secrecy {fragments}

~ musings on secrecy ~

George Seldes ~ Installment 1

Under FOIA, I recently received 1,618 pages of records from the FBI on the subject of George Seldes.[1] In requesting records on Seldes, I hoped to gain knowledge into his alignment with the Communist Party (CPUSA). There are many allegations as to Seldes’ Party membership but few solid references that would constitute proof.  There remain lingering myths based on rumor and poor scholarship. Seldes is well known for his spirited independent gonzo muckraking journalism, and in rediscovering his many works, I am left with the utmost admiration for his tenacity in the pursuit of the facts surrounding the hidden networks of power that are the foundation of global politics.[2] At the heart of Seldes’ work is cracking secrets and confronting censorship.[3] The puzzle of Seldes’ CPUSA membership may remain unsolved to some who read this post, but after following clues as to their origins, I am fairly convinced that Seldes suffered from guilt by association and recrimination because of his alternative views of what is newsworthy, historical, and “true” (as in evidence and eyewitness accounts). It is apparent in reading the Seldes’ records, that he was under long term surveillance, and this spying was an attempt to confirm his CPUSA connections and perhaps even find him guilty of espionage.

First, it is well known that Chicago Daily News (and later writer for the John Birch Society) columnist Westbrook Pegler was vehemently anti-Seldes.[4] One need only take a tour of retrospective newspaper databases available in most libraries or the newspaper archive at google to follow Pegler’s work in defaming Seldes. Research in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, home to the Pegler papers, revealed six pages of correspondence and a five-page typed memo about Seldes’s involvement with Ken magazine (1945). The memo infers Seldes was a Communist because he fraternized with known Communists, agreed with known Communists on various political issues, and was anti-British in the early part of World War II (correspondence with Hoover Library archivists). However, Seldes was adamant throughout his life that he was not a member of the CPUSA.[5] From volume 2, p. 1207, Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations (McCarthy Hearings 1953-54):

Mr. COHN. Are you a member of the Communist party?
Mr. SELDES. No.
Mr. COHN. Have you ever been a member of the Communist
party?
Mr. SELDES. No.
Mr. COHN. That is very interesting.
Mr. SELDES. Who said I was?
Mr. COHN. Who said you were? Has it ever been brought to your
attention that anybody said you were?
Mr. SELDES. Yes, [space blank] wrote a piece saying I was a
‘‘Stalinite’’ and smearing me in other ways. I got very angry and
went to a lawyer. He said it would cost me $5,000 to clear this up,
so I didn’t do anything about it.
Mr. COHN. Has Professor Budenz ever said anything about it?
Mr. SELDES. I don’t know anything about him except an article
written in some magazine, probably by Wechsler or Eugene Lyons,
either Plain Talk or American Mercury magazine. My files are
locked up. He is quoted in one of these articles against me.
Mr. COHN. What did he say?
Mr. SELDES. I can only trust my memory. I think he said once
at a meeting of some Communists at their headquarters they said
they would like to have me editor of the Daily Worker or some
paper—as editor of something.
Mr. COHN. Professor Budenz said you were under Communist
discipline, did he not?
Mr. SELDES. I never read that line, and I deny it. [3]

The second clue comes from comes Alexander Vassiliev’s Black Notebook (p. 164) with its association of Seldes to a “special register.” There are not many references to the special register in the Cold War literature, but I did track down a description in Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Haynes, Klehr, & Vassiliev, 2009):

“Special register” was a term for a secret roll kept by the CPUSA whose party membership was not through the usual party organization (that too was kept secret). Such members were not assigned to party units and were kept isolated from other party recruits and only a small number of party officials knew of their membership.

While Vassiliev’s Notebooks have been discussed among historians as to their veracity,  I did a check with the European Division, Library of Congress regarding the INCOMKA Project Website, where George Seldes (Georg Sel’dis) is mentioned in the Library’s finding aid “Collection 495, Inventory 261 Part 7 (Ps-Sil)”, File# 1395. The files haven’t been translated and the libraries in my area don’t provide access to the COMINTERN archives. But the subject specialists at the Library were not familiar with references to a “special register” of CPUSA members either in the US or mentioned in files in the Former Soviet Union. It would be incredibly useful to followup in this area to learn what the records state about Seldes. This might lead to verification of Vassiliev’s information.

