Thursday, October 26, 2017

The original America First movement

“America First” were the two most surprising words to come out of President Trump’s mouth in his inaugural speech Jan. 20, 2017. Only the Los Angeles Times that day noted that it was “a phrase with an anti-Semitic and isolationist history going back to the years before the U.S. entry into World War II,” but the Anti-Defamation League had already asked Trump to drop the phrase during the campaign.

In addition to being the infancy of modern U.S. liberalism, the 1930s and early 1940s were a notable time for racism and anti-Semitism. The Depression spurred many whites to engage in parades by the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings; like Germans, some Americans scapegoated Jews as well as Blacks for their misfortunes.

The America First Committee started in September 1940 to oppose U.S. entry into World War II. At its peak it had 800,000 members in 450 chapters. The group swept up youths who were later notables, including future President Gerald Ford and future conservative writer William Buckley. It was a false-flag “pacifist” movement whose real aims became transparent over time.

The group’s leading spokesman was aviator Charles Lindbergh, known for his sympathies toward the Nazi regime. In a 1939 article in the Reader's Digest, Lindbergh wrote, “We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.” Later, in a Des Moines speech delivered on Sept. 11, 1941, he declared, “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.”

The group was funded by Robert E. Wood of Sears-Roebuck and Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, but included the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford and Avery Brundage, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who reportedly blocked two Jewish runners from participating in the U.S. track team at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

More direct evidence of a Nazi connection emerged at the trial of the aviator and orator Laura Houghtaling Ingalls (a distant cousin of Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder). It was shown that she was a paid Nazi agent, had been receiving about $300 a month (equivalent to about $5,250 in 2017 dollars) from Baron Ulrich von Gienanth, a spymaster while officially second secretary at the German Embassy in Washington. Von Gienanth, testimony showed, encouraged Ingalls to participate in the America First Committee.

The Committee dissolved on Dec. 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The New Deal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was two things: a series of federal programs, projects and reforms enacted in the 1930s and the signature policies that became the core ideas of a U.S. liberal Democratic Party coalition. They combined relief for the unemployed and poor, overall economic recovery and a thorough set of financial reforms to prevent a depression from ever happening again.

When FDR took office on March 4, 1933, he stated his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Unemployment stood at about 25%, farm income nationally had fallen by half since 1929 and close to a million nonfarm mortgages had been foreclosed. There was no protection other than what little families, private charity and local governments could offer; when, to top things off, runs on banks occurred, the institutions closed and people lost all their savings.

For relief, FDR got Congress to approve the Social Security Act of 1935, which established a basic right to an old age pension, insurance against unemployment and aid to poor families with children. In 1939, the Administration added the first Food Stamp Program, which fed 20 million people, in addition to boosting the prices of farm products.

Recovery was a vast set of programs, including a public works program to building government offices, airports, hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, and dams in some 34,599 projects, rural electrification, the Forest Service, Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority. In effect, for a time the government became the largest investor and employer in the United States.

Reforms of the financial sector included the Banking Act of 1933, which established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation that still protects average checking and savings accounts, and the companion Glass-Steagall Act, which set up firewalls between the banking, insurance and investment industries. The Securities Exchange Act of 1934, set up the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to watch over stock investment activity to keep it transparent and fair.

The three legs of the New Deal stool were designed to interact with one another. Aid to elderly, poor and unemployed people, for example, also served to spur economic activity, as people in need spent out their aid, generating consumer demand and employment. The recovery eased the depth of poverty and unemployment while also generating production and profits. Controls over how profits were invested prevented speculation from wiping out the improvement.

The New Deal did not eliminate capitalism’s boom and bust economic cycles, but it greatly cushioned the effects. The delicate balance required to keep the economy on an even keel was shown in 1937.

The business-leaning Republicans argued that the New Deal was hostile to business growth and spurred strikes caused by the organizing activities of two competing federations that were growing thanks to workers’ fears that without unions they might starve. Buoyed by a return to healthier economic activity by 1936, the GOP in Congress applied the brakes on spending. Unemployment jumped from 14.3% in 1937 to 19.0% in 1938, while manufacturing output fell by 37% from the 1937 peak.

