“VOTE or he shall be your master”: Italian anticommunist poster, 1948 (found on Reddit)

Since the early 2000s, especially in the last ten years, the historical scholarship of twentieth-century anticommunism has turned transnational and has yet to look back. In collections such as Transnational Anti-communism and the Cold War: Agents, Activities, and Networks (2014) and New Perspective on the Transnational Right (2010), historians have expanded from the US-centric and, to a lesser degree, UK-centric focus on the subject matter. Instead, they examine anticommunism among Nordic and Swiss trade unions, the French organization Paix et Liberté, the International Council of Christian Churches (ICCC), and diasporic African intellectuals, to name a few groups. Of course, it is difficult to discount the roles of the US government and US citizens. Americans and their institutions, such as the fundamentalist minister Carl McIntire (vis-à-vis the ICCC) and the ubiquitous CIA (African intellectuals and Paix et Liberté), frequently pop up in these studies. Yet, as the editors of the 2014 volume above have argued, “the place of the United States as ‘orchestrator supreme’ of the anti-communist cause needs to be nuanced.”

Even the government- or state-centric orientation of scholarship should be tempered, at least somewhat, because historians have found more and more evidence of private actors and non-governmental organizations.  Besides, anticommunists came from all walks of ideology: “from anarchism to the socialist left to conservative nationalism to Christian movements to the far right.” Under this umbrella, transnational activities were bound to occur. Even the Right, of which the editors of the other aforementioned 2010 volume take to mean “forces that ideologically defend inequality,” was just as capable of forming transnational networks as was the Left. 

Transnational anticommunism is the subject of a recent special section in the Journal of Contemporary History (JCH), 53:1 (January 2018). Guest-edited by two Europeanists, Marla Stone (Occidental College) and Giuliana Chamades (University of Wisconsin-Madison), it follows an article by the latter that was published in the same journal two years before this issue. 

1. Entitled “The Vatican, Nazi-Fascism, and the Making of Transnational Anti-communism in the 1930s,” Chamades‘ article employs materials from the Vatican’s archives and argues that this institution’s fervent anticommunist stand during the interwar period was not predetermined but evolved from several factors. On the heels of the Russian Revolution, many Vatican officials wanted to establish relations with the Soviet Union in the hope of gaining territories dominated by the Orthodox Church. Between 1922 and 1927, both sides held formal meetings and negotiations. Although relations deteriorated by the end of this period, it was not until Eugene Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, became Secretary of State in 1930 that there emerged a major anticommunist shift in policy.

In opposition to the more moderate approach towards the Soviet Union favored by Pope Pius XI and the nuncio to Spain (among others), Pacelli advocated a hard line favored by conservative church figures in the U.S., Mexico, Spain, France, and Germany.  In 1932, Pacelli circulated an important letter through at least thirty-nine countries, in which he defined communism as essentially anti-Catholic. By the following year, he could persuade Pius XI to open a new office, the Secretariat on Atheism, to direct activities agains international communism. Formally led by the Superior General of the Jesuits, the Secretariat performed a host of activities such as coordinating reports on progress of leftist groups in many localities; putting together school curricula; organizing conferences and exhibitions; and creating anticommunist propaganda in print, radio, and film. Because the Secretariat wanted to create a distinctly Catholic form of anticommunism, it went out of its way to avoid antisemitic and nationalist motifs so it would not be coopted by, say, Nazi propagandists. On the ground and at a tactical level, however, it could not avoid cooperation with Nazis and Fascists, which in turn led to the dismay of and criticism from many Catholics. All the same, the Secretariat and other developments in the second half of the 1930s, such as the Spanish Civil War and Pius XI’s anticommunist encyclicals, firmed up the Vatican’s reputation as the most important anticommunist religious institution in the world. The reputation was intact by the time Pacelli became pope in 1939. (See this long note for more on the article.)

