(photo credit 10.1)
The combined effects of the Depression itself and the New Deal programs on American values were profound. The “moral economic” values that we saw in the last chapter represented far more than an undercurrent in the mid-thirties. Particularly in 1934 and 1935, they became visible in many ways at the surface of events. Although Franklin Roosevelt had ridden the upsurge of egalitarian-humanitarian values with great skill and had, in fact, helped shape those popular currents, the flood tide of demands for economic morality now threatened to submerge the President. Demands that the New Deal move further and more rapidly to the left arose from many quarters in 1934 and 1935. Among the most prominent sources of rumblings of discontent were the factory workers themselves.
The decline of unionization in the face of strenuous employer opposition during the prosperity decade had only been accelerated by the Depression. By early 1933, union membership had dipped to 2 million, down from a high of 5 million thirteen years earlier. Throughout the decline, the American Federation of Labor had refused to take account of the changing technology that made laborers into something closely resembling the interchangeable parts of the assembly lines on which they worked. The majority of workers in mass production industries were no longer skilled, but the AFL continued to cater more to the declining number of craftsmen than to growing legions of mass production workers.
As it always does, widespread unemployment caused a further drop in union membership. A 1933 letter written by Oluf, a friend of Russell Baker’s mother, explained why workers could not think about unions, high wages, or better working conditions in hard times: “… the War is over with, the good times is over with, them days we did seat a Price on ourself, but to day we just take what we can get and must be satisfact.…” But section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act, with its putative guarantee for collective bargaining rights, provided new hope for effective organization. With the few exceptions noted earlier, however, that hope was dashed by early 1934. It was clear by then that few employers would allow unionization without a struggle. Yet 7(a) along with the New Deal in general had kindled a new spirit among many American workers. The smoldering coals burst into flame in 1934. Nearly 1.5 million workers took part in some 1800 strikes in that year. In some places the growing class conflict reached the point of open warfare. In several struggles unemployed workers joined picket lines. Previously, employers had been able to count on the needs of the jobless to induce them to become strikebreakers. It now seemed that a new class feeling was emerging.
Minnesota was one of the most progressive states in the union during the 1930s. It was under the administration of the avowedly radical Governor Floyd Olson and the nation’s most successful third party, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor party (about which more shortly). Yet Minneapolis remained in 1934 an open-shop city. The Citizen’s Alliance, an employers’ association, reigned supreme. The city’s balance of power shifted in the summer of 1934. Led by a group of Trotskyite organizers, a Minneapolis local of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters won a bloody class battle. The victory was attained despite the employers’ persistent red-baiting, the strong opposition of the Teamsters’ national officials, and the brutal violence of the local police.
The Minneapolis strikers prevailed because the city’s working class displayed a remarkable degree of solidarity. But it was not a cheap victory. In one battle alone, two workers were killed and sixty-seven were wounded. Many of the casualties were shot in the back. The bosses were playing for keeps, but so were the workers. They killed two members of a “Citizen’s Army” that the employers organized. Two years earlier at Dearborn and Washington, working people had allowed the representatives of the owning class to assault them. Now the workers were ready to fight back. An important change in attitudes had taken place.
Bloodshed helped solidify the ranks of Minneapolis workers. When one of the slain laborers was buried, some 100,000 people, including almost all of the city’s organized workers and many middle-class residents, marched in the funeral procession. “Minneapolis truck drivers,” it was reported, “would just as soon crack a cop as drink a beer.” At one point in the struggle the police abandoned the downtown area and strikers took over the direction of traffic. Wealthy residents began to flee or dig in for the revolution they believed to be starting. In the end, the workers pressured Governor Olson to help win the strike. After an attempt to play both sides, Olson agreed to allow only genuinely essential goods to be transported. This action finally forced the employers to surrender. When news of the settlement reached the workers, they filled the city’s streets in a twelve-hour victory celebration.
The victory was well worth celebrating. The workers of Minneapolis had shown what a combination of class solidarity and class politics could achieve. The Minneapolis Central Labor Union had voted its support for a general strike. Almost all unions and a vast majority of the city’s workers had been united. Furthermore, some 5000 relief workers, as well as several thousand unemployed members of the Council of Workers, had joined the picket lines. Facing such a united working class, and lacking the accustomed backing of state military forces, the Minneapolis employers had little chance of winning.
The general strike that was partially carried out in Minneapolis occurred full-fledged in San Francisco in 1934. It began among one of the most exploited groups of workers in the city—the longshoremen. Here again, conservative national leaders were repudiated by a union’s militant members. The West Coast members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) were so wary of their leaders that they held a rank-and-file convention early in 1934. No paid officer of the union was permitted to be a delegate. The workers fixed their goals and passed a resolution requiring a full membership vote on all future agreements. To further show their distrust of the union officials, the members suspended the president of the San Francisco local of the ILA for being “too conservative.” Thus reorganized, the longshoremen early in May struck all ports on the West Coast, effectively closing most of the 2000 miles of shoreline. Only in Los Angeles did strikebreakers make a significant dent in the shutdown.
The employers had no intention of giving in. Large numbers of strikebreakers were imported. The scabs were safe enough on the protected docks. But striking longshoremen “patrolled like vultures” along the waterfront. When they caught a strikebreaker they kicked out his teeth and then laid his leg across a curb and jumped on it.
The San Francisco longshoremen unanimously rejected an agreement the employers had persuaded the all-too-cooperative Joseph P. Ryan, president of the ILA, to sign. The city’s owning class then resorted to an old-fashioned Red Scare. Ignoring the unanimity of the laborers, businessmen blamed the trouble on Communist agitators. In the climate of 1934 such charges moved California laborers no more than those of Minnesota. Instead, the maritime workers, almost all of whom had joined the walkout, chose as chairman of their Joint Marine Strike Committee a previously unknown longshoreman named Harry Bridges. Bridges then, as later, faced constant charges of being a Communist. There is little evidence that he ever belonged to the party, but certainly he never hesitated to associate with Communists. Association was sin enough for the employers, but the workers of 1934 in San Francisco could not have cared less. Bridges spoke their language.
The owners resolved to break the strike by force. A major battle was fought on July 5. Like a football game between Stanford and California, it attracted a large crowd of spectators. Refreshments were sold. Belying the carnival atmosphere, however, the entire San Francisco police force was on hand at the waterfront. The curious dispersed quickly when the shooting started. Workers swarmed into the area by the thousands. People fell in the streets, horses ran over them, blood spattered on buildings and pavement, skulls were cracked by nightsticks. Two workers were shot to death. And yet the laborers fought on as if their future depended on the outcome. To a large extent, it did, since the defeat of the strike would have left the longshoremen vulnerable to continued severe exploitation.
Although the workers greatly outnumbered the police, their rocks and bolts could not match bullets and tear gas. The strikers finally had to retreat. “We cannot stand up against police machine guns and National Guard bayonets,” Bridges admitted. Still, the laborers refused to give up. The strike committee called for a general strike. The city’s labor council, dominated by conservative leaders, approached the idea gingerly. But working-class sentiment for a general strike was overwhelming, as was soon demonstrated at the funeral for the two dead laborers. The procession showed, one reporter observed, how false was the authorities’ claim that “everybody was against the longshoremen’s strike except a group of radicals.” “After the parade had started,” he declared, “no one with eyes could doubt that the masses of people were for the strike and defended it.” By the time the general strike began on July 16, almost every union in San Francisco had voted to join the walkout. Many had done so unanimously. Bay Area workers had come to see themselves as a class apart from their employers, with interests held in common.
