Writing Witness, Whittaker Chambers—one of the most celebrated 20th century repentant Communists who helped expose Alger Hiss and other Soviet spies—reflected on his years working within the Party: “While Communists make full use of liberals and their solicititudes, and sometimes flatter them to their faces, in private they treat them with the sneering contempt that the strong and predatory almost invariably feel for the victims who volunteer to help in their own victimization.” Such malleable liberals are analyzed in depth by Cold War historian Paul Kengor, in Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century (Wilmington: ISI Books, c. 2010). He skillfully documents the prescience of Norman Thomas, the perennially nominated presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, who said Americans could not be persuaded to candidly establish “socialism” but under the aegis of “liberalism” would gradually put it in place “‘without ever knowing how it happened’” (p. 479).
Due to the collapse of the USSR, historians such as Kengor have profited from “the massive declassification of once-closed Cold War archives, from Moscow to Eastern Europe to the United States” (p. 3), and the archival materials depicting the Communist Party USA are especially illuminating. Though American Progressives were not Communists, they fully supported the Communist wish list: “workers’ rights, the redistribution of wealth, an expansive federal government, a favoring of the public sector over the private sector, class-based rhetoric (often demagoguery) toward the wealthy, progressively high tax rates, and a cynicism toward business and capitalism, to name a few. The differences were typically matters of degree rather than principle” (p. 4). To Kengor, however, such degrees of difference really matter, for by assisting the Communist movement they “knowingly or unknowingly contributed to the most destructive ideology in the history of humanity. This is no small malfeasance” (p. 11).
Following the Bolsheviks’ triumph in Russia, Communists organized two Chicago subsidiaries which soon merged into the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) that for 50 years dutifully followed edicts from Moscow. To bring about revolution in America, however, Communists needed to strategically misrepresent themselves and subtly subvert the nation’s social and economic structures. Thus they encouraged and showcased “Potemkin Progressives” such as Corliss Lamont—an atheistic “humanist” professor at Columbia University who helped lead the Friends of the Soviet Union and in 1933 wrote Russia Day by Day to celebrate the glories of the Soviet Union. They also promoted the agenda of another Columbia professor , John Dewey—the renowned pragmatist philosopher who largely shaped the progressive educational agenda that has dominated America’s public schools for nearly a century. His educational ideas incorporated significant swathes of Marxism and were actually implemented in Russia in the 1920s before being adopted by American schools.
Invited to visit the USSR in 1928, Dewey was given the standard Potemkin village tour touting the grandeurs of Communism. Returning home, he wrote glowing reports of what he’d seen, affirming that the Bolshevik agenda was “a great success.” He especially endorsed the Soviet schools, the “ideological arm of the Revolution,” which would lead to the success of “The Great Experiment and the Future” in Russia (pp. 90-99). Dewey was not uninformed of the brutalities accompanying this great experiment and acknowledged its “secret police, inquisitions, arrests and deportations” (p. 100). But he glibly rationalized them as necessary for the regime to prosper. He would thus head a corps of influential intellectuals urging President Franklin D. Roosevelt to formally recognize and establish diplomatic relations with the USSR. Soon thereafter, however, faced with mounting evidence regarding Stalin’s Great Purge and its massive bloodletting, Dewey bravely retracted his endorsement of the Stalinist regime. He was especially distressed by Stalin’s attack on Leon Trotsky and joined a commission to Mexico to defend him. For his apostasy the once-acclaimed philosopher was vilified and branded by Stalinists “an enemy of the people.”
Though Stalinists distrusted and denounced President Roosevelt, they diligently sought to infiltrate his administration in the 1930s. Because of his prominence and influence, Harry Hopkins—appointed by FDR to head the WPA, serving as his “right-hand man during World War II,” living in the White House and accompanying Roosevelt to the major WWII conferences—doubtlessly “stands as the most sensational case among the potential Soviet agents” (p. 124). Newly available archival evidence demonstrates that Hopkins was in fact a Soviet spy who effectively duped the president on behalf of his “buddy,” Uncle Joe and manipulated programs such as Lend-Lease to benefit Russia. Concurrently, FDR rejected warnings regarding Stalin and followed his “hunch” that the despot could be trusted. Relying on Hopkins’ advice toward the end of the war, he believed Stalin wanted nothing “‘but security for his country, and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace’” (p. 165). We now know, of course, that Stalin rapidly occupied Eastern Europe after WWII and provoked a Cold War that endured for 40 years, enabling the slaughter of millions of people and devastating the economies of dozens of countries. FDR died ignorant of the havoc resulting from the fact that “from the start to the finish of his administration, the great New Dealer was greatly trashed, hated, and duped by Communists at home and abroad” (p. 181).
