The New Deal Witch Hunt

by David T. Beito
Federal targeting and intimidation of conservatives is nothing new.

Watergate has become the default historical template for the Obama scandals, as charges about enemies lists, executive-agency politicization, and high-handed federal snooping dominate the discussion. But those hunting for historical analogies would do well to consider the even closer parallels between these events and occurrences during the New Deal and Fair Deal.

Franklin D. Roosevelt routinely audited the income taxes of such critics as Representative Hamilton Fish, a Republican who represented the president’s hometown of Hyde Park, N.Y. Democrats of that era not only found creative ways to intimidate conservative and libertarian organizations, but also, like their modern counterparts, eventually attracted charges of witch-hunting.

The modern Tea Party, however, has yet to find a more effective symbol of defiance than Edward A. Rumely. Though he is largely forgotten today, the publisher’s appearance in June 1950 before a special House committee to investigate lobbying was a defining moment.

When Rumely showed up to testify, nobody was quite sure what he would say. For the most part, he answered the committee’s questions, but he stood his ground on one issue: He refused to name the Americans who had purchased a book critical of the New Deal. Pointing to the First Amendment, he asserted that the committee had “no power to go into a newspaper publisher and say, ‘Give me your subscription list.’ And you have no power to come to us.” If the House wanted to cite him for contempt, then he promised to give it “an education on the Bill of Rights.” Chairman Frank Buchanan warned that the unfriendly witness risked a contempt resolution, and vowed not to “divert this hearing into an argument over constitutional rights.”

The elderly, affluent, and bespectacled Rumely seemed an unlikely free-speech martyr. He was born in La Porte, Ind., in 1882 and helped run the family tractor-manufacturing business. His first political experience was as a loyal ally of Theodore Roosevelt, and he depicted himself as a Square Dealer for the rest of his life.

In 1915, Rumely purchased the New York Evening Mail as a means to promote Roosevelt’s political agenda and presidential ambitions. To make the purchase, Rumely used funds borrowed from Hermann Sielcken, an American citizen living in Germany. After the U.S. declared war on that country, Rumely reported this transaction to the Alien Property Custodian. In 1918, however, the federal government charged that Rumely had violated the Trading with the Enemy Act, claiming that he had concealed the German government’s role. Rumely responded that he had not known at the time that German law required that all such loans had to be first funneled through that government. Although the alleged offense occurred two years before the U.S. entered the war, Rumely was convicted under the Act and, after appealing the case, briefly served time in 1923. When it later become known that the federal government had refused to allow Sielcken back into the U.S. to testify, a majority of the jurors, the trial judge, the prosecuting attorney, and U.S. Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone all recommended clemency. Although President Coolidge responded by issuing a full pardon, Rumely’s enemies brought up the case repeatedly over the next three decades.

During the 1930s, Rumely formed an alliance with other New Deal critics, including newspaper publisher Frank Gannett and the well-known conservationist and civil libertarian Amos Pinchot. On the same day that Franklin Roosevelt announced his court-packing plan in 1937, the trio organized the Committee for Constitutional Government (CCG). Gannett wrote the checks, and Rumely ran day-to-day operations. CCG led perhaps the first successful offensive against the New Deal, pioneering the use of direct mail and helping to defeat the court-packing plan.

It didn’t take long for Democrats to strike back. In 1938, Senator Sherman Minton of Indiana announced a sweeping investigation of lobbies, targeting forces opposed to “the objectives of the administration.” Minton-committee staff arrived en masse at CCG’s office, where they began copying files. After watching this for several hours, Rumely ordered them out, charging them with an illegal “fishing expedition.” Minton’s undoing, however, was his proposal to make it a felony “to publish as a fact anything known to be false.” The resulting public backlash over a perceived threat to free speech led to the collapse of the investigation. Over the next decade, CCG distributed over 82 million pieces of literature criticizing such policies as expanded government medical insurance, public housing, and labor legislation.

After Harry S. Truman’s 1948 upset victory, Democrats vowed to scrutinize “lobbies” (broadly defined) such as CCG. The New Republic declared triumphantly that the “New Deal is again empowered to carry forward the promise of American life” and that it was high time to investigate “the great lobbies and the millions they have spent . . . to defeat social legislation.” The AFL and CIO agreed on this goal, as did two of the best-read columnists in America, Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell. Because of haggling about whether to appoint a joint House-Senate committee (and who would be in charge), however, the congressional investigation did not begin until early 1950.

Meanwhile, CCG increased the pressure by promoting John T. Flynn’s book The Road Ahead, which warned that pro–New Deal pressure groups were pushing the U.S. into socialism. Harper and Brothers sold it for $2.50, but CCG sold it under its own imprint for $1 or less, creating an incentive to purchase copies in bulk. In the first six months, CCG distributed over 700,000 copies.

Chairing the investigation was Buchanan, a Pennsylvania Democrat who had an axe to grind: CCG had successfully fought expansions of public housing, a goal he had championed. Buchanan defined lobbies in the broadest possible terms — including even groups that had an indirect influence on public opinion. The committee sent out a probing questionnaire to over 170 businesses and organizations, most of them opposed to Truman’s Fair Deal.

By the time Rumely made his famous appearance and refused to name the purchasers of The Road Ahead, the press was already turning against the Buchanan committee. Editor and Publisher found it guilty of “an invasion of the guaranteed right of the American people to own, hire or use a printing press without interference.” Similarly the Cleveland Plain Dealer called the investigation “Fair Deal Intimidation.” Even Buchanan’s hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, condemned the probe.

When Rumely refused to name names, the committee presented a contempt resolution to the full House in August 1950. In the floor debate, John W. McCormack of Massachusetts, the Democratic majority leader, resorted to language as extreme as just about any uttered by Joseph McCarthy. He condemned Rumely as “a spy in World War I, and a man who is nothing but a fascist, who is an opponent of American institutions and American government.” The resolution narrowly passed on a mostly partisan vote.

The investigation had a chilling effect on CCG; formerly dependable contributors closed their wallets, expressing fear of being named and targeted. Badly weakened, CCG faded away by the end of the decade.

Even so, Rumely had the last laugh in his legal case. In 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the contempt-of-Congress resolution. In a concurring opinion, the Court’s most liberal members, William O. Douglas and Hugo Black, endorsed Rumely’s free-speech and privacy rights in no uncertain terms. They described the Buchanan committee’s demands as “the beginning of surveillance of the press.”

By this time, some prominent liberal Democrats were losing their appetite for investigative crusades against the Right. One factor was that they were too busy beating back McCarthyism. By upholding Rumely’s free-speech rights, they could better fend off charges of hypocrisy. Even before the House cited Rumely for contempt, for example, the pro–New Deal columnist Marquis Childs pointed to him as an example of how the First Amendment protected “rightists” just as much as Communists. Later, lawyers for two victims of McCarthyism, Owen Lattimore and Corliss Lamont, cited U.S. v. Rumely in defense of their clients. Rumely had become a case study in the need to protect free speech.

It was quite a turnabout for a man whom only a few years earlier the Left had roundly condemned as a fascist, federal convict, and German spy.

— David T. Beito is a professor of history at the University of Alabama and author of Black Maverick: T. R. M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power.