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.