(COLD WAR: 1945-49 – continued)

home | 1945-21st century

COLD WAR: 1945-49 (5 of 8)

previous | next

Politics in the United States

Reading and hearing about the behavior of the Soviet regime, many in the United States were becoming increasingly hostile to communism. What was to be known as the Second Red Scare (1947-57) had begun. The view of communists as bomb throwers who wanted to impose a tyrannical political system on their nation was on the rise. The ideology of Marxist-Leninists held that for a revolution to work there had to be the kind of support from the masses that would produce an election victory if a really democratic election were allowed, but if anti-communists in the US heard this explanation they were ready to dismiss it as more nonsense. They didn't associate communism with democracy in any way. They had examples of communists coming to power in Poland and then in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1948 other than democratically. Viewing Stalinism, they saw communists as a threat to freedom. "Freedom" was a word they were to use often through the Cold War. They believed in private enterprise while the Soviet Union had a dearth of any kind of private enterprise.

The Movie Industry

While Truman was fighting for funds to combat poverty and communism in Europe, some Congressmen spoke of their fear of Communist propaganda in Hollywood filmmaking. These were members of the House on un-American Activities Committee – HUAC. In 1945, Congress had created HUAC to investigate "un-American propaganda" of domestic or foreign origin. In the autumn of 1947, HUAC had begun public hearings on communist influence in the film industry. According to a former Communist Party leader in Southern California, about 300 actors, writers, directors and designers in the film industry were members of the Communist Party in the postwar forties. And no doubt there were more who were Marxist in outlook but who did not belong to the Party.

The HUAC hearings began with friendly witnesses, including heads of studios and the actors Robert Taylor, Ronald Reagan and Gary Cooper. The studio heads wanting to preserve respect for their businesses. The official purpose of hearings was the gathering of information for legislation. Hollywood communists would not give the committee any useful information, but it was for the House committee good theatre and it did serve the purpose of exposing communists and punishing them.

Most hostile witnesses refused to answer whether they were or had ever been members of the Communist Party, which was public exposure enough to end their careers. They were protected by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution from having to incriminate themselves. The hostile witnesses refused to answer questions put to them, citing the Fifth and the First Amendments, and the public began speaking with derision toward "taking the Fifth." Those who refused to answer questions were charged with contempt of Congress. In April 1948 they were found guilty and sent to jail for around a year.

Soon they would be joined by HUAC chairman, J, Parnell Thomas, convicted of having padded the payroll of his congressional staff.

The Supreme Court declined to take up the question whether the use of the Fifth Amendment disqualified them from prosecution, Supreme Court justices thereby saving themselves from having to make a ruling that would have been extremely unpopular.

"Progressives" and the Elections of 1948

Henry Wallace, vice president under Roosevelt, replaced by Truman, went into the years 1946 and '47 still believing in cooperation between the Soviet Union. He believed that Truman was abandoning Roosevelt's formula for peace. He complained of propaganda in newspapers and radio suggesting the inevitability of war with Russia. Wallace was a religious man and he was opposed to communist ideology, but he believed that for the sake of peace and prosperity non-communists could work with communists. He was opposed to what was called Red baiting. He rejected a friendly warning from the former US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, that the Soviet Union had been pursuing "an obstructive and unfriendly" course. As Wallace saw it, the Cold War was Truman's fault.

In October, 1947, Wallace toured the Holy Land, and his devotion to peace intensified. From the Holy Land he went to the Vatican and met with Pope Pius XII, and when he departed he was further inclined to do something for peace and universal brotherhood. So moved, on 2 December 1947 he decided to run for the presidency as a third party candidate. His third party was called the Progressive Party. By December it was too late to get the party on the ballots in all states, but organization of the new party began, with Wallace leaving the details of party organization to others.

Rushing to join the Progressive Party were those on the Left experienced at organizing – Communist Party members. They too were blaming Truman for the Cold War, and they were upset and vocal about what they called warmongering.

At the Progressive Party's platform hearings a proposal was rejected that read:

Although we are critical of the present foreign policy of the United States, it is not our intention to give blanket endorsement to the foreign policy of any nation.

During the early months of 1948, rejection of this proposal was focused on by the press, and communist participation in the Progressive Party was widely publicized. Wallace held to his principle of rejecting "red baiting" – in other words not criticizing communists. He believed that communists had a right to participate peacefully in politics and that people could work side by side with communists. He saw that the communist issue was hurting his candidacy and suggested publicly that if the communists left the Progressive Party he might lose a hundred thousand votes but would gain four million. He wanted the communists to leave, but the Communist Party chose not to heed his suggestion.

