INTERVIEW WITH HERB BROWNELL
INTERVIEWER: Thirteenth of February, interview with Mr. Herb Brownell. Now I understand that you didn't have a political life in the late forties, but it would be quite useful if you could just tell us what your assessment was of the dangers of Communist subversion in America in the late forties and early fifties.
HERB BROWNELL: Well, I was influenced of course by the statements that came from our leaders in the forties it was President Truman and then increasingly Eisenhower's influence over the country and both of them were very alert and to the problem and spoke very plainly to the American people that there was a menace from Russian aggression, yes and there were several cases that came to public attention which emphasised what they said. There was the Alger Hiss case, he was in the State Department at that time and was accused of giving state secrets to Russian spies in this country. And there were a number of others. There was a woman named Judy Koplin in the Justice Department, same thing was true of her and the people really became quite upset about the whole problem of the danger of subversion and infiltration of Communists into our government. So that President Truman instituted a strong anti-Communist programme in the government and that was carried on and was expanded during the Eisenhower years.
INT: Just very briefly, what was the impact of something like the Hiss case on the government?
HB: The impact was really a major impact, 'cos it was a shock, I think, not only to the people generally, but to the Congress to think that someone high up in the State Department would be engaged in spying is what it amounted to. And while he never was tried on that charge, I think he was tried for perjury, it became a common talk that he had dealt with representatives of the Russians and people were very nervous about it and they demanded some kind of action, they didn't know just what, from their representatives. And of course there were some people in Congress who took advantage of that emotional reaction of the people and went overboard in their anti-Communist speeches and in their proposals that they made, their proposals to outlaw the Communist Party and to throw Communist leaders in jail indiscriminately and the FBI was called on by the Congress to sort of take charge of the hunt for the subversives throughout the country. And it developed into a major political debate, so that for almost ten years, it dominated the political scene in the United States.
INT: Great. Now do you think the measures that taken by the Democrats to counter internal subversion in America were adequate and then what did you do later on, when you became Attorney General?
HB: Well... How do you know whether they're adequate or not? I think they some of them were misguided and they sort of missed the point. I always felt the...
INT: Could I stop you. Could I ask you to start the question again, just say some of the measures by the Democrats were misguided.
HB: Yes. There is always a question in my mind as to what were the most effective measures that could be taken in this country to combat this rather widespread feeling that the country was endangered by the subversion directive from Moscow. You remember that there were some Russian spies that were caught when they landed on Long Island and that was a shock to the public to think that there actually were spies to begin with and secondly, that they could get as far as the shores of America. And so that it could not be ignored as a public issue. People demanded that something be done. The response of the Truman administration was several-fold and they made a list of subversive organisations, so-called. I think that was rather misguided, because who's going to decide that question and there was a danger, which proved to be true, that amateurs would be the judges and that perfectly harmless organisations that were, I guess you might say, in the ultra-liberal camp, and they had nothing to do with Communism, would be included. So that in many cases that resulted in the stifling of free speech, unnecessarily and I always felt that the proper approach was to concentrate on the detection of actual spying activities in the United States. And I always, in addition to that, favoured actions by our government to spread the values of our system of government throughout Europe and as far as possible, throughout Russia. I thought that the way that President Eisenhower developed the Voice of America was very constructive and that it eventually led a lot to turn the people of Europe against the Communist method of doing business. And then I think that, you might say that under the Eisenhower administration there was more emphasis given to prosecution of actual leaders of Communists. At that time, the Russians were subsidising, giving cash subsidies monthly to the American Communist Party, but that, FDR did not want to disclose that publicly, because it would dry up the source of their information. So that we didn't get as much public support for some of the activities as we had as we could have if we'd been able to disclose that fact, because we never had a sufficient answer to the people as to was there a connection between the Russian government and the American Communist Party. We were convinced that there was and we had the proof, but we couldn't make it public. But we went ahead and prosecuted leaders of the American Communist Party and put them in jail and I think that that was very good from the stand point of educating people as to the dangers of the Communist philosophy to the American system of government. And between the educational programme and the Voice of America and the prosecution programme, of prosecuting the leaders of the Communist Party who were actually in the pay of the Russian government, I think we made considerable progress in turning public... public opinion against the activities of the Russian government and convincing a lot of liberal people who had been sceptical about the anti-Communist drive in the United States, that it was not an attempt to suppress free speech.
INT: So could we just finish that answer again. You told me about the education campaign and the prosecutions and so on and how you saw that as educating the liberals. Could you just do that part of the answer?
HB: Yes. I think that people came quite...
HB: This double programme of education and prosecution, I think did much to convince the American people that we were on the right track and that there was a distinction between combating the Communist propaganda and subversion in the United States on the one hand, and suppression of free speech on the other. The liberal press in the United States had argued quite effectively for a long time that really there was no sufficient Communist menace, domestically, to justify these activities and that they really had the effect of suppressing liberal thought and liberal speech and so it was very difficult, but I think on the whole, we finally succeeded in convincing them that there was a proper line to be drawn.
INT: Fine, it's just an adjunct to that question. As Attorney General, you were in charge of the Attorney General's list. Would you just very briefly describe to me what that list was, including words, I was in charge of the Attorney General's list and what you did with it during your time?
HB: Well, the Attorney General's list was started before I got into office there, it was supposed to be a list of subversive organisations. Looking back at it, I don't think it was very effective and the purpose of it, I'm sure, was to alert people to the fact that some rather high-sounding high titles and innocuous-sounding organisations were indeed operated and influenced by Communists and were used by them to subvert the public opinion in this country. But in practice, it was almost impossible to develop a list that was meaningful and I don't believe that that, in itself, did a great deal to further the fighting of the Cold War.
INT: Great. Now whaffect do you think the loss of China in 1949 had on the fears of Communist subversion?
HB: Well, theloss of China in the late forties...
HB: ...had a great influence on American public opinion. There'd always been a very friendly feeling on the part of the American public generally toward China and it was felt that the take over in China by the Communists was the tip off as to what might happen in other parts of the world. And that it was a warning to the United States and to all the free world as to how things could occur almost without warning and unless the public was alert to the possibilities, that I would say it was perhaps the most single important factor in the... turning the public opinion toward support of a strong and anti-Communist programme domestically.
INT: And then the Korean War, did that again heighten...?
HB: The Korean War, when that came along, was done... I think believed to be in most people a connected with the danger of Communism in the United States. I think it was a the way President Truman described it to the public when he sent the troops over there, was an example of Communist aggression in other parts of the world, but it didn't have the effect that of stirring up public opinion that the United States itself was in danger from the spread of Communism.