Episode 44 - Commie Congressman

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Samuel Dickstein was born in Vilnius, Lithuania on February 5, 1885. In 1887 Dickstein moved with his parents Rabbi Israel Dickstein and Slata B. Gordon and his four siblings to the United States in 1887. The family settled into the Lower East Side of New York City. Dickstein attended both private and public school and then attended the City College of New York and followed that by attending and graduating from New York Law School in 1906.

After passing the bar in 1908, he started his own private practice where he specialized in landlord and tenant disputes. Dickstein claimed that he represented 30,000 tenants pro-bono. This was also around the time that he joined Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall was a New York City political organization that was known for both helping the city’s poor and immigrant populations and deep-seeded corruption. Dickstein became close with the Tammany Hall District Leader John Ahearn, who used his power and influence to get Dickstein appointed as a special deputy attorney general of the State of New York in 1911.

After serving as a deputy attorney general for three years, Dickstein then used his connections at Tammany Hall to become an alderman for New York City in 1917 and then won a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1918.

In 1922, Dickstein beat out long time incumbent Meyer London for a seat in Congress representing New York’s 12th District. He was placed on the House Committee on Naturalization and Immigration because of his experience as an immigrant and the work he did with immigrants as a lawyer in New York City. When the Democrats took control of the House after the 1930 midterm elections, prominent Tammany Hall leaders insisted that Democrats named Dickstein the Chairman for the committee.

With this position of power, Dickstein started looking into the large number of illegal immigrants residing in the United States along with the large amounts of anti-Semitic and anti-American literature that was beginning to be distributed across the country. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, there were German Americans that started to join a group called the Friends of New Germany, which was created to organize Nazi sympathizers in America. In response, Dickstein began to hold informal and unfunded hearings on what he called “Nazi Propaganda Activities by Aliens in the U.S.”

During the first five sessions of the hearings, witnesses came forward to testify that the Third Reich was delivering printed propaganda, military uniforms, films, and spy order to pro-Nazi fascists living in the United States. When Dickstein questioned a man, who called himself Mr. X during a public hearing, Mr. X said that Nazi Germany’s goal was to establish “an absolute dictatorship in the United States.” During an interview with NBC radio, Dickstein said that he had found “sufficient evidence to define the Nazi government here as the most dangerous threat to our democracy that ever existed.”

In 1934, Dickstein was able to convince enough House members to pass his resolution of establishing the “Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities.” Dickstein decided to name himself the chairman of the new committee since he was a foreign-born Jew and did not want the committee to receive any criticism because of his background. Dickstein became the vice chair and an Irish Catholic representative from Boston named John W. McCormack was named the chairman.

During the summer and fall of 1934, the committee brought in several witnesses that revealed that prominent PR firms in America were accepting money from the Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbel to improve America’s perception of Nazi Germany. Several German Americans that were known supporters of Hitler were brought in for testimony and they did not hold back on their loyalty to the Nazi creed. One witness said that the Fuehrer “represents the racial feelings of every German in the world, no matter where he is born or no matter where he lives.”

The committee also brought in retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler who testified that he had been approached by rich anti-Roosevelt financiers that had ties with veterans’ groups. The financiers wanted Butler to march on Washington D.C., seize power, and form a new government, much like Mussolini did in Italy.

Though these were huge revelations of fascism gaining popularity in America, many thought that Dickstein was just holding these hearings to rise in notoriety. The Herald Tribune ran a letter to the editor that said “The public is sick and tired of the red herrings Vice Chairman Dickstein has dangled (at the taxpayers’ expense) in order to keep his name on the front page.” Representative Lindsay Warren said that Dickstein had an “itch and flair for publicity and advertisement.” Dickstein was considered to be greatly over exaggerating and fame seeking when he said that Adolf Hitler was “the madman of Germany” and the German government’s so-called ‘persecution’ of the Jews in Germany. The United States was still trying to maintain a friendly relationship with Nazi Germany, so the hearings and Dickstein’s comments about growing fascism in Germany and the United States went largely ignored.

In 1937, Dickstein was trying to convince House members to create an expanded committee to look into un-American activities, but after being met with push back, Dickstein stated that with the expanded committee he would be able to name “100 spies who have entered this country from a friendly government for the purpose of furthering the progress of this propaganda.” Dickstein frequently brought up Fritz Kuhn, the self-titled American Fuhrer who created and led the Nazi-supporting group German-American Bund. Dickstein claimed that Kuhn led a large group of German spies to grow Nazi support in America. Kuhn retaliated by saying “Dickstein, not I, is one of the country’s biggest enemies. I think he is a spy for Soviet Russia.”

Dickstein’s bill for the new committee was tabled and Representative Maury Maverick from Texas called it “just a lot of noise that will bring loss of prestige to Congress.” Dickstein marched onto the House floor and read out the names of 46 spies. However, it was quickly pointed out that most of these names were of people who held fascist leaning political views but had not broken any espionage laws. Also, the fact that there were only 46 names and not the 100 that Dickstein had promised brought more ridicule to Dickstein’s efforts.

