Detroit's Cold War: The Origins of Postwar Conservatism

Detroit's Cold War: The Origins of Postwar Conservatism

by Colleen Doody


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Detroit's Cold War locates the roots of American conservatism in a city that was a nexus of labor and industry in postwar America. Drawing on meticulous archival research focusing on Detroit, Colleen Doody shows how conflict over business values and opposition to labor, anticommunism, racial animosity, and religion led to the development of a conservative ethos in the aftermath of World War II.
Using Detroit--with its large population of African-American and Catholic immigrant workers, strong union presence, and starkly segregated urban landscape--as a case study, Doody articulates a nuanced understanding of anticommunism during the Red Scare. Looking beyond national politics, she focuses on key debates occurring at the local level among a wide variety of common citizens. In examining this city's social and political fabric, Doody illustrates that domestic anticommunism was a cohesive, multifaceted ideology that arose less from Soviet ideological incursion than from tensions within the American public.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252083105
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 09/15/2017
Series: Working Class in American History Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Colleen Doody is an assistant professor of history at DePaul University.

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Detroit's Cold War

The Origins of Postwar Conservatism


Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03727-6

Chapter One

New Deal Detroit, Communism, and Anti-Communism

Anti-Communism, which became a key part of modern conservative ideology, was a central component in postwar political culture. In order to understand Cold War anti-Communism in Detroit, it is important to provide some context on the city of Detroit, New Deal labor, and the Communist Party. As late as 1900, fewer than three hundred thousand people lived in Detroit. However, mass production of the automobile remade the city. By 1920, as a result of the huge demand for labor in the auto plants, Detroit's population surged to 993,675, and the city became the fourth largest in the nation. This expansion meant that most Detroiters were newcomers. Two-thirds of the city's residents in 1920 were either foreign born or the children of immigrants.

Detroit during this period was known as a staunch antiunion, open-shop town largely controlled by the auto industry. The Employers' Association of Detroit proudly dubbed it the "Capital of Industrial Freedom." Even as late as 1928, few of the almost three hundred thousand automobile workers in the Detroit area belonged to a union. Detroit was a "total industrial landscape" whose geography and economy were dominated by massive automobile plants as well as hundreds of small auto parts factories.

However, during the New Deal, industrial unions, especially the UAW, developed relatively rapidly as workers eagerly seized the promise of industrial democracy offered by the Roosevelt administration. The Wagner Act (1935) promised federal protection for the rights of workers to organize unions of their own choosing and to bargain collectively with management. As a result, the newly formed CIO was able to unionize industrial workers in some of the largest, most antiunion manufacturers in the country. Once Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act, laborers all over the industrial Midwest flocked to unions to protect themselves from autocratic employers. In Detroit, General Motors, the largest corporation in the country, signed a contract with the new UAW-CIO in 1937 after a lengthy sit-down strike. Chrysler, Ford, and the smaller auto companies ultimately followed suit after protracted battles between organizers and management. By 1939, the UAW's national membership reached 165,000.

During World War II, the city experienced both another population leap and a huge increase in union membership as hundreds of thousands of black and white southern migrants poured into Detroit to fill the jobs offered in the Arsenal of Democracy's flourishing plants. While Detroit's total population grew to 1,850,000 in 1950, the African American community more than doubled, from 120,000 in 1930 to 300,000 in 1950. A large percentage of this total population belonged to a union. By 1945, the CIO had 350,000 members in the city, while the AFL had 100,000.

Detroit in the 1940s was thus a boomtown confronted with enormous social and political change. Most Detroit residents had lived there for no more than a generation. The city's political and economic elites struggled to control these newcomers. The migrants themselves fought to assert their rights, which often conflicted with the rights of others. As a result of the growth of both its population and its labor movement, Detroit, a formerly largely white, open-shop town, became the most heavily unionized city in the nation with one of the largest African American populations outside of the South.

Many of the same factors that led to Detroit's population changes also led to the expansion of the city's Communist Party. As the city's auto industry developed during the 1920s, members of the party struggled to organize Detroit's working class. During the Depression, Communists successfully mobilized workers who had lost their jobs during the economic crisis. In March 1930, Communist parties around the world led massive unemployment demonstrations, including one in downtown Detroit that numbered between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand. Party members created more than twenty Detroit-area Unemployed Councils, which helped move evicted families back into their homes. In 1932, these Unemployed Councils and prominent local Communists staged a protest through Detroit to Ford's River Rouge plant in Dearborn to demand food and jobs. Roughly three thousand unemployed workers marched until Dearborn police halted them at the city line. When the marchers refused to turn back, the police used tear gas on them. Hand-to-hand fighting broke out between marchers and the police. As the situation spiraled out of control, the police opened fire on the demonstrators and killed three unemployed workers and one leader of the Young Communists. As one prominent historian of Detroit labor pointed out, "The Ford Hunger march, thanks to the overreaction of the Dearborn police ... made the Communist party a significant political force in the new wave of radicalism sweeping the auto industry." The march also helped the local party grow. According to the Daily Worker, Detroit had the largest Communist Party in the country during the early 1930s.

