Nathan R. Witt
February 11, 1903
|Died||February 16, 1982 (aged 79)|
Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S.
|Education||New York University (1927)|
|Alma mater||Harvard Law School (1933)|
|Employer||AAA, NLRB, Witt & Cammer, Pressman Witt & Cammer, Mine-Mill, USWA|
|Known for||membership in Ware Group, IJA, NLG|
|NLRB collective bargaining|
|Political party||Communist Party of the United States of America, Progressive Party|
|Spouse(s)||Anna Laura Phillips|
|Children||Hal Witt, Leda Witt|
Nathan Witt (February 11, 1903 – February 16, 1982), born Nathan Wittowsky, was an American lawyer who is best known as being the Secretary of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) from 1937 to 1940. He resigned from the NLRB after his communist political beliefs were exposed and he was accused of manipulating the Board's policies to favor his own political leanings. He was also investigated several times in the late 1940s and 1950s for being a spy for the Soviet Union in the 1930s. No evidence of espionage was ever found.
Nathan R. Witt was born February 11, 1903, into a Jewish family on the Lower East Side of New York City. His father changed the family name to Witt shortly after his birth. His college education was interrupted several times by the need to earn a living: he drove a taxi cab. In 1927, he graduated from New York University (NYU). It was at NYU (then "Washington Square College") that he met Lee Pressman.
Angered by what he perceived as the judicial mistreatment and illegal execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, he drove a taxi cab for two years to earn money for law school. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1932, or 1933, specializing in labor law. He attended Harvard shortly after Alger Hiss had left the school, and he was a friend of Donald Hiss, a Harvard Law classmate and Alger Hiss's younger brother.
Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA)
Witt joined the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) in July 1933. His friend, Lee Pressman, recommended him for the job. According to accusers Whittaker Chambers, Lee Pressman, and Elizabeth Bentley, Witt—along with John Abt, Charles Kramer, Alger Hiss, and Nathaniel Weyl, among others—were part of the so-called "Ware group," a clandestine Communist Party USA group formed by AAA economist Harold Ware. Chambers also alleged that Witt became leader of the group after Ware died in an automobile accident in August 1935. Pressman said the men merely met to study and discuss left-wing political theory, but Chambers described it as a Soviet-controlled cell dedicated to committing espionage. Historian David M. Kennedy, assessing a half-century's evidence about the case, concurred with Pressman's assessment in 2001.
There is widespread disagreement as to whether Witt was actually a Communist Party member or not. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. observed that Chambers never provided evidence of Witt's party membership, just uncorroborated accusation. Labor historian Leon Fink agrees. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, however, concluded that Witt "probably" was both a member of the Communist Party and held communist ideals, but historian Ronald Schatz has asserted that Witt's communist sympathies did "not necessarily" mean Party membership.
Witt never hid his communism and made it well known to others from his earliest days in the government. Chambers told Adolf A. Berle, then Assistant Secretary of State, about Witt's involvement in the "Ware group" in 1939. Berle later said that "to be blunt about it, Mr. Witt's statements and sympathies were so well known that what Mr. Chambers had said added nothing to anything that wasn't public knowledge at the time." William S. Leiserson, an NLRB Board member, knew Witt held communist beliefs almost from the first days after Leiserson joined the Board. There is general agreement among professional historians that Witt's communist views did not affect his work and did not change the outcome of any policy choices made by government agencies.
National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
Witt joined the legal staff of the "first" National Labor Relations Board in February 1934. The National Labor Relations Act became law in June 1935, creating the "second" (permanent) NLRB. Witt was named the NLRB's assistant chief counsel ("assistant general counsel") in December 1935. He exerted a great deal of influence in the Review Section, the division of the NLRB which reviewed transcripts of NLRB hearings in labor disputes, revised transcripts to emphasize points of law, reviewed draft decisions of examiners for adherence to NLRB policy and law, and made oral reports to the three members of the Board. He chose (with the approval of the Board) the attorneys who staffed the Review Section, assigned cases to attorneys, and checked the drafts of Board decisions for technical accuracy. Witt recommended Pressman for a job as a trial examiner at the NLRB in 1936.