The worst effects of the second downturn in the Depression were technically over by 1939, but unemployment remained high until the U.S. entry into World War II that mobilized many unemployed workers into uniform. After the war, an unprecedented prosperity arose out of the unique historical circumstance that the United States was the only major industrial nation whose infrastructure had not been reduced to rubble.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Great Depression

The third development that shaped the 1930s and contemporary ideas of the economy, society and policy was the Great Depression, the deepest of the 47 economic downturns the United States has experienced since 1785. It began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which ushered in a 12-year period of mass unemployment and pauperization that affected all western industrial nations.

The stock crash began on October 24, 1929, since then known as “Black Thursday,” when the market lost 11 percent of its value, it intensified on on October 28 (“Black Monday”) when the losses added an extra 13 percent decline and peaked on Black Tuesday, October 29, when the market declined further, another 12 percent and a volume of trading that went unmatched for 40 years, as panic took hold.

Much has been written about the event, perhaps the most dispassionate and succinct presentation for the nonspecialist is The Great Crash, 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith, published long after the smoke cleared, in 1954.

Among the factors that played into the panic, Galbraith explains, was the unrestricted ability to speculate on stocks by borrowing money (known as trading on margin) and a speculative bubble in which investors failed to notice that consumption was beginning to lag behind production. Joseph Kennedy, father of the president, famously recounted that he got out of the market before the crash, when a shoeshine boy offered him a stock tip, his clue that speculation was running amok.

A group of wealthy investors and banks tried to remedy matters and the market briefly regained its value, but another, much longer, steady decline ran from April 1931 to July 8, 1932, when the market closed at the lowest level of the 20th century, with a net 89 percent loss of value for stocks overall. Events in Wall Street caused a panicked run on banks and internationally on the dollar, which was then backed by gold, and business uncertainty led to layoffs.

Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide gross domestic product fell by an estimated 15 percent (worldwide GDP fell by less than 1 percent from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession). U.S. unemployment rose to 25 percent (by comparison, the Great Recession peaked briefly at 10 percent) and in other countries it rose as high as 33 percent.

The Depression was actually two downturns. The first was the slump brought on by the crash, from which the U.S. was beginning to recover toward 1935 thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Then there was a second slump beginning in 1936, brought on entirely by Washington policy when Republicans attempted to cut spending on the programs that were lifting up the economy.

What ended the Depression definitively was the massive government investment in World War II. By 1943 unemployment was at 3 percent. The explanation is simple. Government-financed capital spending rose from 5 percent of all such investment in 1940 to 67 percent by 1943. The United States had found its investor of last resort.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Black International

In the 1920s, from the Right, there emerged three movements in Europe that were loosely affiliated with one another in what is often called the Black International, after the color of the shirts of the Italian National Fascist Party (their allies, the German Nazis wore brown shirts and the Spanish Falangists, blue).

The three had in common a top-down view of government as commanding society through a single leader and political party that claimed to espouse a path toward restoring the nation to a mythologized greatness in the past. Benito Mussolini in Italy claimed ancient Rome as its heritage, Adolf Hitler in Germany referred back to the ancient Teutonic warrior tribes that brought Rome down and Francisco Franco in Spain basked in the erstwhile glory of the first empire on which the sun did not set.

They were expressly authoritarian and disdainful of elections even as they claimed to embody the popular will. Their economics were corporativist, meaning that they viewed society as made of social and economic blocs such as state-controlled unions, business associations and various interest and affinity groups (women’s groups among them), all of which formed a corporate, or bodily, whole. Their broader philosophy claimed some elements of a distinctly medieval Christianity and traditionalist values.

The three movements opposed almost everything that dismembered the social order and respect for traditional values of what I elsewhere have called “the Cathedral of Europe” — including humanism, the Protestant Reformation’s individualism, the French and American Revolution’s electoral democracy and capitalism and what they viewed as the heir of all these, Communism. Once the theocratic order was jettisoned in the Renaissance, they proposed, it was all downhill.

All three shared striking symbols symbols. Fascists has the fasces, a Latin word for a bundle of rods tied around an ax, which stood for the tightly bound members of the movement who figuratively chopped down whatever stood in the way of their ideas. The Nazis borrowed a turned and swiveled swastika, an ancient Indian religious icon; in Sanskrit the name has three roots “su” (good), “asti” (exists) and “ka” (make), which combined meant the coming to existence of goodness. The Falangists had a set of five arrows linked with a yoke representing the indissoluble union of the five kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Granada and Navarre.

