This week’s entry: Attorney General’s List Of Subversive Organizations
What it’s about
As the Cold War was getting underway, Tom C. Clark, President Harry Truman’s attorney general, had a list drawn up of organizations believed to be undermining the United States Of America. Most of these were groups with alleged Communist ties, but the net was wide enough to include not only the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, but also innocuous-seeming groups like the American Youth Congress (who were primarily focused on lowering the voting age to 18) and the League Of American Writers. Eisenhower expanded the list in 1953 with the help of the House Committee On Un-American Activities, and otherwise innocent members of organizations on the list were often caught up in that decade’s Communist witch hunts.
Strangest fact: Several groups on the list are affiliated with foreign powers—usually Germany or Japan, by an astonishing coincidence—but some of them couldn’t sound more all-American. While Wikipedia doesn’t provide any details into these organizations’ history, someone decided that the Committee For The Protection Of The Bill Of Rights, the Committee To Uphold The Bill Of Rights, and the Committee For Constitutional And Political Freedom all sounded downright un-American.
Biggest controversy: While many organizations on the list had clear Communist ties—the Youth Communist League and Friends Of The Soviet Union, for example—most were organizations fighting for the rights of American workers. Many of the rights gained under the New Deal, including health and safety laws, overtime pay, and the right to form a union, came after decades of struggle by organized labor. But when the Soviet Union turned pro-labor ideals into fascism, the American labor movement was tainted by association. This held to the degree that, even half a century later, “socialist” is still hurled as a political epithet, often by people who don’t actually know what the word means—merely that it sounds bad.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Irony has some sway over world affairs. Shockingly, this paranoid list of Communist enemies was finally done away with by everyone’s favorite paranoid anti-Communist enemies list-maker, Richard Nixon. He abolished the list in 1974.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Our government figured, if it was already going after labor unions and pacifists, they may as well throw black people in there too. The original list included the National Negro Congress, a group that sought to unite disparate civil rights organizations under one banner. There were avowed Communists in the organization, but they weren’t driving the group’s agenda. Still, Communist ties eventually crippled the organization. The overlap between those fighting for labor rights and for larger social justice meant that the 1953 list included many civil rights organizations, including the Committee To Abolish Discrimination In Maryland, the Committee For The Negro In The Arts, and the Congress Of African Women.
Also noteworthy: Some of the organizations on the list aren’t even organizations! The original list included the Washington Cooperative Bookshop—Wikipedia doesn’t have any further information, so we assume it was a Communist bookstore or something, but come on! It’s a bookstore! Also on the expanded list, the very vague entry “Shinto Shrines.” Veneration of nature and ancestor spirits with no formal dogma? Sounds like a threat to America, boys! Put ’em on the list!
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: In 1937, Spanish Republicans, fighting a Civil War against the Spanish Nationalists, a fascist group led by Gen. Francisco Franco, sent out a call for volunteers from around the world to help the cause of freedom and democracy. The Republicans’ democratically elected government had been overthrown by the Nationalists, with support from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. So the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was organized, comprised of Americans (and some Irish and Latin Americans) fighting for democracy. The group had little time to train before joining the fray, however, and casualties were heavy. They were eventually overwhelmed by the better-equipped Nationalists, but they were considered heroes to many back home. With the U.S., Britain, and other potential allies remaining neutral, the Republicans would lose the war, and Franco ruled Spain until his death in 1975. Perhaps the fact that the USSR was one of the only nations that lent Spain’s legitimate government support was why the Brigade made the list, even years after the war had ended. If there’s one silver lining to the story, it’s that we have it on good authority that Franco is still dead.
Further down the wormhole: Not all the groups on the list were pro-labor, pro-civil rights, anti-war, or other progressive causes. To their credit, the attorney general’s list also included genuinely dangerous groups including several with Nazi sympathies, and racist terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and the similar, if less well-known, Knights Of The White Camelia. The Knights were a short-lived organization whose membership tended towards the upper crust of Southern society, whereas the KKK was mostly made up of the white working class. Their most infamous moment was the Thibodaux Massacre, led by White Camelia member Taylor Beattie, a local judge. When mostly black sugar plantation workers in Louisiana went on strike, the governor sent in the state militia to break it up. Judge Beattie, an ex-Confederate and former slaveholder, declared martial law, and organized a vigilante group that officially murdered 35 people, but realistically killed between 50 and a few hundred. Despite being romanticized (we’re looking at you, Batman), vigilante “justice” tends to be a polite term for lynching. While angry mobs make up their fair share of the ranks of vigilantes, there are also a fair number of secret societies behind the action. There’s more to secret societies than just violence, however—we’ll see if we can unlock their secret handshakes next week.