Witt was named Secretary (the highest non-appointed bureaucratic office—or "the top administrative officer") of the Board in October (or November) 1937. The enormous workload and tremendous expansion in the number of personnel at the NLRB made Witt the agency's most powerful individual. He attended Board meetings, took Board minutes, prepared and served Board decisions ordering union organizing elections, granted and denied requests for oral testimony from employers, oversaw each Board member's appointments and administered the office and oversaw the staff of 250. He was the Board's chief liaison to Congress and oversaw preparation and submission of the Board's budget. He was the sole supervisor of the Board's 22 regional offices, overseeing the roughly 225 personnel in the field. He alone exercised the authority to authorize a hearing in the case of unfair labor practice (ULP) or election cases, and he alone reported on these cases (in oral, not written) fashion to the Board. Almost all correspondence, telephone contact, and telegraph contact between the regional offices and the Board passed through his office first, and his office collected nearly all the information coming in from the field regarding elections, ULPs, settlements, strikes, enforcement issues, informational inquiries, and the development of new policies.
Witt's communism was the cause of much dispute within the NLRB and eventually led to his resignation as Board Secretary. The NLRB was under intense legal, media, congressional, and public criticism in 1938 and 1939 for what many people saw as overreaching.
In July 1939, the House of Representatives created the Special Committee to Investigate the National Labor Relations Board (popularly known as the "Smith Committee" after its chairman, conservative Democratic Rep. Howard W. Smith—a "powerful, arch-segregationist and anti-Communist".) to investigate the NLRB. The Smith Committee received testimony from hundreds of witnesses, conducted a nationwide survey regarding the impact of the NLRB, and questioned NLRB officials at length about the agency's alleged anti-business and anti-American Federation of Labor/pro-Congress of Industrial Organizations biases.
From December 1939 to February 1940, the committee "probed Witt's handling of labor cases, strikes, and controversies." The committee weakened Witt in its accusation that he "hewed" to the Communist Party line. In response, Witt wrote to the committee that "I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party, a 'Communist sympathizer,' or one who 'hews to the Communist Party line'."
In December 1939, board member Leiserson testified that he believed Witt held too much power at the NLRB, that Witt had influenced the NLRB's decisions in favor of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and that Witt's far-left views were unacceptable. Leiserson testified that he had repeatedly voiced his concerns to board chairman J. Warren Madden, but that Madden and board member Edwin S. Smith had allied to prevent any attempt to rein in or fire Witt. Later testimony revealed that an internal NLRB study had backed Leiseron and that Madden and Smith had suppressed it, and that Witt had assisted Madden in secretly building public and expert support for the NLRB (expending federal funds in lobbying against Congress). Madden attempted to defend Witt.
By September 1940, the Smith Committee was accusing other NLRB employees, such as chief economist David J. Saposs, of harboring communist ideas. It was clear that neither Madden nor Witt could continue at the NLRB much longer. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named University of Chicago economics professor Harry A. Millis to be the new chairman of the NLRB in November 1940, after Madden's term on the Board expired in August.
Witt resigned from the NLRB on November 18, 1940, although his resignation was not accepted until after Millis was sworn in on November 27. He ended his work at the Board on December 10. Later that month, Witt joined Board member Edwin S. Smith, former Board associate general counsel Thomas I. Emerson, and four other NLRB attorneys in denying Smith Committee testimony that they were members of the Communist Party or had followed the CPUSA line in their work.
Witt & Cammer
In 1941, after leaving the NLRB, Witt joined with Harold I. Cammer (founder of the National Lawyers Guild) to form a law partnership of Witt & Cammer in New York City. (On November 24, 1947, the address for "Witt & Cammer, Esqs." was 9 East 40th Street, New York, NY.) New clients for Witt & Cammer included the CIO (in New York), other labor organizations, and left-wing unions like the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (known as "Mine-Mill"). In 1941, Witt represented the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (or SWOC, later, the United Steel Workers of America).
Witt was involved in numerous labor union disputes and labor-related free speech cases in the 1940s and 1950s. He represented members of the College Teachers Union (a predecessor to the modern Professional Staff Congress union at the City College of New York) when they were accused in 1941 of being communists by the Rapp-Coudert Committee. He briefly served as legal counsel to the International Fur & Leather Workers Union in 1944 in a major due process case. He was the lead attorney for the Seamen's Joint Action Committee, a CIO-backed insurgent group which allied with three CIO longshoremen's unions to challenge International Longshoremen's Association president Joseph Ryan.