Fascists, Nazis and Falangists shared also European supremacist views. Italian Fascists focused on the claimed superiority of Italians over Africans and used it to justify conquests of Libya and Ethiopia. German Nazis claimed that the Germanic races were superior among all Aryans, or European peoples of Indian origin, like the swastika. The Falange was not particularly interested in ethnic distinctions, largely because Spaniards were multiethnic going back to Phoenician outposts in the peninsula in the pre-Roman period; nonetheless Franco himself was fond of the Visigoths of central Spain and their alleged “national love for law and order.”

All three used the scientifically discredited concept of “race” to describe the people they favored, along with those they despised, namely Jews, the Roma and various other groups.

Mussolini came to power in 1922 after a dramatic “March on Rome,” to radically reform a parliamentary monarchy; by 1925 he abandoned all pretenses and imposed one-man rule, subject only to the king, who overthrew him in 1943 when the Allies were at the gates of Rome. Hitler narrowly won a plurality of votes (43 percent) in 1933 and two weeks later had his party enact dictatorial powers with which he ruled until 1945. Franco came to power in 1939 and the end of the Spanish Civil War; he ruled as military dictator until his death in 1975.

Monday, October 09, 2017


As background, we return to the Soviet Union, where Lenin died in 1924. He was succeeded after a series of complex internal political struggles by Joseph Stalin. The “Man of Steel” ended up as General Secretary of the Communist Party, after expelling Leon Trotsky from the Party; it was a position he held until his death in 1953.

Stalin was an unusual in that he had been an Orthodox seminarian and a bank robber, albeit justified as raising funds for revolution. Under the Soviet Union’s power structure, in which government carried out decisions made by the Party in its members-only meetings, he didn’t become formally head of state — premier of the USSR — until 1941.

Stalinism is the kind of rule that became standard in the USSR and its satellites. Overtly it advocated rapid industrialization; the theory of “socialism in one country,” displacing the goal of international revolution with that of expanding the Soviet system; a centralized state control of every imaginable social activity; collectivization of agriculture.

Less overtly Stalinism generated a system of control that was as old as Tsarism and under Leninism had originally been devised during the Civil War, in which Stalin played an important role. This went from neighborhood committees to defend the revolution, to the various incarnations of the Soviet secret police — the Cheka, in 1937 NKVD and after Stalin the KGB — which were small bureaucracies to “purge” the Party of “deviationists,” until peasants refused in the 1929 to play along with collectivized farms, causing food shortages and eventually famine.

Then came a series of “Great Purges,” or broad based attacks first against peasants, then technical and professional workers when the economy failed, ultimately to allegedly Tsarist military officers. To house those who were not dispatched with the classic bullet to the back of the head — estimates of the slaughter go as high as 60 million — Stain established the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor whose acronym in Russian is GULAG.

Marx warned against revolutions in backward countries such as Russia, stating that they would degenerate into what he called “the Asiatic mode of production.” Not even Lenin, who recast a lot of Marx, ever envisioned Stalinism, argued Trotsky, who eventually fled to exile in Mexico, where an assassin killed him with an ice pick.

In opposition outside the USSR, Trotkyists formed the Fourth International — to rival the Communist Third, which had been set up against the socialist Second — and have argued that Stalinist USSR was neither socialist nor Leninist but a bureaucratized state controlled by a ruling caste, the Party’s Nomenklatura (or list of notables). The second was Maoism, in uneasy alliance with Stalinism, yet critical of putting Soviet interests above world revolution; Castro’s Cuba and North Korea are somewhere between Stalinism and Maoism.

Friday, October 06, 2017


The Russian Revolution also prompted a reaction in the United States, known as the first Red Scare, roughly between 1917 and 1920, which involved some mass hysteria fanned by newspapers stoking the flames of fear and virulent anti-immigrant sentiment. The latter was related the nationality of leftist activists, who were mostly relatively recent arrivals from Germany, Poland and Italy.

Then, in 1919, the government got its excuse for massive repression. Galleanists, or followers of violent insurrectionist and anarchist Luigi Galleani, sent some 36 letter bombs between April and June 1919 to leading government officials and businessmen, but also law enforcement officials. Although only two people were injured (only 8 actually exploded, 16 were sent back for insufficient postage), the Justice Department launched a series of massive raids under the leadership of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.

