Steve Nelson (Stephen Mesarosh) was born in Chaglich, Croatia, in 1903. Following the First World War, aged 16, "along with his mother and three sisters immigrated to the United States and joined an extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins in an ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia". (1)
According to Nigel West, the author of Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War (2000), when he arrived he pretended to be Joseph Fleischinger, an American citizen who was actually married to his mother's sister. "The impersonation was discovered and deportation proceedings were initiated, but then abandoned two years later, thus allowing him to become a naturalized American citizen in Detroit in November 1928." (2)
Nelson found work in a Pittsburgh slaughterhouse, where he worked eleven hours a day. Later he found employment as a carpenter and became involved in the trade union movement. He joined the Socialist Labor Party, but frustrated by a lack of action, he left it for the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in 1926. (3)
In 1929 Nelson became a full-time worker of the CPUSA. 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.
In 1931 Steve Nelson was sent to the International Lenin School in Moscow. According to Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (2000): "During his two-year stay there, Nelson was sent on clandestine missions to Germany, Switzerland, France, India, and China, while his wife also served in the Comintern's courier service." (4)
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. (5)
Cecil D. Eby, the author of Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (2007) has argued: "Nelson found the men at Jarama still demoralized by the February massacre. Their idea of a useful task was constructing a stone and cement monument to commemorate their dead comrades rather than deepening and draining their trenches, which in some places would have barely sufficed for a platoon of dwarves... Nelson believed in the efficacy of persuasion - men would do things his way but without quite realizing it." (6)
Steve Nelson and Joe 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."
Jason Gurney pointed out: "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." (7)
Steve Nelson appointed Oliver Law as one of his commanders. "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." (8)
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. According to Jason Gurney he was suspecting of purging non-communist officers from the Abraham Lincoln 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." (9)
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.
During the Second World War Steve Nelson moved to California and in 1942 he became chairman of the San Francisco branch of the Communist Party of the United States. He also became involved in espionage activities. "One part of Nelson's task was to gather information on the atomic bomb project. He was seen and overheard meeting with young Communist scientists working at the radiation laboratory at Berkeley. Information gleaned from FBI bugging and wiretaps indicated that several had discussed the atomic bomb project with him. Nelson made notes of what the scientists told him regarding their work, and he was subsequently observed passing materials, which the FBI assumed were his notes, to a Soviet intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover at the USSR's San Francisco consulate." (10)
One of the scientists identified was Joseph Weinberg, who worked at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California. FBI officials bugged Nelson's residence and discovered that Weinberg had delivered "highly secret information regarding experiments being conducted at the Radiation Laboratory, Berkeley, pertaining to the atomic bomb." Investigators reported that Nelson had "delivered this classified information to Soviet consular officer Ivan Ivanov for transmittal to the Soviet Union." (11)
Steve Nelson had a meeting with Vassili Zarubin, the most senior NKVD agent in the United States, in April 1943. "Zarubin travelled to California for a secret meeting with Steve Nelson, who ran a secret control commission to seek out informants and spies in the Californian branch of the Communist Party, but failed to find Nelson's home. Only on a second visit did he succeed in delivering the money. On this occasion, however, the meeting was bugged by the FBI which had placed listening devices in Nelson's home." (12)
The FBI bug confirmed that Zarubin had "paid a sum of money" to Nelson "for the purpose of placing Communist Party members and Comintern agents in industries engaged in secret war production for the United States Government so that the information could be obtained for transmittal to the Soviet Union." (13) J. Edgar Hoover responded by telling Harry Hopkins, a close advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that he was instituting a special code named COMRAP program to "identify all members of the Communist International (Comintern) apparatus with which Steve Nelson and Vassili Zarubin are connected as well as the agents of this apparatus in various war industries." (14) Hopkins then warned the Soviet ambassador that a "member of his embassy had been detected passing money to a Communist in California". (15)
Until this time Hoover had been totally unaware of the Manhattan Project. Nelson, Vassili Zarubin and Joseph Weinberg were kept under "blanket surveillance" but none of them were arrested. Nigel West has argued that the reason for this was that "Hoover was unable to persuade the White House that the Soviets were engaged in wholesale espionage against their ally." (16) However, Athan Theoharis, the author of Chasing Spies (2002) has suggested that the most important factor in this was that the FBI had used illegal methods such as wiretaps to obtain evidence of spying and this could not be used in court against the men. (17)
