If Communism had never had broad appeal in the United States, it was not for lack of trying. But the Socialists had been far more successful; they had their ideological origins in worker-oriented European craft guilds, and the waves of immigrants that arrived in America in the nineteenth century brought this ideology with them. The belief that government control of the means of production and distribution could save workers from the boom-and-bust cycles of unregulated economics found a political voice in 1901, when railway union leader Eugene V. Debs adopted Socialism and founded the Socialist Party of America. He was a charismatic speaker and the party grew rapidly, responsive to his appeals for worker rights and his condemnations of injustice and poverty. In the 1912 election, won by Woodrow Wilson, Debs polled a startling 900,000 votes as his party’s presidential candidate—6 percent of the popular vote. That same year Berkeley, California; Schenectady, New York; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were among fifty-six municipalities that elected Socialist mayors. Noted authors Jack London and Upton Sinclair embraced Socialism, and intellectuals and students eagerly discussed the utopias it would foster. By then the party had enrolled 125,000 members, and was considered to be in the leftmost column of the Progressive movement, which advocated reforms in society and industry and opposed the corporate conglomerates, called trusts, that monopolized markets and restrained competition.
But after the 1912 election, a hardening left wing split the Socialist ranks. The more radical joined the Industrial Workers of the World—the IWW, or “Wobblies.” Their aim was to unite all workers into a single union to bring about a Socialist government, which they meant to do through labor strikes and protests rather than political or military action. Then came 1917 and the Communist revolution in Russia. When the Bolsheviks overthrew centuries of czarist rule, increasing numbers of young American Socialists turned from reform to issue calls for revolution. They saw themselves re-creating the Marxian class struggle that pitted workers against the bourgeoisie, the middle class, and in 1919 they broke away to form the first Communist Party in the United States. At the same time, the Bolsheviks themselves, led by Vladimir I. Lenin and now officially the Communist Party, had determined to export their revolution and were flooding the United States with propaganda attacking Western capitalism and democratic institutions. They were also sending out feelers and making contacts among American Communists.
In addition to their noisy complaints about the American system and calls to overturn it, the Socialist and Communist parties in the United States both took up anti-war positions. Together these factors isolated the parties and made their members targets of laws against espionage and sedition that had been enacted amid the surge of patriotism surrounding America’s entry into the world war in 1917. Before the war ended in November 1918, Debs was arrested and jailed for giving speeches against the military draft, and federal agents prowled his audiences arresting young men who could not produce draft cards. His conviction on espionage charges was upheld by the Supreme Court in March 1919.
A month later, on the eve of Socialist May Day celebrations (which in Cleveland, the site of Debs’s original conviction, would descend into widespread rioting), a package labeled to look like a sample from Gimbel’s department store arrived at the Atlanta home of former U.S. senator Thomas W. Hardwick. When a maid opened it, it exploded, blowing off her hands, and in the days to come postal authorities uncovered a nationwide plot in which “infernal machines,” as such stealth bombs were known, had been sent in the mail to political, legal, and corporate leaders including Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan. Many of the addressees had investigated the spread of Communist propaganda through the mails, or prosecuted or presided over cases involving IWW anti-war activities and bombings. On June 2, a bomb exploded outside the Washington home of U.S. attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer, killing the apparent bomber and blowing out windows in the home of assistant secretary of the navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lived across the street. There were bombings in seven other eastern cities the same night, and all these were linked to the IWW, partly by the anarchist leaflets calling for class war using dynamite and guns that were scattered, along with body parts, outside Palmer’s home.
Palmer had already been calling for new laws against radical activities. Now he threw the full force of the Justice Department against the Wobblies and any and all anarchists, Communists, and Socialists, radical and otherwise, conducting raids across the country and detaining aliens and any suspected sympathizers. Over a matter of months in 1919 and 1920, Palmer’s agents arrested some 10,000 radicals and labor agitators and deported 800, including the noted anarchist Emma Goldman, in what famously became known as the Red Scare. His campaign failed to stop the most lethal bombing of all, however. On September 16, 1920, a bomb packed with shards of iron window-sash weights exploded outside the Wall Street offices of J. P. Morgan, killing 30 people instantly and more in the days to come, and injuring 300.
