Was Bill de Blasio’s Mom a Commie? The FBI’s Maria de Blasio File - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Was Bill de Blasio’s Mom a Commie? The FBI’s Maria de Blasio File

Yikes, the recent reports of Bill de Blasio as one “Warren Wilhelm Jr.” were news to me (even as news of his name change was first reported several years ago). Such was the birth name bestowed by his mother, whose maiden name was Maria de Blasio, and his father, Warren Wilhelm Sr., who tragically killed himself when Bill was 18 years old. The parents had bitterly divorced long before that, and the young Warren had steadily pulled away from his father as he was raised by his mother and her Italian family. He identified with them and eventually took her family’s name. It really is a sad story. Bill de Blasio had a tough upbringing.

Yikes and yowza: In the course of learning this, several people sent me information (some of it in the form of mocking memes) claiming that Bill’s parents were communists. And as The American Spectator’s resident “Commie Watch” guy, I’m red-in-the-face embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about these alleged red roots of Bill’s mom and dad. I knew nothing, nada, niente of the de Blasio bloodline’s purported Marxist sympathies. That includes a biggie: his mother’s alleged membership in the Communist Party. I knew nothing about these claims even as I years ago wrote in this publication about young Bill’s ridiculous work in the 1980s supporting the odious Marxist Nicaraguan Sandinistas and peddling subscriptions to their silly “newspaper.”

Upon hearing these claims about Bill’s parents, it took one email exchange with a longtime fellow researcher of American communism to learn that de Blasio’s parents were questioned about their backgrounds and sympathies by the FBI, and that Bill’s mother worked for the Office of War Information during World War II — i.e., a giant red flag. OWI was the most communist-penetrated of all the wartime federal agencies. I was also told that she had been named by Whittaker Chambers.

These are not minor things.

I proceeded to learn much more, as readers shall see below. That came as a result of having received from the same source about 50 pages of the mother’s FBI file.

Before proceeding further, let me state from the outset that I do not know about the father, who, for the record, was cleared (along with his wife) of suspicions of disloyalty after being questioned at a federal office building on July 14, 1950, though the FBI did acknowledge an obvious “sympathetic interest in communism” by the couple. Because I don’t have information on the father, I can’t confirm sympathies by him. Given his later intense involvement in the corporate world, it’s hard to imagine that Warren Wilhelm Sr. would have retained Marxist sympathies later in his life. The material on the mother, however, really is eye-opening.

Named by Whittaker Chambers

Before examining the pages of the FBI file, consider what has been previously reported on Maria de Blasio:

An October 2013 New York Times piece stated that Maria de Blasio was suspected of possibly conspiring with communists at Time magazine when she worked there in the late 1930s. According to the Times, she was named by none other than Whittaker Chambers as having “conspired with Communists at Time.”

The Chambers element is a big deal. As biographers of Chambers affirm, including the New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus in his superb 1997 biography, Chambers’ clashes with pro-communist staff at Time in precisely the period really turned him. It turned him so much that his case against Alger Hiss a decade later captured a nation and became arguably the trial of the century. If Bill de Blasio’s mother was among those who helped precipitate that turn, that’s of no minor historical importance.

The Timesarticle reporting that gem is a nicely done piece by reporter Javier Hernandez. I don’t know where Hernandez got that precise information, though Chambers is briefly mentioned in the FBI report (see page 3), which says that the Baltimore office of the FBI “should consider reinterviewing Jay David Whittaker Chambers re Mrs. Wilhelm.”

Hernandez’s piece deserves pause at several levels. It’s a heart-wrenching profile of de Blasio’s father’s decline and death. He and Maria met at Time, where he was a business reporter. He eventually went to war and was injured at Okinawa on May 30, 1945. He and Maria married on September 27, 1945 after he was sent home and began recuperating. They eventually had three boys, Steven and Donald and then Bill, who was born in May 1961.

The Hernandez piece is fair, measured, nuanced in dealing with Bill’s father’s tormented life: his battles with alcohol and physical suffering, his bad relationship with his wife and subsequent divorce, his alienating estrangement from his children, and his tragic death. The Times piece is thoughtful, develops its narrative, and doesn’t take leaps. Other liberal organs dealing with Warren Wilhelm Sr. are not so nuanced. For instance, here’s the kind of liberal spin one would expect, courtesy of the Atlantic:

Bill de Blasio was born Warren Wilhelm Jr. (as a young adult, he adopted a combination of his childhood nickname and his mother’s maiden name) in 1961 to a pair of 44-year-old liberal intellectuals. His family was haunted by McCarthyism: In 1950, both of his parents, Maria and Warren Wilhelm, had to defend themselves against charges of communist sympathies before a government-loyalty board. (Maria worked as a researcher at Time magazine, where her outspoken liberalism raised the hackles of one of the writers, the noted anti-communist Whittaker Chambers.) Though they were cleared, the investigation stymied Warren’s career as a Commerce Department economist and set off a gradual, alcohol-fueled decline. He left the family when de Blasio was in elementary school. A decade later, he shot and killed himself in the parking lot of a Connecticut motel.

