Wednesday, May 28, 2014

On Pete Seeger, the FBI, and the USSR

Awhile back, I got into a big argument with a friend of one of the pastors of my church on his Facebook wall about Pete Seeger, who had recently died. Seeger was a fairly controversial fellow and most of the discussion centered around the legitimacy of his being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Al-Jazeera this morning had an article on the release of FBI files pertaining to him.

The common view of those under HUAC's scrutiny, particularly among those on the political left, is that they were innocent victims of a witch-hunt who were being persecuted for their beliefs. To a large extent that is true. The person I was arguing with acted as though Seeger was this kindly fellow oppressed for his support of peace and love and was particularly aggravated that I accorded HUAC any legitimacy whatsoever. However, this position ignores the historical context of these events and the nature of foreign Communist parties.

After the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact that divided Eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Moscow instructed foreign Communist parties to support the Germans. Although to be fair this disillusioned many Communists (who subsequently left the party), those who remained deliberately undermined the Allied fight against the Nazis. In France, for example, the French Communist Party took an antiwar line politically, committed acts of sabotage in the armament industry, and during the German occupation, published anti-British and anti-socialist propaganda with tacit German consent. The British Communist Party strongly supported strikes during the war and claimed the working class had no dog in the fight. There is a quote from the book Warlords: In the Heart of Conflict 1939-45 that's basically a Soviet order to the British Communists that "no steps should be taken" to stop a German invasion on the grounds that Nazi occupation would be a step forward on the road to Communism. The Western Communist parties of course changed their tune once the Soviet Union was attacked, with the British Communists claiming strikers were really agents of Leon Trotsky and the French Communists forming an effective resistance group (seriously, better late than never).

In the United States the risk of sabotage and overt collaboration with a military invader was essentially nil, but there was the strong danger of espionage. According to The Haunted Wood, there was a fair bit of espionage by Communists in the United States, including an effort to run a Soviet-backed candidate for Congress. Fortunately Stalin's purges of his intelligence apparatus and the American Communists' own ineptitude rendered that rather ineffective.

What does this have to do with Seeger? Well, during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Seeger and his group the Almanacs put out anti-war songs, including several on the album Songs for John Doe. When the Nazis attacked the USSR, this album got yanked and a new album, Dear Mr. President, that supported the war effort was released.

Seeger obviously had the right to speak his mind. Randolph Bourne said "war is the health of the state" and James Madison said that if "tyranny and oppression" were ever to come to the United States, it would be in the name of fighting a foreign enemy. One should always be skeptical of the use of "WE'RE AT WAR" to justify trying to shut down dissent at home, something I admit (with shame) that I'd participated in before I realized how much of a bad idea the Iraq War was.

However witch-hunty McCarthyism in general was and how amusing Seeger's retorts to Congress were (see the one about Pontius Pilate), the government's investigation of Seeger did not occur in a vacuum. Seeger and other American Communists had been for all intents and purposes propagandists for a foreign government, one that after WWII was an enemy of the United States. HUAC investigating pro-Soviet individuals is the next logical step, given how it was originally formed to investigate pro-Nazis. To Seeger's credit he later realized what manner of monster he'd been propagandizing for and went so far as to claim that if the U.S. became a Communist country he'd have been imprisoned immediately.

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