A Liberal Manifesto
At their very core, what were Alger Hiss’s political beliefs?
In his best-selling autobiography, Witness, Whittaker Chambers presented a detailed picture of Hiss as a rigid and unyielding Communist. Hiss vigorously defended himself against Chambers’ accusations, but he rarely spoke in public or wrote at length about his own philosophical views.
The remarkable essay that follows is, in part, an answer to those who accepted Chambers’ charges that Hiss was a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist. Drafted when Hiss was in his 60s as a chapter for a book he never finished, it is also a ringing defense of an entire generation of Americans who enlisted in and supported the New Deal, helping to pull the nation from its deepest economic and political crisis. (Alger Hiss was 28 when he abandoned a corporate law practice and a good income to move to Washington and join Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Dealers.)
This essay, rediscovered in 2002 by archival researchers working on Hiss family papers, also revisits the crucial influences on Alger Hiss’s life: long summers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; wide reading in classic American writers from Sinclair Lewis to H. L. Mencken; and his memorable year with his greatest teacher, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
“Black Thursday,” the day of the Stock Market crash in 1929, to be sure, was dramatic. I do remember it, but not as a turning point for me or for anyone else. I was at the time secretary to Justice Holmes. On October 24th, I was aware only of a sudden partial emptying of a Washington theatre. The stock market tape of prices had run hours late. As report and rumor reached the theatre, successive batches of men left their seats to hurry to telephones. Quickly, the lobby and nearby restaurants and hotels had anxious queues at each telephone. For me at the time, there was nothing more than the interest thus stirred by a peripheral glimpse of a headline-making, but presumably soon to be forgotten, moment of financial panic. It came to be remembered as a turning point for the succession of subsequent calamities which soon were quite genuinely preoccupying, and not to be dismissed as passing abnormalities.
Neither I nor those I knew saw for some time the true dimension of what was to come. Accustomed patterns of thought, the limitation of vision caused by intentness upon the daily round of life, kept us from any such foresight. Even so, before long October 1929 became a point of reference for us, as for others.
Those who graduated from college or professional school after 1929 found it more and more difficult to find good jobs; soon any job was hard for new graduates to find. Our elders were increasingly preoccupied with making do on steadily shrinking incomes. Public issues became private concerns as at no time in the 1920s. The cultural tone of the Twenties itself became of diminishing relevance. That period’s conscious cult of frivolity and sophistication took on an air of remoteness and unreality. Even spirited young people became serious in mood and earnest in their interests. October 1929 came to mark the boundaries of an alien era meriting our hostility and our contempt.
At first, my immediate friends and I, fortunate in professional jobs that the Depression did not menace, saw in the steady worsening of the economy only confirmation of the liberal outlook we had acquired as students. A more humane and flexible attitude by legislators, officials and judges – in short a change to a Democratic Administration under a leader in the style of Al Smith – these were the needs as we saw them.
My early liberal outlook had been strengthened and given focus at the Harvard Law School, where I spent the years 1926-1929. There I had done research for the student law review on the legal disadvantages under which labor struggled to form and preserve unions, to win increased wages and fewer hours, or work to bring about improved working conditions. Through this research, I had for the first time become aware of the long arduous fight for industrial reform that had sometimes produced pro-labor action by the legislatures, national and state, but these gains had even more often been canceled out by a fixed pattern of anti-labor decisions in the courts. Judicial bias against labor prior to 1933 was as marked as judicial bias today against black militants and youthful dissenters.
I had also became aware while at law school, primarily through the reverberations of the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, who were executed while I was a law student, that public passions and official complacency or prejudice could produce shameful miscarriages of justice, even when the substance of the law was not discriminatory.
In the atmosphere of the booming 1920s, reform and efforts to prevent or correct instances of injustice were largely the concern of limited numbers of social workers, journalists, minor labor leaders, professors and an occasional prominent public figure. At the Harvard Law School, the spirit of reform was symbolized by Professor Felix Frankfurter. He was a courageous champion of Sacco and Vanzetti, a vigorous proponent of reform and liberalism in government, and a warm and inspiring teacher. Among politicians, Alfred E. Smith, the unsuccessful Presidential candidate in 1928, was the chief hope of reformers and liberals. By his large vote in the big cities, his campaign demonstrated to my friends and to me that labor and the urban poor were responsive to liberal policies. We identified with these groups, exploited and deprived of the benefits of our booming economy. We were encouraged that they recognized and supported political forces that sought to aid them.
