“A new conception of America is necessary,” wrote the immigrant labor radical Louis Adamic in 1938. Despite bringing ethnic and northern black voters into its political coalition, the Democratic Party said little about ethnocultural issues, fearful of rekindling the divisive battles of the 1920s. But the Popular Front forthrightly sought to promote the idea that the country’s strength lay in diversity, tolerance, and the rejection of ethnic prejudice and class privilege. The CIO avidly promoted the idea of ethnic and racial inclusiveness. It broke decisively with the AFL’s tradition of exclusionary unionism. The CIO embraced cultural pluralism—an idea, as noted in Chapter 20, previously associated with intellectuals like Horace Kallen and the self-defense of ethnic and Catholic communities against enforced Americanization. “We are the only Americans who take them into our organization as equals,” wrote labor organizer Rose Pesotta, referring to the Mexican-Americans who flocked to the Cannery and Agricultural Workers union.
Americans All, Immigrants All. An image from a brochure that accompanied a twenty-six-week government-sponsored radio series (1938-1939) celebrating the history of various immigrant groups and their contributions to American society. One week was devoted to black Americans. The map highlights the distribution of members of racial and ethnic minorities throughout the country, and suggests some of their economic contributions.
1. What does this map suggest about how the government was trying to shape public opinion during the 1930s?
2. How does the picture of American society presented here differ from the government’s approach during World War I?
A Dorothea Lange photograph of a sharecropper and his family outside their modest home.
Popular Front culture presented a heroic but not uncritical picture of the country’s past. Martha Graham’s modern dance masterpiece American Document (1938), an embodiment of Popular Front aesthetics with its emphasis on America’s folk traditions and multi-ethnic heritage, centered its account of history on the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Yet Graham did not neglect what her narrator called “things we are ashamed of,” including the dispossession of the Indians and the plight of the unemployed. Graham’s answer to Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s old question, “What, then, is the American, this new man?” was that Americans were not only middle-class Anglo-Saxons but also blacks, immigrants, and the working class. Earl Robinson’s song “Ballad for Americans,” a typical expression of Popular Front culture that celebrated the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of American society, became a national hit and was performed in 1940 at the Republican national convention.