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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Building the People' Republic in Washington State:
The Washington Commonwealth Federation, Comintern Foreign Policy, and the Second World War

by Skyler Cuthill

The changing loyalties of the Soviet Comintern influenced the direction of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, an organization of labor activists, left Democrats, and Communists. The political switches back and forth made it difficult for the WCF to maintain popular support or a public coalition, despite the beliefs of Communist activists that to work for the interests of the Comintern would eventually better the lives of all working Americans. This issue of the Commonwealth News from August 1, 1936, shows the WCF's support for Roosevelt and local left-leaning Democrats in the 1936 elections, a position abandoned by WCF Communists when Hitler and Stalin became alliesi n 1939.

In 1935, the seventh Comintern Congress met in Moscow and formalized a transition in policy that had been brewing for years in international Communism: capitalism was announced to no longer be in its final decline, the threat of a resurgent White Russian coalition of European Empires and Russian dissidents— the soviet bogeyman for a decade— was no longer relevant, and the number one concern on the horizon was the rise of Fascism.[1] A popular front with social democrats and collaboration with all anti-fascist organizations regardless of their ideological purity was the order of the day for international Communism, rather, and a welcome sigh was breathed across the Marxist world as Stalin's Third Period finally came to a close - not with a bang but a whimper. In that same year Washington State Communists recognized the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a congress of "commonwealth builders, technocrats, labor activists (and) liberal democrats" as one of those potential sites of collaboration, a "popular front organization capable of carrying out the anti-fascist policies we considered to be our major political responsibility at that time."[2] Joining the organization en masse, the Communists were able to use the WCF "to exert influence on the course of Democratic party politics"[3] while the WCF was still relevant, and during that period actually achieve real progress and do genuine good in Washington State by championing the chronically underrepresented poor in American politics.

Of course the Communists did not only drive the Washington Commonwealth Federation to the left politically and economically, but also brought along their Comintern baggage. Communists hewed to the internationally determined line of Communism everywhere - and while that line was to battle fascism in all of its, sometimes ridiculous, forms, this was no problem. But in 1939, when Stalin and Hitler signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact through their respective diplomatic functionaries, pledging themselves to non-aggression and friendship for the immediate future, the need to battle fascism in all its forms very suddenly, disappeared, evaporating into the mist of old world power politics. American Communism was then faced with the unpalatable need to defend the Soviet Union's alignment with Nazi Germany and urge non-commitment to the conflict then taking place, for fear that escalation would drag Russia into a war it was not prepared to fight. The rapid about face which thus occurred in International Communist policy in 1939 was then, naturally, again spun around in 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the U.S.S.R., and once more American Communism compensated, demanding immediate action and war just months after demanding permanent neutrality.

The switches back and forth did not kill American Communism. But "defections wracked the Washington Commonwealth Federation" and, naturally "many ordinary Communists, particularly Jews, either quit or drifted away."[4] Many ordinary Americans, unfamiliar with Marx or the ideological and theoretical groundings of Communism, but familiar with the fact that American Communists were frequently the most passionate and ardent working-class agitators and partisans around, left Communist-leaning and Communist-led organizations. For the diplomatic reconfigurations had revealed the full scale of the Communist dedication to adhering to the demands of the Soviet Union and the Comintern, against the interests of their own native state. And although the thoroughly Communist men who led the WCF understood, through Marxist argumentation, that to work for the interests of the Soviet Union was to work for the interests of Socialism, and that to work for Socialism was thus to work for the benefit of people everywhere, including the United States, such logic marginalized them from the American mainstream and set themselves up for later isolation and suppression. They had never really formed a popular front, then, but rather a temporary alliance that was contingent upon the aligning of American and Soviet interests. Once the conditions for cooperation disappeared so too did the reasons for cooperation, and the WCF and Washington State as a whole suffered for it as the one fell out of influence and the other lost its angriest warrior for the rights of the poor.

