Monday, April 9, 2012

Gus Hall Rides a Golf Cart Into Eugene and the Demise of the Commonwealth Federation

Gus Hall in Soviet Style Image
Gus Hall MySpace
In the 1960s, Gus Hall, the President of the Communist Party of the United States, decided the party needed a break-out strategy.  He would start visiting college students around the country and connect the party’s ideology with issues young people seemed to be attracted to.  The party’s political strength in the US had peaked toward the end of the 1930s but had ebbed considerably over the subsequent 30 years.  At its peak, the party’s strength in Washington State would be the subject of Postmaster General Jim Farley’s joke that the United States was ‘composed of the 47 states and the Soviet of Washington.’ Like most humor, there was some truth attached to what he said.
University of Washington Libraries
Washington captured Farley’s left wing image in many ways.  Seattle was home to America’s first general strike, in 1919, the spiritual leader of which was a woman who would become the first woman Communist Party Superstar from the United States, Anna Louise Strong, a newspaper reporter at the Seattle Union Record, for a time, until she was recalled, a Seattle School Board member, a poet, travel writer and political commentator.  She was kicked out of the Soviet Union when she tried to run the Moscow News, the English language newspaper she founded in 1929, like an American newspaper.  She found her way to China where she died, a revered memory of the time when International Communism meant something. 

IWW Madison, Wisconsin
Washington State was also a center of activity for the Industrial Workers of the World, the One Big Union, which was an effective organizer within its forests, paper and saw mills.  Bloody confrontations involving the Wobblies such as the Everett Massacre and the Centralia Massacre resulted in nationally reported events and lengthy trials.  Those events also influenced young people who saw them or who lived nearby when the shots rang out and the confusion kicked in.  “Joe Hill,” the anthem of radical labor, was written by a Washington State kid.  

Harry Bridges, Labor Day, 1939
America on the Move
The great West Coast Dock Strike of 1937 created a new and radical union out of the east coast International Longshoreman’s Union.  The International Longshore and Warehouse Union established itself as a powerful presence on Washington state docks and was a polarizing force within the labor movement.  Was its leader, Australian Harry Bridges, a communist?  The United States Chamber of Commerce sure thought so.  So did Dave Beck, the head of the Teamsters here, who told the 1938 state American Federation of Labor convention in Port Angeles that “Harry Bridges should be kicked out of the United States by legal means if possible.”  Were the communists in the ILWU?  Sure.  Did Bridges care?  No.  As long as they could help him be tough as he wanted to be. 

Hugh DeLacy
UW Libraries
Finally, the Washington Commonwealth Federation, the left wing of the state’s Democratic Party, invited communists into its ranks and, given the cover of running as Democrats, some were elected to the state legislature.  When that group met in Olympia, they joked that it was a meeting of the Roads and Bridges Committee, a committee that did not formally exist in the legislative structure.  Hugh DeLacy, the President of the Commonwealth Federation, an English professor at the University of Washington and a former Seattle City Councilman, was elected a Congressman in 1944 and many of his contemporaries have him more likely than not a communist when he served in Congress from 1944-1946.

The Soviet Union’s behavior was constantly a problem for the Washington state communists.  As Germany rose, the message was strongly anti-fascist, urging Roosevelt to get tougher on Germany’s militarism, engage the United States in Europe more forcefully.  But the Soviet Union’s treaty with Nazi Germany in 1939 brought a different message.  Suddenly, Britain was Imperialist Britain, unworthy of America’s aid. 

Bob Bailey
Secretary of State Oral History
Bob Bailey, a young man growing up in South Bend, Pacific County and entering politics as Pacific County Clerk, remembers a whirlwind of left wing political activity in his small, quiet county.  A gifted organizer and writer, Terry Pettus, moved to town, publishing the Willapa Harbor Pilot and organizing for the Commonwealth Federation.  Pettus created a powerful county political operation and then ran for county commissioner, just falling short by a few votes.  Soon after, Pettus was gone, leaving to publish the Commonwealth Federation’s newspaper, “The New Dealer.”
At the Harbor Pilot, Pettus was passionately interventionist all the way.  After 1939, when the Commonwealth Federation shifted gears, turning on England, people would wonder “what the hell got into Pettus?”  In his oral history, Bailey says he didn’t know some of the people who became precinct committeemen, and wished, in retrospect, that he would have double checked their addresses. 