Washington in late 1929, shaken by an Autumn in which average stock prices halved, was bustling with official meetings, from which came optimistic estimates of anticipated results. In November, the presidents of the major railroads, after conferring with President Hoover and members of his cabinet, announced that they would expand their construction and maintenance programs. Two days later, the great industrial leaders of the country, from Henry Ford to Pierre du Pont, met at a White House conference which called for increased cooperation between government and industry. They agreed to the Hoover program of maintaining wage rates and employment. In that same month, the White House also held conferences of the building and construction industries and, separately, of leading public utility executives. From these latter conferences came further pledges of expanded activity and maintenance of wage rates. Additional conferences were held with labor leaders and farm leaders, who also agreed to cooperate with the President’s program. At a large meeting of industrial leaders on December 5th, Hoover said their agreement was an “advance in the whole conception of the relationship of business to public welfare.”
As reflected in the press, public opinion – justifiably, I thought – shared the official optimism. The whole country had been conditioned throughout the Twenties by the confident rhetoric of the New Era to regard boom conditions as normal. The surging economic activity of the decade had appeared to justify this rhetoric. There seemed at that point no reason to doubt the assurances of the same leaders that, by their prompt remedial action, the economy was about to be restored to its customary vigor.
Independent developments appeared to confirm the repeated assurances. By the end of 1929, stock market prices had risen slightly from their low of November 11th. In the Fall of 1929, and the Spring of 1930, the Federal Farm Board, by purchases of wheat, cotton and other commodities, maintained the prices of farm products. Wage rates were largely maintained by big employers (though it later became evident that hours were not); work was begun on the great Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, there were other increases in federal public works, and the governors had promised to expand the public works programs of the states.
For me, as for most others, these factors outweighed the demonstrations by the unemployed which took place in February and March in a number of cities – one in front of the White House was broken up with tear gas. They outweighed the appearance of bread lines in most of the large cities, the first since 1921. Although those I knew who prided themselves on being “levelheaded” made no bones about the slump being real enough, they were confident that the mobilization of modern economic techniques had halted it. In March, Hoover sounded plausible in his assurances that the worst effects would have passed during the next 60 days.
Throughout the decade after World War I, there had been no significant opposition to the accepted business philosophy of the New Era. The New Era had been confidently ushered in by Hoover as Secretary of Commerce for both Harding and Coolidge. Rewarded by the Presidency, he seemed to have become the permanent and permanently successful director of our economic life. Searching criticism of the tenets of the New Era that might have come from the universities had been precluded by the witch-hunting that followed the end of the War, exemplified by the Palmer “Red Raids.” The Socialist movement that had flourished under Debs in the early 1900s had been weakened by its division over support of the war, and destroyed by the greater divisions and the wave of public reaction that followed the Bolshevik Revolution.
By my time in college – I was graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1926 – it seemed an accepted tenet of democracy to believe that the benefits of civilization were dependent upon the specific economic pattern of the New Era. There was no recognized school of thought that advocated forthright governmental intervention in the economic life of the nation to redress the lot of those who failed to share in the benefits of the economy. And an occasional academic figure who actually spoke for socialistic views was regarded as harmlessly eccentric. It was unthinkable that he could be taken seriously. My gifted economics teacher, Broadus Mitchell, a Socialist, owed the popularity of his course to his charm and wit, to his cultivated familiarity with English literature, and to his reputation for being lenient in giving out grades. We were so thoroughly inoculated by prevailing social and economic views against his mildly Socialistic opinions that they made no impression on us. His examples of the shortcomings of business practices and philosophy did tend to fortify the moral and esthetic distaste for business as a career some of us had developed, but none of us was led to consider the possibility of structural defects in our industrial society.
Nor by this Spring of 1930 was there any proposal from organized labor that economic and social reforms were needed to end the Depression. Labor had continuously declined in strength from its peak during World War I, when the Government had protected unionization and collective bargaining as effective methods of avoiding strikes and of ensuring labor morale. After the defeat of the Steel Strike in 1919, basic industries and the new automotive, chemical, and petroleum industries were uncompromisingly committed to open-shop polities. In the failing textile and coal industries, union efforts were demoralized by brutal suppression of strikes in 1928 and 1929. And in what was left to organized labor – the crafts, services, and railroads – membership had fallen during the 1920s. There the unions were weak and largely dependent on the tolerance of employers.
Except for heritages of Populist demands that survived in the Antitrust laws, in federal regulation of the railroads, and in state regulation of public utilities, all prior critical thinking along social and economic lines had disappeared into a hole in our history. There were no resources and no continuing tradition to sustain or enrich independent economic thinking. It had come to seem aberrant. In consequence, critical voices sounded shrill and were not persuasive.
