their very core, what were Alger Hiss's political beliefs?
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
remarkable essay that follows is, in part, an answer
who accepted Chambers' charges that Hiss was a dyed-in-the-wool
Marxist. It is also a ringing defense of an entire generation
of Americans who enlisted in and supported the New Deal,
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
Franklin Roosevelt's New Dealers.)
essay, only rediscovered in 2002 by archival researchers
on Hiss family papers, also revisits the crucial influences
on his life: long summers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland;
wide reading in classic American writers from Sinclair
to H. L. Mencken; and his memorable year with his greatest
teacher, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.0.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 "SwannÕs 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 WrightsonÕs
lawn, had been a slave in their family. Cousin Billy Lowe,
a member of the household, had been a drummer boy in Pickett's
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 Bryan's 1908 campaign - or more
likely in 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.
sense of the unbroken continuation of traditional ways was
unselfconscious. 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.
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.
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.
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, HolmesÕs casual summoning of his richly peopled past was
on first acquaintance an eerie, Dante-like visit among the
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 tellerÕs 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 DealÕs 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
to Who Was Alger Hiss?