The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 69/No. 20           May 23, 2005  
How CP USA backed Smith Act
convictions of SWP, Teamster leaders
“It wasn’t until 1949, with the first Smith Act indictments of the Communist party, that I read the documents against the Minnesota Trotskyists and saw that the cases against the two organizations were virtually identical,” said John Abt in his 1993 autobiography, Advocate and Activist: Memoirs of an American Communist Lawyer.1*The Communists had made a terrible mistake in not defending the [Socialist Workers Party].”

Abt was the longtime chief counsel of the Communist Party USA and a CP cadre going back to the 1930s. He was commenting on the CP’s course with regard to the 1941 federal government frame-up of leaders of Minneapolis Local 544-CIO and of the Socialist Workers Party on charges of conspiracy “to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government.”  
‘Crime’ was opposing U.S. entry in war
Eighteen union and SWP leaders were found guilty—the first convictions under the notorious Smith “Gag” Act—and sentenced to between 12 and 18 months in prison. In the eyes of the U.S. government, the real crime was their organized effort in the union movement to mobilize opposition to Washington’s drive to drag working people into World War II.

Abt does not question the Communist Party’s “unqualified support” to that interimperialist slaughter. Such a policy “was unquestionably, then and in retrospect, the correct policy,” he says. The CP “played an honorable role in mobilizing public support for the antifascist cause and in defeating detractors from the Right.

“However,” Abt adds, “it must also be acknowledged that we were not without blinders in our enthusiasm. In 1941, the federal government launched a prosecution of a group of Trotskyists who were active in the Teamsters’ union in Minneapolis. They were charged with violating the Smith Act, a little-known and heretofore unused law, which forbade ‘conspiracy to teach or to advocate the overthrow’ of the U.S. government by force and violence.”

The defense campaign to block the convictions, and later to free the imprisoned leaders, won broad support within the labor movement in the United States and beyond. But not from the Communist Party.

In face of this antilabor frame up, Abt says, the CP “remained silent, while individual leaders spoke of a ‘fifth column’ at work in the Twin Cities. At the time, I accepted the Party estimate of the case, but paid little attention to it and did not read the legal documents, briefs, opinions, and appeals. Little did we know that in the postwar period the Smith Act would become the primary legal weapon to attack our Party and imprison its leaders.”

Abt recalls that “many years later, in the eighties, I was in a meeting with the CPUSA national board; under discussion was an SWP appeal for support in its lawsuit against the government for political harassment.2 I referred to the Party’s mistake in the 1941 case and said that those who now opposed supporting the SWP lawsuit were repeating the same error.

“A longtime Party leader from Michigan replied, ‘Ah, that was entirely different. They were interfering with the war effort.’

“Dogma reigned,” Abt says, “and the Party again refused to defend the SWP against government persecution.

“The Party has never engaged in any self-criticism—presumably the Leninist corrective—of that episode or other unworthy policies that we advocated, e.g., support for the relocation camps for Japanese-Americans, in our ardor for the anti-fascist war effort.”3  
A lot more than ‘silence’
How accurate is Abt’s memory that the Communist Party “remained silent” about the 1941 Smith Act trial, “while individual leaders spoke of a ‘fifth column’”? A 1975 account by another longtime CP supporter confirms that Abt, to say the least, is guilty of understatement.4

Philip J. Jaffe, former national secretary of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, describes in detail the documents the Communist Party turned over to the cops in 1941 to aid the prosecution of the union and SWP leaders. Jaffe says that in the late 1950s, Earl Browder, who was general secretary of the Communist Party at the time of the Minneapolis frame-up, gave him a copy of the entire dossier prepared by top CP leaders for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Jaffe begins by describing the Communist Party’s public campaign hailing the federal indictments. The Daily Worker immediately published an article stating: “The leaders of the Trotskyist organization which operates under the false name of ‘Socialist Workers Party’ deserve no more support from labor … than do the Nazis who camouflage their Party under the false name of ‘National Socialist Workers Party’.”

Jaffe continues:

“The fourteen documents marked Exhibit A, B, C, etc., consisted of two pamphlets, ‘War and the 4th International,’ dated 1934, and ‘Manifesto of the 4th International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution,’ dated 1940; four complete issues of the International Bulletin for Members Only, dated August and September 1942; and several pages from the monthly, Fourth International, and from the weekly, The Militant, for the year 1942. In some of the exhibits the pertinent wording was underlined in red. In addition to the documents, there was an original 24-page typescript, many of the pages single-spaced, entitled, “The Fifth Column Role of the Trotskyites in the United States.”

Jaffe quotes few sentences, headed “In Conclusion,” from the last page of the 24-page manuscript. That passage, he says, typifies “the nature of the entire assembly of exhibits and summaries” cobbled together by the CP leadership for U.S. imperialism’s star chamber proceedings. The paragraph reads:

“Being a sabotage organization, concentrating upon the disruption of the war effort, the Trotskyites do not require a large organization. On the contrary, a smaller group is more easily controlled and efficient for their purposes … The dangerous efficiency of this small group is shown by the fact that it succeeded in obtaining aid for the convicted Minneapolis traitors from the AFL and CIO unions representing 1,000,000 workers [exhibit M] … This core of saboteurs is small, but its underground influence is large. Remove the core and you wreck a strong fascist weapon in America.”  
SWP fights frame-up of CP leaders
In 1949 the U.S. government convicted 11 Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act and sentenced most of them to federal prison for five years.

“Trial of C.P. Threatens All Labor’s Rights,” was the lead, three-column headline on the Jan. 24, 1949, issue of the Militant, which reported on the opening day of the trial. “Atmosphere of Police Terror Marks Thought-Control Case,” read the subhead.

The reporter was Farrell Dobbs, who covered the trial for the Militant throughout the year, direct from the federal courthouse at New York City’s Foley Square. Dobbs was a central leader of the Midwest Teamsters battles of the 1930s, the Socialist Workers Party’s 1948 presidential candidate, and the party’s national secretary from 1953-72. He was also one of the 18 union and SWP leaders imprisoned under the Smith Act for 12 months in 1944-45.

“CP Trial Verdict Hits Rights of All,” was the full-page lead headline on the Militant when the CP leaders were convicted in October 1949.

“Friday, Oct. 14, 1949, will go down as a black-letter day for civil rights in `America,” opened the front-page editorial. “The conviction on that day of 11 Communist Party leaders in the political trial at Foley Square struck a hammer-blow against the democratic liberties of the whole working class.”

The convictions, the editorial said, underlined the burning need for a united front “to halt the offensive of the witch-hunters.”


1. John Abt, Advocate and Activist: Memoirs of an American Communist Lawyer (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), pp. 88-90.

2. The significance of the 1987 victory in the SWP’s 14-year legal battle against the FBI, CIA, and other government spy agencies is described in the article, “Washington’s 50-Year Domestic Contra Operation” by Larry Seigle in New International no. 6. Excerpts from trial testimony by SWP leaders, as well as the full 1986 federal court decision, are published in FBI on Trial: The Victory in the Socialist Workers Party Suit against Government Spying (New York: Pathfinder, 1988).

3. The Communist Party’s support for the Japanese-American concentration camps during World War II is described in the accompanying April 2005 letter printed in this issue.

4. Philip J. Jaffe, The Rise and Fall of American Communism (New York: Horizon Press, 1975), pp. 24-28
Related articles:
Strengthening anti-imperialist character of Caracas world youth festival
Separating myth from reality about the causes and outcome of World War II  
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