Nick’s red state

John Haynes is the prominent historian of Communism in the United States. Together with Harvey Klehr, Haynes has written a series of groundbreaking books that detail the operation of the American Communist Party and its subservience to the Soviet Union.

Haynes began his career as a historian at the University of Minnesota, studying the infiltraton of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party by Communists. In Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party, Haynes reconstructed the factional battle between Popular Front leftists and anti-Communist liberals for control of the DFL.

It is an episode out of which a generation of young liberal leaders emerged in Minnesota, culminating in the nomination and election of Hubert Humphrey to the Senate from Minnesota in 1948. Humphrey’s young allies included Orville Freeman, Don Fraser, Arthur Naftalin and Walter Mondale. Until Haynes’s 1984 book, the story simply had not been told in anything like its full dimensions. Katherine Kersten devoted a recent column to Haynes, writing:

[M]ost Minnesotans don’t know that Haynes, who left the state for Washington, D.C., in 1987, did groundbreaking research on the history of Communist penetration of the Minnesota DFL Party in its early years. Today, he is a world-renowned historian of American communism.

Haynes came to Minnesota in 1966 to begin a history Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. DFL bigwigs recognized his talent when he volunteered for Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign.

Haynes first heard hints about Communist influence in Minnesota politics as a campaign volunteer. “The old DFLers would tell me about how Uncle Hubert had run the Reds out of the DFL,” he says.

“I would listen patronizingly and laugh. I’d learned as a graduate student that there was never any serious Communist presence in mainstream American politics. It was a myth, a product of McCarthyism and Cold War exaggeration.”

But in the mid-1970s, Haynes began digging through musty archives at the Minnesota Historical Society to complete his dissertation on the history of the DFL. “I discovered, to my astonishment, that the old guys were right,” Haynes says. “In the 1930s and ’40s, Humphrey and his colleagues were engaged in a desperate fight for control of the DFL with ‘progressives,’ who were secretly controlled by the Communist Party USA.”

Haynes knew that the subject was “politically radioactive.” But, in 1984, he wrote a book about it — “Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party.”

In 1987, Haynes’ Minnesota career ended, having included important posts with Rep. Martin Sabo and Gov. Rudy Perpich. He accepted a position as a 20th-century historian at the Library of Congress.

Haynes took his interest in American communism with him. In 1992, he and fellow historian Harvey Klehr gained access to formerly top-secret Soviet archives, with the help of Yale University Press. They discovered more than 430,000 microfilmed pages, which detailed the American party’s activities and relations with Soviet intelligence agencies in the 1930s and ’40s. “The dust was still on them,” Haynes says. “No one had touched them in 50 years.”

The documents revealed that the Soviets had infiltrated most major American government agencies, as well as the White House. Haynes’ and Klehr’s 1995 book, “The Secret World of American Communism,” generated headlines around the world.

I wrote about Kersten’s column in “When Minnesota was a red state.” In today’s Star Tribune, columnist Nick Coleman purports to take issue with Kersten’s column, in the bullying style to which we have become accustomed:

It was recently revealed in these pages that the DFL Party of Minnesota was “penetrated” by Communists in its early days, with the implication that even to mention this out loud takes courage.
This kind of hyperventilation, delivered from the rear area of an ancient battle, serves an obvious political purpose. But only someone unfamiliar with Minnesota or uninterested in its history would suggest that the Communist attempts to hijack Minnesota’s progressive politics in the 1930s and ’40s are unknown.

In fact, it was the fight for control of the fledgling DFL Party after World War II that became the very public crucible in which the DFL was formed and found its strength.

A proud history

Like Gov. Tim Pawlenty, I grew up eating at a DFL kitchen table and heard many stories about battles won and lost before I was born. It is sometimes my happy duty to criticize Democrats when they are in power (it’s been a long while), and I vote independently. But I have buried too many people who called themselves DFLers to stay quiet when someone throws “DFL” and “Communist” in the same sentence and acts as if they are flinging new dirt.

The short version is well-known: Minnesota liberals purged the Communists who came into the newly merged DFL when Democrats joined with the Farmer-Labor party in 1944. It took one of the biggest political fights in state history.

Reds around the edges

Defeating the Communists took numerous acts of political courage. Not by people who enjoy sullying Minnesota Democrats with the old “Reds” defamation. No, the courage came 60 years ago, from the tough-nosed anti-Communist founders of the DFL — departed leaders such as Hubert Humphrey, Art Naftalin, Orville Freeman and others who outmaneuvered and outfought undemocratic forces for the soul of the DFL.

In recent years, researchers have learned that the American Communist Party and its operatives in Minnesota were more closely controlled by Moscow than anyone knew in the 1940s. But that just underscores the accomplishments of Humphrey and the rest who stood up to them.

This was a vicious battle for control of a major state party, and the crusade against the Communists helped propel Humphrey to national prominence. It is a story that deserves to be remembered and which used to be told frequently, including in “Almost to the Presidency,” Albert Eisele’s 1972 book about Humphrey and his rival for the White House, fellow DFLer Eugene McCarthy.

“No single experience of his early political career did more to mold Humphrey as a man and a politician than the savage struggle” for control of the DFL from 1946 to 1948, Eisele wrote. (Washington correspondent for the St. Paul newspaper, Eisele later was press secretary for Vice President Walter Mondale.) Purging the Communists, Eisele added, was “when the future of the party — and of Humphrey — was determined.”

Coleman’s belligerence is a little hard to understand. Coleman does not bother to quote a single word from Kersten’s column. It is not she who uses the word “penetrate,” around which Coleman puts scare quotes. Does Coleman take issue with the proposition that the Communists’ relationship to the DFL was one of penetration? He doesn’t explicitly say, but the scare quotes indicate that he does. He would benefit from reading Haynes’s book.

The source of Coleman’s purported disagreement with Kersten’s column is itself a bit difficult to “penetrate.” Was Haynes not the first historian to tell the story of the making of the modern DFL Party? Was the subject not “politically radioactive,” as Kersten quotes Haynes saying? Haynes’s professional career outside the academy suggests that it is, as does the anger manifested in Coleman’s column.

This much I understand about Coleman’s column. He doesn’t like Kersten. He doesn’t like her columns, though the antipathy predates her columns. Last year he vilified her as “a by-god certifiable right wing activist and power megaphone” in a weird message to Jay Rosen of Pressthink. He condemned the Star Tribune’s hiring of Kersten before she had published a single column in her new capacity as a metro columnist. Coleman’s column appears more than anything else to be a symptom of his anger over the Star Tribune’s hiring of Kersten.

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