THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY
9Oth YEAR OF CONTINUOUS PUBLICATION
by CHARLES G. BOLTÉ
BILL MAULDIN suggested several reasons in the April Atlantic why so many new veterans feel that poppa doesn’t know best. Feeling as they do, they are reluctant to go into poppa’s veterans’ organizations. This is not simply frowardness on the part of the young; we feel with Mauldin that the national leadership of the older groups has proved incapable of coping with the new problems which beset a new generation in a new world.
By and large, these leaders hold out much promise, but little performance, to the millions of new veterans. They say, Come on in and take over, boys. But the Veterans of Foreign Wars at its convention in Boston last fall denied top office to the new veterans. It passed resolutions indicating that the leaders are headed back once more on the insane road towards isolationism, at the same time that the national commander of the American Legion was declaring, “We ought to aim an atomic rocket at Moscow.” The leaders of the VFW and the American Legion defaulted on their basic responsibilities after the First World War, and many of us feel that they are defaulting now. They have shown a certain cunning in pressuring out of the Congress short-lived and inappropriate benefits for veterans; they have demonstrated little conception of the real needs of the recent war’s veterans — the needs of peace in one world, of jobs in a prosperous nation, of continuing freedom and opportunity in our America. They are among the last of the ostriches, who support the narrow concept of “national sovereignty,” that recipe for suicide in an atomic age. They have failed to press vigorously for veterans’ housing. They have done nothing to prevent that disastrous inflation which is now well on its way to diminishing radically the value of every veterans’ benefit.
A study of the history of the Legion and the VFW led a group of American servicemen to recognize the need for a now veterans’ organization as early as January, 1943. My generation fought a different war, for one thing. None of us went as to a crusade. We had been taught that no war is worth fighting, because in war no one wins. It took the toughest kind of personal experience to teach us one small fact which had been left out of that earlier teaching: that if there is war, you’d better win it, because the only thing worse than fighting a war is losing one. We had been taught that the winning of a war brings you none of the things you’ve been told you were fighting for. We had to learn the additional fact that at least the winner of the war has the power to help shape the institutions of the future. This educational process had the tendency to turn cynicism into tough-mindedness, disillusionment into practicality, so that for many of us bitterness against a world we’d never made was translated into the conviction that we must make a better one for ourselves.
Copyright 1947, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.
THIS conviction demonstrated itself in that early correspondence around the world among a small group of servicemen, led by Gilbert Harrison (now AVC’s national vice-chairman), which resulted in the founding of the American Veterans Committee. It was apparent in the first line of the budding organization’s first Statement of Intentions: “We know that military victory will not automatically guarantee peace, jobs and freedom.” It was apparent in AVC’s motto: “Citizens First, Veterans Second.”
Both the Statement of Intentions and the motto of AVC have been called idealistic. (John R. Gales, for instance, Director of Veterans Affairs for the Communist Party, has written: “The dilemma of the AVC stems from its main slogan, ‘Citizens First, Veterans Second.’ . . . The slogan is catchy but essentially misleading.”) In the minds of AVC’s 100,000 members, the statement and the slogan are simple realism. The statement is only a facing up to the fact that the task of winning peace, jobs, and freedom is a task for every generation; and to the further fact that by winning the war we have only gained for ourselves the opportunity to embark upon this greater task. The slogan is only a way of saying that the interests of the 14,000,000 new veterans are in the final analysis inseparable from the interests of the 140,000,000 Americans; that Treasury raids are inadequate to fulfill the real needs of the veterans; and that neither beer nor bonuses will provide a substitute for fruitful civilian opportunities.
What if the opportunities do not come up to expectations? Then, I think, we shall be in for real trouble. Our native fascists are basing their plans on that rising tide of discontent among veterans which will certainly follow in the wake of inflation, mass unemployment, farm foreclosures, and business failures. Out of this situation they see emerging a strong man who will change chaos into order - the fascist way, with a vanguard of veteran stormtroopers.
The price of failing to provide adequate opportunities, then, may well be the destruction of democracy itself. AVC is devoted to the provision of such opportunities, and therefore to the preservation of democracy.