Many San Francisco businessmen welcomed the general strike as an opportunity for totally smashing the city’s labor movement. “This strike is the best thing that ever happened to San Francisco,” exclaimed one such stalwart. “It’s costing us money, certainly.… But it’s a good investment.” Some were fearful, however. One man on the scene offered Roosevelt aide Marvin McIntyre his “guess” that “the leading citizens of San Francisco probably have their wives out of town, and some of them are penned up in the Club which is up on the Hill.” He thought, in short, “that the thing [was] … pretty much out of hand.”
The strike was remarkably effective. A journalist described the city on the first morning of the shutdown: “No street cars were operating, no buses, no taxis, no delivering wagons except milk and bread trucks which were operated with the permission of the general strike committee. No filling stations were open, no theatres, no shops.” Many small storekeepers showed that elements of the middle class identified with the workers’ goals. Signs appeared in the windows reading: “Closed Till the Boys Win.” The only places where food could be obtained were nineteen restaurants that the strikers ordered to remain open for their own feeding. San Francisco was paralyzed.
Class feeling ran high on both sides, but there was no more widespread violence. The general strike had been staged in part to protest the official violence of the preceding weeks. With mass nonviolence working so well, labor had no cause to resort to force. Nor, on the other side, could the police and National Guard be certain of a victory over such mass protest. Only federal intervention could have changed the picture, but Roosevelt did nothing, and the owners held back their forces.
As it happened, the leadership of the general strike had passed from Bridges and the militant Joint Marine Strike Committee to the conservative Central Labor Council. Old-line San Francisco labor leaders had not been so foolish as to resist their members. They had gone along, reluctantly, with the general strike and their positions gave them the leadership. On July 19 the Central Labor Council voted by a narrow margin to accept a government arbitration plan. The general strike ended. Now it was the militant longshoremen who had to go along. Their courage, though, was rewarded three months later when the National Longshoremen’s Board reached a settlement very favorable to the union. The ILA gained almost complete control over the hiring halls on the waterfront, which had been the key issue.
The outbreaks in Minneapolis and San Francisco were only the most dramatic episodes in a widespread class confrontation. The message was clear. Roosevelt had given workers hope; they did not intend to let the President, businessmen, or even their own union leaders stand in the way of fulfilling that hope.1
* * *
Similar messages were reaching Washington along different frequencies. The 1934 elections have generally been seen as a great mandate for the New Deal. Democrats won 26 of 35 Senate races that year, raising their lead over Republicans in the upper chamber to 69–25 (there were also one Farmer-Laborite and one Progressive). Roosevelt’s party increased its strength in the House of Representatives from 313 to 322, while Republican membership dropped from 117 to 103. Progressives won 7 seats and Farmer-Laborites 3. This was the only time in modern American history that the party holding the White House improved its standing in Congress in an off-year election. Republicans were reduced to 26 percent of the Senate seats and less than 24 percent of the House membership. Several prominent New Deal opponents were crushed, sometimes by previously obscure Democrats, such as Harry S Truman in Missouri. “A record number of votes for an off-year election …,” The New York Times declared, had “literally destroyed the right wing of the Republican Party.”
In most respects the Times was correct in calling the 1934 results “the most overwhelming victory in the history of American politics.” But that victory was not wholly an endorsement of Roosevelt’s policies up until that time. Certainly the vast majority of voters demonstrated their preference for the New Deal over conservative Republicanism. When that was the choice, as was the case in most of the 1934 contests, the New Deal usually emerged victorious. But a closer look at some results from that year indicates that the electorate may have been giving its blessings more to economic morality than to the New Deal per se. In several states voters were given an opportunity to “send a message to Washington.” In those states and localities where the electorate was presented with a realistic alternative to the left of Roosevelt, the response pointed to a growing desire to see the New Deal move further toward a more equitable distribution of wealth and income.
The congressional elections in 1934 saw victories by some thirty-five men who were clearly to the left of the President. Among them were Maury Maverick of Texas, Vito Marcantonio of New York, Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota, and Tom Amlie of Wisconsin. In New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, a nominal Republican with socialist leanings, had already been elected mayor in 1933. And across the nation in the state of Washington, a group favoring a production-for-use economy, the Commonwealth Builders, elected both of the state’s United States senators, one each in 1932 and 1934, three congressmen, and nearly half of the state legislators. In Utah the Reform Taxpayers’ League, a group advocating redistribution of wealth, dominated the legislature. Other states also showed signs of a trend to the left, but in three—Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California—the desire for policies more advanced than those the New Deal had thus far offered was unmistakable.
Wisconsin had for thirty years been the most socially progressive state in the nation. The major symbol of Wisconsin progressivism had been the elder Senator Robert M. La Follette. Except for his third-party presidential campaign in 1924, La Follette and his supporters had remained within the Republican party. After the senior La Follette’s death in 1925 his two sons, Robert, Jr., and Philip, asserted hereditary claim to the leadership of Wisconsin progressivism. Young Bob had taken his father’s seat in the Senate. Phil had been elected governor in 1930, but was defeated in the 1932 Republican primary. His defeat was the result of a massive switch of Wisconsin’s discontented into the Democratic and Socialist parties. The Grand Old Party was by this time plainly associated with the name of Herbert Hoover rather than with Bob La Follette and Teddy Roosevelt. Between 1930 and 1932 the number of Democratic votes in the state leaped from 17,040 to 131,930 and the Socialist ballots from 11,569 to 31,836. Rank-and-file progressives had abandoned the Republican party. But two more years passed before the La Follettes followed the lead of their constituency. Then, in the spring of 1934, they formed the Wisconsin Progressive party.
On many points, the Progressive party supported the New Deal. Yet it was plainly on the left fringes of the Roosevelt coalition. Bob La Follette outlined his economic and social views in 1932. “I am not interested in trying to maintain the status quo in our economic life,” the young senator declared. “Devices which seek to preserve the unequal distribution of wealth now produced will halt the progress of mankind and, in the end, will retard or prevent recovery.” “We have created a great industrial mechanism,” La Follette continued. “It must be run so that its benefits will be more generously and widely distributed.” More like his father than the calm Bob, Phil La Follette was an active champion of the people. In his first term as governor, between 1931 and 1933, Philip La Follette proposed several schemes, such as unemployment compensation and farm loans, that foreshadowed the New Deal. The 1934 Progressive platform denounced the existing economic system, with its “cruelty and stupidity.”
The new party evoked immediate enthusiasm among the people of Wisconsin. Within less than one month 120,000 citizens had signed petitions to place it on the state ballot. This was some twelve times the number of voters needed for the purpose. Many old party politicians had thought the collection of so many signatures in such a short period of time would be impossible. The massive support for the Progressives soon convinced President Roosevelt to put one foot on the bandwagon. FDR endorsed Bob La Follette for reelection to the Senate, but opposed Phil’s bid to regain the governorship.
Bob La Follette’s reelection to the Senate was no contest. He carried 66 of Wisconsin’s 71 counties, winning over 50 percent of the vote in 43 of them, against three opponents. Phil, however, was thought to have little chance of winning. Many voters were said to believe he was a bit “too full of ideas.” More importantly, Roosevelt was backing Phil’s Democratic opponent. This seemed an insurmountable obstacle, but when the ballots were counted Philip La Follette had won back the governor’s chair.
