Thursday, September 26, 2013

Where's Marc?

Nick Taylor's “American Made: When FDR Put the Nation to Work,” runs 530 pages and boasts another 100 pages-worth of footnotes and index.

But where's Marc?

“American Made”
is a rigorous effort, sympathetic to the cause, purposes and achievements of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The book covers, among many other things, the “Voodoo MacBeth,” produced by Orson Welles and John Houseman at Harlem's Lafayette Theater, which was firmly planted in Rep. Vito Marcantonio's district. It wrangles with the Dies Committee's attack on the WPA, and tracks the termination of the Federal Theater Project.

All without ever mentioning Marcantonio.

The Congressman, of course, was a major proponent of the WPA.

How much so?

In February 1936, he was arrested when a planned rally and march against the shabby treatment of WPA workers he was leading turned into a police riot.

When the House of Representatives took up a resolution to continue the Dies Committee, Marcantonio was firm in his opposition, noting in a Jan 23, 1940 speech, “Every time we have gone through a critical period, a real effort has been made to destroy the civil rights of the American people by making an attack on the rights of dissident minorities.”

Do so, he scolded the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, “and you yourselves are engaging in un-American activities.”

When, in the later '30s, Republican and Dixiecrat knives came out to kill the WPA, Marcantonio gave numerous speeches seeking to maintain funding levels for the program.

On May 17, 1940, he asserted that “war hysteria” was behind a measure that reduced spending on the WPA even though the number of unemployed had remained static from the year before.
Said Marc: “Remember, however, that you are not going to forever solve the problem of unemployment in America by giving the American unemployed the job of stopping bullets and shrapnel at the front. The American workers want overalls, not coveralls.”

It was a meme he would return to in later debates.
On June 21, 1940, the congressman noted that a conference report before the House included $10 billion for war purposes, while it appropriated just $975 million to the unemployed and “in general crucifies the WPA.”

And so on.

Taylor's detailed account of the conservative push to eliminate the Federal Theater Project notes that, at the time Rep. Clifton Woodrum (R-Virg.) and his allies were able to breach the bulwarks and kill the program, the theater project was having a successful run with something called the “Swing Mikado.”

When the measure came up for a vote in the House, Marcantonio wailed from the well, weaving the current theater program into his

“The Lord High Executioner,” he mocked Woodrum, “in his rhetorical jitterbugging, failed to mention that the 'Swing Mikado' has been making money, running at a profit, not at a loss. Unemployed actors are entitled to employment on WPA. And it is such productions as the WPA 'Swing Mikado' which give employment to them.”

In a June 1939 speech, when the deal was done and the project set for the chopping block, Marc closed debate by casting Woodrum as, “a great dramatist. I congratulate him on his great literary quality. He, in my opinion, wrote the greatest American tragedy of 1939 when he wrote this bill.”

“American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman,” is a highly detailed account of the Nov. 1, 1950 attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists on the life of the president.

It provides deep background on the two Puerto Ricans who launched the caper and the Secret Service team that engaged them in a gunfight. It was a fatal exchange that took one of the nationalists, Griselio Torresola, and a Secret Service agent by the name of Les Coffelt.

Histories of the guns used in the attack are fleshed-out and brought into relief and the love lives of the law enforcement men are also given airtime.

The surviving gunman was one Oscar Collazo. Authors Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr. trace his development from a childhood on the the tropical island whose independence he longed for, to his humble laboring and mind-grooming as an immigrant in New York, and his evolution as a Puerto Rican nationalist.

“American Gunfight,”
develops the contours and interior of Collazo's federal trial after the assassination attempt, but never anywhere in the long story is there mention of the fact that he was a collaborator of Marcantonio's.

Collazo's deep relationship to nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos is explained, but never is Marcantonio, the independent firebrand's ostensible Godfather in the United States, mentioned.

The would-be hitman was alternately a member of the American Labor Party, which Marcantonio led, shared the dais on one occasion with the congressman and worked with him as liaison to El Barrio's Spanish-speaking populace.

