IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1941. The Teachers Union hoped that the American Federation of Teachers at its convention would grant readmission to our local. We therefore elected a full delegation and sent it to Detroit, the convention city. But those who now controlled the American Federation of Teachers were hardly aware of any change in the situation. Having expelled the Communists the previous year, they were not ready to sit down to a peaceful convention with them this year. They refused to seat the delegates of the expelled locals.
We held a rival convention across the street. We made speeches, and many delegates from the regular convention came to listen to us. But we returned to New York without having realized our objective.
On the way back to New York, a number of delegates, including Dale Zysman and myself, were in the same train with Dr. Counts and Professor Childs, top men of the American Federation of Teachers. Dale, always an excellent mixer, went over to sit down with them and talked of possible future readmission. Both professors thought it proper that the United States should become an ally of the USSR but they felt that the American Communist Party should be disbanded. This was a political philosophy I did not understand at the time. Later that year the same two men published a book entitled America, Russia and the Communist Party in the Post-War World, a fulsome eulogy of the Soviet Union with an appeal for co-operation in war and in peace between the United States and the USSR. But they called for disbanding of the Communist Party.
That fall I was still trying to find jobs for teachers who had lost their positions in the Rapp-Coudert fight. A number of those suspended were still awaiting departmental trials. The Party was no longer interested in them. Its new line was a united front with all the “democratic forces” — meaning all the pro-war forces.
Before June 1941 it had been an “imperialist war” for the redivision of markets, a war which could have only reactionary results. But when the Soviet Union was attacked, the war was transformed into a “people’s war,” a “war of liberation.”
The American Communist Party dropped all its campaigns of opposition. Its pacifist friends were again “Fascist reactionaries” and all its energy was employed in praise of France and England as great democracies. The fight against the Board of Higher Education had to be brought to an end because the Party regarded Mayor LaGuardia as a force in the pro-democratic war camp.
Through an intermediary we offered to make a wholesale deal on the balance of cases remaining untried before the Board of Higher Education. We were unsuccessful and had to deal with the cases one by one.
In the legislative program of the Teachers Union for 1941 I included a proposal to establish public nursery schools. The WPA nursery-school program which had been under the State Department of Education was coming to an end. The bill I introduced for the Union was mild. It was conceived mainly as a program of jobs for teachers and partly as a social program to aid working women with small children. The storm of opposition from conservative groups startled me. Evidently I had stumbled on a controversial issue, one which struck at the role of the mother in education.
I, myself, had given educational policy scant attention. Little that was controversial had been included in my education courses at Hunter College, and in my graduate work I had steered clear of such courses, feeling that my main emphasis must be on subject matter. I held to an old-fashioned theory that if a teacher knew her subject, and had a few courses in psychology and liked young people, she should be able to teach. I had been horrified to see teachers, who were going to teach mathematics or history or English, spend all the time of their graduate work in courses on methods of teaching.
On December 7, 1941, I called together a few outstanding citizens to discuss the program of school expansion and to solicit support for nursery schools and better adult education. The meeting was held at the home of Mrs. Elinor Gimbel, a public-spirited woman, interested in many causes.
With us was Stanley Isaacs, liberal Republican from Manhattan’s silk-stocking district, which was headed by Senator Coudert. Also present was judge Anna Kross, Commissioner of Correction in New York City; Kenneth Leslie, former editor of the magazine The Protestant; and Elizabeth Hawes, fashionable dressmaker and author of Fashion Is Spinach.
We had enjoyed Mrs. Gimbel’s hospitality and talked about discrimination, about the new waves of population in New York, about the conflict with Catholics on federal aid, about budgets, school buildings, and teachers’ salaries.
As I look back over the conferences I attended on educational policies and methods and progress, I realize that we never discussed or thought about what kind of man or woman we expected to develop by our educational system. What were the goals of education? How were we to achieve them? These questions few asked. Are we asking them today in the higher echelons of the public schools, and what are our conclusions?
Only recently I heard the chief of the New York public schools speak on television on juvenile delinquency. It was soon after the wrecking of a school by young vandals. He said that what was needed was more buildings, more teachers, better playgrounds. Those devoted to progressive education and to preparing youth to live in the “new socialist world” are abstractly sure of what they want, but they seem not to know that they work with human beings. Aside from teaching that children must learn to get along with other children, no moral or natural law standards are set. There is no word about how our children are to find the right order of harmonious living.
