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Commonsense Anticommunism

Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars

Jennifer Luff

Publication Year: 2012

Between the Great War and Pearl Harbor, conservative labor leaders declared themselves America's "first line of defense" against Communism. In this surprising account, Jennifer Luff shows how the American Federation of Labor fanned popular anticommunism but defended Communists' civil liberties in the aftermath of the 1919 Red Scare. The AFL's "commonsense anticommunism," she argues, steered a middle course between the American Legion and the ACLU, helping to check campaigns for federal sedition laws. But in the 1930s, frustration with the New Deal order led labor conservatives to redbait the Roosevelt administration and liberal unionists and abandon their reluctant civil libertarianism for red scare politics. That frustration contributed to the legal architecture of federal anticommunism that culminated with the McCarthyist fervor of the 1950s.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press


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pp. v-vii

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pp. ix-xii

Roy Rosenzweig convinced me to write this book. As a new Ph.D., I taught a survey class as an adjunct at George Mason University, and met Roy in early 2006. He asked me to visit one of his graduate courses to talk about dissertation writing, and his unaffected kindness immediately put me at ease. Roy...

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pp. 1-6

Between the world wars, the conservative leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) played a paradoxical role in American politics. They were leading proponents of popular anticommunism, and steadfast opponents of statutory restrictions on Communist organizing. In contrast to other...

PART I. The AFL and the Origins of Modern Civil Liberties

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1. Labor and Liberties: The American Federation of Labor, 1886–1915

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pp. 9-31

In 1908, Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, became a civil libertarian. He and other officers of the federation had been charged with contempt of court for publishing a notice to boycott Buck’s Stove, a nonunion iron- stove manufacturer. In their defense, the AFL leaders...

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2. Spycraft and Statecraft: Surveillance before the Great War

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pp. 32-45

Had German spies infiltrated American unions? In the summer of 1915, Samuel Gompers worried. Nearly a year into the Great War, the European powers had spent materiel at an alarming rate. England and France relied increasingly on American munitions to resupply troops. American arms...

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3. Sedition and Civil Liberties: The AFL during World War I

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pp. 46-59

By the fall of 1918, the Espionage Act had been in force for over a year, and American editors knew the rules: nothing that might “hamper” the war effort could be printed and mailed. Thus, when the postmaster general prohibited the Nation from mailing its issue dated September 14, 1918, editor Oswald...

PART II. Becoming Commonsense Anticommunists

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4. Communism, Civil Liberties, and the Red Scare

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pp. 63-80

As the nation demobilized, the AFL lost its privileged seat at the table of the federal government. Gompers’s old cynicism about the potential benevolence of the state was richly confirmed as the wartime labor relations framework was summarily dismantled. A huge postwar strike wave, driven by workers...

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5. Secrecy and Surveillance: Anticommunism and the Bureau of Investigation

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pp. 81-99

Official Washington was laughing at Samuel Gompers. His stature in the nation’s capital, so dizzyingly elevated during the war, when President Wilson solicited his advice on matters foreign and domestic, had plunged. Republicans swept the 1920 elections, sending Ohio banker Warren G. Harding...

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6. Surveillance Scandals and the Downfall of the Bureau of Investigation

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pp. 100-118

During the Harding administration, the AFL was embroiled in fights on all fronts, attacking Communists, the attorney general, and the ACLU. Behind the scenes, AFL leaders were colluding with the Bureau of Investigation. Poking around the offices of “professional patriots” such as the National Civic Federation and the American...

PART III. From Commonsense Anticommunism to Red-baiting

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7. Commonsense Anticommunism and Civil Liberties

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pp. 121-141

J. Edgar Hoover was in a delicate spot. Since his appointment as director of the federal Bureau of Investigation in 1924, Hoover had worked hard to rehabilitate the BI’s reputation. Under his predecessors, the BI had swelled into a loosely supervised force of freelance agents for hire, skilled in political...

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8. Labor’s Counter-Reformation: The American Federation of Labor and the End of Reform

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pp. 142-168

In early November 1933, Maximilian Litvinoff, the foreign affairs commissar of the Soviet Union, arrived in Washington to negotiate a deal with the new U.S. president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the depths of the Depression, business leaders pleaded with Roosevelt to restore diplomatic relations with...

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9. Anticommunism, the Dies Committee, and Espionage

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pp. 169-186

In June 1938, Ralph Knox walked into the Detroit field office of the FBI to complain that Communists had kicked him out of the United Auto Workers. Knox was a door fitter at Briggs Manufacturing in Detroit, and he had helped organize the Briggs local and served as its president. Knox told the FBI that...

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10. Labor’s Red Scare: The AFL and the Architecture of Anticommunism, 1939–1941

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pp. 187-213

In 1941, William Bell, a junior assistant statistician in the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, got a taste of what, a decade later, would be called McCarthyism. His boss, the director of the Department of Labor and Industry, distributed a questionnaire asking employees whether they were...

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pp. 214-223

By the spring of 1941, the legal structures of anticommunism and McCarthyism were in place. In the Congress, Martin Dies’s House Un- American Activities Committee grilled witnesses about their Communist sympathies. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was busy adding names to its list of subversives. Communists...


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pp. 225-260


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pp. 261-280


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pp. 281-288

E-ISBN-13: 9781469601717
E-ISBN-10: 1469601710
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807835418
Print-ISBN-10: 0807835412

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 867784326
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Commonsense Anticommunism

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Communism -- United States.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1901-1953.
  • Anti-communist movements -- United States.
  • McCarthy, Joseph, 1908-1957.
  • American Federation of Labor.
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