Twenty-nine years ago today, Beatrice Braude was fired from her job with the newly formed United States Information Agency, one day after she had been told she was to get a raise.
They told her she was the victim of a Reduction in Force. In the ordinary course of Washington affairs, the dismissal of one bureaucrat from a minor position--analyzing French newspapers--would not have attracted any more notice than a wave on the sand.
But Braude's dismissal thrust her, a 40-year-old woman looking forward to continuing a satisfying and applauded career, into a Kafka-esque battle with the bureaucracy, an institution described by one judge involved in the case as a place "where no one gets to sign the letters he writes, or to write the letters he signs."
Like other McCarthy-era victims, Braude was a gnat facing a bear, able to annoy but ultimately squashed by charges she did not know about and could not rebut. After seeking vindication for so many years, all she has is a pile of documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information and Privacy acts, which prove she was fired for being a security risk and was not told.
The "crimes" for which she was judged a security risk included an acquaintance with a woman later convicted of being a communist spy, and a few nonpolitical telephone conversations with another suspected communist; a brief membership in a Washington bookstore that was thought to be a hang-out for leftists, and membership in a State Department workers' union that was taken over by communists--and from which an opposition group, including Braude, split.
The story of one small woman, hanging on, against good advice, to a desire to get her job back, does not really have a happy ending. Now 69, Braude, who never married, lives in a modest apartment on Wisconsin Avenue and teaches French at the Alliance Francaise. Energetic and active, she reads at least two newspapers a day, likes to cook sophisticated French food, has few gray hairs, goes to as many concerts, plays and lectures as she can and keeps up with a huge coterie of friends. Last year, she concentrated on reading Dickens, Trollope and George Sand and worked as a volunteer at the Smithsonian.
She left Washington after she was fired and returned only last year, renewing old friendships and trying to reawaken her affection for a city that for so long had been the setting for a thwarted dream. She likes Washington because it reminds her of Paris, where she spent five happy years in the American Embassy before her career disintegrated.
Although she went on to successful work as a teacher, coauthored two books for students and worked on public television shows such as Julia Child's, her income today is far less than it would have been if she had retired as a government employe. Her story is the subject of a chapter in a new book, "The American Inquisition," by legal historian Stanley I. Kutler, but otherwise her story has remained obscure.
She has never gotten what she wanted from the government: an apology. An apology for telling her she was RIFfed when she was not, for misleading her into thinking she could get another government job if she just tried harder, and for betraying her belief in the honesty and uprightness of the institution she wanted to serve.
At one point, on the recommendation of her first attorney, she took a typing test to see if she could get a clerical job. Even with a score of 100 (not to mention an MA in French from Columbia University), she was refused a humble typing job.
Joseph A. Blundon, the USIA attorney who represented the agency in the case, denies that Braude was blacklisted. But, he said, she was fired for being a security risk, and under temporary powers granted to the agency director, he did not have to explain why she was fired. Under normal regulations, however, an employe fired for security reasons had to be given a chance to rebut the charges.
Blundon agreed that it seems clear now she was not really a security risk. And although he said she was not blacklisted, he agreed that any prospective government employer checking her credentials would find out what was in her security file.
"The director was in a very tough position," he said. "He had a mandate from Congress to get rid of a lot of people in a certain amount of time. Mistakes were made. But courts don't exist to correct mistakes. They exist to correct denials of rights."
"I was never angry about being fired, because I never felt I had a lien on a job," Braude said recently. "But I am still raging that all those years they never told me about the security risk, they never let me face it."
The Washington that Braude moved to in 1943 was full of excitment. Young people flocked here to get jobs with the government, which was considered a worthy outlet for the best and brightest, and a place of opportunity, even for those without connections.
Braude grew up in a large, sheltered, middle-class Jewish family in New York. Until she moved to Washington, she had always lived at home; her New York accent remains undiluted. "I cried when I left," she said. Her first job after Hunter College and Columbia was working in the campaign of Fiorello LaGuardia, and she still admires his populist, anticorruption, philosophy.
Like many young people of her era, she was no stranger to leftist political ideas. "Anyone with intellectual pretensions talked about it," she said. But, in her recollection, it was mostly party chatter, discussions about books and music, the Depression--not the bomb-throwing, government-toppling radicals of the McCarthy-era image. The world--including Washington--was full of naive idealists.
Braude's life here proceeded in a pattern that would be normal today. She met other young women and shared apartments with them, formed some enduring friendships as well as transitory ones, spent time talking about clothes and men, going to concerts at the Library of Congress, hiking, bicycling or discussing the serious issues of the day. She joined a group to meet people, a union because she believed in it.
The difference for Beatrice Braude was that these seemingly benign actions, these casual associations and youthful investigations, would come back to haunt her, and ruin her career. As the newly appointed security officers in government agencies flexed their politically approved muscles and proceeded with zest to root out communists, her seemingly innocent activities took on ominous overtones.
Her first job here was with the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor of the CIA. She translated German articles and did research, and like many of her colleagues, worked six days a week and loved it. But she also wanted to meet people, and one of her roommates, Frances Kaplan, suggested she come to a place called the Washington Book Shop off Farragut Square, which offered members a discount on books, an occasional lecture and perhaps the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex.
"Frances said, 'Why don't you join? It's interesting.' It was very small, lots of books."
Years later, the attorney general of the United States decided the Book Shop was a haven for subversives, and when Braude's name was found on a list of delinquent dues, her association with the place was recorded in her dossier. Translation: She had been a "volunteer" at an organization on the attorney general's list of subversive groups.