To begin then, let us move back to the founding of the Washington Commonwealth Federation in 1935. The Federation was an outgrowth of its predecessor, the Commonwealth Builders, an organization of technocrats and left-leaning Democrats founded to promulgate and support technocratic theories of government. Practical Technocracy, which is to say implementable Technocracy, was described by them as organizing "state authorities to be created to establish land colonies, acquire unused factories, and to finance the land colonies and state-acquired factories;" in short, a centrally organized system of production and distribution with profit cut out of the loop.[5] Such ideas were naturally responses to the continuing Depression which, although mitigated by Roosevelt's New Deal, continued to exercise a brutal influence on most common Americans and which did not appear to be receding, or at least receding in such a way that anyone could reasonably claim to see the end in sight. The technocratic movement was one of the many radical responses to the crisis, and painted itself as being outside of politics, claiming that it was "founded upon scientific studies and. . .would free people of boom-and-bust cycles, the profit system, unemployment and enslavement to debt." But despite claiming a "forty-five-member group"[6] of Washington State House and Senate members who were endorsed by them and would support their platform, they were soundly thrashed by the 1935 Washington State legislative session, in which the Commonwealth Builders "could hardly claim any influence any legislation. . .The Commonwealth Builders and the left wing were simply outnumbered."[7] Despite their good individual numbers no other members of either congress were ready to stand with them, and for lack of a coalition and ability to politic effectively they were successfully isolated and marginalized by a disinterested majority of more mainstream law makers.

Therefore, on October 5, 1935, they organized a convention to establish the Washington Commonwealth Federation, which, while maintaining the core technocratic policies and platforms of the Commonwealth Builders, expanded the size of their tent by bringing in several other organizations such that they could wield more political influence. It included "individuals from the Grange, United Producers, the Liberty Party, Bellamy Clubs and other smaller groups,"[8] who were adequately progressive enough to be able to get behind their more or less unchanged founding platform. Included in the convention's official platform statement they claimed that "Production has been revolutionized in the past hundred years. Distribution on the other hand is still conducted according to ancient tradition. The result is that our economic order, in which modern technique is coupled to a relic from the past, is grossly inefficient and fails utterly to serve the interests of the people."[9] This was followed by their first official convention on January 12, 1936, where they laid out a constitution which declared they would "Formulate legislation, nominate or endorse candidates for public office, and carry on campaigns designed to further the welfare of the people of the State of Washington."[10] With welfare improvement clearly defined as reorganization of production and producerism.

What this legislation would look like, at least initially, was made clear by their primary effort in 1936, the campaign behind Ballot Initiative 119, “PRODUCTION FOR USE,” which would get "the unemployed citizens and the unemployed resources of the state together" by dividing "the state into four production for use districts, run by a democratically elected, non-partisan commission which will operate factories and other productive enterprises. . .Decision as to what products will be produced will be on the basis of the public need, type of men unemployed, and productive facilities available."[11] which, if it is not obvious from the language, failed by a 3-1 ratio in the November voting.[12] Such an organization of the state, reflecting a sort of watered-down theory of centralized economic democracy, would have obviously appealed to both the technocrats and, more importantly to this paper, the Communists, who by 1936 were represented in the Washington Commonwealth Federation in good numbers.

Hugh DeLacy, the President of the WCF and a Communist Party member, symbolizes the successes and political failures of the WCF. DeLacy helped lead the WCF to a position of power and wide-spread support and was elected to Seattle's City Council. Yet with the switch in Comintern Policy in 1939, DeLacy found numerous ways to argue against American entry into World War II and denounced the previous New Deal government of which he had been a part as akin to fascism.