These are large concepts. I tried to indicate the hard road before us at AVC’s first national convention, held in Des Moines last June: —
It is peculiar to the dream of AVC that it will never be realized completely. What is this dream to which we have devoted ourselves? It is simply this: that out of the horror and the boredom of the greatest war there should come a new comradeship, transcending all the barriers that separate us from one another, working for the speedy transformation of all veterans into productive members of society, and striving to achieve a more democratic and prosperous America and a more stable world. Obviously there can be no standing still in AVC as we go toward the realization of this dream. Over every ridge will be another ridge, and another beyond. This will be the dynamic future of our brotherhood, as it has been its dynamic past.
The building of this new comradeship so that it might help effect practical ends has been the overriding concern of a good many young Americans for the past three years. One of AVC’s virtues — which has carried with it more than the usual number of defects — has been its amateurishness. Few organizations have included on their rosters so many members who have never belonged actively to anything else in their lives. Enthusiasm and hard work have had to provide the counterbalance for lack of experience, at every level from the chapter subcommittee to — God knows — the national chairman’s office.
Yet this very inexperience, I suppose, has been the blessing in disguise which has made possible the whole growth and development of AVC from a small private dream into a not inconsiderable public reality. Certainly, knowing what I now know, if anyone came to me with the notion of starting a new veterans’ organization I should hoot at him and say, “Impossible! Have you considered the practical difficulties?” We were too ignorant to consider the practical difficulties; so we surmounted them. A prominent publicist to whom I had turned for advice in the first days, when the organization consisted of 125 members of a correspondence circle operating without a name and with a borrowed mimeograph machine, indicated this feeling recently by saying, “It was so pitifully hopeless that I didn’t even have the heart to tell you not to try it.”
The fact is that AVC has been built by men with little or no organizational experience, on a shoestring as far as funds and personnel have been concerned, and with little more than an idea on which to base any appeal to the tough-minded veterans of a very unsentimental war. There have been three stages in this building. First, the idea was hammered out, in correspondence and in little meetings all over the world, wherever interested men gathered together, from Berlin to Tokyo. Second, the organizational skeleton was fashioned, through the establishment of chapters in all forty-eight states, U.S. overseas territories, and occupation zones abroad. Third, the flesh is now being put on the skeleton, with chapters being built up to the point where the organization as a whole will have the weight to put its proposals into effect. It is this third and current stage which is at once the least exciting and the most critical in AVC’s history.
VETERANS’ problems today are very real. Housing is only one of them, though it is the most acute, with some 4,000,000 veterans actively seeking homes or apartments of their own. The public is inclined to think that “the veteran problem” has been solved. The readjustment of most veterans to productive civilian life has in fact progressed more quickly and painlessly than many Americans expected. But this does not lessen the acute needs of those veterans who still require assistance if they are to become full-fledged citizens once more. “Citizens First, Veterans Second” has never meant “Citizens First, Veterans Never”; and AVC’s chief job at this time is to make it possible for veterans to be citizens again.
This has meant the widest range of activities, carried forward in the communities, the states, and the nation by AVC’s 900 chapters, many state councils, and national headquarters. AVC today is strongest in the communities where chapters have concentrated on veterans’ aid, community projects, and social activities. It is weak in the communities where chapters have simply passed resolutions denouncing Bilbo and the real-estate lobby, without following through on a positive program to eliminate racial discrimination in housing projects which they have helped start.
Happily, the accent is more and more on the positive. The accent was underscored when the Veterans Administration accredited AVC last fall as a nationally recognized veterans’ organization, thus giving it authorization to put full-time veterans’ service officers into VA facilities for the purpose of assisting veterans in filing claims for pensions and rehabilitation assistance. Many chapters have established volunteer legal aid committees to guide members and potential members through the intricacies of our veterans’ laws. A chapter in upstate New York has made a double-barreled survey of the town’s housing needs and its available housing, put the two lists together, and moved many veterans into temporary quarters. A Baltimore chapter got together and built a playground for kids in a poor neighborhood, doing the work themselves Saturdays, Sundays, and evenings.
The Musicians Chapter in New York organized a symphony orchestra which gave a concert at Hunter College a few weeks ago. Walter Hendl conducted, and Ruggiero Ricci was the violin soloist. This concert was a benefit to provide musical instruments for disabled veterans. It was also a considerable artistic success — so much so that the chapter is thinking of keeping the orchestra together and taking it on a tour.