She met, through another friend named Miriam Raff, a woman named Judith Coplon, whom Raff had met during undergraduate days at Barnard. Braude and Coplon chatted about clothes and men and used the same dressmaker, and when Raff got married, Coplon and Braude held a party for her at Coplon's apartment on Tunlaw Road.
In 1948, Braude began a five-year assignment in Paris, her dream come true, and Coplon stayed in the same hotel during a brief visit. Their friendship, such as it was, ruptured there because, Braude said, she disapproved of Coplon's "wild" behavior with men. That didn't stop the government from interrogating Braude a few years later after Coplon was caught passing Justice Department documents to a Soviet official at the United Nations. Translation: She was a "personal friend" of the first American charged with spying for the Soviets. Coplon's conviction was overturned because the government had obtained evidence improperly; meanwhile, numerous people, including Braude, were interrogated and suspected because of their association with her.
Braude joined a union at the State Department. "I joined because I believe in unions," she said. "I consider myself a member of the working class." But she went to very few meetings, and was in the faction that resisted the Soviet sympathizers who dominated the group. Translation: She joined a group run by communists.
"I don't even remember Bea going to meetings," said Raff, who was a shop steward in the union and publically identified with the opposition faction. "She was not and never has been a politcally active person." Raff left the federal government when she got married in 1947, and now works for a Maryland legislator.
Mary Jane Keeney was a person who contacted Braude through a mutual acquaintance who was aiding Nazi victims after the war. Keeney wanted to send some clothes to a friend in occupied Germany. Keeney was suspected of being a Communist Party functionary. Translation (from the USIA Security Office's report): ". . .in November 1946 Mary Jane Keeney (Communist) was in contact with the subject on 'several' occasions."
In 1948, the Loyalty Review Board had investigated and cleared Braude. In 1951, after her name had been found in Coplon's address book, she was interrogated again, and in Febrary 1952, was told "there is no reasonable doubt as to your loyalty to the United States Government or as to your security risk to the Department of State."
Nonetheless, on New Year's Eve, 1953, Braude was summoned to the personnel office at the USIA. Her supervisor said she was probably going to be told about the raise that had been recommended for her. Instead, on the last possible day before the order permitting the RIFs expired, she was terminated.
"We will never know the full impact of the loyalty program," said historian Kutler. "The emotional, financial and physical resources required to challenge McCarthy-era rulings were so great that a lot of people just drifted away.
"You must also understand that in those days the government was thought of as good and true and beautiful. The idea of filing a lawsuit against the government was extraordinary."
It wasn't until 1956 that Braude had anything beyond her suspicions to go on. As she recalls it, she had dinner with a friend in New York who worked for a company that had twice rejected her for employment. The friend told her that the head of the firm, a Frenchman, had called the USIA to check her employment there and had been told she was a security risk.
"I was furious," said Braude. "Not just at learning that I had been dismissed for security reasons, but that they told this foreigner and they didn't tell me!"
She hired a lawyer, whose efforts only produced assurances from the Civil Service Commission that she was eligible for government employment. Over the years, she applied for at least a dozen federal jobs, she said, and was always turned down--and every effort she made to find out why produced confusing assurances that there were no problems in her background that would prevent her from being hired.
But one USIA official, Reed Harris, who himself had been forced to resign after a grilling from Sen. Joe McCarthy and was not reinstated until 1961, wrote her (in response to queries from the American Civil Liberties Union) that ". . . if an opening is suitable for several candidates, including you, all equally available, obviously there would be a tendency to lean toward others."
This confusing comment did not become clear until the Freedom of Information and Privacy acts permitted Braude's current lawyer, Maxell J. Mehlman of Arnold and Porter, to painstakingly piece together the files on Braude. Arnold and Porter agreed to take Braude's case under their pro bono program.
"It turns out there were two personnel files," explained Braude. "The Civil Service Commission said I was as pure as the driven snow, and the one in the security office at USIA said I was a security risk. The Civil Service supposedly does not have access to the security files. So that's why everybody--my senators, Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.--was always told that I was not trying hard enough to find a job. "
In the U.S. Court of Claims, where Braude's suit for $75,000 in back pay was filed in 1978 (USIA's Blundon says the claim was for $250,000), a three-judge panel voted 2-to-1 to dismiss her case. The panel upheld the government's argument that Bruade had failed to file a suit within six years of her dismissal, rejecting her lawyer's assertion that without the evidence she got under the 1975 FOI Act, a lawsuit would have been worthless. The court did not discuss the case's merits.
"If she had brought her case then, she could have gotten the evidence she needed under discovery procedures," said Blundon. "But she didn't."
"To put it another way," wrote Kutler, "(the court said) that Braude never should have believed what the government told her."
Mehlman turned to Congress as the only remaining solution. A private bill that would have allowed her case to be tried on its merits passed the Senate in 1980 but failed in the final hours of the session to overcome opposition from a handful of House members. Mehlman said trying again would probably be futile, because the Senate has more conservatives than it did two years ago. The government opposed the bill because so many of the principals involved had died or left the USIA, making it difficult to prove its case.
"It became a major goal in Bea's life to get her name cleared," said her friend Raff. "Her career had been wrecked. But when the bill failed, she put it behind her. Someone said to me at the time, 'What will she do without her case?' The fact is she went on living . . ."
Kutler sees the case as an example of how "rules can be twisted to suit purposes that have nothing to do with the rules," and of how the bureaucracy can damn itself with "excessive" action.
"The whole thing was really a complete accident," said Braude, who is not what you would describe as mellow. "If I had not been doing educational work at the State Department, I would not have been transferred to USIA when it was created. I would never have come under the temporary rule. I would probably never have been reviewed. And I would have kept my job."