Although overtly Communist organizations had only been allowed into the WCF since late 1936, a ban having initially been in place at the founding,[13] Communists had excellent representation amongst the Federation's leadership. Howard Costigan, founding member of the WCF and executive secretary, officially joined the Communist Party after being exposed to their ideas in April, 1936, and Eugene Dennett, who had originally come to Washington State as the replacement Communist Party representative in Bellingham after the original was sacked, became chairman of the WCF's resolutions committee that same month, and would later become vice president.[14] Additionally Hugh DeLacy, in 1936 a teaching assistant at the University of Washington, but later a Communist as well, would soon become president of the WCF itself. Beyond them, "many of the CBI's best members (had been) Communists," and the WCF's father organization had historically refused to expel proven Communists from its ranks, although the issue was contentious enough for them to have had a referendum on whether or not they should expel all Communists from the group, which failed to pass.[15]

In short, then, the WCF was primarily an organization of left-leaning Democrats and technocrats with a significant number of influential Communists mixed in, and while the Communist influence would remain steady over the years the technocratic influence would steadily wane after the failure of ballot initiative 119. In response to the initiative's defeat the November 14, 1936 WCF convention agreed to drop "Production for Use" entirely from the party's platform. Rather, they moved that they would aim for the goals of "Production for Use" through alternate, more popular, means, which is to say, " (1) the expansion of employment through the use of productive facilities and the employment of the unemployed, (2) public ownership of natural resources, and (3) the development of cooperatives."[16]

These goals were broad enough, and attractive enough, to continue to grow the WCF brand in the coming years. Popular Front–minded Communists, who understood their greatest priority at the historical moment to be strengthening social democracy such that it could one day fight fascism, which they believed to be the final dragon Communism would have to face before world revolution, thus understood the WCF to be a vehicle for this cause. By working on the behalf of the American working class and supporting Roosevelt they additionally understood themselves to be working in the interests of international Socialism. And so the WCF set to work, getting labor laws passed, state legislators elected, and Hugh Delacy, president of the WCF, sent to Washington D.C. as a Washington State Congressman in 1944, where in addition to supporting left-leaning legislation he also advocated for the Soviet Union and a nascent Communist China.

From 1936 to 1939 the WCF was in the vanguard of those calling for embargoes and solidarity against the fascist powers of Italy, Japan, and Germany. In the same 1936 convention that declared the end of "Production for Use" the WCF Resolutions Committee moved to form a "Spanish Defence Committee" which "elected representatives to the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy" in their fight against Franco’s fascist forces and sent that same organization a check for $500, which, of course, was a lot more money back then than it is now.[17] They additionally resolved to "give its moral support to the present Spanish government" and send a letter to Roosevelt requesting that he "prevent unfair aid to rebel forces in Spain."[18]In the same vein, at their 1938 February Convention the WCF endorsed the American League for Peace and Democracy, whose stated goal was "To use (American) international influence and economic power to stop Fascist aggression "for fear of the fact that "Fascism brings with it the threat of a new World War" and that "The United States cannot isolate itself from these developments. We cannot hope to remain aloof from Fascist-instigated World War."[19]

The WCF also looked to fight Nazis operating in America, cooperating with one E. Spiekermann, a representative of a fraternal Jewish organization, to eject the Nazi consul general Manfred Von Killinger, then recently installed in San Francisco, from American soil. In 1937 the WCF took to distributing handbills telling Washington State that the Nazis "Have a complete network of secret cells, newspapers, propaganda offices and camping grounds on the west coast" and that "Leading the groups. . .is Manfred Von Killinger." Who, the handbill went on to explain, had been a Storm Trooper and member of the Frei Korps in the 1920s and had "broken Spartacus [German Communist] heads" during the civil war and terrorized all of Berlin with his thuggery.[20]

Of course while Germany may have been the flashiest member of the Fascist Axis, Japan figured very large in the Communist demonology of the 1930s as well. The Japanese were simultaneously the easiest target for an American public used to the fears of an invading “yellow peril,” and also the most immediate threat to the Soviet Union. In June 1939, a year after a similar but much smaller incursion, the Japanese Sixth Army crossed into Soviet territory from its forward Manchurian bases and fought a three-month disaster of a campaign against General Zhukov's First Soviet Mongolian Army Group. At final tally, having retreated back to Japanese occupied Manchuria in defeat, they suffered "73% casualties, including 8500 fatalities" which, while roughly on par with the estimated 18,000 casualties the Soviets incurred, was a "stunning reversal" for a Japanese Army who "had been preparing for nearly two decades to fight the Soviet Union."[21] And although the defeat at Khalkin Gol, the river over which the battle was fought, would be the end of Japanese aggression against the Soviet Union, this is naturally only recognizable in hindsight, and Japan would remain a major concern for Stalin right up until the Nazi invasion. Japanese aggression also threatened the nascent army of Mao Zedong in China, where a bitter campaign of guerrilla warfare was being carried out by the embattled Communists against the brutal occupying Japanese Kwantung Army.

