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ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008


Dress rehearsal for McCarthyism

Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland
Shirley A. Wiegand and Wayne A. Wiegand
University of Oklahoma Press
2007 • 286 pages • $25

Review by JOE ALLEN

MOST AMERICANS are taught in school that, following the Second World War, the U.S. was gripped by a hysterical “red scare” popularly known as McCarthyism, named for Joe McCarthy, the bigoted and reactionary Republican senator from Wisconsin. The casualty list during this period was quite extensive, as thousands of socialists, communists, and liberals were fired from their jobs and blacklisted, and two—Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—were sent to the electric chair. Few would identify this type of political repression with the very symbol of liberalism, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the person often credited with leading the country out of the Great Depression and saving the world from Nazism. But in the three years leading up to American entry into the war, the federal government passed a series of laws initiating a short-lived red scare that, in the words of historian Ellen Schrecker, was the “rehearsal of McCarthyism.”

State and local governments also initiated their own attacks on the “reds” in the prewar period. One of the most notorious cases of political persecution was the “Oklahoma Book Trials” of 1940–41, recently rescued from obscurity with the publication of Shirley and Wayne Wiegand’s Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland. Oklahoma may seem, at first glance, to be the last place in the world where radicalism would be an issue. Most people would be surprised to learn that Oklahoma had one of the largest state Socialist Party memberships before the First World War, and sent more socialist legislators to its state legislature than Wisconsin. Or that upon hearing that the U.S. had entered the war in 1917, hundreds of farmers armed themselves and marched on the state capitol in what was called the Green Corn Rebellion.

The response to the radicalism by the good Christian politicians in Oklahoma and their business allies—especially the oilmen—was repression in the form of vigilante violence, much of it directed at the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the Wobblies, who had expressed interest in organizing the state’s oil field workers. In 1917, seventeen Wobblies were found guilty on trumped-up charges and then turned over to a mob that, according to the Weigands, “stripped, beat and tarred and feathered them.” One of Oklahoma’s most active advocates of this type of vigilante justice was state senator and newspaper editor Luther Harrison, who participated in one of the posses that crushed the Green Corn Rebellion. “Every man who followed” the rebel Green Corn leaders, Harrison wrote, “should ascend a Federal scaffold or spend the remainder of his days in Federal prison.”

Harrison used his political position to codify his reactionary views into state law. In February 1919, he introduced a criminal syndicalism bill into the legislature that “will bar…from Oklahoma forever” any organization advocating the overthrow of the government by force and violence.” Harrison boasted that, “The law is so worded as to even preclude the distribution of IWW pamphlets, songs and literature.” Modeled on other states’ laws directed at radicals, the bill went into effect with little opposition in the legislature.

During the 1920s, two Wobblies were prosecuted under Oklahoma’s criminal syndicalism law. Their convictions were later overturned on appeal, but in neither case did the courts rule that the law itself was unconstitutional. It stayed on the books in the Great Depression, a nationwide catastrophe that hit especially hard in Oklahoma. More than 80,000 Oklahomans left the state, mostly heading for California, between 1935 and 1940. This is the migration fictionalized in John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath, a novel embraced by Oklahoma’s working people and despised by its establishment.

During this time, a small number of young, energetic Communist Party (CP) members began migrating to Oklahoma to help with efforts to organize the state’s unemployed and sharecroppers. The leading CP member in Oklahoma was Bob Wood, the son of Jewish immigrants from Bialystok (now part of Poland), who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1932, but soon stopped being an active attorney because “it had a minimum of social usefulness and socially useful is what I wanted to be above all else.” Bob was initially sent to Georgia and Alabama by the CP to work on the Scottsboro Boys case with International Labor Defense (ILD), the party’s political defense committee. While in Birmingham on May 1, 1935, Bob was kidnapped by a group called the White Legion who beat him badly—with large parts of his hairline mauled from barbed wire being wrapped around his head. His kidnappers warned him, “Get the hell out of Birmingham, you damn Nigger-lover and tell your people back North the same goes for them.”

Wood eventually settled in Oklahoma City in 1938, where he opened up a storefront office for the CP. With a hammer and sickle prominently displayed in the window, the office housed the Progressive Bookstore, filled with left-wing books and materials. Bob, along with his Massachusetts-born wife, Ina, and fellow New Yorkers, Eli Jaffe and Alan Shaw, proved to be an effective team as the threw themselves into local battles for social justice. Even liberals like the Weigands have to admit that “Because of the social and economic hardships experienced by millions in the 1930s, many people questioned the viability of the American system, and among the groups whose memberships benefited the most from this unease was the Communist Party of the United States.” Even in remote Oklahoma, there were committed radicals who stirred the political pot.

