It was February 1942. Pearl Harbor had been bombed just two months earlier. And President Franklin D. Roosevelt had recently signed Executive Order 9066, culminating in the forcible relocation and internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps.
Among the relocated Japanese-Americans was a Communist Party, USA member and longshoreman named Karl Yoneda. Yoneda, who had been an organizer in the Party-led Trade Union Educational League, the Japanese Workers’ Association, the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouse Workers’ Union (ILWU), the Alaskan Cannery Workers’ Union, and editor of Rodo Shinbun (a Japanese language communist paper), had spent most of his adult life fighting for workers’ rights and expanding democracy.
That he, along with other U.S. citizens, were considered potential threats to national security due to their skin color, was nothing more than “stupid, cruel, and un-American…,” as the Daily Worker reporter, Mike Gold, put it.
Unfortunately, the Communist Party, saying that it did not want to disrupt the coalition of anti-fascist forces that had coalesced around the Roosevelt Administration during the War, took a terrible position in support of the internment of Japanese Americans. In doing so it abandoned and even expelled Communist Party members like Yoneda and his wife Elaine. It was not until many years later that a resolution was passed at a CPUSA National Convention whereby the Party belatedly admitted its error and apologized for its shameful behavior to the Japanese American community. Yoneda himself was eventually reinstated after the War.
Yoneda, while at the Manzanar relocation camp, however, struggled to figure out how he and other Japanese Americans could contribute to the anti-fascist effort is a testament to his concept of radical patriotism – and something that should be celebrated this July 4th.
In a letter to the CIO News, the national publication of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, Yoneda talked about how he and other internees were “conducting drives to buy war bonds and to save tin for the war effort,” in spite of the disgraceful internment.
Ultimately – along with an estimated 15,000 other communists – Yoneda would join the armed forces in World War II, and serve with distinction in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corp. Yoneda recorded his heroic exploits in his 1983 autobiography, “Ganbatte, Sixty-Year Struggle of a Kibei Worker,” published by the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Communists were not new to radical patriotism or anti-fascism, as it was the Party who bore the brunt of the causalities defending the Spanish Republic from Franco’s fascists in the late 1930’s – years before U.S. involvement in World War II. In all, over 3,000 U.S. citizens – mostly communists – would join the International Abraham Lincoln Brigade and fight in Spain. Many would never return, thereby making the ultimate sacrifice as an illustration of their commitment to radical patriotism.
In fact, as early as July 1935, communists – like William ‘Bill’ Bailey – would risk life and limb to bring attention to the fascist threat to democracy. For, it was on a warm July evening in New York Harbor when Bailey, along with a handful of other anti-fascist seamen, secreted aboard the German passenger ship, the Bremen, as around 10,000 anti-fascist activists protested. Bailey, after tussling with some crew members, would climb the Bremen‘s flag pole, tear down its Swastika flag and toss it into the muddy Hudson River below. Onlookers “cheered wildly…”
Ten years later, as World War II ended, the African American Party leader, Claude Lightfoot, would sail home aboard the Bremen, now re-commissioned as a transport ship for returning soldiers.
That Lightfoot, a leader in the Unemployed Councils, business agent of the Chicago area Consolidated Trade Council of Negro Skilled Workers, and later Illinois District Organizer for the Communist Party, would be singled-out and discriminated against as an African American and as a communist while in the Army, undoubtedly, made his commitment to radical patriotism a heavy load to bear. For, as the war began, War Department directives required that communists be taken out of combat units, separated from other soldiers, and be prepared for “protective custody – in other words, concentration camps,” due to their supposed loyalty to a foreign power – the Soviet Union.
That Lightfoot, like many other communists, was spied upon while in the service, “my first experience with the government intelligence service,” only foreshadowed the McCarthy era repression that would engulf the nation shortly after the War’s end – and call into question our nation’s commitment to the Bill of Rights.
By July 1948, twelve national leaders of the CPUSA – including Gus Hall, the Party’s long-time general secretary – would be rounded-up and thrown into jail “for thinking,” as Hall put it. Their arrests proved to be the opening salvo against democracy, as the Bill of Rights was shredded.
Arnold Johnson, Hall’s long-time friend and comrade, would later write that the Party’s fight to protect the Bill of Rights “affects the entire course of American history,” especially African American civil rights, as it is “no accident that the Negro people are most alert as a people to the need of fighting for the rights of Communists…[and]…see the meaning of this struggle in terms of bitter experience of brutality and oppression.” Further, Johnson could write with pride, “They [African Americans] see the common enemy. Ever greater numbers among them also see in the Communist Party the champion of their struggle.”
That Johnson, along with dozens of other Party leaders from across the country, were arrested in spring 1951 is illustrative of the post-war anti-communist hysteria, and the growing right-wing fear of an emerging Black militancy comfortable with Red allies – a militancy that would soon desegregate America’s public schools, lead bus boycotts and dramatically demonstrate the power of peaceful sit-ins, while registering thousands to vote, especially in the Jim Crow South.
That this Red-Black alliance was, undoubtedly, another illustration of the Party’s radical patriotism is today largely unquestioned, at least by honest students of U.S. history. That the McCarthy witch hunts were partly an attempt to destroy this alliance – even if it meant destroying the Bill of Rights – is a subject deserving considerably more attention.
In early 1962, Hall – the former political prisoner – would embark on a West Coast campus speaking tour. At the University of Oregon, Hall would address 12,000 students, as a dozen police on horseback nervously observed in the backfield.
After his presentation, Hall took questions well into the evening. “This was a serious discussion,” he would later write. “The questions on a whole were on a rather high political plane.” As veteran communist journalist, Joseph North, wrote, students “…listened intently, respectfully, and gave him a warm round of applause…So it was wherever he went.”
Days later Hall would speak at Oregon College in Monmouth “to 2,500 persons” and then to “only 800” at Reed College, as Portland officials “refused” to let Hall speak at the city auditorium – which could have accommodated the additional thousand students who “stood around trying to get in.” According to Philip Bart, one-time chair of the Party’s history commission, Hall spoke in front of an accumulative 19,000 students on five campuses between February 10 and 15, 1962.
Hall’s successful speaking tour wasn’t an aberration. In the 1960’s communists were speaking on college and university campuses in front of large audiences all across the country, thereby challenging HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee and its assault on the Bill of Rights, and spurring what would soon become the campus free speech movement, led by young communists like Alva Buxenbaum, Bettina Aptheker and Jarvis Tyner – just to name a few. Thousands of students would soon join the W.E.B. DuBois Clubs, the Young Workers’ Liberation League and the Communist Party.
That the Communist Party, USA was a leader in defense of democracy, the Bill of Rights and the campus free speech movement serves to exemplify its long-standing commitment to radical patriotism – this July 4th, and every July 4th.
Above is a revised version of the original article. The original did not take into account, or mention, that the Communist Party itself took a terrible position in support of the internment of Japanese Americans. The Party eventually repudiated its position in support of that internment, and apologized to the Japanese American community for failing to take a stand in their defense.
Photo: Karl Yoneda, a Japanese-American Communist, was, like the unidentified children in this historical photo, amongst many who were unjustly confined to concentration camps in the U.S. during WWII. He and many of them nevertheless saved scrap from cans to contribute to the American war effort against facism. | Toyo Miyatake/AP & National Park Service