The ACLU’s untold Stalinist heritage

John Rossomando Contributor
Font Size:

Noted author Paul Kengor has unearthed declassified letters and other documents in the Soviet Comintern archives linking early leaders of the ACLU with the Communist Party.

Kengor found a May 23, 1931 letter in the archives signed by ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, written on ACLU stationery, to then American Communist Party Chairman William Z. Foster asking him to help ACLU Chairman Harry Ward with his then-upcoming trip to Stalin’s Russia.

The letter suggests Ward intended to visit the Soviet Union to find “evidence from Soviet Russia” that would undermine the capitalist profit motive.

Baldwin wrote the letter at a time when Stalin was deporting 1.8 million Ukrainian peasants to Siberia under his policy of the forced collectivization of agriculture, which resulted in the deaths of up to 10 million Ukrainians in the two years that followed.

The Ukrainian government considers this to have been an act of genocide.

Foster was a key figure in the early years of the American communist movement who belonged to the ACLU’s National Committee in the 1920s, according to FBI documents. He later wrote a book titled “Toward Soviet America” in 1932 and also testified under oath before Congress that  he opposed American democracy.

Another letter on ACLU letterhead Kengor found in the Soviet archives dated Sept. 2, 1932 asks the Communist Party of America for a schedule of Foster’s trips around the country and offers to help keep the police at bay. It also asks for the names and addresses of Communist Party representatives in the cities where Foster was speaking.

Kengor also found a flier from 1933 advertising ACLU board member Corliss Lamont as the headline speaker for “Soviet Union Day,” which its organizers hoped would “answer lies and slanders of enemies of the Soviet Union.”

The documents found their way into the Soviet archives because the Communist Party sent all of its correspondences to the Comintern in Moscow for safekeeping, according to Kengor.

Other documents released in the 1990s by KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin show the American Communist Party was under the Moscow’s direct control until 1989.

“These guys were advocating a regime that arguably was the biggest mass murderer in all of human history,” Kengor said. “Where is the moral authority in that?”

Kengor told The Daily Caller he found numerous other documents in the Soviet Comintern archives that also show a close relationship between the Communist Party and the ACLU.

These documents corroborate rumors that have circulated about the ACLU’s founders and early leaders dating back to the 1920s.

The ACLU would not comment on Kengor’s research, but the ACLU’s official history describes its founders as a “small group of idealists” who began the organization amid the “Palmer Raids” of late 1919 and early 1920 against “so-called radicals”.

“The problem here is what is being left out of the narrative,” Kengor said. “Palmer, who was attorney general to Woodrow Wilson, the great progressive’s progressive, understood, as did the Wilson administration, that many of these radicals were American communists who were literally devoted to the overthrow of the U.S. government and its replacement with a ‘Soviet-American republic.’

“American communists actually stated such things in their proclamations, documents, and fliers.”

Kengor catalogs many of these in his book “Dupes.”

“If you look at a lot of things about the ACLU’s early history, you will see a lot of things that are pro-communist,” Kengor said. “What I’m trying to say about this group is that from the outset was on the farthest extremes of the left.

“It was atheistic. Certain members were pro-communist, and would argue that the ACLU itself in the 1920s was pro-communist, as defined by the writings and the beliefs of its founders, key officials and board members.”

Kengor, however, does not believe today’s ACLU is communist, but he argues it still pushes its founders’ militant atheism.

Kengor said a conservative group would not receive the same sort of a pass from the press and the left were it to be discovered its founders had Nazi or fascist ties during the same time period.

Baldwin’s writings and public comments along with those of Ward, Lamont and longtime board members such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and John Dewey, show they looked to Soviet Russia for inspiration, according to Kengor.

“It’s not like they were outside of a bar and blurted out something stupid about the Soviets after a few drinks,” Kengor said. “These guys actually went to the Soviet Union … and came back and wrote whole books gushing about the brave new world they found in the Soviet Union.

“But [most people] don’t even know any of this stuff today.”

Baldwin was a complex figure among them because he initially sympathized with the communists in the 1920s and 1930s, but later backed away after the extent of Stalin’s evil became apparent.

He never joined the Communist Party as a formal member, but evidence shows he sympathized with the Soviet cause, Kengor said.

“The Red Web”, a 1925 book written by Justice Department official Blair Coán, describes Baldwin as having been a “red” and a communist.

Baldwin’s radicalism caught the eye of the FBI, which quoted him in a 1924 report as having said: “The right to advocate a violent revolution, assassination, and proletarian Red guard, are all clearly within scope of free speech …”

The ACLU founder traveled to Stalin’s Russia in 1927 and wrote a book titled “Liberty Under The Soviets” the following year, which defended the Lenin’s and Stalin’s repression of dissent because they “are weapons in the transition to socialism.”

Baldwin later repudiated what he wrote in this book as “naïve” in the 1950s after he became an anti-communist.

The ACLU’s founder was active in numerous pro-Soviet fronts throughout the 1930s, but experienced a change of heart following the signing of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, according to Robert Cottrell’s biography of Baldwin.

Baldwin pushed through a measure in 1940 banning open communists from being part of the ACLU’s National Committee that led to Ward’s resignation. Ward had served as chairman of the ACLU’s board of directors since its founding in 1920.

Ward, a Methodist minister, later penned a book in 1944 praising Stalin’s Russia for having abolished private property and for having diminished individualism in a book titled “The Soviet Spirit.”

Baldwin’s push to rid the ACLU of open communists also led to Gurley Flynn’s ouster in 1940 because of her open Communist Party membership. She would die in the Soviet Union and receive a Soviet state funeral.

Lamont, who coincidentally was 2006 Connecticut Senate candidate Ned Lamont’s uncle, clashed with Baldwin over his effort to purge the ACLU’s National Committee of known communists because he believed it was a betrayal of civil. He remained on the ACLU’s National Committee until 1951 when he resigned to protest being asked to take an anti-communist oath.

Although Lamont never formally joined the Communist Party, he was active in numerous pro-Stalin fronts throughout his ACLU tenure, such as the Friends of the Soviet Union, according to Kengor.

Lamont never acknowledged the truth behind Stalin’s atrocities, and his 1933 book, “Russia: Day By Day,” which details his 1932 trip to the Soviet Union, Lamont praises Stalin’s destruction of churches and glosses over the atrocities being committed against Ukraine’s peasants at the time of his trip.

His book also claims the communists had brought an era of “happiness” and  that “the new world of the twentieth century is the Soviet Union.”

Lamont later defended Stalin’s show trials during the Great Purge of 1938-39 and his installation of communist governments in Eastern Europe.

Kengor considers Lamont one of the worst among the ACLU’s early leaders because he never repented of his support for Stalin even after the extent of his crimes became apparent.

“The narrative today is that they were all noble liberals and progressives, but it’s never considered that they were actually pro-Soviet or pro-communist,” Kengor said. “These guys were terrible because they gave support to a totalitarian regime that arguably was the greatest mass murderer in all of human history.”