Soviet poster in 1924 about the anti-religious campaign, stating, “Ban religious holidays!” The campaign contributed to diplomatic deterioration between the USSR and the Vatican ~ pc Wikipedia

2. Moving to the special section, I found the first of the half dozen of articles, Meredith Terreta’s “‘In the Colonies, Black Lives Don’t Matter’: Legalism and Rights Claims across the French Empire,” to be the most complex. In a sense, it is less about anticommunism and more about three different forces in the French empire during the interwar years–republicanism, communism, and pan-black anticolonialism–in the context of legalist activism. The last point reflects the interest of the author, holder of a chair in human rights studies at University of Ottawa. By tracing the interaction among these forces, Terreta argues against the thinking that the 1970s formed the breakthrough moment in the genealogy of human rights. Rather, Terreta shows, the interwar years “laid the groundwork for a politically heterogeneous mode of legalist anti-colonialism that enabled colonial populations to claim their legal rights and their political subjectivity through the courts” (p. 36).

Terreta makes the case by following the League of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the French Communist Party. Although the League was reformist and the Party radical, they shared some commonalities such as opposition to capitalist exploitation in the colonies. They were also similar in not having a tight alignment to pan-black organizations. The Comintern, for example, initially supported a number of pan-black leaders, only to withdraw this support when the leaders advocated for moral and material well-being of colonized blacks rather than toeing the proletarian line of the communist organization. Nonetheless, the Comintern were closer to pan-black leaders than the League in regard to anti-colonial and anti-imperialist positions. The article then provides an in-depth examination about Madagascar. Thanks to a fascinating combination of personalities and circumstances, civic republicanism, international communism, and pan-black solidarity came together in the colonized island to create a citizenship movement: initially for individuals that applied for citizenship, then for en mass naturalization of all Malagasies. (To a different degree, it also occurred in Martinique.)

It is only in the last few pages that the focus is on transnational anticommunism. As early as 1922, the Ministry of Colonies already perceived nationalism, separatism, and self-determination with communism. This “anti-communist turn,” as Terreta puts it, “gave rise to new forms of policing the activities of French colonials and foreigners in the metropole and their links with populations across the empire” and created “new administrative offices through which to carry out surveillance.”  Moreover, even though “the earliest reports from overseas France indicated little evidence of communist infiltration, the first report from Martinique illustrates the process through which anti-communist policy became a central tenet of French colonial governance.” (All quotations are from p. 32.) This conclusion is hardly novel. But the article contextualizes it to the legal battle in Madagascar and Martinique: the best parts and, again, the author’s real concern. It gives some nuance to the metropole’s misreading about the colonial situation that subsequently caused so much grief for the empire after the Second World War.

3. In a somewhat similar fashion, the next article by Michele Louro moves from the French to the British empire and zooms in on a single episode.  “The Johnstone Affair and Anti-Communism in Interwar India” discusses the story of J. W. Johnson, an American agent of the Comintern, who travelled from New York to Moscow in 1928 for the Comintern’s sixth general meeting; then to Berlin and Bombay, only to be arrested and deported by the British authorities.  Louro traces not only Johnson’s movement, but also development of anticommunist surveillance that sought to restrict movements among anti-imperialists and communists such as Johnson. The surveillance was possible thanks to a developing transnational network of intelligence. In this case, the colonial authorities in India issued a report on Johnson even before he set foot in the country. Another report ensued four days after his arrival. Some of the information was either incorrect or confusing, but clarification was possible thanks to the cooperation of the U.S. government. The clarification, in turn, led to the speedy arrest of Johnson. 

For the teaching-minded, Louro’s is the best and most readable among these seven articles for the undergraduate classroom, especially in general-education history courses. In addition to the colonial and American sides, it gives some fascinating background about Johnson’s communist credentials; the relation between the Comintern and the Berlin-based League against Imperialism; the All-Indian Trade Union Congress; the impact of the Johnson Affair on Nehru; and the reason that Johnson was sent to India in the first place. (Short answer: He publicly criticized the Comintern’s understanding of the situation in the U.S.) And, last but not least, the impact of the Johnson Affair and, by extension, the impact of the transnational anticommunist network between the British Empire and the U.S. Instead of weakening anti-imperialism, the Affair actually motivated anticolonial Indians towards greater alignment with radical groups abroad. Reflecting the organization and prowess of the American Communist Party at the time, it also generated several pro-Johnson protests in the U.S. The last two pages of this article gives a most thoughtful reflection on the historical implications of this episode.

