Saturday, March 25, 2006

And so the CIO Convention in Duluth and a Struggle With the Left.

Scholar ( at least I think he is), blog-master of his own and good contributor to mine Bill Barr corrects me about the IWW Wobblies. Correct name was Industrial [not International] Workers of the World. I thought International sounded strange when I wrote it. Now, children and grandchildren, we’re off to the CIO convention in Duluth 52 years ago. I told Humphrey I wouldn’t write anything (my paper wasn’t interested) and so went along as an observer.

Now, don’t get the idea that when I mention Communists in connection with the fifties, I am throwing around charges like Joe McCarthy. There really were Communists in 1954 in the labor movement, leftovers from World War II…and some at this very convention. In 1949 CIO president Phil Murray expelled no fewer than nine member unions for undue Communist influence. As a freshman Senator, Humphrey hired Max Kampelman to help him take up the probe of Reds in unions where Murray left off. Kampelman was a fascinating guy: a liberal who was turning more conservative by the year; a close friend of Humphrey, his legislative assistant, who ultimately left for private practice and was his personal attorney. (Kampelman became a right hand man to President Ronald Reagan for disarmament and a tougher, more resourceful anti-Communist there never was). Armed with stuff that Kampelman gave him, Humphrey showed that the United Electrical Workers, fired by the CIO, was still in Communist hands; their leaders simply had filled out false affidavits to the National Labor Relations Board. He wanted the board to prosecute the UEW but then, in 1953, the Senate changed over to Republican hands and Humphrey’s investigations committee was taken over by Joe McCarthy.

By the summer of 1954 the Red scare had reached its zenith. McCarthy was sinking into the bottle. He and the Army tangled on television, Robert Oppenheimer was denied security clearance; Wyoming’s Senator Lester Hunt committed suicide because, it was said, of fear of McCarthy’s charges. Maryland’s Republican Senator John Marshall Butler took up Humphrey’s concern about Red unions but added a fillip of his own: he proposed the attorney general be given the power to bring charges against any union proven to be Communist-infiltrated to the Subversive Activities Control Board Oregon’s independent Senator Wayne Morse, a former Republican, charged that the bill could lead to union busting. Republicans, seeing the Red scare as a hot issue in 1954, were beating the drums when Humphrey decided to go them one better. Whether it was a wise action or not, he did it: offering an amendment to outright ban the Communist party.

Civil libertarians screamed it was unconstitutional and an insult to conscience but liberal Senators liked it and called for a vote since it gave them the chance to vote against the Reds. Of course conservative Senators liked it as well and it was poised to pass. It turned out the Eisenhower administration didn’t want a measure this strong and so it was watered down to meaninglessness with the penalties for belonging removed—but there it was: the Communist Control Act of 1954. It swept to passage 85 to 0. By crafting it, Humphrey not only insured his own reelection on an issue in which he was faltering, he gave a gift to every other liberal Democrat up for reelection.

Still, when we got to Duluth, in the smoky hotel rooms and over many glasses of booze, the CIO was prepared to endorse him, but its left-wing adherents were angered. Humphrey was a sell-out to Joe McCarthy and to the Eisenhower administration.

He handled the Joe McCarthy matter brilliantly. On the issue of cooperating with the Eisenhower administration during what was a pretty difficult time, Humphrey made it plain to them—and to me as we often chatted alone—that the role of the opposition during threat of war was to cooperate with the president. He particularly supported what was known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, by which the U. S. reserved the right to aid any country in the Middle East that was threatened by Communist aggression or subversion. There was a lot of discussion from the left in the Duluth convention that Ike was a war-monger, that we had no right to throw our weight around, that we were inviting nuclear war etc. All the things we hear today about Iraq: we have no friends, we stand opposed to insurgent aspirations. Humphrey argued on two levels: that of security for the country but the second from the standpoint of practical politics.