Another New York group, the Textile Chapter, has organized the Vetcraft Foundation, which trains disabled veterans in the industry and allows them to earn a living while they’re at it. A Chicago chapter is constructing a veterans’ coöperative apartment building. In Redwood City, California, the chapter organized community resources to rebuild a Negro veteran’s house after it had been burned by the local variety of Columbians. In Paris at Christmas time, the chapter gave a giant party for French children, thereby contributing something to international good will by distributing toys and candy as well as more desperately needed gifts.
This shift in emphasis is a response to a challenge. The challenge is the whole setting and mood of a post-war America which is tired of rising to meet great demands made upon it by the war and anxious to return to private life. As I have said so often, enlisting in the army of democracy does not automatically make a man a lifelong fighter for the democratic cause. The present rat-race of reconversion and the frantic national effort to regain a foreverlost normalcy are making it no easier for veterans to identify their own self-interest with the larger interests of the nation as a whole. The efforts of most veterans are absorbed in the daily struggle to get a place to live, a decent job, a white shirt for Sundays. The esprit of the forces has disintegrated under the impact of the ruthlessly self-seeking civilian world.
Veterans who withstood with equanimity the disintegrating stresses of combat are becoming psychoneurotic in our fractionalized civilian world. Cynicism, disillusionment, and bitterness arise from this situation and result in apathy. There is a pervasive sentiment that no good can come from group action, and a consequent sentiment of every man for himself. Thus the frame of mind of the bulk of veterans is directly opposed to AVC’s basic contention: that what’s good for the veterans is what’s good for the country and a majority of its citizens. The question most frequently put to AVC recruiters is, 41 What’s in it for me?”
For those who still care about the future of our society, there are two ways to meet this challenge. The traditional way is to deplore the lack of vision of “the people,” withdraw into foxholes until the glaciers of the new ice-age retreat, and issue occasional resounding manifestoes to a word-weary world. The more positive way is to recognize the national mood for what it is, go on into the market place and set to work developing immediate projects which are possible of achievement.
I am convinced that AVC is now demonstrating its survival value through the many chapters which are building for the future by working in the present — making of themselves social centers, providing veterans the services they need, taking part in the lives of their communities. From this can grow the strong, independent organization which will command attention when it speaks up for constructive national and international measures which alone will assure the future we fought for.
The course is admittedly a hard one. The great majority of new veterans are not joining any organization: despite the claimed increment of 2,000,000, Legion leaders cannot be too self-congratulatory over their expansion, in the light of 15,000 posts as recruiting stations, the expenditure of a third of a million dollars in publicity alone during 1946, and a virtual corner on prestige, all of which have netted them a return of only 15 per cent of the eligibles. The mood of inaction, the desire to forget the war, the preoccupation with civilian pursuits, the dislike of the old groups, and the distrust of the new ones all conspire to keep 80 per cent of our veterans out of veterans’ organizations.
It must be said that AVC, though it has weapons to meet this resistance, does not have the best possible weapons, because of the very nature of its present membership. That membership comprises a leadership group which in its political, economic, and social views is to the left of the dominant leadership in the nation today. It is a well-educated group, a serious group, an energetic group, and above all a young group. But the chief characteristic of the leadership group in America is its flexibility: its capacity to adapt itself to new situations and propose new courses to meet with popular support.
The weaknesses in past AVC policy — overconcentration on seemingly remote issues, excessive doses of parliamentarianism, inadequate social exchange — are widely understood and are being corrected vigorously. In our concern with the identity of interest between veterans and non-veterans, we have tended to overlook the fact that many veterans do need specific help. AVC can be peculiarly useful, as a fellowship of men facing common problems, in giving this help. Concentration on these problems will broaden the base of our membership, drawing in the hundreds of thousands who share AVC’s general objectives but who are not already converted to a more or less defined body of political, social, and economic beliefs.
The conviction upon which AVC has been built is precisely this: that the majority of new veterans would follow progressive leadership as readily as their fathers followed reactionary leadership. Thus far we have failed to prove that the conviction is sound. I am sure the fault has been ours — a fault of execution, not of conception. The people who voted for Roosevelt or stumped for Willkie in 1940 are still around. There is involved here — not just for AVC, either — a failure of communication, a failure of imagination, a failure to project in positive and grand outline the kind of scheme for the future which will set men once more to planning and working in some larger context.
