By any standards, Ruth A. M. Schmidt was a remarkable woman. Born in Brooklyn in April 1916, Schmidt became interested in science early on, receiving a Masters, then a Ph. D in Geology from Columbia University. During World War II she taught classes in science and map making at Columbia; in 1943, an impressed professor referred her to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) who needed geologists for the war effort. Schmidt advised the Army Corps of Engineer on topographical maps for the construction of bridges, observation posts and airfields. Schmidt’s work, vital in any event, was even more impressive as she was one of the only women employed by the wartime USGS.
With the examples of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins (the first female cabinet secretary) and the outspoken First Lady before them, “more professional women found employment in government” under Franklin Roosevelt than ever before, writes Landon R.Y. Storrs. The percentage of women in the Federal government rose from 15 percent in 1930 to 24 percent in 1945, including 45 percent of those in Washington. They still encountered sexism, blocks to promotion (“you have to work ten times as hard” in government, rued Eleanor Dulles, the sister of John Foster and Allen Dulles) and racial discrimination. Nonetheless, one lady New Dealer enthused that Roosevelt “bends over backwards to give [women] opportunity…even in the traditionally male professions.”
Possessing a “no-nonsense Brooklyn accent, intelligence, unpretentious manner, lightning-quick wit, and generosity,” Schmidt flourished in this environment. She impressed her peers, superiors and students. Remaining in government after the war, she moved between teaching and map making, laboratory research and field studies, studying rock formations and paleontology. She also joined political causes, from the Washington Association of Scientists (which criticized the development of atomic weapons) to groups promoting racial and gender equality. Reading Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy, and experiencing firsthand the discrimination in Washington D.C., “incensed me to the point of wanting to do something besides talk about it.”
One way, Schmidt decided, was to join the Washington Cooperative Bookshop. The Bookshop, established at 916 17th St NW in 1938 (across from Farragut Park) was a mainstay of progressive Washington, hosting educational programs, lectures by authors and public figures and selling a variety of political literature. With about 1,200 members, most of them government employees, the Bookshop had been founded “due to the arrival of thousands of progressive people in Washington under the simulation of the New Deal,” per its internal history. “A cultural center was needed” to serve the “literary, artistic and musical wants” of Washington’s employees, and the Bookshop certainly provided that.
Chaired by David Wahl, a Library of Congress employee, the Bookshop offered patrons an impressive degree of books, lectures and lively discussion. “The WCB from its beginning also maintained a small art gallery exhibiting original prints and drawings,” writes Robert Justin Goldstein, “organized and sponsored musical performing groups as well as poetry readings, and periodically offered classes on a variety of subjects, including “Anthropology Today,” “The Economics of Government Spending,” and “Main Currents in American Thought.”” Among them were paintings by local artists, rare recordings of folk songs and immigrant ballads and compilations of folklore. Marie Louise Siegrist, like Schmidt a government geologist, called the Bookshop “the most significant contribution to the artistic life of the area.”
The Bookshop’s lectures offered a constellation of famous progressives. Among them were writers Sherwood Anderson, W.H. Auden, Erskine Caldwell, Langston Hughes and I.F. Stone; artists Rockwell Kent and Luis Quintanilla; folksinger Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly; Joseph E. Davies, former Ambassador to the Soviet Union (whose apologia for Stalin’s purges, Mission to Moscow, inspired a much-reviled film) and Senator Claude Pepper; and anthropologist Paul Radin, who presented a twelve-part lecture on the History of Man. Most prestigious of all was Eleanor Roosevelt, who lectured the Bookshop while First Lady and maintained friendly relations with its directors, granting it immense stature in New Deal circles.
Beyond star power, the Bookshop offered members more mundane excitements. All members received a ten percent discount on books, both mainstream literature and specialist works on history, politics and other fields, along with musical records and artwork. Social events – concerts, parties, picnics, even square dances – abounded. It became a social hub for New Dealers who, as one member recalled, desired “an occasional lecture and perhaps the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex.” For idealistic young civil servants, a place that offered intellectual, social and even sexual stimulation at once seemed like a dream come true.
There was no question that the Bookshop slanted left. “FDR’s program was what they really believed in,” assistant manager Steve Rosner recalled years later. Undoubtedly, too, many Communists associated with the bookstore; David Wahl, the chairman of the board, was accused of Soviet espionage; confirmed spies, like Philip Keeney (who, along with his wife Mary Jane, became the notorious “librarian spies” smuggling files from the Library of Congress), also frequented the bookstore. Their clientele, spanning both mainstream liberals, Roosevelt-inspired progressives and actual communists, offered a neat microcosm of the New Deal left.
Even during the heyday of the New Deal, such chumminess with the far Left was enough to raise conservative eyebrows. Martin Dies claimed to possess evidence that “employees of the Bookshop…have been in close contact with local officials of the Communist Party.” Dies, an avowed segregationist, objected to the Bookshop hosting black artists and advocating racial equality. No doubt he also seethed after the Bookshop printed a circular denouncing “Martin Dies, Dixie Demagogue.”
