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Heroes and Villains in the Cold War Battle for the United Electrical Workers

Peter Gilmore will retire this month from his position as managing editor of the UE News after nearly twenty-nine years on the union’s staff. He is a doctoral student in history at Carnegie Mellon University.

John Hoerr, Harry, Tom, and Father Rice: Accusation and Betrayal in America’s Cold War (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 344 pages, cloth $29.95.

The image still haunts me: a man in his thirties, eyes glassy, blood streaming from a head wound. A foot soldier in the domestic Cold War, this union stalwart had been beaten by anticommunist thugs who imagined that changing unions in the Westinghouse Electric plant in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania would be a blow against Stalin. Mistaking assault on a volunteer organizer for damage to a Soviet leader is just the kind of tragically stupid error one might expect in a period generally befuddled by fear. Fifty-five years later, confusion as to the meaning of these events continues to hang over the era like an early-morning fog.

The effort to crush the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE)—in 1949 the third largest union in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)—is sometimes presented as a civil war within the working class. But the very forces arrayed against the UE, including government, corporations, and the news media, suggest something other than a struggle by anticommunist union members to overthrow leftist labor leaders. The nature of the anti-UE campaign speaks to the origins of the Cold War in the ambition of aggressive, expansionist U.S. capital to curtail opposition at home and abroad.

A remarkable new book which succeeds brilliantly in bringing this period to life fails to grapple with such origins. Instead, Harry, Tom, and Father Rice: Accusation and Betrayal in America’s Cold War by John Hoerr perpetuates the impression that the UE suffered because of far-left leaders and warring factions. Although Harry, Tom, and Father Rice reveals Congressional witch-hunters at their brutal worst and offers a sympathetic portrayal of their victims, its author is unwilling to question the Cold War’s fundamental purpose. Instead, the scary excesses of this dark period in American history are portrayed as seemingly inevitable if not necessary.

A veteran labor reporter, Hoerr chronicled the decline of the United States steel industry in his hefty 1988 study, And the Wolf Finally Came. Born and raised in a southwestern Pennsylvania steel town, Hoerr paid particularly close attention to the Monongahela Valley and its devastation. He returns to the Mon Valley in his latest book to tell the odd but revealing tale of his Congressman uncle whose brief career intersected with those of a courageous union leader and a notorious redbaiting priest.

Hoerr’s uncle, Harry Davenport, represented a Pittsburgh district for one term in Congress. Elected in 1948 on a headily progressive platform, Davenport’s career quickly crumbled as his courage failed in the debilitating downward spiral of Cold War–era name calling and name naming. Davenport gained his seat with backing from the UE, and particularly the assistance of a remarkable rank-and-file leader, Tom Quinn. But in 1949 the CIO expelled the UE and ten other left-leaning unions for alleged “communist domination.” The CIO chartered an officially “anticommunist” union to take the place of the supposedly Communist-controlled UE. Pittsburgh’s Rev. Charles Owen Rice, a confidante of both CIO president Philip Murray and the FBI, had masterminded the anti-leadership faction within the UE prior to the split. When Rice helped secure a House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoena for Quinn and other UE leaders in the pivotal East Pittsburgh Westinghouse plant, Quinn naturally looked to Davenport for assistance on Capitol Hill. But at that critical moment Davenport lacked the resolve (or decency) to offer his erstwhile friend even a kind word. Instead, the liberal Democrat admonished the embattled union men to “clear” themselves before the committee.

This incident is the key which for Hoerr unlocks the secret of his uncle’s wasted life. Davenport lost his 1950 reelection bid. A flicker of independence cost Davenport the support of the Pittsburgh Democratic machine; his betrayal of the Westinghouse union leaders earned him the UE’s enmity. Davenport never again enjoyed political prominence or even a permanent full-time job. His 1977 death in a dead-end industrial-suburb flophouse epitomizes for his nephew a life swallowed by obscurity.

Hoerr also traces the parallel lives of Tom Quinn, welder and organizer, and Father (now Monsignor) Rice. Stubbornly loyal to his union, Quinn faced repeated persecution. A HUAC contempt citation against him was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in a decision that helped shorten the misnamed “McCarthy” period. Quinn left the UE in the early 1970s as a respected staff member and pursued a successful career as a Pennsylvania labor mediator. Quinn died in 2005. Rice, meanwhile, has spent much of the past six decades alternately apologizing for his Cold War collaboration with big business and the FBI and glorying in the success of his redbaiting intervention. (Rice also emerged as a visible participant in the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s and 1970s.)

Hoerr is a marvelous writer who succeeds brilliantly in developing the principal characters and evoking their milieu. He has an artist’s eye for human tragedy, a journalist’s skill for telling detail, and a storyteller’s knack for pacing. He explores effectively and forcefully personal crises and the horrors perpetuated by the investigating committees. His treatment of Tom Quinn is particularly evocative, bringing to life the man’s essential decency. At times moving, this engaging read ultimately succeeds better as memoir and biography than as labor history. For while we are given compelling cautionary tales of Cold War excess there is never an analysis of their origin. Hoerr’s own anticommunism regrettably narrows the vision and circumscribes the lessons of a remarkable book.

