Steve Nelson

Steve Nelson

Steve Nelson (Stephen Mesarosh) was born in Yugoslavia in 1903. After emigrating to the United States he became a carpenter. Nelson became involved in the trade union movement and in 1925 joined the American Communist Party.

Nelson moved to Chicago where he became a full-time party worker. This included the organization of the International Unemployment Day demonstration on 6th March 1930. During the demonstration Nelson, Joe Dallet, Oliver Law and eleven other activists were arrested and badly beaten by the police. Two weeks after the beatings Nelson had recovered sufficiently to march with 75,000 demonstrators to demand unemployment insurance.

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Nelson wanted to immediately join the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a unit that volunteered to fight for the Popular Front government against the military uprising in Spain. At the time he was working among the anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania and the party rejected the offer claiming he was more important to the cause in America.

After the disaster of Jarama the leaders of the American Communist Party changed its mind about the role of its activists and allowed Nelson, Joe Dallet and 23 other volunteers to go to Spain. However, Nelson and his team were arrested by the French authorities on the Spanish border and spent three weeks in prison before reaching the International Brigades at Albacete in May 1937.

Nelson and Dallet both became political commissars and were instructed to restore battalion morale. Nelson later explained how he tried to do this "The men must learn the basis of the whole struggle - the fundamentals of the whole war. You must be one of the boys, concern yourself directly with their problems. I trusted the men and they trusted me."

In July 1937 the Abraham Lincoln Battalion fought alongside the George Washington Battalion at Brunete. Oliver Law was one of those killed and Nelson now took over as commander of the battalion. Casualties were so high during the campaign that on 14th July the two units were merged. Mirko Markovicz, a Yugoslav-American, was appointed as commander of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion and Nelson became his political commissar.

Soon afterwards, Markovicz was ordered by Colonel Klaus of the International Brigades to move his men forward to protect a company of Spanish marines. Markovicz refused, explaining: "I will not order the American battalion to carry out this order because it will result in a disaster, like the one in Jarama." Markovicz was arrested and Nelson became the new commander. The next morning the order was cancelled and Markovicz was released.

In August 1937 the American forces were reorganized. Nelson was promoted to brigade commissar and Robert Merriman became brigade chief of staff. Hans Amlie, who had now recovered from the wounds suffered at Brunete, became commander of the Lincoln-Washington Battalion.

The next major action involving the Lincoln-Washington Battalion took place during the Aragón offensive at the end of August 1937. The campaign began with an attack on the town of Quinto. This involved dangerous street fighting against snipers that were within the walls of the local church. After two days the Americans were able to clear the town of Nationalist forces. This included the capture of nearly a thousand prisoners.

The Lincoln-Washington Battalion then headed towards the fortified town of Belchite. Once again the Americans had to endure sniper fire. Robert Merriman ordered the men to take the church. In the first assault involving 22 men, only two survived. When Merriman ordered a second attack, Hans Amlie at first refused saying the task of taking the church was impossible. He help Amlie, Nelson led a diversionary attack. This enabled the Lincoln-Washington Battalion to enter the town. The Americans suffered heavy casualties, Nelson, Merryman and Amlie received head wounds and amongst the dead were Wallace Burton, Henry Eaton and Samuel Levinger.

Nelson recuperated from his wounds in Valencia. After he recovered he was given the task of escorting prominent Americans who were visiting Spain. This included John Bernard, Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman. He was then brought back to the United States by Earl Browder and was assigned a national speaking tour on behalf of the Popular Front government in Spain.

After the Second World War Nelson moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to assume leadership of the regional American Communist Party. On 31st August 1950 Nelson was arrested and charged with sedition against the state of Pennsylvania. Two years later Nelson was convicted of sedition and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 1956 the Supreme Court overturned the ruling and Nelson was released.

Steve Nelson, published his book, Steve Nelson: American Radical in 1981, died in 1993.

Primary Sources

(1) Steve Nelson explained why he joined the American Communist Party in the book, Steve Nelson: American Radical (1981)

I saw the logic of socialism. I knew I was going to be a worker, and if I was going to be a worker. I wanted to do what was best for workers.

(2) Steve Nelson, Steve Nelson: American Radical (1981)

Our purpose throughout three years of civil war was not to set up some sort of workers' republic, be it socialist, anarchist, or what have you. There was clearly a progressive content to the political program of the Popular Front that would have extended civil liberties, strengthened the bargaining power of workers and spurred land reform. And there were openly revolutionary currents within it. Yet the goal of the Popular Front was not a socialist republic.

