Many people think that Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunts for Communists in the US government were a one-time event. But the US was hunting suspected Communists long before McCarthyism. We explore how the New York City School System set up a kangaroo court to flush out communists with the Rapp-Coudert Committee. The New York City Public Schools did McCarthyism long before Joseph McCarthy.
Many of us are familiar with Joseph McCarthy and his infamous hearings on Communism in the US government. What we don’t know is that McCarthy was far from the first person to use these tactics. In this episode of the Truce Podcast we examine the Rapp-Coudert Committee– an effort in the New York City school system to root out Communists, Fascists, and Nazis who might be teaching students. In the end, even outspoken Christians participated in this witch hunt, which targeted mostly Jewish teachers and staff.
- Why were Americans so afraid of Communists?
- Was it against the constitution to withhold rights from people because Rapp-Coudert was just a hearing?
- What would you have done if you were accused of being a communist? Would you have named names?
- Why were Jewish people targeted for violence by the Christian Front?
- Do the actions of one part of a group define the entire group? In this episode, some communists advocated for using schools to teach communism. But, to our knowledge, nobody in the district did that. Yet they were accused of having done so.
- Who do we scapegoat today in our society?
- Knowing that the Soviets did have spies working in the US government (like Klaus Fuchs who stole nuclear secrets), what should the government have done to root out spies?
- Did you know that the New York City Public Schools did McCarthyism long before Joseph McCarthy?
Transcript (some dialogue may have changed)
This episode is part of a long series that explores how communism in Russia impacted the American Christian Church. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done, go back and start at the beginning of season three.
The New York City Public Schools did McCarthyism long before Joseph McCarthy.
Picture the smiling, bearded face of Santa Clause. A cute little cartoon Santa standing on a mound of snow in the North Pole. An igloo in the background. This is from a comic strip by Herbert Block. It came out when Americans were petrified of Soviet Russia. Nothing like a little Cold War humor. The caption under this happy drawing reads:
CAPTION: An International agent with headquarters close to Soviet Russia.
Yep, Santa travels internationally. The north pole looks kind of close to Russia on the map. Okay… The next block has his naughty and nice list.
CAPTION: Head of a gigantic espionage ring with files on millions of Americans.
A collection bin for charity sits next to a stuffed St. Nick in a department store. A man reaches into his pocket to donate.
CAPTION: Openly opposed to the profit motive, and flooding the country with propaganda.
Maybe you see where this is going. Another block shows a set of parents stands by an open closet with presents spilling out. They hold their fingers to their mouths and made a shhh sound to each other.
CAPTION: Responsible for the fomenting of plots and secret actions in countless American homes.
Finally, Santa and his reindeer fly over a snowy city, passing in front of the moon.
CAPTION: Planning to enter the US illegally and under cover of darkness the night of December 24th!
The cartoon does what only really smart humor can do – it points out a deep truth, while making us laugh. In the case of this strip, it demonstrates that just about anyone could be accused of being a Soviet Spy.
It was written in response to the Dies Committee, also known as the Special Committee on Un-American Activities. Created in 1938 by the House of Representatives, to look into the spread of propaganda and to determine who, if anyone, was involved in communist activities in the United States.
They were not the first to do this. They were preceded by the Special Committee to Investigate Communist Activities of 1930. Followed by the Special Committee on Un-American Activities of 1934. They were very creative with their names back then.
The United States, even before WWII, was suspicious of its own citizens. Were we spreading ideas that might undermine our system of government? Was Bolshevism growing in America? This created a series of mini-red scares. Kangaroo courts in the land of the free and the home of the brave that dragged people before public hearings, and smeared their names. For thought crimes.
We like to think of the United States as a place with a long history of free speech. Freedom of ideas. The right to assemble. But in the 1900’s, all of that was put on trial as a quote-unquote Christian nation feared impending doom.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
The Hunt for Communists in NY City School Districts
By 1940 the world was at war. Well, not the US. We were actually pretty late to WWII. There was a lot of pressure in the US to stay out of it.
