COMMUNIST AGITATION, LABOR STRIFE, AND NEW DEAL LEGISLATION: SOME RECENT ACQUISITIONS
Some months ago, Wolfsonian museum founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. donated some funds to the library’s collections acquisition fund that resulted in the targeted purchase of a number of items seen at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. Some of these items, purchased from Lorne Bair, a dealer specializing in books, manuscripts, and ephemera documenting American social movements, will be the subject of today’s blog post.
One of the items purchased through the generosity of Mr. Wolfson is a collection of four German Communist Fairy Tales for Workers’ Children translated into English and published in Chicago by the Daily Worker Publishing Company. The children’s book is illustrated with drawings and color plates by Lydia Gibson, a frequent contributor to The Masses, The Liberator, and other left-wing publications.
Mr. Wolfson’s generous donation also enabled us to purchase a number of depression-era magazines produced by the Communists to enroll the nation’s youth in their Pioneer movement. These magazines employed stories, comics, crossword puzzles, and other devices to inculcate the values of Socialism in America.
A number of the items purchased at the fair were produced at the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, including a collection of Ballads of the B. E. F., or Bonus Expeditionary Force.
Many of the men who had served the nation during the First World War were in dire financial straits by 1932. Organized by former Army sergeant Walter W. Waters, some 43,000 veterans and family members descended on Washington, D.C. in the spring and summer months of the presidential election year of 1932. They aimed to lobby Congress and press their demands for early payment of compensation passed in 1924, but not scheduled to be paid out until 1945. Perhaps fearing that the “occupy Washington” movement and the marches and demonstrations by the veterans might result in the overthrow of democratic institutions—as had Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922—President Herbert Hoover refused to meet with the leaders. And while the House of Representatives approved the Patman Bonus Bill, it was ultimately voted down in the Senate. After the Attorney General’s order that the “squatters” vacate government property met with resistance, President Hoover authorized General Douglas MacArthur to clear the demonstrators from Pennsylvania Avenue. Cavalry units, infantry armed with fixed bayonets and tear gas, and six tanks were deployed to rout the veterans, and MacArthur decided to exceed his orders by driving on across the river to burn down the shanty town established by the veterans and their families on the Anacostia flats.
Needless to say in the wake of the over-reaction by the government, the incumbent Republican president lost by a landslide to his Democratic challenger Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even the right-learning publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was so disgusted by Hoover’s callous treatment of the veterans that he financed a film Gabriel Over the White House that rewrote history by depicting an activist president refusing to send the army against the “Army of the Unemployed,” and instead winning them over and converting them into an “Army of Construction.”
With the world capitalist system looking as if it had completely broken down in the thirties, Communists gained more than a modicum of credibility with their claims that the system was moribund and that the future belonged to the new economic order of Communism. With twenty-five percent of the workforce in the United States jobless in 1933 and with plenty of closed factories, some American engineers and entrepreneurs and blue-collar workers went so far as to emigrate to the Soviet Union to lend their industrial know-how and expertise to the Stalinist regime’s Five Year Plan!
Émigré American engineers appear in several scenes of Mission to Moscow, the 1943 film based on the memoir of former Ambassador to Russia, Joseph E. Davies.
Those interested in their true life experiences can turn to the 1999 documentary, Yanks for Stalin that aired on the History Channel, or, for a “rosier” recounting of the experiences of some of these guest workers, read their accounts in Those Who Built Stalingrad: As Told by Themselves.
Published by the Co-operative Publishing Society for Foreign Workers in the USSR and introduced with a foreword by Maxim Gorky, the book is illustrated with drawings by Fred Ellis, the famed staff cartoonist of The Daily Worker, the American Communist Party’s official newspaper. The work also contains an excerpt from Comrade Stalin’s greeting to the Stalingrad workers on the opening of the tractor plant in 1930 in which he equated the 50,000 tractors to be produced each year as “fifty thousand shells blowing up the old bourgeois world and paving the way to the new socialist order in the countryside,” and congratulated “our teachers in technique, the American specialists and technicians who have rendered help in the building of the Plant.”