The third clue comes from the first file received from the FBI – Section 1 (1116544) – that runs from mid 1940 through fall 1941. In reading various documents contained in the file, it is clear that J. Edgar Hoover and a staff of field agents monitored the political press, including publications such as The Daily Worker for Seldes’ antiwar activities and Labour Monthly, where Seldes was an editor. And it read commentary on Seldes in the press (see Woltman note 4, below). It is also clear from numerous memos that Hoover was persistent in attempting to prosecute Seldes as a foreign agent as well as for espionage (January 9, 1940 document). In this file, Seldes is suspected to have leaked a confidential document written by (Amb.) Joseph P. Kennedy (108 January 1940) to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that discussed among other topics the perception that England couldn’t “protect its people against air raids.”

Throughout the 317 pages of the file are attempts to label Seldes as a Communist. And many of these attempts came from the general public who requested the FBI investigate Seldes based on his In Fact reporting. This was a stunning discovery. For example, one letter stated” freedom of the press is a wonderful thing but don’t you believe this is carrying it too far” (March 19, 1941 postcard); another member of the public felt that Seldes and his In Fact were ProNazi and Communist because it promoted “labor unrest” (March 25, 1941). Still another letter suggested Seldes was an agent of a foreign government. Other letters asked the FBI for advice as to if In Fact, described by Seldes as “the antidote for falsehood in the daily press,” was a Communist publication (July 4, 1941). A letter dated May 22, 1941 suggested Seldes should investigated due to being critical of the FBI; A memo from a confidential informant relayed info that Seldes was a “leader in Communist front organizations” and although there was no proof he was a member of the CPUSA, he is a “fellow traveler” (July 30, 1941). As a side note, in his 1958 book Masters of Deceit, Hoover describes a fellow traveler as while “not a member, actively supports (travels with) the Party’s program for a period of time…these individuals are not Party members, but in some degree, have come under Party control” (p. 88-89).

On August 5 1941, J. Edgar Hoover sent numerous issues of In Fact to Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge asking if Seldes was in violation of any federal statute “which will warrant further investigation of him.”  Berge replied on August 13 stating there is “an indication” that In Fact is published by the Communist Party, but Berge notes that unless there is further proof, Seldes was doing nothing illegal. What does J. Edgar do? In an August 30, 1941 memo, he orders a reopening of an investigation into the possibility of Seldes being an “agent of any foreign principal.” [6]

But what has to be the most fascinating document in the bunch is the “debate” between between Seldes and Hoover about the meaning of the FBI as a “factfinding organization.” It was stunning to read Hoover’s fifteen page letter to Seldes rebutting In Fact that the Bureau was involved in squelching political speech, labor unions, and violating rights of ordinary Americans. In a September 29 1941 memo, Hoover thanks the field agents surveilling Seldes for their “patriotic interest.”

Installment 2 | Installment 3 | Remaining records

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[1]  In its letter to me, the FBI noted that the 1,618 pages released under FOIA were “previously processed.” I can only assume there were requestors before me that chose not to post the Seldes’ records to the Web.

[2] A few of Seldes’ books are available through Internet Archive (IA) as well as volumes of his controversial, hard hitting newsletter In Fact, which can also be downloaded from IA. As an aside, this particular file received under FOIA contains numerous issues of In Fact that may not be duplicated at Internet Archive. The documentary film Tell the Truth and Run (can be viewed online) breathes life into Seldes’ as newspaperman.

[3] Sawdust caesar: The untold history of Mussolini and fascism (1935), was published in England after “undergoing censorship imposed by printers” (The New York Times January 25, 1936); In Fact regularly discussed press censorship of critical news stories.

[4] Other anti-Seldites in the MSM were Walter Winchell (See “Winchell quips curbed by the court: Justice Walter orders the columnist to be specific,” The New York Times April 13, 1954), George E. Sokolsky (“Congress should probe Communist pipe-lines,” The Coshocton Tribune February 16, 1940? – date was illegible on the microfilm), Fulton Lewis Jr., and Frederick E. Woltman (Case study of George Seldes In Fact,” American Mercury November, 1943, pp 578-587, among one of the files I received) among others. Seldes discusses his relationship with several of these reporters and libel in his 1988 autobiography Witness to a century: Encounters with the noted, the notorious, and the three SOBs and in In Fact (volume 5 for example).

[5] In several of his works, Seldes voices regret over his association with Bruce Minton, who by all accounts did have CPUSA membership. Seldes (1968) recounts correspondence with Minton over the latter’s “secret and perhaps at times, sinister activities” as well as financial support for In Fact in chapters 21 and 22 of  Never tire of protesting.

[6] This issue raises its ugly head again January 13, 1948 (80th Congress) in a discussion in the Congressional Record between John E. Rankin (D. Miss) and Clare E. Hoffman (R. MI). This copy was in the FBI’s files and sent in the FOIA batch of records I received.

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Written by S.

January 12, 2013 at 5:33 am