In the wake of the Red Scare, the left was effectively marginalized. The revolution-preaching Communists went underground, while the Socialists lost half their party membership as a result of Palmer’s crackdown and the appearance in the upper Midwest of the new Farmer-Labor Party, whose platform mimicked their own call for reforms. Although Debs polled almost 914,000 votes in the 1920 presidential election, it was a far smaller percentage than he had received eight years earlier, since the total vote had grown from 15 million to almost 27 million. Debs died in 1926 and Norman Thomas inherited his mantle, becoming the Socialist Party’s perennial candidate. It was Thomas, a Princeton-educated Presbyterian minister from New York, who completed the party’s transition from its worker-oriented roots to a party of utopia-minded middle-class intellectuals.
The prosperity of the late 1920s seemed to signal a death knell for the anti-capitalist parties; in 1928 both William Z. Foster, the first Communist candidate for president, running on the Workers Party ticket, and Norman Thomas, on the Socialist line, did poorly. Yet a strong current for reform remained. In the 1924 election almost 5 million votes had gone to Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin and Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, running on the new Progressive Socialist ticket. Those votes shifted to the Democrats four years later, and although the Republicans won, the shift showed that Americans preferred to seek change through the ballot box, not revolution.
But the depression revived the moribund radicals, especially the Communists, and gave them a recruiting tool. Anger over the economic devastation and the government’s inaction spanned both the cities and the farm belt, and the Communist Party, directed by Moscow, was active in both places. Although the party had only 8,000 members in 1931, their impact far outweighed their numbers. As A.N. Young of the Wisconsin Farmers Union had testified at the beginning of 1932, “The fact is today that there are more actual reds among the farmers in Wisconsin than you could dream about…. 'I almost hate to express it, but I honestly believe that if some of them could buy airplanes, they would come down here to Washington to blow you fellows all up.”
In the cities, the party organized locally based Unemployed Councils made up of the jobless, and staged marches and demonstrations to protest unemployment, evictions, and racial discrimination. Solving these problems was beside the point; the party’s organizers designed the events to provoke confrontations with the police and show the proletariet under attack by ruling reactionaries in order to encourage revolution. More often than not, they were successful. Police threw tear gas bombs to break up a demonstration outside the White House on March 6, 1930. On the same day, a crowd of 35,000 gathered in New York’s Union Square to listen to a roster of Communist speakers. Uniformed police and plainclothes detectives stood by until Foster, the party’s presidential candidate of two years earlier, exhorted the audience to march on city hall. At that the police waded in, swinging nightsticks and bloodying scores of men and women. Ample press coverage of even the smallest local demonstrations fed the impression that the Communists were a larger force than they actually were.
Nonetheless, they were indeed growing. In November 1931, the National Committee of Unemployed Councils called members to a National Hunger March on Washington. Fewer than 2,000 signed up, but the city prepared for agitation. Small groups, most from the Midwest and Northeast, headed for the capital, staging rallies and demonstrations along the way and occasionally clashing with police. But Pelham D. Glassford, the District of Columbia’s capable new police superintendent, remained low-key, saying that the marchers were “just tourists coming to Washington, but with a lot of publicity.” When they arrived in two columns of backfiring cars on a cool, clear Sunday in early December, curious Washingtonians outnumbered them. The marchers were a mix of blacks and whites, women and men, all of them weary and bedraggled. Spectators were struck by how thin the women’s coats were and by the fact that most of the men wore no coats at all, only sweaters. Most of them seemed hungry first and revolutionary a distant second.
Glassford, a retired brigadier general whose army nickname had been “Happy,” proceeded to co-opt the visitors. He provided cots for the men, lodging for the women, and food for everybody. He had also mustered a force of 1,369 police and made sure they were prepared for trouble, but he let the marchers sing Communist anthems, orate from soapboxes, and parade around with banners. When they approached the Capitol on Monday to press their demands on Congress, an army of police armed with rifles, riot guns, and tear gas bombs stood guard, with machine gun emplacements added for good measure, but by then Glassford had already defused much of the marchers’ potential to do violence.
The Unemployed Councils had a bundle of demands; oddly, none of them included jobs. They wanted unemployment and old-age insurance; free rent, gas, and electricity for the unemployed; bread and clothing made from surplus wheat and cotton; and $50 in cash to see each unemployed worker through the winter, plus $10 for each dependent. Congress refused to hear directly from the marchers, and they were also rebuffed at the White House. When they heard this, they marched and sang “The Internationale” again. Two days after they arrived, the police amiably gassed up their cars and trucks, helped crank them to life, and pointed them toward the District limits, which the marchers crossed peacefully. Those who returned to New York, where the national committee was headquartered, reached their destination at Union Square in a driving rainstorm. Surveying the rainswept square, they abandoned their plans to hold a rally, paraded once around the square in the comfort of their cars, and drove farther downtown for dinner and more songs and speeches.
