History Podcasts

Nathan Witt

Nathan Witt

Nathan Witt was born into a Jewish family in New York City on 11th February, 1903. He came from a poor family and had to work while studying at New York University. He became active in politics and campaign for the release of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

After graduating in 1927 he studied law at Harvard Law School. One of his fellow students was Donald Hiss, the brother of Alger Hiss. A committed socialist he specialized in labour law.

Nathan Witt supported Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 Presidential Election.He joined the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) Soon afterwards be began associating with other radical members of the New Deal administration. This included Harold Ware, Alger Hiss, Nathaniel Weyl, Laurence Duggan, Harry Dexter White, Abraham George Silverman, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, Henry H. Collins, Lee Pressman and Victor Perlo.

Susan Jacoby, the author of Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (2009), has pointed out: "Hiss's Washington journey from the AAA, one of the most innovative agencies established at the outset of the New Deal, to the State Department, a bastion of traditionalism in spite of its New Deal component, could have been nothing more than the rising trajectory of a committed careerist. But it was also a trajectory well suited to the aims of Soviet espionage agents in the United States, who hoped to penetrate the more traditional government agencies, like the State, War, and Treasury Departments, with young New Dealers sympathetic to the Soviet Union (whether or not they were actually members of the Party). Chambers, among others, would testify that the eventual penetration of the government was the ultimate aim of a group initially overseen in Washington by Hal Ware, a Communist and the son of Mother Bloor... When members did succeed in moving up the government ladder, they were supposed to separate from the Ware organization, which was well known for its Marxist participants. Chambers was dispatched from New York by underground Party superiors to supervise and coordinate the transmission of information and to ride herd on underground Communists - Hiss among them - with government jobs." (1)

Whittaker Chambers was a key figure in the Ware Group. He later argued: "I do not know how many of those young men and women were already Communists when Ware met them and how many joined the Communist Party because of him. His influence over them was personal and powerful.... But, by 1934, the Ware Group had developed into a tightly organized underground, managed by a directory of seven men. In time it included a number of secret sub-cells whose total membership I can only estimate probably about seventy-five Communists. Sometimes they were visited officially by J. Peters who lectured them on Communist organization and Leninist theory and advised them on general policy and specific problems. For several of them were so placed in the New Deal agencies (notably Alger Hiss, Nathan Witt, John Abt and Lee Pressman) that they were in a position to influence policy at several levels." (2)

Lee Pressman testified in 1951 that Witt joined the Communist Party of the United States during this period. In 1935, after the death of Harold Ware, Witt became the leader of the Ware Group. Witt continued to make good progress in his career: "He moved to the National Recovery Administration (NRA); in 1936 he transferred to the legal staff as assistant general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); in 1937 he was its secretary." (3)

Whittaker Chambers began to privately question the policies of Joseph Stalin. So also did his friend and fellow spy, Juliet Poyntz. In 1936 she spent time in Moscow and was deeply shocked by the purge that was taking place of senior Bolsheviks. Unconvinced by the Show Trials she returned to the United States as a critic of the rule of Joseph Stalin. As fellow member, Benjamin Gitlow, pointed out: "She (Juliet Poyntz) saw how men and women with whom she had worked, men and women she knew were loyal to the Soviet Union and to Stalin, were sent to their doom." (4)

Chambers asked Boris Bykov what had happened to Juliet Poyntz. He replied: "Gone with the wind". Chambers commented: "Brutality stirred something in him that at its mere mention came loping to the surface like a dog to a whistle. It was as close to pleasure as I ever saw him come. Otherwise, instead of showing pleasure, he gloated. He was incapable of joy, but he had moments of mean exultation. He was just as incapable of sorrow, though he felt disappointed and chagrin. He was vengeful and malicious. He would bribe or bargain, but spontaneous kindness or generosity seemed never to cross his mind. They were beyond the range of his feeling. In others he despised them as weaknesses." (5) . As a result of this conversation, Chambers decided to stop working for the Communist Party of the United States.

In August 1939, Isaac Don Levine arranged for Chambers to meet Adolf Berle, one of the top aides to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After dinner Chambers told Berle about government officials spying for the Soviet Union: "Around midnight, we went into the house. What we said there is not in question because Berle took it in the form of penciled notes. Just inside the front door, he sat at a little desk or table with a telephone on it and while I talked he wrote, abbreviating swiftly as he went along. These notes did not cover the entire conversation on the lawn. They were what we recapitulated quickly at a late hour after a good many drinks. I assumed that they were an exploratory skeleton on which further conversations and investigation would be based." (6)

According to Isaac Don Levine the list of "espionage agents" included Nathan Witt, Alger Hiss, Donald Hiss, Laurence Duggan, Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White, John Abt, Lee Pressman, Julian Wadleigh, Noel Field and Frank Coe. Chambers also named Joszef Peter, as being "responsible for the Washington sector" and "after 1929 the "head of the underground section" of the Communist Party of the United States.