De Blasio’s friends say this heritage has given him a profound leftist identity. “His mother was denounced by Whittaker Chambers. His father basically had his career ruined by McCarthyites,” one told me. “On a deep, deep level, he knows that there really is a right wing, and it’s not nice.”

Again, note the (unsourced) Chambers reference. Also note the unfortunate but predictable politicization in this piece. That passage is troublesome in so many ways, seemingly suggesting that the interview by the Loyalty Board (to this day all prospective federal employees are questioned about their loyalty to America) led to alcoholism for the father and then his suicide. Note how the piece says that the investigation “set off” Warren’s decline.

The New York Times piece doesn’t do that. It spends much more time on its complicated subject, whose decline was much longer and more gradual and in no way directly linked to the FBI investigation. This poor guy Warren Wilhelm was wrestling with many demons. Bill himself would say that his father’s life was more complicated. In fact, the father had been awarded a Purple Heart after the Battle of Okinawa. Warren killed a Japanese soldier who jumped out of a foxhole with a grenade. His left leg below the knee was blown up and amputated. Later on, he was a dead ringer for PTSD.

Warren Wilhelm was hurt by the Imperial Japanese, not by Joe McCarthy, who he never met. The House Committee on Un-American Activities did not saw off his leg. He grappled for years with alcoholism, with lung cancer and emphysema, with a wife who accused him of “cruel and abusive treatment,” with high stress in the corporate world — where Wilhelm did very well as a business executive, including as chief international economist at Texaco, among other excellent positions in the private sector, and was totally unhindered by suspicions of disloyalty. After decades of depression, Warren one day in July 1979 drove to the Rocky River Inn in New Milford, Connecticut, directed a rifle at his heart, and pulled the trigger.

Warren Wilhelm Sr.’s tragic defeat cannot be blamed on politics.

Especially ironic in the Atlantic piece is the line that Bill “knows that there really is a right wing, and it’s not nice.” Well, wake-up call, there really is a left wing, and it’s not nice. And there really were communists, too, and they especially weren’t nice. I could fill this column with examples of anti-communist liberals viciously mistreated by communists.

“The important thing is that you should not argue with them,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald about communist associates. “Whatever you say, they have ways of twisting it into shapes which put you in some lower category of mankind, ‘Fascist,’ ‘Liberal,’ ‘Trotskyist,’ and disparage you both intellectually and personally in the process.”

Today’s progressives, products of our awful universities, have been terribly miseducated about the good guys and bad guys and genuine threats of communism in America during the Cold War. They have been misled so much, particularly by communists themselves, that they will never understand this history. The Atlantic piece does what liberals reflexively do when suspicions of communism and even pro-Soviet work are raised: they reflexively dismiss it, defending the accused as nothing but innocent “progressives” unfairly maligned by Troglodyte McCarthyites. (See also the piece in the Nation, “Bill de Blasio Is Not Afraid of Red Scare Ghosts.”) Sure, sometimes the accused are unfairly unaccused, but other times they’re not. And liberals’ reflexive dismissals have always made them such easy dupes for communists. Communists themselves have always known this naïveté, which they cynically exploited.

“While Communists make full use of liberals and their solicitudes, and sometimes flatter them to their faces,” wrote Whittaker Chambers in Witness, “in private they treat them with that sneering contempt that the strong and predatory almost invariably feel for victims who volunteer to help in their own victimization.”

Precisely. American communists knew this and preyed upon it.

Maria de Blasio: The FBI File

All of that is political-psychological background helpful in trying to discern what Bill de Blasio’s mother’s FBI file may or may not suggest. Without coming to a conclusive judgment on the matter, and without digging still further into her background, I’ll here share the salient facts from the file.

First, Maria de Blasio was indeed at the Office of War Information, and throughout the entirety of the war period, which is striking. Her file begins with that, on page one. It says something even more striking, quoting an associate of hers at OWI reporting her “to be a member of the Communist Party.”

Also quite striking is another organization mentioned right off, to which Maria herself admitted being a member. From October 1946 to December 1947, Maria de Blasio was a member of the Progressive Citizens of America — the notorious communist front group. Maria seemed to be a very active member of the Boston chapter. In that capacity, she worked closely with Angus Cameron, who the file reports as a “secret member of prominence in the Communist Party, USA.”

