From Fourth International, Vol.17 No.1, Winter 1956, pp.3-7.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
On December 30, 1955 the crowds in Times Square, the “crossroads of the world,” saw the following bulletin flashing on the electric news ribbon around the building that houses America’s most influential newspaper: “V.A. Hearing on Kutcber’s Loyalty – Legless Veteran Fights for Pension – Charge His Activities Aided Communists During Korean War.”
The New York Times did not need to explain. All America knew what the case was about. Every major TV channel that evening was featuring newsreel shots of the valiant member of the Socialist Workers Party as he defied the government witch hunters in Washington earlier in the day. Every major radio chain was broadcasting the latest news in the infamous effort of the Eisenhower Administration to deprive the Purple Heart soldier of his pension because of his political beliefs. Every major newspaper in the country was front-paging the stubborn battle this veteran of the war on the civil-rights and civil-liberties front was putting up for freedom of thought in America – and in many cases joining in with a stinging editorial in his behalf.
It is no exaggeration to say that from Maine to California it would have been difficult that night to find a family that was not cheering for James Kutcher.
America’s most sensational witch-hunt case in 1955 was broken just before Christmas by the liberal New York Post, which had obtained copies of the correspondence sent the legless veteran by the Veterans Admrnistra-tion. A December 12 letter had levelled scurrilous accusations, based on secret “information” provided by faceless stool pigeons against the avowed socialist. A December 15 letter announced suspension as of November 30 of the $329-a-month pension before the administrative hearing to be granted Kutcher to answer what in fact was a charge of treason.
The December 23 Post printed virtually the full texts. Here are the key sentences from the earlier letter:
“The evidence shows that you are and have been an active member of the Socialist Workers’ Party since 1933; that the Socialist Workers Party has been determined to be, by duly authorized officials of the United States oif America an organization which seeks to alter the form of Government of the United States of America by unconstitutional means; that your numerous activities over the years which have been instrumental in furthering the aims and objectives of the Socialist Workers’ Party appear to constitute a violation of the above-cited statute, in that it also appears that you rendered aid and assistance to an enemy of the United States or of its allies by espousing and defending the Socialist Workers’ Party’s cause and thereby giving aid and comfort to the enemy by your influence upon others in undermininig public interest and cooperation and confidence in the United States Government’s administration of the war effort and hampering and obstructing such effort.
“The evidence also shows that in July 1950 and the summer of 1951 you attended a camp ... at which time you stated that you liked the ‘red’ system of government; that in this country half of what a worker earns goes to the Government and under the ‘red’ government the worker gets all he earns; that the Government of the United States is composed of people who are cheaters and crooks who oppress the working people It is further shown that you urged and advocated that the members in attendance at the camp cause strikes and get in key positions and get the Socialist Workers’ Party in control of the Government of the United States. It is further shown that you stated that the Parity members couldn’t wish them in, think them in, or vote them in; therefore, they should be overthrown and killed and then get a new Government.”
The Post headlined its story “The War Against ‘Subversion’: US Takes Away Pension from a Legless Veteran.” The news flashed from coast to coast over all the major press services, reaching the public as it finished last-minute shopping for Christmas.
That was when the slow burn in America over the witch hunt turned to something warmer. Kutcher’s home in Newark. New Jersey, was flooded with sympathetic calls. “All America has been calling here,” said Kutcher’s mother.
How much heat was registered on the telephone exchange boards of the Veterans Administration remains a secret. But within six hours after the first edition of the Post appeared on the streets the top bureaucrats of the inquisition publicly rescinded the suspension of Kutcher’s pension. This action alone shattered all precedents in the dark eight-year history of America’s worst witch hunt.
However, the public was not to be assuaged by that sop. It was taken for what it really was – a confession of guilt by the Veterans Administration. Whether the new order became permanent remained to be seen.
The New York Post took its entire editorial column to explain the issues. Its stand, for a capitalist newspaper in our times, was unusual – it defended democratic rights on a principled basis.
The Kutcher case began, it noted, when the socialist-minded veteran was fired from his VA job as a clerk in 1948 “ – in the time of Harry Truman ...”