I, too, had to learn by hard experience that you cannot cure a sick soul with more buildings or more playgrounds. These are important, but they are not enough. Abraham Lincoln, schooled in a one-room log cabin, received from education what all the athletic fields and laboratories cannot give. All his speeches reflected his love for his Creator. He knew that God is the cure for godlessness.
On this Sunday afternoon of December 7, 1941, we talked long and ardently on education. We talked, too, of the splendid work done by the women of England for the safety of their children in preparation for bombing attacks. Mrs. Gimbel finally turned on the radio to give us the news. And as the first sounds carne we heard an excited voice announcing that Pearl Harbor had been bombed by Japanese planes. The distant calamity in Europe which we had been discussing in this pleasant room was now ours. We listened appalled as the voice told us the full horror of what had happened.
When the news announcement was over, we looked at each other in silence for a few minutes. We were people of many races and religions and parties, but we were of one mind on America. So it was only natural that we immediately set to work to make plans, and that these plans dealt with children. Then and there we formed ourselves into an emergency Child Care Committee with Mrs. Gimbel as chairman, and to this committee I promised to turn over my files on nursery schools and to give all my assistance.
In the Party we had long expected that the war would involve the United States. In fact, earlier in the summer the Party had ominously turned its Committee on Peace into the American Mobilization Committee (for war), and in September we had held a huge outdoor meeting at the Brooklyn Velodrome. I was one of the speakers. The keynote of the meeting was the coming war and how to meet it.
The energies of the Party were now turned to establishing win-the-war committees. The old feuds of the Teachers Union and the CIO and the A.F. of L. were put into moth balls and the little arguments and the big ones were forgotten. Now the Communists became peacemakers between discordant factions everywhere. With joy and relief I watched the Party serve as an agency for drawing the forces of the community together to win the war.
Of course the Communist Party was overjoyed at what was happening. It moved briskly to place the colossal strength of America at the disposal of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the rank-and-file Communists were once again tasting the joy of being accepted by all groups. The Party line made it possible during this period for ordinary Party members to be merely human beings and to act naturally, for their neighbors were now less frightened, and even listened to Communists explain that they were on the side of the American people. All American groups worked together now on Red Cross committees, on bond rallies, on blood-bank drives. We were one people united in a common cause.
It is bitter for me to realize that Communist Party leaders looked upon this united front as only a tactic to disrupt this country, and that they were using the good instincts of their own members for their ultimate destruction. Under the deceptive cloak of unity they moved like thieves in the night, stealing materials and secrets. Each Communist Party member was used as a part of the conspiracy, but the majority of them were unaware of it. Only those who knew the pattern knew how each fitted in the picture.
I had stayed close to the Party during the worst days of 1939 to 1941, the days of the Soviet-Nazi pact, primarily because I deeply loved the Teachers Union which I represented. My love for it was no abstract emotion. I felt affection for all its members, the strong and the weak, the arrogant and the humble. I identified myself with them. The kind of sensitivity some people have for their church or their nation I had for the Union. I grew closer to the Party because it was endlessly solicitous of the teachers’ problems and gave us favorable publicity and supported our campaigns.
The second reason was because of the Party’s campaign against war. I now know that this anti-war policy was merely a tactic to meet changing conditions. At that time I could not believe that the communist line was a scheme advancing Communists one more step closer to total war for total control of the world. I had slowly come to believe in the infallibility of “scientific socialism” and in the inevitability of the socialist millennium. I was by no means oblivious to many signs of crudeness, corruption, and selfishness within the Party but I thought the movement was a bigger thing.
I, and hundreds like me, believed in Stachel and Foster, Browder and Stalin, and the Politburo, and the great Party of the Soviet Union. We felt they were incorruptible. Blind faith in the Soviet Union, the land of true socialism, was the last spell that was broken for me. This had been a spell woven of words cleverly strung together by Party intellectuals who lied, and it was made plausible by my desire to see man-made perfection in this imperfect world.
During this period Rose Wortis, a woman of the ascetic type, much like Harriet Silverman, self-effacing, devoted, tireless in her work, a willing cog in the machine of professional revolutionaries, was supervising me while I prepared a leaflet for the Women’s Trade Union Committee for Peace. I had included a statement against the Nazis, which Rose crossed out as she corrected it, and she said:
“Why do you say that? We do not emphasize that during this period.”
I was shocked at this, but, unwilling to believe its implications, I excused it on the ground that she was merely a petty functionary. On a higher level, I was sure, no one would make so gross an error. Later on I had a chance to see the higher level.
I was so completely involved with the Party now that it absorbed all my spare time. Its members were my associates and friends. I had no others.
