“The Vile File”: Communist Hate Mail
If you’ve paid any attention to US politics, media, culture, etc., during the last century or so, you’re probably aware that Americans are not fond of communists. Of course, not every American feels this way, but I think it’s safe to say that hatred of communist thought and practice is pretty deeply entrenched in the collective American conscious (although, these days I’d say it’s a toss up between the socialists and the communists as to whom Americans hate more). That’s why finding hate mail like this in the CPUSA records was no surprise.
But for anyone who has never had the pleasure of reading through a stack of hate mail, what is surprising is realizing the vitriolic extremes that these missives reached.
The Communist Party, USA nominated several active party members for public office at the local, state, and national level throughout the 20th century. Some of the party’s most prominent members campaigned for president, with William Z. Foster and Benjamin Gitlow making the first presidential bid on the CPUSA ticket in 1924. The majority of the campaign records acquired by the Tamiment Library as part of the CPUSA records document the four presidential campaigns of Gus Hall, with Jarvis Tyner running as vice president on the first two tickets and Angela Davis as the VP candidate on the latter two. Though underfunded and understaffed in comparison to the campaigns of the two major US political parties, the CPUSA saw Hall’s bid for president as a serious undertaking, going to considerable strides to reach as much of the US population as possible. Local and district branches of the CPUSA were entreated to spread the party’s election platform and the candidates themselves travelled extensively during the campaign to speak at rallies, organizational meetings, universities, and the like, while also utilizing print media, radio, and television to reach the public.
What was the end result of all of this campaigning? Did the Communist Party ever succeed at putting a party member in the White House? Well, no, of course not; though minor party candidates have occasionally won public office positions, the US presidential election has never been won by a minor party candidate (though some contend that they have an impact on final election results). Most Americans are probably aware of this—or at least those of us who pay attention to public office elections at all. Did anyone voting in the 1976 US presidential election ever really believe that Hall and Tyner had a shot at winning? Maybe some did, but most probably didn’t. So why all the hate mail for a minor political party that the public most likely assumed would never win? And besides that, why all of the filth and the fury with which these letters and notes were written?
Some common opening salutations (edited for profanity):
“You dirty creeps”
“Vile _____ commie pig”
“Dumb commie traitor”
And some closing remarks and signatures:
“Better dead than red”
“Not signed because of fear of contact and embarrassment “
“Your devoted enemy”
These are examples of the tamest writings I came across in the election records series. I’m sure most party members heard worse than that during their lifetimes, and most of the sentiments are predictable and expected, especially considering the level of public discourse currently happening in US politics. But the truly horrific stuff, the racist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic stuff, is too extreme to reproduce or quote here. This portion of the collection, the Election Records series, is now processed and open for research use, so you are able to come by the Tamiment Library and see it for yourself if you like. The CPUSA kept a good chunk of these letters, and as most organizations are wont to do, classified them according to their own system:
Despite the queasiness that accompanies having to read these hateful letters, these are the kinds of records that archivists love to comb through because a collection then offers a portrait not just of the organization itself but also of the world occurring outside of it—in this case a world where communists were unwelcome, feared, and despised. And in light of our increasingly digitized life, as well as the current political climate in the US, it is interesting to sift through a tactile, handwritten record of the public’s response to a minor political party. A physical envelope affords the sender the possibility for personalization—many writers included racist cartoons, pamphlets, and defaced posters or fliers that spelled out their disgust at communism and the candidates—in a way that email is often lacking (and it’s particularly amusing to read an angry, wrath-filled screed penned in loopy cursive on a flowery sheet of personalized stationery). It’s easy to forget that the themes and narratives ingrained in our culture come from somewhere, and are reinforced again and again by individual thought and action.