In 1929-1930 I shared Justice Holmes’s attitude, illustrated by his comments during that first Winter of Depression about the tone of the New Republic. Although he knew and thought well of several of the magazine’s editors and contributors, he said more than once that he found it difficult to read the New Republic. It was “depressing,” so constantly critical of officials, of official policy and of national values, so “gloomy” in outlook. Its liberal forebodings seemed unrealistic in the political climate of Washington. Worse, the magazine seemed to relish forecasts of troubles ahead, hardly an indication of objectivity to those who were comfortable in the belief that only mild changes were desirable.
Though I thus had, as yet, no sense that events had already got beyond the control of those in charge of the nation’s affairs, my winter in Washington increased my liberal convictions. A close view of Hoover’s administration and the business leaders who came to Washington as its supporters gave me an impression of crassness and pomposity. I was dismayed by the President’s thin-skinned sensitivity to any criticism, trivial or significant, merited or irresponsible. He insisted that the agencies of government send to the White House all critical clippings from whatever source. During that busy period of incipient crisis, he took time to read these batches of press clippings and did so with pain and annoyance. Hoover’s Washington was Philistia to a greater extent than I had anticipated.
Republican reverence for the views of business leaders on matters of stagecraft, so blatant at that period, struck me as self-righteous and as hypocritically self serving. The Republican party was the party of Big Business. Officials and businessmen were interchangeable. Though all spoke of national interests, the policies were clearly consonant with the economic well-being of Republican worthies. Their philosophy did not contemplate sacrifice for the common good.
My distaste for the tone of this first year of the Hoover Administration strengthened a personal distaste for the world of business that I had already developed. And it increased my growing opposition to the dominant and privileged position that business as a whole had assumed in national life under the Republican postwar administrations. But I was still a long way in my thinking from the committed economic reformer I had become later by the advent of the New Deal.
A general feeling of distaste for the narrow, self-interested credo of the usual businessman I knew was among my earliest predilections. It is relevant here because it was an attitude that was shared by many of my contemporaries at college and at law school, and was to be a badge of ardent New Dealers of all ages. In my case, and for many of my friends, it was a point of view that under the impact of the Depression was to ripen into full support for New Deal reforms that challenged long-standing industrial and financial practices.
As the prevalence of opposition to business domination of government policy later demonstrated, the influences that helped form my bent must have been at large throughout the country. For me, raised in Baltimore in a family of Democrats, suspicion of Big Business, as a Democratic heritage from the Populists, was an outlook I took for granted. But as my father and my uncles had been businessmen, my distaste for business as a livelihood went beyond Populist stereotypes. It grew out of the intellectual currents of the 1920s, the very period I was soon to condemn as frivolous and lacking in commitment. Brought up in Baltimore as I was, foremost among my intellectual influences of the 1920s was Henry Mencken, scourge of middle-class values and a resident celebrity. Though his cult was national in extent, Baltimore youngsters who aspired to sophistication took a proprietary pride in him, and had ready access to his regular pieces in the Baltimore Sun.
For me, Mencken was even a neighborhood presence. Our next door neighbor, a shy bank cashier, as a member of the great man’s Saturday beer clubs, was a crony of Mencken’s. More influential was the fact that Mencken’s ridicule of the customs of his despised “burgher,” the usual man of business, was reflected in the opinions of my older brother and his college friends.
But Mencken was simply a directly felt element in a general pattern. My brother’s friends, like so many students of that time, were determined on literary or artistic careers. Their cherished authors were those who pushed the views of a whole generation of American college students in the direction of opposition to smug complacency, the special province of businessmen. They revered Shaw, the Sinclair Lewis of Main Street and Babbit, Eugene O’Neill, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce and Dreiser. They shared the tone of disillusionment with American life that led numbers of our young writers in the early 1920s to live in Europe.
I had no desire to live abroad. My borrowings from my brother and his group stopped with my feeling of distaste for business as a career and for many middle class values, and with my reverence for the cultural delights of cosmopolitan life.
During my years at college, these early influences were reinforced. Baltimore was a good road company town, and I went regularly to the theatre, thanks especially to a college friend whose relatives were heirs of the Fords, the founders of Baltimore’s only legitimate theater as well as of the Washington theater where Lincoln was shot. I managed also to attend visiting operas and symphony concerts and chamber music concerts at the Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore’s more than adequate music school. By careful economies, I managed a yearly pilgrimage to New York during the Christmas holidays, where I sat in the top balcony for Theater Guild productions of Shaw, Molnar, Pirandello, O’Neill. What Price Glory? confirmed the cynicism my friends and I, whether in R.O.T.C. or not, felt for militaristic glorification. In Baltimore, I obtained and read faithfully the New York World of Heywood Broun, F.P.A. and Laurence Stallings, and (from its appearance in 1925) The New Yorker. I read Swann’s Way and Michael Arlen, and tried to read Ouspensky. In the summer of my sophomore year, I went abroad on the first Student Third Class sailing. In England and Northern France, I visited cathedrals and museums, along with batches of my fellow American college students in that early postwar vanguard of summer tourist invasions.
