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“How Could They?” Why Some Americans Were Drawn to the Communist Party in the 1940s

Kevin Baker, reviewing “A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father” by David Maraniss for the New York Times, asks “…what were his parents, and especially his father, doing in the Communist Party in the first place?…”

This moved me to ask myself the same question: How in the world could I too join that party in July 1945, despite “dreary Russian dogma” and “the horrors of the Soviet Union” which – later revealed in detail by Khrushchev in 1956 – we vigorously denied but at least partially suspected?

Looking back, I do recall a few reasons which may help explain this puzzle. Even at 17 I knew that Communists were a major force in building the labor union movement, especially the CIO, in the steel, auto, electrical appliance industries, among seamen, West Coast dockers, New York subway workers, southern sharecroppers and tobacco workers, white and black together – and not without bloodshed. This new strength was a key factor in achieving social security and the 40 hour week. I knew of the Communists’ major role in fighting evictions and personally knew a black Communist woman who rallied neighbors to carry furniture back into the home of an evicted white family.

I knew that the Communist Party, almost alone at first, had fought to save the lives of the nine framed-up black “Scottsboro boys”, mobilizing international solidarity in doing so.

Perhaps most dramatic of all, I knew that Communists formed a majority of the young men and women who overcame countless hardships, risking and often losing their lives to save a democratically elected government in Spain and prevent fascist Italy and Nazi Germany from preparing for a new world war. Their sacrifices were especially bitter because, while only the USSR and Mexico supplied the Madrid government, Britain, France permitted only Franco to obtain a victorious supply of tanks, planes, trucks and fuel from Hitler and Mussolini – and US corporations.

Indeed, I learned that Soviet Foreign Minister Litvinov had been virtually ignored by the western democracies when he called for “collective security” against fascist takeovers of Spain, Manchuria, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. I was then saddened and disturbed – but understood all too clearly why the USSR felt compelled to counter western moves to appease Hitler and push him into a conflict and defeat of the “Bolshevik threat.” Seeing their repeated preference for Nazis over Communists, as demonstrated in Spain and at Munich, it resorted to the Hitler-Stalin pact, odious as it was, in order to prevent a united attempt to destroy the USSR. This gained two precious years to build tanks, planes and other weapons in preparation for the inevitable Nazi invasion.

And how could I forget in 1945 that while battles such as Anzio or Normandy were costly and valiant, they were immensely outweighed in scope by the four years’ struggle of the Red Army in defeating perhaps 80% of the fascist armies. Nor could I overlook the immense sacrifices of the Soviet people, with more than four times as many Soviet citizens murdered by the Nazi aggressors, a majority civilians, than were killed in the horrors of the Holocaust. More than three million Soviet POWs were deliberately starved to death by the Nazis, after first shooting Jews and Communists. Such facts doubtless helped me digest some “dreary dogma”. Giant battles in the ruins of Stalingrad or crossing the Oder had also saved me, at seventeen, from being drafted and sent to some dangerous frontline.

And was it really all so dreary? In those years so many great artists, writers, musicians and film-makers were still either Communists or close to them. Theodore Dreiser, Arthur Miller, Richard Wright, Clifford Odets, Howard Fast, Langston Hughes, Shostakovich, Aaron Copeland, Marc Blitzstein, David Siqueiros, Picasso, William Gropper, Rockwell Kent, Maxim Gorki, Romaine Rolland, Martin Anderson Nexo, Mikhail Sholokhov, Ilya Ehrenburg, Louis Aragon, Sean O’Casey, Pablo Neruda, Anna Seghers, Bertolt Brecht, Mike Gold, Orson Welles, Earl Robinson (“Joe Hill” and “Ballad for Americans”) and so many others! Plus the wonderful singers I loved: Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the great Ernst Busch, who made Spanish Civil War songs known world-wide!

As for the members of my Communist Party group at Harvard, secretive because of increasingly icy Cold War tentacles, they were among the most brilliant students; witty, well-read not only in Marxism (even today not seen by everyone as dreary) but in world literature and political developments. At least seven – though later no longer Communist Party members – became leading professors in philosophy, sociology, mathematics, linguistics, Asian languages and other fields.

Yes, terrible things had happened and were still happening in the USSR. But we did not become Communists because of any adoration of Stalin. We wanted a better world, one in peace, and we admired the giant achievements of the Soviet people in overcoming illiteracy and building a giant industrial base which proved so vital in defeating the Nazis. We also admired an economy which suffered no joblessness while nearly the entire world groaned under the Great Depression.

Then too, looking backward at judging nations, I ask myself: How should a citizen of the world, or the USA, regard the deaths of three million North Koreans, the destruction of every building over one story (and allegedly some reservoir dams)? Or the killing of up to three million Vietnamese, poisoning their forests and their genes for generations, plus the mining and bombing of Laos and Cambodia with no discernable excuse? Or the support of murderous Latin American dictators, Anastasio Somoza, Alfredo Stroessner, Fulgencio Batista, Papa Doc and a dozen others, most dramatically Pinochet in Chile, the support of apartheid in South Africa almost to the bitter end, perhaps including a CIA betrayal of Nelson Mandela to the police? Or unwarranted destruction and more death from the sky in distant Serbia, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen – none of them a threat to the USA?

Should one conclude, as some do with Russia, that the USA is totally diabolic, to be hated and threatened in every way? I think not. As an ex-pat for much of my life, an exile of the McCarthy era, I have always refused to give up my patriotic feelings for my native USA – but based on the actions of its genuine heroes: John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Eugene V. Debs, Albert and Lucy Parsons; “Big Bill” Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Professor DuBois and Martin Luther King – and so many, many others, known or unknown. Those were fellow Americans who made me proud. But I could also admire great fighters of other lands, from Karl Marx to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, Fidel and Che, Amílcar Cabral and Patrice Lumumba who fought for African freedom, Ho Chi Minh and Manolis Glezos, who tore the swastika from the Parthenon in 1941, and the brave partisans in World War Two, so often led by Communists. And also the exhausted Soviet soldiers who fought for every room in embattled Stalingrad or the tens of thousands who died in finally liberating Berlin from the Nazi monsters in the city where I have been living for so many years.

No, many countries have suffered horrors, and many had heroes, heroines as well as oppressors. Upheavals and disappointments have driven home the message that blind, inflexible allegiance to any person, policy or ideology, political or religious, must be avoided.  But the world still needs changing. Those resisting this, greedier, wealthier, more brutal than ever, still stand in the way. I feel no remorse about my choice in 1945.

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Victor Grossman writes the Berlin Bulletin, which you can subscribe to for free by sending an email to: wechsler_grossman@yahoo.de.

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