Chapter XV: Selling the War
The war in Korea took on savage proportions. The press played up stories of captured GIs being found executed with their hands tied behind their backs as the North Koreans retreated. General Douglas MacArthur was constantly in the news. The Chinese government had warned against the encroachment of its borders, promising strong counteractions against anyone who dared ignore them. MacArthur did ignore these warnings, as his troops chased some North Koreans into Chinese territory and faced a charging Chinese Army that drove him and his troops to the other end of Korea.
While the rank-and-file of the Party fumbled with questions of how best to function under all the attacks, the government continued with its tactic of arrest--this time of the second echelon of the leadership. Six leaders were nabbed in Maryland, six in Pittsburgh, seven in Honolulu, and twelve in California. All were charged under the Smith Act.
Things within my own union were following some devious trends. While the leadership of the union was right-wing in their everyday viewpoints, we all got along on issues that were directly union-oriented, such as wages and conditions. We often fought like hell to get a resolution passed on such issues as world peace or civil liberties. It was now becoming obvious that the right wing had become more active and aggressive on the floor of the meetings. Even the members of the Association of Catholic Trade Unions were becoming very vocal.
The Korean War had given them the edge. At every membership meeting one of the better-known right-wingers would hit the floor with a question: "Will one of you Commies out there who has a pipeline to Joe Stalin kindly tell us when this damn war is going to end?" I detected in the way the union leadership dealt with the known left-wingers that they were aware of something about to happen, something that could only be detrimental. We of the Left were too concerned about the Party leadership and the protection of their good names to pay proper attention to the rank-and-file trade union members drifting away and developing an aloofness from our presence and advice. That would cost us.
The head of the Firemen's Union was a conservative named Vincent Malone. He believed that when fighting the shipowners more could be gained by using tact and diplomacy--lots of handshakes with a few cocktails in between--and threats that if they didn't come across, the Communists would take over the union. He knew from his years of dealing with the left-wingers and Party members in the union that once in a while it was smart to cede to our demands rather than fight us on the floor and make martyrs of us in front of the rank-and-file. At times he seemed easy-going, full of smiles and ready to listen to any beef. But he was conservative to the core.
Malone was not too happy with the reds in the union. In fact, he did not like any of them. But he did respect a few of them, including me. He believed that most Reds were talkative, loud and one-sided. He knew from experience that I had a reputation as an honest official and that I took pride in my word as my bond. He had heard me shout and condemn fascism, and when it came time to join in the fight against it, I had gone to Spain to join 40,000 other anti-fascists from around the world. He admired that and never uttered a bad word against me. Thus I found it easy to talk with this man from time to time.
It was now time for one of those talks. Too many things were happening politically in both the country and our union that demanded some answers. I never told anyone in the Party that I intended to talk with Malone but went ahead one morning and barged into his office. I had my union book in my hand, because I wanted to use the visit to pay two months' current dues. He was cordial and welcomed me. He took my book, looked at it, then laid it down on his desk, without making notations or entering the dues stamps.
"Vince," I said, "there are all sorts of rumors making the rounds that don't seem to fare well for the unions. One rumor is that the government is going to take control of all maritime unions, and the unions' only function will be to register the members for shipping purposes. Another rumor is that because of the Korean War the government will make every member of the Firemen's Union a member of the Naval Reserve. That means no strikes and maybe an end to ships' delegates on board. Then there is the rumor that the shipowners will refuse to sign on any known militant in the unions, and the union officials intend to offer no resistance. Any of these rumors more than rumors?"
