WASHINGTON (Jan. 3)
Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson today told Jewish organizations that “it was a mistake” on the part of his executive assistant, Milan D. Smith, to show reporters a letter received by the Department from a White Russian emigre impugning the loyalty of American Jews of Russian origin. He invited the leaders of these organizations – the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the Jewish War Veterans – to discuss the matter with him personally.
The letter to which Secretary Benson referred was sent to the Department of Agriculture by White Russian emigre George N. Vitt, in connection with the dismissal of Wolf Ladejinsky, agricultural economist, from his $11,000-a-year post as a “security risk.” The White Russian emigre applauded the Department for dismissing the Jewish expert and said that many Russian Jews who settled in the United States had turned out to be the “worst kind of traitors.” It was this letter that Mr. Smith gave to newspapermen in explanation of the dismissal of Mr. Ladejinsky, who is Russian-born and who came to this country in 1922.
In his communication to the three Jewish organizations today, Secretary Benson said: “I accept no responsibility for any of the statements or conclusions in the Vitt or any other letter received by the Department in connection with the Ladejinsky matter. It was a mistake to show the letter to reporters and by so doing imply the Department’s approval of the contents.”
BENSON REGRETS ANTI-SEMITIC IMPLICATIONS
In another communication to the same organizations today, Secretary Benson said: “While the Vitt letter was made available to reporters, it was not done as reflecting the views of this Department in any respect, and I regret the creation of that implication. I am also surprised and shocked that anti-Semitic implications have been raised in the press as a result of the letter. This Department has many loyal Jewish people in its employ who are giving honest and conscientious and valuable service to our country.
“I would be among the first to state without hesitancy my long and lasting admiration for the Jewish people. I would be among the first to deplore any attempt to create an anti-Semitic feeling in our country. My executive assistant concurs fully in these views. I would deeply appreciate your making my views known to your membership. I would be happy to discuss this matter with you personally.”
Secretary Benson’s communications to the Jewish organizations came as a result of protests sent him by these organizations and calling upon him to repudiate the action of his aide, Mr. Smith, in releasing the anti-Semitic letter by Mr. Vitt in defense of the Department’s dismissal of Mr. Ladejinsky.
The anti-Semitic aspects of the affair will be brought to President Eisenhower’s attention tomorrow by Joseph F. Barr, national commander of the Jewish War Veterans, who will see the President at the White House in the morning. The matter will also be discussed tomorrow with Secretary of Agriculture Benson who agreed today to meet with Henry E. Schultz, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and Benjamin Epstein, the ADL executive director.
SUSPENSION OF AGRICULTURAL DEPT. OFFICIAL URGED
The American Jewish Congress, in a communication to the Secretary of Agriculture, called for the suspension of Mr. Smith, for his “apparent readiness to employ anti-Semitic material in the Ladejinsky case, pending full investigation of all circumstances surrounding the dismissal of the agricultural expert.”
In a telegram to President Eisenhower, Adolph Held, chairman of the Jewish Labor Committee, charged that those who released the Vitt letter are “not fit to exercise the duties of their office.” He scored the letter as an “echo of the Russian anti-Semites who during the Czarist regime and later under the Soviets engaged in vicious campaigns of pogroms and slanders against the Jews.”
Mr. Barr, replying late today to Secretary Benson’s communications, said: “It was indeed regrettable that the Vitt letter was released to the press, especially in the light of the obvious references it contained. It is even more regrettable that your executive assistant should have complimented the writer of the letter and given a basis for the view that it had the endorsement of the Department of Agriculture.”
The JWV commander said he had seen no denial of Mr. Smith’s concurrence with the views expressed in the letter whether it be his own or the Department’s. “Men in public service,” said Mr. Barr, “cannot afford to harbor deep-seated prejudices based on foundations not in the American tradition.”
Mr. Schultz, in his protest to Secretary Benson, said: “We have read with shock news reports of the handling of the Ladejinsky case by high officials of the Department of Agriculture. We protest and deplore the use by your executive assistant, Milan D. Smith, of an anti-Semitic letter as a release of your Department. The letter contains the scurrilities of a man whose views border on the lunatic fringe.
“The action of Mr. Smith has served to injure a very large group of loyal Americans in all walks of life and has cast doubt on the administration of the security system in the public mind. Whether motivated by malice or lack of understanding, Mr. Smith’s action raises serious question as to his competence for holding such high office.
“George Vitt, the author of the now notorious letter, is a one-time supporter of the Russian Czarist regime who looks upon all who opposed or fled from that tyranny as ‘revolutionary.’ But Americans have always regarded those forced to flee the despotic Czars as fighters for and seekers after freedom. Great numbers of them, Jews who fled religious persecution, have contributed immeasurably to the welfare of the United States, the country which gave them asylum.
“For a government official like Mr. Smith to throw doubt upon the loyalty and Americanism of this large group, merely on the view of one man who longs for a return of the ancient tyranny of the Czar to replace the current tyranny of the Communists, is an outrageous act that you are duty-bound to repudiate.”
The American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an anti-Communist organization of intellectual and cultural leaders, sent a message to Secretary Benson attacking the release of the Vitt leader.