In 1937, Dickstein, still the chair for the Committee of Naturalization and Immigration, was contacted by an Austrian working for the USSR. The Austrian asked Dickstein if he could help him become an American citizen. Dickstein told him that America’s quota of citizenship for Austrian immigrants was currently filled, but for $3,000 Dickstein could see what he could do. Dickstein also told the Austrian that he had been able to secure citizenship for dozens of immigrants through some back-door dealings. In a memo summarizing the meeting, the USSR concluded that Dickstein was running an illegal smuggling ring and selling passports to help immigrants get their American citizenship.

Upset with his efforts of unearthing fascists being unappreciated in America, Dickstein approached the Soviet ambassador to America offering to give him information on a Russian fascist group he had discovered while running his committee. However, the Soviets would have to pay him at least $5,000 for the information. The Soviets said they wouldn’t pay for information they considered “widely known” in Russia. Dickstein said he could keep information on Russia fascists coming, but they would have to pay him $2,500 a month. Dickstein said that all of that money would be going towards his investigations, and he demanded “nothing for himself” because he believed in the Soviet’s ideologies. Dickstein was given a handler named “Igor” who refused to give Dickstein any more than $500 a month for the information, especially since the typical American family earned about $1,800 a year in 1937.

In 1938, Hitler forcibly annexed Austria into the Third Reich and talk of creating another committee focusing on un-American activities began. Dickstein was sure that he would be named as chair or vice chair of the new committee and was able to renegotiate his monthly stipend from the USSR to $1,250 a month. The NKVD, the intelligence spy organization that preceded the KGB, demanded that Dickstein gave them fascism information the uncovered and steer the committee away from looking into Communists.

In a NKVD memo discussing their arrangement with Dickstein, it stated “We are fully aware whom we are dealing with. ‘Crook’ is completely justifying his code name. This is an unscrupulous type, greedy for money, consented to work because of money, a very cunning swindler. …Therefore it is difficult to guarantee the fulfillment of the planned program even in the part which he proposed to us himself.”

Unfortunately for Dickstein, he was not only not named chair or vice chair of the new committee, he wasn’t even chosen as a member. The new committee took the word “Nazi” out of the name and called themselves the “Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities and Propaganda.” The committee was more commonly known as HUAC or the House Un-American Activities Committee. The new committee held a few hearings on the activities of American Nazi supporters, but the new committee concentrated more on Communist sympathizers in America, many hearings focusing on trying to prove that FDR’s administration was trying to advance the Communist agenda in America.

Desperate to keep his monthly income from the USSR, Dickstein continued to send the NKVD information of American based fascists. Dickstein also gave them information on a Soviet defector named Walter Krivitsky, who was found dead in a Washington D.C. hotel of an apparent suicide. Dickstein denounced the new committee as a “red-bating excursion” and read out speeches in Congress that Moscow had written for him. According to the NKVD, Dickstein also gave them “materials on the war budget for 1940, records of conferences of the budget subcommission, reports of the war minister, chief of staff, and etc.”

Dickstein continued to ask for more money from the USSR, even telling him that he had given information to both Polish and British intelligence and that they “paid money without any questions” which has neither been proven nor disproven. In February of 1940, the NKVD finally decided to end their relationship with Dickstein saying “he can’t be a useful organizer who could gather around him a group of liberal congressman to exercise our influence, and alone, he doesn’t represent any interest.” During his time working with the NKVD, Dickstein received $12,000 from the USSR, which would be around $200,000 today.

There is no evidence that Dickstein gave away national information to a foreign group after the Soviets cut him off. In 1946, Dickstein left congress after 23 years to become a justice of the New York Supreme Court. After World War II ended and the United States and Soviet entered the Cold War against each other, the HUAC began to conduct several hearings that were intent on finding American based Communists. If a person was suspected of harboring Communist ideologies, they would be subpoenaed to appear in front of the committee where they were forced to answer questions on their political beliefs and any communist activities they had taken part in. They would then be asked to provide names of other communists, who would then be subpoenaed to appear in front of the committee as well. If an individual refused to answer the committee’s questions or name other individuals, they could be indicted for contempt of Congress and be sent to prison. If the subpoenaed individual plead the fifth, they were often fired from their jobs and blacklisted by future employers.

During the 50’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy used the HUAC for anticommunist campaign known as the “red scare” and to prove his declaration that he had a list of 205 known members of the Communist Party that were working in the State Department. More than 2,000 government employees lost their jobs due to McCarthy’s anti-communist investigations. Surprisingly, Dickstein’s name was never brought up during any of these investigations or hearings.

Dickstein was a New York Supreme Court justice until he died on April 22, 1954 at the age of 69. A plaza in the Lower East Side was named the Samuel Dickstein Plaza. Dickstein remains the only known congressman that was on the Soviet’s payroll. His espionage activities only came to light in the 90’s when a US espionage expert named Allen Weinstein and a retired Russian agent named Alexander Vassiliev joined together to read and research old KGB dossiers.


“Tammany Hall” article

“Samuel Dickstein Papers” by the American Jewish Archives

“HUAC” article

“The Congressman Who Spied for Russia” by Peter Duffy

“The Spy Who Made McCarthy” an article by The Guardian

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