Commentary Magazine

Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota's DFL Party, by John Haynes

Liberal Anti-Communism

Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party.
by John Haynes.
University of Minnesota Press. 264 pp. $35.00.

Thirty-Six years ago, the Democratic party and then the American electorate decisively rejected a candidate for President, Henry Wallace, who blamed the United States for the cold war, apologized for Communist dictatorships abroad, and accepted domestic Communists as legitimate partners in his political coalition. Wallace’s defeat, and Harry Truman’s astounding victory, marked the triumph of liberal anti-Communism within the Democratic party. For the next two decades the party’s ideological tone would be set by the liberal anti-Communist perspective which in those days was embodied in such organizations as the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and such politicians as Hubert Humphrey.

Liberal anti-Communists have not fared so well, however, in the judgments of recent scholars. A revisionist historiography has depreciated their motives, their tactics, and their goals. Their call for American resistance to Communism abroad and their repudiation of Communists at home have been derided as acts of cowardice and opportunism. They have been accused of surrendering to a national hysteria over Communism, and even of paving the way for McCarthyism.

Nor have they done much better recently in the political arena, and specifically in the Democratic party, where, since the death of Senator Henry Jackson, they are without a leader and less and less influential. The climate in the party has changed so dramatically that Democratic congressmen and mayors now appear at public meetings convened by Communist-front groups with hardly a murmur of protest. When Jesse Jackson praised the domestic achievements of the governments of Cuba and Nicaragua, Democratic-party leaders, instead of being outraged, expressed the hope that he would campaign for the ticket in November. Outside the party as well, the story is much the same: the largest democratic-socialist group in this country, Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America, has used a sympathetic documentary film about American Communists, Seeing Red, for its fundraising efforts.

One of the achievements of John Haynes’s excellent book is to rescue the reputation of anti-Communist liberalism. Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party is a meticulously detailed history of the war between liberals and Popular Fronters (Communists and their allies) in one state from the mid-1930’s to 1948. Minnesota was an important battleground, for in no other state did Communists and Communist sympathizers play so prominent a political role. Although Communist-party membership never went much above 2,000, it included key political activists and influential union officials, particularly in the CIO, and had an established base in the Finnish communities of the Iron Range (the home of the Communist party leader, Gus Hall). Party allies included Governor Elmer Benson and the faction of the state Farmer-Labor party (FLP) which he led.



Haynes deftly illustrates how the Communist party became so influential in state politics. Prior to 1935, it was a tiny, isolated sect, shunned by other groups, its members barred from joining the Farmer-Labor party. In that year, however, the Communist International’s Seventh World Congress ordered local parties to devote all their energies to combating Adolf Hitler and building alliances with other left-wing forces. Years of revolutionary posturing and denunciations of Farmer-Laborites as “social fascists” gave way to an effort by Minnesota Communists to snuggle up to Governor Floyd Olson. After a secret meeting with party leader Earl Browder, Olson lowered the bars to Communists. Like John L. Lewis, who recruited Communist organizers for the CIO, he was convinced that he could use them for his own ends.

Had Olson lived, the Communists might have remained a very junior partner in his coalition. He died, however, in 1936 and within two years Communists had become a major force in the FLP. Elmer Benson, elected governor in 1936, was politically inept, personally sympathetic to the Communists, and much more dependent on them than Olson had been. Small Farmer-Labor clubs were overwhelmed by an influx of disciplined Communists. CIO unions led by Communists, including the United Electrical Workers and the International Woodworkers, provided another source of party influence. When AFL unions, disgruntled by the favoritism shown toward the CIO by the Benson administration, reduced their role in the Farmer-Labor movement, it became more and more dependent on organizations controlled by Communists.

Communists had burrowed into the FLP with the approval of its leaders. Some of the moles were known to be Communists; others were secret party members. Haynes is able to document just how extensive a net the party had spread by using a variety of private papers and interviews with former Communist leaders in Minnesota. Secret Communists included the personnel director of the state Highway Department, a major dispenser of patronage in the Benson administration, and numerous officials in CIO unions and local and state labor councils. Non-Communist Popular Front leaders who knew about the Communist connection would deny it when the issue was raised. Communists, for their part, would lie about their true allegiance when publicly challenged.

According to Haynes, two basic principles of the Popular Front alliance during the late 1930’s were support for Soviet foreign policy and no criticism of Soviet domestic policy. Benson himself became a star attraction for such groups as the American League Against War and Fascism, even though he was at heart an isolationist. John Bernard, a Farmer-Labor Congressman from Duluth, cast the only vote in the House of Representatives against a bill embargoing aid to Loyalist Spain in 1937. (He formally joined the Communist party in 1977 at the age of eighty-five, the only ex-Congressman ever to acknowledge party membership.) In return, the Communists loyally supported the teetotaling Benson even when he launched a politically disastrous attack on the liquor industry. (Benson was defeated for reelection in 1938.)



In 1941, with the Popular Front faction in control of the party’s organization, the FLP denounced President Roosevelt’s pro-Allied foreign policy, called supporters of that policy “fascists,” and expelled one local club controlled by anti-Communists for insufficient enthusiasm in opposing FDR. That, of course, was at the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact. By 1944 the Communist party had become so enthusiastic about Roosevelt that it pressured the FLP to merge with the state Democratic party, creating the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, to help insure his reelection.

It was then that the liberal anti-Communist forces, led by Hubert Humphrey, became the major antagonists of the Popular Front. A remarkably large number of future Democratic party leaders cut their political teeth in the struggle. Humphrey was elected Mayor of Minneapolis in 1945 and United States Senator in 1948, beginning his rise to political prominence, after bruising battles with the Popular Fronters. Orville Freeman, a future Governor and Secretary of Agriculture, was the chief organizer of the anti-Communist faction. Eugene McCarthy, a young college professor, entered politics in 1947 as a Humphrey ally in St. Paul. Don Fraser, later a liberal Congressman and now Mayor of Minneapolis, organized the anti-Communists’ youth wing. Evron Kirkpatrick, the political scientist whose wife now serves at the United Nations, was Humphrey’s ideological mentor. And a student named Walter Mondale led the Humphrey forces at Macalester College.

The anti-Communists set out seriously to organize themselves in 1946. They created one of the most effective ADA chapters in the nation, calling for the ouster of Communists and their apologists from the DFL on both moral and practical grounds. The ADA insisted that people who did not believe in democracy did not belong in a democratic party. It also pointed out that as long as Minnesotans believed the DFL harbored supporters of Soviet tyranny, they would continue to deny it victory at the polls.

Enraged Popular Fronters branded their opponents fascists and called Humphrey “a man of Hitlerite psychology.” Each side expelled the other from caucuses it controlled. After a no-holds-barred struggle, the liberals gained control of the DFL, and the Communists and their allies left the party to support Wallace’s Progressive party. But deprived of the protective coloration of the DFL label, the Popular Front could get only 2.3 percent of the state’s vote in the 1948 election, and disappeared thereafter into political oblivion.

Haynes’s story ends in 1948, but its lessons are just as pertinent today. Liberal anti-Communism was a response to a real phenomenon, one which posed issues of the utmost gravity to the health of a democratic society, and of the Democratic party. The issues remain crucial; one wishes the response to them today, even among some of the survivors of the Humphrey group, were as forthright and as bold as in the 1940’s.



About the Author

Harvey Klehr is Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University.

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