To these ends, anti-Japanese sentiment was combined with the more traditional anti-Fascist sentiment of other, more mainstream organizations and emerged in the WCF’s 1938 February convention. They called "upon all affiliated bodies of the WCF and the broadest masses of people to impose a boycott on all goods manufactured in Japan and particularly call upon the American government to impose an embargo upon the shipment of munitions to Japan." This was coupled with a request that "all American Maritime workers be strongly urged to refuse to handle any and all cargo of this nation bound for Japan,"[22] echoing the famous 1919 refusal of Seattle dock workers "to handle the 65,000 rifles intended for Admiral Kolchak [one of the primary Anti-Bolshevik fighters in the Russian Civil War] in his war upon the Russian Republic"[23] then moving through the city.

Stepping up their efforts against fascism from passing resolutions and sending letters, that same year the WCF began distributing pamphlets in Seattle telling people that "The dumping of cheap goods, made by forced labor, on the American market pays for the wars of the dictators. Germany dismembers Czechoslovakia, Italy threatens Tunis, because German and Italian goods have flooded American Counters" and to "Ask the salesgirl for non-fascist goods. Insist on a guarantee."[24] Rather than simply urging boycotts, and asking Roosevelt to impose embargos (which he would, albeit at a later date), the WCF began to initiate boycotts on their own, in a ground level way, reflecting the world's increased state of agitation as World War II approached.

We can thus clearly see that the WCF, from 1936–1938, was an organization which, while still mainly devoted to progressive causes back home, also understood itself as being a part of the grand battle being waged between, in their conception, the forward march of history toward communism and the irrational forces of regression, between socialism and capitalism, progress and reaction. It is important, though, to keep in mind that their activism against Fascism was couched in such an ideological framework that Fascism was a force worth fighting against because it embodied those ideas against which they were fighting, as compared to today where we understand fascism as "not only evil, but as internally inconsistent and fundamentally irrational as well."[25] So whereas we have no doubt that Fascism would certainly have destroyed the world had it succeeded in its conquests, 1930s Communists understood fascism as being one component of a larger historical battle, and that their opposition to it was contingent upon it fulfilling this role as warrior of regression. There was no basic, incontrovertible prejudice at work against Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany. If Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany as such reformed, meaning that if they changed their positions as regards the international war of ideas, then, naturally, the Communist’s opposition to them would melt away.

This is precisely what happened when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed on August 23, 1939, agreeing that Germany and Russia would divide Poland between themselves, that Russia would be given a free hand in the east if Germany got a free hand in the west, and that, as Molotov said, "fascism was just ‘a matter of taste.’"[26] The ideology of fascism had not changed, nor its classification by contemporary Marxists as "the inevitable product of capitalism in its final crisis" but, regardless, because the Soviet Union was no longer threatened by it, the need for resistance and action was completely nullified.[27] Fascism no longer threatened socialism but only the old empires, France, Britain, and their subsidiaries, and as such it was no longer worth fretting over. The victory of international Communism was inevitable so long as the Soviet Union was allowed to be let alone and develop itself without capitalist sabotage, and so long as Fascism agreed to steer clear of such action it also cleared itself from Communist priorities. And although the initial news took the whole world by surprise, to say nothing of international Communists, an official party line and justification was quickly formulated. The Communist Party USA politburo "reached the agreement that the conflict between Nazi Germany and the western democracies was an imperial conflict, and issued a demand that America remain neutral" a month after the pact was signed. The central committee then went on to declare that Roosevelt was "protofascist and "Hitlerian,"" resurrecting the Third Period language which international Communists has been so grateful to abandon not even five years earlier.[28]