(3) Steve Nelson explained why Oliver Law was promoted to company commander when he was interviewed by Peter N. Carroll on 9th June 1990.

The idea was that we do something about advancing a black. But the thing that mattered most was that he had military experience. Law was the guy who had the most experience and was the most acquainted with military procedures on the staff.

(4) Jason Gurney, Crusade in Spain (1974)

Steve Nelson, a big, tough shipyard worker from Philadelphia, became the Battalion Political Commissar, but Political Commissars were not very popular in the Battalion at that time and he never tried to throw his weight around. I think that he conscientiously tried to do his best for the Battalion at Brigade HQ but he never seemed to carry much influence. Certainly he never tried to interfere in the running of the Battalion and everybody was on reasonably good terms with him. He did not bunk with Marty and myself at the Battalion HQ dug-out, but preferred to live up with No. 1 Company, so we saw comparatively little of him. I got the impression that he was a very dedicated Communist, rather humourless and uncertain of the role that he was supposed to play in the affairs of the Battalion. He never seemed to be very active and was frequently absent for several days at a time. However, looking back on it I think he must have been responsible for the mysterious disappearances of a number of people from among our ranks and for the secret trials, for real or imagined offences, which caused so much fear and suspicion within the Battalion.

(5) Frank Ryan, The Fifteenth Brigade (1938)

Those who try to account for the immense popularity of Steve Nelson by attributing it to his exceptional personality have only a partial answer. His personality - sympathetic, understanding and trustworthy had undoubtedly a great deal to do with it. But his great success was due to one thing - he was everything a good Political Commissar should be.

First and foremost Steve was an organizer. His long years in the working-class movement in the States, his ability to translate politics into the everyday activities of life all contributed to make him into one of the best Political Commissars the International Brigades produced.

Steve was "one of the boys" and yet always a full step ahead of them. As "one of the boys" he knew exactly what the boys thought, felt, needed. His political understanding and his grasp of military matters made him always fully aware of the exigencies of any situation. And as an organizer he understood fully how to harmonize the interests of the Command and that of the boys with the best interests of the Spanish Republican cause.

Steve didn't have to threaten or cajole. All he had to do was explain to have the men fall in line with his proposals. "Gaining the complete confidence of the men" is what every Commissar is striving for. Steve had it. He didn't gain it in one fell swoop, he earned it be degrees, by his attention to men, by his willingness to share danger, by his coolness under fire, by working incessantly in their interest, by thinking of the men first and of himself afterwards, in short - by setting a personal example at all times as expected and requested from a Commissar.

(6) Howard Fast, reviewing The Thirteenth Juror by Steve Nelson in Masses & Mainsream (June, 1955)

I have been told that it is difficult to read a book objectively when you know the author; and there is an old saying which asks, "How can he be a genius? I know him." Neither precisely to the case in point, for I know Steve Nelson well and cannot think of him as a genius, but only as a very great and brave man; and I read his new book, not objectively, but with a deeply subjective and highly personal involvement - read it from cover to cover almost in a sitting. And when I had finished it, I knew I had read one of those very rare and wonderful books - a book that changes you in the process of its reading, so that finished with it, I was something more than I had been when I opened it.

I also know that I cannot write of the book without writing of the man; for the book is most profoundly moving in its utter and implacable truth, and this truth is also the man. Both are a part of the same experience. I have never read another book quite like this one, but I have also never known another man quite like Steve Nelson; and the knowledge of both fills me with pride and humility, not only because I have shared something of the struggle that produced both, but because through both I came better to understand people and what people will be someday.

The Thirteenth Juror is the story of Steve Nelson's trial, his trial before a court of law, as law exists in the United States today, and his trial in the court of horror and infamy that is otherwise known as Blawnox Workhouse. The first half of the book is devoted to Blawnox, and as such, it has few equals in the whole history of prison literature. In the same breath, one must note, Blawnox Prison in Pennsylvania is possibly unequaled today, as a place of horror and degradation, in all of these United States and very likely in much of the world outside of our borders.

Into Blawnox came Steve Nelson, political prisoner, Communist, veteran of the International Brigade in Spain - now sentenced to twenty years, sentenced on charges that were no charges, on evidence that was no evidence, on the word of stool pigeons and paid informers - into a dungeon of hell and horror, and told by the guards as he entered that there was no road back, that he could neither survive this place nor ever hope to leave this place; and the story of this dungeon, of how he faced it, fought it as one man, sick and weak, and finally triumphed over it, is the story Nelson tells in the first half of his book. In this, the first half of his book, Steve Nelson reaches his highest point of artistry as a writer - in a breathless and splendidly-told story of man's courage and man's will to survive.