4. Colleen Wood‘s “Seditious Crimes and Rebellious Conspiracies: Anti-communism and US Empire in the Philippines” could be seen as either “prequel” to her dissertation on Cold War anticommunism, “Bombs, Bureaucrats, and Rosary Beads: The United States, the Philippines, and the Making of Global Anti-Communism, 1945-1960” (University of Michigan, 2012); or as an expansion of a section in the first chapter of the dissertation.  I’ve browsed the dissertation, which studies five different networks among Americans and Filipinos that shaped and developed anticommunism in the Philippines: (1) US policymakers and Filipino political elites; (2) US and Philippine counterinsurgency experts; (3) the CIA and the Freedom Company; (4) University of Michigan and University of the Philippines in establishing the School of Public Administration; and (5) the American Family Rosary Crusade. The stories of these networks in creating transnational anticommunism complicate the concept of US hegemony, which is no longer seen as something that flowed unobstructed from Washington, DC to Manila and other locales around the world.

Wood’s article, of course, deals with an earlier period when the U.S. colonized the Philippines yet portrayed itself to be different from the European colonial powers. Philippine critics, especially the communists, took to task this belief in exceptionalism. The Communist Party of the Philippine Islands, which was formally created in 1930, situated the U.S. as part of the capitalist and imperialist white rule over colonial people. As a result, US officials and Filipino elites were hardest on the CPPI even though there were noncommunist anticolonial groups. Moreover, the anticommunist response was “part of the politics of American imperial exceptionalism–the very ideology that US officials had drawn upon to justify US, and later elite Filipino, rule over Philippine people” (70). Even when prominent members of the US Congress professed to be concerned with anticommunism in the U.S. and not with anticommunism from outside, the truth was that they did care a great deal because, in this case, Philippine communism directly challenged their belief in exceptionalism. 

A publication from the organization founded by Reginald Hall (below)

5. The last three articles are about anticommunism in the colonies. How about anticommunism in the countries of the colonizers?  Kathryn Olmstead, “British and US Anticommunism Between the World Wars” makes a most interesting comparison on how authorities in each country responded to labor unions and leftist groups in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. More precisely, it is about former intelligence officers who created “state-private surveillance and propaganda networks,” meaning “private intelligence institutions–spy agencies that could draw upon the resources of the government while evading democratic controls” (90-91).

In particular were the activities of the British Reginald “Blinker” Hall and the American Ralph Van Deman, who had been important figures in the intelligence community of their respective countries.  Charismatic in personality and predisposed to strong distrust of labor unions, Hall and Van Deman had held important positions in government and the military: Hall served as director of naval intelligence and MP (Conservative Party); Van Deman retired at the rank of major general. Separately, they constructed sizable anticommunist networks that involved the intelligence communities.  From England, Hall helped to create the Economic League that eventually reached the other side of the Atlantic. From southern California, Van Deman built a national network of spies and informers who infiltrated not only labor unions but, out of the fear that communists could brainwash teachers, professors, and ministers, also schools, university classrooms, and church organizations. While agreeing on the communist threat to the economy, the Americans tended to emphasize also communist influence on non-economic issues such as gender roles, transgressive sexual behavior, and white racial purity.  

pc openculture.com

6. If distrust of labor unions in the U.K. and the U.S. formed the background to Hall’s and Van Deman’s anticommunist activities, anticommunism among labor unions in the same countries were the foreground in Jennifer Luff, “Labor Anticommunism in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, 1920–49.”  Here, however, we see a case of divergence rather than convergence. During the 1920s, communist parties in Great Britain and the U.S. followed the same strategy regarding activism among labor unions. Due to historically political trajectories, however, the situation of each country was quite different from the other’s.  American communist labor activists operated under a two-party system in which neither the party was friendly to labor unions. Workers could have belonged to the GOP as the Democratic Party, and the largest union, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), necessarily functioned as a political lobby rather than a political machine. In comparison, the U.K. had already established a tradition of socialism and trade unionism, and the majority of “labor leaders fell somewhere between a moderate reformist socialism and a more radical Marxism” (p. 117).  Although the largest union, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), “spurned communism at home, [it] largely tolerated its red members” and “did not endorse broader crackdown on the [communist party]” during the 1920s (pp. 110 & 125). It was, however, the extent that the TUC would have gone, for it did not want further influence by members of the communist party.