Pressman, Witt & Cammer
Meantime, Pressman, remained as chief legal counsel of the CIO itself as well as the SWOC, both of which he had joined in the late 1930s, as Witt was joining and rising in the NRLB. In February 1948, Pressman left the CIO to create the private law practice of Pressman, Witt & Cammer. The firm became one of the most prominent left-wing labor law firms in the country. (Bella Abzug started her career at Pressman, Witt & Cammer.)
In early 1948, Witt's clients included the Greater New York CIO Council. As their counsel, he spoke to the press over allegations that FBI investigators were intimidating local CIO offices. "There could not possibly be any technical violation in 1948 except for the Isacson election and the FBI agents made clear they were not investigating that."
Also in early 1948, Witt was working with fellow National Lawyers Guild member Joseph Forer of Washington, DC. On January 26–28 and February 2, 1948, a hearing of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee, chaired by U.S. Representative Clare E. Hoffman, occurred on the topic of a strike by United Cafeteria and Restaurant Workers (Local 471) and its parent, the United Public Workers of America (UPWA), CIO, against Government Services, Inc. (GSI), which had already lasted nearly a month. UPWA was a client of Forer & Rein. Hoffman refused to let UPWA head Abram Flaxer read a statement and asked questions including whether Flaxer was a communist. Witt, one of his UAW attorneys, objected to "abuse of congressional power." On January 26, 1948, UPWA negotiations director Alfred Bernstein (father of Carl Bernstein), charged that House committee agents had raided the union's offices. During January, William S. Tyson, solicitor for the Labor Department, and Robert N. Denham, general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, both agreed that nothing in the Taft-Hartley Act prohibited GSI from bargaining with a non-complying union. However, Denham added, the Act intended to "eliminate Communist influence from unions by denying to such unions the services of NLRB."
In 1950, the U.S. State Department revoked singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson's passport as a means of preventing him from traveling overseas and continuing his left-wing political work. Witt and Abt were among Robeson's first attorney and initiated Robeson's eight-year battle to regain his passport.
He also represented several members of the Teachers Union accused of being communists in 1950 and 1952. (At the time, the Teachers Union was a local union representing New York City public schools teachers. It had been ejected by the American Federation of Teachers for being communist-controlled, and in the 1950s, it was part of the United Public Workers of America. It would later rejoin the American Federation of Teachers in the early 1960s and merge with another local to become the United Federation of Teachers.)
In 1955, he left Witt & Cammer and became full-time counsel to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. He had a close connection to Albert Pezzati, who had been eastern regional director, national board member and secretary-treasurer of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. (Like Witt, Pezzati had come under suspicion by HUAC of Communism.)
In 1961, Witt and Joseph Forer represented the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General of the United States, Petitioner, v. International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Respondent before the Subversive Activities Control Board.
When the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers merged with and became a division of the United Steel Workers in the 1960s, Witt was retained as associate counsel for the new division. In 1975, Witt retired as associate counsel for the miners' division of the United Steel Workers.
Allegations of communism
On August 3, 1948, in testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Whittaker Chambers named Witt as a member (and even leader) of the "Ware Group." When called before a one-man subcommittee of HUAC (whose sole member was Representative Richard Nixon) on August 20, Witt denied knowing "J. Peters" (ostensibly the head of the Soviet Union's political operations in the United States), Chambers, or Alger Hiss. Along with Abt and Pressman (with Cammer as legal counsel for all three), Witt invoked First, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights when refusing to answer HUAC questions. Lee Pressman, also testifying that day, forced the subcommittee to admit that it was not accusing the men of espionage but rather being communists seeking to infiltrate the government (which was not a crime). A few weeks later, former Daily Worker editor turned anti-communist Louis F. Budenz testified that the CPUSA considered Witt a member. Federal law enforcement officials debated prosecuting Witt in late 1948—not for being a communist, a spy, or for committing espionage, but under a contempt of Congress charge for asserting his Fifth Amendment rights before the committee and refusing to answer its questions. No prosecution was ever made. Having refused to answer questions before Congress, "Witt understood that the public saw that as tantamount to admitting guilt" to Communist activities.
Testifying again before HUAC in 1950, Lee Pressman named Witt as a member of the CPUSA and the "Ware group." Speaking before a HUAC subcommittee on September 1, Witt once more denied that he had engaged in espionage, again invoked his Fifth Amendment privileges when asked about his CPUSA and "Ware group" membership, and refused to say whether he knew Chambers, Bentley, or scores of others.