In 1940, the split that was widening between the Democratic Party of Washington State and its Commonwealth Federation partner erupted in many ways.  The Democratic Party Convention in Hoquiam was a bloodbath.  Senator Magnuson, who was there as a young Congressman, would always say when someone mentioned how tough politics were, would say:  “You should have been at Hoquiam in 1940.” 
Everett Herald
That year, in November, the split widened.  Lenus Westman was elected to the state legislature from Snohomish County.  An Arlington farmer, just 31 years old, a naturalized Swedish immigrant, Westman had great personal cache, though he was a Communist.  He stopped paying dues in 1938, admitting publicly that he felt he could do a better job of making society a better place if he didn’t have this communist label around his neck.   In 1940 he was elected to the Washington State Senate as a Democrat, though a lot of the non-Commonwealth Democrats in the legislature thought they saw a new member of the infamous Roads and Bridges Committee.  The Democrats were in control and, with Republican support, refused to seat Westman. 

Elected officials have a passionate reverence for the wisdom of voters.  Lenus Westman was the first and only case of a Washington State legislator denied a seat after a certified election.  While Westman fought in the legislature and in the courts, legislators declared the 39th District seat open and a new member was named in the special election. 

As World War II ended, the Soviet Union’s cynical and brutal treatment of Eastern Europe, its efforts to disrupt the American labor movement and its industrial espionage in the United States all led to a loss of what had been considerable support for a left wing agenda in the country and in particular, Washington State.  Also, government action at all levels made it uncomfortable to be a communist or even a suspected one. 
The federal government jailed Communist leaders under the 1940 Smith Act, which defined communism as advocacy for the overthrow of the United States government an further defined what is still today an uncomfortable list of specific, proscribed free speech activities.
Later, in 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act required signing an oath that one was not part of a communist party organization or front organization before being able to serve as a union official. 

In 1950, Congress passed the McCarran Act, requiring registration of organizations and their officers and any members of a ‘communist action’, ‘communist front’ or ‘communist infiltrated’ organization.

It was not easy being a Communist in the post-war era.  Not only were members or suspected members hounded by the law, there were substantial internal stresses of all kinds.  In the thirties, Angelo Pellegrini, food writer and beloved University of Washington English professor, told the Canwell Committee, which was investigating Communists at the university, that he went to some meetings as a young man, wrote a book review for a publication and spent a subsequent meeting, his last, listening to an evening of criticism of the book he chose to review. 

New Dealer Newspaper
Howard Costigan, a co-founder of the Commonwealth Federation and a communist beginning in 1936, left the party after Russia signed the non-aggression pact with Germany.  He was hounded from the left and right, for leaving the party and denouncing it, and for being a member.  He lost his job as a national broadcaster even after renouncing his membership and ran as an anti-communist in the 1944 democratic primary that selected former colleague Hugh DeLacy. 

The popular media was also a player in the growing negative context.  “I Led Three Lives” was a syndicated television show featuring a mild-mannered advertising man who was an FBI agent posing as a communist.  Actor Richard Carlson was the much put upon, always stressed out Herb Philbrick.  The show ran for over a hundred episodes, one plot after another foiled.

So, Gus Hall, the leader of the Communist Party and newly chosen as the communist leader in the US decided he would try to connect with young people on issues like civil rights, Native American rights and America’s role in the third world.  That’s how he found himself in a golf cart, speeding around the track of Hayward Field at the University of Oregon on a rainy Valentine's Day in 1962, headed for a podium in front of 11,000 students, who thought it pretty funny to see this latter day Great Satan, who was not welcome at so many colleges and universities in the Northwest, putt-putting to his date with a bunch of young Oregonians who grew up with Herb Philbrick and who would listen quietly to what a guy with a lot of baggage had to say, which I remember as not much.

February 14, 1962
University of Oregon
His significant audience was built not by his ideas, but by the ideas of others who had decided it wasn’t a good idea for young minds to listen to a hardened communist.  Many universities and colleges would not let Hall speak, including the University of Washington.  The fact is, the Pacific Northwest had no idea what to do with Gus Hall. A hotel in Tacoma booked Hall and a representative of the John Birch Society, the extreme right wing of American politics, as if this conversation would enlighten and inform.  Fearing the worst, local law enforcement convinced the organizer to call it off.  The governor of Oregon, Mark Hatfield, advised not letting Hall speak at public institutions in his state, and Oregon State University promptly complied, but the University of Oregon’s president Arthur Fleming did not, along with sister public institutions like Portland State, Oregon College of Education and Reed College, a private institution.

I keep scanning the remarkable picture for people I know and for my own image.  Is that Ken Baker in the first row on the right, his books in front of him?  While the faces are too fuzzy to reveal much, the picture creates meaning outside of the event it is tied to.   The picture shows the University of Oregon as the small school it was then, just 10,000 students in 1962.  The photo removes us from the big time athletics now residing in Eugene.  The football stadium paint is chipped and worn, the place itself is tiny.  High schools in Texas have stadiums as big as this.  The track, home even then to the best distance runners in the country, collects too much water on its old fashioned cinder track and the Nike shoe is still a gooey concoction in the University of Oregon track coach’s waffle iron.  There are no television cameras cluttering the front of the event. 