Communists always recognized the power of propaganda, so using the arts—and especially the cinema as Lenin stressed—was imperative. Accordingly, the shaping of Hollywood became a central objective for Soviet agents in America and they easily found multiplied dozens of easily duped liberal “stars.” Playwrights such as Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, and Arthur Miller (whose The Crucible amply illustrates the process) provided the scripts. Singers including Paul Robeson and actors such as Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were easily enlisted in the “progressive” (i.e. communist) cause. Consequently, in 1947 the House Committee on Un-American Activities summoned a number of Hollywood celebrities to testify. Some, including Ronald Reagan (head of the Screen Actors Guild and “hero” of the hearings) and Gary Cooper, were “friendly witnesses” who documented and denounced Communist activities. Unfriendly witnesses—most notably the “Hollywood Ten,” four of whom we now know were dedicated Communists)—parroted the Party line, labeling their critics as fascists on a witch-hunt and insisting there wasn’t a trace of communism in Hollywood. Benefiting from the support of the press and powerful Democrat politicians (e.g. Claude “Red” Pepper of Florida), the propagandized public soon believed that it was the House Committee on Un-American Activities, rather than Communists in Hollywood, which was real threat to the nation!
When the Korean War erupted, Corliss Lamont and Lillian Hellman defended the North Koreans. When the United States joined the conflict in Vietnam protesters such as Tom Hayden (perennially elected from his Santa Monica base to assorted office in California), Dr. Benjamin Spock (author of a fabulously successful book on child-rearing), Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr. (in due time publisher of the New York Times), and John Kerry (the Democrat Senator and nominee for President in 2004), easily absorbed and articulated the Communist agenda. Violent revolutionaries such as Bill Ayers worked for the defeat of the “American Empire” and the total transformation of America. Many of these anti-war radicals in the ‘60s ultimately infiltrated and significantly shaped the Democrat Party, where they still exert influence.
Resisting such radicals stood Ronald Reagan, fully aware of Communist strategies since his days as head of the Screen Actors Guild. “For years as a private citizen and candidate, Reagan had fiercely opposed the accommodationist policy of detente and spoken frankly about the true nature of Soviet Communism” (p. 366). To him, the USSR was an “evil empire” to be confronted and defeated. Consequently, scores of “dupes” sought to deride and destroy him. For example, Henry Steele Commager, an influential historian, called the President’s “evil empire” speech “‘the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all.’ Why? Because, said Commager, of “Reagan’s ‘gross appeal to religious prejudice’” (p. 393). Senator Ted Kennedy chastised Reagan “for ‘misleading Red-scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes’” (p. 403). Yet, says Kengor: “As we now know from a highly sensitive KGB document, the liberal icon [Kennedy], arguably the most important Democrat in the country at the time, so opposed Ronald Reagan and his policies that the senator approached Soviet dictator Yuri Andropov, proposing to work together to undercut the American president” (p. 407).
With the demise of the USSR and the emergence of radical Islam as the great threat to America, progressive “dupes” shifted gears while preserving their fundamental ideology. Thus they opposed President George W. Bush’s Iraq policies. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid called him a “loser” and prominent politicians routinely labeled him a “liar.” “Leftists in media and academia joined politicians like [Edward] Kennedy in attacking the White House” (p. 432). A Columbia University historian—an avowed socialist and formerly president of the American Historical Association—Eric Foner declared: “‘I’m not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House’” (p. 432).
