The Paul Lavietes story comes to light: A victory over McCarthyism

How many of these moving, Hollywood-worthy stories are out there waiting to be told?

Perhaps we’ll never know, but thanks to some fine sleuthing in the Yale University Library by Yale junior Emma Platoff, one episode of McCarthy-era persecution – of a principled physician, Dr. Paul Harold Lavietes of New Haven, Conn. – has now come to light. Except for the fact that he did not enjoy the renown of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Lavietes’ story is just as inspiring.

Platoff wrote a highly readable, meticulously footnoted 14,685-word term paper with a long bibliography, according to a July 16, 2016 email to me, for an undergraduate history course, The Art of Biography, taught by John Gaddis, one of Yale’s best-known professors. Platoff interviewed multiple family members, including Paul’s daughter Sylvia Lavietes.

This story interests me because I grew up in New Haven, catty-corner from the Lavietes family. As close neighbors my three siblings and I were friendly with Marc and Sylvia, the two Lavietes kids, who became respectively a medical doctor and a social worker. I was not 300 feet away, and often nearer, to the anguish suffered in the Lavietes household in the mid-1950s, of which I as a preteen knew nothing.

It was also eye-opening to understand the role certain individuals played in Dr. Lavietes’ support. A few of them, such as Yale Law School Prof. Thomas Emerson and the progressive Rabbi Robert E. Goldburg of Congregation Mishkan Israel, were also familiar names in our household. Our family were longtime members of that congregation.

Accusations

Lavietes “was a tall and skinny man,” writes Platoff, “with close-cropped brown hair and glasses.” He held several positions as a consultant to various hospitals and sanatoriums but did most of his work in his private practice office on Howard Avenue. “More than anything,” Platoff writes, “Paul loved his patients, who came from a variety of income and social backgrounds, from the former first lady of Yale, Katherine C. Angell, to the men he treated every Friday evening at the Union of Indigent People on Dixwell Avenue.” He had also taught courses at the Yale Medical School.

On a Wednesday in August 1955, David Doherty, attorney for the Veterans Administration (VA), began interrogating Lavietes, who served as a VA medical consultant.

“Have you ever advocated communism as a replacement for the present system of government in the United States?” Doherty asked.

“No.”

“Did you ever endeavor to impose such a thought upon your associates or any students you might have had?”

“No.”

“Doctor, there is information of record of while you were a staff member of the School of Medicine, Yale University, during 1938 and 1939, that you did advocate communism as a replacement for the present system of government in the United States, and encouraged the reading of the works of Marx, Stalin and other communists. In view of that information, Doctor, do you care to revise or amplify or in any way change your previous answer?”

“No.”

“During early 1940, were you a signer of a statement raising a warning against denying communists the full freedom of the Bill of Rights or any suppression of the Communist Party?”

“I do not recall.”

Further questions raked up associations to the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions and the defense of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois against charges of being a foreign agent affiliated with Communist activities.

Lavietes didn’t hear again from his persecutors until January 1956, when he was served with 23 charges by Mr. A. H. Corley, Jr., director of Security Service at the VA headquarters in Washington, DC. The earliest went back to 1936, when Lavietes had signed a nominating petition to place the names of two Communist Party leaders on Connecticut’s ballot for President and Vice President of the United States. The charges conformed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Order 10450 issued in 1953, which eliminated the line between loyalty and security. Lavietes could be suspended or terminated.

Only recently had John Punnett Peters, a well-known socialist academic who had been an early friend and mentor to Lavietes, won his own loyalty case after taking it all the way to the Supreme Court. He and Lavietes, advocates of equal health care for all, had worked together to defend others caught up in the security nexus of the mid-1950s.

Prof. Emerson to the defense

Yale Law School professor Thomas Emerson, known for civil liberties defenses, took Lavietes as his client. One option was to simply resign from the VA, but there were principles at stake. He asked for a hearing, believing that the worst charges against him, from anonymous sources, could be beaten. He felt convinced that it was Lavietes’ associations – such as with the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born, on the Attorney’s General’s list – and not any actions, that prompted the inquiry.