To this was added one other factor, one not to be minimized: I was rising in importance in this strange world. I had joined as an idealist. Now I was beginning to stay because of the sense of power it gave me, and the chance of participation in significant events.
Like others I had known I was now wearing myself out with devotion and work. I became sharp and critical of those who did not pour themselves as completely into the Party. I still based activity on my own standards of goodness, of honesty, and of loyalty. I failed to understand that the Party in making alliances had nothing whatever to do with these qualities, that it was not out to reform the world, but was bent on making a revolution to control the world. I did not know then that to do so it was ready to use cutthroats, liars, and thieves as well as saints and ascetics. I should have known, however, had I reflected on the implications of Lenin’s speech delivered at the Third All-Russian Congress of the Russian Young Communist League on October 2, 1920: “ . . . all our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat.”
If, occasionally, I saw things that made me uneasy, I rationalized that the times demanded such actions. Once I was startled from this calm assumption. A group of Party and trade-union leaders met in a private home in Greenwich Village to talk with Earl Browder, then leader of the Communist Party, concerning Vito Marcantonio and his work with the Party, and especially in regard to coming elections. Present were several members of the Politburo and a score of communist union leaders of the A.F. of L. and the CIO.
Marcantonio was in a very special relation to the Communist Party. As a voice in Congress he was indispensable. Because he was a close friend of Mayor LaGuardia he helped give the Party strength. At the same time he provided support for the mayor because he was the latter’s personal representative in East Harlem. Through him the mayor retained connections with a section of city politics which no mayor dares overlook. But Marcantonio did not maintain his hold on his congressional district without the Communist Party.
At the meeting we discussed nominations for representative-at-large for New York. Some of us had recommended endorsement of a Republican who had served in the State Senate on the Republican and Labor tickets, a man who had ably represented the East Harlem area. Marcantonio at that time was in alliance with Tammany Hall, and he insisted on the endorsement of a candidate who had a bad voting record and was more often absent from his desk in Congress than present.
In my naivete I thought that all we had to do was to show the Party leadership his voting record and the Party would support the better-qualified candidate. But the answer to our request was a flat “no” from Browder. We were ordered not to interfere with the decisions of Marcantonio. I sat in utter surprise at this command, for I had believed firmly that Party decisions were arrived at democratically.
Even worse was the next thing to occur. Important trade-union leaders began to complain about what they termed unreasonable demands made on their unions by Marcantonio. When they had finished, Browder told them bluntly that anyone who opposed Marcantonio was expendable. I watched the union leaders listen as the Party leader delivered his edict. They looked like whipped curs. There was a short silence after Browder finished, and I saw these men of importance in their unions begin to explain away their opposition, to laugh nervously about nothing, to accept a decision they had previously sworn they would never accept.
With a sinking heart I accepted it, too, and promptly began to rationalize: it was no doubt all due to some exigency of practical politics about which I knew nothing. The incident, however, left me with a lasting residue of resentment.
In 1942, I myself was thrown into the heart of violent left-wing politics. During the days of the Soviet-Nazi pact the bitterest fight of all was the one between the Social Democrats and the Communists for control of the American Labor Party, which had become the balance of power in New York State.
The Democratic Party could not carry the state without the support of the Labor Party. The Republicans could not carry the state without splitting this new political force. Those trained in the left-wing school of politics were showing an aptitude for practical politics which put the old machine politicians out of the running.
The Social Democrats under the leadership of Alex Rose of the Millinery Union and of David Dubinsky of the Ladies Garment Workers Union had originally collaborated in the building of the American Labor Party. By vying with each other in making alliances with the Democrats and the Republicans for successive elections, each group obtained for its followers certain places on the ballot which would insure election if the joint slate was victorious.
In 1937 and 1939 the combined American Labor Party forces had been successful in getting posts in city and state elections. With the coming of the Soviet-Nazi pact the Social Democrats began a campaign against the Communists both in the unions and in the American Labor Party. Because the Communists had wooed the intellectuals and liberals who were in the Labor Party; because of the Party’s alliance with Marcantonio’s East Harlem machine (a personal machine); because of Party strength in the new CIO unions, the Party-supported candidates were victorious in several primary fights. Thus they had by 1942 dislodged the Social Democrats from control of the Labor Party in every borough except Brooklyn.
The spring primaries of that year saw a bitter fight between these two factions for the control of Brooklyn. I was established by the Party in headquarters at the Piccadilly Hotel as secretary of a committee, ubiquitously called the Trade Union Committee to Elect Win-the-War candidates. I had the job assigned me of applying the Party whip to various left-wing unions for money, and forces, for the elections.