It agreed with Kutcher that ‘’the fact he lost his legs is not the great point of the debate. The point is that he has lost his rights. But because he lost his legs his case dramatizes finally and beyond dispute the cruelties and idiocies of the security program.”
And, referring to the VA’s suspension of the pensions of veterans of Stalinest persuasion, the Post declared:
“We oppose what it has done to Communists like Robert Thompson aiwd Saul Wellman who, no matter how, much we loathe their present politics, earned their disability pensions serving in the United States Army.”
This strong stand influenced editorial writers throughout the country. Whatever doubts some might still have felt about the merits of the case were settled definitively when the mighty New York Times lowered its editorial guns on the Veterans Administration December 29:
“The United States can, in no way benefit from the long campaign of harassment against Mr. Kutcher ...
“An effort to put Mr. Kutcher and his family out of a low-cost housing project because his father would not sign a statement denying that any member of the household belonged to an organization on the Attorney General’s list has been overruled by unanimous decision of the Supreme Court of New Jensey. In the pension case, it seems to us that Mr. Kutcher is clearly entitled to compensation for his wartime injuries. The present attempt of the VA to deprive him of these rights, even though it is acting under a 1943 law, can be viewed as little less than retaliation for extremist political views. That isn’t the kind of action that sits well in a free democracy.”
Perhaps even more significant than the reaction of the press was the reaction of capitalist politicians whose stock in trade is liberalism or appeals to the millions of war veterans in America. The day after the case was publicized Chairman Olin E. Teague (D-Tex.) announced that his House Veterans Committee would investigate the halting of pension checks to Kutcher. A wounded and decorated veteran himself, Teague said that pending the investigation it was his view generally that the government must prove a very serious offense by a disabled veteran to warrant halting his compensation (United Press, December 24).
Apparently sensing a brewing political storm, the Veterans Administration broke all records in the witch hunt for speed in backing oars. December 27 it announced that an administrative hearing would be held three days later for Kutcher.
Joseph L. Rauh, one of Kutcher’s attorneys, demanded in a telegram to the VA that it be an open hearing and that the faceless informers be dragged into the light of day:
“... we insist that Kutcher be confronted by his accusers. Whoever says Kutcher has committed treason in rendering assistance to an enemy should be willing to stand up before Kutcher and tell him and the Veterans Administration in what manner Kutcher committed this crime.”
Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, a leading aspirant for the Democratic nomination to the presidency, insisted the next day that the proceedings be held in full public view:
“I think Kutcher, not only as a veteran with a gallant war record, but simply as an American citizen, is entitled to a public hearing and a full opportunity to confront his accusers. He has the right to defend himself and to tell his side of the story.”
Already Senator Paul Douglas (D-Ill.) had urged the VA to go slow in withdrawing Kutcher’s benefits while Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-Me.) expressed the hope that a Senate committee would look into the case.
On December 28 John S. Patterson, acting VA administrator, wired Kutcher, “Your wishes in this matter will be honored by this agency.”
For the first time in the witch hunt, the American people were to be given a glimpse of what goes on behind the iron curtain of a government administrative hearing.
When James Kutcher, using his two canes, came linto the hearing room December 30 to face the three inquisitors appointed by the Veterans Administration to rule on whether he could prove his innocence to the satisfaction of the witch hunters, scores of reporters and press photographers came in with him, and the television cameras began recording the scenes that were to be relayed to tens of millions of viewers.
The temper of the American people on the eve of the hearing was indicated by two significant items. An anonymous VA bureaucrat confessed to reporters the day before, “My phone has never stopped ringing.” And H.V. Higley, head of the Veterans Administration, received an official telegram from the American Veterans Committee protesting “as vigorously as we know how,” the threatened loss of benefits due Kutcher.
Scoring the charge of treason, the AVC said,
“If such a charge is to be made ... then he should have the right to more than an adminisitrative hearing. He should have the right to face a jury ... in the tradition of our law. He should have the right to face his accusers ... and they should be made to face him and make their charges of ‘treason.’”