After the war Steve Nelson returned to Pittsburgh when Nelson was appointed District Secretary of Western Pennsylvania. On 31st August 1950, following a raid on the Pittsburgh Party Headquarters, Nelson and two local party leaders were arrested and charged under the 1919 Pennsylvania Sedition Act for attempting to overthrow the state and federal government. Unable to use wiretap evidence the prosecution was forced to rely on the testimony of FBI informant Matt Cvetic. Nelson was convicted, fined $10,000 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Concurrent with the Pennsylvania Sedition case, Nelson and five co-defendants were indicted in 1953 under the Smith Act. All six men were found guilty and each sentenced to 5 years and fined $10,000. (18)
Steve Nelson was sent to Blawnox Prison in Pennsylvania. According to Howard Fast: "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." (19)
Steve Nelson argued his case in the publication of The Thirteenth Juror (1955). His lawyers argued that the testimony of Matt Cvetic was deeply flawed. Daniel J. Leab, the author of I Was a Communist for the FBI: The Unhappy Life and Times of Matt Cvetic (2000) that by 1955 Cvetic had been largely discredited as a witness and the Justice Department's Committee on Security Witnesses unanimously recommended that he not be used as a witness unless his testimony could be corroborated by external sources." (20)
In 1956 in Pennsylvania v. Nelson, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1919 Pennsylvania Sedition Act. The court ruled that the enactment of the Smith Act superseded the enforceability of the Pennsylvania Sedition Act and all similar state laws. In the same year the Supreme Court granted Nelson and the other five defendants in the Smith Act case a new trial on the grounds that testimony had been perjured in the earlier case. By the beginning of 1957 the Government decided to drop all charges, bringing six years of legal battles to an end. (21)
During the 20th Party Congress on 25th February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He argued: "Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient co-operation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept or tried to prove his viewpoint, and the correctness of his position, was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. This was especially true during the period following the 17th Party Congress, when many prominent Party leaders and rank-and-file Party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of communism, fell victim to Stalin's despotism." Khrushchev condemned the Great Purge and accused Stalin of abusing his power. During the speech he suggested that Stalin had ordered the assassination of Sergy Kirov. (22)
Khrushchev's speech and the way the Soviet Union dealt with the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, when an estimated 20,000 people were killed, completely disillusioned Nelson and he left the Communist Party of the United States. "His withdrawal from the Party cost him friendships that had been forged over long years. Disenfranchised from the organization that had formed the nucleus of his professional and personal life and made notorious by the protracted sedition trials, Nelson was unable to secure steady employment. With his family he left Pittsburgh and moved to New York where he spent the next years trying to eke out a living as a carpenter and a cabinetmaker." (23)
In 1963 Nelson became the National Commander of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), an organization established during the Spanish Civil War to aid returning veterans and promote the ongoing fight against fascism. Under Nelson's leadership the VALB held protests against the Vietnam War and provided aid to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the form of ambulances and medical assistance. In 1975 VALB helped to establish the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). (24) In 1981 Nelson published his autobiography, Steve Nelson: American Radical.
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.
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.
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.
Nelson found the men at Jarama still demoralized by the February massacre. Their idea of a useful task was constructing a stone and cement monument to commemorate their dead comrades rather than deepening and draining their trenches, which in some places would have barely sufficed for a platoon of dwarves. Major Johnson employed military maxims like "What is taken with the rifle must be held with the spade" without visible impact, for he sounded too much like Sam Stember. By contrast, Nelson believed in the efficacy of persuasion-men would do things his way but without quite realizing it. As he watched a Lincoln deepening his dugout, he remarked to bystanders, "There is a fine comrade!" Someone asked why he said that. Without taking his eyes off the man with the shovel, Nelson explained the importance of strong fortifications. The digger had probably not intended to take out more than a few shovelsful, but under the intent gaze of the others, he worked up an honest sweat. A voice in the crowd said, "What's so special about that guy? Hell, I can dig better'n that." Soon all of them, including Nelson, were heaving dirt. (Sixty years later, those trenches were still there.)
