Chapter XVI: Some Knew Him as a Liberal
Making hay from the anti-Red hysteria during the Korean War and from the arrest of the Party's leadership was U.S. Senator Magnuson from the state of Washington. He dropped a bombshell on the progressive seamen on the American waterfront with his bill calling on the United States Coast Guard to issue new seamen's documents for every seamen. The document in question was a "Z" card, with the seaman's picture, birthdate and ratings. This was a mandatory document necessary to sign on vessels. Without it you are an ex-seaman, tied to the land.
The right-wingers in the maritime unions, meaning of course the leadership and those they influenced, had unbeknownst to the rank and file submitted to the Coast Guard the names of every leftwinger and left-wing follower. It was duck soup for the Coast Guard. They themselves had no idea who was who in what union, and in fact, most didn't give a damn one way or another. But now they had a congressional act to follow, and all they had to do was check over the list of names. When you came to the Coast Guard for your new seaman's documents, if your name was on the list you were denied your new documents and handed a slip of paper stating that you were suspected of belonging to an organization whose program was not considered favorable to the best interests of the United States. You were requested to appear before a committee to clear yourself of such a charge. Until then, there was no chance of being hired on board ship. It was to be a tough blow to the progressive element in the maritime unions, and a heyday for the right-wingers.
What they could not accomplish on the floor of the membership meetings they could now accomplish through this so-called security mandate. They easily brushed off any blame on themselves by proclaiming that it was not their idea, but that of the government. The progressives attacked this screening program, as it was later to be called, as another effort of the shipowners to weaken and eventually destroy the effectiveness of trade unions by blackballing from the industry men who fought hard to create and sustain militant trade unions and to improve conditions. We insisted that the union not only go on record against screening, but to have the leadership use all union resources to arouse the American people and to turn the tables on the McCarthyites and their union-wrecking legislation. The officials, of course, accepted screening with smiles in their hearts and smirks on their faces. They knew it was the death knell of the Left.
In 1951, the newspapers carried the headline "U.S.-Fleeing Red Captured in Mexico," then went on to report that Gus Hall, one of the 12 convicted members of the National Committee, was seized in Mexico where he had hidden out. He was turned over to American federal authorities and returned to the United States. The FBI announced that the other three who had failed to appear to serve their sentences were still at large and being sought.
My immediate reaction to the arrest of Gus Hall was, that dumb bastard. With all his training and experience he couldn't stay out of the way of the gendarmes. He deserved to be caught, the jackass. I hoped the other three guys would show a little more class and do a better job if they intended to operate in the underground.
During that period, it seemed that our movement's main function was to raise money for the defense of cases pending and of those to come, money that went for attorneys and other facets of the struggle to keep the Party legal and the leadership free. Most other projects that depended on Party financing were not even considered. There were house parties, dinners, requests for days' pay. No matter what kind of a job you held or what your financial straits were, a day's pay was requested across the country.
Every day brought something new to the political scene. McCarthy's anti-Communist hysteria was rising as fast as the Senator could corral a few cameras to make some further accusations that would end up as headline. He had a "gift" for seeing Communist spies everywhere, especially in the State Department, which he accused of being top-heavy with Reds. In homes throughout America, television sets were turned on for a front row seat to the McCarthy show. People sat back, wondering who was going to be nailed to the cross next. The right-winger, conservative or downright reactionary loved it. It was something they had wanted for a long time. They now had their hero, their knight in shining armor. It was Joe McCarthy.
It was a sad period in America, and sadder still when fear was able to reach into the homes and workplaces of people. In a Midwest city, someone sought signatures on a petition at a busy street corner. The petitioner simply asked people to sign their names to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the United States. It was a simple request that most people would have been delighted to perform, but not during this period. McCarthy had already put out a warning that the petitions were a ploy of the Communists. People feared signing anything but their paychecks. It was that fear, the cream and substance of McCarthyism, that slowly but surely entered into the lifestream of American society. It would remain there for a long time to come. Our conditions would be undermined. Our trade union movement would receive its share of kicks in the "`stones" from those wearing the Florsheims, and civil rights would fight for survival.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three