Chambers later claimed that Berle reacted to the news with the comment: "We may be in this war within forty-eight hours and we cannot go into it without clean services." John V. Fleming, has argued in The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) Chambers had "confessed to Berle the existence of a Communist cell - he did not yet identify it as an espionage team - in Washington." (7) Berle, who was in effect the president's Director of Homeland Security, raised the issue with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "who profanely dismissed it as nonsense."

The authors of The Secret World of American Communism (1995) have argued: "Nathan Witt, a secret Communist and a former member of the Ware group, became the first secretary (staff director) of the NLRB and hired many secret Communists. One of the first three NLRB commissioners, Edwin S. Smith, also became a close ally of the CPUSA. The Communist group in the NLRB held regular caucuses to decide on policy and also communicated regularly with Lee Pressman, the former Ware group member who was also the chief attorney for the CIO. The result was a pronounced NLRB bias in favor of the CIO to the detriment of the AFL and employers who resisted CIO organizing drives. The NLRB's pro-CIO bias became so obvious and the rumors of the existence of the Communist caucus inside the NLRB so strong that by 1940 it became an embarrassment for the Roosevelt administration. Witt was forced to resign from his post, and President Roosevelt refused to reappoint Smith when his term as NLRB commissioner expired in 1941. Smith went on to become a registered agent (professional lobbyist) for the Soviet Union. The officials Roosevelt appointed to replace Smith and Witt quickly dispersed the Communist group in the NLRB." (8) After leaving the National Labor Relations Board he became a partner in the New York law firm of Witt & Cammer.

On 3rd August, 1948, Whittaker Chambers appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He testified that he had been "a member of the Communist Party and a paid functionary of that party" but left after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939. He explained how the Ware Group's "original purpose" was "not primarily espionage," but "the Communist infiltration of the American government." Chambers claimed his network of spies included Nathan Witt, Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Lauchlin Currie, Abraham George Silverman, John Abt, Lee Pressman, Henry H. Collins and Donald Hiss. Silverman, Collins, Abt, Pressman and Witt all used the Fifth Amendment defence and refused to answer any questions put by the HUAC. (9)

According to Christina Shelton: "He (Nathan Witt) also had been counsel to many unions and in 1955 gave up his law practice to become full-time counsel to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. When that union merged with the United Steel Workers of America in the 1960s, Witt became associate counsel for the union's Mine, Mill and Smelter division. He retired from that position in 1975." (10)

Nathan Witt died at Rockefeller University Hospital, New York City, on 16th February, 1982.

Hal Ware was one of a Communist dynasty. His half-brother, Carl Reeve, was at one time a district organizer of the Communist Party, and, during my time, was once briefly attached to the Daily Worker staff. Hal's wife was Jessica Smith (now Mrs. John Abt and the sister-in-law of Marion Bachrach). For many years, Comrade Smith has been editor of Soviet Russia Today (now called New World Review), a magazine of facts and figures (impartially taken from Soviet sources) and adding up to a paean of Soviet progress, beamed monthly toward the unthinkingly enlightened American middle class.

Hal's sister, Helen Ware, in i934 operated a violin studio on Connecticut Avenue in Washington. It will play a brief obbligato later on in this narrative.

Harold Ware was a frustrated farmer. The soil was in his pores. Unlike most American Communists, who managed to pass from one big city to another without seeing anything in the intervening spaces, Ware was absorbed in the land and its problems. He held that, with the deepening of the agrarian crisis, which had preceded the world financial and industrial crisis, and with the rapid mechanization of agriculture, the time had come for revolutionary organization among farmers.

But first he decided to do a little farming himself. In the early 1920's he set out with a group of American radicals for the Soviet Union to develop a collective farm, the so-called Kuzbas colony. Later, Hal Ware returned to the United States. He did not return empty-handed. The Communist International was also convinced that the time was ripe for organizing the American farmer. Harold Ware himself told me that, for that purpose, he brought back from Moscow $25,000 in American money secreted in a money belt-such a belt as I was soon to wear to San Francisco for another purpose.

Around 1925, Ware hired himself to the Department of Agriculture as a dollar-a-year man. Later on, he set up in Washington a small fact-finding and information bureau called Farm Research. In that enterprise he associated with him two congenial young men. One was the brother of a man named by Elizabeth Bentley as one of her contacts, and a close friend of Harry Dexter White, then with the United States Treasury Department, and also one of Elizabeth Bentley's contacts. The other, later an expert on labor relations at a United States consulate in Australia, was, until rather recently, an employe of the State Department.

Seldom has $25,000 bought so much history. But Ware did not invest all (or perhaps even much of his nest egg) in Washington. To my knowledge, he maintained close ties with the Communist Party's underground sharecroppers' union at Camp Hill, Alabama, and no doubt with other undergrounds in the West and South.