The Communist Party continued to expand during the 1930s because a small but dedicated cadre played a crucial role in organizing industrial unions, including the UAW. Party members' skill and bravery convinced others to join. One Detroit worker explained that he enlisted in the party during the 1930s because he "saw that the Communists were the strongest force of recruiting union members. They dared everything and we had to have the sort of wildness they generated." Communists helped lead the UAW's sit-down strike that led to the union's first contract with GM. Wyndham Mortimer, a party member and UAW vice president, later claimed that "the main strategy of the sit-down strike itself was conducted by the Communists." As a result of their organizing, Communists in the auto industry, according to a prominent labor historian, "gained for themselves a reputation as superb organizers, hard-working unionists who could lead strikes." Their talents convinced non-Communist labor leaders to tolerate Communist activity in the nascent Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). As anti-Communist CIO president John Lewis famously said about the wisdom of permitting party members to play such a prominent role, "Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?"

For their part, Communist cadre entered the new industrial labor movement as part of a worldwide Popular Front strategy. The rise of European fascist movements during the early 1930s led the Seventh Congress of the Communist International to encourage party members throughout the world to cooperate with antifascist social democrats. In the United States, this Popular Front strategy led the Communist Party to support the New Deal and the newly emerging industrial unions of the CIO. By the late 1930s, Communists and their supporters held influential leadership positions in the UAW. Party membership reached roughly 2,600 in Michigan and between 50,000 and 75,000 nationwide.

The Communist Party in Detroit also received support from many African Americans, not only because of their organizing around labor and unemployment issues during the Depression but also because they were in the forefront of the fight for civil rights during the 1930s and 1940s. This was a stance that few other political organizations were willing to adopt. Beginning in 1928, the American Communist Party began recruiting blacks into the fold; Communists achieved some notable success, particularly during the battle to unionize the auto, steel, and packinghouse industries. During and after World War II, Communists had a prominent political profile in Detroit through two Popular Front civil rights organizations, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the National Negro Congress (NNC). The interracial CRC focused on defending democratic rights, and it played a key role during the late 1940s in campaigns for the Martinsville Seven, Willie McGee, and other victims of racist justice. The NNC was a black-led organization within the trade-union movement that worked for fair employment practices through direct and political action. Both the CRC and the NNC drew much of their black membership from Local 600, the enormous, multiracial local from Ford's River Rouge plant.

Pre–Cold War Anti-Communism in Detroit

Anti-Communism and antiradicalism had a long history in Detroit. The Ku Klux Klan flourished briefly in the mid-1920s in response to the influx of immigrants and African Americans into Detroit. The Black Legion, an organization that purportedly helped southern white migrants find jobs, had a membership of roughly one hundred thousand in Michigan and Ohio during the mid-1930s. The legion developed connections with corporate interests, local police, and some Republican groups. Claiming that they wanted only "to stamp out communism," legion members beat union and Communist activists, bombed or burned their homes, and were implicated in murder. As in other industrial communities, Detroit industrialists used red baiting to silence radicals and quash nascent unionism.

The crisis of the Depression fundamentally changed anti-Communism in Detroit. The economic collapse of the early 1930s seemingly challenged capitalism and led many Americans to turn to radical ideologies to solve the problems of mass unemployment and widespread hunger. As a result, Detroit's business elites suddenly found their authority contested. Ford, the symbol of the 1920s mass-production economy, fired 91,000 workers between 1929 and 1931, yet they continued to assert, "These are the best times we ever had." The Communist Party exploited the collapse of capitalist authority. Local elites thus reacted with horror when Communists led mass protests in the city. The massive Communist-led march in 1930 brought a congressional committee, led by Congressman Hamilton Fish, to the city to investigate subversives. They heard the police chief of Flint, Michigan, complain that Detroit Communists had traveled to his city to initiate a major strike. Communists, he complained, were moving around the state "to create trouble and to disaffect people." The local Union League of Michigan, a Republican organization filled with industrialists and bankers, began its own investigation. Both the Union League and the Fish committee called for laws to exclude and deport Communist aliens, denaturalize foreign-born Communists, and outlaw the Communist Party. The Union League also called on the state of Michigan to register aliens. Although no meaningful legislation resulted from these investigations, anti-Communists continued their battle against the increasingly prominent Communist Party. Immediately after the 1932 Ford hunger march, Harry Toy, the local prosecutor, claimed that he had "evidence of criminal syndicalism," and he stated that his investigators had found no evidence that the march was a hunger or unemployment protest. Rather than criticizing the police for shooting protestors, Toy called on the grand jury to return indictments on the syndicalism charge. Local police raided the headquarters of various groups and arrested thirty-five radicals. Anti-Communism thus developed in Detroit during the early 1930s in response to Communist Party demonstrations. Undoubtedly, local elites feared that high unemployment and starvation weakened their status and strengthened the appeal of radicalism. However, rather than seeing radical protests as logical complaints against the economic situation, anti-Communists ignored the marchers' grievances and viewed the demonstrators as alien subversives bent on overthrowing the government.

