“Vito Marcantonio as the Personification of the Red Menace,” a review article based on: Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas–Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950, by Greg Mitchell. New York: Random House, 1998.
By Gerald Meyer (Hostos Community College/CUNY). Published in The Italian American Review (Spring/Summer 1999): 159-163.
Greg Mitchell’s: Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady examines one of the most lurid chapters in the now widely discredited political career of Richard Nixon: his 1950 senatorial campaign against the former actress, Helen Gahagan Douglas. What initially promised to be a close race between two incumbent Congresspersons popular among their parties’ core constituencies, ultimately resulted in a 59 to 40 percent landslide that positioned Nixon to become the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1952 and destroyed Douglas’s political career. The extremity of Nixon’s combined use of red baiting and underhandedness against Douglas during this campaign led to the moniker, Tricky Dick.
The most memorable tactic employed by Nixon’s campaign apparatus was the distribution of more than one half million copies of the “Douglas-[Vito] Marcantonio Voting Record,” which listed the 354 times she had voted the same as East Harlem’s American Labor Party representative. This became known as the “pink sheet,” because it was printed on pink-colored paper. His campaign manager, Murray Chotiner, recognized the great impact on the electorate of the large size and specificity of “354,” which had the effect of concretizing Douglas’s connection with the individual who for the general public personified the Left in the United States Congress. In the postwar period, his insistence on the legal rights of Communists and his opposition to President Harry S. Truman’s foreign policy gave him instant recognition to much of California’s electorate, a state he had visited only once during his entire life.* Indeed, Marcantonio’s consistent and vocal advocacy of a progressive agenda earned him a national reputation as the spokesperson for the American Left.
Nixon’s overall campaign strategy was developed by Chotiner, who termed it “stop and dump.” After obtaining a copy of Douglas’s campaign schedule, Chotiner insured that she would be greeted by local Republican activists and journalists, with fresh allegations and innuendoes. He also organized “flying squadrons” of Young Republicans to heckle her. And throughout the campaign, the “pink sheet” haunted Douglas.
The Nixon-Douglas campaign provides an extended detailed study of the how red baiting operated in this period to change the complexion of American political life and the course of American history. In the House, Douglas had belonged to a fairly large group of Left New Dealers allied with a much smaller group of leftists who in key areas had moved beyond the populism that characterized much of the Democratic delegation. They had opposed manifestations of anti-Communism, such as the appropriation for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and identified themselves with organizations and causes associated with the Popular Front. However, like almost everyone from this group, Douglas began moving rightward. She opposed Henry Wallace’s bid for the presidency on the newly formed Progressive Party in 1948 and by 1950 she supported the Un-American Activities Committee and the Korean War. Nonetheless, Nixon’s campaign focused almost exclusively on smearing her as a red.
Especially given the centrality of the “pink sheet” to these events, the reader is astounded by Mitchell’s assertion that Marcantonio supported Nixon against Douglas. Mitchell’s discovery of a purported Marcantonio-Nixon nexus is based on three transactions. He reports that in an interview for an oral history project, Nixon recalled that Marcantonio had stated, “Dick, do you want me to work for you or against you?” There is no corroboration from any other source that such an exchange ever occurred. But what could this possibly mean? At this point, Marcantonio was the national spokesperson for an almost totally isolated Left. How could he have helped Nixon? By traveling to California and speaking for him? By contributing to his campaign fund? Mitchell then repeats an incident first reported in Earl Mazo‘s biography of Nixon that when Marcantonio learned that the pink sheet was being tabulated he told a Nixon associate: “Tell Nicky to get on this thing because it is a good idea.” (p. 81) This story, for which there exists absolutely no corroboration, is dismissed by Stephan Ambrose in his Nixon: The Education of a Politician as “probably too good to be true.” (p. 210) Lastly, Mitchell records from the biography of a Nixon associate, Herbert Klein, that Marcantonio told Nixon, “I hope your beat that bitch out there in California.” (p. 106) This quote was published minus attribution in the text or footnote.
