Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The DNC Gets Messy

If you heard “the Democratic National Convention was a real disaster!” and if you know much about American History, you might think of the year 1968. At that time, the DNC was so chaotic that George McGovern and Richard Daley were shouting obscenities at each other.

(McGovern was a Senator from South Dakota who was seeking the party’s nomination; Daley was the mayor of Chicago. The party nominated Hubert Humphrey as its presidential candidate.)

The Democratic Party was divided into various factions which did not get along well with each other. The extremists in the party were organized into groups like ‘Yippies’ and ‘Hippies,’ and started violent riots in some of Chicago’s city parks which were located a few miles away from the building in which the convention was held.

But 1968 wasn’t the only year in which the Democratic National Convention was turbulent - or even seething.

In 1924, the Democratic Party was sharply divided on several questions. The bulk of the party continued to embrace Woodrow Wilson’s racist segregation program, but one faction, seeing that the Republicans had benefitted from the votes of African-American citizens, wanted the party to embrace racial equality.

The party was also split on economic matters. Wilson’s administration had imposed the onerous and hated income tax. Should the DNC embrace tax cuts?

The disputes at the convention became so heated that some of them were deemed inappropriate for the airwaves. Modern media made themselves felt: extensive radio coverage embarrassed the Democratic Party, as its internal fights were presented to the listening public.

The DNC finally nominated John Davis as its presidential candidate. Long losing the 1924 general election, Davis would gain notoriety by defending segregation in front of the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education. Historian David Greenberg writes:

Ten days and a record 102 ballots passed with no resolutions. The nation again listened on radio, but this time fascination curdled into horror as the deadlock persisted, with ugly rhetoric abounding. The Democrats retained a censor to keep any offensive speech off the airwaves, but to spare themselves public revulsion, they would have had to censor the convention itself. Finally, on the 103rd ballot, they settled on John W. Davis, a West Virginia native, a former solicitor general and ambassador to Great Britain, and a corporate lawyer whose firm, Davis, Polk, held prestige with the white-shoe class but not the rank and file. Despite denouncing the Klan over the summer, he was sufficiently retrograde on racial politics to appeal to the party’s white supremacists. (Davis would end his career in 1954 defending segregation before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education). To run with Davis, the Democrats selected Nebraska governor Charles Bryan, the younger brother of their thrice-failed presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, creating the bizarre coupling of a Wall Street insider with a scourge of Wall Street.

The DNC, after airing its collective dirty laundry on national radio, was a fragmented coalition, barely able to feign the semblance of unity, presenting an unpalatable platform. The voting citizens could be forgiven if they also suspected that there was a lack of sincerity behind any presentation of a platform, given the internal divisions which would prevent united or cohesive support.

President Calvin Coolidge was swept back into office in November 1924 with a landslide. Even if the DNC had managed to unite itself and present a united front to the public, it still probably would have lost.

While the aura of racism clung to the DNC, Coolidge solidly refused to endorse the Ku Klux Klan, and in fact, Coolidge mocked the KKK with one of his election slogans, urging the Klan to calm itself in the words, ‘Keep Kool with Koolidge.’

Wilson’s plans for a “League of Nations” and a world government seemed, to the voters, to entangle the United States in too many foreign disputes, and to possibly infringe on national sovereignty. The DNC did not seem to offer a clear departure from Wilsonianism. Coolidge offered a foreign policy which engaged other nations diplomatically, but did not commit U.S. resources to a distant situations, and which maintained American sovereignty over American territory.

On the domestic front, voters were tired of high income taxes and regulated commerce. Coolidge offered a clear message about a free market: the citizens would be able to keep the largest share of their earning instead of having them confiscated in the form of taxes, and would be able to buy and sell as they pleased with fewer regulations.

The lessons of 1924 were, then, twofold: First, Coolidge’s vision of a free market, of racial equality, and of fewer international commitments for America was a wildly popular vision. Second, a political party could not afford to allow its intramural conflicts to spill out into the public via the convention.

The keen-eyed historian will see a number of parallels between 1924 and 1968.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, parties reconfigured their decision-making so that the candidates, and in large measure the platforms, were chosen prior to the convention.

Conventions thus became ceremonial unveilings of the candidates and platforms, rather than the workshop in which they were made. Contemporary convention are largely symbolic, a sort of “eye candy” to launch national campaigns.

Political party conventions prior to, perhaps, 1975, and certainly prior to 1950, were more actively involved in choosing candidates and shaping platforms.

Modern electronic media have decisively shaped and reshaped political conventions. A convention, e.g., in the year 1904, could discuss and negotiate the details of a platform, and be relatively certain that the details of such discussion would never reach the eyes or ears of the public.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Multinational Experiences

Frances Slanger was born in Poland in 1913. But there was no country on the map named ‘Poland’ in that year!

The territory labeled ‘Poland’ had disappeared from the map in 1795, when it was divided into three parts and given to Russia, Prussia, and Austria. As a political state, Poland ceased to exist.

As a cultural nation, the Poles certainly continued to exist: they spoke Polish, and preserved and carried forward their musical, culinary, literary, and artistic traditions. The Poles, millions of them, were people without a country.

Dominated by Russia over a century, the Poles had no individual political liberty. The Russian nobility also occasionally had a nasty anti-Jewish side. Frances Slanger was born into a society in which there was no right to vote.

She was born with the name Friedel Yachet Schlanger, which she changed when she came with her parents to the United States in 1920. As Jews, they enjoyed freedom in the U.S., where they could buy a piece of land and do with it as they pleased, or where they could voice whatever political opinions they might have.

