Of pumpkins, anti-communism, and war

BY:Len Yannielli| November 25, 2016
Of pumpkins, anti-communism, and war

The present is connected to the past in so many, varied ways. We are in those wonderful, colorful days of falling leaves, the crispiest apples, and deep orange pumpkins. We’ve seen nature’s book before but each year with its own, new chapter. This year’s unique twists are due, in part, to El Niño and ever accelerating climate change.

Connections from the past to the present happen in politics as well. This was brought home to me with a roar recently upon reading that Roy Cohn mentored Donald Trump. What also surfaced in my mind was another dictum (this one coined by Karl Marx): History repeats itself. The first time as tragedy. The second time as farce.

Since the close of World War II, the right wing in the United States has used red baiting to attack progressive movements, such as those for peace and environmental justice.  With the most extremist forces of the right empowered by the election of Donald Trump, a look back at this history might be a warning of what’s to come.

Who was Roy Cohn? He was the lawyer who advised arch anti-communist Senator Joe McCarthy. What followed was a parade of mostly decent people before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Lost jobs, careers destroyed, relationships broken, turncoats revealed, and, in some cases, jail terms followed. (See Joe Sims on the neo-fascist danger.)

The charade was eventually exposed. The witch-hunts were decried. The Senate censured McCarthy. But much damage was done to the country and psyche of our people. The winds of the Cold War blew hot in Korea, Vietnam, and with many other military interventions e.g. Dominican Republic. How could this happen in the land of Sam Adams, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn?

The Dies Committee: from anti-fascism to anti-communism

One place to start would be the formation of the Dies Committee in 1938. This official governmental group started investigating fascism in the USA, but it didn’t take long before they switched to investigating leftists and the CPUSA. How relevant is this? Newt Gingrich, a key player on the Trump election team, has already proposed a revived House Un-American Activities Committee.

The Dies Committee had an infamous start. It decided it didn’t have enough evidence to investigate the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Committee member John E. Rankin said, “After all, the KKK is an old American institution.”

World War II and the alignment with the Soviet Union to defeat fascism temporarily alleviated persecution of communists – but ruling-class concerns with socialism, and their equating of fascism and communism as equal dangers, continued.

In 1941, a senator from Missouri, Harry Truman declared “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, that way let them kill as many as possible . . . ” It would be President Truman who would okay the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. Many feel that this act of mass state terror was more of a message to the Soviet Union and the initiation of the Cold War.

In the early post WWII years, anti-communist forces had a prize witness: a former CPUSA member who had turned rabidly anti-communist by the late 1930s. His name was Whittaker Chambers, once editor of the Daily Worker who claimed a religious conversion that led to his vehement anti-communism. Through the 1940s, he climbed the editorial ladder of the Time magazine.  What added to Chamber’s credentials was that he admitted to having been a spy for the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s. The HUAC member who saw the political potency in all this was none other than Richard Nixon, then a congressman.

Richard Nixon, media hype, and the red baiting of Alger Hiss

Nixon was a politician on the move. He knew both where his largess and political focus laid. The target that he settled on was the federal government worker Alger Hiss.

Why pick on Hiss? As a young lawyer out of Harvard, he was an investigator on the Nye committee before and during WWII. He particularly focused on the excesses of the munitions and related industries during WWI. For example he helped the committee make public a list of 181 business people who had incomes of over $1 million or more during those war years. One company Hiss went after was DuPont, controlled by a family with deep connections to the extreme right. He was so effective that the weapons maker offered him a position at a much better salary than his government position. Hiss was not swayed.

Hiss also exposed United Aircraft (later to become United Technologies) selling aircraft engines to Nazi Germany. There were debates at this time between those taking an isolationist position and others taking an anti-fascist position. Alger Hiss, seeing the war danger, took the anti-fascist position.

Hiss was also a key organizer behind the scenes in the formation of the United Nations in San Francisco, 1945. Hiss was such an important figure behind the scenes that he was entrusted with the UN Charter to be delivered to President Truman in Washington D.C. (The charter was considered so important that it was transported in a special case with its own parachute.) Decades later enemies of peace would refer to the UN as, “The House That Hiss Built.”

There was one last sin, as far as ruling class types were concerned. Hiss spoke of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. The capitalist class, in a position to profit from the arms race, wanted to erase those images of President Roosevelt visiting Moscow and U.S. troops embracing Soviet troops at the Elbe River, both in 1945. So when Chambers said Alger Hiss was a communist and a spy, Nixon had a political target in his sights. He knew how to play this card and where his support would come from. He could now take his prize weapon to another level. Every communist would now be a spy.

Prosecutors went to great lengths to establish that pilfered intelligence by Hiss was copy-typed on his typewriter. Peculiarities found on documents were traced to his typewriter. What wasn’t realized until years later was that all typewriters of the make Hiss owned had the same quirks.