Nelson had the sticky job of requesting from General Gal that the Lincolns be relieved from the line. Clad in oversize ski pants tied at the ankle with twine, a rusty brown shirt, and a shapeless brown beret covering his balding head, Nelson went down to Gal's dacha, where even orderlies and chauffeurs wore steam-pressed uniforms. Gal sat behind a massive desk, coldly eyeing Nelson as though inspecting a creature from an inferior phylum. On the wall behind him was a life-size portrait of himself in the uniform, garnished with epaulettes, of a Spanish Republican general. "The whole thing floored me," Nelson later remarked. When he said that he wanted to speak "man-to-man," Gal cut him down. "I am commander of this division. You are in that division." Nelson said that he represented the men of the Lincoln Battalion. Gal interrupted. "There are no delegations!" Nelson plunged ahead, explaining that his men thought their commanders had let them down: in a People's Army; if leaders proved inadequate, they could be removed. Gal then became "very upset." He unleashed a storm of abuse upon the Americans, accusing them of "imperialist" contamination the customary Marty line. Nelson listened, in his earnest manner, to this diatribe until a moment of relative cahn, when he proposed that the newly formed Washington Battalion replace the Lincoln in the trenches. Gal swung to the defensive, arguing that he could not spare the gasoline. Nelson countered by saying this excuse was senseless. Gal shouted, "You are talking to a general!' Nothing came of this meeting, but Nelson had at least showed Gal that henceforth American commissars would stand up for the rights of their men. The worms had turned.
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.
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.
Another important West Coast CPUSA official linked to Soviet espionage was Steve Nelson, who had years of experience in clandestine work. A native of Croatia, he joined the Young Communist League in 1923 in Philadelphia.
After working in Pittsburgh, Nelson was encouraged to move to Detroit by Rudy Baker, a fellow Yugoslav with whom he shared an apartment before Baker went off to the International Lenin School in Moscow. By 1929 Nelson had become a full-time functionary (Communist party professional). The CPUSA sent him to the Lenin School in 1931 at Baker's suggestion. During his two-year stay there, Nelson was sent on clandestine missions to Germany, Switzerland, France, India, and China, while his wife also served in the Comintern's courier service. After another sojourn organizing within the United States, Nelson went to Spain to serve as political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln battalion. Nelson had traveled under false passports to the Soviet Union and to Spain.
Nelson proved to be an effective political commissar, and upon his return to the United States the CPUSA, having marked him as an up-and-coming leader, sent him to southern California as a party functionary. He headed a covert special commission that both ferreted out infiltrators of the CPUSA and stole the files of hostile organizations. In
1939 the Civil Liberties Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Education and Labor Committee, headed by Wisconsin Progressive senator Robert La Follette, held hearings on labor relations in California. As part of its investigation the La Follette subcommittee subpoenaed the records of the Associated Farmers, a leading employer group in California that was hostile to the Communist role in the California CIO.
Committee investigators seized the records to ascertain the Associated Farmers' role in the use of labor spies and physical assaults on farm unionists in California. As part of its anti-Communist campaign the Associated Farmers had gathered extensive documentation on Communist activities. Eager to learn what the Associated Farmers knew (and to learn the identity of its informants), Nelson's apparatus secretly stole, photographed, and returned the subpoenaed records. He also worked with Japanese-American Communists to produce propaganda and arranged with longshoremen and sailors to smuggle it onto ships bound for Japan. Transferred to San Francisco in the fall of 1939, Nelson went underground early the next year, preparing to function illegally in case the CPUSA was outlawed.
During World War II Nelson served as head of the local Communist party organizations in San Francisco and Oakland. Early in 1943 Rudy Baker informed Dimitrov that "we have assigned one responsible person in California (Mack) to be responsible for all our work from there." Although there is no direct evidence that Nelson was Mack, a bugged conversation between Nelson and Vasily Zubilin in April 1 1943 indicated that Nelson had been appointed to head the West Coast apparatus late in 1942. And although Nelson's name does not appear among the decrypted agent names in Venona, he is a candidate for Butcher, a KGB source on the West Coast, who identified possible recruits in the aviation and oil industries in California. One part of Nelson's task was to gather information on the atomic bomb project. He was seen and overheard meeting with young Communist scientists working at the radiation laboratory at Berkeley. Information gleaned from FBI bugging and wiretaps indicated that several had discussed the atomic bomb project with him. Nelson made notes of what the scientists told him regarding their work, and he was subsequently observed passing materials, which the FBI assumed were his notes, to a Soviet intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover at the USSR's San Francisco consulate.
