John Abt was born in Chicago on 1st May 1904. His grandparents were founders of Hart, Abt and Marx, the highly successful clothing manufacturer. His father became the chief negotiator for the clothing industry in its battle with the emerging United Garment Workers of America (UGWA) under Sidney Hillman.
Abt was educated at the University of Chicago and received his law degree in 1924. According to his biographer, Michael Myerson, Abt claimed that his "first three years of practice were devoted to floating bond issues that, after the Depression hit, he would have to foreclose."
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president Abt went to Washington to support the New Deal. He joined the legal division of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Soon afterwards he joined the American Communist Party (ACP). His membership was secret, owing to his employment by the U.S. government. While at the AAA Abt became close to Harold Ware and his wife, Jessica Smith. According to Whittaker Chambers: "Once the New Deal was in full swing, Hal Ware was like a man who has bought a farm sight unseen only to discover that the crops are all in and ready to harvest. All that he had to do was to hustle them into the barn. The barn in this case was the Communist Party. In the AAA, Hal found a bumper crop of incipient or registered Communists. On its legal staff were Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss and John Abt."
Harold Ware was critically injured in a car accident in the mountains near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on 13th August, 1935 when his car collided with a coal truck. He died the next morning at the hospital. Soon afterwards, Apt married his widow, Jessica Smith, who was at that time editor of Soviet Russia Today. After leaving the Agricultural Adjustment Administration Apt held posts in the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In 1937 he became chief counsel to the Senate Civil Liberties Committee, under Robert La Follette, investigating corporate espionage against the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
In 1938 Abt became chief counsel to Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). For the next ten years, Abt was Hillman's main political operative within the CIO. According to Michael Myerson: "He (Apt) first conceived the notion of political action committees (PACs) and established CIO-PAC (for which he also served as chief counsel) to build organized labor's political influence."
After the Second World War Abt became chief counsel of the Progressive Party, the vehicle for Henry Wallace, who was its candidate in the 1948 Presidential Elections. In 1950 Apt and Vito Marcantonio were hired by the American Communist Party to defend it against the Alien Registration Act. This measure resulted in the leadership of the Communist Party being imprisoned. The legislation was eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court for essentially outlawing free speech.
Apt also mounted the legal challenge to the McCarran Internal Security Act, which made it illegal to belong to the Communist Party or any of the 200 organizations claimed by the government to be "Communist Fronts". Abt called the McCarran Act as a "blueprint of American fascism". Over the next thirty years Apt represented thousands of individual clients who had lost their jobs because of this legislation.
During his interrogation by the Dallas Police in November 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald requested the services of John Abt. He is recorded as saying: "I want that attorney in New York, Mr. Abt. I don't know him personally but I know about a case that he handled some years ago, where he represented the people who had violated the Smith Act... I don't know him personally, but that is the attorney I want... If I can't get him, then I may get the American Civil Liberties Union to send me an attorney." However, Abt was on holiday in Connecticut and later told reporters that he had received no request either from Oswald or from anyone on his behalf to represent him, before he was shot dead by Jack Ruby.
On his 80th birthday Abt admitted that he joined the American Communist Party in the 1930s: "I am sure that this announcement will surprise no one here tonight. But it seems to me a rather sad commentary on the state of the freedom of political association in this country that I had to wait for half a century after the event before I felt free, publicly and proudly, to confirm a fact which anyone who knows anything at all about me has assumed to be true for these many years."
John Abt died of a stroke in Copiague on 8th August 1991.
Once the New Deal was in full swing, Hal Ware was like a man who has bought a farm sight unseen only to discover that the crops are all in and ready to harvest. All that he had to do was to hustle them into the barn. The barn in this case was the Communist Party. In the AAA, Hal found a bumper crop of incipient or registered Communists. On its legal staff were Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss and John Abt (later named by Elizabeth Bentley as one of her contacts). There was Charles Krivitsky, a former physicist at New York University, then or shortly after to be known as Charles Kramer (also, later on, one of Elizabeth Bentley's contacts). Abraham George Silverman (another of Elizabeth Bentley's future contacts) was sitting with a little cluster of communists over at the Railroad Retirement Board.
J. Lee Rankin: You have been informed, I am sure, that Lee Harvey Oswald, after his arrest, tried to reach you to request that you act as his counsel. I don't know how you were informed, but I have seen it in the newspapers. When did it first come to your attention?
John Abt: May I tell you the story, Mr. Rankin? Perhaps that is the simplest way.
J. Lee Rankin: Yes.
John Abt: On Friday evening, the 22d, my wife and I left the city to spend the weekend at a little cabin we have up in the Connecticut woods. Sometime on Saturday, several people phoned me to say that they had heard on the radio that Oswald had asked that I represent him, and then shortly after that the press - both the press, radio, and TV reporters began to call me up there. I may say we have a radio but we have no TV there. And in the interim I turned on the radio and heard the same report.
I informed them - and these calls kept on all day and night Saturday and again Sunday morning - I informed all of the reporters with whom I spoke that I had received no request either from Oswald or from anyone on his behalf to represent him, and hence I was in no position to give any definitive answer to any such proposal if, as and when it came. I told them, however, that if I were requested to represent him, I felt that it would probably be difficult, if not impossible, for me to do so because of my commitments to other clients. I never had any communication, either directly from Oswald or from anyone on his behalf, and all of my information about the whole matter to this day came from what the press told me in those telephone conversations and what I subsequently read in the newspapers.
J. Lee Rankin: Mr. Abt, did you learn that Lee Harvey Oswald was interested in having you represent him apparently because of some prior connection of yours with the American Civil Liberties Union?
John Abt: No. My assumption was, and it is pure assumption, that he read about some of my representation in the press, and, therefore, it occurred to him that I might be a good .man to represent him, but that is pure assumption on my part. I have no direct knowledge of the whole matter.
J. Lee Rankin: You have told us all that you know about it?
John Abt: Yes. I may say that I have had. no prior contact with Oswald, knew nothing about him, did not know the name, and this request came as something entirely new and surprising to me when it came.
J. Lee Rankin: None of your clients had ever communicated to you about him prior to that time you heard about it over the radio?
John Abt: No; I had no recollection of even having heard the name, his name, before that time.
J. Lee Rankin: Thank you.
In 1953, as chief counsel, he represented the Communist Party in a case in which the New York Board of Regents sought to bar party members from holding jobs in the schools. The Board of Regents lost.
Four years later, he was back in the news when Col. Rudolf Abel, the Soviet agent, asked Mr. Abt to defend him against charges that he transmitted United States secrets to the Soviet Government. Mr. Abt turned him down.
The day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, accused as the killer, asked to be allowed to hire Mr. Abt to defend him. Before Mr. Abt could accept or reject the bid, Mr. Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby.