“What’s This, an Inquisition?”
As they left their country home in Caputh, Germany, in the autumn of 1932 to return to their Berlin apartment and prepare for their coming visit to the United States, Einstein turned to his wife, Elsa, and said, “Before you leave this time, take a good look at the villa.”
“Why?” Elsa asked.
“You will never see it again.”1
As the year drew to a close, so did Germany’s thirteen-year attempt at a liberal democracy, the Weimar Republic. With one out of three workers unemployed and inflation out of control, millions of angry, hungry Germans turned to Hitler’s new nationalism for simple, soothing answers, and a convenient scapegoat for all their problems: “the international Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy.”2
Winning 230 of the 608 seats, the Nazis had become the largest group in the German Reichstag (although they never won a majority and their vote actually declined by two million before Hitler came to power and did away with elections). The pro-Nazi press grew increasingly shrill in its attacks against Jews, with Einstein prominent among the targets. These press accounts, as we shall see, came to play a significant role in Einstein’s FBI file.
In 1931, a Leipzig publishing house produced a book of essays entitled 100 Authors Against Einstein; the following year, a top German Army general reportedly sent a warning to Einstein that his life “is not safe here anymore.”3
Violent, often armed street battles between uniformed Nazi gangs and leftists erupted daily, and the exodus of German intellectuals began. Among those moving to Russia were author Arthur Koestler and the architect Hannes Meyer. The artist George Grosz and his wife, after receiving numerous death threats, sold their large house and moved to the United States. Marlene Dietrich, who had become famous while visiting Hollywood, came home to Berlin in 1932, surveyed the political scene, and returned to America—this time for good. What’s remarkable is not that so many German artists and writers fled the country in 1932, but that so many held out hope and stayed until after the Nazis seized power in 1933. The latter included Kurt Weill, his wife Lotte Lenya, Bertolt Brecht … and Einstein.4
Without question, the world’s most celebrated scientist was becoming increasingly apprehensive about the rise of Nazism and assaults against the Jews in Germany. “Einstein … for all his serenity, was anxious,” reported Norman Bentwich, an attorney friend, after visiting the scientist in Berlin and observing “grim signs of a rising anti-Semitic flood … many Jewish shops had been sacked … .” But despite Einstein’s anxiety and his premonition about their house in Caputh,f he and Elsa planned to stay in the United States for only a few months, fully expecting to be back in Berlin by the spring.5
For the third year in a row, Einstein planned to spend the winter as a guest faculty member at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. On their way home, he and Elsa had scheduled a brief visit to Princeton, where he had accepted an appointment at the soon-to-open Institute for Advanced Study. Under his arrangement with the Institute, Einstein would continue living in Berlin but spend half of each year in Princeton.
As they packed for their trip to America that first week in December 1932, they undoubtedly looked forward to a vacation from the tension that was daily life in Germany. On previous trips, Einstein had visited the United States and other countries as an unofficial representative of the Weimar Republic, which handled his travel and visa arrangements. But by December 1932, the government was in a shambles, teetering on the brink of collapse. For the first time, the Einsteins had to make their own visa arrangements. The details were simple enough; they had no trouble with the forms. Or so it seemed.
On the morning of December 5, Einstein received an unexpected call from the U.S. Consulate General in Berlin, requesting that he and Elsa come by to answer a few questions related to their visa application. He was busy, Einstein said, and asked if they couldn’t simply send him the visa, but the consular authorities insisted. Assuming it was just the routine mechanism of bureaucracy, he and Elsa agreed to stop in during the afternoon.6 It would be anything but routine.
Even as a half-time resident, Einstein’s presence in America was a prospect that set off a Red-alert in the Woman Patriot Corporation. When it was launched fourteen years earlier (April 1918) in Washington, during the heady last months of World War I, the organization’s weekly newspaper, The Woman Patriot, proclaimed across the top of its front page: FOR THE HOME AND NATIONAL DEFENSE, AGAINST WOMAN SUFFRAGE, FEMINISM AND SOCIALISM.
Almost all its officers and board members used their husbands’ names—such as Mrs. James Wolcott Wadsworth, Jr. (See endnote 11.) While this was in keeping with their antifeminism, it also left no doubt that these were ladies of substance—the wives and widows, daughters and dowagers of some of the most prominent families in Eastern politics and business. Several Woman Patriot leaders also held office in the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, but the new group linked antifeminism to a more comprehensive agenda. Headlines in their paper’s first issue included:
MAKE THIS YOUR WAR … VICTORY OR ENSLAVEMENT FOR AMERICA
ANTI-SUFFRAGISTS TO WAGE
UNCEASING WAR AGAINST
FEMINISM AND SOCIALISM
WOMEN SUFFRAGE VS. PROHIBITION
The editorial statement proudly declared the group “stands for a strong and safe suffrage, … [and] the exemption of women from unnatural responsibilities, voting duty, jury duty and political turmoil.” After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified (despite the Woman Patriot’s best efforts), the group turned to other targets, crusading against the proposed Constitutional amendment outlawing child labor—an amendment they denounced as “a communist plot.”
But by 1932, the Woman Patriot Corporation had fallen on lean times. They had moved twice to smaller offices in Washington and their weekly newspaper was now a monthly, reduced from tabloid to newsletter size. In fact, the group had never recovered from the devastation of seeing women enter voting booths. With that battle lost, most of the better-known names and much of the organization’s funding gradually dropped off.
Nonetheless, the remaining Patriots valiantly upheld the flag, focusing their fire on protecting America from dangerous ideas. In 1928, their president, Mrs. Randolph Frothingham, made headlines when she helped the Daughters of the American Revolution compile a “blacklist of speakers” they sought to bar from public appearances. Mrs. Frothingham’s public-enemy nominees to the DAR’s blacklist included William Allen White, Roscoe Pound and Felix Frankfurter (both at Harvard Law School), college presidents Neilson of Smith and Woolley of Mt. Holyoke, Clarence Darrow, Norman Hapgood, David Starr Jordan, and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.7
By 1932, she and her fellow Patriots had decided to concentrate their remaining forces on guarding America’s gates against “undesirable aliens”—communists, pacifists, feminists, and other un-American types seeking to enter the United States. Along with playwright George Bernard Shaw and the grandson of Karl Marx, Einstein had earned a top spot on the Woman Patriot keep-out list.
In August, when the Institute-in-formation at Princeton announced that Einstein’s half-time residency would begin the following year, Mrs. Frothingham set to work. Within three months, she submitted a memo to the State Department arguing that Einstein should be barred from the U.S. under the Alien Exclusion and Deportation Law. As revised in June 1920, that law forbid “aliens” from entering the United States (or if they had managed to enter, from staying) if they were anarchists or wrote, spoke, or even thought like anarchists. It was designed specifically to “correct” the “gaps” found in the law after the “Palmer raids” of January 1920. (The vast majority of immigrants arrested in those raids had to be released when someone discovered that they had committed no criminal acts. Six months later, the rewritten law decreed that aliens could be denied entry, deported, or even jailed, simply for possession of literature or expression of anarchist opinions, even if they had committed no overt actions.8)
But the Woman Patriot group did not limit its anti-Einstein allegations to anarchism. Mrs. Frothingham accused the scientist of virtually every politically subversive sin, including treason and inciting troops to shoot their officers. Asserting that Einstein should be barred from the United States because he was the “leader of the new ‘militant pacifism,’” the document states:
Who is the acknowledged world leader, who, by direct affiliation with Communist and anarcho-communist organizations and groups, and by his own utmost personal efforts, is doing most to “shatter” the “military machinery” [as] the “preliminary condition of any people’s revolution”?
ALBERT EINSTEIN is that leader. Not even Stalin himself is affiliated with so many anarcho-communist international groups to promote this “preliminary condition” of world revolution and ultimate anarchy, as ALBERT EINSTEIN.
ALBERT EINSTEIN … advocates “acts of rebellion” against the basic principle of all organized government … he advocates “conflict with public authority;” admits that his “attitude is revolutionary;” that his purpose is “illegal” and that he intends to organize and lead … a “militant opposition” and to “combat” the basic principle of our Constitution … he teaches and leads and organizes a movement for unlawful “individual resistance” and “acts of rebellion” against officers of the United States in time of war, which is almost impossible without the assaulting or killing of such officers as a necessary consequence of such “acts of rebellion,” and which … “revolutionary” “combat,” “conflict” or “rebellion” (as Albert Einstein himself names his objectives) must promote treason, desertion or other “crimes against the existence of the Government;”he believes in or advocates a system of organized sabotage against all preparations of the United States to defend itself …9 [Underlining and capitalization in original.]
The Woman Patriot “brief” is anything but. The charges against Einstein continue in the same vein and tone for sixteen legal-sized, single-spaced pages. It is doubtful that such a massive arsenal of allegations could be collected—or even concocted—by one person working alone in just three months. But among the unofficial network of small but busy far-right groups—with names such as Daughters of 1812, National Security League, National Patriotic Council—who may well have helped out with the anti-Einstein research, none saw fit to claim responsibility.10 No source is given for any of the quotations or, in fact, for anything cited in the document. While Mrs. Frothingham promises (page 4) to submit “documentary evidence on these points” as soon as it “is completed,” such evidence apparently never materialized.
Having promised future proof, Mrs. Frothingham does not hesitate to offer more speculation, scientific as well as political. As the reader might guess, she is not a fan of Einstein’s physics:
[His] frequently revised theory of “relativity” is of no more practical importance than the answer to the old academic riddle, “How many angels can stand on the point of a needle …?”
Of all Einstein’s sins, however, the most sinful to the Woman Patriots was his “negation of organized religion.” Spurred by spiritual as well as patriotic zeal, their memo declares:
This alien, more extensively and more potently than any other revolutionist on earth, promotes confusion and disorder, doubt and disbelief and … has promoted lawless confusion to shatter the Church as well as the State—and to leave … the laws of nature and the principles of science in confusion and disorder … .
Finally, if further proof were needed of Einstein’s unsavory character, Mrs. Frothingham informs us that he “apparently cannot talk English.”g
The document is an appropriate opener to the FBI’s Einstein file. Sent to Hoover by the State Department, it comprises the file’s first sixteen pages.
If Mrs. Frothingham were a character created by Charles Dickens, we would chuckle at the novelist’s talent for coming up with apt names. Far from being a laughing matter, however, the family name was a source of pride for generations of Frothinghams, dating back to the Mayflower Pilgrims. Indeed, virtually all the ladies of the right who founded the Woman Patriot Corporation in 1918 carried prestigious pedigrees.11 But none was more prestigious than the Frothinghams of Massachusetts. Mrs. Louis A. Frothingham was not only a founding Woman Patriot, but also vice-president of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Her husband, a Mayflower descendant and leading New England banker, was elected to four terms as U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts.12 Had he not died suddenly in 1928 while sailing on his yacht Winsome, Louis Frothingham might have remained a member of Congress for many more years. Of the six country clubs he belonged to, four in Boston and two in Washington, not one admitted Jews or people of color.
It seems fitting, then, that in 1932, it should fall to another Frothingham to lead the Woman Patriots into battle against Albert Einstein—Mrs. Randolph Frothingham, cousin by marriage to the late Congressman of Mayflower descent.
When he heard about the Woman Patriot diatribe (Mrs. Frothingham had sent copies to the press13), Einstein’s first reaction was to laugh. He dashed off a tongue-in-cheek essay that was printed on the front page of the New York Times (December 4, 1932):
Never yet have I experienced from the fair sex such energetic rejection of all advances, or if I have, never from so many at once.
But are they not perfectly right, these watchful citizenesses? Why should one open one’s doors to a person who devours hard-boiled capitalists with as much appetite and gusto as the ogre Minotaur in Crete once devoured luscious Greek maidens—a person who is also so vulgar as to oppose every sort of war, except the inevitable one with his own wife? Therefore, give heed to your clever and patriotic women folk and remember that the capital of mighty Rome was once saved by the cackling of its faithful geese.14
Einstein had every reason to feel confident his little satire would be the end of the episode. Every country had its crackpots, and this group of elite superpatriots clearly did not represent the America he and Elsa had come to know in the past two years. Certainly no one in his right mind could take that memo seriously. But he had not figured on the U.S. Department of State. When the anti-Einstein “brief” arrived in late November, State Department officials could easily have treated it as one of the many pieces of crank mail they frequently received. They didn’t.
Maybe it was the lingering influence of the Woman Patriot family names. (Besides Mrs. Frothingham, the group’s vice-president in 1932 was Mrs. John Fremont Hill, whose late husband had been Republican governor of Maine for eight years.) More likely, it was the conservative bias that characterized that outgoing Republican Administration—not least, the State Department. In any case, within a week (which included the Thanksgiving holiday), officials forwarded the Woman Patriots’ document to the U.S. Consulate in Berlin—in time to arrive before the Einsteins’ scheduled departure for America.
While there is no evidence of State Department collusion in the Woman Patriot’s crusade, the Department’s behavior in this case appears unusually cooperative. On December 1, 1932, Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur J. Carr notified Mrs. Frothingham that the Department had acted “in order that consular officers may examine [Einstein] in reference to those [Woman Patriot] charges in addition to the examination which they would ordinarily make as to his admissibility.”15 [Emphasis added.]
If the Einsteins had had any hint that their scheduled interview at the U.S. Consulate was connected to the “watchful citizenesses” who had authored the critique, he and Elsa might never have arrived there on the afternoon of December 5.
Since U.S. Consul General George Messersmith was out of town, Assistant Consul Raymond Geist conducted Einstein’s interview.16 From Geist’s very first question, the discussion was as comfortable as fingernails scratching a blackboard.
“What is your political creed?”
Surprised, Einstein thought it over and then burst out laughing. “Well, I don’t know. I can’t answer that question.”
“Are you a member of any organization?”
Einstein ran his hand through his hair, turned to Elsa for help, and declared, “Oh yes, I am a War Resister.”h
“Who are they?”
“Well, they are my friends.”
After several more routine questions, such as the purpose of Einstein’s trip to the United States (“to do some scientific work”), Geist finally pulled the trigger:
“What party do you belong to or sympathize with? For instance, are you a Communist or an anarchist?”
This was a piece of America he had not seen before. It was almost German. According to an Associated Press report:
Professor Einstein’s patience broke. His usual genial face stern and his normally melodious voice strident, he cried:
“What’s this, an inquisition? Is this an attempt at chicanery? I don’t propose to answer such silly questions.
“I didn’t ask to go to America. Your countrymen invited me; yes, begged me. If I am to enter your country as a suspect, I don’t want to go at all. If you don’t want to give me a visa, please say so. Then I’ll know where I stand.”
As he reached for his hat and coat, Einstein asked, “Are you doing this to please yourselves or are you acting upon orders from above?” Without waiting for an answer, he and Elsa walked out.
We can only imagine their shock and anger as they talked during the cab ride back to their apartment, but by the time they arrived, they had a plan. First, Einstein phoned the consulate. If he did not receive a visa by the next afternoon (twenty-four hours), he told them, he would cancel his trip. Next, Elsa called the New York Times and the Associated Press correspondents in Berlin and gave them a blow-by-blow account of the consulate confrontation. Elsa also told the AP reporter she had six trunks packed and ready. “If they’re not sent to Bremen by tomorrow noon, it will be too late for the sailing. That will be the end of our going to America.” The Einsteins’ sophisticated use of the media in this skirmish belies—as early as 1932—the kindly, bumbling, absentminded-professor image so universally accepted today. The political implications were unmistakable when Elsa told the Times her husband had stated, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they won’t let me in? The whole world would be laughing at America.”
Someone in Washington must have had the same thought. A late-night press release from the State Department announced that Consul General George Messersmith had suddenly returned from his trip, reviewed Einstein’s case, and “will issue a visa tomorrow.”i On December 10, the Einsteins, with their six trunks, sailed from Bremen for California. Despite that quick reversal, concern about the government’s goof was widespread. In New York, a group of prominent women met at the home of Mrs. Gerard Swope, wife of the president of General Electric, and adopted resolutions “in the name of the intelligent American people,” rebuking the State Department for paying any attention at all to the “absurd document of a so-called patriotic society,” and asking for the recall of Consul Messersmith because of “his ignorance” and for “humiliating America and making it a laughingstock second only to the Scopes trial in Tennessee.”
Mrs. Einstein told the Times reporter that she and her husband had received many cables from “Americans of all classes … deeply disturbed over the case.”17
For the Woman Patriot Corporation, it was the last hurrah. Their flame gave one final splutter in January 1933; attempting to block Einstein from disembarking when his ship arrived in California, Mrs. James Cunningham Gray, on behalf of the Woman Patriot Corporation, made a formal request to cancel his visa under the Alien Exclusion Act. Mrs. Gray, according to a New York Times report (January 9, 1933), said her organization “sought only ‘equal enforcement of the law for all alien Reds.’” She also cited Professor Thomas Jefferson See, who had publicly attacked Einstein’s theory of relativity as “a crazy vagary, a disgrace to our age.” It was the group’s last publicly reported activity. They never published another copy of The Woman Patriot after the Einstein issue (December 1932).18
On January 12, 1933, the Einsteins arrived in California. On January 30, Hitler seized power in Berlin. In May, the house in Caputh was raided and ransacked by Nazi SS men ostensibly searching for a hidden cache of weapons intended for a planned uprising against the Third Reich. When they found no weapons, they confiscated the property anyway, claiming it was “obviously” about to be sold to finance anti-Nazi activities. A year later, Einstein, with his wife Elsa, daughter-in-law Margot, and their friend and assistant Helen Dukas, moved to Princeton. He never returned to Germany.
It would seem simple to dismiss Mrs. Frothingham and her cohorts as a Neanderthal right-wing fringe group. Einstein certainly viewed the Woman Patriots as more cracked than the Liberty Bell; so did Mrs. Swope and her influential circle. Yet the U.S. State Department, pursuing the group’s anti-Einstein charges, almost stopped his trip to America. In the coming years, the State Department would reveal its conservatism—among its more publicized actions, blocking Jewish refugees from Nazism from entering America. j But it wasn’t just the State Department where officials shared— sometimes secretly, often openly—many of the views espoused by those self-appointed sentinels. As the Einstein file reveals, similar seeds were sprouting and flowering in—at least—Hoover’s FBI, the War Department (now Defense), and the INS.
Eight years later, well into the New Deal administration of Franklin Roosevelt, the Woman Patriots’ memo was to be decisive in a key decision affecting Einstein’s life and America’s national security. In this second act of the drama, a new player—J. Edgar Hoover—enters from stage right.
THE EINSTEIN FILE: J. EDGAR HOOVER’S SECRET WAR AGAINST THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS SCIENTIST. Copyright © 2002 by Fred Jerome. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.