There is no question, however, that a friendliness existed between these political opposites. The most dramatic of the few incidents documenting this friendliness that have survived is recorded in the memoirs of John Abt, chief attorney for the Communist Party in the postwar period with whom Marcantonio served as co-attorney representing the Communist Party at the hearings of the Subversive Activities Control Board. Abt recalls that in 1953 while walking in Washington DC they bumped into Nixon on the street and “Nixon gave Marcantonio a big hug and expressed his great delight upon seeing him again, and told him how much he was missed in Congress.” (p. 188) In his memoirs, Nixon makes four passing references to Marcantonio, including the characterization that he was “the only pro-Communist member of Congress.” (p. 74) What needs to be clarified is that there is neither evidence nor logic to support the notion that Marcantonio proffered any political assistance to Nixon.
The only known incident of any substance associated with this friendliness
occurred during the debates on the Mundt-Nixon bill, which would have effectively outlawed the Communist Party. Throughout the frequently acrimonious proceedings, Nixon, who served as the floor leader for the bill, had treated Marcantonio, who served as the floor leader for the opposition, with respect and even ceded him additional time to present his case. (Ambrose, p. 162) There are two possible interpretations for Nixon’s decent treatment of Marcantonio: this courtesy originated the friendliness, or the friendliness generated the courtesy. My guess is that the latter was true. Marcantonio fraternized across ideological lines. In 1947, his implacable political foe, Rep. Eugene Cox of Georgia, with whom he exchanged unbridled invective on the floor of the House, described Marcantonio to a reporter for the Saturday Evening Post as: “a likable person and his word is good. He is about as decent as a fellow who thinks as he does can be.”
Marcantonio operated as a member of a generally despised political minority. (He once remarked that his party held its caucus in a phone booth.) Nonetheless, unlike all the other radicals elected to Congress during his tenure, only he was able to electorally survive without trimming his principles. One, but certainly not the major, means he utilized to accomplish this was his own personality, whose components included larger than the usual portions of charm, magnetism, personal probity, and friendliness. These characteristics operated as survival strategies that he had learned on the streets as a five-foot-five-inch-tall kid who ran a gauntlet to and from high school. He found that the force of his own personality helped to create a space of goodwill within which he was able to fight yet another day. Clearly, this was true in his district where despite his radicalism he functioned as de facto leader of the Republican and Democratic parties as well as maintained good relations with the Catholic clergy from the local parishes. Marcantonio’s friendly relationships ranged from important figures on the left, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, to childhood friends, including those who had experienced trouble with the law. The Republican Party leader of Italian Harlem, Vincent Vallella, who had also been a boyhood friend, was his last personal secretary.
Lastly, Mitchell should have spent some time researching something about Vito Marcantonio. There are twenty-nine references to Marcantonio listed in the index of his book; yet, the identification of this key figure in his narrative never extends beyond describing him as “the charismatic left wing Congressman.” only additional datum that Mitchell provides the reader about the character who plays the supporting role to his book’s protagonists is that in 1950, “Marcantonio lost in a landslide.” He fails to mention that his percentage of the vote actually had increased from 36 to over 42 percent in 1948. Nonetheless, he could not overcome what he called, “the gang up,” that is a coalition of the Republican, Democratic, and Liberal parties supported a right wing Tammany war horse. He does not state that he had served seven terms in the House, he was the floor leader for the major civil rights legislation in the House, that he served as unofficial congressman from Puerto Rico, that he was a protege of Fiorello La Guardia, that he died a poor man who resided four blocks away from his birth place, and that he was the only American politician to be denied a Catholic burial.
The absence of background material on Marcantonio is especially jarring because Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady is punctuated with lengthy digressions on a long list of topics, including: the Palmer Raids, Truman’s loyalty oath program, the Hollywood Ten, the causes and course of the Korean War, civil defense, Earl Warren, and more. All are in some way related to the 1950 California senatorial contest between Douglas and Nixon, however, these two- to three-page mini-essays provide a degree of detail that is frequently absent from the narrative of topics closer to the question of Marcantonio’s relationship to Nixon. For example, Mitchell only identifies the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee as a “left wing group,” and he fails to report the returns for Nixon’s 1946 victory over the left-liberal incumbent, Jerry Voorhis.