Wallace wrote an open letter to Stalin expressing desire for peace, and in mid-May Stalin wrote back, saying that,

...a peaceful settlement of differences between the USSR and the United States are not only possible but also doubtlessly necessary to the interests of general peace. note10

Meanwhile, President Truman was also claiming to be for peace. He announced that he was prepared to send Chief Justice Fred Vinson to Moscow on a special mission. But Truman's secretary of state, George Marshall, disliked the idea, seeing it as a mere election gimmick. Marshall knew that diplomatic channels were routinely open without any special mission.

During the campaigning for president, Woody Guthrie sang for Wallace, Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois supported Wallace, and the old union leader A. Philip Randolph did not. The physicist Albert Einstein sympathized with Wallace. He had supported Wallace's desire to ban atomic weapons, and in a letter to Wallace's publisher he described Wallace as one of those who are above selfish interest who can save us "from the threatening domestic and international situation." note11 None of this support was helping much, and Wallace knew he was losing. But he labored on. He suffered abuse from crowds, and as a martyr he drew on his Christian faith, speaking his beliefs, including his support for civil rights to hostile white audiences in the deep South.

It was widely believed that the Republican Party candidate, Thomas Dewey (a believer in civil rights even for communists), was headed for victory. President Truman had been suffering from low approval ratings, down into the thirty percent range.

For many, the election results were a shock. Truman won 49 percent of the vote against Dewey's 45 percent. The Democrats won back the Senate and the House of Representatives. For the presidency a state's rights candidate, Strom Thurmond, won 2 percent – 1,169,063 votes. Henry Wallace won fewer votes – 1,157,176. The Socialist Party candidate, Norman Thomas, although anti-Lenin and anti-Stalin, won only 139,569, 0.29 percent of the vote.

Having been with the Wallace campaign the Communist Party had not run a candidate. However much of a threat they appeared to many people their influence appeared to be on the decline. By now party membership was in decline, down from a peak of 80,000 in 1944 when the Soviet Union was winning against Hitler's armies. During the presidential campaigning in 1948 many in the labor movement had been offended by Wallace's third party candidacy and they had been abandoning any sense of solidarity with communist unionists. The Communist Party was losing its influence within the Labor movement, which it saw as its home. It would be said that by 1957 party membership would be down to "less than 10,000, of whom some 1,500 were informants for the FBI." note74

Opposing Communists in New York City

Through 1948, the top leadership of the Communist Party USA  was being prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1940 (otherwise known and the Alien and Registration Act) which outlawed conspiring to advocate forcible overthrow of the government. Making conspiracy illegal made possible the apprehending of ideological enemies rather than those who had committed overt criminal acts. Using the conspiracy charge, a handful of Nazi sympathizers had been convicted in July 1942 for violating the Smith Act, and the U.S. Communist Party had delighted in those prosecutions, but In 1948 they changed their minds about the Smith Act.

The accusation against Communist Party leaders was that they conspired to willfully advocate and teach "the principles of Marxism-Leninism," and thereby meant to overthrow and destroy the government of the United States by "force and violence." This was an over-simplification of Marxism-Leninism, but the US Communist Party's defense team would not be able to combat it. The Communist Party USA was conforming to the view of the Cominform and had difficulty making the case that it was opposed to violence. The idea of a peaceful evolution to Communism was being disavowed by Communists internationally, and Communist Party leadership in the US had been following Stalin's lead and had swung against what was known as Browderism. Earl Browder was Party Chairman in the US from 1929 to 1945 and had been an advocate of a peaceful and democratic transition to Communism. Eugene Dennis, Secretary General of the US Communist Party, chose language that did not impress many. He announced that if Wall Street succeeded in plunging the world into war that it would be an unjust, aggressive and imperialist war. He pledged that his party would defeat "the war aims of US imperialism and help bring the war to a speedy conclusion on the basis of a democratic peace."  Truman was unimpressed by the statements of Dennis and his lawyer. He called the Communists a "bunch of traitors."

In the summer of 1949, at what was supposed to be a Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York, people with rifles, presumably to assassinate Robeson, were routed from behind bushes near where Robeson was to sing. And the concert was broken up by a patriotic mob hostile to Robeson.

The trial against Communist Party leadership had begun in January 1949 and ended nine months later. Ten of the eleven Communist Party leaders were convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison and fined $10,000. The eleventh, a veteran with a Distinguished Service Cross, Robert Thompson, was sentenced to only three years.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.