In the 1930s and early 40s, a young language professor at the University of Oklahoma came under suspicion of being a communist. Maurice Halperin taught at Oklahoma when the state’s governor was investigating communist activities at the state’s universities.
Landry Brewer, a professor of history and political science at Southwestern Oklahoma State University’s campus in Sayre, wrote a recent article about Halperin for the Chronicle of Oklahoma. KGOU’s Jacob McCleland asked Brewer what drew Maurice Halperin to leftist politics.
Landry Brewer: We know that he was an advocate for workers' rights. He would go on to write articles about worker's rights in Mexico, worker's rights in Cuba. And so we know that he was drawn toward the rights of workers, the rights of the downtrodden. And I think that's what probably drew him toward the left end of the ideological spectrum.
Jacob McCleland: So in 1935 Halperin traveled to Cuba with a group that was tied to the Communist Party. They said they were going to the island to investigate a workers strike there. But the group's travels were published nationally in a communist magazine. And this caught the attention of OU's president. What else did Halperin do that drew the attention of investigators here in Oklahoma?
Brewer: The University of Oklahoma president William Bizzell was receiving information about alleged communists on campus in Norman among faculty members. Oklahoma's governor at the time was Leon Phillips. He was receiving information about alleged communist activity on campus at OU and OSU, by the way. The Federal Bureau of Investigation in Oklahoma City kept a file on Halperin. And there were folks in Norman, citizens in Norman, who were going to authorities and they were saying, "We think this guy, Maurice Halperin, may be a communist." The things he's doing, he's advocating for communist political candidates. He is giving lectures around Norman about John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and the shabby treatment of migrant workers. And what he was doing was he was taking political stances that were much further left than most Oklahomans.
McCleland: So of course this was during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee which investigated supposedly disloyal citizens and communists. This committee was chaired by Texas Democrat Martin Dies. So it was also known as the Dies Committee and there were so-called "Little Dies" committees at the state level including here in Oklahoma. He was called to testify in front of one of these committees here and he denied being a communist. What were the committee's recommendations after this?
Brewer: The committee made several recommendations. And one of them was that the University of Oklahoma should fire Maurice Halperin.
McCleland: And what happened after that?
Brewer: They made an arrangement whereby Halperin was granted in essence one year of back pay and allowed to leave OU. And so he wound up leaving the University of Oklahoma officially I believe it was in 1942 and he then took a job with the federal government, something called the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, which was the wartime intelligence agency.
McCleland: And his reputation as a communist followed him to his new job, right?
Brewer: It did.
McCleland: What happened there?
Brewer: Well interestingly, and you have to recall the context, during World War II the United States and the Soviet Union were allies. And the director of the Office of Strategic Services, "Wild" Bill Donovan knew that there were communists in his midst and he didn't care. Public enemy number one was Adolf Hitler. He wanted to win World War II. We were allies with the Soviet Union. Eventually though, especially after as we approach the end of World War II, Congress started receiving complaints and allegations that the OSS harbored communists. Word filtered to Maurice Halperin that he was being accused of some things. And in 1945 he wound up leaving the Office of Strategic Services.
McCleland: So this American named Elizabeth Bentley was a spy for the Soviet Union and she ran two large spy rings that included government employees. Now this was 1945 and she confessed to the FBI about what she was doing and she named over 100 people as part of this spy ring, including Maurice Halperin. Now this was in the period of McCarthyism. Halperin testified before a Senate committee and denied being a spy. But he soon thereafter left the country. What happened to him after that?
Brewer: He had taken a job with Boston University. Shortly after his testimony, Boston University suspended him pending an investigation. But Maurice Halperin did not remain in Boston long enough for the investigation to happen because a week later, Halperin and his wife, Edith, left Boston and the United States for good. They both fled to Mexico. Halperin would never return to the United States. From Mexico he moved to the Soviet Union. From the Soviet Union he moved to Cuba. And then from Cuba he moved to Canada where he took a job with Simon Fraser University and joined the faculty there.
McCleland: So Maurice Halperin was accused of being a spy and denied it all along. What's the truth though? Do we know if he was actually a spy or if he was wrongly accused?
Brewer: In 1995 the federal government released information through a top secret program that had been a secret for its 50 year existence. The program was called Venona. During World War II, the United States government became leery of our Soviet allies and we decided we would begin to attempt to decipher encrypted messages sent by Soviet officials who were in the United States back to their superiors in Moscow. And what we learned through the Venona program was that the Soviet Union had placed at least 349 American citizens, permanent residents and alien residents inside the United States military and government. One of these people proven by Venona to be an American spying for the Soviet Union inside the American government was in fact Maurice Halperin.
Maurice Halperin was proven to be a spy. Elizabeth Bentley and others had accused him of communist activity and of being a spy. What the Venona information did was it corroborated that testimony. It proved that Maurice Halperin was a Soviet asset and that he was a Soviet spy. But that information was not used in court against many accused spies because the United States government in the 1950s did not want to reveal to the Soviet Union and the world the information from Venona – the Venona program, its existence and that we had cracked their encrypted messages. And so that information was not used in court, which made getting guilty verdicts very, very difficult in many cases. But what that information did show was that Maurice Halperin was both a communist while at the University of Oklahoma and he later became a spy for the Soviet Union.
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