My friends and I took no particular lesson from the event.  Over beers, I think we decided never to enter a well-attended event in a golf cart.  One of our number in the stands that day clearly took a lesson home about forbidden fruit.  Lee Bollinger, somewhere in the photo as an undergraduate, would go on to become President of Columbia University and had to decide in 2007 whether to invite a far more dangerous person to the security of the United States, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to address his students.  Ahmadinejad got the invitation. 

The real lessons of 1962 and the failure of Hall’s breakout strategy occurred just eight months later, in October, when Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba and all of us who had been in the stands wondered if our sophomore year would be our last and whether we would ever be back to see a football game at Hayward Field in November.

Elmer Kistler in 1985 with State Communist Party
Chair B. J.  Mangaoang
Years later I would meet Elmer Kistler at a protest event.  My data base of Communists was not all that statistically significant, but I always had Kistler as unique.  Kistler was comfortable chatting with a reporter who didn’t much care for the tired theatrics of a street protest and, even better, he didn’t try to explain the written material he was handing out.  He was funny, clever.  So, when I saw that a 1974 court decision in Washington State had made it possible for communists to run once again for the state legislature and noticed that Kistler had filed, I tracked him down and met him at his home in the 35th legislative district in Seattle’s south end. 

I asked him what he said when he was out doorbelling. 

“I say I’m Elmer Kistler.  I am a combat veteran of World War II, a good union man and I’m running for the state legislature on the Communist Party ticket.”

“So, what do they say, Elmer?”

“Where the hell have you been?” he said.

Gus Hall, Arvo Kusta Halberg, a native of Iron, Minnesota, a child of two Industrial Workers of the World parents, died in 2000.   He had served eight years in prison after a conviction under the Smith Act a few years before coming to Eugene. All the obits had him still a hard guy at the end, a guy who didn't really care who ran the party after he was gone and who still admired Stalin.  He lived to see Gorbachev come and go and hated him. 

After leaving the University of Washington where he taught English, Hugh DeLacy worked in the Seattle Shipyards as a machinist and served as a Seattle City Council member.  He served one term as Congressman and was trounced in 1946, losing 2-1.  He moved on to work in as a left wing political organizer in Pennsylvania and was Executive Director of the Progressive Party, the organization formed to support former Vice President Henry Wallace's failed presidential campaign in 1948, which received no electoral votes and just 2.5% of the popular vote.  Ultimately, DeLacy found his way to California, became a contractor and retired in 1967.  He was 76 when he died near Santa Cruz, California, in 1986. 

Floating Homes Assn
Terry Pettus lived on a houseboat in Lake Washington and wrote detective stories and performed other freelance writing work.  He left the Communist Party in 1958 and started the Floating Homes Association where he convinced homeowners and government to stop dumping their untreated sewage into the lake.  Pettus was dead by 1984.

Bob Bailey served 26 years in the Washington State Legislature and was a newspaperman and printer in Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties.  He served in the United States Navy from 1941 to 1946.  He owned the Raymond Advertiser, served as an administrative assistant to legendary Congresswoman Julia Butler Hansen and was a member of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.  He also managed, for a time, the Port of Willapa Harbor.  Bailey died in 2005.

Howard Costigan went to Centralia High School and was a 15 year old high school student when the well-aware of its deadly politics and Centralia Massacre in 1919.  These events propelled him into left wing politics.  He was a co-founder of the Commonwealth Federation, was a passionate radio commentator for KIRO radio and developed a national audience for his commentaries.  Costigan twice ran for the democratic nomination for Congress against Hugh DeLacy.  He renounced his communist party membership in 1939 and lost his job at the Commonwealth Federation and on the radio.  He moved to Los Angeles, was involved in Hollywood labor organizations and became a witness at many hearings involving communist influence in labor and politics.  He died in 1985 and never finished the book he wanted to write about the Commonwealth Federation and what went wrong. 

Lenus Westman was very bitter about not being seated after winning his state legislative election in 1940.  He channeled that experience into more than 50 years work for the Communist Party.  He and his wife were regulars in protests through the years.  He was active in the Old Age Pension Union, a Commonwealth Federation Program that, for a time, was a powerful organizing tool.  Westman died in 1994 in Seattle. 
Elmer Kistler ran unsuccessfully for the legislature three times.  He served as a lieutenant in a mortar platoon in Europe after 1944, came home to go to school at the University of Washington where he led the University chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  He was a shop steward at Boeing and worked in the Seattle Shipyards, finding his way to the timber industry and sawmill work until he was blacklisted there as well.  Kistler was frequently in court because of his refusal to register as a communist.  Kistler died in 1996.

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