The New Deal further threatened the hegemony of business elites, particularly since the New Deal's support for labor led to a boom in union membership. While federal protections certainly helped organized labor during the 1930s, the CIO could not have grown without the herculean efforts of union organizers. These men came from a variety of political backgrounds, including from the Communist Party. The presence of party members made the nascent union movement vulnerable to red baiting, which came from all sides. In response to the GM sit-down strike in 1937, for example, Detroit Bishop Michael J. Gallagher claimed that there was "Soviet planning behind it."

As the labor movement grew stronger and as New Dealers became progressively more associated with labor, anti-Communism changed. The New Deal's critics, emboldened by both Roosevelt's failed court-packing scheme and the economic downturn of 1937, increasingly directed their venom against prolabor and pro–New Deal politicians by equating New Deal policies with Communism. In 1937, unionists in a number of industrial cities, including Detroit, ran for local offices in an attempt to wrest political control away from corporate-dominated local governments. Their recent organizing success led them to believe that they could translate union power into political influence. In response to the labor ticket's success in the Detroit primary, the Detroit Free Press encouraged voters to remind labor that "this city belongs to the people who live and work in it, and not to Mr. [John L.] Lewis. Let us keep it that way." Mayoral candidate Richard Reading, running against a New Deal Democrat who had the CIO's support, claimed that a victory for his opponent would give Communists control over Detroit's government. The largest voter turnout in the city's history put Reading in office and defeated all of the labor candidates. Although the labor slate won almost twice as many votes as any previous left-wing ticket in Detroit, a majority of Detroit citizens rejected what they perceived as the New Deal's attempt to strengthen labor and centralize power.

Likewise, when Frank Murphy, Michigan's pro–New Deal Democratic governor, ran for reelection in 1938, he faced a barrage of red baiting. Murphy played a crucial role during the 1937 General Motors conflict when he refused to send in troops to break the strike. Republican Harry S. Toy criticized Murphy for failing to "protect honest labor from communists." When the newly created House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) visited Detroit in October 1938 to conduct hearings on Communists in the labor movement, Murphy quickly became the target. The Detroit police superintendent claimed that Communists were responsible for 75 percent of recent Detroit area strikes, and he blamed Murphy for encouraging strikers. According to an American Legion authority on subversive activities, Michigan was "one of the most communistically contaminated states in the Union." Despite the fact that President Roosevelt skewered the Dies Committee for attempting to influence an election, Michigan voters rejected Murphy and elected Republican majorities to both houses of the state legislature. In both the 1937 and 1938 elections, candidates who successfully equated Communism with the New Deal and labor power defeated their opponents.

The presence of Communist organizers within the CIO also led to an increase in anti-Communism within the labor movement. An anti-Communist faction developed in the UAW during the late 1930s and coalesced around UAW President Homer Martin. Martin, a former Baptist minister from Kansas City, headed an ethnically and religiously diverse coalition of semiskilled, native-born, white southern migrants as well as Catholic supporters of Father Charles Coughlin. As Steve Fraser has written, "Martin's followers felt a deep antipathy toward the more secular, cosmopolitan, racially mixed, and often anticlerical, even irreligious, milieu assembled under the radical leaderships" of the Socialists and Communists. Martin quickly found himself enmeshed in a faction fight with the UAW left, led by Communist Wyndham Mortimer. In order to defeat his opponents, Martin brought Jay Lovestone into the union in 1937 to help him purge party members from the union's executive committee. Lovestone was a former Communist who turned against the party after Stalin defeated Nikolai Bukharin for control of the Soviet Communist Party. He began publicly criticizing Stalin's government, which Lovestone characterized as a "bureaucratic clique which is trying to perpetuate itself by brute force, barbaric terror, blackest frame up, and wanton blood spilling." The former party member now urged workers everywhere to destroy this "savage regime unworthy of a free working class and a socialist state."

Lovestone quickly set out to solidify Martin's hold on the UAW's executive committee by moving prominent leftists, including Wyndham Mortimer and Victor Reuther, out of positions of power while creating alliances with non-Communist UAW leaders, particularly Richard Frankensteen. Frankensteen, a popular nonideological and opportunistic leader in the union, allied himself with Martin in exchange for the plum job as head of the Ford organizing campaign. Martin's position at the head of the UAW appeared increasingly secure.


Excerpted from Detroit's Cold War by COLLEEN DOODY Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 New Deal Detroit, Communism, and Anti-Communism 9

2 Labor and the Birth of the Postwar Red Scare, 1945-1950 19

3 Race and Anti-Communism, 1945-1952 46

4 Anti-Communism and Catholicism in Cold-War Detroit 76

5 Business, Anti-Communism, and the Welfare State, 1945-1958 93

Conclusion 119

Notes 125

Works Cited 161

Index 169

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