There were other reasons for the attitude my friends and I took toward the values of businessmen. Baltimore was not a major industrial or financial center. My college friends and I, untouched by the lures of the expanding national economy of the mid-1920’s, were attracted to the professions, traditional and modern. In our small college of a few hundred students, there were close, informal relations between undergraduates, graduate students and faculty. Student preference for the cultural and intellectual aspects of professional life was in part an expression of our regard for friends among the graduate students, and for favorite teachers. Hardly less influential in causing us to lean toward professional careers, Baltimore bred respect for such careers, rich as the city was in eminent physicians because of the presence of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Medical School. Our idealism drew us to the spirit of public dedication, the subordination of private gain to the welfare of others, and the scholarly training that are the traditional essentials of a profession. For my friends, medicine, the law, the church, teaching, journalism, diplomacy and writing far outshone the drab complacency of business. Those of us who could do so chose accordingly. I favored diplomacy and, on the advice of a family friend and professor of international law, Manley Hudson, went to law school as preparation. (At the Harvard Law School my growing interest in the law soon led to submergence of my wish to enter the diplomatic service.) At law school my dislike for the dominance of business values in our national life increased. Realization of the nation’s callous disregard for immigrants herded into the corrals of city slums and of the exploitation of labor throughout the country added indignation to my distaste.
But a near view of the early Hoover Administration only slightly enhanced my vague awareness of the shortcomings of a business-centered polity. A winter in Washington after the drama of the stock market crash, though it gave me no prescience of the disasters soon to come, did, however, fortify the degree of skepticism that I had already acquired toward the prevailing respect for the wisdom and way of life of business leaders. This independence of outlook, which I shared with my closest contemporaries, was progressively, as the Depression worsened, to make me and them open to proposals to curb the abuses of large-scale business. For the most idealistic members of my generation, a potent impetus for our enthusiastic support of economic and political reform was most certainly our well-established scorn for the cultural sterility and political narrowness of the symbolic man of business. This outlook, we were to find as we entered the New Deal in large numbers, was not our monopoly. There was among New Dealers no age gap on this score. Distrust of business ethics and political competence was a common trait of the most vigorously committed New Dealers. Nor was it limited to Washington or to college graduates. Vast numbers of Roosevelt’s devoted cohorts throughout the country attributed our national ills to the untrammeled reign of Big Business during the Republican years that followed World War I.
The year that I spent with Justice Holmes strengthened another attitude that I had grown up with, and that I was in a few years to find also general among New Dealers. This was a sense of continuity with the nation’s past. The strongest sources of my feeling were markedly provincial, but they were reproduced throughout the country. For I found, as I went from college to law school and on to professional life, that my attitude was shared by my contemporaries. The common denominator in our experience – wherever we had grown up – was the link that many city dwellers still had with rural areas, those long-unchanging mirrors of our past.
From my earliest childhood, together with my mother and my brothers and sisters, I spent the summer months of each year on the Eastern Shore of Maryland on the farm of the Wrightsons, relatives of my mother. There, the eight children of the two families shared farm chores and the general life of farm youngsters.
The farm was long-established with an old main house and old barns and other outbuildings. Many of the neighboring places were also – in buildings, household routines and farming practices – much what they had been since Colonial or Federal days. During threshing time, men, teams, and wagons were pooled, working on one farm after another. At noon, the men were fed outdoors by the combined efforts of the local wives and daughters at long plank tables set on saw horses. Milking and churning by hand; pumping water for the stock and, when the windmill was still, for household use; cleaning the chimneys and trimming the wicks of kerosene; slaughtering and curing of meat; carrying ice from the ice house – these were familiar farm chores in my childhood.
Community activities and recreation were also continued from the past: square dances with old fiddlers and older tunes; hay rides; Grange meetings; the emotional outbursts of camp meetings; and the somnolent calm of church services.
