American Radicals, Left and Right

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In 1939, a pair of mass rallies revealed the breadth of the American political spectrum on the eve of the Second World War. In February, the German-American Bund staged a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden (top); in September, the Communist Party USA gathered in Chicago (bottom).


Despite their apparent foreign allegiances, these extremist organizations from the far right and far left sought to depict themselves as wholly American. The “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung at each event, with attendees engaging in other patriotic displays. Each group appropriated an iconic president, too. The Bund claimed their vision of an America that was “patriotic, free from class hatred and political discrimination” originated with George Washington; the CPUSA, meanwhile, embraced Abraham Lincoln, whose fame as both the Great Emancipator and the Great Commoner fit their needs.

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Notable Replies

  1. Lincoln said a lot of things about labor and its relation to capital that a Communist could easily frame as being proto-Marxist. Best I can tell, Washington never did or said anything that was remotely conducive to casting him as a proto-Nazi. Well, there was the slave-owning, but other than that . . .

  2. What sort of communist would be singing the Star Spangled Banner?? This is the CPUSA five years into Stalin’s Popular Front period, in which they had in effect been supporting Roosevelt and other Democrats (since 1934) in the “struggle against fascism.” Gained them a lot of adherents, roughly 80,000 by 1939. Didn’t do them much good, though: first, Stalin signed the pact with Germany and then he invaded Poland, which didn’t go over too well with its new liberal membership or its alliance with Roosevelt. But flip flop they did after the German invasion of the USSR, which propelled them to finger the actual communist left (Trotskyists and others) to the Justice Department for prosecution under the Smith Act. Didn’t save them from McCarthy later on, though.

  3. Remember that the Great Depression had gone on and on for almost 12 years. People thought it was never going to end. Many intellectuals predicted the end of capitalism ( Roosevelt later claimed he had saved capitalism). Desperate people were considering desperate solutions: the desperate solution on the right was Nazism and the solution on the left was Communism. Hitler was popular all around the world and in America where a whitewashed version of Mein Kampf sold well. Hitler’s praises were even sung on the very floor of Congress. Hitler was supposedly the tough guy who could kick necessary butt and a Nazism was thought to be necessary to knock America out of the Depression. By 1939, however, most educated people began to see that Hitler was not a nice guy and that we were headed for war with him
    Note: California Senator Alan Cranston was the only American sued by Adolph Hitler. A whitewashed version of Mein Kampf was sold in the US to sucker in gullible Americans. As a young man, Cranston thought the we should see the real thing- warts and all. That didn’t fit in with the Nazi propaganda model for America, so the sued him. Hitler won that battle.

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