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Irving Howe

The Veterans Enter Politics in Tennessee

(26 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 34, 26 August 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For several weeks now public attention has been focused on the little town of Athens, Tennessee (population, 6,700) which is the seat of McMinn County. There, for the first time since the end of the war, veterans worked together as a political group, organizing the GI Non-Partisan League to drive out the local wing of the corrupt Democratic Party machine headed by Boss Crump. In their ranks were former Democrats and Republicans – McMinn County is a border area which oscillates between the two major parties – who campaigned on the issue of “clean government.”

They won. That is, they got a majority of the votes. The local machine, which had always worked on the maxim that it was more important to count votes than to get them, then proceeded to steal the ballot-boxes and organize its “own count” in the county courthouse. Since the GI Non-Partisan League knew what that meant, it called upon its friends to take up arms. They forced their way into the courthouse, after a big display of gunfire, and the Crump machine acknowledged that the GIs had won.

This incident is of considerable importance on the American political scene. Whether or not it is part of a trend or merely an isolated incident, several questions of interest are raised:

1) Were These Ex-GIs Merely Organizing to Get Political Jobs?

It seems most unlikely that their only or even major motive was a raid on the county treasury. No doubt that motive was present to some extent, as it always is, but surely if the leaders of the veterans were interested only in featherbedding themselves, they could have made deals with one or another of the political machines. Such conservative observers as Harold Hinton, the N.Y. Times correspondent who rushed to Tennessee, and Perry Jennings, Nashville editor, report that the issue of clean and honest local government was taken quite seriously by these former soldiers who, in their years of army misery, had spent many hours brooding about political conditions back home.

As soon as they were elected, the veterans announced they would abolish the former “fee system” of paying county officials – by which Crump’s men made as much as $25,000 a year! – and would impose a ceiling of $5,000 for county salaries. It is clear that there is a genuine element of democratic idealism in the action of these veterans.

2) What Is the Program and Perspective of the GI Non-Partisan League?

There is little information on this point; probably because there is little to be had. The N.Y. Times correspondent, Harold Hinton, writes that many of the veterans to whom he talked seemed to be nursing a vague sense of grievance accumulated over their years in the army. Yet, beyond a few words about kicking out the crooks, there was little that they could tell him about their plans.

What, to raise one crucial question, is their attitude toward Negroes? True, McMinn County has fewer Negroes than most Southern areas, but the question is still vital as an index of the political development of these veterans.

And, secondly, what is their attitude toward labor? Again, McMinn County is, because of its agricultural nature, devoid of trade unions but the question is also important as an index.

We do not mean to suggest that if these veterans don’t have exactly the opinions on these questions we should like them to have, that they should be condemned out of hand. But it is necessary to point out that there are only three courses open to them: they can fritter away their energies in local politics in which case they will sooner or later develop into a routine political machine different from the Crump machine in perhaps being less corrupt; they can look toward the labor movement, the CIO’s Operation Dixie drive, as a base and ally; they can become part of a veterans movement that is generally pro-labor and democratic in its orientation; or they can be deflected into some kind of reactionary nationalistic veterans outfit such as the native fascists are trying to organize.

3) What Is the Future of Veterans in American Politics?

The Athens incident raises the general question of the future political activity of America’s veterans. Before the war’s end, there was much talk about how veterans would come back to run the country. The veterans were then seen as a threat to the labor movement which they had been taught to hate in the army. Thus far these dire prophecies have not been realized. There has been more pro-union activity reported among veterans than anti-union activity. In many strikes veterans have marched in the front ranks of picket lines and have fought with heroism against police attempts to smash those lines.

But the full story has not yet been told. The danger of veterans being deflected into reactionary outfits remains. Until now that danger has been minimized because the temporary post-war boom has made it possible for a good many of them to get jobs (even if poor jobs). The test will come when conditions get a little worse, when a social crisis develops in the country’s economy and the veterans find themselves on the streets, jobless and dismayed.

It is then that narrow appeals will be made to them by the G.L.K. Smiths and the other fascist rabble. It is then that attempts will be made to organize veterans to “take over the country.” One thing is certain: any exclusively veterans movement, pretending to a political and social independence which it cannot really obtain, must sooner or later become reactionary. Particularly sensitive as some are to extreme patriotic appeals, and disoriented as they will be on finding themselves helpless in the post-war world, veterans will be prey to the appeals of reaction – unless the labor movement is in there pitching, and pitching fast and hard.

An opportunity has already been muffed. The CIO’s Operation Dixie and its Political Action Committee have had nothing to say to the GI Non-Partisan League of Tennessee. We think that the CIO has here shown a lack of imagination; we think it should have made a bold appeal to work together with these veterans, even if only for limited objectives and on a limited basis.

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