Europe was in serious trouble. Fascism was taking over. We were emerging from the Great Depression. Even though we were out of the war, we were worried that foreign countries could be having an influence on us.
So, when Herbert Rapp, a Republican in the New York State legislature introduced a bill to examine school spending in the state, someone said…
MAN: Hey, if we’re going to be investigating the schools anyway, why don’t we also see if there are any Fascist, Nazi, and Communist influences in the schools?
Thus was born the Rapp-Coudert Committee.
Remember, the committee was interested in budgets. Numbers. While they were there, could they also root out Fascists, Nazis, and Communists? Kind of a lot for one committee. And there were a plenty of interests at play. One estimate from the time said that 10% of students in New York City had to stand because there were no desks for them. Class sizes ballooned to fifty kids per teacher. There wasn’t a lot of money. This was the end of the Depression. Conservatives wanted to balance the state budget by cutting schools even further. Liberals sought more funding. But everyone wanted to know… were children, some of them standing all day, being taught Fascist or Communist ideas in the classroom?
They chose as their chief counsel a man named Paul Windels.
The Man Who Fought Tammany Hall
Paul Windels was the real deal, with an impressive track record. New York City had been super corrupt for decades at this point. Graft. Government contracts going to the highest bidder. All organized by a New York City political organization known as Tammany Hall. Corruption from top to bottom. Fascinating stuff. Mobsters. Deals made in back rooms. Windels and a bunch of other people were instrumental in bringing down the corruption.
So when it came time to choose someone to lead the Rapp-Coudert Committee, to be the chief counsel, Windels looked like the perfect guy. Not only was he a Republican, which means he’d be tough on the budget, but he was also a liberal. Yes, that was possible. Whereas later hearings like those under Joseph McCarthy would be pigeon-holed as conservative witch hunts, Rapp Coudert was bipartisan. Many of its key participants were liberals.
Windels said he’d run this investigation like the one that brought down Tammany Hall7. Because it had been so successful in rooting out corruption. What he wanted, at least, what he said he wanted to was to steer clear of pitfalls earlier committees had fallen into. Making charges against people based on:
WINDELS: Gossip, rumor, or hearsay.
His stated desire was essentially to treat these hearings, these inquiries into people who might be spreading Fascism and Communism, like a grand jury. Keep it fair. Keep it honest.
That’s… that’s not what he did though. What he ended up doing was trying people in the court of public opinion. He denied them their rights. Withheld information. Assumed guilt. Ruining careers, destroying friendships, and setting the stage for the more famous McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.
Here’s how it worked. Windels and his team interviewed people. Staff, faculty, in closed door meetings.
WINDELS: Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party?
Something like that. But the person being interviewed did not have a right to a lawyer. This was just a hearing, after all. They’d have someone in the corner taking dictation. The transcript would then be typed up and… kept secret. The transcripts of those private hearings were only for Windels and his team. Meaning, that the defense didn’t have access to the evidence. In a trial, lawyers defending someone have a right to the evidence that will be used against their client. Transcripts of depositions. Interviews. Police records. This was just a hearing, though. That information was held only by Windels and his team.
When they got into the public hearing, in front of the press and lookie-loos, Windels called witnesses to the stand. But nobody was allowed to offer a defense or cross-examine the witnesses. Meaning if Windels were to say…
WINDELS: (wry) What is it like being a dirty communist?
Which I don’t think he said, I made that up. But if he said that, there would be nobody to counter with…
MAN: (as in a courtroom) Objection!
Like you see in courtroom dramas. Or to ask follow up questions of witnesses. So, if you had a witness on the stand who said…
WOMAN: I believe that Professor Smith is a communist.
… there was nobody there to ask a follow up question. No matter how obvious that question was. Like…
MAN: How do you know that Professor Smith is a communist? Did you see him distributing materials? Attending rallies? Recruiting students?
Nope. Nobody could ask those follow ups. If someone said…
WOMAN: I believe that Professor Smith is a communist.
… and Windels and his team didn’t ask how in the world she knew that, the question never got asked. You see the problem with that? People on the stand could speculate and, maybe, nobody would question them. Whatever they said, no matter how unfounded, made it into the public record. And then the newspapers. Which is another difference between this hearing and a grand jury: grand juries are performed in secret. The Rapp-Coudert hearings were public.