The past was familiar not only in appearances and in customs but also in everyday speech. Elderly Negroes spoke of our part of Talbot County as the Bay Hundred, echoing the name of a long-gone local unit of government. Country people of all ages spoke of “hanging trees,” ancient white oaks where, they said, Loyalists had been strung up during the Revolution. Across the Miles River was Gross Coate, the home of Colonel Tench Tilghman, who brought the news of Yorktown’s surrender up the Shore on his way to Philadelphia. It was part of our current lore that his Tory father had ordered him out of his ancestral home because of his enlistment in the cause of the Revolution.
An itinerant waterman, Captain Alec Mulligan, told and retold to the farm children of Talbot County a folk tale of old man Caulk, who in fright had jumped from his “windmill loft tower” when a British fleet shelled the area in the War of 1812. The Caulks, our familiars, still lived on the same farm; Ira, the current patriarch, was Sheriff of the County. Royal Oak hamlet, a few miles up river, was so named because a British cannon ball had lodged in the trunk of a tree that all believed to be still standing. Uncle Jake, who tended the Wrightson’s lawn, had been a slave in their family. Cousin Billy Lowe, a member of the household, had been a drummer boy in Pickett’s Brigade.
Events and persons of the past and the present were equally contemporary, little affected by any perspective of felt distance. As a small boy, perhaps it was in [William Jennings] Bryan’s 1908 campaign – or more likely in [Woodrow] Wilson’s campaign of 1912, I was taken to hear Bryan speak at nearby picnic grounds. In conversations I remember from my boyhood, Bryan and long-dead historical figures were spoken of in the same terms and tenses, living and dead playing seemingly simultaneous roles in the unfolding pageant of history.
The sense of the unbroken continuation of traditional ways was unself-conscious. It was no cult, and modernity was no threat. Quite the reverse, for alleviation of burdensome labor and of the loneliness of farm life was eagerly sought. Novelty was delighted in. All the farm youngsters I knew greeted with excited pleasure and intense interest the appearance of tractors, of gasoline-powered units that supplied electricity for cream separators, and (on the more affluent farms) incandescent lights, of crystal radio receivers, and the first sputtering automobiles. The growing stream of new conveniences represented progress, itself part of the tradition. They were the normal fruit of prized American ingenuity.
Exposure at college and at law school to basic historical materials, and to conflicting scholarly analyses, only increased a sense of continuity with the past. Being, in my own mind, on terms of easy familiarity with the physical and customary world of that earlier America, I felt able to flesh out historical political events and documentary materials. My Democratic heritage and rural experiences led me to identify with the major movements of popular democracy. In terms of the leaders of those forces, I therefore sided with Jefferson against Hamilton, with Jackson against Biddle, with Lincoln against Douglas. At the same time, I had no doubt that the flexibility of the American tradition would permit adaptation of the old principles to continuing material progress.
Holding these views, I was to find myself at home in the New Deal. We New Dealers at once gloried in our faithfulness to the best, the most democratic in the American tradition, and boasted of our modernity of outlook and methods. It was, we thought, typical of our imaginative fusion of old and new that the first large-scale use of IBM machines was for the processing of the millions of crop reduction contracts we put into force in the effort to raise farmers’ incomes.
Daily association with Justice Holmes during the year I spent with him after finishing law school (October 1929 to October 1930) increased my feeling for the continuity of American social and political traditions. Initially, it was almost the other way around. The Justice was 88, and I was soon to be 25, when I reported for work at the old brownstone house at 1720 I Street where he lived and worked. The effortless immediacy of his hold on the past went beyond anything I had been prepared for by my own sense of being at ease with historical American times. In fact, however at one I felt with the past, my roots were, naturally, in the engulfing and insistent present. And so I was startled on the first day I spent with him by his matter of fact references to Harry and Will James. The quality of his full recall was as far removed from the customary clarity of trivial early memories of old people as from the too general contours of legendary folk tales or of reminiscences of historical events by ancients who had been peripheral observers. For me, Holmes’s casual summoning of his richly peopled past was on first acquaintance an eerie, Dante-like visit among the illustrious shades.
This was a quickly passing reaction. The Justice’s vitality was so tremendous a force that his vivid summoning of the past was made to be as natural as, say, his indignation at Justice McReynold’s rudeness during a session of the court from which he had just returned. Holmes wore his great age with panache, as old photographs show he had worn his uniform as a young officer. He was handsome, with high coloring, thick white hair and white handlebar mustache. When his elderly friend, Lady Pollock, spoke of a common acquaintance who was said to be feeling the effects of old age, he shouted robustly: “What’s 80 among adults!’ In his company the past in which he had been a major participant became vividly accessible. What I had sensed as immanent in the fields and trees and rivers and buildings of the Eastern Shore became sharply manifest through his flashing, earthy, lively talk. There was no break in the stream of reality. His references to the past were unfailingly relevant to incidents of the present, to chance turns of informal conversation, or to his own vigorous development of an idea. His use of the past was in the service of his active involvement in a timeless philosophic exploration of the continuum of ideas. Consequently, his references to the past were far more evocative than the commemorative tone inherent in conventional tales of a framed and static period of history, were free of the embarrassing quality of retreat to the psychic comfort of the story teller’s days of worth or vigor that so often mars the best of anecdotes.
