Steve Nelson (activist)

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Stjepan Mesaros, best known as Steve Nelson (1903–1993), was a Croatian-born American political activist. Nelson achieved public notoriety as the political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and a leading functionary of the Communist Party, USA. Nelson is best remembered for having been prosecuted and convicted under the Smith Act in 1953.


Stjepan Mesaros (sometimes as "Stephen Mesarosh") was born in Subocka, Croatia on January 1, 1903 of ethnic Hungarian extraction.[1] The Communist Party of the United States would later claim he was born in Steelton, Pennsylvania.[1]

Mesaros emigrated to the United States of America with his mother and three sisters 1919. He started working in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant. A succession of blue-collar jobs followed.[1]

Political career[edit]

In 1923, by now using the Americanized name "Steve Nelson," he joined the youth section of the American Communist Party, the Young Workers League. He went on to join the adult Workers (Communist) Party in 1925.

He met Margaret Yaeger, a typist in the Pittsburgh office of the Party. They married and went to Detroit in 1925, where he worked in the auto industry as an assembly line worker and union organizer. In 1928 the Nelsons moved to New York City. Nelson studied Marxism at the New York Workers School and afterwards, with the onset of the Great Depression, the Nelsons worked for the Communist Party full-time.[1]

Nelson organized the International Unemployment Day demonstration on March 6, 1930, at which he, Joe Dallet and Oliver Law were beaten up and arrested. Two weeks he was among the 75,000 demonstrators to demand unemployment insurance.

Nelson and his wife were sent to Moscow in 1931, he visited the International Lenin School for two years. He was a courier for the Communist International (Comintern), delivering documents and funds to Germany, Switzerland and China. On return to the United States in 1933, they settled in Wilkes-Barre.[1]

In 1937 he immediately tried to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, but had to stay in Pennsylvania where he agitated coal miners. After the severe setback at Jarama, Nelson, Joe Dallet and 23 others were allowed to fight in Spain. At first arrested by the French, they reached Spain climbing the Pyrenees mountains and met the International Brigades at Albacete in May 1937.

Nelson started the war as political commissar of the Lincoln Battalion. After heavy losses at Brunete, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and the George Washington Battalion were merged into the Lincoln–Washington Battalion. Mirko Markovicz, a Yugoslav-American, was appointed as commander of the Lincoln–Washington Battalion and Nelson became his political commissar. In August 1937 the American forces were reorganized. Nelson was promoted to brigade commissar and Robert Hale Merriman became brigade chief of staff.

Hans Amlie became commander of the Lincoln–Washington Battalion. In the fighting at Belchite, which started very badly, only two soldiers of 22 survived the first attempt to take the church of the town. Nelson then led his men in a successful diversionary attack; and Amlie's men entered the fortified town. Nelson was shot in the face and leg, however, and Merriman and Amlie received head wounds. After recovering in Valencia, Nelson was given the task to escort prominent visitors (such as John Bernard, Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway).

In the 1940s, Nelson rose to the top ranks of the communist party. After years on the West Coast, the Nelsons returned east, when he was elected to the National Board of the party. He settled in Pittsburgh as District Secretary of Western Pennsylvania.

Steve Nelson moved to California and in 1942 he became chairman of the San Francisco branch of the Communist Party of the United States. He also became involved in espionage activities. "One part of Nelson's task was to gather information on the atomic bomb project. He was seen and overheard meeting with Communist scientists working at the radiation laboratory at Berkeley. Information gleaned from FBI bugging and wiretaps indicated that several had discussed the atomic bomb project with him. Nelson made notes of what the scientists told him regarding their work, and he was subsequently observed passing materials, which the FBI assumed were his notes, to a Soviet intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover at the USSR's San Francisco consulate."[2]

One of the scientists identified was Joseph Weinberg, who worked at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California.[3] FBI officials bugged Nelson's residence and discovered that Weinberg had delivered "highly secret information regarding experiments being conducted at the Radiation Laboratory, Berkeley, pertaining to the atomic bomb." Investigators reported that Nelson had "delivered this classified information to Soviet consular officer Ivan Ivanov for transmittal to the Soviet Union." [4]

Steve Nelson had a meeting with Vassili Zarubin, the most senior NKVD agent in the United States, in April 1943. "Zarubin travelled to California for a secret meeting with Steve Nelson, who ran a secret control commission to seek out informants and spies in the Californian branch of the Communist Party, but failed to find Nelson's home. Only on a second visit did he succeed in delivering the money. On this occasion, however, the meeting was bugged by the FBI which had placed listening devices in Nelson's home." [5]

The FBI bug confirmed that Zarubin had "paid a sum of money" to Nelson "for the purpose of placing Communist Party members and Comintern agents in industries engaged in secret war production for the United States Government so that the information could be obtained for transmittal to the Soviet Union." [6]

Legal difficulties[edit]

In August 1950, after a raid on the Pittsburgh Party Headquarters, Nelson and two local party leaders were arrested and charged under the 1919 Pennsylvania Sedition Act for attempting to overthrow the state and federal government.

Nelson initially received a 20-year prison sentence, $10,000 in fines and $13,000 in prosecution costs. He was jailed in Pittsburgh for seven months and then released on bail pending his appeal. In 1953 he and five others were indicted under the Federal Smith Act. This the sentence was 5 years of imprisonment and $10,000 in fines. All six were granted bail.

In 1956 in Pennsylvania v. Nelson, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Pennsylvania Sedition Act, saying that the Federal Smith Act superseded this and all similar state laws.[7]

In the same year testimony at the first trial was found to have been perjured and a new trial was granted. In 1957 the government dropped all charges against the defendants.

Later years[edit]

Nelson left the Communist Party in 1957 after Nikita Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin. In 1963 he became the National Commander of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB).[8] In 1975 he retired with his wife of 50 years to a home he had built in Truro, Massachusetts on Cape Cod.

Death and legacy[edit]

Nelson died in December 1993 at the age of 90.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2007; pp. 141–142.
  2. ^ Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (2000) pages 230-231
  3. ^ no title given
  4. ^ Athan Theoharis, Chasing Spies (2002) pages 49-50
  5. ^ Christopher Andrew, The Mitrokhin Archive (1999) pages 161-162
  6. ^ Athan Theoharis, Chasing Spies (2002) page 50
  7. ^ Pennsylvania -v- Nelson, 350 U.S. 497 (1956)
  8. ^ Eby, Comrades and Commissars, pg. 435.


  • The Volunteers: A Personal Narrative of the Fight Against Fascism in Spain. New York: Masses and Mainstream, 1953.
  • The 13th Juror: The Inside Story of My Trial. New York: Masses and Mainstream, 1955.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cecil Eby, Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2007.
  • Steve Nelson, James R. Barrett, and Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson, American Radical. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.

External links[edit]