In Washington State, the WCF was caught blindsided as well. On September 16, mirroring the rapid response of the central Communist organization, the WCF, in a special board meeting, prepared to amend the existing Neutrality Act to reflect the new party line, declaring "we must stop aiding Japan against China, we must stop aiding Germany against Poland."[29] But embarrassingly, this statement was put out before the Soviet invasion of Poland, which Howard Costigan, caught flatfooted, was forced to speculate was because the Soviet Union needed to defend "its own borders from a continued eastern advance of German troops"[30] as the true shape of Stalin's schemes was not yet apparent. And although the bad old times of the Third Period were back, at least superficially, progress had still been achieved and American Communists were not nearly as isolated as they used to be. Control of the WCF was maintained by such Communists as Howard Costigan and Hugh DeLacey, and WCF influence maintained as well through the crisis, as isolationist and anti-intervention sentiments were still strong in the nation, even if they were in ebb tide as Roosevelt leaned harder and harder on the issue. As such the WCF, although plainly flip-flopping, was able to stay solidly within popular discourse. The fact that they opposed the war for vastly different reasons than the average American who opposed the war did was of no immediate consequence.

The WCF Convention in 1940, pictured in their paper the Washington New Dealer. It was at this convention that WCF leader Howard Costigan attempted to explain the continuity between a previous pro-Reoosevelt, pro-war position and the about-face in WCF's foreign policy which was now -- due to the Hitler-Stalin pact -- against American entry into the European War. Taken from the point of view of Communist Party members, this new switch was consistent with their concern for preserving the Soviet Union as an example of international communism.

The WCF responded to the about-face in Communist foreign policy by adapting their previous fairly mainstream anti-fascist rhetoric into fairly mainstream anti-war rhetoric, cloaking their genuine reasoning behind the sort of "America First" talk which we today are still familiar with. The February 8, 1940 convention of the WCF was opened by a foreign policy–oriented keynote address by Howard Costigan, who said that "There is no man we would rather follow than Franklin Roosevelt, but we are so concerned over the future of democracy that we will not follow even Franklin Roosevelt to War" which showed their understanding of the need to maintain relevance to the average citizen, who was still solidly pro-Roosevelt but nervously anti-war. He continued, "If we do go to war it will mean the very end of those things which we are so interested in saving” and, in a searing indictment of the politicians and writers who agitated against the New Deal's social programs by urging people to "think of the budget," said that, in the case of war those same people would "get up and advocate for pensions for the brave boys who are lucky enough to come back. They will argue compensation for the dependants of those who die. . .They will spend vast sums to give the youth of our country medical care to get them in proper condition to become good cannon fodder. They will want bridges built so that they can be blown up. Not once, mind you, will they think of the budget."[31]

And in a similar vein he criticized Herbert Hoover, who had made headlines by calling the Russian invasion of Finland a "throwback to the morals and butchery of Genghis Khan" and had organized "a Finnish Relief Fund drive"[32] as a man "who once, when the World War veterans went to Washington and demanded some relief… gave them tear gas and tanks and clubs. But now… this man who refused to give from our own abundance to the suffering, hungry people of our own country, now says we must "Give to Finland.""[33] Although Hoover was clearly part of the coalition of hawks who only wanted to spend on American citizens who happened to be in uniform, the Finnish cause was a particularly nettlesome issue for Communists stateside. For although it might be easy to condemn England and Germany as imperial powers and thus denounce the war between them as a stupid waste between villains, Finland had never done anything to anyone and as such American Communists had much less room to maneuver as they attempted to explain away the Soviet Union’s aggression against it. Attacking the people behind the issue rather than the issue itself, naturally, was one of those maneuvers available.