In February 1952, writer Nathaniel Weyl named Witt as a "Ware group" member before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security.
In 1952 and 1953, the McCarran Committee called Witt back to Congress. Harvey Matusow, former CPUSA member, had previously testified before Congress against his former comrades. However, in 1954, Matusow published a book, False Witness, in which he recanted his anti-communist testimony. In April 1955, the Subcommittee on Internal Security learned that Witt had obtained a cash donation from the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union to help Matusow get his book published. Witt was called before the Subcommittee on Internal Security on April 18 to testify about his involvement in the Matusow affair. Witt freely admitted his legal role in obtaining the publication fee. Witt last appeared before Congress in 1955, eventually totaling six times, several times with Clinton Jencks from his client, the Mine-Mill union.
Senator James O. Eastland, subcommittee chair, then implied there was something suspicious about Witt's real name being Wittowsky. Witt engaged in a shouting match with Eastland, accusing the senator of antisemitism. Witt denied he had anything to hide. Eastland demanded to know about his membership in the CPUSA and the "Ware group," and Witt invoked his Fifth Amendment rights again. When a subcommittee member asked Witt if he had sent white lilies to Chambers (implying that this constituted a death threat), Witt categorically denied doing so.
Personal life and death
On June 19, 1930, Nathan Witt married Anna Laura Phillips. They had two children, Hal (circa 1937) and Leda (1939). (Hal Witt later worked with Joseph Forer in the 1960s on the Giles-Johnson case in defending the Giles brothers and in the Supreme Court Giles v. Maryland.)
In 1949, Edward R. Murrow had CBS News colleague Don Hollenbeck contribute to the innovative media-review program, CBS Views the Press over the radio network's flagship station WCBS. Hollenbeck discussed Edward U. Condon, Alger Hiss, and Paul Robeson. Regarding Hiss (during which case, as Loren Ghiglione has noted "Hollenbeck and his coverage of the reporting of the Hiss-Chambers case did not take sides on Hiss's guilt or innocence" ), Hollenbeck criticized press coverage. For instance, he noted how a New York Journal-American story led a story stating "The government ended its cross-examination of Alger Hiss at 3:01 p.m. today after forcing him to admit he was an associate of Mrs. Carol King, prominent legal defender of Communists, and a friend of Nathan Witt, ex-New Deal lawyer who was fired because of his Communist activities." Hollenbeck noted that the transcript differed greatly, in that Hiss had said: he had met King "once or twice," while his description of when and where he met Witt even less clear. He also noted the guilt by association tactics of fellow journalists, for example, Westbrook Pegler, who sought to discredit Eleanor Roosevelt through link to Hiss via Felix Frankfurter.
In 1977 during an interview, David A. Morse (1907–1990), recounted that in 1949, shortly after he had finished work as NRLB general counsel and become a US delegate to the International Labor Conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO):
At about that time, I think there were all these questions being raised about certain people in the Labor Board; not so much about their qualifications as their political orientation and what Paul Herzog wrote there may have been as a result of that. I remember there was this chap, Nat Witt, who had been head of the unit at the NLRB, that was responsible for the examiners. I recall that he had been accused from time to time by outside groups for being much tied in with Lee Pressman and the two of them were very much tied in with the Communist Party.
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- "Subpoenas Served in Teacher Inquiry." New York Times. February 15, 1941.
- Trussell, C.P. "Abt, Witt, Kramer Defy House Group." New York Times. September 2, 1950.
- Trussell, C.P. "Pressman, Abt, Witt Refuse to Answer Spy Ring Questions." New York Times. August 21, 1948.
- Trussell, C.P. "Pressman Names Three in New Deal As Reds With Him." New York Times. August 29, 1950.
- "Two Hiss Brothers Deny Red Charges." New York Times. August 4, 1948.
- "Witt Ends Work With NLRB." New York Times. December 12, 1940.
- "Writer Calls Hiss Red Cell Member." New York Times. February 20, 1952.
- Library of Congress: Senate committee hears NLRB chairman... Chairman Madden (left) is shown with counsel for NLRB, Charles Fahy (right) and Nathan Witt, Secretary of the Board. 12/13/37
- International Center of Photography: Nathan Witt, attorney, speaking at a House Labor subcommittee hearing, on behalf of Alfred White, New York