In addition, Holmes had what even then was a unique basis for a personal perspective that spanned the nation’s history. He was the very embodiment or our history. When he was a boy, his grandmother had told him of watching the British enter Boston. His family’s house on Beacon Hill had been taken over by Lord Howe for his headquarters. The Justice would say as he peered into a Queen Anne mirror from that house, that he liked to think he could see in the murky glass the faint image of Howe’s wigged face. Holmes, three times wounded, had fought through the Civil War. Among his father’s medical and literary friends, and during his own long career as scholar and jurist, he had known many of those in Europe and his own country who had shaped the very traditions he so exemplified.
Holmes’s prominence among the patron saints of the New Deal was to be expected. Soldier, teacher, philosopher, judge – his long life had been devoted to advancement of public interests, not to private gain. His freedom from outworn dogma, and his espousal of the theory that government must have power for political and economic experimentation, exemplified New Deal tenets. With his sweeping range of thought, pungency of style, and personal charm, he was naturally the beau ideal of all New Dealers.
But no less appealing was his embodiment of the American tradition at its finest. A prime source of our high morale was our belief that we were the carriers, the preservers, of that great tradition. We were destined, it seemed clear to us, to restore traditional values after their submergence by the New Era of big-business domination fastened on the country by the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations. Thus, to New Deal casts of mind, distaste for business mores and veneration for earlier, public-spirited America traditions converged in our condemnation of the business-oriented era that had produced the Depression.
With the persistence and deepening of the crisis by the Autumn of 1930, when I went to work for a Boston law firm, there came a change in public attitudes which I shared. As production and employment continued to fall, reiterated optimistic official prophecies began to arouse skeptical and increasingly bitter doubts.
To liberals like myself, the need for prompt and effective government action seemed self-evident. The ineffectiveness of Hoover’s exhortations to the business community was becoming clearer and clearer to us. His rigid refusal to sanction direct action by the federal government – to insure payment of adequate relief benefits, or for a vast expansion of public works – was, we felt, both callous and wrong-headed. My conviction of the need for political change and for major government action increased as the Fall wore on.
But then, as now, there were few opportunities in the years without a Presidential campaign for the ordinary citizen to take part in political activity geared to prompt remedies. Together with those I knew, I accepted this – more than I do now – as a fact of life, with no sense that it could or should be otherwise, until the next Presidential election. We were observers of national affairs, not participants in them.
With a sense of remoteness from the mounting crisis, we did, however, become increasingly vehement critics of the Hoover Administration, rather like soldiers who gripe while in no position to effect changes in policy. Our complete freedom to criticize at length – and often – anesthetized at that time any strong impulse to activism and absorbed much of our leisure time. In the limited roles of observers, my friends and I were cheered by the Congressional elections that Fall. The Democrats won control of the House of Representatives, increasing the number of their seats by more than 100. The Republicans retained control of the Senate by only a single vote. When the lame duck Republican Congress reassembled, Senator Wagner and the Progressive bloc in the Senate urged a huge program of public works. Though it was clear that the Administration would succeed in preventing any such Federal intervention in the economic life of the nation, it was heartening to know that there were kindred spirits in Washington whose strength was growing.
Late in 1930, the Bank of the United States failed. Although it was not a government agency, its name should have brought to mind specters of national bankruptcy. Its size and its location in New York should have made its closing a clear indication of the pace of disaster. And yet my recollection of that Autumn and early Winter is a of a mood of sharp-tongued criticism of Hoover’s incompetence and a hope for a change of regime in another two years, rather than a clear realization of the economic deterioration which had occurred in the year since the bustling Washington conferences Hoover had summoned after the Stock Market crash. There was annoyance and hope and an uneasy awareness that, though help was needed by many, there was but little one could do to help them.