It was not necessary to invest heavily in Washington. Once the New Deal was in full swing, Hal Ware was like a man who has bought a farm sight unseen only to discover that the crops are all in and ready to harvest. All that he had to do was to hustle them into the barn. The barn in this case was the Communist Party. In the A.A.A., Hal found a bumper crop of incipient or registered Communists. On its legal staff were Lee Pressman, .Alger Hiss and John Abt (later named by Elizabeth Bentley as one of her contacts). There was Charles Krivitsky, a former physicist at New York University, then or shortly afterwards to be known as Charles Kramer (also, later on, one of Elizabeth Bentley's contacts). Abraham George Silverman (another of Elizabeth Bentley's future contacts) was sitting with a little cluster of Communists over at the Railroad Retirement Board. In the Agriculture Department (after a flier in the N.R.A. ) there was Henry H. Collins, Jr., now the head of the American-Russian Institute, cited as subversive by the Attorney General. Collins was the son of a Philadelphia manufacturer, a schoolboy friend of Alger Hiss, and a college friend of the late Laurence Duggan (who was later to be one of Hede Massing's underground contacts). There was Nathan Witt in the National Labor Relations Board. There was John Abt's sister, Marion Bachrach. In the N.R.A., then or later, was Victor Perlo (also one of Elizabeth Bentley's contacts). Widening vistas opened into the United States Government. Somewhat breathlessly, Harold Ware reported to J. Peters, the head of the underground section of the American Communist Party, with whom Hal was in close touch, that the possibilities for Communist organization in Washington went far beyond farming.

I do not know how many of those young men and women were already Communists when Ware met them and how many joined the Communist Party because of him. His influence over them was personal and powerful. But about the time that Ulrich and Charlie were initiating me into The Gallery and invisible ink, Harold Ware and J. Peters were organizing the Washington prospects into the secret Communist group now known by Ware's name-the Ware Group.
Under oath, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Lee Pressman, in 1951, testified that he, Witt, Abt and Kramer had been Communists and members of this group. He also gave an account of its organization which may well bear a sketchy resemblance to its first formative stage. For several of them were so placed in the New Deal agencies (notably Alger Hiss, Nathan Witt, John Abt and Lee Pressman) that they were in a position to influence policy at several levels.
They were so well-placed that the thought had occurred to Comrade Peters, and no doubt to others, that such human material could be used more effectively, and, moreover, that it was poor organization to leave so many promising Communists in one large group where everybody knew everybody else. Peters proposed to separate the most likely ones (an almost invariable underground practice) and place them in another distinct underground-a parallel apparatus-much more rigorously segregated and subdivided. When advisable, other Communists would be added to this special apparatus from other undergrounds in Washington. For the Ware Group was not the only Communist underground in the capital. This task Peters assigned to me....

The relationship of the leading committee to the secret cells was much like that of the Central Committee to the units of the open Communist Party. The Group was headed, when I first knew it, by Harold Ware himself. After Ware's death in 1935, Nathan Witt became the leader of the Group. Later, John Abt, for reasons not known to me, became its leader.

An effort has been made to describe the Ware Group as merely a "Marxist study group." That is not true. The Ware Group was an integral (and highly important) unit of the underground section of the American Communist Party. Until his death, it was under the constant direction of Harold Ware. It was always under the personal supervision of J. Peters, whose visits to it were at least monthly, and sometimes more frequent. On trade-union questions, and much of its activity had to do with trade-union and other labor problems, at least one of its members sometimes consulted in New York with Jack Stachel, one of the party's top men in trade-union work.

Nathan Witt, a secret Communist and a former member of the Ware group, became the first secretary (staff director) of the NLRB and hired many secret Communists. The NLRB's pro-CIO bias became so obvious and the rumors of the existence of the Communist caucus inside the NLRB so strong that by 1940 it became an embarrassment for the Roosevelt administration.20 Witt was forced to resign from his post, and President Roosevelt refused to reappoint Smith when his term as NLRB commissioner expired in 1941. The officials Roosevelt appointed to replace Smith and Witt quickly dispersed the Communist group in the NLRB.

Nathan Witt (1903-82) graduated from New York University and Harvard Law School. He was on the IJA with Hiss and Pressman and went with them to Washington, D.C., to join the AAA and the Ware Group. In 1933 he was an attorney on the staff of the AAA; he then moved to the National Recovery Administration (NRA); in 1936 he transferred to the legal staff as assistant general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); in 1937 he was its secretary." After he resigned from the board in 1941, he became a partner in the New York law firm of Witt & Cammer. He also had been counsel to many unions and in 1955 gave up his law practice to become full-time counsel to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. He retired from that position in 1975.

Primary Sources

(1) Susan Jacoby, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (2009) pages 79-80

(2) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 343

(3) Christina Shelton, Alger Hiss: Why he Chose Treason (2012) page 75

(4) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 37

(5) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 76-77

(6) Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952) page 464

(7) John V. Fleming, The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) page 320

(8) Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1997) page 246

(9) Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (1995) page 99

(10) Christina Shelton, Alger Hiss: Why he Chose Treason (2012) page 75


Watch the video: Нейтан - самые смешные моменты Отбросы, MisFist (January 2022).