Dr. Rosenbliett and me in 1937.