Friday, February 17, 2017

UNWITTING: "It was a summer of suspicion"

Chapter Two: Naming Names
(The Secret War on William Pierce)

Pierce felt strongly that security clearances were out of place in the academic community and didn’t hesitate to say so publicly. In April 1953, for example, he spoke out about a Presidential Executive Order establishing new security requirements for government employment that included a “loyalty” standard. To him it looked like a form of profiling, another tool of the blacklist.
     Earlier that year William Martin, head of the Syracuse Math department in the 1940s and currently chair at M.I.T., had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Once a member of the Communist Party, he buckled under questioning and named others who, he claimed, had once joined the party. 
     “My Syracuse colleague Professor Abe Gelbart, Dean of Science and Technology at Yeshiva University in New York, was on the list,” Pierce said. “FBI agents moved into Gelbart’s situation and questioned him at length. They even asked him about his associations with me, and said they had observed us drinking in local restaurants.” 
     On May 27, 1953, the night before Gelbart’s HUAC appearance, Pierce visited him at home and noticed suspicious cars driving back and forth in front of the house, as if on patrol. Gelbart claimed that he didn’t blame Martin for naming him. “In fact, he wasn’t sure how he himself would behave,” Pierce recalled. “Men are responsible for their families, he said, and that might mean naming me.”
     The next day, at an executive session of HUAC, Gelbart testified under oath that he wasn’t then a Communist Party member. But he took the Fifth Amendment when asked if he had ever been one. “Abe later told me about a private hearing,” Pierce said, “but he refused to discuss what he might have revealed. He did say that I hadn’t been especially loyal to him, and he was probably right.”

Sen. Joe McCarthy in action, under the eye of Vermont's Ralph Flanders 
     That summer Pierce went to Los Angeles to consult for the National Security Agency at UCLA. “I had a temporary, low-level clearance for work on S.C.A.M.P. and I suppose a security check was initiated.” S.C.A.M.P. was the acronym for the Southern California Applied Mathematics Project, a top secret operation conducted on behalf of the Defense Department. The official purpose was research on numerical analysis, but those involved focused mainly on cryptology. Pierce assumed the objective was cryptanalysis. But he also worked on problems in pure algebra, group theory and number theory.
     It was a summer of suspicion and unsettling Cold War developments. On June 19, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted for the alleged theft of atomic bomb secrets. “Your country is sick with fear,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in reply. A month later Fidel Castro led an attack on the Moncada barracks in Cuba, an early attempt to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. At his trial the future Cuban leader proclaimed, “History will absolve me.” 
     One day after the Moncada attack, on July 27, an armistice ended the Korean War. More than 50,000 American had been killed in what had been designated a “police action,” at least 100,000 were wounded, and about 8,000 were missing. Less than a month later, Mohammed Mossadegh, the elected Prime Minister of Iran, was overthrown. Few people knew it at the time, but the coup had been orchestrated by the CIA. 
     While Bill Pierce was in Los Angeles. he noticed headlines about Abe Gelbart’s HUAC appearance. On television Senator Joseph McCarthy complained that Gelbart was receiving a Fulbright Fellowship “even after taking the Fifth Amendment 47 times.” Pierce also saw reports that McCarthy was “setting out for California on another Alger Hiss case.”
     Shortly after returning to Syracuse, Pierce’s government-funded research was abruptly cancelled. 

Next: Unwanted Voices
Chapter One

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