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Alternative America

Interview by Ed Rampell, April 2006

Studs Terkel is the historian of the "Other" America - the America of radicals and dissenters. He spoke to Ed Rampell about the work of an oral historian.

With his trusty microphone, 93 year old lifelong leftist Studs Terkel has covered a broad swathe of the 20th century, giving voice to the common man and woman. Terkel's broadcasting, recording and numerous books have preserved spoken histories for more than half a century. Together they reveal the unofficial hidden history of America's progressive politics. He chronicles, and is himself part of, a radical history of resistance to the rule of a rich minority.

Studs was born into a family of Polish-Jewish émigrés who had arrived in Chicago at the turn of the century. He developed his empathy for the common man and woman by listening to soapbox speakers at Chicago's Bughouse Square, and in the lobby of the Windy City rooming house his mother ran. "At the men's hotel there'd be arguing back and forth," he recalled. "I love the idea of arguments and debates. These were guys from the International Workers of the World - the anti-union guys in the lobby called them IWW, meaning 'I Won't Work'. I loved those arguments - they were heated, full of four-letter words, but at the same time, there was something exciting. There was an argument, a debate - and we hardly have that these days."

Studs' spoken annals address "something that I call a national Alzheimer's disease," he asserted during a phone call to the studio of WFMT, the Chicago radio station which he has been affiliated with since 1951. Bonus marchers, hobos, boxcar riders, union organisers, reformers, radicals, and all those who were down and out during the 1930s are remembered in Studs' book, Hard Times.

During this period global capitalism was in an extreme crisis, and the twin poles of fascism and socialism beckoned to the masses as solutions to the catastrophe. A quarter of the US workforce was unemployed, and President Hoover's Republican administration, with its free market policies, had no means to deal with the economic chaos. The poor had no access to social security, so they travelled thousands of miles to look for work. "Okies" from the Oklahoma Dustbowl migrated en masse to California - these are the people that John Steinbeck immortalised in his 1939 novel The Grapes Of Wrath. In 1932 more than 20,000 First World War veterans converged on Washington demanding payment of the "bonus" that the government had promised. They occupied the nation's capital, creating a shantytown outside the White House, only to be violently dispersed by General Douglas MacArthur and the very army they had previously fought for.

Socialist Yip Harburg, who is interviewed in Hard Times, wrote the lyrics to the song that captured 1932's zeitgeist, "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" Seven years later he captured the mood of hard-pressed Kansas farmers longing to escape the Depression with his song, "Over The Rainbow", which was sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz. This classic is full of populist symbolism - the scarecrow represents farmers, the tin man represents the industrial proletariat, and the line from the song that went, "Ding Dong! The witch is dead" became an anti-fascist anthem in occupied Europe.

"Then came the New Deal, which was a quite remarkable period in the history of the US," said Studs. This reformist programme broke with the traditional free enterprise model of government economic policy in favour of a Keynesian model of state intervention. The National Recovery Act, Agricultural Adjustment Administration, bank holidays, and many other New Deal policies aimed to stabilise the turbulent economy. It mitigated against the Depression's worst hardships - and helped to defuse a possible workers' revolution during the waves of sit-down strikes and factory occupations that swept the US during the 1930s.

As the federal government grappled with the Depression, "There were some remarkable people hired [by Roosevelt] ," Studs stated. The beginnings of a welfare state were marked by the introduction of a social security system, labour laws that allowed for collective bargaining, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and the reduction of working time to 40 hours a week. During this period trade unions grew by around 300 percent, and the more militant, industry-wide Congress of Industrial Organisations replaced the more conservative American Federation of Labour as the dominant force in organised labour.

Studs spoke about the enormous growth of public works projects, as well as the role Roosevelt's programmes played in the creative community: "In the New Deal days of Franklin D there were... flood dangers, and there was actually flood protection... In fact, there's a movie [directed by Pare Lorentz in 1938] that the federal government put out... called The River, and Virgil Thomson [who's in Studs' latest book, And They All Sang] did the music for it. It's how they prepared against the big floods, and how they stopped them."

Studs readily admits that the Roosevelt administration's reformist response to the Depression had a lasting impact on him: "The WPA (Works Progress Administration) provided jobs in the arts - theatrical, art and music projects... I think I became a writer - if I am a writer - because of the work of the New Deal, on the Writers Project of the WPA... The New Deal was tremendous. That affected my life by the way."