Gerald Meyer's, “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” notes that Collazo was charged with murder and that Marcantonio arranged for his legal counsel.

He followed this with a public pledge of support to Puerto Rico, and its immigrant community in the United States, just a few days before losing an election that would end his career as a congressman. 

Richard Lingeman's “The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War,” examines the rising state of anxiety and fear experienced by the generation that bore the brunt of the Depression and the Second World War through the popular cinema of the time

The author goes well beyond the '40s and into the ensuing decade, tracing the country's progress toward war with Korea on the international front and against communism at home. He tarries long on the drive to armed conflict, fueled by a rabid anti-communism that had taken hold in certain sectors of American society.

Lingeman, a writer at “The Nation,” either skips or misses Marcantonio in his selected pantheon of those who spoke out against the Red Scare and the practically unanimous march into the Korean conflict.

Yet Marcantonio repeatedly rose in the House to denounce bills that targeted dissidents and reduced the scope of First Amendment rights.

On July 15, 1947, he came out against Truman's Executive Order 9835, and a copycat bill in Congress, requiring loyalty oaths of federal employes, saying: “If this loyalty bill becomes law and if the executive order is carried out, we will make out of a federal employee a person with a static mind, whose soul will be filled with fear.”

On Nov. 24, 1947, he spoke in defense of the Hollywood 10. In May of 1948, he took on the Mundt bill requiring all communists to register with the government. On February 21, he stood up against legislation empowering the Secretary of Labor to subpoena labor leaders.

And so on.

“The Noir Forties” quotes anarchist editor Dwight McDonald as observing that, “Americans had a Hobson's choice between appeasement and containment, between disarmament and military strength – rather than rallying them to support diplomatic alternatives. But in these tense times no one had the leisure or the will to think about alternatives."

But Marcantonio gave voice to a post-war vision of peaceful collaboration with the Soviet Union, which he shared with former Vice President Henry Wallace.

Lingeman devotes a chapter-long encomium to Wallace that never mentions Marcantonio who helped him get the Progressive Party off the ground in 1948 and served as chairman of its rules committee.

For his presidential bid, Wallace ran on the American Labor Party line in New York.

The author provides a who's-who of the Progressive Citizens of America's machinery, identifying Lee Pressman and John Abt as organizers tapped by Beanie Baldwin. New Dealer Rexford was joined by a professor from Williams College on matters of policy.

If we are delving into this level of historical actor, the question must be asked: Where's Marc?

The author digs into the persecutions of anti-war forces such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Federation of American Scientists, but skips Marcantonio who fought the stifling of dissent and was himself the subject of significant FBI surveillance.

On the the vote to authorize troops in Korea, Marcantonio represented the sole House vote against the measure. In a speech of clear opposition, the congressman summed up the modus operandi of an entire political career in explaining his position:

“I would be remiss to the things in which I believe if I did not stand up here and state my opinion on this matter. After all, Mr. Chairman, you live only once; and it is best to live one's life with one's conscience rather than to temporize or accept with silence those things which one believes to be against the interest of one's people and one's nation.”

The story goes that as a joint session of Congress rose in unison to applaud Truman's war speech, Marcantonio remained seated, smoking a cigarette.

Style, philosophy, attitude, and analysis are all lost when Marcantonio's voice is erased from the historical accounting of the times in which he played so vital a role.

These are all fine scholars and good books and the purpose here is not to impugn so much as lament the glaring omission of a “character” who had an important part in the narratives they are illuminating.

The authors can hardly be blamed if Marcantonio's name is absent from earlier generations of political scholarship when they turn to do their research.

Surely, they know of Marcantonio. Perhaps they just can't find an account in which the weight of his role as a national spokesman for the left, and a unique radical voice in Congress, is given its full due.

The Vito Marcantonio Forum is committed to correcting the historical record, which oft-times has ignored or misrepresented Marcantonio's unceasing work on behalf of those left out of the American Dream and his courageous fight for a more authentically democratic country.