The Strange Case of Amerasia

Monday, Jun. 12, 1950
INVESTIGATIONS: The Strange Case of Amerasia

In a Justice Department office last week, staffmen of a Senate subcommittee combed through three large boxes containing hundreds of documents seized five years ago in the Amerasia case. Around the boxes swirled a storm of argument. Republican Senators, none of whom had actually seen the contents, cried that the Administration had put the fix on the Amerasia case, and that a real probe of the case would prove it. From Iowa, where he was campaigning in a primary election, Bourke Hickenlooper charged that at least some of the documents were important U.S. wartime secrets. Didn’t one of them show the disposition in 1944 of U.S. submarines in the Pacific? Wasn’t one of them a highly confidential (“for eyes only”) message from Roosevelt to Chiang Kaishek? Said Hickenlooper: “I think that all Americans will be appalled when the whole truth becomes known.”

Such talk, Administration sources replied, was hogwash; the documents were nothing much. Said Assistant Attorney General James M. Mclnerney: Hickenlooper is “100% wrong.”

“By Deceit & Subterfuge.” As thick as the argument was the smoke screen of confusion around the whole affair, which the Administration seemed determined to preserve at all costs. In 1945, Amerasia was a magazine (circ. about 2,000) devoted more or less openly to the Communist line and the Far East, and published sporadically in New York by one Philip Jaffe. The case began that February when the eyes of a Government official fell upon a surprising Amerasia article. It quoted at length and almost verbatim from a secret report which was supposed to be tucked safely away in the Office of Strategic Services’ file. The OSS immediately put a special investigator, Frank Brooks Bielaski, on Amerasia’s pink and wispy trail.

Chunky, spectacled Frank Bielaski, an ex-Wall Street broker turned Government secret agent, had handled many cases for OSS during the war. One midnight, tracing down the document quoted in Amerasia, Bielaski and four aides let themselves into a dark, empty building at 225 Fifth Avenue. They took an elevator to the eleventh floor and there, by what Bielaski later called “deceit and subterfuge,” entered Amerasia’s office. Once inside, they began a careful inspection. They found one room fitted out with photocopy equipment, a desk in another room spread with copies of Government documents. Behind a door were a bellows-type suitcase and two briefcases packed with other papers—altogether close to 300 originals and copies of documents stolen from the Offices of Naval Intelligence and Censorship, G2, OSS, State Department and British Intelligence. A few of them were marked “Top Secret” and “Secret”; all of them were labeled for official scrutiny only.

The raiders picked up a dozen documents to show the kind of material they had found, and left. A few hours later Bielaski laid his report and the documents before officials in Washington.

The Fish in the Net. The case was assigned to the FBI. For almost three months FBI agents kept Jaffe and his office under surveillance. Other agents tailed Jaffe on frequent trips to Washington where he met assorted small-bore Government officials. By late May, James Mclnerney, first assistant to Tom Clark, who was in charge of criminal prosecution for the Justice Department, was ready to collar the crowd, start prosecutions for espionage.

There was a brief delay. Some Administration officials were worried over the effect the case might have on the San Francisco founding Conference of the United Nations. But President Truman himself ordered the case followed up. The FBI net was drawn.

Philip Jaffe was arrested in his office. He turned out to be a large, square-faced grey-maned man, born 48 years before in Russia, who had made a prosperous business income out of printing greeting cards. A friend of Earl Browder, he had been a faithful follower of the Communist line for some years. His Amerasia had been a vehicle for various writers on the Far East. From 1937 to 1941, Owen Lattimore had been a member of its editorial board.

The other fish in the FBI’s 1945 haul were:

Kate Louise Mitchell, 36, graduate of Bryn Mawr, an ardent Communist party-liner and Jaffe’s co-editor; Emmanuel Sigurd Larsen, 47, State Department expert on Far East affairs who had spent most of his adult life in Asia; Navy Reserve Lieut. Andrew Roth, 26, before the war Jaffe’s assistant, who, despite a report pointing at him as a fellow traveler, was working in the Office of Naval Intelligence; John Stewart Service, 35, State Department careerman and sometime U.S. observer at the Red headquarters of Mao Tse-tung; Mark Gayn, 36, journalist (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Newsweek, TIME), who was then free-lancing for Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post.