Parts of this section, such as Nelson's experience in the "hole" and his leadership and organization of the other prisoners in the "hole," are of a quality that a reader cannot easily forget, and will, simply as literature, long survive the memory of the men who did this to Steve Nelson; and as a whole, this section comprises a unique and fine literary product. The second half of the book tells the story of Steve Nelson's trial before Judge Montgomery in a Pittsburgh courthouse, of how, unable to find a lawyer, he defended himself, of how a sick and broken body was forced by an indomitable spirit to wage a legal battle and defense that will rank with Dimitrov's famous defense before a Nazi Court. The book concludes with Nelson's eloquent plea to the Jury - his battle against the "thirteenth" juror, who is bigotry, prejudice and fear.

To one degree or another, all of America lived through the content of this book. Some, all too many, knew only the bare facts of Steve Nelson's name and the charges leveled against him. Others, who read the newspaper stories a little more closely, heard Nelson accused as an atom-bomb spy, an agent of a foreign power, a Communist "master-mind." Still others, men in high places, in the Pennsylvania judiciary, in the nests of the steel and aluminum moguls of Pittsburgh, in the offices of the Justice Department in Washington, played parts in the manufacturing of false charges, in the rigging of juries, in the hiring of informers - coldly and deliberately, so that they might destroy this man they feared and hated. Still others worked and testified in the defense of Steve Nelson, as Art Shields and Herbert Aptheker did, and others turned ears deafened by fear and indifference to pleas that they come to the defense of a good and brave man. And all over America, millions of workers, who knew nothing of the case and were indifferent to it to the extent of the lies and slanders fed to them these many years, also lived through the content for out of their struggles, their hopes and needs and ideology, had come the man whom we know as Steve Nelson, and the courage of the man and the splendor of the man as well.

Within this context, The Thirteenth Juror must be seen and understood; for this book is a symbol of the America we have known and lived in and worked in this decade past; and in so being, it contains the worst and the best that is America. The book will live, because it is a truthful and profound human document, and it will still be read when the situation which produced it has long since come to an end. At that time, it will be judged anew as literature, and without question parts of it will be reprinted innumerable times as literature; but an objective literary judgment is almost impossible today - just as it would have been both impossible and insufferable to have judged Julius Fuchik's Notes From the Gallows as literature while Czechoslovakia still lay under the Nazi heel. Then, as now, we were concerned with the man; and perhaps so long as our literature comes out of an agony, we will continue to be concerned with the man before we are concerned with the book.

Thus, it is important to dwell for a moment on the man - the manner of a man who wrote this book. The book is a tense, well-written and extremely moving document, but above all these things, it is an exceedingly simple document. Here I use simple in the best sense, in terms of a proletarian clarity which evokes the best from the language. In the same manner, one must see the author - as one does see him through this book - as a simple man, a virtuous man, and above all things, a good man. In the process of an ethical decay in our society during this past decade, we have retained the meaning of certain words used to describe people, but we have wholly lost the meaning of others. This too is a question of values. We still comprehend what one means when one calls a person brilliant, clever, witty, dogged, stubborn, etc. Our understanding clouds a little when such words as sincere and forthright are used; and in a society which maintains only one criterion for values - did he get away with it? - we are becoming at a loss to comprehend the meaning of good and honorable.

Yet the essence of Steve Nelson is that he is an honorable and a good man. His nature is neither brilliant nor derived from fanaticism; his wisdom, a deep and wonderfully profound wisdom, is the wisdom of the good man who understands evil, and therefore must set his face against evil and venture his life in the struggle against evil - and his understanding is the understanding of a member of the working class who has become a Marxist and a Communist. This combination of values is not new on this earth, but it is rare in America. On the other hand, it is America that has produced Steve Nelson.

And not alone Steve Nelson, for one of the hallmarks of the decade we have lived through are the men and women of quality and stature who have emerged as figures and symbols of American resistance. In other times of the past and in times still to come, the quality of America was and will be symbolized by mass motion and mass courage; but when the situation is such as not to produce these mass currents, the responsibility for patriotism - a very high and historic responsibility - falls upon the shoulders of a few. Thus, in time to come, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg will be a part of the living and honored tradition of America, not the mean and craven Judge Irving Kaufman who acted as their executioner. If there was only here and there a lonely example of such courage and nobility as the Rosenbergs displayed, then one could have little hope and less respect for the American people; but there have been literally thousands who displayed, to one degree or another, the superb courage of the Rosenbergs, and out of these thousands came the giants like Nelson - even as the thousands came out of the body-whole of the population.