The Rapp-Coudert Trap
So, let’s say that you and I are communists. I’m not a communist, we’re pretending here. Maybe we just went to a meeting once. Read some literature. Or maybe one of our close colleagues was a communist. They might suspect us of being Soviet supporters too. What are our options? We are called before this committee to testify. The meeting is public, the media are present. What do we say? How do we defend ourselves?
Why don’t we plead the fifth?
MAN: I plead the fifth.
You probably hear that in courtroom dramas too. It’s referring to the fifth amendment of the constitution, which says, among other things, that a person can’t be…
CONSTITUTION: “…compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”
The City of New York got around the fifth amendment by requiring in its charter that all public employees had to cooperate with legislative and other investigations. If they didn’t comply, they could lose their job. Simply for staying… silent. Which, under a normal trial, would be their right. Laws protecting people from stuff like this wouldn’t be strengthened until the 1960s.
So, if you and I, two suspected communists, stay silent, we risk losing our jobs. No small problem while the US was still in the Great Depression. That was not exactly the best time to go unemployed.
Also, Windels and public opinion were against you if you pled the fifth, seeing it as an admission of guilt. It’s bad logic, but it went something like this: why would you keep quiet if you had nothing to hide? Umm… because it’s you right?
When Communism Was Illegal
In 1940 there was nothing illegal about being a member of the Communist Party. Not until 1954 during the Eisenhower Administration. Nor was it illegal to go to meetings, read or distribute literature, or invite people to join. All of that was still legal.
Yet public opinion was against communism, even at this time. Before the Cold War really heated up. Or cooled down. Or whatever. The fear was less about one person being a communist. The concern was that a teacher would share their ideas with the classroom. Indoctrinate others. The Rapp-Coudert Commission was going to stop that from happening. And fix the budget or whatever, too. If they had time.
Public opinion was with them. Even among liberals. Teachers were expected to keep their personal beliefs out of the classroom. A New York Times article from 1940 argued that freedom of speech and assembly ended at the schoolhouse door. Communists, it argued, lost first amendment protection by “practicing bad faith”
Windels said in his opening remarks:
WINDELS: “there is no civil liberty to commit a breach of trust; there is no academic freedom to be one thing and pretend to be something else; there is no freedom in this country to poison the rising generation in the name of any political philosophy which practices hypocrisy and deception, as a part of its central and vital doctrine.”
In other words, don’t be sharing your communist principles in public schools or colleges. They undermine our system of government. They poison our kid’s minds. Don’t do it.
There Were Communists in New York City Schools
Let me let you in on a little secret. Here, let’s go into this back room where nobody else can hear us.
Okay, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this… There were communists among the faculty and staff… estimates at the time said there were as many as a few hundred. But over 30,000 people worked there. Even if there were a thousand secret communists, which was the high estimate, we’d still only be talking about 3% of the staff. So, there were communists, but not many compared to the number of staff. Those guys, the people doing the hearings… they were afraid that this tiny minority might use their platforms as teachers to spread communism through the New York City School systems. Here’s the problem…Windels never had any evidence that they’d shared their political opinions with anyone else.
That’s key. There was no evidence that they’d indoctrinated their students. None. His team found literature that encouraged communists to use schools to spread their beliefs… but there was no evidence that anyone ever had.
I know that may sound like I’m splitting hairs. But there were lots of different kinds of communists, just like there are lots of different kinds of Christians. Some communists did advocate for infiltrating the schools. Does that mean that the people pulled before the Rapp Coudert Commission did? No. It’s like if you found a pamphlet calling for all Christians to handle snakes to test your faith in God. Does that prove that all Christians handle snakes? No. Not at all. The belief of one segment of a group does not necessarily define the whole group.
Windels and his team had no evidence of indoctrination. Still – in their minds, if you were a communist it was proof enough that you were using your position to influence the minds of young people.
Okay… Coast is clear. I don’t think they saw us duck in here. Let’s go.