Another Hiss Case? FBI reports indicated that the State Department’s Larsen had passed documents to Jaffe, and that on at least one occasion the Navy’s Roth had met Jaffe and shown him some papers. Roth later said that he was showing Jaffe a chapter of a book he was writing on Asia. FBI agents reported that the State Department’s Service, who had just been recalled from China, had met Jaffe in Washington and shown him a report he had prepared for his superiors. Journalist Gayn had in his possession documents which were duplicates of some of those found in Jaffe’s office.

The case differed in one important respect from the Hiss-Chambers case that was to develop more than three years later. There was no evidence that Jaffe had passed on any of the documents to the Soviet agents. As far as Government agents could tell, he was using the stolen information only to advance the cause of Communism in Asia in his magazine. Actually, his most peculiar and mostly private magazine was read with considerable respect at that time in some quarters in the State Department. One of his articles, suggesting that the U.S. encourage a Communist movement in enemy Japan and that the U.S. give military aid to Chinese Reds, had been sent to Chungking over the signature “Hull,” presumably through the maneuverings of State Department men who were giving aid & comfort to China’s Communists. A copy of this message was part of the FBI haul. It was among the five documents of which Republicans had caught a scent last week.

Lawyers’ “Deal.” With the arrest of the six began a series of curious developments. The evidence was presented to a District of Columbia grand jury.

Mitchell, Service and Gayn were allowed to testify in their own behalf, and the grand jury decided there was not enough evidence to warrant indicting them. Jaffe, Roth and Larsen were indicted—but not for espionage. The Justice Department had suddenly trimmed its accusations to cover merely stealing, receiving or concealing Government documents. The reason, Mclnerney later explained: after Justice lawyers had a look at the stolen material, they did not believe it would support a charge of espionage.

The Justice Department continued to take evasive action. Before the case went to trial, Robert M. Hitchcock, a special assistant in charge of prosecuting the case, made what he described later as a “deal” with Jaffe’s lawyer. With an almost surreptitious air, the Government took the case to a Saturday morning court session (court almost never sits on Saturday morning). It was a strange hearing. Jaffe’s lawyer, Albert Arent, did most of the talking. He explained to Federal Judge James Proctor that Jaffe, who was pleading guilty, had merely acted from “an excess of journalistic zeal.” Hitchcock, for the Government, hastened to agree that this “in substance” was the fact. The judge asked for a probation report on Jaffe. Hitchcock blandly told the judge, in effect, he thought such a report was more trouble than it was worth. Then the court fined Jaffe $2,500, which he paid on the spot. Later Larsen was fined $500 on his plea of no defense. Jaffe also paid Larsen’s fine. Justice decided that it did not have enough evidence against Lieut. Roth and the charges against him were dropped.

And that, so far as Justice was concerned, ended the case.

Illegal Evidence? But so far as some Congressmen were concerned, it was only the beginning. Michigan’s Republican Representative George Dondero demanded an investigation. Early in 1946 a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee summoned FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers to hear their stories. Why had Hitchcock made the “deal?” His explanation was that Justice lawyers had suddenly had qualms about the legality of their evidence. They were afraid that the argument might be made that the Government had got on the trail of the stolen documents by illegal means. They were afraid the Government might end up without any convictions. An FBI agent said flatly: “The FBI secured no documents through any means … except incident to arrest. They were all legally obtained.” Why had Justice lawyers pressed the espionage charge in the first place, knowing from the beginning the nature of the evidence? In a paraphrase of Jaffe’s lawyer, Arent, Mclnerney said: “I guess I was just overzealous.”

Half Truths & Whole Truths. There was a good chance last week that this might be the only explanation Congress and the public would ever get. Maryland’s Senator Millard Tydings, chairman of the subcommittee currently probing the case, appeared to want to be rid of the whole thing. Justice’s Mclnerney appeared to be mainly interested in defending the extraordinary performance of the Justice Department. On the Republican side, Congressmen appeared to be more anxious to exploit half truths than to get at whole truths. Wisconsin’s Joe McCarthy, largely responsible for the latest furor, had dug the case out again in his effort to discredit the State Department, and that seemed to keep many a solid Republican from joining in the demand for a full investigation.

So the matter stood. Jaffe and his old associates went about their several businesses. Amerasia had folded. Jaffe was passing the time writing a history of Asia. Kate Mitchell was collecting material for a book on the Far East. Andrew Roth, on the staff of the leftist Nation, was at present in The Netherlands. Gayn was freelancing in central Europe. Larsen ran a shoestring agency called the Far East Information Bureau, in Washington. John Service, recently recalled again from Asia and in good standing in the State Department, was being re-examined by the State Department’s Loyalty Board.

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,812633,00.html

 

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