In short, then, the accusations went that the war lobby in Washington D.C. were hypocrites who did not care a whit for the American people except as pawns to throw into the grist mill of international power politics, and who changed their positions as necessary to fit the situation without concern for ideological consistency or intellectual honesty. The irony of the Communists calling them such, of course, should not be lost on us. But the WCF’s policy switches were consistent with their particular Marxist framework, although not within the pro-America and pro-Roosevelt logic they had previously employed. Stalin’s Comintern insisted that the battle against capitalism was to be a global one fought by a single body of united and coordinated revolutionaries, and that the Soviet Union was the vanguard of world socialism and the greatest hope for one day sparking, or at least providing the impulse for, worldwide revolution. What was good for the Soviet Union was good for world socialism, and the alternative possibility, the idea that Communist organizations should draw off from the main line and assert their own national interests before international ones, had already been discredited by the disaster of World War One, in which European socialist organizations had agreed to support the cause of their own native countries before that of the working men then being shot to death.

So while superficial similarities can be drawn between both sides, the anti-interventionist Communists and the pro-interventionist politicians, the Communist critique of America's entry into a war which was then being fought between Germany and Britain would prove to be, in many ways, prophetic in retrospect, and at least worth listening to. And their defense of the Soviet Union as the greatest hope for world revolution, while the opposite of prophetic in retrospect, can be recognized as a reasonable opinion to hold at the time, and thus sympathize with.

As time went on and Roosevelt's increasingly antagonistic policies towards the Axis picked up steam and popularity, the WCF's rhetoric became more and more frantic in equal proportion. Although the Costigan speech already mentioned was on its own decently fiery, Hugh DeLacy's address to the February 15, 1941 WCF convention was magnitudes greater in its extremity, without even considering the fact that while such talk was expected from Costigan, a radio man, Hugh DeLacy in 1941 was a Seattle City Councilman and the president of the WCF. In his address he claimed that "the differences formerly existing between rule by German Fascism and British Imperialism have reached the vanishing point." He went on to explain that both utilized forced labor, both suppressed domestic dissidents, both had no respect for labor laws or private rights, and that just as "Hitler brutally shoots down and suppresses each revolt of the conquered peoples he plunders and leaves to starve... the armies and battleships of British Imperialism menace Ireland, shoot down workers on strike in British colonies... and by naked force and violence maintain against the will of the peoples of India and Africa the most powerful, the most extensive, absentee owned system of exploitation and plunder the world has ever known."[34] Showing that, while Nazi Germany was certainly vile, so too was the British Empire, and neither was worth the lives of Americans.

But more relevant to his audience, and certainly more shockingly, DeLacy claimed that despite the earlier suggestion that Nazi Germany was not dangerous enough to warrant stopping, "The Washington Commonwealth Federation still hates Hitlerism and with such a deep and undying intensity that we pledge every last ounce of our strength in resistance against the frenzied efforts made in the name of fighting Hitlerism to militarize and Hitlerize our own country and plunge it into an imperialist war."[35] So just as DeLacy deconstructed Nazism earlier into its component parts to show that it closely resembled British imperialism, now he showed that America would have to "Hitlerize," which is to say implement all of the most vile elements of Hitler's own programs, in order, ironically, to battle Hitlerism. And in a world where the Final Solution, as well as Nazi Germany’s archives long list of other war crimes, were not only not public knowledge but, in early 1941, mostly not yet implemented, this would prove to have been mostly correct: America would suppress organized labor, throw its potentially dangerous minorities into concentration camps and institute large scale censorship, all in the name of a war effort which was being sold at the time as an effort to end all of those same injustices.

The WCF weekly newspaper, the New Dealer, stresses the connection between American racism and Nazism. This argument fit into the way that WCF Communists argued that American entry into the World War II would bring a militarization and "Hitlerization" to Americans. If the WCF's impetus for such an argument was based on the Hitler-Statlin pact and protecting the Soviet Union, their predictions about the militarization of American life in wartime would be proved partially true, as Japanese Americans were interned and Jim Crow did not fall.