Hoerr ridicules the reactionaries who filled the roster of Congressional investigating committees. But he assumes a degree of guilt on the part of those associated with the political left. The former Business Week reporter cites the post–Cold War release of Soviet archival material to remind readers that some American Communists committed espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. “No longer could the toughest of party critics be dismissed as fearmongers,” he intones. Hoerr readily recognizes the exaggeration and hysteria of the times while assuming there was a hard nugget of reason within the apparent irrationality.

The “concerted attacks on labor’s radical left wing,” Hoerr writes, were “an excessive reaction to the degree of threat involved; it should be acknowledged that many, many people were harassed well beyond what the facts or the threat warranted.” What threat, and to whom? The unspoken answers, which Hoerr declines to enunciate, are apparently the labor left and the challenge it posed to U.S. imperialism. Seemingly unwilling to deal with the substance of a radical critique of postwar U.S. foreign policy, Hoerr assumes left-wing dissenters followed a Moscow line. Such a position reinforces a tendency to blame victims of the Cold War for their plight. Particularly painful is the tortured logic of his assertion that “The underlying irony of this struggle [among CIO unions in the late 1940s] was that the determination of pro-Soviet unions to support Soviet policies drove the CIO toward subordinating its economic interests to the foreign and domestic policies of the U.S. government.” One hopes that Hoerr is not seriously asking us to believe that big business and the U.S. government had no part in housebreaking the labor movement.

Harry, Tom, and Father Rice contains considerable favorable comment on the UE and its leadership. Hoerr notes the widely held respect for the UE officers’ honesty and dedication and the support provided by the union to workers under threat from government investigators. But throughout his discussion of the early Cold War, he seems to imply that the UE somehow deserved what it got—expulsion from the CIO, the threat of proscription by Congress, deportation of leaders and activists by the federal authorities, firing of its shop leaders, and slander from press and pulpit—as a consequence of its left leadership. If guilty by virtue of having leaders with Communist connections, the UE might have saved itself through allegiance to the capitalist order; instead, the UE fought for a principled independence. The author baldly asserts that the union’s leaders followed “the Soviet line” to the detriment of the membership’s welfare. Hoerr writes, “Following this line damaged the union’s credibility in the eyes of many members and certainly of the public. It is fair to ask why [UE leader] Matles and his associates never came to understand this, or if they understood, to do anything about it.” Of course, Hoerr is no more successful than HUAC in establishing that UE leaders suspended their own critical judgment to pursue policies promulgated in Moscow.

At issue is whether a vigorous critique of U.S. foreign policy could be in the best interests of the union’s members—or that workers can have foreign policy interests distinct from that of the ruling class. Hoerr seems to answer in the negative; the UE’s opposition to the Marshall Plan, for example, is presented as somehow aberrant. The UE’s publication is castigated for suggesting “that the United States started the Cold War, avoiding any mention of aggressive moves by the Soviet Union.” But neither does Hoerr hint at any culpability on the part of U.S. capital and its aggressive expansionism. Hoerr never acknowledges the corporate-conceived origins of Cold War policies at home and abroad. He ignores big business efforts to manufacture hysterically anticommunist public opinion. While recognizing that electrical manufacturing corporations benefited from the fracture of the UE, Hoerr says nothing about the direct intervention of General Electric and Westinghouse into labor’s “civil war” on behalf of the UE’s rival, the anticommunist International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (IUE).

Hoerr gives an honest portrayal of Charles Owen Rice, branding as zealotry an anticommunist crusade that “helped bring about a catastrophic split in the labor movement.” He describes Rice as a crucial fixer and go-between, funneling information to the FBI and arranging the appearance of UE supporters before HUAC. And Hoerr catalogues the periodic transformation of the cleric’s political persona. Yet early in the book he rather abruptly—and curiously—insists that “Rice was by no means a villain.” A discussion of “heroes” and “villains” seems out of place in his narrative, and indeed, he refrains from describing either Harry Davenport or Tom Quinn in such terms. Why does Hoerr go out of his way to so absolve Rice? One suspects that Hoerr implicitly accepts (one of) Rice’s latter-day claims of legitimacy—the existence of some kind of Communist threat that required a response.

A liberal in the best and some of the worst senses of the word, Hoerr appears in this memoir as an individual of decent instincts, who mentions in passing his participation in a Pittsburgh civil rights march. He deplores the Congressional witch-hunts. He affirms his belief in collective bargaining and the value of unions. He praises the contributions of Westinghouse Electric and the integrity of both management and labor negotiators. Similarly, Hoerr concluded And the Wolf Finally Came with an endorsement of labor-management cooperation and the role of “an independent labor movement” in “a free, democratic society.” For “democratic,” read: liberal capitalist society—not necessarily synonymous terms! Workers’ power outside of—or in place of—the framework of capitalism is not on his agenda.

Unwilling or incapable of engaging with the radical labor left on its own terms, Hoerr fails to examine closely the origins of the Cold War excesses he abhors. His search for Uncle Harry results in a poignant memoir richly evocative of those tragic times, a study largely lacking in historical analysis that would explain the tragedy.

2006, Volume 57, Issue 08 (January)
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