The governor’s radical rhetoric increased rapidly following his 1934 victory. “We are not liberals!” Phil exclaimed. “Liberalism is nothing but a sort of milk-and-water tolerance.… I believe in a fundamental and basic change.” “I am a radical,” Governor La Follette insisted. “There is no alternative to conscious distribution of income,” he declared in 1935. At his inaugural he had said, “It is essential that we recognize the fact that this American principle of popular government, and the constitutions conceived to secure it, were not designed to sustain any particular economic system.”
It is true, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has noted, that Phil La Follette’s “mood was more radical than his program.” But that mood meshed with the attitudes of Wisconsin’s working people (and the values of many Americans elsewhere). The governor’s radical rhetoric helped persuade the Wisconsin Socialist party to merge into the Progressive party in 1935. La Follette’s move toward the left combined with Socialist support resulted in a dramatic increase in urban votes for the governor in 1936. His statewide margin of victory grew in that year, but the sharpest increases were in the urban counties with high concentrations of laborers. When Wisconsin workers were given the option of voting for a “major” party (the presence of the La Follettes made any party major in Wisconsin) to the left of the New Deal, they supported it rather than Roosevelt’s Democrats. These discontented Americans did not abandon the President, but their enthusiasm for the “radical” La Follettes leaves little question about which direction they wanted FDR to take.2
The Minnesota Farmer-Labor party rose in the early 1920s out of a popular tradition of radical politics in the state. It added urban laborers to the farmers on whom such earlier groups as the Populists and the Non-Partisan League had depended. In so doing, the new party managed to elect two men to the United States Senate during the twenties. Floyd Olson, a Minnesotan who had grown up in poverty, gone to the University of Minnesota Law School, and become county attorney of Hennepin County (Minneapolis) in 1920, was the party’s unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in 1924. By 1930 the Depression ripened conditions for an Olson victory. He was elected governor by an outright majority in a three-way race. After he took office the nation’s first Farmer-Labor governor did little to push advanced social or economic programs. Although Olson believed that a growing desire for change existed, he thought it wise to avoid a sharp turn to the left until the people demanded it. But at some point during Olson’s wait for the people to catch up to him, they passed him. In order to avoid being turned out of office by discontented voters, the governor had to regroup in 1932.
In the Farmer-Labor platform for that year, Governor Olson sought to rejoin his constituents by moving to the left. The platform declared that capitalism was “on trial for its life,” but did not yet convict the system. The specific planks were considerably more progressive than those in the Democratic national platform on which Franklin Roosevelt ran in the same year. Olson’s 1932 rhetoric was also to the left of Roosevelt’s. In one 1932 speech the governor said capitalism was “steeped in the most dismal stupidity.” When conservatives in the state senate held up Olson’s relief bills, the governor issued a direct threat. “I shall declare martial law,” he warned. “A lot of people who are now fighting the measures because they happen to possess considerable wealth will be brought in by the provost guard. They will be obliged to give up more than they are giving up now,” Olson declared. “As long as I sit in the governor’s chair, there is not going to be any misery in the state if I can humanly prevent it.” “I hope,” Olson told a wildly cheering crowd, “the present system of government goes right down to Hell.”
The governor’s prestige increased as he became more open in his criticism of the economic system. One conservative newspaper unhappily concluded in April 1933, “Floyd B. Olson is the idol of the hour. He can do no wrong.” The Minnesota governor mixed endorsements for some of Roosevelt’s policies (“A lot of things that used to be called socialism”) with criticism of the New Deal for not going far enough. If anyone still doubted Olson’s radicalism by early 1934, the governor removed those doubts in his most famous speech. At the Farmer-Labor party’s convention in March, Olson gave the keynote address. “Now I am frank to say,” he declared, “that I am not a liberal. I enjoy working on a common basis with liberals for their platforms, etc., but I am not a liberal. I am what I want to be—I am a radical. I am a radical in the sense that I want a definite change in the system. I am not satisfied with tinkering, I am not satisfied with patching, I am not satisfied with hanging a laurel wreath upon burglars and thieves and pirates and calling them code authorities or something else.” “When the final clash comes between Americanism and fascism,” Governor Olson told the enthusiastic delegates, “we will find a so-called ‘red’ as the defender of democracy.”
The mood of the 1934 Farmer-Labor convention meshed with Olson’s speech. The delegates adopted a platform that bordered on socialism. Although Olson later backed away slightly from the tone of the platform, there is no doubt that the people of Minnesota went to the polls in November 1934 believing that their choice was among Republicans, Democrats, and radicals. Olson won, and did especially well in working-class areas.
Following his reelection, Olson continued his constructive criticism of FDR’s programs, but he suggested that what was needed was “not just a new deal, but also a new deck.” Olson toyed for a time with the possibility of a third-party presidential campaign in 1936. The Minnesotan, however, was not on friendly terms with some of the other likely participants in the formation of a new party. When asked in 1935 about a national third party the following year, Olson said: “I think I’m a little too radical. Maybe I’ll run for the Senate next year.” “How about 1940?” the interviewer asked. Olson grinned and replied, “Maybe by then I won’t be radical enough.” The Minnesota governor did consider a Farmer-Labor presidential campaign in 1936 premature. He criticized some “ritualists and leftists” who, he said, wanted to elect a leftist president “before they even have one Labor alderman in New York!”
Whatever Olson’s plans, he soon met an enemy more formidable than any politician. Cancer first slowed Olson’s pace in 1935, then killed him at the age of forty-four in August 1936. Although Olson’s death was a great disappointment to the downtrodden in Minnesota, the Farmer-Labor party did not expire with him. On the contrary, 1936 saw the party achieve its greatest electoral successes. Minnesota Democrats withdrew from the gubernatorial contest in return for Farmer-Labor support of Roosevelt. Elmer Benson, the Farmer-Labor candidate for governor, crushed his Republican opponent by nearly 250,000 votes, more than a 2–1 margin of victory. Nor can this landslide easily be attributed to the Farmer-Labor alliance with Roosevelt. In twenty-seven counties, including Hennepin (Minneapolis), Benson ran ahead of the President.
The 1936 Farmer-Labor sweep of Minnesota saw Ernest Lundeen join Henrik Shipstead in the Senate, party members win five of nine House seats (and lose another by less than 400 votes), and Farmer-Laborites win all but one statewide office. Taken together, these results indicate that while most Minnesotans supported President Roosevelt in the mid-thirties, many of them wanted more drastic change than the New Deal was producing.3
The same message emanated from California in 1934. There another political path open to those who wanted meaningful change was tried. Instead of forming a third party, discontented Californians took over the Democratic party.
Novelist Upton Sinclair, a Socialist most of his adult life, was persuaded by a group of Democrats to change his registration to their party and try to win its gubernatorial nomination in 1934. Sinclair had run for the office twice before, both times as a Socialist. The highest vote he had obtained under that party’s banner was 60,000. He was now convinced to try another route. “Fifty percent of the people,” Sinclair reasoned, “are going to vote a certain ticket because their grandfathers voted that ticket. In order to get anywhere, it is necessary to have a party which has grandfathers.” So in September 1933, Upton Sinclair registered as a Democrat and published a little book with a long title, I, Governor of California, And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future. The novelist described how he would be nominated and elected, and how as governor he would create a production-for-use economy in the midst of capitalist California. Sinclair predicted that he would totally eliminate poverty in the state in less than four years.