If the American people ever get the idea that the Democrats are opposed to our participation in the Cold War, he said, even when events seem rocky, they will reject our party and their good faith may not return for generations. I have no doubt that were he around today and as vigorous as he was then, he’d have crafted a Democratic plan for Iraq that would be somewhat different than Bush’s but would be designed to win over the insurgents. Humphrey would believe that the positions of John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi and others would win some short-term adherence but would be disastrous for the Democratic party. And what I fear most is that when the time comes for the Democrats to take over—as it must given our election cycles—that party will not be worthy because of its pandering to the irresolute. Only Joe Lieberman—and how effective is he?

Quickly, Humphrey’s critics turned to his legislation to outlaw the Communist Party. Not only the leftists were outraged but intellectuals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Joseph Rauh, the head of Americans for Democratic Action. The liberal media were against it, too.

The issue was an abrogation of civil liberties. Many CIO delegates were not interested that Humphrey had introduced the bill to save his reelection; they thought he was a cowardly wimp who flinched before the bluster of Joe McCarthy to save his own skin. In fact, one told him that to his face as I listened as we sat before a crowded room. Humphrey stirred menacingly and I thought here it comes, there’s going to be a fist-fight.

“Listen, you,” Humphrey said. “You’re interested in civil liberties, are you?” Yeah, said the guy. It’s clear you’re not.

“Listen to me now—all of you and shut up until I’m through. I’m goddamn tired of McCarthy’s line of `twenty years of treason.’ What my bill has done hasn’t snuffed out civil liberties, it’s enhanced it.”

The guy said: Listen Humphrey, I understand you’re a spellbinder but if you can convince me of that you’re better than I think you are.

“I’ll tell you—and all of you. We’re all agreed that McCarthy convicts people through character assassination, are we not?”

They all nodded.

“He convicts innocent people who have no place to go to clear their names?”

All nodded again.

“But with the Communist party outlawed with membership a crime each guy named by McCarthy would have his day in court which means that he could face the charges against him—unlike now—examine witnesses—unlike now—use the rules of evidence to examine the charges against him—unlike now—confront hostile witnesses—unlike now—and once party membership were defined as a crime, if Joe McCarthy couldn’t prove his case he could be sued for criminal libel!”

The room fell silent. Humphrey went over to the scotch bottle, poured himself a weak glass, mixed it to the brim with soda while the room meditated.

They rumbled, mumbled and left. After they left and we were alone, he called Kampelman on the phone.

“It worked,” he said.

He made the pitch only more eloquently the next morning and was enthusiastically endorsed. On election day not only was he reelected but the Democrats, largely using that argument during their Senate campaigns, won control of the Senate.

It was a brilliant play—probably the most skillful device to defuse a ticking bomb which threatened to detonate the Democrats into a weapon that won a significant victory for them. I had seen enough, though. I discovered that Humphrey was a master political player—but I didn’t want to work for him. Too slick by half. Yet I learned a lot and I was grateful to him. And while I was secure in my decision to spurn a role in his campaign because of my conservative philosophy, I couldn’t help thinking I was choosing the losing side.


  1. Just read books some; not much of a scholar.

    Thanks for the link. Your so right about HHH. It's a huge tragedy for the Democrats that no one's replaced him save Lieberman.

    Part of this failure to develop a bipartisan policy is just having a Republican as President and the Democrats natural desire for unity.

    But they're betraying liberals and Democrats in Iraq today. History will not be kind to them.

    I voted for Democrats from McGovern to Gore. Never again could I do that.

    You're probably familiar witht Haynes and Klehr books on Amercian Communism. It think there book: In Denial describes the sad fate of Finnish Americans from Duluth who returned to the Soviet Union in the 1920's out of a sincere devotion to Communism, only to be shot in the 1930s by Stalin. Their mass graves only recently identified.

  2. As a lad of almost 69 years, and having grown up in Rochester, MN, with a BBA from the U. of MN, I love to read your accounts of MN, Hubert, etc. Once on a return NWA flight ca. 1960, I sat in the aisle ahead of Hubert, and listened to language that out-sworn a battle hardened Marine. We now live in CT, and have only mild interest in ChiTown politics, but also appreciate your contributions to The Wanderer, which suffers from some blombastic contributors. Live long, and prosper! God bless you!

  3. Just to let you know, Tom, that I find your Minnesota pieces (as well as your other writings) very interesting. Thanks.