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Truman Refuses Subpoena by House Un-American Affairs Committee—A Tale of Russians, Spies, and Partisan Politics in America
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While former President Truman refused to testify on constitutional grounds, it appears that in this case, the Congressional committee was indeed on the trail of a Soviet informant, high in the U.S. government.

HARRY S. TRUMAN. Typed Letter Signed (“Harry S. Truman”), as former President, to Congressman Harold H. Velde, chairman of the Committee on Un-American Activities, November 11, 1953. 2½ pp., 4to, marked “For Immediate Release.” With clipping of New York Times account of November 13, 1953. Signed copy of his letter to chairman Velde, evidently prepared for the press, explaining why he will not appear for the hearing.

Inventory #23659       Price: $9,000

Excerpt:

I feel constrained by my duty to the people of the United States to decline to comply with the subpoena.... [citing precedents] “commencing with George Washington himself in 1796. Since his day Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt have declined to respond to subpoenas of demands for information of various kinds by Congress.” Citing Constitutional scholar Charles Warren: “In maintaining his rights against a trespassing Congress, the President defends not himself, but popular Government; he represents not himself but the People... The doctrine would be shattered, and the President, contrary to our fundamental theory of Constitutional Government, would become a mere arm of the Legislative Branch of the Government if he would feel during his term of office that his every act might be subject to official inquiry and possible distortion for political purposes.

Historical Background

Following World War II, fear of Communism, and particularly of the Soviet Union, was widespread. This fear became known as the Second Red Scare, or “McCarthyism,” named for Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. From 1947-1957, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), investigated the loyalty of federal employees and attacked the American film industry, seeking to root out communists. In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former Soviet spy and Time magazine editor, testified to the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) that a network of communists had been working within the U.S. government since the 1930s. High profile spy cases, like those of Alger Hiss and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, fanned the political flames. As President, Harry Truman was reluctant to take a strong stand against HUAC and McCarthyism, because his Democratic party was frequently labeled as “soft on Communism.”

Late in 1953, the House Un-American Affairs Committee (separate from McCarthy’s similar Senate committee) subpoenaed former President Harry S. Truman to answer questions related to the allegedly treasonous affairs of Harry Dexter White, the former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Truman had appointed White as director of the International Monetary Fund in 1946, despite warnings from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that White was suspected of espionage. The committee wanted to know if Truman received the report personally. For unknown reasons, the Senate never learned of the report and confirmed White’s nomination soon after Truman submitted it. A year later, in June 1947, White abruptly resigned his position after Attorney General Tom Clark ordered a federal grand jury to look into accusations made against him by a Soviet defector, Elizabeth Bentley. White testified before HUAC in August 1948 that he was not a communist and died ten days later from a massive heart attack. Despite his death, the case continued to fester, reinforced by accusations made by Whittaker Chambers and later by Senators William Jenner and Joseph McCarthy when the FBI revealed that it had warned Truman about White six weeks prior to his nomination.

The House Un-American Affairs Committee took no further action against Truman. In 1959, Truman denounced HUAC as the “most un-American thing in the country today.” Evidence gleaned from the Soviet archives in recent years, however, confirms that White had been indeed a high-level source for Soviet intelligence (R. Bruce Craig, Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case. Kansas University Press. 2004).

Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was born in Missouri and was first elected to public office in 1922, winning a judge’s seat of the Jackson County Court. After serving several terms, Truman was elected to the Senate in 1934, and in 1940 gained national attention for his chairmanship of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, which was eventually nicknamed “The Truman Committee.” Truman continued his political rise in 1944, when he was elected Vice-President as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate. After only 82 days in the White House, Truman was thrust into the Presidency when FDR died unexpectedly. He inherited a world at war. Although Germany had surrendered, Japan refused to give up the fight. Truman, in a desperate move to avoid having to invade the Japanese mainland, ordered the deployment of two atomic bombs. They were dropped on August 6 and August 9, 1945. Japan surrendered on August 14. As President, Truman waged an undeclared war on the Soviet Union, drafting the “Truman Doctrine,” which proclaimed the United States’ willingness to provide aid to countries resisting communism. The Marshall Plan sought to strengthen the European economy in the hopes that this, too, would prevent the spread of Soviet influence. He also brought United States troops into the Korean War (1950-1953). Beyond cold war activities, Truman’s administration expanded the New Deal, and promoted Civil Rights initiatives.

Harry Dexter White (1892-1947), the son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, earned a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, and became a senior official in the U.S. Treasury Department. He was deeply involved in the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, which established post-WWII economic policies, and he was an architect of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Condition

Two minor toned spots clear of text, minor corner crease to page 3, else very fine. 

Complete Transcript

I have your subpoena dated November 9, 1953, directing my appearance before your Committee on Friday, November 13th, in Washington. The subpoena does not state the matters upon which you seek my testimony, but I assume from the press stories that you seek to examine me with respect to matters which occurred during my tenure of the Presidency of the United States. In spite of personal willingness to cooperate with your Committee, I feel constrained by my duty to the people of the United States to decline to comply with the subpoena. In doing so, I am carrying out the provisions of the Constitution of the United States; and am following a long line of precedents commencing with George Washington himself in 1796. Since his day, Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt have declined to respond to subpoenas or demands for information of various kinds by Congress. The underlying reason for this clearly established and universally recognized Constitutional doctrine has be succinctly set forth by Charles Warren, one of our leading Constitutional authorities, as follows: 'In this long series of contests by the Executive to maintain his Constitutional integrity, one sees a legitimate conclusion from our theory of Government….Under our Constitution, each branch of the Government is designed to be a coordinate representative of the will of the people….Defence [sic] by the Executive of his Constitutional powers becomes, in very truth, therefore, defence of popular rights -- defence of power which the people granted to him. It was in that sense that President Cleveland spoke of his duty to the people not to relinquish any of the powers of his great office. It was in that sense that President Buchanan stated the people have "rights and prerogatives" in the execution of his office by the President which every President is under a duty to see "shall never be violated in his person" but "pass to his successors unimpaired by the adoption of a dangerous precedent" In maintaining his rights against a trespassing Congress, the President defends not himself, but popular government; he represents not himself but he People.' President Jackson repelled an attempt by the Congress to break down the separation of powers in these words: 'For myself I shall repel all such attempts as an invasion of the principles of justice as well as of the Constitution, and I shall esteem it my sacred duty to the People of the United States to resist them as I would the establishment of a Spanish Inquisition.' I might commend to your reading the opinion of one of the Committees of the House of Representatives in 1879, House Report 141, march 3, 18970, 45th Cong. 3rd Sess., in which the House Judiciary Committee said the following: 'The Executive is as independent of either house of Congress as either house of Congress is independent of him, and they cannot call for the records of his action or the action of his officers against his consent, any more than he can call for any of the journals and records of the House or Senate….' It must be obvious to you that if the doctrine of separation of powers and the independence of the Presidency is to have any validity at all, it must be equally applicable to a President after his term of office has expired when he is sought to be examined with respect to any acts occurring while he is President. The doctrine would be shattered, and the President, contrary to our fundamental theory of Constitutional Government, would become a mere arm of the Legislative Branch of the Government if he would feel during his term of office that his every act might be subject to official inquiry and possible distortion for political purposes. If your intention however is to inquire into any acts as a private individual either before or after my Presidency and unrelated to any acts as President, I shall be happy to appear.” 

In response, Velde wrote in a published statement: “… I regret very much that Mr. Truman evidently does not intend to answer several pertinent questions which the committee desired to ask him, respecting his relationship with Harry Dexter White, described last week by Attorney General Brownell as a ‘spy’ for the Soviet Union …”


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