The Palmer raids, as the campaign is known, was also an excuse to go after new Mexican immigrants. Ironically, they were mostly the so-called “Cristeros,” who had fled persecution of Christians during the ongoing revolution in Mexico. Palmer deported more than 500 foreign citizens in all; his  popularity and political ambitions to succeed Wilson fizzled when he warned of an attempt to overthrow the U.S. government on May 1, 1920, but nothing happened.

In that period, several states also enacted “criminal syndicalism” laws outlawing advocacy of violence in effecting and securing social change, also otherwise restricting free speech. These laws led to aggressive police action against people accused of being left-wing, with no distinction made between communism, anarchism, socialism or social democracy.

One of the notable cases of that era was against Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian-born American anarchists convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during a 1920 armed robbery in Braintree, Mass., and later electrocuted. The case remained controversial because of the prejudice openly invoked against the accused; ballistic tests 40 years later proved that Sacco was indeed the shooter, but not Vanzetti.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017


Lenin’s regime was like an earthquake that set off deep fears within the middle and upper classes of the world, so that for the next 72 years, the Soviet Union remained the bogeyman that every union leader, activist and politician outside Russia could use, for good or ill.

Internationally, Lenin broke almost all the rules. He signed a peace treaty with Germany, effectively bowing out of World War I. More importantly, his government repudiated all foreign debt contract by previous governments or by any Russian entity.

Internally, the new government nationalized all private property — this meant all income-producing property, not personal possessions (clothes, furniture, etc.) and not personal real estate of middle-income people or below. In addition, it nationalized all banks, factories and all business and luxurious property and expropriated all Church property. Wages were raised and the eight-hour working day was introduced. Only agriculture remained initially untouched. Lastly, the Tsar and his family, were executed in July 1918.

The effect of all these measures was electrifying. The Russian revolt inspired a surge by the world Communist movement, which was more or less aligned with the Bolsheviks. In 1918-19 a revolution broke out in Germany, where a short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic popped up. Next door, in Hungary, there were a series of 1918-1920 revolts with heavy Communist involvement. Similarly in Italy, the “biennio rosso” (red biennium) of social conflict between 1919 and 1920 included mass strikes, worker protests and self-management experiments in land and factories seizures by peasants and workers.

For about two years, the western Allies briefly occupied militarily parts of what would soon be called the Soviet Union, until the Reds won the Civil War. In 1922, with the Russian economy near collapse, Lenin reversed course and made a feint to “state capitalism” under his New Economic Policy, which won his government diplomatic recognition in Europe, although the USA would withhold it until 1933.

Monday, October 02, 2017

The Bolshevik Revolt

The Germans, being no fools, set to take advantage of the coup behind the lines of their Eastern Front and dispatched Lenin in a sealed train from exile in Switzerland to the turmoil in Russia, where he arrived in St. Petersburg to stoke the fire of revolt in 1917. In exchange, Lenin vowed to end the war, closing the Russian front; it was a deal similar to that Germans made with Irish rebels a year earlier.

The provisional government had set up a new Duma, which — much like the National Assembly in pre-revolutionary France — had been a puppet advisory council to the monarch, but this time as a real parliament. The Duma became a hornets’ nest of opinions, including socialists.

Parallel to the Duma, government power devolved to a network of grassroots community assemblies (called “soviets”). These were modeled after the workers councils that had been set up in the abortive revolution of 1905; John Reed offers the best description of how they functioned, which was by a fairly chaotic consensus. The net effect was that the Provisional Government and Duma made grand policy and legislation, but at the local level people obeyed the soviets, which also formed militias to defend against armed bands of Tsarists.

In October (November in modern calendars), the Bolsheviks, under a committee led by Lenin led an armed revolt of workers and soldiers, under the slogan “peace, bread and land.” They seized the capital, Petrograd (St. Petersburg), overthrew the government and transferred its authority to the soviets.  The very first people Lenin ordered shot, on the first morning of the new regime, were 2,000 members of what was then called the Social Revolutionary Party, much more moderate than the Bolsheviki, despite the name.

Lenin halted the war, signed a peace treaty with Germany in March 1918, launched a campaign of “red terror” (similar to Robespierre in the French Revolution) operated by the Cheka (a secret police that was almost identical originally to the Tsar's Okhrana) to bring opponents (many of them socialists) to heel. A Civil war broke out, indeed Britain, France and the United States sent troops to help the “White” counter-revolutionaries against the “Red” Bolsheviks, which the latter won. Lenin's group named itself the Communist Party and formed, in 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.