Chapter XIV: The Party Under Attack
I believe in the saying that if an organization stops growing, it will stagnate and devour itself from within. It contains truth. When the attacks on the Party took place, there was a general run for cover. This occurred even more after the first group of leaders was scooped up and arrested. No longer was it only rhetoric of the press or a group of patriotic zealots. The arrests made it the real thing. The government objective was, of course, the complete disarming and then destruction of the American Communist Party, with the hidden and more sinister motive of eventually destroying the militancy of the trade unions. The growth of the Party seemed to come to a standstill. Our concentration on raising finances to pay for defense costs and to prepare for pending underground work seemed more pressing than recruiting. From the leadership came mandates to the rank and file for pledges, a day's pay, and other financial contributions (including the loan of large sums of money with the proviso of getting it back when you requested it). If you had a few bucks in the bank, now was a good time to take it out and hand it over to a special finance committee which would properly document the transfer. Across America hundreds of thousands of dollars were collected to end up at the national headquarters of the Party in the East.
In our little seamen's branch in San Francisco, we continued to hold our weekly meetings. Faithfully our 11 members would show up on time.
At last peace had come. The many hundreds of merchant ships would be returning home. There was much talk and speculation among the maritime workers. Many believed that the bonanza of full employment would go on. They argued that the destroyed nations must be rebuilt, and America was the only nation that could supply the material. Thus we would maintain a strong and vibrant merchant marine.
Others were of the opinion that we would start laying up ships and tapering down the merchant marine to a bare nothing, like after the last big war. One thing was for sure--the class struggle was back. Browder's pipe dream of the working class working to improve its lot with the approval of "progressive capitalism" had fallen flat on its butt. A blast came out of France by Jacques Duclos, one of the outstanding leaders of the French Communist Party, telling Browder and the world that his theory of a "progressive capitalism" was not only haywire, but counterrevolutionary to the working-class movements. The struggle within the American Communist Party would now take on new dimensions through the struggle between pro- and anti-Browder forces.
Browder had concluded that because Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had collaborated so well, this collaboration would carry over into the post-war world, and there would be no need for the class struggle. Working men and women would sit around a table with the minions of capitalism and work out a better life for all sides. Capitalism was proving this in the winning of the war, insisted Browder. To some members it sounded feasible. And at that time so did signing the pact with the Nazis.
The debates within the Party as to who was right would go on, both in print and verbally. While we debated what "line" to pursue, the bourgeoisie didn't give a damn. They sought their own line--the destruction of the Communist Party.
In 1947, Secretary of Labor Lewis B. Schwellenback declared that the Communist Party should be outlawed. We had heard numerous such statements in the past, so no one got overly excited about it. However, in the early part of 1948, the Smith Alien Registration Act of 1940 was amended. This Act, fathered by Howard Smith of Virginia, forbade the teaching or advocacy of the violent overthrow of the United States government. This threat made us more nervous, but on the waterfront we stayed calm--until the gendarmes swooped down and arrested 12 National Committee members of the Party and indicted them.
The trial of the first batch of Communists arrested under this Act would go on for nine months, well into 1949. It would be a trial where books were the issue, books that spelled out the theory and philosophy of the Communist Party. Authors like Lenin, Stalin, Marx and Engels would be cited to prove that the people on trial conspired to teach and advocate the overthrow of the American government.
They were found guilty, as expected. They were sentenced to five years in prison. One defendant, Robert Thompson, who had received the Distinguished Cross for valor in World War II, got three years. Because of his illness, William Z. Foster had been detached from the trial. The convictions and the anti-sedition section of the Smith Act were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In my union, The Marine Firemen's, our handful of Party members was weathering the storm by putting on an act of bravado to the rank and file, as if we were so overpowering that no government act or series of arrests of the Party leadership could cripple us. But all hell was about to break loose.
I was ready to ship. I joined The President Wilson as electrician and sailed for the Orient. It was an easy job, with good quarters, decent food, and the best of working conditions. It was our homeward leg of the voyage. We were tied up at Kobe, due to sail within a few hours for Manila. I was one of the last crew members returning to my ship. I stepped out of a small restaurant and stopped to allow at least 75 big military trucks to roll past me. The contents of the trucks hidden by tarpaulins. They were headed toward the waterfront. To the average citizen, this sight was a rare one indeed, because Japan was now frowning on the military.
The next day our ship was steaming past the island of Taiwan, the new home of Chiang Kai Chek, when a report was heard over the radio that North Korea had invaded South Korea. The United States was preparing to call on the United Nations to have it take immediate action against North Korea. Having just come out of a worldwide conflict, we did not seem to have time to enjoy the peace before we were preparing to fling ourselves into another. The trip home was not a joyous one. The thought that the government was decapitating the heads of the Communist Party, combined with the thought of going into another war, was enough to whip up the paranoia in me.
We weren't prepared for another shock. Congress passed the McCarran Act, also known as the Internal Security Act. One major function of this act was the required registration of the Party and its membership. Failure to register resulted in a series of fines, sanctions, and even jail terms. To muddy up already dirty waters, Senator Joe McCarthy was about ready to unleash his brand of "McCarthyism" upon the American scene, creating havoc among liberals, professionals, trade unionists, and anyone else who stood up for principle.
Within our Party confusion reigned as to where we were going or how we were to get there. Our leadership talked as if fascism were just around the corner, seeing the attacks against the Party and its leadership as just the beginning of what was in store for the American people. As the country prepared to ease into 1951, the Supreme Court voted to uphold the constitutionality of the anti-sedition section of the Smith Act. The courts set July 22 as the date for the 11 convicted members of the top Party leadership to show up for prison and start serving their sentences. Seven showed up. Four went on the missing list and into hiding.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three