The FBI's listening devices overheard Nelson meeting with Zubilin, the KGB's senior officer in the United States, on April 10, 1943. The conversation opened with Zubilin counting out a roll of bills and passing it to Nelson, who responded, "Jesus, you count money like a banker." Zubilin answered, "Vell, you know I used to do it in Moskva." Nelson and Zubilin discussed the role of Al, the head of the CPUSA's secret apparatus in the United States, whom the FBI later identified as Rudy Baker. Nelson indicated that Earl Browder knew about his activities and the work of the apparatus on behalf of the Soviet Union. Nelson also went into considerable detail about his underground party work on the West Coast. Although most of the members of the secret apparatus were referred to by code names, Nelson openly identified Dr. Frank Bissell and his wife, Nina. Both were active Communists who had served in medical units in the Spanish Civil War.
Nelson had a number of complaints about the operations of his own apparatus and the way it was being used by Soviet intelligence. He was dissatisfied with courier operations to the South Pacific and contacts with Japanese Communists in the relocation camps. Two members of the underground apparatus, George and Rapp, came in for particularly strong condemnation. Nelson felt that George (later identified as Getzel "Joe" Hochberg) and Rapp (Mordecai "Morris" Rappaport) were inefficient. Hochberg was an intermediary with Earl Browder on secret apparatus matters. Rappaport supervised the West Coast seamen couriers. Soon after this conversation, Hochberg, who had previously been employed by the Jewish Communist newspaper Die Freiheit and had traveled as a bodyguard for Earl Browder, was transferred from New York to Detroit and stripped of his party responsibilities.
By the spring of 1943, however, the Centre was worried about the security of its large and expanding American agent network. Zarubin became increasingly incautious both in his meetings with Party leaders and in arranging for the payment to them of secret subsidies from Moscow. One of the files noted by Mitrokhin records censoriously, "Without the approval of the Central Committee, Zarubin crudely violated the rules of clandestinity." On one occasion Browder asked Zarubin to deliver Soviet money personally to the Communist underground organization in Chicago; the implication in the KGB file is that he agreed. On another occasion, in April 1943, Zarubin travelled to California for a secret meeting with Steve Nelson, who ran a secret control commission to seek out informants and spies in the Californian branch of the Communist Party, but failed to find Nelson's home. Only on a second visit did he succeed in delivering the money. On this occasion, however, the meeting was bugged by the FBI which had placed listening devices in Nelson's home. The Soviet ambassador in Washington was told confidentially by none other than Roosevelt's adviser, Harry Hopkins, that a member of his embassy had been detected passing money to a Communist in California.
Edgar Hoover had any idea of its existence until 10 April 1943, when he first became aware of it - from the Soviets. This remarkable state of affairs came about through the FBI's clandestine surveillance on the home in Oakland, California, of Steve Nelson, the CPUSA functionary who supervised the East Bay branch which covered the Berkeley campus. Born in Chaglich, Yugoslavia, where he had been active in radical politics, Nelson had landed in New York illegally in June 1920, accompanied by his mother and two sisters, pretending to be Joseph Fleischinger, an American citizen who was actually married to his mother's sister. The impersonation was discovered and deportation proceedings were initiated, but then abandoned two years later, thus allowing him to become a naturalized American citizen in Detroit in November 1928. It was under his true name, Stephan Mesarosh, that in 1930 he had used Golos's firm World Tourists Inc. to travel to Moscow where he attended a course at the Lenin School between September 1931 and May 1933. After his graduation he had undertaken a secret mission in Central Europe, and was spotted in Shanghai where he was associated with William Ewart, a veteran Comintern agent. Nelson returned to the USA in 1933, having renewed his US passport in Austria in July, to organize CPUSA industrial branches in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Cleveland, and served as a political commissar in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. In February 1937, while still in Spain, he obtained another U S passport in the name of Joseph Fleischinger (even though lie twice misspelled the surname on the application form).