In May 1941, staffers from the Dies Committee raided the Bookstore during business hours, intending to inventory its books and appropriate membership lists. One member spotted a woman clerk attempting to leave with the membership rolls and wrestled it out of her hands. This incident triggered a widespread protest among Washington progressives, statements of support from publishers and authors who contracted with the Bookshop and, ironically, increased its membership.
Nonetheless, Dies convened hearings on the Bookshop in August 1941. The Committee’s key witness was Mary Spargo, who had gone “undercover” at the Bookshop at the Committee’s behest. She presented a letter, purportedly from a “known Communist,” claiming that the “International Bookshop” was under Party control. Jerry Voorhis, the Committee’s liberal gadfly, punctured Spargo’s testimony by noting that “it is completely erroneous to say…that the International Bookshop and the Co-Op Bookshop were the same thing.”
Undeterred, Dies later subpoenaed chairman David Wahl and grilled him in a public hearing. Wahl denied that the Bookshop was a subversive organization, quoting an FBI report that it hadn’t been “authorized or permitted to inquire of government employees whether they belong to or are associated with it.” Faced with unreliable friendly witnesses and defenses by its patrons, Dies dropped his investigation. He was, however, able to persuade Attorney General Francis Biddle to add the Bookshop to a list of subversive organizations in 1943.
Suppressing “subversive” publishers, even specific booksellers, was hardly unknown. In 1918, the Bureau of Investigation shut down a small Washington press printing pacifist literature (its featured author, Congressman Charles Lindbergh Sr., warned of the “money sharks” that led America into the First World War, language his son echoed two decades later). More recently, the Communist Oklahoma Federation for Constitutional Rights had been shut down by state authorities in January 1940 (leading Roscoe Dunjee, a black Oklahoma radical, to memorably denounce “the Buzzards of Every Age” who would censor free speech). In a nation primed to distrust “subversives,” even small booksellers were suspect.
During the war years, there was more focus on far right bookstores than those on the Left, not only in DC but nationwide. Most notorious of these was the Aryan Bookstore in Los Angeles, which sold antisemitic books and pamphlets and whose owners, Hans Diebel and Hermann Schwinn, not only courted native Bundists and Silver Shirts but knowingly hosted agents of the German Abwehr; many members were arrested or deported after America entered the war. Yet again, government procedures used to combat fascism were afterwards rounded Leftwards; and, in this case, with more dubious cause.
Like many, Ruth Schmidt was impressed by the Washington Bookshop’s offerings, occasionally visiting their forums and events while working on her Ph. D thesis, completed in 1948. She even briefly sat on their board of directors, working “with the Book committee in helping to select speakers and obtain places for forums, and conduct[ing] a poll of the membership to ascertain subjects in which they were interested to serve as a partial guide in arranging subsequent book reviews and forums.” However, work overwhelmed Schmidt’s schedule and her appearances at the Bookshop decreased over time.
In any case, continued harassment by loyalty boards, the FBI and the newly emboldened HUAC damaged the Bookshop’s reputation. Marie Siegrist endured an indignant grilling in April 1949, by which time the Bookshop struggled to remain solvent. Represented by civil liberties attorney Al Bernstein (father of journalist Carl Bernstein), she endured repeated summons before loyalty boards who inquired about her politics, her activism and her association with the Bookshop. As one of the Bookshop’s earliest members, a longtime secretary and a member of its string quartet, Siegrist felt particularly invested in its defense.
Pulling no punches, Siegrist accused her traducers of hating the Bookshop because of its interracial character. Then she insisted that she “would not have anything to do with an outfit that…would be detrimental to this country!” Her passion preserved her career for now (she eventually left government for teaching, collaborating on a massive encyclopedia of geological history), but did little to help the Bookshop. Under the public scrutiny, she recalled, “so many people resigned, [and] became frightened…[that] it just didn’t have enough business.” In February 1950, the same month as Joe McCarthy’s Wheeling speech, the Bookshop closed its doors.
Nonetheless, in July 1950, Ruth Schmidt received a summons from an Interior Department Loyalty Board. “You have been a member of, affiliated with, and sympathetically associated with the Washington Book Shop Association, which has been designated by the Attorney General as being within the purview of paragraph “f”, section 2, part V, of Executive Order 9835,” the letter stated, referring to President Truman’s 1947 mandate for “a loyalty investigation of every person entering the civilian employment of any department or agency of the executive branch of the Federal Government.”
Perhaps Schmidt shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the climate and the government’s harassment of the Bookshop. Conrad Snow, the Chairman of the State Department loyalty program, said that in case of a civil servant’s membership in the Bookshop, a “full investigation is called for.” Thus Schmidt stood accused of disloyalty for such dubious charges as overseeing “a meeting of the Washington Book Shop Association on May 23, 1946, at which Edwin C. Randall spoke on the “Political Implications of Atomic Energy” and”having introduced speakers at several important lecture meetings.”
