Commonsense Anticommunism

Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars

Copyright Date: 2012
DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Commonsense Anticommunism
    Book Description:

    Between the Great War and Pearl Harbor, conservative labor leaders declared themselves America's "first line of defense" against Communism. In this surprising account, Jennifer Luff shows how the American Federation of Labor fanned popular anticommunism but defended Communists' civil liberties in the aftermath of the 1919 Red Scare. The AFL's "commonsense anticommunism," she argues, steered a middle course between the American Legion and the ACLU, helping to check campaigns for federal sedition laws. But in the 1930s, frustration with the New Dealorder led labor conservatives to redbait the Roosevelt administration and liberal unionists and abandon their reluctant civil libertarianism for red scare politics. That frustration contributed to the legal architecture of federal anticommunism that culminated with the McCarthyist fervor of the 1950s.Relying on untapped archival sources, Luff reveals how labor conservatives and the emerging civil liberties movement debated the proper role of the state in policing radicals and grappled with the challenges to the existing political order posed by Communist organizers. Surprising conclusions about familiar figures, like J. Edgar Hoover, and unfamiliar episodes, like a German plot to disrupt American munitions manufacture, make Luff's story a fresh retelling of the interwar years.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0171-7
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)
    DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.4

    Between the world wars, the conservative leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) played a paradoxical role in American politics. They were leading proponents of popular anticommunism, and steadfast opponents of statutory restrictions on Communist organizing. In contrast to other antiradicals, AFL leaders advocated a commonsense approach to Communism. Doubting the capacity of the law to distinguish between legitimate militancy and subversive radicalism, labor conservatives disapproved of legislation outlawing sedition. Instead they pursued a voluntarist program of evangelizing about the evils of Communism and excluding Communists from AFL unions. In the aftermath of the first Red Scare, labor conservatives...

  5. PART I The AFL and the Origins of Modern Civil Liberties

    • CHAPTER ONE Labor and Liberties: The American Federation of Labor, 1886–1915
      (pp. 9-31)
      DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.5

      In 1908, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, became a civil libertarian. He and other officers of the federation had been charged with contempt of court for publishing a notice to boycott Buck’s Stove, a nonunion iron-stove manufacturer. In their defense, the AFL leaders invoked a right to free speech and freedom of the press. “In all the history of the American Federation of Labor,” Gompers wrote, “no greater struggle has taken place than that for the preservation and the maintenance of the right of free press and free speech.” This defense was an unorthodox argument in...

    • CHAPTER TWO Spycraft and Statecraft: Surveillance before the Great War
      (pp. 32-45)
      DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.6

      Had German spies infiltrated American unions? In the summer of 1915, Samuel Gompers worried. Nearly a year into the Great War, the European powers had spent materiel at an alarming rate. England and France relied increasingly on American munitions to resupply troops. American arms manufacturers ran their factories flat out, and East Coast ports swarmed with ships loading up rifles and cannon for the trenches in France. Then, in June, Frank Buchanan, a labor-card Democratic congressman from Illinois, called for nationalizing the American munitions industry. The “armor trust,” charged Buchanan, would drag the United States into war unless the government...

    • CHAPTER THREE Sedition and Civil Liberties: The AFL during World War I
      (pp. 46-60)
      DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.7

      By the fall of 1918, the Espionage Act had been in force for over a year, and American editors knew the rules: nothing that might “hamper” the war effort could be printed and mailed. Thus, when the postmaster general prohibited theNationfrom mailing its issue dated September 14, 1918, editor Oswald Garrison Villard was “utterly dumbfounded.” He and his staff combed over the issue looking for objectionable content but found nothing subversive. One editorial supported an inquiry into the Department of Justice’s mass arrest of 75,000 suspected draft dodgers, but President Woodrow Wilson had ordered the inquiry, so surely...

  6. PART II Becoming Commonsense Anticommunists

    • CHAPTER FOUR Communism, Civil Liberties, and the Red Scare
      (pp. 63-80)
      DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.8

      As the nation demobilized, the AFL lost its privileged seat at the table of the federal government. Gompers’s old cynicism about the potential benevolence of the state was richly confirmed as the wartime labor relations framework was summarily dismantled. A huge postwar strike wave, driven by workers who had accepted wage freezes on behalf of war mobilization, provoked dramatic reprisals from employers and police. While the War Labor Board demobilized, the new federal police forces did not; the Department of Justice and the Military Intelligence Division supplied intelligence and agents to help coordinate the crackdown.