Emerson corroborated the government’s claims by consulting back issues of the Daily Worker and New Masses, but the organizations Lavietes supported were legal at the time. In any case the petitions and letters he signed did not prove disloyalty. Many other distinguished personalities had also signed these statements. Emerson sought affidavits of support from students and peers around the country and they poured in. Fifty-one of Lavietes’ medical school students in the years 1938-39 denied that he had ever introduced political discussion into the classroom.

Cole v. Young

As Emerson worked with Lavietes developing the defense, Platoff writes, “they kept a careful eye on a case pending before the Supreme Court.” In 1950, Kendrick M. Cole, a New York inspector for the Food and Drug Administration, was accused of being close with reported Communists. Cole opted not to answer the charges, leaving it to his department head to decide; he was fired.

As a World War II veteran, he tried appealing his dismissal to the Civil Service Commission under the Veterans’ Preference Act, which gave preferential treatment to veterans in government employment. The commission rejected Cole’s appeal. They said Cole had been fired under the Act of August 26, 1950, which permitted agency heads to suspend or terminate employees in the interest of national security.

But when it passed in 1950, the Act had only been meant to apply to 11 sensitive agencies, though the president could choose to expand it to other departments. Executive Order No. 10450 had extended the Act to include every federal employee. The Supreme Court had to consider whether the President had the authority to extend the act to allow agency heads to unilaterally fire federal employees who did not have access to sensitive information, like Cole – and like Paul Lavietes.

The decision in Cole v. Young would set a precedent for the Lavietes case. The court heard Cole on March 6, 1956.

The case proceeds

In his autobiographical statement submitted as part of his defense, Lavietes spoke of his wartime service with the VA and unapologetically, as the son of immigrants, of his family history of resisting czarism in Russia. “I suppose this all adds up to being a ‘liberal’… such a philosophy insists that every one – citizen or alien, white or black, rich or poor, whatever his religion or his politics – be allowed to think and speak as he pleases. Our Constitution does not ask whether a person is a Jew, a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Catholic; a Nazi, a Trotskyite or a Communist. It protects us all and therefore I cherish and defend it.”

In a hearing on Monday, June 4, at the Veterans Administration in West Haven, witnesses attested to Lavietes’ character, loyalty and conscientious commitment to his profession. Even longtime friends denied ever hearing him expound on political subjects. The hearing continued for the next two days. A medical colleague knew that Lavietes had supported the Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, in 1952, but little more. Lavietes took the stand, undergoing intense, accusatory cross-examination. Emerson moved to dismiss the case, citing arguments in the Cole case, which would soon be decided by the Supreme Court.

On June 11, the Supreme Court announced its Cole v. Young decision. The Court found, 6-3, that the 1950 Act permitting agency heads to conclusively suspend or terminate employees deemed dangerous only applied to sensitive agencies.

In other words, Cole was not deemed a “sensitive” employee. Presumably, not Lavietes either.

Within days Lavietes heard from the West Haven Veterans Administration, reinstating him as a VA consultant. But was the issue completely over?

“[T]he Cole case, initially seen as a triumph for individual privacy, provoked significant outcry from Congress in the weeks after the decision was handed down,” Platoff says. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, along with others, quickly proposed legislation that would effectively reverse the Court and apply the 1950 Security Act to all government employees.

Further moves to void the Court’s decision went nowhere “thanks to the impressive maneuvering of then-majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson,” in Platoff’s words.

The aftermath

Although Dr. Lavietes returned to the VA, his and at least 1000 other New Haveners (including my family’s) had their phones tapped for years. Lavietes continued his medical and political activism. He marched against the Vietnam War and gave medical counsel to draftees. “In 1971,” Platoff reports, “Paul became the founding medical director of New Haven’s Community Health Care Plan, a prepaid, comprehensive medical service. The $1.7 million structure on the city’s Long Wharf was the nation’s first socialized medical system and the first health management organization to open in Connecticut.”

My neighbor Dr. Paul Lavietes, hero of civil liberties in a dark period of U.S. history, died on December 27, 1990, his 1950s case almost entirely forgotten.

As someone schooled in historical methods, I am struck by the prescience and generosity of the family to have left Lavietes’ papers to Yale so that this story might one day be uncovered.

The Lavietes case – and the Cole case – highlight the importance of who makes Supreme Court and other judicial appointments, and whom we elect to office.

Photo: Paul Lavietes, left, with mentor John Punnett Peters, 1937


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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