The unexpected emergence of Barack Obama was quickly promoted by “Progressives for Obama,” spearhead by Tom Hayden, the leader of the Students for a Democratic Society in the ‘60s who had recruited a number of fellow-travelers such as Daniel Ellsberg and Jane Fonda (whom he married). Admittedly, Obama is a “progressive liberal” rather than a SDS-style Marxist. Yet “Hayden saw in Obama a long-awaited vehicle for ‘economic democracy,’ an instrument to channel an equal distribution of wealth—‘economic justice,’ or ‘redistributive change,’ as Obama himself once put it. Hayden said that, ‘win or lose, the Obama movement will shape progressive politics . . . for a generation to come’” (p. 469). Though Hayden has successfully operated within the Democratic Party in California, other ‘60s radicals (Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, Mark Rudd and Michael Klonsky) promote the cause within higher education. Education, Ayers says, “‘is the motor-force of revolution’” (p. 475). Ayers and Barack Obama worked together in Chicago to funnel money into the city’s schools so as to advance the cause of “social justice.” Klonsky and Ayers co-authored an article that “raved about Arne Duncan, longtime head of Chicago public schools, whom the pair described as ‘the brightest and most dedicated schools leader Chicago has had in memory.’ Today Duncan is President Obama’s secretary of education” (p. 472).
One of the aging radicals most thrilled with Obama’s election was a physician, Quentin Young, a long-term advocate of socialized medicine who had helped launch Obama’s career “in the living room of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn” (p. 477). “Young noted that Obama, as a state senator in Illinois, had supported a ‘single-payer universal healthcare system’” that could be implemented when Democrats took complete control of Congress and the White House (p. 477). Evaluating the 2008 election, Pravda declared “‘that like the breaking of a great dam, the American descent into Marxism is happening with breathtaking speed, against the backdrop of a passive, hapless sheep.’ That ‘final collapse,’ said the pages of the chief party organ of the former USSR, ‘has come with the election of Barack Obama’” (p. 478).
For nearly a century communists have patiently worked behind the scenes, promoting their cause through progressive dupes. Now, amazingly enough, in 2008 “Americans had voted CPUAS’s way: the party could not contain its excitement over Obama’s victory. The election of Barack Obama was the chance for a wish list to come true—a potential host of nationalizations, from the auto industry to financial services to health care, beginning with more modest steps like establishing the ‘public option’ in health-care reform, plus massive government ‘stimulus’ packages, more public-sector unionization and control, more redistribution of wealth, more collectivization. ‘all these—and many other things—are within our reach now!’ celebrated Sam Webb in his keynote speech for the New York City banquet of People’s Weekly World, the official newspaper of CPUSA, which reprinted the speech under the headline ‘A New Era Begins.’ With the election of Obama, said Webb, the impossible’ had become ‘possible’” (p. 478). A “century of dupery” has succeeded!
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In The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor (New York: Threshold Editions, c. 2012), Paul Kengor moves from the general story told in Dupes to a very particular case of a little-known, card-carrying Communist who significantly influenced our nation by helping shape the young Barack Obama while he was growing up in Hawaii. Kengor’s purpose, however, is not to question Obama’s ideology or agenda. “My purpose is to show that Frank Marshall Davis—who clearly influenced Obama—was a communist member and closet member of CPUSA with private loyalties to Mother Russia” (p. 18). The story can now be more clearly told thanks to the treasure trove of documents now available following the collapse of the USSR. Though Davis’s associates and pro-Soviet journalistic pieces elicited the attention of the House Committee on Un-American Activities following WWII, he and his defenders always denied he was actually a Communist. But the propriety of the Committee’s concern has been validated by Davis’s recently-revealed admission that sometime during the war, he had “‘joined the Communist party’” (p. 92).
Kengor tells the story of Davis, from his Arkansas City, Kansas, roots to his Chicago involvement (as a journalist) in Communist causes to his final days in Hawaii. Three pivotal years in Atlanta in the early ‘30s, witnessing the notorious Scottsboro Boys trial (nine black boys were accused of raping two white girls), acerbated his anger with racism and receptivity to the CPUSA’s lavishly-funded Scottsboro propaganda campaign. Returning to Chicago and initially working for the Associated Negro Press, he dove quickly into the intellectual waters colored by the views of “dupes” such as John Dewey and Margaret Sanger. He also interacted with both secret members of the Party (such as the singer Paul Robeson) and more open devotees, including the celebrated writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright (who later resigned from and lamented his support for the Party). Following the CPUSA line they supported movements such as the American Peace Mobilization and promoted “progressive” causes of various hues. (Though self-consciously communists, they invariably insisted on using the term “progressive” to define both themselves and their “social justice” objectives). Davis also worked with prominent “progressive” black leaders in Chicago including Robert Taylor and Vernon Jarrett (one the maternal grandfather, the other the father-in-law of Valerie Jarrett, widely considered President Obama’s closest friend and adviser). And he joined Harry Canter (subsequent to his years in Moscow) and his son, David, working with newspapers to advance worker’s unions; in due time the younger Canter mentored David Axelrod, who became Barack Obama’s political guru.