At one point in the trials, Chambers produced documents that he said were a product of his spy ring with Hiss. Prosecutors claimed they had a four-foot stack of documents incriminating Hiss. It turned out that the material was three inches in height with many questions about how Chambers procured them. But media trumpeting this 4-foot stack of evidence had already done major damage.

But what did the most damage was a sensational bit of media hype, orchestrated by Richard M. Nixon. In the midst of the Hiss trial, a pumpkin was found with microfilm in it. Here was the so-called smoking gun. Nixon, then vacationing in the Caribbean with his wife, arranged for the coast guard to pick him up while in transit.  Media outlets friendly to the anti-communist hysteria were tipped off, and soon pictures of Nixon cutting short his vacation to combat the communist menace were everywhere.

Besides the media orchestration, most people missed another point in the spectacle of the moment. The evening before the pumpkin’s “discovery,” it was none other than government star witness Whittaker Chambers who placed the microfilm inside.

It gets better, or worse (depending on your perspective). One roll of microfilm was blank. The others were too damaged to be read. They were not used in court as evidence. It was later revealed that the FBI had tapped Hiss’s phone for years and found nothing derogatory or incriminating.

None of this mattered at the time. Anticommunist hysteria packed Hiss off to jail. Richard Nixon would rocket to the vice-presidency in the 1950s and the presidency in 1968. He would pursue the U.S. war in Vietnam with zeal.

If this story of media hype and trumped-up investigations has a familiar ring to it, it should. Donald Trump proved a master at getting the news media to provide unlimited free publicity for his campaign, and James Comey, head of the FBI, helped swing the election by reopening the Clinton e-mail case near the end of the presidential campaign.

Sexism, anticommunism, and war

The right wing also used anti-communism to attack and discredit the environmental movement.  Rachel Carson, environmentalist and author of the Silent Spring, saw the dangers of pesticides entering the environment in willy-nilly fashion. She also connected environmental issues to hydrogen bomb developments. Carson gave talks along the Audubon circuit, a mixed but mostly moderate political audience, to get the message out.

Unbridled anti-communism greeted anyone opposing what ruling class elements saw as their right to develop any profitable commodity – including weapons of mass destruction. Entering the 1960s, the chemical companies, including DuPont, and their henchmen in government took out their favorite political club to bludgeon Carson. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wrote to President Eisenhower, “Why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics?” He ended the letter declaring that she was “probably a Communist.”

But these smears were working less and less. Carson’s Silent Spring reinvigorated the environmental movement. The book became a classic.

Alger Hiss continued in the fight after 3 years and 8 months in prison. He spoke at Wesleyan University in 1965, as the U.S. War in Vietnam was beginning to rumble. Hiss continued his support for the promise of the United Nations and peace.

Hiss placed the problems facing the UN and the world directly on anti-communism. “If we see the world as it is and not as we have seen it through the distorted perspective of the Cold War,” radical change in American attitudes and policy toward the UN should be forthcoming.

Before Hiss spoke that day, members of the Citizens Anti-Communist Committee of Connecticut marched outside in an attempt to intimidate Hiss and anyone attending to listen. An overflow crowd of 600 people attended.

While the Cold War and anti-communism have abated significantly, as Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” The attempt at a new Cold War with Russia, particularly with the ever more dangerous possibility of U.S. and Russian forces butting heads in Syria, has gathered steam during the 2016 election cycle.

There are reflections of smoldering anti-communism at the state and local level. In 2012, then State Senator Len Suzio (R) of Meriden, Connecticut, led a movement to prevent the People’s Center of New Haven, including a People’s World office, from receiving a $300,000 state bond. Through red baiting, it was successful.

But Suzio misread the times in other ways. Cold War vitriol doesn’t work the same political magic. He was ousted from his state Senator’s seat in 2012 by progressive woman candidate Dante Bartolomeo (D). Unfortunately, the Trump victory also helped Suzio back to the State Senate, even though Clinton won Connecticut.

There is yet another connection worthy of note. Whittaker Chambers felt he was the only person in the USA that was in position to expose the “communist world conspiracy” in the late 1940s and early 1950s. How many times have you heard Donald Trump say, “I and I alone. . .”

These political messiahs almost always present themselves as the only being who could do a particular, what they envision as, courageous act. Hitler’s Mein Kampf, literally “My Struggle”, certainly takes a similar approach. Anti-communism and racism are at the core of most of these declarations.

In the aftermath of the Trump victory and other electoral losses, the necessary fights for peace in Syria, for renewable energy, for Black Lives Matter demands, and for socialism will continue albeit in a different way. Young people in the streets are now showing us one of those ways.

Photo: Creative Commons 3.0



Len Yannielli’s experiences during the U.S. War in Vietnam on the home front can be found in his memoir, Moon Shadow of War.



    Len Yannielli is professor emeritus, Naugatuck Valley Community College, Waterbury, Conn. He was the 2009 National Association Of Biology Teachers Evolution Educator of the Year.

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