The Thirteenth Juror tells the story of the contest between Steve Nelson and Judge Montgomery of Pittsburgh, between those gathered around Nelson for his defense, Art Shields, Herbert Aptheker, Pat Cush, Ben Careathers, Margaret Nelson and those who gathered around Montgomery for the prosecution, Musmanno, Cercone, Cvetic, Crouch. On the one hand, Nelson, anti-fascist soldier and Communist, stands with a great journalist, a noted historian and scholar, an old labor leader, a Communist trade-unionist and organizer, and a brave mother and companion; on the other hand, Montgomery, political hack and traducer of justice, stands with a notorious fascist and former admirer of Mussolini, the nephew of this fascist, a craven and stupid political appointee, with a psychopathic liar and professional informer, and lastly Crouch, professional informer. Thus, the contest, and thus, symbolically, the two Americas that exist within this body whole known as the United States.

The contest is also a battle between honor, courage and integrity on the one hand and dishonor, cowardice and perversion of all decency on the other hand. As to which of these will win, there can be little doubt. All of life and all of the future stands with the Steve Nelsons, and in good time, millions of Americans will come to know this and take their place by his side. And as for Montgomery, Musmanno, Cercone they too will be remembered, but only as the shameful and craven creatures who obeyed the orders of the iron and munition lords of Pittsburgh and framed and convicted a great man.

One more word must be said of the fine job Steve Nelson does of exposing another part of the shameful and rotten prison system that exists in the United States - a system which in the land of plenty reduces men to starvation, denies them medical care, and - being an integral part of the "free world" - subjects them to such mental and physical torture as would shame the keeper of a medieval dungeon. If you have been puzzled about the rash of prison riots breaking out everywhere in the country, this book will provide your answer. I also profoundly hope that it will provide a death blow to that unspeakable cancer on the body of the State of Pennsylvania - Blawnox Workhouse.

(7) William A. Reuben, review of The Secret World of American Communism in the journal Rights (1995).

As if progressives had not in recent years been battered and bludgeoned enough already, we now learn that J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers & company really got it right: all Communists are/were actual, or wannabee, Russian spies. We also learn that during the Cold War years (and even before) hordes of leftists were abroad in the land, stealing "our" atomic secrets (and God only knows what else) for delivery to Joseph Stalin.

In recent days, this message has been dunned into our ears by such opinion-makers as William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Theodore Draper, Michael Thomas, Edward Jay Epstein and David Garrow in the pages of The New York Times, The New Republic, Commentar, Wall Street Journal, The National Review, the "McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour," and lots more (without a dissenting voice to be heard anywhere).

This all-out blitz has been fueled by The Secret World of American Communism, written by Professor Harvey Klehr, of Emory University, John Earl Haynes, of the Library of Congress, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, formerly of the Comintern Archives in Moscow at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents in Recent History. The authors claim to have put together a "massive documentary record" from the hitherto secret Comintern archives, revealing "the dark side of American communism." These documents establish, they say, proof both of "Soviet espionage in America" and of the American Communist Party's "inherent" connection with Soviet espionage operations and with its espionage services; and that such spy activities were considered, by both Soviet and the American CP leaders, "normal and proper."

Such assertions are not all that different from what J. Edgar Hoover (and his stooges) were saying half a century ago. But what reinforces the authors' statements are not only the documents from the Russian archives they claim to have uncovered, but also the imposing editorial advisory committee assembled to give this project an eminent scholarly cachet. This editorial advisory committee consists of 30 academics whose names are listed opposite the title page. They include seven Yale University professors, along with professors from Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, Brandeis, Southern Methodist, Pittsburgh and Rochester universities. There are also an equal number of members of the Russian Academy of Sciences and of officials of various Russian archives.

Reproduced in the book are 92 documents offered by the authors as evidence of what they say is the United States Communist Party's continuous history of "covert activity." These documents, according to Professor Steven Merrit Minor in The New York Times Book Review, reveal that American Communists "relayed atomic secrets to the Kremlin" and also support the testimony of Whittaker Chambers and others that the American Communist Party was engaged in underground conspiracies against the American Government. The authors also say that the documents suggest that those "who continued to claim otherwise were either willfully naive or, more likely, dishonest."

In actuality, many of the documents are ambiguously worded or in some sort of code known only to the senders and recipients. They often contain illegible words, numbers and signatures; relate to unidentifiable persons, places and events; and are preoccupied with bookkeeping matters, inner-party hassles or with protective security measures against FBI and Trotskyite spies. Most importantly, not a single document reproduced in this volume provides evidence of espionage. Ignoring all evidence that contradicts their thesis, the authors attempt to make a case relying on assumption, speculation, and invention about the archival material and, especially, by equating secrecy with illegal spying.

