Lee Pressman (1906 - 1969) was a labor attorney and a US government functionary publicly exposed in 1948 for having been a spy for the Soviet foreign intelligence network during the middle 1930s. Pressman lost his job as counsel for the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1948 as a result of a purge of Communist Party members and fellow travelers from that organization.
Lee Pressman was born July 1, 1906 in New York City to Harry and Clara Pressman.
On June 28, 1931, Pressman married the former Sophia Platnich. The couple had two daughters.
Pressman was appointed assistant general counsel of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) in 1933 by Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. Early in 1934, while he was an official of the Federal government, Pressman quietly joined the Communist Party USA at the invitation of Harold Ware, a Communist agricultural journalist in Washington, DC.
In 1935, Pressman left the AAA post and was appointed general counsel in the Works Progress Administration by Harry L. Hopkins. Later that year Rexford G. Tugwell appointed him general counsel of the Resettlement Administration.
Pressman left government service in the winter of 1935-36 and went into private law practice in New York City. In June 1936, he was named a counsel of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), appointed by union chief John L. Lewis as part of a conscious attempt to mobilize left wing activists on behalf of the new labor federation. In 1938, Pressman moved back to Washington, DC to become full-time general counsel for the CIO and the SWOC. He remained in this position for the next decade.
In his role as the CIO's general counsel, Pressman was influential in helping to stop the attempt to deport Communist Longshoreman's Union official Harry Bridges. He also wrote an influential critique of the Taft-Hartley Act which was used by President Harry S. Truman as background material to justify his veto of the measure.
In 1948 Pressman was fired from his job as CIO counsel, reportedly as a byproduct of a factional struggle within the federation in which anti-Communist labor leader Walter Reuther emerged triumphant. Pressman went into private legal practice in New York City following his firing. He also became a close adviser of Progressive Party 1948 presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, until he was reportedly "forced out because of his Communist line."
In 1939, former underground Communist Whittaker Chambers privately identified Pressman to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle as a member of a so-called "Ware group" of Communist government officials supplying information to the secret Soviet intelligence network.
In 1948, Anatoly Gorsky, former chief of Soviet intelligence operations in the United States, listed Pressman, code-named "Vig," among the Soviet sources likely to have been identified by U.S. authorities as a result of the defection of Soviet courier Elizabeth Bentley three years earlier. In August of that same year, in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) Chambers this time publicly identified Pressman as a member of the Ware group. On his own behalf, Pressman declined to answer questions regarding Communist Party membership, citing grounds of potential self-incrimination.
During the superheated political environment which surrounded the Korean War, Pressman seems to have stepped back from his previous communist affinities. In 1950, Pressman resigned from the American Labor Party due to "Communist control of that organization," an action which was reported in the press and which signaled HUAC that Pressman was at last ready to talk. Called again before Congress to give testimony on Communist Party activities, Pressman reversed his previous decision to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights and gave testimony against his former comrades.
Pressman stated that he had been a member of "a Communist group in Washington, DC" from early 1934 to the latter part of 1935, at which time he left government service to begin private legal practice and discontinued participation. Pressman stated that he had no information about the political views of his former law school classmate Alger Hiss and specifically denied that Hiss was a participant in this Washington group.
Pressman indicated that in at least one meeting of his group, and perhaps two, he had met Soviet intelligence agent J. Peters. Although Pressman made no mention of having himself conducted intelligence-gathering activities, his 1950 testimony provided the first corroboration of Chambers' allegation that a Washington, DC communist group around Harold Ware existed, with federal officials Nathan Witt, John Abt and Charles Kramer named as members of this party cell.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, archival information on Soviet espionage activity in America began to emerge. Working in Soviet intelligence archives in the middle 1990s, Russian journalist Alexander Vassiliev discovered that Lee Pressman, code-named "Vig," had only told fragments of the truth to Congressional inquisitors in 1950. Working with historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Vassiliev revealed that Pressman had actually remained "part of the KGB's support network" by providing legal aid and funneling financial support to exposed intelligence assets. As late as September 1949, Soviet intelligence had paid $250 through Pressman to Victor Perlo for an analysis of the American economic situation, followed by an additional $1,000 in October.
A 1951 Soviet intelligence report indicated that "Vig" had "chosen to betray us," apparently a reference to his 1950 public statements and Congressional testimony. Historians Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev indicate that this assessment was an overstatement, however. With his carefully limited testimony before HUAC and in his unpublicized interviews with the Federal Bureau of Investigation it is instead charged that Pressman
"...sidestepped most of his knowledge of the early days of the Communist underground in Washington and his own involvement with Soviet intelligence, first with Chambers's GRU network in the 1930s and later with the KGB. He had never been the classic 'spy' who stole documents. Neither his work in domestically oriented New Deal agencies in the early 1930s nor his later role as a labor lawyer gave him access to information of Soviet interest. Instead, he functioned as part of the KGB espionage support network, assisting and facilitating its officers and agents. He gambled that there would not be anyone to contradict his evasions and that government investigators would not be able to charge him with perjury. He won his bet..."
Death and legacy
Lee Pressman died in November 1969.
- Marion Dickerman and Ruth Taylor (eds.), Who's Who In Labor: The Authorized Biographies of the Men and Women Who Lead Labor in the United States and Canada and of Those Who Deal with Labor. New York: The Dryden Press, 1946; pg.286.
- Hearings Regarding Communism in the United States Government — Part 2," Committee on Un-American Activities, US House of Representatives. Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1950; pg. 2850.
- Hearings Regarding Communism in the United States Government — Part 2, pg. 2860.
- "End of the Line?" Time, February 16, 1948.
- Hearings Regarding Communism in the United States Government — Part 2, pg. 2849.
- "Nobody Here But Us Chicks," Time, August 21, 1950.
- Lawrence Kestenbaum (ed.), "Lee Pressman," Political Graveyard.com Retrieved August 9, 2010.
- John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009; pg. 427.
- Testimony of Whittaker Chambers, House Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings Regarding Communist Espionage in the United States Government, August 3, 1948.
- "The Road Back," Time, September 4, 1950.
- Hearings Regarding Communism in the United States Government — Part 2, pg. 2844.
- Hearings Regarding Communism in the United States Government — Part 2, pg. 2845.
- Hearings Regarding Communism in the United States Government — Part 2, pp. 2855-2856.
- [Whittaker] (1952). Witness. Random House. pp. 346, 624. ISBN 0-89526-571-0.
- Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev, Spies, pg. 426.
- Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev, Spies, pg. 428.
- Hearings Regarding Communist Espionage in the United States Government (Alger Hiss Case), Part 1, Committee on Un-American Activities, US House of Representatives. Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1948; pp. 1022–1028. —Testimony of August 20, 1948.
- Hearings Regarding Communism in the United States Government — Part 2," Committee on Un-American Activities, US House of Representatives. Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1950; pp. 2844–2901. —Testimony of August 28, 1950.
- [Whittaker] (1952). Witness. Random House. p. 498. ISBN 0-89526-571-0.
- Gilbert J. Gall, "A Note on Lee Pressman and the FBI," Labor History, vol. 32, no. 4 (Autumn 1991), pp. 551–561.
- Pursuing Justice: Lee Pressman, the New Deal, and the CIO. New York: SUNY Press, 1999.
- John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
- John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
- Lee Pressman, The Reminiscences of Lee Pressman. Glen Rock, NJ: Microfilming Corp. of America, 1975. —Microfiche transcript of Columbia oral history interview.