A Guild Divided

Outside Attacks and Friction Within Threaten Young NLG

1939-1941

The Dies Committee

In the late 1930s the political right, which had been resisting major court reforms for several years, moved its fight to Congress. Representative Martin Dies, Jr. took control of the bipartisan Special Committee on Un-American Activities, which had been formed in 1934 to gather “information on how foreign subversive propaganda entered the U.S. and the organizations that were spreading it.” Under Dies’ control, the committee shifted its focus to the exclusive program of investigating progressive movements. Unlike the committee’s previous chairs, Dies was unconcerned with the threat of fascism to the United States and did not pursue further investigation of the “Business Plot,” or other homegrown fascist movements uncovered by previous chairs.

At the opening session of the Guild’s third convention in 1939, the Executive Secretary’s report warned of the Dies Committee’s intentions:

Some of us who have followed closely the work of the Dies Committee are much concerned... The Guild is not immune. As the conflict become sharper, as the Guild’s influence and prestige becomes an increasingly potent force on the side of democracy and in the interests of the American people, we too will be honored with the attention of these termites…

Robert Kenny, NLG President from 1940-1948 and Attorney General of California, recording the Guild's radio series Lawyers in Modern Society

Internal strife: liberal reputations and Communist fear

It was not, however, specific pressure from the Dies Committee that created the most controversy at that year’s convention in Chicago. Rather, it was when several prominent voices within the Guild spoke out against supposed Communist influences within the organization. Leading the criticism, Morris Ernst, a Roosevelt administration attorney who helped to found the Guild, floated a resolution that language dissociating the Guild from an “ism” be added to the preamble to the organization’s constitution. The resolution failed, but the National Executive Board voted to approve the language of non-affiliation.

Shortly after the meeting, Ferdinand Pecora, president of the Guild in 1938 and a justice on the New York State Supreme Court, resigned from the Guild. Though only one other member left with him, the resignation was widely covered in the media and brought unwanted attention to many of the prominent New Deal liberal members.

Over the following months, as tensions between the New Deal liberals and more radical members built, a flood of resignations poured in to the Guild’s office. Disagreements over aid to the Spanish Loyalist cause, criticism of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and stronger protection of trade unions made many of the members focused on New Deal reforms uncomfortable. Ideas for anti-Communist loyalty oaths and changes to the Guild constitution were repeatedly raised, but never succeeded.

Challenging J. Edgar Hoover and facing a backlash

At the 1940 convention, Detroit member Ernest Goodman, an associate general counsel for the United Auto Workers, leveled one of the first public attacks on J. Edgar Hoover for violating the civil liberties of activists. In the wake of Goodman’s speech, many more supporters of Morris Ernst resigned from the Guild. Six months later, Hoover ordered the first of several burglaries of the Guild’s National Office. It was not discovered until 1979 that on this first burglary the FBI had obtained—against the Roosevelt administration’s wishes—the entirety of the Guild’s files.

Nor was it known until years later that Ernst had been giving Hoover information on Guild activities for most of his membership.

It was also at the 1940 convention that Robert Kenny, then a California state senator, was elected president of the Guild. Kenny immediately set to work trying to persuade the prominent Roosevelt administration attorneys who had resigned to re-join the Guild. When he spoke with A.A. Berle, an Assistant Secretary of State and resigned Guild member, Berle gave him a list of members who he would have to ask to leave the National Executive Board before the well-known administration attorneys would consider returning. Kenny rejected the list.

In the July 1940 issue of National Lawyers Guild Quarterly, Kenny addressed the future of the Guild and his perception of those who had left:

Lawyers played a great part in the unfolding of the New Deal. Much of the legislation and social attitude comprehended in that phrase is here to stay; but it will need defenders; it will need energetic forces for its extension and development. I think we should acknowledge to ourselves that only by insisting upon its growth and development can we effectively prevent its decay.