Evidence of hardship was indeed already clear enough. Charities were unable to meet the rising needs. Unemployment was large and increasing. But the want and hardship were, to a large degree, impersonal for me and for those I worked with. Comfortable middle class people had some few friends who had been hard hit, or they spoke of helping old servants or former employees in desperate straits. Sympathy for the distressed could indeed be expressed in only limited ways. One could aid those one knew who were in need – a small group indeed as far as I was concerned at that time. One could contribute to the hard-pressed charitable agencies. Fundraising difficulties had led Boston, like other cities, to establish a community fund to simplify collections, to minimize their cost, and to apportion resources sparingly among claimant agencies. For its employees, each private business organization became a collection agency, endowed with the social and indirect economic pressure implicit in such a pattern of supervised and institutionalized giving. Apart from these impersonal and minor donations, handled by the office bookkeeper as a periodic deduction from my salary, like tithes, contributions to charitable agencies as an effective method of helping those in need were beyond my means, as they were beyond those of my most immediate friends.
But had I been able to make sizable contributions, I would have felt the outlet inadequate. Charity could effect no reform that would obviate the need for it in the future. More important, it was now clear that the extent of the need was far greater than past experience had prepared us for. As the Winter of 1930-1931 brought only a worsening of the economic situation and an increase in relief needs, it seemed to me indecent to aid the victims of social malfunctioning only on the Pecksniffian basis inherent in private charity. Public aid should make up for such deficiencies in social machinery.
By the Spring of 1931, the steady worsening of conditions brought a new note of anxiety that unpleasantly, to my mind, changed the tone of appeals for charitable contributions. Even noted liberals and humanitarians began to stress the self interest of the giver who by his gift would avoid the social dangers of unalleviated widespread deprivation. I was shocked to hear Professor Frankfurter make an appeal along those lines to a business, professional and financial group. He suggested that the course of wisdom was for them to give generously lest the indigent be driven to take matters into their own hands, with results that might prove far more costly in the end. There had by that time already been occasional reports of unemployed groups seizing stores or relief depots. Demonstrations by the unemployed had been familiar throughout the country for at least a year. Often the demonstrations had been dispersed with violence, too readily labeled riots by the press. Unemployment had increased sharply and ominously from 6,000,000 in January of 1931 to 8,000,000 in March.
We all knew what Frankfurter meant. The proposed motivation for generosity seemed to me unworthy of my teacher and friend, the asserted peril I believed to be exaggerated, and, above all, the remedy was inadequate and ill-suited to the needs. His suggestion, I felt, tended to make a grave situation worse. He should be insisting upon the necessity of recognizing relief as a public concern, and should point out that it was the duty of the federal government to take steps by public works and other means to eliminate unemployment, the cause of destitution. Exaggeration of the likelihood of popular outbreaks could only stimulate fear and hostility, when sympathy and remedial action were called for.
I heard with growing frequency that winter and spring expressions of fear of mob outbreaks – fear that in some instances seemed to me to approach panic. In fact, there were no mob outbreaks then, nor were there any throughout the rest of the bitter months before Roosevelt brought hope and some amelioration and an end to such talk. But Frankfurter’s arguments were all too aptly couched in the idiom of his listeners. On reflection, I recognized with a sense of disillusionment that in practical terms his approach was not only the most likely to be persuasive, but he was seeking aid from the only available source. Hoover had refused federal relief funds. State and municipal programs were nonexistent or inadequate.
Although there were no political outlets for young people intent on social change, there were opportunities in the labor movement. Throughout the 1920s, most liberals had expressed sympathy for (and some had proffered limited aid to) the impoverished textile workers and miners, especially in their bitter, unsuccessful attempts to achieve union recognition. In the late ’20s and throughout the 1930s, socially conscious members of the middle class found their cause in the trade union movement. Here, humanitarian impulse and the goal of reform seemed fully to coincide. In our increasingly industrialized world, reform was then thought of primarily in terms of increased wages and improved working conditions for labor. The vehicle for such reform, it seemed obvious, was revitalization of the labor movement, moribund and complacent where it had not been shattered and demoralized. Strong and vigorous unions could compel higher wages, and the elimination of child labor; of unhealthy shop conditions; and of exploitation through longer hours, and an intensified rate of production and payment by output rather than hours. The inequity of the “stretch out” (longer hours), “speedup” (intensification of the pace of production), and “piece work” (rates of pay based on output) was proclaimed in labor slogans that made the terms everyday words of social protest for millions of workers and their liberal sympathizers.
As the Depression continued unchecked that winter, there was general acceptance of the analysis that under-consumption during the boom, as wage rates and the number of jobs failed to increase commensurately along with production and prices, had led to overproduction and a consequent major cutback in production and employment. Hoover himself, in describing his program for dealing with the crisis had at least recognized the connection between under-consumption and unemployment. As early as October 1930, he told the American Bankers’ Association that the efforts of his administration had “maintained a higher degree of consumption then would otherwise have been the case. They have thus prevented a large measure of unemployment….” It seemed plain to the supporters of labor that a principal cause of the overproduction which was closing industry and ruining agriculture was the inadequate purchasing power of industrial workers, even during the boom years, and this inadequacy was in turn due to inadequate wages in much, if not all, of industry.
