April 27, 2010

Big Red Scare

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During the Red Scare of the 1940s, Hollywood stars and politicians were not the only ones being investigated under suspicion of “pinko” sympathies. FBI documents recently obtained by The Sun through the Freedom of Information Act show that the University was under constant surveillance for potential communist activities, ranging from radical student groups to left-wing professors.“The definition of ‘anti-communism’ readily bled into a variety of behaviors that were regarded suspiciously: those that challenged the norm politically, culturally,  sexually, racially, and artistically all fell under the rubric of ‘communist’ behavior,” Prof. Jefferson Cowie, industrial and labor relations, said in an e-mail.Among other actions that worried investigators in a document titled “Reds at Cornell University,” a string of communist “jailbirds” visited Cornell in the early ’40s. One was “Mother” Ella Reeve Bloor — a notorious socialist activist who demonstrated for Socialist party presidential candidate Eugene Debs — who claimed to have “been in more jails than any woman in the country.” Bloor wrote a note of her trip to Cornell in the Communist Party’s “Daily Yorker,” noting a meeting was held “under the auspices of the Young Communist League in the college. It was held in the Barnes auditorium on the campus, and was well attended by students, teachers, townsfolk and, although it was a cold snowy night, farmers came from a long distance.”The document also noted other Communist “penitentiary graduates” as speakers sponsored by the University, including progressive political cartoonist and Communist leader Robert Minor, Industrial Workers of the World leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and American Civil Liberties Union founder Roger Baldwin. Other offenses mentioned in the report range from the incindiary talks of legitimate Communists like Bloor, to the innocuous inception of a Russian language course, “to train Cornell students in the literature, dramn and lineage of the Reds.”The document also complains of there being “47 title cards of books … in the Cornell Kain and Agriculture libraries by the filthy sox writer and anti-Christian, Communist supporter, Sigmund Freud, who condones incest and reduces everything to an obscene sex basis.” According to Cowie, this sort of censorship under the guise of protectionism was common during this time period.“Often times the cause of anti-communism was simply a disguise of policing what some regarded as deviance,” Cowie stated. “In other words, it was a way to control policies and ideas.”Dean Glenn Altschuler of the School of Continuing Education pointed out communist-sympathizing issues on campus that the FBI documents left out. According to Altschuler, it was not uncommon for various on-campus dorms to play host to Marxist discussion groups, a practice which caused “concerns among many, including some trustees.” Altschuler and Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government, are currently working on an article for Cornell Alumni Magazine that also addresses the issue of communism on campus.The FBI was not only monitoring the Communist activities of visitors to campus. The School of Industrial and Labor Relations was a source of much political bandying when it was founded in 1944.“The founding of the ILR school was accompanied by concerns that labor agitators would have undue influence,” Altschuler said.Cowie elaborated on the issue. “The ILR School was occasionally referred to as the ‘Little Red School House,’ yet its mission was very, very far from promoting left wing causes or training ‘agitators,’” he said. “It become clear that the school was largely created as a way to contain and control the labor unrest that had already surfaced in the thirties and fourties.”According to alumni who were students in this era, communism was viewed with a weary eye by the general campus populace, although there were some activist groups that would routinely demonstrate and recruit.“I knew there was a lady who would come to Cornell at that time. She tried to solicit membership for Communists,” Richard Wagner ’41 said. Wagner was president of Delta Chi fraternity on campus, and said many in the Greek scene during his time stayed out of extreme politics. “We just discouraged her from coming to the frat.”Wagner also noted the University’s reputation for liberalism, and competitors would often make tongue-in-cheek aspersions to the University by noting that the school lived up to its nickname, the “Big Red.”“There were lots of unemployed people in the country who were subject to a lot of temptation,” Wagner said. “There was a promotion of Communist ideas; they were relatively small groups, but they were one of the main opposition groups.”

Original Author: Brendan Doyle