By the early 1930s, however, the Popular Front put pressure on TUC leaders to have closer relations with communist labor members. The TUC actually resisted this pressure, for it might have tolerated communist elements but it did not want further influence from them.  The entry of the Soviet Union into World War II, however, led the TUC towards warmer relations with the communist party in Great Britain. It led to a larger communist-friendly membership in the TUC.  In addition, the country voted the Labour Party back to power shortly after the war. Even as party leaders were formulating aggressive measures against the Soviet Union, they were more careful when making pronouncements against communism. 

Why did the situation turn out to be quite differently in the U.S.?  For one, the Popular Front contributed to the fracture of the AFL, as some members joined others to form the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Hundreds of members of the American communist party clandestinely joined the CIO: a fact that angered the AFL when it found out. It did not help that the New Deal and FDR’s labor officials favored the CIO and sidelined the AFL. These developments gave many AFL members a chance to raise the level of their anticommunist critique during and after World War II.  For example, they lobbied for the criminalization of membership to the American Communist Party.  Well before the end of World War II, indeed, “labor anticommunists moved beyond union bans and expulsions to helping to erect the legal architecture of anticommunism and McCarthyism” (p. 126).

For the undergraduate classroom, I’d assign this article and Kathryn Olmstead’s article in addition to the Louro article above.

7. After two articles on the U.K. and the U.S., Alessandro Brogi, “Ending Grand Alliance Politics in Western Europe: US Anti-communism in France and Italy, 1944–7,” shifts to two other Western countries. It shows, however, plenty of American activism during this era of the Cold War. In contrast to the environment of McCarthyism in Washington, US officials in France and Italy were temperate in their perception and dealings against the communist parties in those countries. As Brogi puts it, there was “less the continuity of American anti-communism than its moment of rethinking and possible reformulation in the crucial postwar years” (p. 136). 

Moreover, and fascinatingly, the article also argues that it is best to grasp this strand of anticommunism in the context of anti-Americanism generated by the French and Italian communist parties, which were by far the largest communist parties in the West. In a sense, this article shows more about communist anti-Americanism than it does anticommunism. Before 1946, French and Italian communists were more guarded in their criticism of the U.S., and more ambivalent in their attitude. Postwar developments, however, fortified anti-Americanism among the communists.

As for the American effort against communism, officials recognized that anticommunism alone was not enough. They also had to guard against the accusation that the French and Italian governments were subservient to Washington. As a result, they initially had to mute the most zealous anticommunists in France and Italy. They employed a variety of means, including those in public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, and labor activism.  They also took a softer approach to the moderate socialists in each country. Heck, they even paid for the travels of some communists to America!  Why, then, did the initial approach turn harder? The answer lies largely with the French and Italian conservatives, to whom the U.S. cast the largest net of alliance. 

I learned a lot from these articles, even as the lack of subheadings, apparently an editorial practice on the part of the JCH, made it somewhat difficult to follow some portions of these presentations and arguments, especially those by Wood and Brogi. It also felt as if they were previews to book-long treatments ahead. Were it not for the limit in word count, there could have been more about the European conservatives in the Brogi article. 

In any event, the subject of transnational anticommunism will only grow in the years ahead. Although most of the current scholarship focuses on Europe and the U.S., I think there will be more and more about transnational anticommunism in Asian countries and regions, including colonial Vietnam as well as in South Vietnam. (I’ve heard from an academic acquaintance that there is a forthcoming articles on this subject.)

Anticommunist poster by Paix et Liberté ~ pc bostonraremaps.com, which includes this caption: “The poster features a young woman astride a verdant Europe. Seeking protection from the looming storm clouds of Communism, she holds aloft an umbrella comprising the flags of western European nations (Surely it is no accident that those of the United Kingdom and France are carefully centered, while that of Germany is barely visible!) This poster was published by Paix et Liberté, an anti-Communist organization active in France between 1950 and 1955. At the time western Europe was taking its first critical steps toward economic and political union, with the formation in 1951 of the European Coal and Steel Community.”