The book's high points are sections relating to what the authors call atomic espionage and the CP Washington spy apparatus. As someone who has carefully examined the archives at the Russian Center, and who over the past four decades has studied the trial transcripts of the major Cold War "spy" cases, I can state that "The Secret World of American Communism," notwithstanding its scholarly accouterments, is a disgracefully shoddy work, replete with errors, distortions and outright lies. As a purported work of objective scholarship, it is nothing less than a fraud.

In this context, certain facts ought to be noted:

* The Moscow archives contain no material relating to these key figures in the Cold War "spy" cases: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell, Ruth and David Greenglass, Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, Elizabeth Bentley, Hede Massing, Noel Field, Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Colonel Boris Bykov and J. Peters. In my possession is a document, responding to my request, and dated October 12, 1992, signed by Oleg Naumov, Deputy Director of the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History, attesting that the Center has no files on, or relating to, any of the above-named persons.

* Despite the authors' assertion that the documents in this volume show that the CPUSA's elaborate underground apparatus collaborated with Soviet espionage services and also engaged in stealing the secrets of America's atomic bomb project, not one of the 92 documents reproduced in this book supports such a conclusion.

* The authors claim the documents corroborate Whittaker Chambers' allegations about a Communist underground in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, and while the authors concede that Alger Hiss's name does not appear in any of the documents, they assert that the "subsequent documentation has further substantiated the case that Hiss was a spy." Yet, not one document from the Russian archives supports any of these damning statements.

A total of 15 pages in "Secret World" have some reference either to Hiss or Chambers. By my count, these contain 73 separate misrepresentations of fact or downright lies. For example, the authors claim that J. Peters "played a key role in Chambers' story" that Hiss was a Soviet spy. Peters played no role in Chambers' story about espionage. Chambers said that the key figure in his espionage activities with Hiss was a Russian named "Colonel Boris Bykov," a character whose identity the FBI spent years futilely trying to establish.

The authors claim Chambers testified he worked in the Communist underground in the 1930s with groups of government employees who "provided the CPUSA with information about sensitive government activities." In fact, Chambers testified to the exact contrary on 12 separate occasions.

References to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and their case can be found on five pages. In those pages, by my tally, are 31 falsehoods or distortions of evidence. For example, the authors say the Rosenbergs' conviction was for "involvement in...atomic espionage." In fact they were convicted of conspiracy, and no evidence was ever produced that they ever handed over any information about anything to anyone.

The authors also say the Rosenbergs were arrested as a result of information the authorities obtained from Klaus Fuchs, which led to Harry Gold, who led them to David Greenglass, who implicated the Rosenbergs. All of these statements are based on an FBI press release. In fact, no evidence has ever been produced that indicates that Fuchs, Gold or Greenglass ever mentioned the Rosenbergs before their arrests.

Discussing one other "spy" case, that of Judith Coplon, against whom all charges were dismissed, the authors in typical contempt of official court records write that "there was not the slightest doubt of her guilt." In comments running no less than half a page, they invent a scenario of the Coplon case that contains 14 outright lies and distortions. For instance, the authors say she "stole" an FBI report and she was arrested when she handed over' the stolen report "to a Soviet citizen." All these statements are false; in her two trials, no evidence was ever adduced that she ever stole anything or that she ever handed over anything to anyone.

The late Steve Nelson, a onetime CP official who is referred to many times by the authors, is thus characterized, on page 230: "After World War II, U.S. officials charged that he was involved in Soviet spying, including atomic espionage."

Such a charge was once made against Nelson by the Republican-dominated HUAC. Following two weeks of secret hearings at the beginning of the 1948 presidential election campaign, HUAC, on September 27, 1948, issued a 20,000 word report charging that the Democratic Party was indifferent to Soviet espionage. It named Nelson as the pivotal figure in an atom spy network that was allegedly operating in the United States.

To equate the thoroughly discredited HUAC with "U.S. officials," as do the authors of "Secret World," is bad enough, but much worse is ignoring what was actually said by U.S. officials. This came by way of a statement issued that September by the Department of Justice. These U.S. officials branded the HUAC report as utterly without merit, an exercise in "political gymnastics," issued by a "politically minded Congressional committee with one eye on publicity and the other on election results." Of course, neither Nelson nor any of the others named as members of a Soviet atom spy ring was ever charged with any such crime.