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Gordon Haskell

Against the Background of the Cold War

Perjury Is NOT the Real Issue in Bridges Case

(11 July 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 28, 11 July 1949, p. 4
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This article is condensed from a broadcast delivered by news commentator Gordon Haskell over Station KPFA in Berkeley, Calif., on June 9. Mr. Haskell’s commentary may be heard on KPFA, an FM station, every Thursday evening at 7:45.


Harry Bridges, president of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, was arraigned recently on a grand jury indictment which charges that he perjured himself when he was naturalized in 1945. The grand jury charges that, at that time he falsely swore that he was not and had never been a member of the Communist Party.

Bridges has claimed that the government is persecuting him for political reasons and because of his position in the union. Attorney General Tom Clark denies this. Who’s telling the truth? The history of the case, I think, shows this:

The politics that the government is persecuting in this case are the politics of the Communist Party of the United States, and beyond that, the politics of the cold war with Russia. Perjury, fraud – these are but the legal technicalities on which the real issue can be hung.

Ever since Harry Bridges rose to prominence in the longshore strike of 1934 his policies and those of the Communist Party have been indistinguishable.

This coincidence of views extends to ALL major questions of local, national and foreign affairs for 15 years. Bridges’ policies have tacked and veered with the exceedingly variable Communist Party line. Similarly, the attitude of the government TOWARD Bridges has, over the years, undergone the same changes as its attitude toward the Communist Party as a whole.

Government Files Charges

Let’s take a look at the record.

In 1934 and ’36 Bridges led the maritime strikes. These two strikes against a camarilla of diehard Republican shipowners and waterfront employers earned Bridges their bitter hatred. In 1934, charges of illegal entry into the United States were filed against Australian-born Bridges as part of the employers’ anti-union strategy. In 1935 Republican representative Hamilton Fish introduced a resolution in Congress asking the secretary of labor to report what deportation action had been taken against Bridges.

But this embarrassed the Roosevelt administration, as it was intended to. For in 1935 Russia had been recognized. By 1936 the Communist Parties of France, Britain and the United States had dropped the class struggle like a hot potato, and were throwing their support behind any and all politicians who were for the hardest policy toward Germany and Italy and for an alliance with Russia. That meant support of Roosevelt in the United States. And Bridges was going right down the line, supporting Roosevelt and the general policies of his administration, especially after the president came out for “quarantining the aggressors” in 1938.

However, the Republican shipowners and their boys in Washington kept pressing for action. Hodver’s FBI had been sniffing on Bridges’ trail for years. The mere fact that Bridges had been a militant labor leader was enough to make Hoover and his operatives suspicious of him. So finally in early summer of 1939, the Department of Labor yielded to Republican pressure, but chose Dean Landis of the Harvard Law School as examiner in a deportation hearing against Bridges. Landis was a man of known liberal social and political views. It was expected that he would give Bridges every benefit of the doubt, and he didn’t disappoint those who chose him.

In this, he was aided mightily by the caliber of the witnesses produced by the diligent FBI. In only one other case that has come to my attention has the government paraded a more sordid, discredited, vicious and irresponsible group of witnesses. And that other case was the second Bridges deportation hearing, which we’ll come to in a moment.

CP Changes Line

But history played the government a dirty trick. Before the case was concluded, Bridges had turned from a friend of the administration into its violent enemy. For at the end of August 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed a pact and later jointly invaded Poland.

From that day, the Communist Party of the United States proclaimed Hitler as less of a warmonger than Roosevelt.

As usual, Bridges went right down the line. His union led the “Yanks Are Not Coming Committee,” a CP front for isolationist and anti-administration propaganda. In 1940 he supported Willkie on the grounds that Willkie was less likely to get us into the war than Roosevelt.

But Dean Landis couldn’t change his way of thinking just to suit the political winds. He found that no evidence had been presented which proved Bridges a member of the CP. The government had to find another instrument to carry out the policy indicated by the new turn in foreign affairs.

On June 13, 1940, the House of Representatives approved a specific bill to deport Bridges. It never got past the Senate. On August 24, 1940, Hoover, always ready to oblige in such matters, submitted a report on Bridges recommending deportation. This time the government chose a trial examiner whose known social and political views would make it most likely that he would find against Bridges, Judge Sears of New York.

The second hearing started in February 1941. Once more the government paraded an astounding group of witnesses. Murderers, professional labor spies, pathological anti-reds, men who admitted they were testifying as a result of FBI intimidation – in short, the scum of the waterfront and points inland. There was at least one exception. Harry Lundberg, secretary of the AFL Sailors Union of the pacific, testified that to his knowledge Bridges had been a member of the Communist Party.

Finally, in September of 1941, Judge Sears did the job for which he had been chosen. He found against Bridges, and ordered his deportation.