Utopian? Of course. But perhaps overly optimistic would be a more fitting way to describe Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) plan. The profit system was unlikely to wither away rapidly, especially if its only opposition was in California. And poverty surely would not be conquered so quickly. But this does not mean that Sinclair was a crank, or guilty of fanaticism, as his political opponents and some later historians have charged. The ridicule to which the EPIC plan has often been subjected is without justification. Sinclair’s hopes may have been overly sanguine, but his methods were solid, sensible, and practicable. The poor people of California, at any rate, were impressed with the ideas of this scholar-in-politics. Sinclair’s ideas may, in fact, have been the closest political approximation to the dominant values of Depression America.
The central feature of the EPIC plan was the concept of production-for-use. The profit system, Sinclair argued, had produced itself into depression. Under it, increased productivity was a curse rather than a blessing. The workers were not paid enough to buy what they produced. This condition led to unemployment, idle factories, idle farms, warehouses full of products that millions of people desperately needed, and ultimately to the unsettling spectacle of food being destroyed while people went hungry. Sinclair pointed to the absurdity of this and suggested a simple remedy. The state would take over the idle land and factories, and permit the unemployed laborers to use the land and machines to produce for their own needs. This, Sinclair contended, was a direct attack on the profit system.
The Socialist-turned-Democrat proposed the establishment of land colonies to produce food for the unemployed and state factories to meet other needs. The products could then be exchanged in a self-contained system that he hoped would eventually undermine the capitalist world around it. All of Sinclair’s proposals were frightening to California conservatives, but the production-for-use economy was clearly the most dire threat. It amounted to the old concept of a “moral economy of provision” as opposed to the political economy of the free market.
The EPIC program spread through California like an old-fashioned Awakening. I, Governor sold 225,000 copies in one year, making it at the time the all-time best-seller in California. Three subsequent campaign books brought the fourteen-month total of EPIC volumes to 435,000. EPIC clubs were formed throughout the state. There were almost 2000 of the organizations in existence by election day. The people who marked their ballots for Sinclair knew they were voting against the current economic system. Sinclair ran an open campaign, letting the voters know his opinions on all relevant subjects. He carefully spelled out what he would do if elected. The primary was not a referendum on the New Deal. All of the leading Democrats including Sinclair spoke highly of Roosevelt’s efforts. What the primary was is more accurately described as a referendum on whether the New Deal should move further to the left. This, in essence, was the question before voters in the 1934 races in several states.
Two preprimary incidents showed the lengths to which Sinclair’s Democratic opponents would go to deny him the nomination. Justus Wardell, one of the other candidates, told a campaign audience that Sinclair had “defied the power of Almighty God.” Wardell asserted that Sinclair “had stood in the pulpit of a church and taken out [his] watch and said, ‘If there is a God, let him prove it by striking me dead within the next three minutes.’ ” The person quoted was, in fact, Sinclair Lewis, but such details mattered little to EPIC’s foes. Then, two days before the August primary, circulars began appearing all over southern California and in the Bay Area. Distributed mostly in front of churches, the leaflets presented a picture of Sinclair, side by side with a hammer-and-sickle flag. They urged “the Exploited Masses” to vote for Sinclair and said they were sponsored by the “Young People’s Communist League.” No such organization existed. It was soon discovered that the circulars had been ordered by the headquarters of Sinclair’s principal Democratic primary opponent, George Creel. No doubt the fabricated Communist endorsement hurt Sinclair at the polls. The same circular continued to appear throughout the general election campaign, even though EPIC people frequently pointed out its fraudulent nature.
Some of the power of EPIC’s appeal was shown by the 350,000 California voters who came into the Democratic party between the beginning of the year and July 1934. Many of these switches were due to Roosevelt’s popularity, but most of them appear to have been people wanting to vote for Sinclair in the primary. When the votes were counted Sinclair polled a higher total than any other Democrat in the state’s history. He won an absolute majority of the Democratic vote, even though eight other names appeared on the party ballot.
Upton Sinclair emerged from his stunning primary victory as the clear favorite to become California’s next governor. The idea of production-for-use had won the minds of the state’s laborers, the unemployed, and a large part of the middle class. In September most Californians believed Sinclair’s election was “in the bag.” “Even our enemies,” Sinclair recalled, “conceded it; newspaper correspondents expressed their surprise at how leading businessmen gave up, saying there was no way to ‘stop Sinclair.’ ” The Democratic nominee’s friends even began calling him “Governor.” But Sinclair realized that the lies were only about to begin in earnest.
The general election campaign against Upton Sinclair in 1934 set a standard for distortion and lies that was not equaled until the 1972 presidential election. Indeed, the whole concept of using advertising techniques, false documents, huge sums of money, inaccurate or wholly fabricated quotations, guilt by association, and other “dirty tricks” was perfected in the 1934 California campaign. Sinclair’s novels were dissected, quotations taken out of context, and words snatched from the mouths of the author’s fictional characters. Such “evidence” convinced many Californians that Sinclair was an atheist, though he was actually a Christian socialist; that he was a free lover, though he was in fact a devoted husband; and that he was a Communist, though the only thing Sinclair and the Communists had in common was a mutual animosity. California business interests were deeply frightened by Sinclair. They spared no expense in trying to discredit him. Hollywood contributed to the anti-Sinclair campaign in three important ways. Major studios threatened to leave the state if Sinclair won. Movie executives applied pressure on stars to make statements against Sinclair. And the film industry issued several fake newsreels using unknown actors to portray Okies and people with putative Russian accents endorsing Sinclair. Actresses posing as widows appeared on other false newsreels, crying about what would happen to their savings if the Democratic nominee was elected.
Sinclair was defeated, but it is clear that it was not the EPIC plan against which Californians voted. Rather, they voted against atheism, free love, and Stalinism. Moreover, some 879,000 Californians voted for production-for-use despite all the lies about Sinclair. Actually the situation in September, when it appeared that Sinclair would sweep the state, was a more accurate reflection of how Californians felt about EPIC than were the November returns, coming after the all-out slander campaign. Some thirty EPIC candidates were elected to the California legislature while their leader was losing the gubernatorial race. Sinclair’s uncharacteristically self-effacing remark after the election—“If we had had a better candidate, we might have won”—was accurate in one sense. A less vulnerable candidate might have kept attention focused on the economic issue.
The Sinclair defeat confirmed the leftward drift of American attitudes in another way. In order to win, the Republican, Acting Governor Frank Merriam, a lifelong arch-conservative, felt constrained to speak favorably of the New Deal, call for a thirty-hour workweek, and endorse the Townsend Revolving Pension Plan. Conservatives had to pose as progressives to have any hope of winning in the mid-thirties. The American political structure as a whole had tilted perceptibly leftward.
In most of the 1934 elections in which plausible candidates to the left of Roosevelt appeared, they won. This was a firm indication of the direction in which many Americans, particularly those on whom Roosevelt’s political future depended, wanted to move. The votes for these candidates were not anti-Roosevelt votes—at least not yet. But the possibility that such voters would turn against the President if he did not produce more constructive change was a real one.4
While Roosevelt brooded over the meaning of the worker and political uprisings of 1934, even more serious rumblings on the left were threatening him. The strikes, though widespread, were generally local in their individual manifestations. The important political challenges were confined to fewer than ten states. But three movements of national significance were growing stronger every day.
Senator Huey P. Long, Father Charles E. Coughlin, and Dr. Francis Townsend developed immense followings in the mid-thirties. To some observers, their movements represented a frightening potential for fascism in Depression America. Others have insisted that the populist messages of Long and Coughlin, at least, are more properly seen as part of the growing strength at the opposite end of the political spectrum—part, that is, of the thunder on the left.
