Hysteria, anger, assumptions, rushes to judgment, ambition, and speculation often breed wrongful convictions. The anti-communist fervor of the 1950s undoubtedly led to miscarriages of justice and Miriam Moskowitz says she is one of those cases. Now, 98, Moskowitz only has so much time to clear her name. The retired New Jersey math teacher wants a U.S. judge to throw out her conviction and fix the McCarthy-era’s tragic crusades of a U.S. Senator of which she is the last survivor. Moskowitz was a secretary more than 60 years ago when she had an affair with her former boss Abraham Brothman. Brothman was a chemical engineer. They were both convicted of conspiring to obstruct justice by lying to a grand jury during an espionage investigation. Moskowitz served 2 years in prison following her trial, which was called a “dry run” for larger espionage cases by Roy Cohn, who later worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Moskowitz said in recently unsealed documents that Harry Gold lied when he testified at her trial that she was present when he and Brothman “got their stories straight” before testifying at the grand jury proceeding. She said Gold repeatedly told the FBI a different story and that this was not disclosed to her defense.
“I’m at the end of my life, and I want to clear my name,” Moskowitz said in a phone interview, “I don’t want to leave the scene with this hanging over me. I am at this moment a convicted felon. That’s a very hard thing to live with.”
“The trial was held at the height of the McCarthy period, when people were simply not rational politically,” Moskowitz said, “The prosecutor saw a golden opportunity to rack up a conviction on his credit, and he went to town.”
Moskowitz’s trial judge, Irving Kaufman, would later handle the Rosenberg espionage trial. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953. Moskowitz said she has kept a low profile since her conviction. She never married or had any children.
“I am probably the last living victim of the McCarthy era,” she said in the interview. “I am a generous law-abiding citizen, and I don’t want this to be the end of how I am regarded.”
The McCarthy-era was mostly defined by what is called McCarthyism or the practice of accusing others of disloyalty to the U.S. without evidence mostly to stifle political criticisms or dissent. This period is also known as the Second Red Scare and took place between 1950 and 1956. It is largely characterized by intense political oppression. McCarthyism is now used to generally mean unsubstantiated accusations especially on the character or patriotism of others. During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being secret Soviet agents or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations before the government and even private-industry committees. Suspicions were often automatically believed despite questionable evidence. Many people were punished through the loss of employment, destruction of careers and life, and/or imprisonment. Most convictions were later overturned because of unconstitutional laws or illegal “extra-legal” procedures. Many describe McCarthy’s Cold War-era investigations as the epitome of a witch hunt.
The most famous examples of McCarthyisms are the hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Hollywood Blacklist, Senator McCarthy’s hearings, and investigations conducted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Hoover himself has been criticized for secret illegal surveillance on his critics, social issue activists, and political leaders. Many believe Hoover used his secret information to influence politicians. According to President Harry S. Truman, Hoover’s FBI was Hoover’s private secret police. McCarthy was able to grab headlines with his sensational allegations and he sent many citizens to prison, but his efforts are notably unsuccessful for actually discovering any communist saboteurs at work in the U.S. government. The American public did not see McCarthy’s activities first hand until 1954 when his investigations into the U.S. Army were televised. People saw how he intimidated witnesses and ignored the law. McCarthy died in office in 1957. His legacy became one of destroying others’ lives, creating hysteria, and helping spread fear.