Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice: Elizabeth T. Bentley, Harry Gold, Roy M. Cohn, Irving H. Saypol, Judge Irving R. Kaufman, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Rehearsal for the Rosenberg Trial, or How I Survived McCarthyism
Bunim & Bannigan LTD
New York, 2010
Several months back, when Rep. Peter King (R-New York) announced plans to hold Congressional hearings on the “radicalization of the American Muslim community and the threat of homegrown terrorists,” progressive pundits and activists dubbed the plan a return to McCarthy-like witch hunts. But King, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, shook off the criticism.
This surprised no one.
After all, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that in the world-according-to-King, “85 percent of American Muslim community leaders are an enemy living among us.” What’s more, the group quotes him saying, in 2007, “We have too many mosques in this country.”
Yes, as King sees it, now that the bogey of godless Communism has been slain, the specter of Islam should have US denizens quaking, terrified that the stranger among us might cause harm to our communities and families.
King’s posture angers former political prisoner Miriam Moskowitz, and she is fearful that people like the Congressman are, perhaps unwittingly, gearing up to reprise a shameful period in US history. Hers is a story of persecution, incarceration and cold war craziness that begins in the late 1940’s, when she found secretarial work in a firm owned by Abraham Brothman, a chemical engineer and scholar with several patents under his belt. Both had had brief liaisons with the Communist Party USA, but subsequently became fellow travelers rather than devoted party ideologues.
Moskowitz’s account of the Red Scare – including her and Brothman’s trial for conspiracy to commit espionage – is written with the hindsight of 60-plus years and documents the lies and distortions that landed her in jail for nearly two years and her boss for seven years. The players, from the judge (Irving Kaufman), to the prosecution (Irving Saypol, Roy Cohn, John Foley, Myles Lane and Thomas Donegan) to the witnesses against them (Elizabeth Terrill Bentley, a k a Helen, secretary to John a k a Jacob Golos, trade commissioner for the State of New York, and Harry Gold, a k a Frank Kessler) later prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, spouses executed in 1955 for their purported role in giving scientific data to the Soviets.
Cohn admitted that the Brothman-Moskowitz case served as a testing ground for other cases pitting the US government against so-called Russian sympathizers and spies. “The Brothman-Moskowitz case was a dry run for the Rosenberg trial,” he told reporters. “We were able to see how Gold and Bentley fared on the stand, and we were able to see how we fared, Saypol and I.”
Sadly, all fared well, at least from the vantage point of the prosecution, and Moskowtiz’s painstakingly researched and documented – if highly personal – account shows how easily justice can be derailed in periods of political panic.
“Even before our trial opened and unremittingly as it progressed, the FBI and Saypol’s office leaked misinformation to the press,” Moskowitz writes. “Walter Winchell, the gossip columnist and radio personality [and late night club companion of J. Edgar Hoover and Cohn], mirrored the prevailing hysteria, daily predicting revelations of heinous crimes the government would prove we had committed…. None of the promised revelations ever materialized, but the relentless poisonous pre-trial notoriety guaranteed that we would find it difficult if not impossible to acquire a panel of unprejudiced jurors.”
Indeed, even without this taint, the trial included a great deal of intrigue, not the least of it the unacknowledged – but assumed – affair between young, single Moskowitz and her married boss. Their liaison kept the pair from testifying in their own defense, since neither wanted to be smeared by the salacious commentary they knew would follow public disclosure of their entanglement.
So they listened silently as far-fetched untruths were voiced.
The prime witness against them was Gold, a man tied to British physicist Klaus Fuchs, an admitted Soviet spy from 1941 to 1945. Once Fuchs identified Gold as one of his informants, Gold became a star canary for Saypol et al.
“Harry Gold was a simple man,” Moskowitz writes. “The FBI threatened him with the death penalty and terrified him with the possibility of retribution toward his father and brother. In that situation, with no one to confide in or to share his fear or to comfort him, he reasoned he would find relief from the FBI’s relentless pressure by falling in line with them.” Moskowitz also believed that Gold assumed that confessing – if done with ample remorse – would sweeten the mood at his sentencing.