Strong unions, vigorously led, could therefore not only end the poverty of many workers and the shameful conditions under which they worked, but could help to stabilize the economy. Thus, after 1929, the goals of the more militant and dedicated members of the trade union movement (familiarly known by them and their supporters as “The Movement”) offered hope for promptly aiding many of those impoverished by the economic crisis, for helping to end the Depression, and, in addition, for bringing about long overdue reforms.
The Labor Movement meant for my generation what the Civil Rights Movement since the 1950s, the Peace Movement, the Student Movement, and the Black Power Movement since the 1960s have meant for idealistic young people today. “The Movement,” in the years of the Depression, aroused the same moral fervor and the same fearful opposition as do the movements of today.
As my interest in labor had begun while I was in law school, when I returned to Cambridge to live in the Fall of 1930, I naturally renewed friendships with professors and others who followed labor developments. There were few opportunities for middle-class young lawyers to participate in the trade union movement at that time. Indeed, large-scale participation by all categories of college-trained young people in the polities of reform became possible only with the advent of the New Deal. Much of the New Deal’s verve and idealism was due to the influx in its ranks of both young and middle-aged, who had not previously found outlets for their socially-oriented sympathies. In the second year of the Depression, there was some limited opportunity to take part in “The Movement” – at least for a few teachers – and this limited participation affected larger numbers vicariously.
Ironically, it was the complacency and conservatism of the leadership of the American Federation of Labor that brought opportunities for a limited number of college students and teachers to take part in progressive labor activities. The evident need for a revitalization of the trade union movement had led in the Twenties and even earlier to the formation or independent schools for training young union members for leadership. This was a variant of the Workers’ Education Movement, long established in England and by the ’20s a pedestrian element in the American labor movement. At first, the A. F. of L. permitted its educational agencies to collaborate with independently organized labor schools, but it soon terminated arrangements of this sort.
Brookwood Labor College was among the first and perhaps the most influential instance of an independent training school of this kind, where members of the academic community and ambitious young union members could work together for common aims. Brookwood was organized in the early l920s by A. J. Muste, a few labor officials, and a group of teachers who constituted its board of directors and its staff. Some of its trainees played courageous roles in strikes in the late 1920s, notably Alfred Hoffman and Tom Tippett in bitter textile strikes in the South. Tales of bravery end idealism were part of the school’s daily fare. In 1928, Brookwood was condemned by the conservative hierarchy of the A.F. of L. which forbade further contacts between A.F. of L. members and the college. Its critical and radical spirit was thus intensified by its enforced exclusive association with militant and independent unionists. And the general public questioning of traditional values that developed after October 1929 gave boldness and vitality to the school’s spirit during the early years of the Depression.
Brookwood’s graduates founded additional independent labor educational institutions, and other similar schools were formed separately. The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 at Monteagle, Tennessee, with objectives, curriculum, students, and faculty similar to Brookwood’s. A less comprehensive school was established on the Bryn Mawr campus during the summer months for women union members. My wife had taught English there the summer (1929) before we were married, which gave me my first contact with labor schools.
The staff of these schools, a very small band, had wider contacts with members of the faculties of a number of Eastern colleges, who visited the schools, sometimes as guest lecturers, and assisted in research, supplying of books and general consultation and support. Still larger numbers of young people followed the activities of the school directly or via the reports of sympathetic college teachers. It was inspiring to hear firsthand or secondhand accounts of the dedicated efforts of young union organizers carried out at great personal risk. It was also inspiriting to witness or hear of the eagerness with which young union trainees wanted to learn about the history and traditions of the labor movement in America and in Europe, and also to broaden their general education. Muste has rightly emphasized their “thirst for knowledge.” But for my friends and me there was, in addition, an important opening up for us of a field of knowledge that had been unknown to us. We were led to familiarize ourselves with neglected areas of history: labor history and the history of social reform that is intermixed with the rise of the labor movement. We learned of economic and political thinkers – from Robert Owen to Marx, to William Morris, to Sidney Webb – not covered in our college courses, and of a whole tradition of organized struggle by industrial workers and miners.
This article is reproduced with the permission of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Alger Hiss Draft of a Chapter on the Foundations of his Liberalism, Small Manuscript Collection, Harvard Law School Library.