Interestingly, in an employment application to the U.S. Department of State, de Blasio was asked how various organizations she had been a part of would be categorized. For two unions she had joined, she answered easily “trade union.” When asked about the PCA, this highly educated young woman (more on that in a moment) shrugged, “don’t know how it would be designated.” Well, by then, PCA had been firmly designated as a communist front. As the FBI file notes, two reports by the California state legislature in 1947 and 1948, precisely when de Blasio was a member of PCA, cited the organization as a “broader Communist front for the entire United States formed in September, 1946, at the direction of the Communist Steering Committee from the Communist dominated National Citizens Political Action Committee and the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions.” The latter organization was better known as the notorious HICCASP.

Proceeding with the order of the FBI file, page 8 goes to Maria’s family roots. It notes that she was born Maria Angela de Blasio in New York City on May 14, 1917. Her parents, John and Anna, were born in Italy and immigrated to America.

That fact prompts mystery number one: How does a nice Italian girl with a pretty Catholic name like Maria Angela de Blasio ultimately veer far to the left? The answer: college. Just as, say, a nice Italian Catholic girl and contemporary named Maria Asunta Isabella Visono (later Bella Dodd) would go hard left and become a major Communist Party organizer. What radicalized Bella was Columbia University. What apparently radicalized Maria was Smith College.

As her FBI file notes (with no commentary along the lines of what I just observed), Maria got her B.A. from Smith College (Northampton, Massachusetts) in June 1938, followed by a master’s from Smith just one year later, in June 1939. She was an English major, graduating magna cum laude, was Phi Beta Kappa, and was described by peers and professors as very intelligent.

Her FBI file says not a word more about how Smith might relate to Maria’s politics and a possible turn hard left in the pro-communist direction, but I can add this: Smith College had its share of far-left faculty. In my book Dupes, I published a December 1920 letter that I found in Soviet Comintern files on Communist Party USA. The letter targeted 78 specific left-wing college professors (listing them by name) to get them communist materials for their college libraries. Professors at colleges like Smith were named explicitly.

It’s no surprise that Smith was targeted. It was a ripe environment. Among the Smith College faculty in the period when Maria was there is one particular notable: Dorothy Wolff Douglas.

Dorothy was a radical leftist. In 1915, she had married Paul H. Douglas. Both earned doctorates from Columbia University. Both, too, seemed to be enamored with Bolshevik Russia, or at least felt a tug in that direction.

Paul Douglas expressed his ardor for the Soviet experiment by making a pilgrimage to Moscow, having been targeted by the Comintern. He was listed in that December 1920 letter among the 78 American professors identified for their potential usefulness . In July 1927, Douglas and comrades sojourned to the Motherland aboard the SS President Roosevelt. They boarded with a motley crew of “progressives” and communists. Douglas and friends met directly with Joseph Stalin in a chummy get-together that listed six hours.

To his credit, Paul Douglas, who would eventually become a Democrat senator, came to reject Bolshevism. He remained a liberal, but an anti-communist one. He also had another separation — from his wife, Dorothy, and their four children. But Dorothy’s political passions did not die, and her views of womanhood became even more stridently far left.

Dorothy was an unflagging leftist-feminist. In 1924, she had taken a position teaching economics at Smith College, where she was a dominant force from the mid-1920s through the early 1950s. If she was not an actual member of Communist Party USA (evidence to that effect was presented by the House Committee on Un-American Activities), she was at least highly like-minded. There at Smith, Dorothy would mentor a young Bettye Goldstein, who arrived at campus in 1938, precisely when Maria de Blasio was there.

Bettye Goldstein is better known today by the name that made her famous: Betty Friedan.

The influence of Dorothy on Bettye is revealed in the fascinating biographical work by Daniel Horowitz, a sympathetic Smith College professor — and a commendably honest liberal and incisive historian. In his Betty Friedan and the Making of “The Feminine Mystique,” Horowitz carefully documents Friedan’s ideological path, showing meticulously how closely it always adhered to the communist line. Betty, of course, was a communist.

And Dorothy Wolff Douglas had a major role in that — more than any other figure in the life of Betty Friedan. She was flatly Betty’s mentor, as she was to other young women at Smith College.

This makes one wonder whether Dorothy Wolff Douglas also had an influence on Maria de Blasio at Smith.

From Time Magazine to OWI

Maria de Blasio’s FBI file mentions none of what I’ve just considered regarding Dorothy Wolff Douglas. It mainly provides a straightforward chronological list of where de Blasio went to school and worked.

Speaking of which, after Smith College she went to Time magazine, landing there in August 1939, the month of the Hitler-Stalin Pact that launched World War II. Maria began working at Time in editorial research, which is where she would have met Whittaker Chambers.