(Gold’s pandering proved to be less effective than expected. He was sentenced to 30 years and served about half of that, 15 years and five months, and died in 1972 at the age of 61.)
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Although Moskowitz and Gold met as adults, the two, who were friends and, for a short time, roommates, spent considerable time discussing his childhood, a period of anguish in which he was routinely bullied and assaulted. Her description of him as a kid – “undersized, puny, soft-spoken” – posits him as a boy who found solace only in school. Years later, when financial troubles forced him to drop out of college – he completed his degree years later – Moskowitz says that he became understandably resentful about his lot in life.
Still, once out of school, Gold had to find employment, and Moskowitz chronicles Gold’s stint at Penn Sugar and his eventual turn to thievery to supplement a paltry wage. After he was fired, he apparently made contact with Fuchs, and, by 1941, had become a paid informer for the Soviets, something Moskowitz suggests fed growing delusions about his potential importance.
Gold first met Brothman during World War II – Gold was then using the name Frank
Kessler – and in no time flat the two became friends and colleagues. According to Moskowitz, Kessler/Gold presented himself as a once-married family man from Philadelphia now down on his luck. Early on, Moskowitz reports that there were clues about Gold’s precarious mind-set: “When I first met Harry, I thought he was the most woebegone person I had ever known. All of us had heard of his failed marriage…. The marriage turned sour because [his wife] Sarah objected to Harry’s frequent business absences. When the twins were four, she left him to live with a much older man and took the children with her.” Moskowitz eventually learned that Gold had completely fabricated this life story. He had neither been married nor sired offspring. Instead, when living in Philly, the lifelong bachelor shared quarters with his mother.
This information, of course, didn’t come to light for several years. Upon meeting Gold, Brothman hired him to work on technical matters. “Brothman also used Gold for freelance work, all of it non-military, not secret, and not connected with the government. This was war time: an available chemist like Gold would have been much sought after,” Moskowitz writes.
In retrospect, Gold’s lies about his personal life should have cast dispersions on everything he said. But they did not, and Saypol and Cohn stoked other lies – far more serious ones. “By the time the FBI and Saypol and Cohn had finished with him, Gold was willing to say that he had indeed committed heinous crimes,” Moskowitz continues. “He never acknowledged that they had manipulated him into taking on a role that was vastly exaggerated. He forgot that his acting as errand boy between Klaus Fuchs and the Soviet Union had been accomplished before the Cold War, during a cooperative time when the United States and the Soviet Union were sharing technical information at the highest echelons.”
The now 95-year-old Moskowitz’s fury remains palpable in the book, and it is clear that she sees the trial as evidence of human pathology, and not evidence of either patriotism or political disagreement. For her, Gold and Bentley will always be pathetic souls – he a needy child willing to trade dramatic narratives for attention, she a lonely woman beset by financial woes and emotional insecurities, a compulsive liar and an opportunist. “Bentley’s stories never brought about an indictment much less a conviction on the charges of espionage of any of the people she vilified or whose lives she wrecked,” Moskowitz concludes. “But she certainly threw the country into an agonized turmoil and heated up the reckless, frenetic drive to the Cold War.”
Bentley died in 1963 at the age of 55. The other players are also gone, leaving Moskowitz the sole survivor of her epic drama.
“Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice” can be read several ways. As a cautionary tale, it warns about what can transpire when fear replaces rational thought. It can also be read as a testament to resistance.
Moskowitz’s conclusion is right on the money, and Representative King would be wise to ponder it: “The cost of the Cold War to Americans has been a seesaw economy, growing un-and-under employment, a widening divide between the haves and the have-nots, neglect of health care, social services, education, infrastructure and our national heritage. It’s also contributed to nuclear arms proliferation which has grown to a worldwide threat, a planet of homeless children bedding down in hunger, and perhaps worst of all, impending climate change.”
As the war on terror takes center stage, King would be wise to read “Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice.” He’d be even wiser to cancel the planned hearings.