Hitler Attacks Russia

But, in the meantime, history had again played one of her little tricks on the government. In June 1941, Hitler had attacked Russia. From that moment on, the Stalinists in America became the most fervent and enthusiastic supporters of every measure designed to get America into the war. In their propaganda the war suddenly changed from an imperialist conflict to a people’s war. Roosevelt changed overnight from a vicious warmonger to a great leader of the peace-loving peoples of the world.

And on the waterfront Bridges was, as usual, leading the pack. The Yanks Are Not Coming Committee disappeared without a trace. In short order his union became the fiercest proponent of the no-strike pledge, even to the extent of scabbing on fellow CIO workers at Montgomery Ward. Bridges’ union went further in its wartime capitulation to the employers than almost any other. To cap it all, Bridges was willing to bind his union to a no-strike pledge to extend indefinitely, after the war – all in the interest of the war effort.

Again the government was confronted with a most embarrassing situation. They had set out to deport Bridges when he was opposed to them. With Russia in the war, they could hope to find no more fervently pro-war leader to keep the longshoremen in check. They could hope to find no man better suited to quell dissatisfaction on the waterfront and to keep the workers from demanding their share of the golden stream the government was pouring into the pockets of the shipowners.

Deportation Prevented

As luck would have it (or was it really luck?) an appeal by Bridges to the Immigration Appeals Board in Washington brought a quick reversal of Judge Sears’ deportation order. It seemed that the day was saved for class peace on the waterfront for the duration.

But on May 28, 1942, Attorney General Francis Biddle rejected the finding of the Appeals Board, sustained Judge Sears and ordered Bridges deported. This definitely did not coincide with the best interests of the war government. Biddle had not sought the proper advice on the political consequences of his ruling. There was, however, another body in the land which took its political responsibilities more seriously.

On June 13, 1945, the Supreme Court ruled by 5 to 3 that Bridges had not been proved a Communist, and cancelled the deportation order. (This was the same Supreme Court which refused to review the conviction of 18 Trotskyists on charges of advocating overthrow of the government by force and violence. The Trotskyists, you see, maintained that even after the attack on Russia, American participation in the war was for imperialist objectives.)

The ruling of the Supreme Court seemed to end the matter once and for all. On September 17, 1945, Bridges became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Cold War; New Charges

But the political struggles of which the Bridges case is only a small byproduct went on. The wartime alliance of capitalist America and Stalinist Russia gave way to the struggle for world supremacy now known as the “cold war.” The Communist Party again changed its line, in accord with the foreign interests of Stalin and Co., to one of opposition to the government’s cold-war policies. And the government set out in earnest to break the Communist Party and particularly to break its influence in the labor movement.

So the FBI and the agents of the Immigration Service were put on Bridges’ trail once more. This time, they have new allies. The tremendous pressure of the cold war, coupled with a long-delayed awakening of the CIO to the role of the Stalinists in its midst, has led to the breaking away of one prominent supporter of Stalinist policy after another. The witnesses called before the Grand Jury are now no scrapings of the anti-union and criminal barrels.

Is the government case against Bridges justified?

Your answer to this question is likely to depend on your attitude toward civil liberties in the first place and toward the labor movement as a whole in the second.

The Stalinists in America are a political organization. Though I abhor their methods, their principles and their objectives, to suppress THEM means to deny civil liberties and democracy to a part of the American people. Also, it is hard to take seriously the government’s righteous indignation against the Stalinists today, when they are opposed to its policies. For this same government was perfectly willing to countenance them and use them, and to make an alliance with their masters in the Kremlin when this was to its political advantage.

Isn’t it the democratic prerogative of the members of. the longshore union themselves to decide whether they want a president and other officers who follow the line of the Communist Party? I think the members of the ILWU are very wrong in electing Bridges and Schmidt and Robertson and all the other party liners to office. I know that Bridges and his friends have themselves tried to frame up opponents in their union, and have used all kinds of trickery to hold on to their power.

But Bridges was recently re-elected president of the ILWU by a majority of some 23,000 votes. Even his most determined opponents agree that this vote expressed the will of the membership. And as long as the membership wants Bridges, isn’t it an invasion of their rights for the government to tell them they can’t have him because his political views and activities are currntly distasteful to the powers that be?

The labor movement, with all its defects and shortcomings, is the bulwark of democracy in America. In it no one has abused democracy and subverted it more than the Stalinists. Yet the labor movement cannot yield to the government its right to deal with the Stalinists in its own way.

For once it permits the government to rid it of the incubus of Stalinism by removing the Stalinists from office, either through legal prosecution or by other means, it thereby inevitably yields its right to choose freely and without government dictation who its officers shall be. That right, once yielded, will not be easily regained. That right, once yielded, will be a long step toward stripping the labor movement of its independence and making it a mere appendage of government.

So the strange case of Harry Bridges involves much more than a simple question of perjury or conspiracy. It is a tiny part of the cold war, and hence a small step in preparation for the shooting war. It is an assault on the political liberties of the Communist Party. It is an invasion of the right of 50,000 members of the ILWU to freely choose their leaders, however unwisely they may exercise that choice.

Those are the real issues in the Bridges case.

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