But the Veterans Administration did not intend to turn its Star Chamber proceedings into a fair trial or anything remotely resembling it. Acting Chairman Peyton H. Moss began by announcing that “the sources of the evidence on which the charges in this case are based will not be disclosed ...”
When Rauh demanded a copy of the rules governing the conduct of the hearing, Lipps, the Acting General Counsel for the VA, replied, “There are no written published rules for guidance ...”
Moss thereupon ruled, “Okay. I will make the rules as I go along then.”
As to the burden of proof, Moss ruled that this rested on the victim, who was, in fact, the only person in the room placed under oath.
In response to Rauh’s demand that the country Kutcher “is supposed to have aided” be named, Moss said, “Communist China and North Korea.”
The “evidence” consisted of the following:
- Alleged insults to the American flag that Kutcher was anonymously reported to have made to some unnamed person at a convention of the Socialist Workers Party. Kutcher flatly denied any knowledge of such an incident and the VA did not attempt to refute him.
- “Speechmaking” by Kutcher “for the past several years in behalf of the advancement of the Socialist Workers Party.” Kutcher retorted that his speeches were made on a national tour to rally support for his efforts to get back the job taken away from him in violation of his Constitutional rights.
- A letter published in the April 18, 1949, issue of The Militant defending the civil rights of the Stalinists. Rauh refused to let Kutcher answer this charge since “many millions of American citizens” likewise opposed convictions under the Smith Act without thereby committing treason. How weird this piece of “evidence” was can be judged from the fact that Kutcher was nailing Stalinist slanders of members of the Socialist Workers Party victimized under the Smith Act, and scoring Stalinist sabotage of his own case.
- An allegation by a faceless informer that Kutcher had advocated that members of the Socialist Workers Party should “cause strikes.” Moss said that “if you are going to cause strikes during time of war, you aid an enemy.” Rauh denounced the monstrousness of suggesting before the American labor movement of today that anyone who “causes” a strike is guilty of “treason.”
- Bloodthirsty remarks alleged to have been made by Kutcher at various times to unnamed informers. Kutcher denied these under oath and the VA did not attempt to refute him.
When Rauh’s colleague John Silard took over the questioning he summarized the extraordinary features of the case as follows:
“You are the first man in the history of the United States to be tried for treason or rendering assistance to the enemy, not before a jury but before a civil servant. You are the first man in the history of the United States, over 160 years, who has been accused of the highest crime against the United States by the government which has produced no witnesses and no evidence and which has asked you to come and clear yourself of the charge of guilt.
“You are also the first man in the history of this country who was ever accused of treason or rendering assistance to the enemy of the United States, for belonging to a political party which is on the ballot in the United States in various states, or for criticizing the government of the United States here at home during wartime.
“For these reasons, Mr. Kutcher, your case will mark an historic point in the history of the United States itself.
“It will be remembered as the day when Star Chamber was reborn on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.”
That was about how the American people sized it up when they saw some of the scenes of this barbarous court on their television screens that night.
The Veterans Administration announced its decision January 8. In a letter to Kutcher dated two days earlier it enclosed the finding “that the veteran, James Kutcher, is not shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, to have been guilty of any of the offenses proscribed ... and that, therefore, no forfeiture ... is in order.”
This swift victory for the defendant was, however, far from complete. The Central Committee on Waivers and Forfeitures, which made the ruling, held that it had the right to suspend veterans’ benefits in general without going through court to prove its charges; that is, to deprive veterans of their benefits on the basis of their political views as determined through the “derogatory” concoctions the government buys from faceless informers, stool pigeons and provocateurs. It maintained, moreover, that it had the right specifically to suspend Kutcher’s benefits if it believed the legless veteran’s “utterances” had been “established beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In other words, if the Committee had believed it were established “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Kutcher had actually said to some one or other, some time or other, some place or other, that in his opinion the “Government of the United States is composed of people who are cheaters and crooks who oppress the working people,” then the Committee would have the authority and the justification to at once cancel the benefits due him for the loss of his legs in World War II.