The notion that these three leaders were gathering the storm troopers for a future fascist America began with contemporary liberals. Raymond Gram Swing, in several articles in The Nation and in his 1935 book, Forerunners of American Fascism, charged that Long and Coughlin were following in the footsteps of Hitler and Mussolini. Swing admitted that Townsend was not a fascist, but asserted that his movement was helping pave the way for a future demagogue to establish a right-wing dictatorship. This interpretation of the three movements has persisted in the work of liberal historians. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing under the heading “The Dream of Fascism,” asserts that the “followers of the demagogues mostly came from the old lower-middle classes, now in an unprecedented stage of frustration and fear, menaced by humiliation, dispossession, and poverty.” “They came, in the main,” Schlesinger contends, “from the ranks of the self-employed, who as farmers or shopkeepers or artisans, felt threatened by organized economic power, whether from above, as in banks and large corporations, or from below, as in trade unions. To a considerable degree, they came from the evangelical denominations … in sum, they seemed to represent Old America in resentful revolt against both contemporary politics and contemporary economics.” Alan Brinkley’s recent study of Long and Coughlin downplays the threat of fascism but agrees with Schlesinger that the movements were composed principally of “men and women clinging precariously to hard-won middle-class lifestyles; people with valued but imperiled stakes in their local communities.”
Such interpretations miss one of the main points about the Depression’s effect on American values. As we have seen, the economic collapse slowly led many middle-class Americans to identify their interests with those of people below them on the economic scale. The Depression brought forth among middle-class Americans egalitarian and humanitarian values that they came to share with working-class people. In short, the distinction between the middle class and the working class in the United States—never very precise anyway—became extremely blurred in the Great Depression. Perhaps more important was that the common values this larger group of down-and-out Americans came to share during the Depression were more nearly those previously held by the workers than those of the middle class.
As a young priest, Charles Coughlin was made pastor of a small parish in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He was charged with building a shrine to the Church’s newest saint, Therese, the “Little Flower of Jesus.” The first obstacle confronting Coughlin was the activity of the Ku Klux Klan in the Royal Oak area. A burning cross greeted the new pastor. To combat the bigotry of the Klan, Father Coughlin sought permission to read his sermons on the radio. The religious program proved a quick success in heavily Catholic Detroit. For three years the “Radio Priest” entertained local audiences but remained unknown outside the Detroit metropolitan area.
Then, in the fall of 1929, Coughlin decided to begin speaking on economic and social questions that had moved him since his college days. The priest obtained time on radio stations in Chicago and Cincinnati, greatly enlarging his audience. In 1930, Coughlin signed a contract with CBS and his sermons were delivered over a sixteen-station network. Father Coughlin’s first attacks, in early 1930, were against Communists. This was a safe subject, and the priest’s audiences continued to grow. Coughlin next became daring enough to switch from assaults on Bolsheviks to attacks on bankers. He then turned his developing fury on another easy mark, Herbert Hoover. In early 1932 the priest charged that the President was “the bankers’ friend, the Holy Ghost of the rich, the protective angel of Wall Street.” One such radio address against Hoover was said to have elicited 1.2 million letters to Coughlin from his listeners.
The Radio Priest (a title that most Americans of the thirties would instantly associate with Coughlin) was now a force to be reckoned with in American politics. Coughlin developed his own network of 26 stations from Maine to Colorado. (He had been eased out by CBS and refused time by NBC.) Father Coughlin was just about the biggest thing ever to hit radio. His audience was estimated at 30 to 40 million. He attracted a larger audience than such radio favorites as Rudy Vallee, Gracie Allen, and Amos ’n’ Andy. Indeed, he had the largest regular radio audience in the world. No clergyman in history had ever before preached to such a following. The priest employed 106 clerks and 4 personal secretaries to handle his mail, which averaged 80,000 letters per week. A poll taken by a St. Paul, Minnesota, radio station asked if people wanted to hear the priest’s program. The response was overwhelming: 137,000 said yes and 400 said no.
If the millions of people listening to Coughlin’s broadcasts were protofascists, America was in serious danger of losing democracy in the 1930s. But the thrust of the Radio Priest’s sermons in 1934 and 1935 was quite distinct from fascism. Coughlin expressed the basis of his position in these years when he said: “I glory in the fact that I am a simple Catholic priest endeavoring to inject Christianity into the fabric of an economic system woven upon the loom of the greedy.” This remained his fundamental public position until at least 1936. He frequently changed his specific panacea, but all were based on the idea of redistributing wealth through monetary manipulation.
To Father Coughlin, international bankers ranked in the devil class right next to Communists. He even lumped the two together, saying capitalism and Marxism were “Siamese twins.” The potential for fascism in such statements is undeniable. In this sense, Coughlin was a forerunner of such later right-wing extremist groups as the John Birch Society and those who fear today that a Communist-banker-Jewish-internationalist conspiracy headed by the capitalist Baptist Rockefeller family is trying to seize control of the world. In addition, the priest sometimes made blatantly undemocratic statements. Speaking of his new organization, Coughlin told reporters in May 1935: “I am the Union for Social Justice. There are no representatives here.” A year later he affirmed: “If necessary, I shall ‘dictate’ to preserve democracy.” Yet a potential for fascism does not mean that this was the basis of Coughlin’s appeal in the mid-thirties.
Coughlin’s arguments were simplistic but effective. He based his appeal on traditional American values, promised change, and personalized evil by offering his followers a group of villains they could hold responsible for their problems. When he lashed at the banking community Coughlin was striking a chord to which millions of Americans could respond in the thirties. But the economic problem went far beyond greedy financiers, and Father Coughlin demonstrated that he realized this. In December 1932 he declared that increased productivity without a proper distribution of the profits was the root cause of the Depression. Frequently the priest asserted that concentration of wealth was the nation’s most serious problem. Coughlin read his audience statistics claiming that the profits of the wealthy had “increased 66 percent between 1926 and 1932, while wages and salaries dropped 60 percent in the same period.… What phrase shall we employ,” asked Coughlin, “to term this injustice other than ‘exploitation of the laboring class’?”
In his early radio career Coughlin held that private property must be defended, but that its owners must accept their social responsibility. By 1934 he seemed to have changed his mind. “Capitalism,” the priest declared, “is doomed and not worth trying to save.” As an alternative Coughlin organized the National Union for Social Justice. Although the union never became a real political organization (in part because Coughlin loved power too much to delegate any of it), it was a powerful force in the mid-thirties. Being a member of the NUSJ meant little more than being a listener to Coughlin’s broadcasts. But the millions of Americans who embraced the organization’s principles were thereby endorsing the idea of “social justice,” not that of fascism.
When the New Deal was six months old, Coughlin said that FDR ranked in the “American Hall of Fame” with Washington and Lincoln. The priest went so far as to term the New Deal “Christ’s Deal” and to state that the alternatives were “Roosevelt or ruin.” As time passed, however, Father Coughlin, like many of the nation’s workers, lost patience with Roosevelt and his New Deal. During late 1934 and most of 1935, Coughlin’s statements on the New Deal bounced faster than a Ping-Pong ball. After charging that the administration was “wedded basically to the philosophy of the money changers,” the priest could still tell reporters: “I sincerely hope to be able to support Mr. Roosevelt again.” The seemingly final break came in November 1935, when Coughlin stated that the New Deal and the principles of social justice were “unalterably opposed.” The Communist-infiltrated New Deal, he said, was “a government of the bankers, by the bankers, and for the bankers.” Many of the priest’s followers deserted him after his vicious attacks on FDR, but Coughlin responded by increasing the offensive.