This failure will not be overcome, I think, by mouthing the liberal slogans of another era. The program of 1937 will hardly prove adequate to the necessities of 1947, whether restated in Republican or in Democratic terms. Nor will a program prove adequate that is cast on the lofty, intangible plateaus of a fuzzy idealism. The men who won the war, the leaders among the young veterans, have here their greatest opportunity: to state a new program, in terms of practical proposals for guaranteeing peace, jobs, and freedom to each of us by guaranteeing them to all of us.
And here is the rub. How, in a democracy, can the people be brought to understand their own best interests? How can their wishes be translated into local actions? Those without a plan will perish; but those who advance plans in 1947 will be called Communists.
LIKE all organizations whose programs run somewhat to the left of Herbert Hoover, AVC has been variously described in the past year as Communist, Communist-controlled, Communist-infiltrated, Red, Red Fascist, Pink, or Pinko. The barrage was opened officially last winter with a salvo from Westbrook Pegler, the title of whose column has recently been changed, in the interests of editorial accuracy, from “Fair Enough” to “As Pegler Sees It.” Each of several successive attacks brought an appreciable increase in AVC membership. The rest of the wolf pack gladly took up the cry, with some of the national officers of the old veterans’ organizations well in the lead.
With any organization interested in reform, there are two problems involved in this Communist business. One is the external problem: the Communist Party as label. The other is the internal problem: the CP as reality. The external problem is relatively the simpler. Responsible publications, like responsible citizens, have become inured to the Pegler-Dies technique of calling anything you don’t like Communist. Although responsible agencies may not concur in all your views, they will make distinctions between a forward-looking concern for the institutions of our society, and an active conspiracy to overturn those institutions.
Anyone who has taken the trouble to look into the AVC program will know that it is specifically American and vigorously independent of anybody’s party line. The CP line over the past year, for instance, has included opposition to selective service, to the Baruch plan for international control of atomic cnergy, to the British loan, and to any development of the United Nations in the direction of world government; it has included support of the Perón regime in Argentina and of a Federal bonus for veterans. On every one of these items, as on many more, the CP is in violent conflict with AVC’s views, as voted by 90 to 95 per cent pluralities in the platform session at the national convention.
The external problem of the Communist label, then, can be solved at least in part by the dissemination of accurate information; although this can only be a partial solution in times like these, when Senator Taft is called a “Socialist” for his sponsorship of the General Housing Act, and the prevailing tendency is to label “Red” anyone who speaks up in behalf of a practicing and productive democracy. Nevertheless, one says what one believes and waits for a revival of public sanity; and meanwhile the internal problem of the Communist reality must be met.
Some history is needed here.
It is the official policy of the Communist Party of the U.S.A., as it is of the CP everywhere outside the Soviet Union, to work its members into positions of responsibility in government, in trade-unions, and in all organizations which take a hand in shaping public policy (the instructions of the Third International specifically mention “associations of ex-servicemen”). The objective is to mobilize these mass groups behind the Communist leadership when the day of revolution comes, so that the proletariat can seize the state power. Since the CPUSA has no popular support to speak of, this tactic is the only way in which it can exercise substantial influence.
The CP claims that about 8000 of its members served in the armed forces of the United States during the recent war. Until last winter, the orders given these members were to join the established, mass veterans’ organizations: the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. AVC was actively attacked as a “splinter group,” both in the columns of the Daily Worker and around the world (CP servicemen tried to break up AVC organizing meetings in the Pacific in 1945). At the beginning of 1946, AVC began to accelerate its rate of membership increase. In the ensuing months, the CP line shifted abruptly to meet this new situation. AVC was added to the list of targets for infiltration for one reason only: it had shown its effectiveness on the American scene.
By June, when AVC convened at Des Moines, the CP members had picked up strength by allying themselves with fellow travelers (non-party members who habitually follow the CP line), non-doctrinaire radicals who felt that AVC’s national leadership was too conservative, and — largest group of all — average members who were impatient over administrative growing pains. The administration won a clear-cut victory; but the press did not help AVC’s internal situation by hailing it as a victory over the Communists. It was that, in part: but it was also a “victory” over many honest non-Communists who were justifiably chagrined at being lumped together with the CP.
