In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” professor Gerald Meyer notes that, “Marcantonio's Radical positions and affiliations engendered extraordinary opposition. He was subject to campaigns of vilification in the press.”
Meyer noted that, among these, was a series of editorials published by “The New York Times,” in the heat of Marcantonio's 1948 re-election campaign. The congressman promptly launched the written counterattack under consideration here.
It was a difficult campaign. Two years prior, opponents had latched onto the beating death of Republican district captain, Joe Scottoriggio, and mercilessly tarred Marcantonio with responsibility for the fatal dumping and with mafiosi collusion to get it done.
Neither the mafiosi nor Marcantonio were ever found guilty of anything and numerous investigations into Scottoriggio's death were inconclusive. East Harlem was effectively occupied by police forces and street sweeps were deployed for weeks after the murder in Marc's district.
There was blood in the water and the sharks were circling. Marcantonio put paper to pen and addressed, in the required stately terms, “The New York Times'” charges against him.
“The Times” had, he wrote, “seen fit to devote three editorial columns in the issues of Oct 12, 14 and 15 – to urging my defeat...”
The newspaper daily, he continued, “has told its readers that my record in Congress is one of having consistently, 'accepted, spoken for and voted for the Communist line during the last decade.' 'The Times,' says the issue facing the voters of my district is 'whether they are going to vote Russian or vote American'.”
Marcantonio admitted that he had indeed been consistent, “yes, consistent in the fight against reckless profiteers and their marches to war; consistent in battling for fair wages, price controls, decent housing, national health, freedom for labor, an end to religious discrimination, Jim Crow and the like; and for the civil rights of all Americans.”
Having put his campaign platform in Gotham's most important daily, Marc next wrote that he, “bowed to the felicitous phrasing of 'The New York Times' editorial, however cynically the phrase may have been meant.”
Marcantonio spends a good amount of ink explaining his shift in position regarding U.S. entry into the European theater. At the war's outset he would tell crowds “The Yanks are not comin'!”, but once German Chancellor Adolf Hitler violated his nonaggression pact with Russian Premier Joseph Stalin, he saw reason enough for entering the conflict.
“It is not hindsight for me to say now,” he asserts, “that if there had been a majority of Marcantonios in the days of the appeasement of fascism and Hitlerism, in the days of the sabotage of collective security by the capitalist democracies, in the days of the massacre of democratic Spain by the Hitler-Mussolini axis – if there had been a majority of Marcantonios in those years to call a halt to the fascist march on the world, there would have been no World War II and millions and millions of lives would have been saved to enjoy a world at peace.”
His change of heart occurred, he explains, “when it became a war for the defense and security of the American people, did indeed become a true anti-fascist and anti-imperialist war.”
Yet the war the U.S. started out with was not the one it ended. Stewardship of the war mattered, he intones, for with President Franklin Roosevelt's passing, “Wall Street and the imperialist forces of Britain took over the war, perverted the objective of the peace.”
His complaint to the editors brings into full relief the effort of international capital at the time to settle the territories of a flattened European continent and quell revolutionary situations flashing from the embers of war.
“The bipartisan policymakers seek to rebuild the Germany which has made war on this world twice within twenty-five years,” he continues his condemnation of the post-war policy consensus. “They exculpate and pardon the gas-chamber assassins of nazism and restore them to power. They favor the 'return of colonies' to Italy and protest is heard faintly over the din of war-making from the self-same Ethiopia which was the first victim of fascism's last march. They provide arms and money for Greek to kill Greek, for the thieving and fratricidal Chang Kai-shek to suppress his peasant people.
“And in this very month, the bipartisan policy which 'The Times' defends is now seeking to maneuver the admission of the Spain of Franco – the Fascist, Falangist, anti-semite butcher – into the United Nations.”
It is election season, and Marcantonio does not let pass an opportunity to defend and identify fully with his constituency and ethnic cohort:
“I am taxed by 'The Times' for demanding the world relief be administered through the United Nations rather than as the spearhead of a new policy of economic imperialism by American big business. 'The Times' calls the attention of my 'Italian constituents' to this.
“Waste no more words on this matter: my constituents of proud Italian birth or descent know well and applaud my consistent opposition to the use of American taxpayers' money to interfere in the Italian elections, as well as my genuine concern for the restoration of a democratic and self-sustaining Italy.”
Marc then switches from responding to charges, to further elucidation of his own political program. The following paragraph has the feeling of a controlled rant. It is delivered with an anger-harnessed rhythm and matches descriptions of his staccato style of public speaking:
“I have consistently fought for price controls and the rationing of scarce commodities. I have supported every decent housing measure and introduced some, hoping to give not only the veterans, but all our people decent homes to live in (without racial discrimination, incidentally). I have consistently fought against Wall Street and the monopolies. This has included my opposition to their entrenchment in the government as ordained by Mr. Truman and promised for the future by Mr. Dewey, whom 'The Times' supports.
“I have fought against the tax measures that 'rob the needy to help the greedy,' as FDR so aptly said.”
From there his politics become more a specific vision for the country, a nuts-and-bolts enumeration of what America might be.
“I am against universal military training and peacetime conscription,” he wrote. “No veteran need have this explained, nor any son, wife, or sweetheart, and yet 'The Times' attacks me back for adhering to this historically American position. I oppose the regimentation of Americans and the entire American economy for the purpose of badgering any country which may resist the economic aggression planned by the 'bipartisan' Wall Street gang that now controls the Government.”
War and profits are continually linked throughout the congressman's screed.
And of course, there was his role as the last and final bulwark of trade union rights, something that movement has too easily forgotten where Marcantonio is concerned. Moreover, although Marc was not always the most accurate prophet – there was no great move towards a third party in the U.S. as he predicted – his words about the fate of organized labor ring only too true.
“I am against the Taft-Hartley Act, 'The Times,' supports the act. The act is a deliberate and proven instrument of destruction of labor organizations, according to Mr. Green, Mr. Murray. Mr. Lewis and all other leaders of the working people of America. Is it 'Russian' to be against Taft-Hartley and union-busting? Is it patriotic to be for it?”
He continued his painting of a hopeful and progressive portrait, ever vigilant of the civil rights that empower his beleaguered constituencies, and mindful of McCarthyism.
“I am against turning my country into a police state. I adhere to the constitutional principle that an accused man must have an opportunity to hear his accusers and cross-examine them. Do Mr. Truman's 'loyalty' purges include this procedure? Is it 'blindness' to demand justice and fairness for all alike?”
Here he adopts and almost plaintive tone. Marcantonio does not come to the politics of poverty through a fashion, or academia. He lives it with those around him in East Harlem and when he makes his case here, he's making their case. Yes, he's writing in election season in defense of his good name, but he employs the occasion to take another at bat for his constituents, his people.
“However much the views and actions of mine may resemble the 'communist line' in the opinion of 'The New York Times,' I nevertheless, stand by them. I am confident that history and the final judgment of the people will support me in the future as they had so consistently in the past.”
Marcantonio would win that year, yet again, despite the specter of Scottoriggio and a nationwide Republican sweep.
If Marc's response had an impact at The Gray Lady, it was not enduring. In 1950, 'The Times' again targeted him in an editorial tuned to the same key: “We shall limit our advice in the congressional elections this year to the special case of Vito Marcantonio...his views seem to be so remarkably compatible wit the view of Moscow...It has long been obvious that Mr. Marcantonio's views did not represent American thinking.”
We can be certain they knew well his views, because they knew well his concise and cutting style of writing. 'The Times,' simply chose to ignore the contents of its own publication.