But locally, the councils continued to agitate and confront police. Three thousand council-organized protesters in St. Louis converged on city hall in July 1932. When they charged the doors, they were met with police bullets and tear gas, and four were shot; in all, six policemen and thirty-five protesters were injured. In another council action in September, jobless workers in Toledo, Ohio, looted a grocery store of flour, sugar, and canned goods. In Cleveland, a crowd of between 800 and 900 was tear-gassed as it rushed a branch office of Associated Charities to protest inadequate relief. Later that fall, unemployed workers tried to storm the office of the mayor, Ray T. Miller, and were ridden down by police on horseback. In New York City, where Communist protests focused on the Home Relief Bureaus that had been placed at public schools throughout the city, riots and demonstrations brought arrests, fines, and jail terms.
Rivaling the Communists was the Unemployed Citizens League, an organization of the jobless that had grown from its beginnings in Seattle in 1931 to a nationwide presence. Its chapters stressed self-help and bartering, and direct appeals to local governments rather than provocation. Both groups pressed Philadelphia in the summer of 1932 for action against evictions and utility cutoffs, but only the Unemployed Council’s demonstrations at city hall drew police reaction and arrests.
Spontaneous, home-grown anger also erupted into confrontations. Marion Stull, the Floyd County, Iowa, supervisor of the poor, arrived at her office in Charles City one Monday morning to find fifty to seventy-five jobless men waiting to confront her. Seven of them snatched her and drove her to a town thirty miles away, where they held her prisoner for several hours and then knocked her unconscious before fleeing. When they were arrested, the men protested that Stull had played favorites with the town’s relief fund: she had moved some men from $2-a-day road repair and gardening jobs to woodcutting jobs that paid only $1.25. The town’s chief of police was later charged with conspiracy in aiding Stull’s abduction. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, homeless men armed with axes, saws, and crowbars swarmed over a dock of the Carbonic Manufacturing Company on Staten Island Sound and chopped it up for firewood. In Copper Hill, Tennessee, an architect named Charles Grimwood inexplicably ran help-wanted ads in papers from the East Coast to California seeking bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, steel riggers, mill hands, timekeepers, and bookkeepers. A thousand men descended on the tiny mountain copper-mining town. When they learned no jobs were available, some of the men stormed Grimwood’s house, mauled him, and tore his clothes before police arrived and chased them off.
At the heart of all the protests was the lack of work and the Hoover administration’s refusal to consider a jobs program. In San Francisco, George Bratt, an Amherst College graduate and actor who had turned to furniture making, was evicted with his family for non-payment of rent. With his household goods piled on the sidewalk and his wife and four children milling about in confusion, Bratt walked away, declaring that he could take care of himself but the institutions of society should provide for his dependents. His wife agreed. “I glory in his spunk,” she said. “He is fighting for a principle. As long as society has deprived him of his means of making a living, society must house and feed his family.”
Few corporate leaders shared such views about the obligations of society. One who did was seventy-year-old Daniel Willard, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In a commencement address the year before at the University of Pennsylvania, Willard had anguished over a system that could not provide work yet would not provide relief, and asserted feelings not that different from those of the homeless and jobless. In their circumstances, he said, “I would steal before I would starve.”
Congressman Kent Keller of Illinois echoed him; responding to testimony that people in two West Virginia counties were breaking into warehouses to steal supplies, he said that he would do the same thing if he were starving.
The palpable desperation and widespread protests kept authorities on edge. When six shabbily dressed men entered the Irving Trust Company branch in the Chamber of Commerce Building on Court Street in Brooklyn, New York, a guard drew his gun and ordered them to put their hands up. Three did, but the others fled, triggering rumors of an attempted holdup. Then the three who had run returned to the bank, accompanied by officials of the American Legion. They explained that the “holdup men” were veterans who had been looking for an office in the basement where the Red Cross was distributing free flour. The men had allotment tickets and had come to pick up their supplies of flour when they entered the bank door by mistake.
Fear like this was easily exploited. Prosecutors, police, and politicians blamed Communist agitation for almost every protest, as if the breakdown in society could have no other cause. It was better to blame outside provocateurs than the government’s own stubbornness. And with anger rising, public order had to be maintained at any cost. Two singular incidents, in March and July of that bleak year, painted vivid pictures of a country straining at the seams.