The CP, of course, has capitalized on this feeling since the Des Moines Convention, and has attempted to reduce the whole struggle over principle — whether AVC shall assert its independence of the Communist Party or whether it shall not — to a petty factional dispute: whether A or B shall be elected to office. The success of this splitting tactic may be gauged in a state like California, second only to New York in the size of its AVC population, where a large majority of non-CP members have been critical of the national administration for a variety of good and bad reasons, as a result of which they find themselves willy-nilly in the same boat with the party-liners, who are opposed not to the national administration as such, but to the explicit non-Communist policy adhered to by the national leaders.
THIS non-Communist policy received formal expression in a resolution adopted in November by the National Planning Committee, AVC’s board of directors between conventions. The resolution reviews the history of organizations which have tolerated Communists: —
The Party members usually come in crying “Unity.” Although they mean unity on their own terms, their plea invariably gets a sympathetic hearing from many progressives who are properly indignant at the endless illiberal mouthings of the leaders of American reaction and whose indignation spurs them into acceptance of unity on any terms. The Communist Party has demonstrated its real attitude toward “unity” time and again, within the framework of progressive groups, by diverting the energies of these groups to matters of peculiar interest to the Party, and by vilification of sincere liberals who reject the Communist philosophy. By ceaselessly instigating confusion and chaos, they ultimately render the groups impotent as effective champions of democracy.
(Most of us in AVC got our first taste of politics in the United Front and Popular Front eras, when the threat of fascism was the overriding consideration and one took one’s allies wherever one could find them. The actual experience of attempting to live with the Communists during those days has demonstrated to more and more progressives the foolhardiness of coöperating with those whose ultimate objectives are diametrically opposed to their own.)
In this post-war era [the resolution continues], the Communist Party has repeatedly called attention to the fact that its present line is, on many issues, consonant with that of many progressive groups. The Party has used this momentary coincidence as an excuse for demanding that progressives coöperate with it in working for the attainment of specific objectives. We regard such proposed coöperation as fatal. The attempts of honest progressives to attain their objectives by intelligent, constructive action have repeatedly been hamstrung or completely nullified by the irrational, ill-considered tactics of the few Communist Party members who have clung leech-like to them and whose sole purpose is to agitate and confuse, not to achieve reforms where reforms are needed.
(Take a city with a housing shortage, and an AVC chapter under Communist influence. Instead of sending a delegation with a positive housing plan to discuss with the mayor, the chapter will most likely picket the city hall alongside a CP delegation and known Communist-front outfits. Picketing has its uses, but not before other avenues of approach are blocked.)
In taking this position [the resolution concludes], we are unhappily aware that we shall be accused from some quarters of having joined forces with those distasteful spokesmen of the right who have loosely and maliciously applied the label “Communist” to many commendable organizations. We wish emphatically to disassociate ourselves from [these] Red-baiting tactics. . . . Those whom we ask to join AVC, as the greatest hope for America, have a right to know the principles underlying this organization and its leadership. We oppose the entrance into our ranks of members of the Communist Party and we shall strive to prevent them, when and if, by subterfuge or deceit, they gain such entrance, from attempting to use AVC as a sounding-board for their own perverse philosophy.
(The fear of saying the word “Communist” in liberal circles is obsessive. Party-liners will denounce you as a Red-baiter if you hint that Joe Stalin is a Communist. AVC members who have opposed party-liners in chapter elections have been called Red-baiters even though they have never called their opponents anything worse than inefficient. I told Mr. Pegler last summer that he was the best friend the Communists ever had, because he called so many decent people Communists that he made it impossible to identify real Communists.)
The results of the passage of this resolution have been salutary. Responsible citizens outside AVC have taken it as a clear declaration that AVC was independent of outside control, and intended to remain that way. To many members inside AVC, it was the first official notice that the organization did have an internal problem. The chapters, to whom the resolution was referred, are passing it by a large majority.
Those who have turned it down have been moved by a variety of reasons: some because the partyliners and sympathizers are in control, some because their experience with the problem has not yet convinced them of the dangers of failing to take a clear position, some because they fear a witch hunt will result, some because they are in areas where there actually is no Communist problem and they are fearful of seeming to protest too much before a public which has never accused them of sin. Education is proceeding, however. There has been no witch hunt — a witch hunt is no solution, since Party members usually do not identify themselves. As the executive committee of the University of Wisconsin chapter said:—
Any attempt to ferret them [the Communists] out, any tendency to point accusing fingers, would be fatal, foolish and malignant. . . . No one with faith in the unshakable democracy, progressivism and idealism of AVC will believe this baseless slander.