Heroic struggles

The Hard Times chapter entitled "Scarlet Banners and Novenas" focuses on the roles leftists played during the tumultuous decade. For many leftists, Roosevelt's New Deal held out many more promises than it actually delivered. The left often saw its role as to push the government for more. Hard Times includes the recollections of radicals, such as labour organiser Saul Alinsky. His Reveille For Radicals, published in 1946, contained this passage, "Whenever America's hearts are breaking, there American radicals were and are. America was begun by its radicals. America was built by its radicals. The hope and future of America lies with its radicals." Former Trotskyist Max Shachtman ruminates on the Communist Party of the USA, "Mass unemployment, on a scale hitherto unknown in this country, enabled the Communists to organise the unemployed and stage vigorous protests... In New York, at Union Square, they were able to gather as many as 100,000 people at a rally."

The Catholic Worker's Dorothy Day recalls, "The Communists contributed plenty in the 1930s. Absolutely. They were the ones that led the heroic struggles and risked beatings and imprisonment and death itself to organise in the South... They tried to organise the unemployed, wherever they were... Every type of social security that we have now was on the Communist programme at that time."

Industrial Workers of the World member Fred Thompson sums up a left critique of New Deal reforms and Franklin D Roosevelt: "He made a big hullabaloo about what he was gonna do for labour. After he had labour by the tail, he seemed to figure he could disregard it and favour our enemy instead... [Roosevelt] certainly didn't help radicalism."

The New Deal alleviated but never ended the Depression, and Studs, too, criticises Roosevelt: "Even he - by far my favourite president of the century - is also guilty of the Japanese Internment Act. That horrible act under which... Japanese-Americans were imprisoned, put into stables and other internment camps. Even he, good as he was, was guilty of that."

To an extent, America's domestic ferment during the New Deal period was subsumed and turned outward by the international struggle against fascism, and later the Second World War. Ordinary soldiers and sailors, Jewish exiles and Rosie the Riveters (the name given to women industrial workers who replaced men who had gone to war) tell the story of the Second World War in Studs' Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War.

Merchant marine Bill Bailey remembers stealing the swastika that flew from the bow of the German ship Bremen docked at Manhattan in 1935. Following the "fracas", Nazi propaganda minister Joseph "Goebbels issued an angry statement, so LaGuardia [New York's mayor] assigned ten detectives to go to the German consulate. These were all Jewish detectives - with names like Goldfarb, Ginsburg. Goebbels thought this was the biggest insult. He said, 'We don't want these inferior bastards to guard any of our people.'"

Bailey, who was a Communist Party member from the working class neighbourhoods of Hoboken and Hell's Kitchen, went on to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. He joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the American contingent of the International Brigades, and took up arms against General Franco. The Spanish Republic's cause had great appeal in the US because it seemed to many to be the quintessential struggle between democracy and dictatorship. But before the Spanish Civil War Bailey and others who fought the Nazis were denounced as "premature anti-fascists" - they resisted fascism before doing so had become official Communist Party policy.

In Hard Times, Shachtman notes, "With the rise of Hitler and the Spanish resistance to fascism in the civil war, a most decisive event followed. The People's Front came into being. The [Communist] Party abandoned the theory of 'social fascism' [in which reformist parties were equated to the parties of the fascist right]. The United Front welcomed all radicals, all liberals and, for that matter, all 'right-thinking' capitalists. [Laughs] The New Deal and Roosevelt were embraced... Had any radical suggested these ideas in preceding decades, he'd have been politically lynched. There were only two prerequisites: friendliness to Russia and hostility to Hitler... Then, virtually overnight, [the Communist Party of the USA] destroyed itself. It backed the Hitler-Stalin pact... [The CP's] Achilles' heel was its subordination to Moscow."

As to be expected, the 1939 "non-aggression" pact abruptly ended on 22 June 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. After imperial Japan's Pearl Harbour attack the US entered the war, and the Popular Front reached its logical conclusion with the US and USSR becoming wartime allies. Once war was declared Bailey, by now a mature anti-fascist, served in the Pacific. In The Good War he laments the end of the crusade against fascism, noting that, after the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, "bad things started to happen... Everything changed."