      A new civil liberties movement...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Secrecy and Surveillance: Anticommunism and the Bureau of Investigation
      (pp. 81-99)
      DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.9

      Official Washington was laughing at Samuel Gompers. His stature in the nation’s capital, so dizzyingly elevated during the war, when President Wilson solicited his advice on matters foreign and domestic, had plunged. Republicans swept the 1920 elections, sending Ohio banker Warren G. Harding to the White House. A humiliating skit at a Gridiron Club dinner showed Gompers’s reduced circumstance. A seer, gazing into a crystal ball, divined Gompers returning the White House key to Harding. Harding sent it back with a note: “May I not, my dear Mr. Gompers, ask you to keep this key as souvenir. I have changed...

    • CHAPTER SIX Surveillance Scandals and the Downfall of the Bureau of Investigation
      (pp. 100-118)
      DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.10

      During the Harding administration, the AFL was embroiled in fights on all fronts, attacking Communists, the attorney general, and the ACLU. Behind the scenes, AFL leaders were colluding with the Bureau of Investigation. Poking around the offices of “professional patriots” such as the National Civic Federation and the American Defense Society, veteran journalist Sidney Howard figured out the connection. In a series of articles for theNew Republic, published in August and September 1924, Howard charged that “the militant patriots were publicity agents for Mr. Burns,” the head of the federal Bureau of Investigation. Ralph Easley of the National Civic...

  7. PART III From Commonsense Anticommunism to Red-baiting

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Commonsense Anticommunism and Civil Liberties
      (pp. 121-141)
      DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.11

      J. Edgar Hoover was in a delicate spot. Since his appointment as director of the federal Bureau of Investigation in 1924, Hoover had worked hard to rehabilitate the BI’s reputation. Under his predecessors, the BI had swelled into a loosely supervised force of freelance agents for hire, skilled in political skullduggery and labor espionage. Charged with cleaning up the corruption, Hoover fired crooked agents and shut down the BI’s political policing operations while beefing up the bureau’s crime-fighting forces. Enforcing federal law, not chasing radicals, became the BI’s policy. Now, in the spring of 1927, Ralph Easley was trying to...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Labor’s Counter-Reformation: The American Federation of Labor and the End of Reform
      (pp. 142-168)
      DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.12

      In early November 1933, Maximilian Litvinoff, the foreign affairs commissar of the Soviet Union, arrived in Washington to negotiate a deal with the new U.S. president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the depths of the Depression, business leaders pleaded with Roosevelt to restore diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and allow American companies to resume trade with Russian firms. The heads of General Motors, International Business Machines, Curtiss-Wright, and the Pennsylvania Railroad eagerly waited for word as Roosevelt’s State Department negotiated with Litvinoff.¹

      William Green, the AFL president, fretted. The AFL had opposed recognition of Russia since the October Revolution, but...

    • CHAPTER NINE Anticommunism, the Dies Committee, and Espionage
      (pp. 169-186)
      DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.13

      In June 1938, Ralph Knox walked into the Detroit field office of the FBI to complain that Communists had kicked him out of the United Auto Workers. Knox was a door fitter at Briggs Manufacturing in Detroit, and he had helped organize the Briggs local and served as its president. Knox told the FBI that after a plant shutdown, Communist infiltrators took over the local and convinced Briggs not to rehire him. The UAW was “entirely controlled by members of the Communistic group,” he said, and reporting them to the FBI was his “patriotic duty.” Knox had written a 2,500-word...

    • CHAPTER TEN Labor’s Red Scare: The AFL and the Architecture of Anticommunism, 1939–1941
      (pp. 187-213)
      DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.14

      In 1941, William Bell, a junior assistant statistician in the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, got a taste of what, a decade later, would be called McCarthyism. His boss, the director of the Department of Labor and Industry, distributed a questionnaire asking employees whether they were members of the Communist Party or had ever signed electoral nominating petitions for Communist Party candidates. Bell replied no to both questions, but in fact he had signed a nominating petition on a Pittsburgh sidewalk in 1940. Bell had no idea that he was signing for Communists, he later explained: “I have on...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 214-224)
    DOI: 10.5149/9780807869895_luff.15

    By the spring of 1941, the legal structures of anticommunism and McCarthyism were in place. In the Congress, Martin Dies’s House Un-American Activities Committee grilled witnesses about their Communist sympathies. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was busy adding names to its list of subversives. Communists had been barred from federal employment by the Hatch Act, and the Smith Act made it a crime to advocate revolution. This “blackout of civil liberties” was merely a first step of an “organized attack which, if not checked now, will be directed, before long, against the democratic rights of labor and the entire people,” warned...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 225-260)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-280)
  11. Index
    (pp. 281-288)