The New Deal Witch Hunt
Federal targeting and intimidation of conservatives is nothing new.

Edward Rumely at a Senate hearing in 1938.


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.