In addition, DeLacy quoted a contemporary political analyst, one Mr. Lawrence, as saying that "England, even if saved... will be unable to hold together the British Empire. The United Sates will be in a position to inherit much of the British power, will then become the Senior Partner in empire, with Britain the Junior Partner." Which, as we can see, was clearly correct, saying on his own that entry to the war would situate America "as the economic ally of England, and as her spiritual, if not her political partner in her struggle with the enemies of the British empire everywhere in the world, to help prevent, if possible their destruction of the Empire, and if this should not be possible, to take her place as the heir and residuary legatee or receiver for whatever economic and political assets of the Empire survive her defeat..."[36] And although America did not literally inherit Britain’s colonial empire, as was perhaps feared, America has clearly succeeded to Britain's old position as premier great power, putting her on the path to the empire which we are all familiar with today.

The WCF’s criticism of the war was not only intense but accurate and precise as well. Rather than relying on nebulous assertions of human suffering or cruelty, although this was definitely part of it, but they also pointed out exactly what they knew would happen in the event of war: the concentration camps, the labor crack down, American imperial ambitions. And while we as Americans can appreciate these concerns, as discussed, in 1941 the WCF would walk back on everything they had said for the past years and switch sides as a result of the June 22 invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany.

As historian Albert Acena writes, “The European imperialist conflict had become overnight the war against Fascism” with the surprise attack, and “the WCF was back in the mainstream where it was to remain.” [37] Hugh DeLacy organized a “UNITED DEFENSE RALLY” in Seattle’s music hall on 7th and Pine on October 18, where Mayor Millikie, British author Thomas Harris, former Montana congressman Jerry O’Connell, and Sverre Arestund, a Norwegian Studies professor at the University of Washington, all spoke on the need for entrance to the war and aid to the Soviet Union. After the speeches, which were “swell” according to Mr. DeLacy,[38] the assembled group approved a letter to be sent to the Soviet, Chinese, and British embassies, pledging the support of the American people.[39] They organized used clothing drives,[40] speaking engagements for Russian veterans from the front,[41] and a local branch of Medical Aid for Russia.[42] They used the sort of vague, war-positive language which they had previously scorned, calling “to crush Hitler... to smoke out and destroy the fascist fifth column” and to “save the freedom and honor of our own country” through opening “a second front in Europe.”[43] And, finally, the WCF got to settle their score with Finland: at the September 1941 convention the Resolutions Committee agreed to send a letter to President Roosevelt asking that the “Finish embassy be immediately closed and a declaration of war by the United States against the government of Finland be immediately pronounced”[44] in response to Finland’s joint invasion of the USSR with Nazi Germany.

Less than two years after claiming that “Our pressing danger comes, therefore, not from Hitlerism six thousand miles away, but from Hitlerism at home, from a thirsty Wall Street imperialism,”[45] Hugh DeLacy was urging people to support the war effort by “buying bonds, increasing war production, giving our blood and youth.”[46] And this political about-face, in addition to being almost comical, would solidify the popular narrative “that the WCF was in fact the Communist Party under a different name.”[47] The WCF would eventually disband of its own volition in 1945 as the war wound down, “having fulfilled its historical anti-Fascist role as an independent organization.”[48] But its anti-war rhetoric, denouncing pro-war hawks agitating for social benefits for only those Americans fighting the war and Franklin Roosevelt for having “billions for bullets but pennies for pensions,”[49] gives the contemporary observer an interesting perspective on the historical legacy and lineage of many of the justifications with regards to war that we hear today.