By 1936, Coughlin had passed the peak of his popularity, although he was not prepared to admit it. He began to edge more toward fascism, and those who remained his staunch supporters much more nearly fit the lower-middle-class, protofascist description that Schlesinger and Brinkley have applied to his earlier followers. At the convention of the NUSJ held in Cleveland in August 1936, fanatical, emotional followers of the priest “indulged in cries, shrieks, moans, rolling of the eyes, and brandishing of the arms.” Some delegates spoke as if Coughlin were Christ come back to earth. Huge pictures of the cleric hung from the rafters. The ultimate came when a resolution was introduced “that we give thanks to the mother of the Reverend Charles E. Coughlin for bearing him.”
Such a cult of personality was incompatible with democracy, and Coughlin’s popularity began to fall off. In 1938 the priest declared his support for the “corporate state” concept advocated by Benito Mussolini. His anti-Semitism now became open. By 1940, Coughlin was praising Adolf Hitler. All this has led many critics to use hindsight to argue that Coughlin’s appeal was a fascist one from the start and that his followers were from the background one would expect to spawn fascists: threatened elements of the lower middle class. Yet studies of the Radio Priest’s supporters have indicated that much of his backing came from a lower level and that his appeal was originally one essentially from the left, concentrating on “social justice.”5
The same cannot be said so easily of the movement that grew up around Dr. Francis E. Townsend, a retired medical doctor who was sure that he had found a cure-all formula for America’s economic ills. Townsend had long been something of a utopian (Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward was his favorite book), and he now believed he had uncovered the ticket to the promised land. In September 1933, Townsend wrote a letter to the editor of a Long Beach newspaper. In it he explained his “Cure for Depressions.” The response to Townsend’s letter was enormous. Within a few weeks an entire page of the newspaper was taken up each day with letters discussing Townsend’s idea. The good doctor was overwhelmed. He had planned no concrete action following his original letter, but Townsend quickly rose to the task. By January 1934, he had persuaded his former employer, Robert E. Clements, a real-estate dealer, to help him promote the plan. The two men, along with Dr. Townsend’s brother, formed a corporation, Old Age Revolving Pensions, Ltd. (OARP).
The Townsend Plan, which the new corporation set out to promote, was disarmingly simple. It proposed to pay every American citizen over the age of sixty $200 each month, provided that he or she had never been convicted of a crime, agreed to give up all other income, and pledged to spend the $200 within thirty days. Townsend contended that his plan would end the Depression and benefit young as well as old. The aged would no longer compete with younger people for jobs, the economy would be stimulated by all the purchases the elderly would make, and everyone would live happily ever after.
There was only one catch. Someone would have to pay for making every senior citizen a king or queen. Townsend’s proposal was for a 2 percent “transaction tax,” a glorified sales tax that, the doctor said, would be fair because “it taxes everybody alike.” That was just the trouble. The tax would be extremely regressive. An enormous sum would be transferred to the one-eleventh of the population that was over sixty. The money would not come, though, principally from those who were already rich, but from the impoverished American consumers. In short, Townsend would help one poor group (the aged) at the expense of another (working-class consumers). The rich would be unharmed, the economy unhelped.
The Townsend Plan was essentially conservative. Unlike Huey Long, or even Father Coughlin, Townsend never seriously proposed to soak the rich. He indicated no desire to challenge the basic tenets of capitalism. “We believe that the profit system is the very mainspring of civilized progress,” OARP leaders said. (They were not lying. Robert Clements demonstrated his own dedication to profit by making a small fortune out of the activities of the Townsend Plan, which he fondly called “the racket.”)
Townsend offered the American middle class—particularly its older members—a panacea, and he presented it in terms that they could understand. It was very attractive. A married couple, both over sixty years of age, would be given $4800 a year. What this meant can be fully appreciated only when it is realized that 87 percent of all American families had annual incomes below $2500 in 1935. That fact in itself indicates the plan was unworkable.
The Townsend Plan had the distinction of being opposed by the Liberty League, the Socialist party, the Communist party, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Federation of Labor. Professional economists were as nearly unanimous as they have ever been in their opposition to the plan. Its annual cost would have been 50 percent more than the combined budgets of all American governments—federal, state, and local—had been in 1932. The sum Townsend proposed to pay to the aged was one-half of the national income for 1934. A sales tax that would have provided sufficient revenue for Townsend’s scheme would have amounted to an 80 or 90 percent increase in the final price of consumer goods. The greatest fallacy of the Townsend Plan was the belief that the economy could be balanced through a redistribution of income among the poor. If the plan had been financed through a tax on wealth, instead of one on consumption, a scaled-down version might have been feasible. But recovery could never be brought about, as the New Deal’s own social security program would show, by taking from one disadvantaged group to give to another.
All of this mattered little to the plan’s followers. The sandcastles that Dr. Townsend built were very pretty and his movement flourished. Public sentiment was ripe for a plan to aid the aged. When asked in December 1935 whether they favored government old-age pensions for needy persons, a whopping 89 percent of a cross section of Americans answered affirmatively. The response to the Townsend Plan was phenomenal. In 1936, Townsend Club leaders claimed a nationwide membership of 3.5 million. In only three months Townsendites collected over 20 million signatures on their petitions. This represented one-fifth of the adults in the United States. No other cause in American history has ever obtained so many signatures on its petitions. Two 1936 public opinion surveys showed even greater support for the doctor’s scheme. Approximately one-half of the Americans surveyed early in 1936 favored the plan.
The multitudes who followed Dr. Townsend were not, for the most part, the same people who participated in the other movements discussed in this chapter. The Townsendites were, first of all, old. The overwhelming majority of those who were active in the movement stood to benefit directly if the plan was enacted. Most young people were uninterested in the Townsend scheme. Even more significant than the age of the participants were their predominantly middle-class origins. They came from the ranks of the self-employed—small businessmen and farmers—with some skilled workers, but very few unskilled workers and very few wealthy individuals.
The Townsendites were, in a word, respectable. Most were reported to want a more reputable candidate than Huey Long. Townsend meetings always contained heavy doses of patriotism and religion. Townsend conventions were attended by elderly, Bible-toting prohibitionists. The first resolution passed at the first Townsend convention in 1935 was a rule against smoking in the auditorium. Townsend speakers showed their bourgeois values when they said the plan would “make jobs for young people and take them out of their cigarette-smoking, whiskey-drinking, road-side-petting hell of idleness.” If anyone had conducted a survey to see just how many of the young wanted to be rescued from this inferno, its results were not announced.
The Townsend Plan was the least radical of the major panaceas offered the American people in the thirties. It is, therefore, unsurprising that its appeal was to a higher point on the socioeconomic scale than were those of Long and Coughlin. The Townsend Plan marked the stage of discontent that many middle-class people had reached by the mid-thirties. Their unrest was “based on the essential fact that there [was] … in this country enough to provide a comfortable living for everyone.” As unhappy as many Americans below them on the social scale, the middle-class Townsendites were not yet prepared to go as far.6
The popularity of Huey Long’s calls for radical redistribution of wealth and income was the most striking example of the widespread thunder on the left of the mid-1930s. Senator Long was a man who evoked extreme emotions of love or hate. The controversy has continued in historical scholarship. Only in the last two decades have more objective studies of Long appeared. Even today, however, neutrality on the subject of Huey Long remains elusive.7
Huey Pierce Long, Jr., was reared in a large farm family in the hill country of north-central Louisiana. Huey’s father was something of a radical. “There wants to be a revolution, I tell you,” the old man said in 1935. “I seen this domination of capital, seen it for seventy years. What do these rich folks care for the poor man? They care nothing—not for his pain, his sickness, nor his death,” the senior Long continued. “Maybe you’re surprised to hear me talk like that. Well, it was just such talk that my boy was raised under.” Such sentiments were not unusual in the Louisiana hill country. The region had been a center of Populist strength in the 1890s. Fifteen years later, the hill country was strong for the Socialist party. In 1912, Long’s home parish (county), Winn, cast 35.5 percent of its presidential votes for Eugene Debs.