In Chicago, “Frank Marshall Davis was increasingly involved in events sponsored or covertly organized by the communist left” (p. 88), teaching a History of Jazz for the Abraham Lincoln School (widely labeled the “little Red school house”), and joining assorted communist fronts. Fortuitously, he was enabled to freely “uncork his opinions” in the pages of “a full-blown pro-CPUSA newspaper of his own lead and editorship: the Chicago Star” (p. 104). He especially vilified anti-Communist statesmen such as Winston Churchill and Harry Truman, closely following the “Party line, not questioning Stalin” (p. 103). Recruited to write for the Star were communist luminaries such as Howard Fast, the Hollywood writer who was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1953. Florida’s leftist Senator Claude “Red” Pepper also graced the paper’s pages, promoting his favorite cause: socialized medicine. Pepper’s chief-of-staff, Charles Kramer, whom we now know was a Soviet agent, both “handed over important information to the USSR” and wrote a bill to create a National Health Program (p. 121). And Lee Pressman, another Soviet agent and “close colleague” of both Kramer and Alger Hiss, added his weight to the Star’s roster of writers. These writers, of course, “co-opted the ‘progressive’ label, claiming to be merry liberals” simply devoted to fulfilling the American dream of “social justice” (p. 125).
Then Davis abruptly left his beloved Chicago in 1948, moving to Hawaii, where he wrote a weekly column for the Honolulu Record, a Communist paper, and worked closely with Harry Bridges, the “progressive” leader of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Workers Union (ILWU). Though oft-celebrated by the likes of Nancy Pelosi, the ILWU was “one of the most communist-penetrated and –controlled unions of the time” (p. 145). While Davis claimed to receive no money from the Record, there is every reason to believe he was generously subsidized by the CPUSA in Hawaii, where it was hoped a “mass revolutionary movement” would establish “a satellite in the Soviet orbit” (p. 150). With his pen Davis was strategically placed to assume a pivotal role in Stalin’s strategy in the Pacific. So he consistently attacked President Truman, the Marshall Plan, and America’s military excursions in Asia (Korea; Vietnam). A recently opened 600 page FBI file on Davis reveals that he also took numerous telephoto pictures of Hawaii’s shoreline. Consequently, he was listed as a security threat on the government’s Security Index, joining a select group of folks deemed highly dangerous to the nation.
Little actually came of the CPUSA plan for Hawaii, and an aging Frank Davis slipped into the obscurity of retirement. Yet though he accomplished little as a journalist he left a larger imprint on the world through his acquaintance with Stanley Dunham, Barack Obama’s grandfather, with whom he enjoyed drinking and playing poker. As is clear in Dreams from My Father, wherein “Frank” frequently appears, young Barack Obama (desperate for male guidance) easily slipped within Davis’s sphere of influence as he sought to define himself. “‘Away from my mother, away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one seemed to know exactly what that means’” (p. 233). But Frank Davis provided some clues—and a reading list of radicals such as Franz Fanon. Consequently, Kengor says: “Frank remained a thread in the life and mind of Obama” (p. 237). Thus, when he arrived in California as a college student at Occidental, he was considered a “fellow believer” by one of his then-Marxist friends, John Drew who, in a recent interview with Kengor recalled that: “‘Obama was definitely a Marxist and that it was very unusual for a sophomore at Occidental to be as radical or as ideologically attuned as young Barack Obama was’” (p. 251).
In sum: “The people who influence our presidents matter” (p. 298). To understand President Obama we need to weigh the role of his “mentor,” Frank Marshall Davis, in his formation. The Communist thus provides essential information in evaluating him.