American sentiments toward Russia changed during the period encompassing the New Deal and World War II (1928-1944). The nation’s feelings were even less balanced after Hitler and Stalin signed their nonaggression pact in the fall of 1939. Still, even though the USSR was now an overt enemy of the US, communism was only occasionally a focus of American popular culture. Clearly, many Americans remained ambiguous regarding Russia’s threat to the American way of life. The following timeline takes us through this timeframe and documents the events and happenings leading up to the Second Red Scare.
The New Deal, WWII, and the Red Scare (1928-1944): A Timeline
1928: Trotksy is expelled from the Communist Party and sent into exile in Central Asia.
1928: Stalin implements the USSR’s First Five Year Plan, requiring the kulaks (wealthy peasant farmers from the hinterlands) to surrender their entire yield of crops to feed the city dwellers. When they resist this notion, the Red Army seals off the borders of the Ukraine and begins deporting the kulaks to prisons and labor camps in Siberia. This action results in 12 to 14 million deaths over the next 10 years.
1929: The American Communist Party (ACP) becomes the Communist Party of America (CPUSA).
June 1930: The first version of the House Un-American Activities Committee is assembled to combat the threat of communism in the US. Its first hearings are under the stewardship of Chairman Hamilton Fish (Ham) of New York. He asserts: “We propose to deport all alien Communists.”
January 1931: The Fish Committee hearings conclude with 13 recommendations, among them that the Communist Party should be outlawed, and that an embargo should be placed on all items imported from Russia.
September 1931: Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille visits the Director of the Society for Cultural Relations, Comrade Petrov in Moscow.
1932: William Z. Foster, then Chairman of the Communist Party in the United States, publishes his book, Toward a Soviet America.
November 8, 1932: Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda Alliluieva, commits suicide.
1933: Newly elected US President Franklin Roosevelt recognizes the Soviet government for the first time. That same year, around 4.2 million Ukrainian peasants die of starvation and disease, victims of Stalin’s collectivization plan. The plan prevented them from planting crops, importing food, or leaving their barren farms.
September 18, 1934: The Soviet Union joins the League of Nations.
1935: Clifford Odets’s drama, Waiting for Lefty, is staged.
1936-1938: At the height of Stalin’s Great Terror, almost 700,000 Russians are executed by the NKVD (later KGB) death squads, headed by Lavrenti Beria. Tens of thousands of the country’s highest ranking military veterans, most of them officers, are purged along with their families and friends.
August 12, 1938: The Martin Dies (D-TX) era of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) begins. The Texas congressman spearheads a wide-ranging investigation into Communist infiltration of the CIO and other branches of American Labor. Dies promises: “This Committee will not permit any ‘character assassination’ or any ‘smearing’ of innocent people.” At the same time, top lieutenant J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ) demands a full-scale investigation into the WPA’a Federal Theater and Writers Project, which he describes as “a hotbed for Communists [and] radicals.”
January 3, 1939: The Dies Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) submits a Report to Congress that identifies the American Youth Congress as including “over a dozen” Communist front organizations.
August 24, 1939: Stalin and Hitler agree to the Soviet-German nonaggression pact, signed in Moscow by top lieutenants Molotov and von Ribbentrop. This allows Hitler to invade Poland a week later, effectively igniting the Second World War.
October 23, 1939: Earl Browder, general secretary of the Communist Party in America, is arrested on the charge of having applied for passports in 1921 and 1927 under false names, before obtaining one under his proper name in 1934. Browder had implicated himself during testimony before the Dies Committee on September 5.
1940: The Alien Registration Act, commonly called the Smith Act, is passed. Like the Sedition Act from World War I, it makes advocating the violent overthrow of the US government a crime.
August 21, 1940: Leon Trotsky dies of wounds suffered from an ice pick wielded by Ramon Mercader. Mercader’s actions were disavowed by Moscow. Mercader was the rival heir to the mantle of Lenin. While living outside Mexico City in exile, his home was strafed by 20 men firing machine guns, but he escaped injury.
September 10, 1940: HUAC chairman Martin Dies’ book, The Trojan Horse in America, coauthored with J.B. Matthews, is published. Its main concern is the exposure of Communist front groups, although Dies also warns of the domestic Nazi threat.
June 22, 1941: Nazi forces put Operation Barbarossa in motion and invade the Soviet frontier, making Russia an instant ally of the US, Britain, and France in what Stalin called The Patriotic War.
September 1941: Russian War Relief supplants the American Committee for Medical Aid to Russia. The group was founded in August by a group of New York City business leaders to serve as a major source of aid to Russia. Its president is Edward C. Carter, secretary-general of the Institute of Pacific Relations.
December 1941: Former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph E. Davies, publishes his memoir titled Mission to Moscow. An excerpt is published in Reader’s Digest. The book sells 50,000 copies in its first six weeks.
May 28, 1942: The Anglo-Soviet Treaty is signed.
March 28, 1943: Life Magazine publishes “Special Issue: The USSR.” Almost all of its 116 pages are devoted to the government, people, and culture of our new ally against Hitler.
May 1943: The Comintern is “dissolved” by Stalin to satisfy his Western allies. Its work continues even after the announcement is made.
November 1943: Stalin meets with Churchill and Roosevelt in Tehran. Concessions to Russia’s new borders are made — especially regarding Poland. Little is promised to England or America in return.
May 22, 1944: Under the leadership of President Earl Browder, the Communist Party of the USA is dissolved and renamed the Communist Political Association (CPA). The CPA slogan remains that of the CPUSA: “Communism is Twentieth-Century Americanism.”
Thanks to Red Scared a book by Michael Barson and Steven Heller, for the information presented in this post.
Donald Hamilton says
“Still, even though the USSR was now an overt enemy of the US, communism was only occasionally a focus of American popular culture.” The Hitler-Stalin pact did not make the USSR an “over enemy of the U.S…”
“Mercader was the rival heir to the mantle of Lenin.” You might want to check that.
Lisa Reynolds Wolfe says
Good to hear from you Don. That info came from the Barson and Heller book, Red Scared.