Young Huey Long adopted the radicalism of his neighbors. In 1918, at the age of twenty-four, Long wrote a letter to the New Orleans Item in which he asserted that “about sixty-five or seventy percent of the entire wealth of the United States is owned by two percent of the people.” With “wealth concentrating, classes become defined,” he said, “there is not the opportunity for Christian uplift and education and cannot be until there is more economic reform.” Already, Huey Long favored a redistribution of wealth.
The program Long offered the electorate when he ran unsuccessfully for the governorship in 1924 and successfully four years later was aimed at the poor, discontented farmers of upland Louisiana and the smaller number of industrial workers in the state. Long appealed, in fact, to the same groups that had supported populism and socialism. A sociologist who studied Louisiana voting patterns has found a strong correlation between the votes for the Populists, the Socialists, and Huey Long. There is no question that Long’s Louisiana supporters came predominantly from the ranks of the poor, both farmers and industrial workers. Long’s election was largely the result “of a rising tide of opposition to intolerable economic and social conditions.” Huey Long was in two critical ways unlike most southern politicians who appealed to the poor in election campaigns. First, he did not sell out to “the interests” when he took office. Long did more for the underprivileged people of Louisiana than had any other governor in the state’s history. He vastly improved education, taxation, roads, medical care, and public services. The second way in which Long differed from other southern “populists” was the nearly complete absence of racism in his public statements.
Absolute power in Louisiana was not Huey Long’s goal. It was merely a means to his real end: the presidency of the United States. Long entered the national political arena by winning a seat in the United States Senate in 1931. After solidifying his control of Louisiana, Huey went to Washington in 1932. He campaigned effectively for Franklin Roosevelt in the fall, but broke with the new President soon after the latter took office. Early in FDR’s presidency Huey Long told some of his Senate colleagues: “Men, it will not be long until there will be a mob assembling here to hang Senators from the rafters of the Senate. I have to determine whether I will stay and be hung with you, or go out and lead the mob.” In another speech Long told the Senate that he would steal if he saw his family starving. “Unless we provide for redistribution of wealth in this country,” he declared, “the country is doomed.”
By early 1934 the Louisiana senator saw the New Deal as a complete failure. “Not a single thin dime of concentrated, bloated, pompous wealth, massed in the hands of a few people, has been raked down to relieve the masses,” Huey complained. In order to pressure Roosevelt to move to the left (and, much more than coincidentally, in order to advance his own presidential ambitions), Long organized the Share Our Wealth Society in February 1934. The organization’s appeal was the same one Long had been using all along. He had written to supporters in 1933, pointing out, “I announced when I came here that I had taken my place in the Senate for one main purpose, which was to break up the swollen fortunes of America and to spread the wealth among all our people.…” Long was fighting, he said, “only along the line that in the land of too much to eat and wear, everyone should be happy.” “The only thing in the way,” the senator insisted, “is a few who have more than they need, just to have their vanity and greed satisfied.” Later in 1933, Long started a national newspaper, The American Progress. In a letter announcing the new journal, the Kingfish (a name Long took from a scheming character on the Amos ’n’ Andy radio show) continued his arguments on redistributing wealth. “We must fight,” Long told his followers, “to avoid the country being opened up on a basis of mere economic slavery for the masses, with the ruling classes greater in power and standing than ever.” Like Father Coughlin, Senator Long employed the device of personifying evil. Long described the rich as “pigs swilling in the trough of luxury.” Such terms made it easier for Long’s followers to visualize the enemy.
The basic thrust of the Share Our Wealth program was the promise to limit the size of fortunes to the degree necessary to provide a $5,000 estate for each “deserving family” in America. Long was not in favor, he said, of “leveling.” “We do not propose,” he wrote in his Share Our Wealth pamphlet, “to guarantee the same income to everybody, but by limiting big fortunes and the hours of toil, we do propose a comfortable living for all.” Just what the limit on wealth would have to be remained undecided. In a February 1934 radio speech, Long suggested that $50 million might prove a workable limit; but he added, “It may be necessary, in working out the plans that no man’s fortune would be more than $10,000,000 or $15,000,000.” A paragon of reason, Huey did not seek to take away anything the rich needed. He would, in fact, leave them “all the luxuries they can possibly use.” He proposed merely to confiscate through income and inheritance taxes and an annual capital levy, that for which the rich had no legitimate use. Long told his followers that “the same mill that grinds out fortunes above a certain size at the top, grinds out paupers at the bottom.”
Long’s figures on the size of fortunes that could be left untouched were grossly unrealistic. The surplus wealth of the nation’s rich—while immense by individual standards—was in the aggregate not nearly as great as Long (and most Americans) thought. A study in 1935 estimated that if all wealth in excess of $1 million were taken and given to those with assets of $5000 or less, there would be enough to grant each poor family only $400. Another study suggested that the sort of really drastic “leveling” Long had disavowed would be necessary to give every family a $5000 estate. To accomplish this, it would be necessary to allow no family to have more than $7500, a far cry from the senator’s suggestion of $50 million.
Yet none of this mattered much. Most people were not interested in the details (particularly if they brought up unpleasant realities). The plan was simplistic, to be sure, but it did begin to address the largest economic problem in America. The general idea that Long enunciated was in tune with the values of millions of dispossessed Americans. A contemporary writer said that the SOW program “coincides pretty accurately with the aspirations and interests of the common man and, if accepted as sincere and feasible, is calculated to muster an enormous volume of popular support for the Kingfish.” That great support was evident almost everywhere. “Every person in the United States who can read, and many who can’t,” one of Long’s most vocal opponents admitted in early 1935, “know at least vaguely who Huey Long is and what he is driving at.”
It is doubtful that everyone knew about SOW, but the statistics of the movement were extremely impressive. In February 1935, only one year after its founding, SOW officials announced that there were 27,000 clubs in operation. Long’s files contained nearly 8 million names. Mail poured into Long’s Senate office in unprecedented quantities. An average of 60,000 letters a week arrived in April 1935. And during one of the Kingfish’s verbal assaults on Roosevelt, Long received over 30,000 letters each day for twenty-four consecutive days.
Of such facts are the sleepless nights of presidents made. In the summer of 1935, the Democratic National Committee conducted a secret poll on Long as a possible third-party presidential candidate. The Democrats were shocked to learn that between 3 million and 4 million Americans might vote for Long and wealth-sharing. Even more disturbing to New Dealers were the indications that Long had strong support in the midwestern Farm Belt and in the industrial regions along the Great Lakes (12.5 percent) and even the Pacific coast (12.1 percent). The 1935 poll showed that Long could command a minimum 100,000 votes in New York. It was reported separately that he might have obtained 250,000 votes in Ohio. Such a Long candidacy could throw the election to the Republicans. This was a fate Franklin Roosevelt did not want to see befall his countrymen. The President was already engaged in a secret war against Long. The White House offered encouragement to the senator’s opponents in Louisiana, denied patronage to Long’s supporters, secured the help of other southern senators in attacking Long, and even had the Justice Department and the FBI investigate the possibility of sending troops into Louisiana to “restore republican government.”