Where were we? Right. Let’s continue our example. If someone said that I were a communist, even if they didn’t present any evidence, I was in a tight place. Lets take another look at my options.
What To Do If You’re A Suspected Communist
If I pled the fifth, I could be fired and the press would assume I was guilty. I could admit to being a communist, but then I’d definitely get fired.. Or… I could name names. List some communists or people I might just have a hunch about and, by doing so, prove what a patriot I am.
None of those are particularly great options. Especially if you had some affiliation with the Communist party. Someone may come out and say your name. Then you’d be fired and blacklisted for lying.
If you were accused… what could you do? With their options narrowing, some of those who would be called to the witness stand came up with a plan. A way to blame all of this on one man. Pick a patsy. One guy to take the fall for everyone.
We’ll be back after these messages.
Some people named names. People like professor Bernard Grabanier, a former member of the Party himself. William Martin Canning was another. He alone pointed fingers at 44 municipal college employees in the public hearing, though he’d named 63 in the private ones. 37 of those were confirmed by a woman named Annette Sherman-Gottsengen. Based on the testimony of just those two people, suspensions began within weeks.
Anyone could see what was at stake. Not only could you lose your job, but possibly your career in academia. And your name would be smeared in the papers. Even just an accusation meant your pals stopped talking to you because it became a liability to be your friend. Nobody’s going to publish the research of a suspected communist. Family members, colleagues, friends disappeared for fear of being roped into your nightmare.
Those who had participated in communist activities came up with a plan: have one person admit to being a communist. The communist. The only one in the teachers union. That guy could draw the public attention on himself, be the sacrificial lamb… and then protest the hearing in a higher court to challenge the system. Get everyone else off the hook, and provide legal grounds for a real trial.
The Tale of Morris Shappes
The lot fell on Morris Shappes. Shappes was an immigrant from Ukraine. A trade unionist and anti-fascist. He spoke with a stammer, and was beloved by his students. He’d joined the communist party around 1934. When it was his turn to testify, he claimed that he was the unicorn: the last and only communist member of the staff.
It didn’t work. Because people like William Canning had already provided a list of suspected communists. Shappes was indicted for perjury eight days later, convicted on four counts, and served a year and a half in jail.
With their attempt to move all of the blame on one guy behind them, more faculty and staff were called to testify. Soon enough, an unhappy pattern started to emerge.
The Hunt for Communists Became a Hunt for Jews
Of 20 people suspended in May, all but 4 were Jewish. It wasn’t just in these hearings that anti-semitism cropped up. In 1949 New York passed the Feinberg Law, which blocked communists from getting jobs in public education. In the first wave of firings after Feinberg, all but one were Jews.
Public opinion was not with Jewish people. In 1938, 60% of Americans polled had negative opinions of Jews. Before 1933 there were five organizations in the US that were explicitly anti-semitic. By 1941, there were over 100.
This wave of anti-semitism was felt even in Christian circles. Father Charles Coughlin was a famous radio host and Nazi sympathizer. In May of 1938, he called for the founding of the Christian Front – a movement dedicated to protecting supposedly Christian institutions from communists… and Jews. This guy is just bumming me out.
The Christian Front organized meetings on street corners and in assembly halls. They were largely working-class Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Poland, and Italy. Folks notoriously stuck with bad jobs. No upward mobility. They saw Wall Street as run by Jews, and the New Deal as creeping socialism. Because of movements like The Christian Front, New York saw a sharp rise in anti-semitic violence.
Christians Censored The Golden Age of Cinema
This happened at the same time that Hollywood started censoring content. Rumors surfaced that Jewish Hollywood executives were using lude content to subvert society. Spreading communist ideas through film. Christian groups protested, forcing studios to self-censor. I did a whole episode about this, but it bears repeating: the golden age of cinema didn’t occur because people were cleaner, happier, nicer people back then. It happened because Christian groups threatened to boycott the industry. And Jewish people who did work in the film world, were afraid of persecution. Apparently, with good reason. Remember, this is right when Jewish people were being persecuted in Europe. Why couldn’t that happen here?