In the mid to late 1930s, the Communist Party of the United States of America (or CPUSA) tried to move from the margins to the mainstream by abandoning their “go-it-alone” tactics and by making common cause and creating a united front with other leftists, socialists, and progressive liberals active in the struggle against war and fascism. As part of their new Popular Front strategy, the Party began to portray itself as the most dynamic organization fighting the forces of fascism, and sponsored propaganda pamphlets like the one published by the National Office of the Friends of the Soviet Union in 1935. The cover of this piece was possibly inspired by the work of committed German Communist John Heartfield, whose Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung set the standard for excellence in producing powerful photomontages.
Other materials recently added to the collection include a number of works by or about the labor movement published during the depression years, including Dynamite: the Story of Class Violence in America.
Written by Louis Adamic and published by The Viking Press in 1934, the book chronicles the tumultuous history of labor agitation and repression in America from industrialization through the Great Depression. Illustrations depict the clashes that developed during the Great Railroad Strike and riots of 1877; the 1886 demonstrations and bombing in Haymarket Square, Chicago; the textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912; the nationwide steel strikes of 1919; the demonstrations on behalf of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s, and the subsequent labor violence that continued to divide the country along class lines.
Similarly, Men and Ships: A Pictorial History of the Maritime Industry also stresses the violence perpetrated against stevedores and other maritime dock workers fighting for better wages and working conditions. Issued by San Francisco Bay Area Council No. 2 Maritime Federation of the Pacific Coast, this union-sponsored pictorial magazine focused on police violence and management-sponsored vigilante attacks on picketing workers all along the Pacific Coast during the Longshoremen’s Strike between 1936 and 1937.
A former Wobbly and life-long-time maritime union organizer and labor leader, Harry Bridges was intimately involved in this and other strikes by the Pacific Coast dock workers.
The 1949 Hollywood film, The Woman on Pier 13, or, I Married a Communist introduced American audiences to a sinister and shadowy Communist cell leader named Vanning, a ruthless villain who uses blackmail and murder to orchestrate a crippling strike for secretive and sinister purposes—a less than subtle attempt by Hollywood to smear Harry Bridges.
In real life, the government unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute and deport Bridge as a suspected crypto-Communist for decades. Bridges shifting political positions during the Popular Front period (1935-1939), the “Little Red Scare” (1939-1941), the U.S.-U.S.S.R. wartime thaw (1941-1945), and the full-blown Red Scare that developed during the Cold War (1945-1991), as well as archival evidence that surfaced after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. does seem to indicate that he did have some ties to the CPUSA.
Other materials from the recent batch of new acquisitions also dealt with labor issues, but from the perceptive and point of view of Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. Migrant Farm Labor: the Problem and Some Efforts to Meet It is typical of the Roosevelt Administration’s approach: documenting the problems with Farm Security Administrations photographs to build support for their programmatic solutions. This particular pamphlet reprinted photographs most likely taken by Dorothea Lange during her years working for the FSA.
Another recent acquisition, Seven Stranded Coal Towns: A Study of an American Depressed Area used documentary photographs backed up by graphs, tables, charts, and other statistical evidence to make its point.
Like other of the series of works published by the United States Government Printing Office during the Depression, this book was bound within modest softcover wrappers intended to demonstrate that the federal government was being frugal with taxpayer money.
Of course, farm laborers and industrial workers were not the only people laid off during the Great Depression. The economic meltdown also had a disastrous effect on the arts and entertainment industry, and FDR’s head of the Work Progress Administration, Harry Hopkins saw to it America’s artists weren’t reduced to starvation during the crisis. As part of the New Deal for the arts, Hopkins appointed Hallie Flanagan as director of the Federal Theatre Project. This federally funded arts initiative—the first in U.S. history—put actors, costume and set designers, stage hands, ushers, and other theatrical workers back into theaters in cheap or free public productions. Although Hopkins promised Flanagan that she would be allowed to produce “free, adult, uncensored” plays, some of the more controversial productions of the FTP and the director’s policy of promoting racial equality and desegregated seating provoked the ire of conservative members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and ultimately resulted in its demise in June 1939 after Congress voted to cancel its funding. Thanks to Mr. Wolfson’s generous donation of funds, our library has now acquired an exceedingly rare bulletin for the Detroit Federal Theatre production of the Merry Wives of Windsor. The production typescript includes fabric swatches and original watercolor drawings of costumes, mounted photographs of costumed players and set designs, and clippings and press reports on of this play—one of the last Federal Theatre production in the Midwest.