Earlier it was mentioned that the WCF treated the New Deal Popular Front as more of a coalition rather than a real alliance, which they could work with or against on a case by case basis. So long as Roosevelt’s goals for the nation coincided with the Communists goals for the world, they collaborated, and as soon as they did not, they did not. And while it is easy to look at such a history and cast them as anti-American, it is important to remember that the world revolution which they were striving for was not one which they believed would privilege a collaborating elite over the national masses, but one which they hoped would provide for the American people infinitely better than any amount of Herbet Hoover-esque capitalist charity. In other words, they only had non-American interests at heart so long as you define American interests as the interests of America’s policy makers, of the rich and the influential, rather than the American people. Their rapid diplomatic about faces in response to Soviet Foreign Policy was always done with such a cause in mind, and as such, although it is clear that the leadership of the WCF assigned higher priority to the wishes of a foreign organization than their own domestic one, they were not enemy agents or provocateurs in the traditional, Hollywood villain sense. That the WCF dissolved itself when it did appears then, in this light, to have been extremely fortunate, as they could only have destroyed themselves or been destroyed in the post-war red scare, where such nuance of opinion was not welcome.

Copyright (c) 2010, Skyler Cuthill
HSTAA 498 Winter 2010


Primary source material is from the Robert Burke Collection (Accession No. 4128-001), Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, which houses the records of the Washington Commonwealth Federation; and the Hugh DeLacy Papers (Manuscript Collection 3915), Special Collections, University of Washington.

[1] Haynes, John and Klehr, Harvey, The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself, (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), page 78.
[2] Dennett, Eugene, Agitprop: The Life of an American Working-Class Radical, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), page 65.
[3] Ibid, page 66.
[4] Haynes, John and Klehr, Harvey, page 93-94.
[5] Acena, Albert, The Washington Commonwealth Federation: Reform Politics and the Popular Front,(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975), page 46.
[6] Ibid, page 13 and 51.
[7] Ibid, page 65.
[8] Ibid, page 95.
[9] Ibid, page 95.
[10] WCF convention minutes, January 12 1936.
[11] Advertising handbill put out by the WCF, 1936.
[12] Acena, Albert, page 135.
[13] Ibid, page 111.
[14] Dennet, Eugene, pp. 65-66.
[15] Ibid, page 75.
[16] Ibid, page 139.
[17] WCF December Bulletin, 1936.
[18] WCF November Convention Minutes.
[19] Call To Action pamphlet, January 6, 1936, Fifth National Congress of the American League for Peace and Democracy.
[20] WCF handbill, 1937.
[21] Drea, Edward, In The Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army,(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), page 3.
[22] WCF Resolutions Committee Minutes, February 1938.
[23] Mencken, Henry, The American Mercury, v. 33 (1943), page 494.
[24] WCF Handbill, 1938.
[25] Gregor, A. James "Mussolini's Intellectuals: Fascist Social and Political Thought" Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, page 8.
[26] Klehr, Harvey and Haynes, John, page 93.
[27] Gregor, A. James, page 13.
[28] Klehr, Harvey and Haynes, John, page 93.
[29] Acena, Albert, page 308.
[30] Ibid, page 309.
[31] Washington New Dealer, February 8, 1940.
[32] Life magazine, December 18, 1939, page 18.
[33] Washington New Dealer, February 8, 1940.
[34] DeLacy, Hugh, Report to the Eighth Washington Commonwealth Federation Convention, Seattle, Washington, February 15, 1941, page 1.
[35] Ibid, page 2.
[36] Ibid, page 6.
[37] Acena, Albert, page 390.
[38] Telegram to Clifford Welch from Hugh DeLacy, October 20 1941.
[39] Letter from A. Granyko, Charge d’affairs at the Soviet Embassy, to Hugh Delacy, 1941.
[40] Letter to Hugh Delacy from Russian War Relief Corporation, August 17, 1942, Mrs. Otis Floyd Lomson.
[41] Letter to Canadian Russian War Relief Committee, June 2 1942, From Hugh DeLacy.
[42] Letter to Hugh DeLacy from Tom Jones, September 5 1941.
[43] WCF convention address by Hugh Delacy, September 27 1942.
[44] WCF September 27 1942 Convention Resolutions Committee minutes.
[45] DeLacy, Hugh, page 8 and page 11.
[46] Delacy, Hugh, Handbill advertising the September 1942 Convention.
[47] Acena, Albert, page 452.
[48] Ibid, page 446.
[49] DeLacy, Hugh, page 7.