How arbitrary this is can be judged by the fact that the entire Republican campaign in 1952 was hinged on the charge that the Truman Administration consisted of a bunch of cheaters and crooks who dragged the US into a useless war in Korea. Shouldn’t every Republican veteran who echoed such sentiments have his benefits canceled by this Committee as part of its war on “subversion”?
On the other hand, if derogatory information in the secret files of the FBI offers substantiation of McCarthy’s charge that the Democrats were guilty of “20 years of treason,” shouldn’t the Committee cancel the benefits of every veteran who was “instrumental in furthering the aims and objectives” of the Democratic Party?
As for strikers in wartime, or those who “cause” strikes in wartime, or “advocate” strikes in wartime, they too are guilty of “treason” and are subject to cancellation of benefits by this patriotic Committee no matter what wounds they might have suffered in fighting the wars of the country.
The decision amounted, in brief, to a tactical retreat in the face of the tremendous public anger but at the same time an affirmation of the principles of the witch hunt and an announcement of intention to continue the witch hunt. That is why Thompson and Wellman are still denied the benefits due them. That is why in a letter dated January 13 – one week after its letter conceding Kutcher’s right to his pension – the VA demanded that Wellman pay back every nickel given him for his wounds, a total of $9,581.85. (The VA generously granted Wellman the choice of liquidating “the indebtedness by regular monthly payments” if “it will cause undue hardship for you to remit the full amount ... at one time ...”)
Further confirmation for this conclusion can be drawn from the fact that the Committee was forced to decide that it did not have a shred of evidence against Kutcher that could sitand any fair legal examination in court. Yet it still denies him his job!
What happened in the Kutcher case in the brief two weeks between December 23 and January 6 must hearten every opponent of the witch hunt in America. The American people are sick of thought control and government persecution of people holding minority political views. The nationwide surge of support for Kutcher was a testimonial to the strength of the belief in freedom of thought. The rapidity and spontaneity with which the public mobilized were impressive signs of the strength of the wish to have done with the witch hunt. America is tired of being gagged.
The public action in behalf of Kutcher scored some important gains.
- First of all it forced open a government administrative hearing. The American people had a chance to see for themselves for the first time that it is like a McCarthy hearing, only more “outrageous,” as Rauh observed. This establishes a powerful precedent for future hearings.
- Second, it forced the government to reverse its usual procedure. Instead of inflicting the punishment on the victim before a hearing, the VA felt compelled to stage the hearing first.
This is another powerful precedent.
- Third, it forced the government to retreat on its blanket “treason” charge. The VA attorneys did some truly phenomenal hairsplitting to maintain that their definition, based on the definition of treason in the Constitution, did not really mean treason but something else. The objective of this was to avoid going to the courts, but at the same time it was a confession of the Weakness of the treason charge.
- Fourth, it forced the government to concede in fact that the anonymous charges of faceless informers are not as powerful as the sworn denials of the victim. The sworn denials of Kutcher were enough to establish a “reasonable doubt” as to the veracity of the government’s stool pigeons. This is another powerful precedent.
- Fifth, it forced the government – despite the rules made up by Moss as he went along – to assume the burden of proof. In all cases up to then, including Kutcher’s, it was up to the victim to establish his innocence. When the VA decided it could not prove guilt it felt forced to reinstate Kutcher’s pension. That reversal, too, sets a new precedent.
Yet despite all this, as we indicated above, the Committee insisted on the main principles of the witch hunt. How is this to be explained?
The truth is that the inspirers of the witch hunt recognize the mounting resistance. They are prepared to make “reforms” but not give up the system. They have in fact been following this pattern since they put McCarthy on the shelf. One after another, some of the shocking excesses have been “adjusted,” particularly those involving guilt by blood relationship or guilt by association.
At the same time they have sought “better” victims – those most vulnerable from the viewpoint of their citizenship or the unpopularity of their political views. They put Kutcher .in the latter category and that is why they thought they could get away with suspending his pension. As soon as they saw that they had miscalculated in his case they beat a tactical retreat,
The government is following a pattern designed to arouse less general resistance. At the same time the government seeks in new ways to arouse even greater fear than before. By depriving a person of his pension on “loyalty” grounds, it continues the logical process begun when it deprived a person of his job on “loyalty” grounds, the process that spread into industry and even into the unions. It seeks to establish now that no rights are inviolate, even those of a legless veteran, that any person who insists on his political rights in America is automatically stigmatized and automatically deprived of all source of livelihood.