The fear that our energies would be diverted from a positive program into the negative channels of internal factionalism is being dispelled by such common-sense statements ns the following, again from Wisconsin: —
Some critics will still reply that Communism is no problem in America. They are absolutely right. Communism is no problem at all in the country as a whole; reactionaries have created an artificial Red menace in order to discredit all liberal action. But a careful distinction must be made. The Communist issue is a very real, internal one for any liberal organization. By refusing to face it, by burying their heads in the sand, one liberal organization after another has come to ruin. Because it ignored this question too long, the CIO now finds itself rent by a terrible war between pro-Communists and anti-Communists. The American Student Union made the same mistake. Once the shining hope of young American liberalism, the ASU was taken over by Communists and then cynically liquidated when its new masters had no further use for it.
IF progressives will recognize the distinction between themselves and the Communists, and if conservatives will recognize it when progressives make it, there is hope for democracy. If progressives accept the Communist credo that they must choose between alliance with Communists and alliance with reaction, and if conservatives lump all liberals and progressives together in the Communist camp, there is no hope for democracy and we will eventually resolve the tensions in our society by stumbling into totalitarianism either of the left or of the right.
We must be quite clear in our opposition to the present tendencies which lead in either direction. This is no philosophical abstraction which confronts us. We are making choices between alternatives, today and every day, which will take us down one road or the other. There is real power involved here: the power to shape the institutions of our society. AVC is the world in microcosm; the power struggle within it is deadly serious, and of great import for all Americans. The boys are not playing for marbles when the CP-influenced group in a chapter election produces posters deliberately distorting an editorial by the national chairman to make it appear that he has endorsed their slate. Nor is it ideological hairsplitting when a non-Communist writes a letter to the AVC Bulletin attacking the leadership in his area, and his name is then forged to a letter denying that he had written the original.
These are realities which must be faced, not only in AVC but in the nation and in the world.
I am confident that AVC will stay on its democratic course; more and more members are becoming aware of the fundamental issue that is involved. They are coming to understand why the party-liners reserve their choicest vituperation for the progressives rather than for the reactionaries. In the words of Max Lerner: —
It is not because we are “Tories,” “Red-baiters,” “witch-hunters”. . . . The fact is that the Daily Worker fears us exactly because we are not Tories and not Red-baiters, exactly because we do not believe in diverting our energies into the sterile and unsavory channels of obsessive anti-Communism. They fear us even more than they fear the Tories and the Redbaiters. For they know that what we are working to create is a free and liberal non-Communist movement, close to the mainstream of the American progressive tradition, with a philosophy that can attract the overwhelming number of decent ordinary Americans. And such a movement would most decidedly leave the Communists out in the cold, with only their few immediate partisans for company, and only their epithets for warmth.
The very nature of the AVC program is such as to invite epithets from the doctrinaires of both the extreme left and the extreme right. For AVC proposes that democracy become a daily practice. It does not simply complain about discrimination against Negroes: its chapters go into town libraries and convince their supervisors that Negroes should be allowed to borrow books like other citizens. It does not simply urge passage of the Taft-EllenderWagner housing bill: its chapters establish veterans’ housing coöperatives. It docs not simply go on record for the establishment of one world: it corresponds with veterans of the other United Nations with a view towards founding a United Nations Veterans League which will actively support and urge the strengthening of the UN. It does not simply cry out for United States aid to bankrupt foreign governments in order to halt the spread of Communism: it insists upon the necessity of providing a workable alternative to Communism through economic rehabilitation designed to give the people of the world the opportunity to find both security and freedom. It believes firmly that the democratic faith will prosper only through its devoted practice, and will wither if nurtured solely by speeches.
Am I naïve in thinking that this policy and this practice, tested and found true within a new veterans’ organization, suggest a policy and practice for America and for the world?
A third article in this series on the American veteran will appear in the June Atlantic. It is by Hanford MacNider, a veteran of both wars and a former National Commander of the American Legion.