US Anticommunism Derailed: American Communist Party Grows During Early Depression Era

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The repression of communists within the U.S. became less enthusiastic at the onset of the Great Depression. The American Communist Party made a comeback as a result.

At the onset of the Great Depression the American Communist Party was making a comeback. Antagonism from the conservative and extreme political right had waned in the years leading up to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932. Roosevelt’s election brought with it an air of optimism that had as much to do with the departure of Herbert Hoover as it did with the progressive ideals espoused during his campaign. Amid growing unemployment, the leftist-subversive element within the U.S. no longer held the attention that they did following the “Big Red Scare” of 1918-1920.

American communists, and those associated with them, were allowed breathing room for the first time in over a decade. The 1920’s had been prosperous for many and had been associated with Republican leadership. Roosevelt’s election had signified a change in national-mood to a state of mind that was receptive, if not demanding of reform. It appeared that the capitalist system was on the ropes. If the communist ideology ever had a chance to take hold and inspire revolution for a more equitable system, it was in the 1930’s.

Republicans and Patriotic Organizations Decline Amid Economic Hardship

The 1932 Presidential Election marked the nadir of the Republican Party’s dominance of the federal government; a downward spiral which began following Congressional Election of 1918. Americans came to view big business as the root of the U.S.’s economic woes. The Republican Party, and by association, President Hoover appeared to be just as culpable. According to Heale, before the 1932 election the Hoover administration attempted a “Big Red Scare” resurrection, but to no avail. Americans were more worried about becoming victims of the Great Depression than they were about communist subversion. Pervasive unemployment, endemic during the Depression, did not spare flag wavers.

Hoover and the Republicans were not the only groups to be adversely affected by economic depression. The patriotic organizations and vigilant veterans that had fervently fought subversion in the 1920’s were no longer supported by the masses. Heale wrote, “Those patriotic societies that had recently been preaching One Hundred Percent Americanism had lost their momentum.” In addition, far-right fringe groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, claiming the same mantle as more mainstream patriotic organizations, continued to practice vigilante justice on suspected leftists. Average Americans could no longer justify such actions, nor did they wish to be associated with groups that did.

American Communist Party Membership Grows

With the pressure diverted from Communist activities to attempts at economic recovery, the Communist Party began to grow in the U.S. The difficult 1920’s had, according to Heale’s figures, led their membership to shrink to 1,500 members in 1923; however, their membership grew to 75,000 by 1938. During this period of growth, Roosevelt’s prescriptions for bringing about economic recovery, namely the first and second New Deal legislation, were achieving mixed results. Ironically, elements of the New Deal would provide the catalyst for a resurgence of American anticommunism just before, during, and after World War II.

Sources:

  1. Heale, M.J. American Anticomunism: Combatting the Enemy Within, 1830-1970. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
  2. McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. Three Rivers Press: New York, 1993.
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