Maria was at Time until December 1941, Pearl Harbor, when she resigned and went to work for OWI, all the way through November 1945 — i.e., the entirety of the war. In her later State Department employment application, she listed her “type of work” at OWI as “propaganda analysis and editorial.” Thereafter, she worked for the State Department for 11 months before resigning in January 1946, leaving to take a job for 10 months with the U.S. Department of Labor before resigning August 23, 1946, and then did some sporadic freelance work for Newsweek and the left-wing New Republic before returning to studies again from 1947-49, at Radcliffe. All were short-lived positions.

The move to Radcliffe in Cambridge, Massachusetts is quite notable, given what Maria studied there. She attended grad school at Radcliffe from 1947 to 1950, where she enrolled in the “Regional Program on the Soviet Union.” This was to receive a second master’s degree. Despite being in that program for three years, her FBI file says that she failed to complete that degree “due to failure in Soviet language.” This was confirmed by a professor of hers at Radcliffe, history professor Donald McKay, who said her difficulty in learning the language made her unqualified to receive the degree. He added that Maria was “very interested in the Russian form of Government.” McKay and other references described her as ambitious, aggressive, and individualistic, with McKay adding that she was not a “team” player.

To be clear, no one in the file said that Maria wanted to study the USSR for the purpose of confronting the Soviet Union or fighting international communism. No one once referred to her as anti-communist.

In October 1950, Maria returned to Washington again to work, this time for the International Bank for Reconstruction & Development, an agency of the United Nations.

Throughout this time, going back to 1941, Maria de Blasio traveled abroad quite a bit, to Mexico, Cuba, France, Italy, and England, which she said in her State Department application were always for reasons of “vacation.” When she applied to Radcliffe, she noted that while at OWI she wanted to work in Stalin’s Soviet Union. “While in O.W.I. I applied for duty in Russia,” she wrote, “and plans were under way when personal reasons forced a change of plans.”

From start to finish, the FBI file focused particularly on Maria’s work at OWI. It is understandable that the federal government would be most concerned with her loyalty at a government agency in wartime. The file returns repeatedly to her time at OWI. Repeated again on page 21 is the charge (in a June 19, 1953 memo): “several individuals who had associated with de Blasio at the Office of War Information stated that propaganda directed towards Italy bore the pro-Communist viewpoint as a result of Miss de Blasio’s personal censorship.”

As for that censorship, the New York Times article quotes Maria conveniently blaming such accusations on “sexism.” “Mrs. Wilhelm blamed the trouble on sexism,” states the article, “saying her male Italian-American colleagues were simply upset by her ‘stern’ editing.”

Tell that to Elaine Carr, who was neither male nor Italian.

Carr is cited on page 31 of the FBI report. She worked with Maria at OWI. She told the FBI that “she had no proof of de Blasio’s Communist affiliations but stated that de Blasio had consistently followed the Communist line in her work and by her attitude demonstrated complete accord with all Communist doctrines.”

Carr added further important details about Maria’s sympathies. She said that de Blasio had been “closely associated” with labor organizer Perez Zagorin at the United Federal Workers of America (local 21), who was an “avowed communist.” (The FBI file doesn’t go into this, but Zagorin was indeed involved with a bunch of front-group activities, as detailed by Congress in 1944.)

In fact, de Blasio herself noted in her employment application to the State Department that from 1942-45, i.e., the entire time she was at OWI, she was a member of Zagorin’s local for the United Federal Workers of America. How involved was she? Under the category of “Office Held,” she stated in her application that she was no less than president for two terms.

Certainly Suspicious

In sum, this information is what we can glean from merely 50 pages of a file.

As someone who has done this sort of research for decades, I’ve viewed FBI files that run hundreds and even thousands of pages. What is contained in only 50 pages from Maria de Blasio’s file is certainly suspicious.

Here was a woman alleged to be a Communist Party member. She served OWI throughout the war, was a member of the PCA, was identified by Whittaker Chambers at Time magazine, worked with communists in her union activities, and much more. It’s all rightly suspect. And this is observable from a single file document that took me only a few hours to review. What I’ve presented here is a very limited look. It didn’t take much digging.

Do I plan to spend the next year looking more deeply into Bill de Blasio’s mom’s political background? No, I don’t. Do I have a life? Yes, I do. I’ll leave further digging to the New York media, which I’m sure will not hesitate to jump all over this story, eh?

And as for how this relates to the current mayor of New York, well, that’s obvious. Bill de Blasio comes from the radical left — once pro-communist and perhaps still to some degree. He remains politically radical, even as New York City voters couldn’t care less. They like his radical politics.

Where would Bill have first learned those sympathies? Very likely at home, from his mom.

(Image: Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)
Paul Kengor
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Paul Kengor is Editor of The American Spectator. Dr. Kengor is also a professor of political science at Grove City College, a senior academic fellow at the Center for Vision & Values, and the author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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