NLG Members Targeted amid Renewed Anti-Communist Hysteria
As the war years drew to a close, the National Lawyers Guild’s role in helping to found the United Nations and fight fascism abroad was already being set aside in the minds of many establishment figures. In the growing global uncertainties of this tentative peace, the NLG's services were an inconvenient truth easily passed over by U.S. politicians who saw more opportunity in fear than fairness. Even before the last U.S. combat troops returned home, the anti-Communist fever of the New Deal era was brewing once more.
Turning attention back to home
In 1946 the Guild held its first convention in four years. In his address to the assembled progressive lawyers, Martin Popper, the Guild’s Executive Secretary who had helped to draft the UN charter and organize the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) turned his attention to domestic matters:
Let us always keep indelibly etched in our memories the fact that the National Lawyers Guild became stronger in the service of our country because it discarded the false counsel of those who by appeasing the technique of red-baiting actually served to rend asunder the fibers of the Constitution…. Our position was and remains that the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution can never be ladled out like dispensations to some democratic groups and arbitrarily denied to others to suit a prevailing political prejudice, without endangering the existence of the rights themselves and without paralyzing the affirmative use of our civil liberties to eliminate fascism in our midst.
Following the death of FDR, the newly empowered Truman administration sought to drum up the exact “prevailing political prejudice” that Popper cautioned against, keeping the Guild in its sights from the start. In April 1946, just-appointed Attorney General Tom Clark warned against the threat of radicalism during his address to the Chicago Bar Association:
I don’t think there is anyone more subject to censure in our profession than the revolutionary who enters our ranks, takes the solemn oath of our calling and then uses every device in the legal category to further the interests of those who would destroy our government by force, if necessary. I do not believe in purges because they bespeak the dark and hideous deeds of communism and fascism, but I do believe that our bar associations, with a strong hand, should take these too brilliant brothers of ours to the legal woodshed for a definite and well deserved admonition.
The witch-hunt begins and the Guild responds
In March 1947, Truman issued Executive Order 9835, which established loyalty programs for the 2.5 million civil servants in the executive branch. The order also empowered Attorney General Clark to generate a list of “subversive organizations” whose members could be considered disloyal. The 1947 Guild convention passed a resolution strongly condemning the order, declaring that “those who resist freedom of inquiry are enemies of the people, for they doom our land to endless cycles of economic crisis and poverty, of war and annihilation, of bigotry and spiritual degradation.”
The convention also urged the rejection of the Taft-Hartley Act, which was being considered at the same time. Leonard Boudin, as chair of the Guild’s Labor Law Committee, testified against the bill in Congress and the committee mounted a large campaign to stop its passage, efforts which ultimately failed. Once implemented, Taft-Hartley immediately erased 15 years of gains by organized labor and its measures resulted in the firing of many Guild members from major unions.
Later that year, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) launched its investigation of subversive individuals working in Hollywood. In October 1947, during a nationally broadcast hearing before the Committee, 10 film industry workers who were called to testify refused to answer questions. Known as the Hollywood 10, they were represented by Guild attorneys Ben Margolis, Charles Katz, Robert Kenny, Martin Popper and Bartley Crum. The witnesses were cited for contempt and all served time in prison.
Guild lawyers in pretrial preparation for the Smith Act trials. Left to right: unknown, Abraham Isserman, George Crockett, Richard Gladstein, Harry Sacher. All the identified lawyers pictured were jailed for their vigorous defense of Smith Act targets.
Congress accelerated the witch hunt in 1948 by considering the Mundt-Nixon bill, which proposed expanding the basic loyalty plan of Executive Order 9835 to apply to the entire population of the United States. Stunned by the rapid and dramatic escalation of political repression, the Guild wrote to every member of Congress explaining its position that the bill was unconstitutional. Future Guild president and Yale Law professor Thomas Emerson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Guild’s position. (The bill would evolve and ultimately pass in 1950 as the Internal Security Act.)
That summer, the national leaders of the Community Party were indicted for violating the Smith Act. The leaders were accused of conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government and of conspiring to publish subversive literature. Though the prosecution did not accuse them of any specific plot, they were all convicted. Their Guild lawyers, George Crockett, Harry Sacher, Abraham Isserman, Richard Gladstein, and Louis McCabe, were also cited for contempt of court and served sentences ranging from four to six months.
And if that punishment didn’t make the specter of repression real, what followed would.
NLG members defending accused Soviet spy Judith Coplon uncovered evidence that laid out illegal spying programs run by the FBI. At the 1949 convention, the Guild formed a committee to further investigate the bureau's practices. This announcement drew the renewed ire of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who ordered increased surveillance and disruption of the Guild. The following year brought the report that nearly destroyed the organization.