Dr. Schmidt replied in a letter both carefully argued and defiant. “Immediately following the listing of the Bookshop,” she wrote, “I made a point of going to the store and asking one of the clerks for a copy of the constitution. I carefully read it and saw nothing that accounted to me for the listing of what seemed to be a non-political, cultural cooperative, as subversive. I attended the next meeting. It was a membership meeting, and had as its main topic a talk on the races of mankind. Again, as in the past, there was nothing said or done at that meeting which I could possibly interpret as subversive or communistic.”
The Interior Department deemed Schmidt’s response unacceptable and pressed for a formal hearing. On October 25th, 1950 Schmidt, along with four colleagues (including Marie Siegrist) and her attorney, David Cobb, faced a loyalty board headed by Mastin G. White, a conservative Interior bureaucrat and future Claims Court Judge. She insisted that she was “unable to recall any instance of an undemocratic nature, or any effort to impose a Communist line upon Bookshop members” by its leadership. Indeed, her testimony largely reiterated her letter insisting that nothing more than progressive politics, and a desire for discounted books, motivated her involvement.
This wasn’t enough for one Board member, Dan Wheeler, who continued pressing Schmidt about the Bookshop’s “communistic character.” “Your interpretation is not broad enough,” Wheeler lectured, insisting that there must be something sinister to the Bookshop’s machinations. “Does your statement that you didn’t know of anybody who was a Communist also mean that you didn’t know of anybody who seemed to believe in Communism?”
Schmidt, annoyed by the questioning but maintaining her cool, insisted that the Bookshop’s board of directors “was concerned with the operation of the store—with books to be bought, and could we get people to read books.” She discussed the Bookshop’s broader outreach programs – hosting a public forum for black citizens, or donating books to low income readers – that reflected its general character. “People were given an opportunity to express their opinions, to agree or disagree, and matters were always discussed openly,” she insisted.
Eventually, the Board yielded after Schmidt’s colleagues testified to her trustworthiness. “Her views were absolutely no different than those you would find expressed in any newspaper on one side or another,” colleague Alfred Bodenlos assured the Board. Nonetheless, it took three weeks before Schmidt received assurance that she’d been cleared of disloyalty. And even that didn’t end things – four years later, she received another summons that reiterated the old charges, familiar defenses and the same result.
Targeting women like Schmidt and Marie Louise Siegrist wasn’t necessarily incidental. As Landon Storrs writes, “the loyalty program encouraged obeisance to gender conventions…discouraged female activism more generally and linked female breadwinning with trauma and shame.” The ’50s cult of domesticity had little use for women like Ruth Schmidt, particularly those with progressive politics or dubious associations.
Schmidt was one of three million Americans, men and women, questioned under Truman’s Executive Order 9835. Al Bernstein, who represented 500 employees in loyalty hearings, called Truman’s order “unknown to our kind of government…procedures where people who were accused never knew who their accusers were, in what respects the organizations were evil, or what the relationship to the accusee was.” The silver lining was that, under Truman, investigators usually exonerated the accused (only 300 were fired). Loyalty investigations by local and state governments, school boards and private industries were rarely so judicious.
In 1957, Ruth Schmidt moved to Anchorage, Alaska where she spent the rest of her life. As before, her activities were varied: consulting with Alaskan state authorities on geology, highway construction teaching at the University of Alaska Anchorage (where a scholarship bears her name), traveling abroad for field research. In 1964 she spearheaded damage surveys after the Great Alaskan Earthquake, mapping out the damage wrought by the quake to enable future construction; the following decade, Governor Jay Hammond tapped her as a consultant in constructing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to minimize environmental damage.
Nonetheless, Schmidt’s greatest legacy may have been inspiring hundreds of women, in Alaska and elsewhere, to follow in her footsteps. Sally Gilbert, a geologist whom Schmidt mentored, recalled that “she showed me you don’t have to play ‘meek’ as a woman to be accepted. She gave me courage and confidence without my ever knowing it was happening.” To think that such an accomplished woman, who died in 2014 after a battle with dementia, nearly lost six productive decades for frequenting a bookshop speaks volumes to the randomness of the Red Scare.
Sources and Further Reading
My principle resources for this article were Robert Justin Goldstein, “Watching the Books: The Federal Government’s Suppression of the Washington Cooperative Bookshop, 1939-1950” (American Communist History, Vol. 12 No. 3 2013); Landon Y.R. Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left (2013) and Selma R. Williams, Red-Listed: Haunted by the Washington Witch Hunt (1993). The information on Ruth A. M. Schmidt comes from Jamie Gonzalez, “Project 49: Ruth A. M. Schmidt, geologist, McCarthyism survivor” (Green and Gold News, University of Alaska Anchorage, November 2014; online here) and Heather Saucier, “An Extraordinary, Unknown Career” (GEO ExPro, Vol. 11 No. 6 2015; online here).