The committee devoted its energy to two campaigns: to defeat the Dubinsky forces in Brooklyn, and to win the nomination for Marcantonio in all three political parties in his congressional district. He was running in the Republican, Democrat, and Labor party primaries.
The communist wing of the American Labor Party won the primary elections in Brooklyn after a bitter fight which included an appeal to the courts. Marcantonio won the primary in all three parties after the expenditure of incredible sums of money and the utilization of an unbelievable number of union members mobilized by the Party as canvassers in his district.
Every night thousands of men and women combed the East Harlem district house by house. The voters were visited many times. On the first visit they were asked to sign pledges to vote for Marcantonio on a specific party ticket. Next they were reminded by a caller of the date of the primary. And on the day itself they were visited every hour until they went to the polls. Squads of automobiles waited to take them. Teachers acted as baby sitters. People who would have scorned working for a Republican or Democratic leader, willingly and without recompense, did the most menial tasks because the Party had told them that this was the way to defeat the “fascists.”
Call it mass hypnosis if you like, but the important thing is to recognize this appeal to the good in human beings and to realize how it can be used.
Hundreds of members of the Teachers Union were assigned to Puerto Rican and Negro districts where they helped people take literacy tests. They manned the polls. They spoke on street corners during the campaign and listened in ecstasy to Marcantonio, who ended all his speeches with “Long live a free Puerto Rico,” a rallying cry which had absolutely nothing to do with the primary elections.
By the end of the primary campaign I was exhausted. Yet I went back to the Teachers Union office and worked during the hot summer days to help the skeleton force working there. I think we were the only teacher organization which made a practice of keeping some activity going all summer. We gave social affairs for out-of-town teachers at Columbia and New York University. We serviced the summer schoolteachers and substitutes and we prepared for the coming school term.
In that year the American Labor Party decided to support the Democratic candidate, Jerry Finkelstein, against Frederic Coudert for the State Senate. The Teachers Union responded to the appeal for help. The senatorial district was a peculiar one, consisting of three assembly districts, the famous Greenwich Village Tenth, the silk-stocking Fifteenth, and the Puerto Rican East Harlem Seventeenth.
Extremes of wealth and poverty were encompassed in these districts, from fabulous Park Avenue homes to rat and vermin-infested tenements. The Communist Party released all teacher comrades from other assignments to let them work on this campaign.
I was moved into a suite of offices at the Murray Hill Hotel on Park Avenue and we established a front committee there made up of outstanding citizens. “The Allied Voters Against Coudert” was officially under the chairmanship of a fine and intelligent woman, Mrs. Arthur Garfield Hayes. It included people such as Louis Bromfield, Samuel Barlow, and scores of other respectable people.
One of the attorneys for Amtorg, the Soviet business organization, contributed money and also information helpful to the campaign against Coudert. There was hardly any Democratic organization in the silk-stocking district, and the one in the Village was reputedly tied so closely with the Republicans that we established our own. This left the Democratic organization in East Harlem, which was increasingly under Marcantonio’s control, as the key to the election. The contest would be won or lost in that district.
I soon realized that Marcantonio, who had won the primary in all three parties, was not fighting too hard to carry the district for the American Labor Party against Coudert. He did not care which party won; he was the candidate in all three. Besides, Mayor LaGuardia was pledged to do all he could for Senator Coudert and Marcantonio was responsive to the mayor’s requests. But Marcantonio promised help, and we made some money available for the leaders of his machine.
My worst fears were confirmed when I listened to the election returns and knew we had lost. I did not mind the loss of the silk-stocking district. But to lose Marcantonio’s district was a blow to my faith in individual people in this strange left-wing world.
That night Harry, one of Marc’s old captains, drove me home. I was depressed, not only because of the loss of the election, but because of the lesson I had learned. We stopped at the Village Vanguard and there met Tom O’Connor, labor editor of P.M., a good friend of mine, and one of the human people in the Party. He looked at me, but I said nothing. He knew what had happened.
When the Vanguard closed, Tom and I walked downtown to City Hall through the empty streets. We talked of the “movement” and of the strange dead ends it often led to. We talked of the opportunists who cluttered the road to that Mecca of perfection on which we still fixed our eyes.
We walked across Brooklyn Bridge just as dawn was breaking. Tom put me in a taxi. When I reached home, I went to bed and slept twice around the clock.