Particularly notable in the results of the 1935 secret survey were the indications about Long’s followers. Among those on relief, 16.7 percent voted for Long, compared to only 7.8 percent among those not on relief. Again it is clear that the Long appeal, like that of Coughlin, was mainly to the lower reaches of the socioeconomic scale.
Long maintained that a fairer distribution of wealth would strengthen capitalism. When a liberal writer said that it appeared as if Huey wanted to save the rich people he always criticized, Long replied: “That would be one of the unfortunate effects of my program. I’d cut their nails and file their teeth and let them live.” The basis of Long’s wealth-sharing belief—that “there is enough, yea, there is more than the entire human race can consume, if all are reasonable”—was a production-for-use economy. National opinion surveys confirmed that a majority of poor Americans had come to favor ideas similar to Long’s. The 1935 and 1937 Fortune polls mentioned in the preceding chapter, which showed the poor opposed by a 2–1 margin to allowing people with investments worth over $1 million to keep them, and a sizable majority of the poor favoring “a policy of taking money from those who have much and giving money to those who have little,” left no doubt that there was a large potential constituency for Long.
One of Long’s followers in Arizona used phrases similar to those employed by countless others when he called Louisiana “a real democracy.” Long, he said, had “lifted Louisiana from the mud of indecent, shameful exploitation by the rich, to a high level of civilization.” Yet if there was one thing that Louisiana certainly was not while Huey Long was in charge, it was a democracy. He was, quite simply, a dictator—a popular one who remained dependent upon public approval, but a dictator nonetheless. Long made a mockery of legislative processes, openly telling state lawmakers which bills passed and which were rejected. Although he did much good for the downtrodden people of Louisiana, his methods cannot be excused. Once we begin to allow worthy ends to justify repulsive means, democracy is on its way out. It is safe to speculate that a Huey Long presidency would have been a disaster for the United States.
By 1935, Long was making it plain that he was likely to support an independent presidential candidate the following year. His apparent plan was to siphon enough votes from Roosevelt to elect a Republican in 1936. Long believed that things would get so bad under a Republican administration that the people would turn to him in 1940. The Kingfish would be only forty-six when the new decade began, so there seemed to be plenty of time.
There was not. Before Long’s last book, My First Days in the White House, could reach his public, an assassin’s attack ended any possibility that fiction might become fact. As Long stood talking to aides in a corridor of the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge on the night of September 8, 1935, Carl Weiss, a young physician who saw Huey as a tyrant and whose father-in-law had been wronged by the Long political machine, walked up to the senator and shot him with a pistol. Long’s bodyguards responded by emptying their guns into Dr. Weiss. His body was riddled with more than thirty bullets. The senator had been struck by only one shot, under his ribs. He was taken to a nearby hospital and remained conscious until he was operated on two hours later. Although the operation took place with various politicians and Long hangers-on crowding the room, it seemed to be successful. The surgeon, however, had failed to check for damage to Long’s kidney, and it later became apparent that internal hemorrhaging was continuing. Too weak to withstand another operation, Huey Long grew steadily weaker; within two days he was dead.8
If there was all this discontent on the left in the mid-1950s, it is reasonable to ask why the nation did not move further in that direction. There are several answers, the most fundamental of which was offered by Norman Thomas: “It was, in a word, Roosevelt.” There were also, however, other factors in the failure of the left to accomplish more during the Great Depression.
The number of people attracted to one or more of the “radical” schemes or leaders was immense. Surely there was some overlap in the followings of Long, Coughlin, Townsend, Sinclair, Olson, the La Follettes, and other left-leaning leaders and organizations. Yet the principal leaders appealed to different groups and won their greatest number of adherents in different sectors of the population: Long in the South and rural areas, Coughlin in the Midwest and Northeast and among Catholics, Townsend on the Pacific coast and among the elderly. To a considerable extent the membership in these movements was additive. If they were, as some critics called them, the “lunatic fringe,” then that fringe was approaching majority status in 1935.
Accordingly, it was the possibility that the demagogues and leftists would unite that struck fear into the hearts of Roosevelt administration political strategists. That danger was never very great. Although they were all—with the partial exception of Townsend—pointing toward essentially the same set of values, the leaders could never have effectively joined forces. A comment labor historian Edward Thompson made about English radicals a century earlier applies to their American counterparts during the Great Depression: “The greatest cause of Radical disagreement was sheer vanity.” Such men as Huey Long and Charles Coughlin were addicted to public adulation. Leaders who so loved the limelight were completely incapable of subordinating their personal ambitions and vanity to a greater cause.
Here the largest problem facing the American left in the Great Depression becomes apparent. The values upon which a movement for more fundamental change could have been built were increasingly popular, but no organizational structure existed to translate the changed attitudes into political power. Hence the politics of economic morality became personalized and fell by default to flamboyant leaders who were skilled radio speakers. Long and Coughlin could influence huge numbers of listeners, but they asked little of them other than to listen, write letters, and send money. This was no way to build an effective organization. It involved large numbers of people, but it left discontent passive rather than making it active. For this reason, the Share Our Wealth clubs and the National Union for Social Justice remained little more than “glorified mailing lists.” They were unable to generate effective political organizations.
The state political movements to the left of the New Deal demonstrated the possibilities when genuine, effective political organization was combined with a commitment to the values of moral economics. Although the personalities of Floyd Olson, Upton Sinclair, and the La Follettes were important factors in their movements, the ideals were larger than the men. The same could not be said of the Long and Coughlin movements.
If conflict among the prima donnas made unity of the dissenting national movements impossible, this did not mean that the followers were in fundamental disagreement. In some respects, it might seem that the groups were incompatible. As Alan Brinkley has noted, Huey Long spoke in the populist-fundamentalist language that denounced self-indulgent sinners, while Charles Coughlin exploited the urban Catholic view of greedy but puritanical money manipulators. Despite this remarkable divergence, most followers of the demagogues believed that their messages were similar. And in a more basic sense they were. In their symbols, images, and values, the men associated with the “thunder on the left” were making similar noises. The sounds were pleasing to the ears of multitudes of Depression-era Americans.
Yet even in those states where effective political organizations were formed, an insurmountable obstacle beyond personal vanity prevented the launching of a powerful national political organization on the left. The bulk of those who were attracted to the groups and leaders on the left also liked Franklin Roosevelt, at least most of the time. All of the leaders discussed in this chapter faced this problem. Several of them—the La Follettes, Sinclair, Coughlin—tried at times to associate themselves with the President while staking out ground to his left. Huey Long more openly broke with the President and then saw his popularity fluctuate inversely with that of FDR. When Roosevelt was most popular in 1933 and early 1934, Long’s prestige suffered a decline. When doubts about Roosevelt’s commitment to moral economic values rose in late 1934 and early 1935, Long’s strength returned. This relationship was perfectly summed up by a Montana man who wrote to the President early in 1935: “Huey Long is the man we thought you were when we voted for you.”9
When such danger of massive defections from the New Deal arose, Roosevelt had the inestimable advantage of controlling the largest organization of all—the federal government. He was in a position to win back wavering supporters by taking new actions demonstrating his adherence to the popular values. This he did with the “Second New Deal” of 1935.