Red scare

Washington and Moscow's Popular Front ended even before the Second World War concluded. In its place came the Cold War - a war that increasingly would be fought at home. In the US, a reign of terror swept through the movie industry in 1947, as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) asked artists, "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" HUAC persecuted and imprisoned the Hollywood Ten, which included film-makers with Communist ties. Communist Party member and singer Paul Robeson was called to testify before the congressional committee. When HUAC asked Robeson, an African-American, if he was a Communist, the unfriendly witness shot back, "Do you mean a party... who have sacrificed for my people, and for all Americans and workers, so that they can live in dignity? Do you mean that party?"

Studs was also caught up in the maelstrom of the McCarthy era. His 1949 television series Studs' Place was a highly improvised show broadcast from Chicago - it was one of the first nationwide US television programmes. However, as the Cold War heated up, Terkel's politics led to conflict with the station's management. Studs' Place was thrown off the air during a "Red Scare".

"I was blacklisted," says Studs, "but I found out women's clubs were great. They'd pay me 50 bucks, 100 bucks, to talk about folk songs or whatever... This one McCarthy guy... threatened them for sponsoring a subversive - me. They all ignored him completely. But one very elegant old woman... was so furious at this guy that instead of paying me a promised $100 fee they doubled my payment." Studs, who said keeping a sense of humour was important during the blacklist, sent the red-baiter a $10 cheque as an agent's commission. It was never cashed.

According to film legend, Hollywood Ten screenwriter and ex Communist Party member Dalton Trumbo was the first to break the blacklist when he received screen credit for the 1960 movies Spartacus and Exodus. But years earlier, the irrepressible Studs broke the entertainment industry's blacklist. In the 1950s, when he worked on legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson's radio programme, a CBS manager asked him to sign a loyalty oath - and he refused. "I don't believe in that stuff - at that time, I was influenced by the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers," Studs declared. The Queen of Gospel stood by Studs, telling the executive, "If you fire Studs Terkel, you tell Mr So-and-So to hire another Mahalia Jackson." In the end CBS backed down. "Nothing happened... we did the whole 26 weeks," says Studs.

Despite the brave few who stood up to the witch-hunt, McCarthyism smashed the organised left in the US. By the 1960s, however, the fight against racial segregation and opposition to the war in Vietnam were among issues that helped to revitalise radicalism and give birth to a New Left. Studs continued to chronicle and support various progressive causes, maintaining a united front relationship with leftist groups and movements. "All of them [the different left groups] approached you. I'll work with anybody - I don't care who that person is, no matter what the label is, if they work on a certain issue with me. If the issue is human rights, civil rights, the un-tapping of phones, trying to save our environment - whatever the issue is," explains Studs.

The people's oral historian retains his interest in workers, and published Working in 1997. He told SR, "Today, of course, the computerised society has changed a lot of everything. But the class differences are still there. We know what a retiring CEO of a company gets. After firing 20,000 people, he goes off with a platinum parachute, gets millions. And we know what the guys who worked there get." The Hurricane Katrina catastrophe is another such example, explains Studs: "It speaks for itself so movingly and so horrifyingly... The fact is we were unprepared for this, no money for this, because it's going into our military endeavours. Our mal-adventure. I love that, to bring democracy to Iraq. What a joke. But now we're catching on. It was based upon a lie - weapons of mass destruction. There was no manpower to fight [Katrina]."

In the US today, a new generation of radicals are emerging - again cutting their teeth in opposition to war. Studs' chronicling of dissent over many decades is an invaluable resource. He maintains a long view of an American history - a history full of radical outbursts that indicate an alternative America: "It's happened so many times. It happened in the 1800s, when Thomas Jefferson beat the sitting president John Adams and his Alien and Sedition Laws [which were a crackdown on dissent in the wake of the French Revolution]. So it has its parallels... The abolitionists, who were bounced around in the dark. They were there all the time in the slavery days. And again after the First World War, when there were attacks on the immigrants who spoke out." Studs' life's work is proof that the constant attempts to write radicalism out of American history have always seen radicalism get its revenge.


Studs Terkel's latest book is And They All Sang, published by The New Press, US.

Ed Rampell is an LA-based journalist and author of Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History Of The United States


Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
by Yip Harburg

They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plough or guns to bear
I was always right there on the job...

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, made it run
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad, now it's done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower, to the sun.
Brick and rivet and lime,
Once I built a tower,
Now it's done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits
Gee, we looked swell
Full of that Yankee Doodle-de-dum.
Half a million boots went sloggin' thru Hell,
I was the kid with the drum.

Say, don't you remember, they called me Al
It was Al all the time
Say, don't you remember I was your pal!
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

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