They also stirred up opposition from the conservative, anti-Roosevelt Democrats who controlled the city and state, and from their vigilante supporters like the American Legion and the KKK, who regularly disrupted their meetings. Organizing around progressive issues in Oklahoma could be very tough, but it was the shift in national politics that made things much worse.

The turning point came when conservative Democrats and Republicans triumphed in the 1938 elections. This shift set in motion a systematic attack on Roosevelt’s New Deal—and on the radical Left, which was at the center of both the new labor movement and the struggle for racial equality.

The most prominent figure in the conservative reaction was the racist, anti-labor Texas Democrat Martin Dies. He created the House Committee on Un-American Activities, better known by its mangled acronym HUAC, which began hostile investigations targeting the Left, the labor movement, and the New Deal. These “investigations” led to a series of bills that attacked immigrants and radicals, who, in the mind of Dies, were one and the same. FDR adjusted to the conservative trend and signed the bills into law. They included the 1939 Hatch Act and the 1940 Smith Act (officially known as the Alien Registration Act), which allowed for, among many other things, the prosecution of anyone who advocated the “overthrow of the United States government.”

Overlapping with the new red scare came a major shift in Russia’s foreign policy that stunned many people around the globe—the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact of 1939. The American Communist Party had attracted the support of many liberals on the basis of its antifascist politics, and Stalin’s turnaround undermined the sympathy that the CP had won in the political mainstream. The party abruptly shifted from enthusiastic endorsement of Roosevelt’s foreign policy to opposing it. The CP’s opponents could now argue that the country was threatened by an alliance of totalitarian governments and their subversive agents in the U.S., whether they be the Nazis of the German-American Bund or CP members.

Taking their cue from national trends, the Oklahoma City Police Department and the county’s district attorney dusted off the state’s criminal syndicalism statutes. In late July of 1940, Oklahoma City detective John Webb put on a grubby hat and clothes, so that in his words he “looked like a Communist,” and entered the Progressive Bookstore and purchased an array of literature by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin. Three weeks later, on August 17, police raided the bookstore, the CP’s office, and the homes of Woods, Jaffe, and Shaw.

For all these people, August 17 had been a harrowing day; for those arrested especially so. Within five hours they had been carted off to jail without being told of the charges against them. All were held incommunicado and under false names supplied by the police so relatives could not trace them to the jail.

All of the defendants were terrorized while in custody as the jailers called them “Christ-killers and “Jew-bastards.” One jailer threatened death and asked, “Where do you want your body shipped?”

Three days after they were arrested, the defendants were finally arraigned in court. Assistant District Attorney John Eberle charged them with violating Oklahoma’s 1919 criminal syndicalism law and membership in the Communist Party, which advocated “effecting industrial and political change and revolution.” Eberle declared that “by writings, books, pamphlets and papers,” the defendants advocated criminal syndicalism and unlawful acts.

It was the first time the defendants learned of the charges against them and the law they were accused of violating. They were not being charged for anything they did, but for being Communist Party members and/or for selling printed materials that, Eberle argued, advocated for the violent overthrow of the government.

Eberle’s “evidence” later included material that advocated “the creation of a separate Negro government.” The defendants’ original attorneys responded to Eberle’s charges by arguing that many of the books seized from the CP office and bookstore could be purchased at downtown bookstores and were available at the University of Oklahoma library—but to no avail. Each defendant was to stand trial and face the possibility of a ten-year prison term and a $5,000 fine.

The three defense attorneys hired by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ILD faced constant harassment and surveillance from the Oklahoma police. The ILD took the lead in organizing a two-and-a-half-year nationwide campaign to free the Oklahoma book-trial defendants. Bob Wood went on trial first and was found guilty. But the later convictions of Alan Shaw, Eli Jaffe, and Ina Wood, who were charged solely with membership in the CP, were overturned on appeal in February 1943. Bob Wood’s conviction was overturned soon after.

Why the great turnaround in events? After the invasion of Russia by the Nazis in June 1941 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor that December, the Communist Party turned super-patriotic, advocating uncritical support for the Roosevelt administration. In the interests of “wartime unity,” the persecution of American communists was temporarily suspended, only to return with a deadly vengeance once the war was over, when Russia and the U.S. began to compete for global influence.

Books on Trial is a great book about a little-known incident that speaks volumes about the hidden history of the United States.

Further readings about the Smith Act and McCarthyism

Socialism on Trial, by James P. Cannon
The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower, by David Caute
Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, by Ellen Schrecker
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