Delighted that she had so many options to explore, Frances decided to study nursing. Graduating in Boston, she worked for two years in a hospital there. As Vice President Dick Cheney writes,

Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1913, Frances, together with her mother and sister, secured passage on a ship bound for America in 1920. They were Jews hoping to escape persecution and build a better life. As a young girl, Frances sold fruit on the streets of Boston with her father and dreamed of becoming a nurse. In 1937 she graduated from Boston City Hospital’s School of Nursing.

By this time, the world’s attention was focused on the horrific events of WWII in Europe, North America, and the Pacific. Frances wanted to make a difference and bring liberty to people in oppressed parts of the world. She joined the Army Nurse Corps.

The western Allies had invaded Europe on June 6, D-Day. Frances arrived “as a part of the 2d Platoon, 45th Field Hospital” on June 10, 1944.

Lieutenant Frances Slanger and three other U.S. Army nurses waded ashore on D-Day plus four. Over the next five weeks they cared for more than three thousand wounded and dying soldiers. In her tent one night, as she thought about all she had seen, Frances wrote a letter to Stars and Stripes honoring the American GI.

The soldiers of the United States were called ‘GI’ because everything they wore, and all the equipment they used, was “government-issued.”

The newspapers Stars and Stripes was published for soldiers and was quite popular among them. Frances wrote her letter one October evening, in her tent, in Belgium, as her unit continued to advance eastward across western Europe.

In addition to nursing, Frances dreamed of becoming a published author. The letter which Frances wrote was published, and became a famous tribute to American soldiers. In her letter, she wrote:

To every GI wearing an American uniform - for you we have the greatest admiration and respect. Such soldiers stay with us only a short time - for 10 days or two weeks. But we have learned a great deal about the American soldier and the stuff he is made of. The wounded don’t cry. Their buddies come first. They show such patience and determination. The courage and fortitude they show is awesome to behold.

Addressing the soldiers directly, she wrote, “we wade ankle-deep in mud; you have to lie in it.”

The 45th Field Hospital advanced across much of Europe. On October 21, 1944, Frances died in Belgium near the German border. Vice President Cheney continues:

Frances did not live to see her letter published. She was killed the next night when a German shell ripped through her tent.

After her death, her letter became famous, and is still read today as a salute to American soldiers. This letter was, however, not the only famous passage she wrote. She had carefully copied this passage into her scrapbook:

There was a dream that men could one day speak their thoughts. There was a hope that men could stroll through the streets unafraid. There was a prayer that each could speak to his own God. That dream, that hope, that prayer became America.

Born in Russian-dominated Poland, she died in Europe working to liberate France and Germany from Nazi domination. But she internalized and exemplified American concepts: the value of the individual human, and the value of liberty.

She lived, and died, with the goal of freeing people from oppression: whenever and wherever governments shackle the people with regulations, people like Frances arrive to champion the cause of liberty.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Assessing the Damage Done by Soviet Spies

In the grand tradition about freedom of belief, people in Western Civilization instinctively tend to tolerate a diversity of political parties. This tendency, however, can be exploited by those who wish to destroy this civilization and its tendencies.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) was founded and succeeded in attracting significant numbers of members.

There was, however, a fundamental deception in the establishment of this organization: while it called itself a ‘party,’ it was not a political party in the sense that the ‘Democratic Party’ or the ‘Republican Party’ or even the ‘Libertarian Party’ are parties.

The CPUSA was, in fact, organized to instigate, in its own words, a ‘violent revolution’ to overthrow the United States government, to abolish the liberties and rights of U.S. citizens, to establish a communist dictatorship, and to do all of this by whatever means necessary, including loss of human life.

By claiming to be a political party, the CPUSA was concealing the fact that it was terrorist organization. It was ready to commit acts of sabotage and assassination. It did commit acts of espionage and disinformation. The CPUSA functioned as a branch of the Soviet military and as part of the Soviet intelligence community.

One Soviet agent, Alger Hiss, managed to start a career for himself in the State Department, and eventually rose to such high levels that he was giving face-to-face foreign policy guidance to the President of the United States. Hiss was, however, advising the president to act, not in the interests of the citizens of the United States, but rather to act in ways which would benefit the Soviet Union.

How did a confirmed Soviet spy obtain a secure position inside the United States government? The Assistant Secretary of State, Adolph Berle, attempted to alert the State Department to Hiss’s activity, but to no avail. As historian William F. Buckley writes,

Responsible officials, both in the State Department and in the White House, were twice informed about Alger Hiss. Mr. Adolph A. Berle relayed Mr. Whittaker Chambers’ report on Hiss to his superiors in 1939. In 1943, Chambers spoke with the FBI, who presumably submitted the information to the State Department. There was either a conspiracy of silence among those officers who knew the information about Hiss, or else they were so persuaded by pro-Communist propaganda, much of it of their own making, that they simply did not think it made much difference whether or not Hiss was a Communist. The last is less astounding if one recalls the celebrated statement of the influential Mr. Paul Appleby, of the Bureau of the Budget: “A man in the employ of the government has just as much right to be a member of the Communist Party as he has to be a member of the Democratic or Republican Party.”

The Soviet intelligence agencies could not have made such substantial inroads inside the United States government without the presence of those civil servants who either were knowingly and willingly aiding the international communist conspiracy, or were convinced that it was ‘no big deal.’

Sadly, it was a big deal, for the millions who died in China after the communist takeover in 1949, for those who died in the Korean war, for those who died in the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and for those who died in the Prague Spring of 1968.