Jewish Professors at Brooklyn College and City College of New York provided a list of Nazi sympathizers and anti-black and anti-Jewish acts performed by staff members. Even outright supporters of Mussolini. Yet the Coudert Committee concluded that there was no Nazi or Fascist activity in the schools. None. Lots of commies. No Nazis. Despite evidence to the contrary.
In all the committee interviewed almost 700 people in its kangaroo style. Interrogating 500 odd witnesses. At City College of New York alone, the investigation resulted in the firing of over 50 staff members.
Ultimately, the committee lasted for just a few years. One nail in its coffin was Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. When the Soviet Union was forced to join the fight against the Axis powers. Not long after, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese along with many other targets in the Pacific. The US was at war. What good would it do to persecute our allies?
The Rapp-Coudert hearing was just a precursor to what would come after the war. Blacklists in Hollywood. McCarthyism in the government. Following much the same tack as their predecessor. These kangaroo courts pulled people into the public eye. Ignored due process, constitutional rights, and ruined reputations. We like to think of the United States as a place where people are free. They can think what they want. Join any group they choose. Speak as they wish. But history shows us that we don’t really hold to that standard.
When fear grips the country, all bets are off. We act irrationally.
Compare these persecutions in the US and those in the Soviet Union. The Soviets oppressed people who didn’t agree with them. So did the US. Of course, the difference is that the United States didn’t kill our targets in these cases. We did however, shame them publicly, often on weak or nonexistent evidence ruining relationships, careers, and families.
Today these stories should bring up a lot of questions in our minds. If we are a Christian nation as some people say, how should we deal with our enemies, real or perceived? One of the big questions of this season is who gets to experience the rights as a citizen? Who gets protection under the First Amendment to speak freely? Who can plead the fifth?
How Do Christians React During Dark Times?
Is it just people who think like we do? Christians, are you getting this? Is it just people who think like we do? If so, that’s not really free speech at all.
Perhaps our fear of the other just isn’t working for us. It certainly creates a frustrating past for us to look back on. When we see our country persecuting people for a legal belief. Christian groups scapegoated Jewish people.
Yet… sigh… it’s too simple to leave it there. Wouldn’t it be nice and tidy if I just made us feel bad about the past? Yeah, it’s not that easy. It ignores a really basic fact: There were Soviet spies in the Allied countries. People like Klaus Fuchs, a primary physicist on the Manhattan Project who passed information about the atomic bomb to the Soviets. Yeah, he was a communist. And not the only one. There were Soviet spied in many parts of the US government. It was because of men like Fuchs that the Soviets went from far behind the US to equal to us in nuclear capability in short order.
Messes with your moral indignation, right? The trick is that history is complicated. We lampoon the Cold War as being a bunch of worry about nothing – but there was a lot on the line. The fate of the whole world, really, because of the threat of nuclear war.
But when we suspend justice and due process in our desperate attempts to find someone to blame… is that really the action of a Christian people? For the people of the Christian Front it was easier to blame the Jews than to fix the underlying societal problems. For people like Windels, it was easier to use trickery to frame someone for a crime than to do an actual investigation. Give the people a quick, clear enemy.
When we suspend justice in favor of a circus we end up where we started: with guys like Santa Clause seeming like the enemy. His coat is red! So is Rudolph’s nose! Of course he’s a communist! But those kinds of conspiracies make us looks ridiculous. We Christians can’t be about convenient conspiracies… we have to be willing to do the hard work of justice.
Want to go deeper into these issues around the dinner table tonight? Well, I’ve put together some questions based on this episode that you can use to spark discussion. They are in your show notes on your device and on the website at trucepodcast.com
The backbone of this story comes from the book Bad Faith by Andrew Feffer. I’ve got a list of other resources on the website. Truce is a listener supported show. My goal is to do this full time. If you’d like to be a part of making these stories, of raising the bar on what Christian media can be, visit trucepodcast.com/donate. This topic is really important to me, so I’ll be posting a special bonus about why it’s important for patrons.
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God willing we’ll be back in two weeks with more. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.