At this moment, Nixon’s career is almost universally viewed as a morality play proving that the truth will out. Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady adds little further understanding or information to this phenomenon. More specifically, it covers no new ground toward documenting the singularly dirty campaign Nixon conducted against Douglas. Actually, its greatest value lies in its depiction of the ideological collapse of Helen Gahagan Douglas and almost all the liberals in the face of McCarthyism. In 1946, Nixon accused Voorhis of accepting aid from the “pro-Communist” Political Action Committee of the CIO. Voorhis responded by rejecting all aid from this source. Of course, Voorhis lost. Douglas traveled much further down this same path. She reacted to Nixon’s red baiting her by red baiting Nixon! After Nixon had issued the “pink sheet,” Douglas did not acknowledge her erstwhile political affinity with Marcantonio. Instead, she issued her own pink sheet which claimed that Nixon had voted together with Marcantonio on the truly important votes. Specifically, she insisted that Nixon’s refusal to vote for a bill providing military aid to Korea that had been defeated by one vote “may have influenced the communist decision to strike now in Korea.” Nixon voted against this bill because he had objected to its exclusion of aid to Chaing Kai-shek; Marcantonio opposed it because it represented one aspect of a policy he considered imperialistic. Douglas knew perfectly well that the reasons for Nixon and Marcantonio’s nay votes on this item stemmed from diametrically different logics. Similarly, she suggested that Nixon deserved the “Order of Stalin” because his opposition to “public development” made him “among the most effective saboteurs of our national strength that the Communists could hope to enlist.” The thrust of Douglas’s campaign became her newly concocted notion that liberalism embodied the truly effective response to Communism, and that she represented the alternative to “Communism, Nixonism, Fascism!”
This misbegotten strategy aided Nixon specifically and the Right in general. By linking Nixon’s name to Marcantonio, she was accepting “Marcantonio” as a sinister yardstick, and incidentally providing more than sufficient reason for Marcantonio to call Douglas a “bitch.” Similarly by appealing to the voters as the more effective anti-Communist and much worse by accusing Nixon of aiding the Communists she carried fuel to a roaring conflagration that could only consume the Left. When liberals threw the Communists and their allies to the circling wolves, they had only whetted their appetites for the yet larger groups of “sympathizers,” “pinkos,” “comsymps,” and ultimately liberals. What caused American liberalism to become so vacuous and flaccid? What prevented liberalism from effectively standing up to the right? While this country has not even begun to settle the accounts left over from the McCarthy Era, the complicity and cowardice of the liberals, including Helen Gahagan Douglas, have yet to be acknowledged.
The alternative to Cold War liberalism with its capitulation to McCarthyism was the continuation of the Popular Front, that is, the policy advocated by Marcantonio, which confronted head on the McCarthyites. In arguing against the Mundt-Nixon bill, for example, he insisted that the “defense of the rights of Communists is a defense of the rights of all the people in any given country where those rights are threatened.” On the floor of the House, Marcantonio argued that this “wave of hysteria and red-baiting has been used in a drive to smash labor, in a drive to smash price and rent controls, in a drive to imperil the peace and democratic rights of the American people. . . . Congress [is attempting] to persecute American citizens for exercising their constitutional right and their democratic rights to advocate economic and social changes.” Today, many would agree that this is what actually occurred. McCarthyism first halted and then began to reverse the entire New Deal agenda. Although never himself a member of the Communist Party, Marcantonio explained his steadfast maintenance of this position by pointing out: “I believe in the united front against fascism. The only way we can fight fascism is by unity of all anti-Fascists. That naturally includes Communists.”
Any subsequent edition of Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady must grapple with the enigma of Cold War liberalism as well as rectify its misrepresentation of this major figure of the American Left.
* Vito Marcantonio traveled as little as possible. Aside from a few visits in 1937 and 1938 to Atlanta Georgia in order to visit his clients, Pedro Albizu Campos and the other members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, who were imprisoned in the federal penitentiary for conspiracy to overthrow the United States’ government, Marcantonio never visited the South. His single trip to California was made in August 1937, when he made the keynote address at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium at a mass meeting commemorating the twenty-fist anniversary of the imprisonment of Tom Mooney, who he described as a “class war prisoner.” Both of these trips were made in his capacity as President of the International Labor Defense during the two-year period 1937-1939 after his defeat by the Democrat James Lanzetta. Aside from this trip, the furthest West that Marcantonio traveled was to Minneapolis in August 1951 (that is, after his 1950 defeat) where he spoke at a peace rally. Aside from a couple of speeches in Connecticut, I have no record of his speaking in New England.