It was during the course of a disjointed conversation with an unknown Russian (later identified as Vasili Zubilin) who had called at Nelson's home, that Special Agent William Branigan discovered that the NKVD apparat in East Bay was preoccupied with recruiting agents inside the Allied atomic weapon development project. From the transcript of the recording it was clear that Nelson was Zubilin's subordinate, and was acting as an intermediary, financing an extensive spy-ring. The FBI hastily organized surveillance on Nelson's mysterious Russian visitor, who was seen to board a train in San Francisco bound for New York. James R. Malley, then head of the Internal Security Squad at the New York Field Office, despatched three Special Agents, Warren R. Hearn, Kenneth R. Routon and Herman O. Bly, to join the train in Newark, and they maintained a watch at Penn Station while their target was met by an official Soviet diplomatic car and driven up Fifth Avenue to his apartment building. The three FBI men then returned to their office where they identified Zubilin from photographs and initiated a major espionage investigation designated COMINTERN APPARATUS. Until that moment, Hoover had no idea that the Manhattan Project even existed, and although Zubilin was to be placed under blanket surveillance thereafter, until his departure from New York on 28 August 1944, Hoover was unable to persuade the White House that the Soviets were engaged in wholesale espionage against their ally. As for Steve Nelson, he was convicted under the Smith Act in July 1952 of plotting to overthrow the U S government, and sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment. The conviction was overturned on appeal in 1957, and he died in December 1993.
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.
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.
With professional FBI informant Matt Cvetic serving as witness for the prosecution, the case drew widespread media attention. Nelson was convicted, fined $10,000 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. After serving seven months in the Allegheny County Prison, he was released on $20,000 bail pending his appeal. Concurrent with the Pennsylvania Sedition case, Nelson and five co-defendants were indicted in 1953 under the Federal Smith Act. All six men were found guilty and each sentenced to 5 years and fined $10,000. Nelson and the others were granted bail pending their appeals. In the intervening period Nelson wrote about his experiences in Spain (The Volunteers) and his Pennsylvania sedition trial and imprisonment (The Thirteenth Juror). The modest proceeds from both books and contributions from friends and organizations helped sustain him and his family during these years. In 1956 in Pennsylvania v. Nelson, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Pennsylvania Sedition Act. The court ruled that the enactment of the Federal Smith Act superseded the enforceability of the Pennsylvania Sedition Act and all similar state laws. In the same year the Supreme Court granted Nelson and the other five defendants in the Smith Act case a new trial on the grounds that testimony had been perjured in the earlier case. By the beginning of 1957 the Government decided to drop all charges, bringing six years of legal battles to an end. In 1957 Nelson left the Communist Party following Khrushchev's revelations of the atrocities that occurred under Stalin's regime. His withdrawal from the Party cost him friendships that had been forged over long years. Disenfranchised from the organization that had formed the nucleus of his professional and personal life and made notorious by the protracted sedition trials, Nelson was unable to secure steady employment. With his family he left Pittsburgh and moved to New York where he spent the next years trying to eke out a living as a carpenter and a cabinetmaker. In 1963 Nelson became the National Commander of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), an organization established during the Spanish Civil War to aid returning veterans and promote the ongoing fight against fascism. For the next forty years he guided the organization through an era of activism. Among the achievements of these years was the removal of VALB from the Attorney General's list of subversive organizations and the advancement of aid to political prisoners in Spain. VALB also took part in protests against the Vietnam War and provided aid to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the form of ambulances and medical assistance. In 1975 VALB helped to establish the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA) in order to preserve and advance the history of American participation in the Spanish Civil War. In 1978, two years after Franco's death, Nelson in the company of his fellow veterans, returned to Spain for the first time in 40 years. With his wife, he retired to a home that he had built in Truro, Cape Cod in 1975 and in 1981 he published his autobiography, Steve Nelson: American Radical. In the final decade of his life he remained committed to VALB, participating in educational programs that took him to high schools and universities to lecture on the contributions of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and their fight against fascism. On December 11, 1993, Steve Nelson died. He was 90 years old. Steve Nelson with VALB in Spain 1978 - Biography courtest of Tamiment Library, NYU.