He leaned back in his chair, screwed a cap on his fountain pen, and looked at me rather sadly. "Bill, the waterfront, the country and the world are changing whether we like it or not. I hear these rumors all the time, and I do know that there are going to be changes on this waterfront that will affect you and your left-wing friends. I know it's been in the hopper for a long time, just waiting for the right moment to be sprung. Since Hoover is driving all you Reds underground, the government thinks the moment is now ripe to oust all the lefties from the unions. I won't argue against that if it should materialize, as you know my position on the Party. I hate like hell to see guys like you suffer because of it, but, you know, we've had these little talks before, and I always told you you weren't getting anywhere being a Red. I no longer just think the government is going to lower the boom on you lefties, I know it to be certain. When will it happen? Soon."
"But, Vince, are you telling me that the union won't defend any member, even the left-wingers who may be the victims, against being victimized by the Coast Guard?"
"The only victims will be the Left, the Party people. If there are followers who wish to continue sticking their necks out for the Party people, then they will get the same treatment. I don't think many will follow that path."
"And the union will do nothing to assist the victims?" I asked.
"Nothing," he replied, quickly adding, "But I'll leave that to the membership."
"Do you consider that right? Even non-Reds as union brothers pledged to extend a hand to another union brother when called on for assistance. Is this right?"
"Bill, you can sit there till the cows come home arguing that point and getting nowhere. You know me, I don't need the government to come in here and do my job for me, but the government says we are too slow, too liberal with our approach on this question. Therefore they intend to take it out of the hands of the union officials and do it themselves once and for all. The chips will fall where they may. Some nice people, some decent guys like yourself will be bound to get hurt, but like I told you a long time ago, it's your choice. Bill, take it from me. I think I have a better idea of the picture than you at the moment."
"Vince," I said, "there's something that bothers me. If, as you say, a crackdown is about to take place, the government, or the F.B.I., or whoever conducts it, will have to know who is who in the union. How are they going to distinguish the so-called Reds from some friendly supporters, or are they all going to be tarred with the same brush?"
"You should be able to answer that question better than I. Do you remember a couple of years back when, at a membership meeting, all you Reds took the floor and insisted it go in the minutes that you were all members of the Party and proud of it? Remember that night? I counted 15 of you people all eager to hit the deck and make the announcement. I was surprised to see a few that I had not known of. There were several that I thought shouldn't be members of the Salvation Army let alone the Communist Party. All those names went to all the branches, so those names were available for anyone to copy and do what they wanted with. Besides, the FBI is well-aware of who is who. I hear the Communist Party is full of FBI men, so don't worry about separating the wheat from the chaff. One thing bothers me, Bill. What was the motive, what possessed you guys that night to hit the deck and insist upon getting it into the record that you were all avowed Communists? I always wondered about that."
I didn't answer and he didn't probe further. He kept his eyes focused on the desk, not caring to look me in the face. I didn't care to ask any more. He had answered the doubts in my mind, confirmed that some form of disaster was about to hit the waterfront and the left-wingers in particular.
"Well, Vince, can you bring my union book up to date with two months dues?"
"I think you better save your money, Bill. You may be needing it."
"Whatever happens, Vince, I'd like those who are about to put my head in a vise to be able to say one thing--he went out in the end like a good union man, with all his dues paid up." He took my money.
I walked out into the street and the bright sunlight. The thing that rattled me more than anything was his remark about the Reds hitting the deck in that membership meeting to declare ourselves members of the Party, insisting that it go into the union record. I remembered it well. Orders had come down from the National Committee back in New York that in the trade unions throughout the country, Communist Party members should declare themselves openly to be members of the Party. At the time I was opposed to the idea, even though I had always worked openly as a Communist. I thought it stunk and said so, but I was outvoted and ended up following the majority opinion. I said then that it could add nothing worthwhile to the Party's cause. I did not think at that time, as I do now, that it was the work of FBI plants within the Party. There was no doubt about it, we had members of the FBI within the ranks, from top to bottom. Hell, the Party was the easiest thing to join, and nothing could prove that better than the recruiting done at mass meetings, where the applications were handed out in droves. Well, if anyone wanted a list of the Party members in that union, they sure had it now. So much for Party philosophy or how to prepare for the underground.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three