If the witch hunters could have gotten away with cutting off Kutcher’s pension, and perhaps sending him a bill for what he has already received, it would have made a perfect precedent from their point of view. They were simply trying to repeat in 1955 what they did in 1948 when they took away his job. They failed for the time being only because the resistance to the witch hunt is higher now than when it began.
Since 1946 when Churchill gave his Fulton, Missouri, speech laying down the line of preparation for a Third World War, a single great excuse has been advanced by the witch hunters for every outrage, every invasion of democratic rights, every link in the heavy chain that shackles freedom of thought and expression in America today. That excuse is the “communist danger.”
This feeling of a dangerous “conspiracy” against their interests is more than a symptom of the growing irrationality of America’s 60 ruling families. The insecurity the dollar plutocracy feel in the basis of their rule is objectively justified. From this follows the rabidness of their insistence on “security” measures.
No matter what the relative prosperity in America, the worldwide system they are in charge of is in a bad way. Capitalism came out of World War II battered and beaten and crumbling. Parts of it were absorbed by the Soviet Union. A mighty revolution tore China out of the imperialist grip. Uprisings elsewhere promise a repeat performance. The colonial world is not safe for investments. Nationalization of industry threatens Wall Street’s dollars on all continents. The clear fact is that the majority of humanity is consciously turning toward socialism.
How is this situation to be remedied? Wall Street’s master minds have a solution – war. But they know that the American people cannot be trusted to support a Third World War. What guarantee can there be that the socialist outlook will not entrance them too by revealing a realistic alternative to capitalism, an alternative that guarantees enduring peace?
Like previous ruling classes in similar situations, America’s rulers place extravagant hopes in the police – first of all the thought police. Erect a Chinese wall to keep out dangerous thoughts and beat any dangerous thoughts already in the country out of the heads of the people. That is the political essence of the witch hunt.
Striking confirmation of this came in the heaning when Moss named “the enemy” Kutcher was alleged to have aided and comforted. “Communist China and North Korea,” he said.
And what was the most that Kutcher or any other member of the Socialist Workers Party ever did?
Defend the right of the Chinese and Korean peoples to follow the course America itself followed in 1776 – choose their own form of government without interference from abroad.
For taking that stand, Kutcher came to symbolize to these witch hunters the sympathy the American people instinctively feel for the revolutionary aspirations of the Asian masses.
Kutcher is also a symbol for the opponents of the witch hunt. For almost eight long years he has been fighting for his job. The twelfth appeal will soon be heard in Washington, D.C., preparatory to reaching the Supreme Court. It is the clearest and sharpest challenge yet made to the witch hunt of government employes.
At the same time the Kutcher eviction case has gone through several hearings since 1952. This case was taken by the American Civil Liberties Union to test the notorious Gwinn Amendment that requires a “loyalty” oath from tenants of federal housing. Thus Kutcher became a symbol on this front of the opposition to the witch hunt.
Kutcher became known personally to hundreds of labor bodies and minority organizations in the prolonged battle over his job. His refusal to be worn out or to duck out won him wide admiration. He is thus a personal symbol to hundreds of thousands as a demonstrated fighter against the witch hunt.
On January 20 Warren K. Billings, defendant in the world-famous Mooney-Billings case, made a public appeal:
“Kutcher’s fight is not over. He is still without his clerk’s job from which he has been fired because he is a member of the Socialist Workers Party. Though it sometimes takes a long time in a seemingly endless fight, as I know from personal experience, it is important to keep fighting.
“I believe Kutcher’s fight is everyone’s fight, and I urge everyone to support the struggle of this legless veteran to maintain his beliefs and to regain his job.”
That expresses our sentiments too. The address of the Kutcher Civil Rights Committee is 325 E. 17th St., New York 3, N.Y. Make out your contribution to George L. Weissman, Treasurer.
Last updated on: 6 April 2009