Before McCarthyism and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s arrived and the government ostracized citizens with Communist affiliations, the University became involved in a witch hunt of its own — for a professor.
In September 1949, the House of Representatives’ un-American Activities Committee named University physics professor Joseph Weinberg as the mysterious “Scientist X,” a physicist who leaked atomic secrets to a Communist agent.
The next day, Weinberg made the following statement in a Minnesota Daily article: “I am innocent of the charges made against me.”
The ensuing litigation would keep the story on the Daily’s front page for more than four years.
The committee accused Weinberg of associating with Steve Nelson, a Moscow-trained Communist agent, and recommended the U.S. Justice Department prosecute Weinberg on charges of perjury for lying about it.
At the time, then-University President James Morrill stated the University was eager to “establish the truth in this tragic situation for the security of the nation and with strict justice to Professor Weinberg.”
A year earlier, the House committee accused “Scientist X” of slipping secret atomic energy information to Nelson while the physicist was employed in the Manhattan project radiation laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley in March 1943.
Weinberg taught in California from 1940 to 1947 before coming to the University.
The professor, however, had documentation, which he provided to the Daily, that confirmed his employment at the laboratory did not begin until April 22, 1943, a month after the alleged encounters took place.
Initially, Morrill and other University administrators fully supported Weinberg.
The beleaguered professor answered questions about his involvement in Communist activities before the House committee and a federal grand jury on three separate occasions, denying the accusations every time.
Sick of the constant badgering, Weinberg refused to answer the same questions a fourth time in front of a different federal grand jury.
His refusal caused University President Morrill to make an about-face and suspend Weinberg on May 21, 1951. A month later, the Board of Regents dismissed the professor on the president’s recommendation.
Daily editorials regarding the situation ran rampant, yet most contradicted themselves. On one hand the Daily professed that Weinberg should be considered innocent until proven guilty, while at the same time agreeing he should be fired.
A District of Columbia grand jury indicted Weinberg for three counts of perjury a year later — a day before the statute of limitations ran out on the alleged offenses. He was accused of lying about his involvement with the Communist party.
As the Weinberg trial neared, the Daily did an extensive profile on the scientist so readers could identify Weinberg as “more than a mere name in newspaper headlines and stories.”
In a letter to the trial judge, printed in the May 27, 1952 issue of the Daily, four University professors rallied to their colleague’s side, claiming the circumstances surrounding the trial to be unfair. Subsequently, two of the professors were subpoenaed.
The trial ended March 5, 1953, with two charges being dropped and an acquittal of the third.
Asked by a Daily reporter whether Weinberg would get his old job back, Morrill said the choice to fire Weinberg “is not affected by the court decision; and the case, insofar as the University is concerned, is closed.”
Weinberg never taught at the University again.
In the mid-1990s, the federal government finally made public Russian transmission documents obtained during World War II that revealed nearly a dozen Soviet spies involved in the Manhattan Project who possibly leaked atomic secrets.
Joseph Weinberg was not named.
Craig Gustafson welcomes comments at [email protected]