Lee Pressman

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Lee Pressman
Lee Pressman during testimony to a U.S. Senate subcommittee on March 24, 1938
Born July 1, 1906
New York City
Died November 20, 1969(1969-11-20) (aged 63)
Mt. Vernon, New York
Nationality American
Alma mater Cornell University (B.A., 1926)
Harvard Law School (J.D., 1929) [1]
Employer Chadbourne, Stanchfield & Levy, Agricultural Adjustment Administration, Works Progress Administration, Resettlement Administration, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Progressive Party
Known for membership in Ware Group
Political party Communist Party of the United States of America
Spouse(s) Sophia Platnich
Children Anne Pressman, Susan Pressman, Marcia Pressman
Parent(s) Harry Pressman, Clara Pressman
Relatives Irving Pressman (brother)

Lee Pressman (July 1, 1906 – November 20, 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 as a member of the Ware Group. 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.

Early years[edit]

Lee Pressman was born July 1, 1906, on the Lower East Side of in New York City to Russian immigrants Harry and Clara Pressman.[2]

Pressman received his bachelor's degree from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a law degree from Harvard Law School.[2] At Harvard, he was in the same class as Alger Hiss, and they both served on the Harvard Law Review:

Mr. Hiss: [...]Lee Pressman was in my class at the Harvard Law School, and we were both on the Harvard Law Review at the same time."[3]

After graduation, he joined the law firm of Chadbourne, Stanchfield & Levy (currently Chadbourne & Parke) in New York City.[4]

On June 28, 1931, Pressman married the former Sophia Platnich. The couple had three daughters.[2][4]

Pressman was a member of the National Lawyers Guild and the New York Bar Association.[2]

Government career[edit]

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 joined the Communist Party USA at the invitation of Harold Ware, a Communist agricultural journalist in Washington, DC: "I was asked to join [the Communist Party] by a man named Harold Ware"[5]

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.[2]

Union career[edit]

Pressman left government service in the winter of 1935-36 and went into private law practice in New York City with David Scribner as Pressman & Scribner. Clients included the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association and other unions.[4][5]

In June 1936, he was named a counsel of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO—later AFL-CIO) for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC—later, the United Steelworkers of America), 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.[6] In 1938, Pressman moved back to Washington, DC to become full-time general counsel for the CIO and the SWOC.[7] He remained in this position for the next decade. (According to his obituary in the New York Times, he was general counsel from 1936 to 1948.[4])

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.[6] 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.[6]

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.[6] Pressman went into private legal practice in New York City following his firing.[6] 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."[8]

Pressman stood for election himself in the fall of 1948, running as the candidate of the American Labor Party for U.S. Congress in the 14th District of New York (Brooklyn).[4][9]

Espionage allegations[edit]


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.[10]

On August 3, 1948, in testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Chambers now publicly identified Pressman as a member of the Ware group.[11]

On his own behalf, Pressman declined to answer questions regarding Communist Party membership, citing grounds of potential self-incrimination.[12]


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 because of "Communist control of that organization," which was reported in the press and which signaled HUAC that Pressman was at last ready to talk.[13]

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.[12] Pressman stated:

In my desire to see the destruction of Hitlerism and an improvement in economic conditions here at home, I joined a Communist group in Washington, D. C, about 1934. My participation in such group extended for about a year, to the best of my recollection. I recall that about the latter part of 1935— the precise date I cannot recall, but it is a matter of public record — I left the Government service and left Washington to reenter the private practice of law in New York City. And at that time I discontinued any further participation in the group from that date until the present.[5]

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.[5]

Pressman indicated that in at least one meeting of his group, perhaps two, he had met Soviet intelligence agent J. Peters.[14] 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 Ware existed, with federal officials Nathan Witt, John Abt and Charles Kramer named as members of this party cell.[15]


Pressman died at home at 26 Forster Avenue in Mt. Vernon, New York, on November 20, 1969.[4]

Subsequent findings[edit]

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 US authorities, as a result of the defection of Soviet courier Elizabeth Bentley three years earlier.[citation needed]

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 Pressman, codenamed "Vig," had told only 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.[16] 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 $1000 in October.[16]

A 1951 Soviet intelligence report indicated that "Vig" had "chosen to betray us," apparently a reference to his 1950 public statements and Congressional testimony.[16] Historians Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev indicate that the 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...."[17]


  1. ^ Newman, Roger K., The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law, Yale University Press, 2009. Cf. p.437, entry on Lee Pressman
  2. ^ a b c d e 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.
  3. ^ "Hearings regarding Communist espionage in the United States Government". Archive.org. 5 August 1948. Retrieved 23 May 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Lee Pressman, Labor Lawyer Ancl Ex-C.I.O. Counsel, 63, Dies". New York Times. 21 November 1969. p. 47. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Hearings regarding Communist espionage in the United States Government". Archive.org. 28 August 1950. p. 2845 (Communist group) 2850 (met Ware), 2860 (started law practice). Retrieved 26 May 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d e "End of the Line?". Time. 16 February 1948. 
  7. ^ Hearings Regarding Communism in the United States Government — Part 2, pg. 2849.
  8. ^ "Nobody Here But Us Chicks". Time. 21 August 1950. 
  9. ^ Lawrence Kestenbaum (ed.), "Lee Pressman," Political Graveyard.com Retrieved August 9, 2010.
  10. ^ 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; p. 427.
  11. ^ Testimony of Whittaker Chambers, House Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings Regarding Communist Espionage in the United States Government, August 3, 1948.
  12. ^ a b "The Road Back," Time, September 4, 1950.
  13. ^ Hearings Regarding Communism in the United States Government — Part 2, p. 2844.
  14. ^ Hearings Regarding Communism in the United States Government — Part 2, pp. 2855-2856.
  15. ^ Chambers, Whittaker (1952). Witness. Random House. pp. 346, 624. ISBN 0-89526-571-0. 
  16. ^ a b c Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev, Spies, pg. 426.
  17. ^ Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev, Spies, pg. 428.

See also[edit]

External sources[edit]

Congressional testimony[edit]

Additional reading[edit]

  • Chambers, 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.