A Legless Veteran's Struggle
— Barry Sheppard
Discrediting the Red Scare —
The Cold War Trials of James Kutcher, “The Legless Veteran”
By Robert Goldstein
University of Kansas Press, 240 pages, 2016, $19.95 paperback.
THE ANTI-COMMUNIST witch hunt that reached its most virulent level in the 1950s but continued for many years after is usually referred to as “McCarthyism,” named for Senator Joseph McCarthy. Robert Goldstein’s extremely well researched book explains that the “Red Scare” in its title actually began earlier, with the passage of the Smith Act in 1940 and the 1941 conviction of leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and the Minneapolis Teamsters under that act, for “advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.”
Much of the history of the Red Scare is not broadly well-known today.
Many readers may have heard of the “Hollywood Ten,” movie screen writers who were blacklisted as Communist Party members or supporters, or seen the film “Trumbo” about one of these screen writers, or be aware of how the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and Alger Hiss were caught up in it. But the victims of the Red Scare were not only leaders of the SWP and CP and well-known figures at the time. Many rank-and-file members of these and other organizations were targeted.
This book covers the ten-year struggle by one such individual, James Kutcher, against his own persecution by the U.S. government. He would later write that he was an “ordinary man” with “no special talents” and no special “capacity for leadership.” His struggle was finally victorious in 1958, and was important in helping discredit the Red Scare, as the title says.
Kutcher joined the Young Peoples Socialist League, the youth wing of the Socialist Party, in 1936 during the Great Depression. This was when the Trotskyists were also members of the SP and YPSL.
The majority leaders of the SP began to adapt to the CP’s class collaborationist policy known as the “Peoples Front” promulgated by Stalin internationally, which in the United States took the form of supporting the Democratic Party. The Trotskyists opposed this course, which led to a split in the SP, with the Trotskyists and many new supporters from the SP then establishing the Socialist Workers Party in 1938.
Kutcher was one of those young YPSL members who were part of the new SWP.
Wartime Casualty, Postwar Firing
In the Second World War, Kutcher was drafted into the Army. In November 1943, he lost both legs to German mortar fire in the Battle of San Pietro, Italy, and was awarded the Purple Heart. He underwent a long period of recovery, which included being fitted for artificial legs, and learned to walk with canes.
In 1946, he was hired by the Veterans Administration (VA) as a file clerk, a job that made him feel a productive member of society in spite of his disability. The small salary helped him take care of his parents.
In March 1947, as a domestic aspect of the Cold War against the Soviet Union initiated by Washington and London, President Truman created a “loyalty” program for federal employees to weed out “subversives.” In December of that year the Attorney General made public a “List of Subversive Organizations” under Truman’s loyalty program. The list included the CP and the SWP.
The following year Kutcher was fired for his membership in the SWP. He consulted SWP leaders he was close to. After considering the pros and cons of fighting for his job, including hardships and public scrutiny that his friends in the SWP warned he was likely to face, he decided to fight. He was motivated by the job’s importance to him personally, and “because it was the right thing to do.”
The SWP helped set up a broad defense organization, the Kutcher Civil Rights Committee (KCRC) to publicize the case and raise funds for lawyers and other legal expenses.
The bulk of Goldstein’s book is a detailed description of this fight. The viciousness of the government’s assault is horrifying, but the fight against it is inspiring. Goldstein uses hitherto classified documents, including FBI and Department of Justice files, the proceedings of various VA boards, court proceedings, files of the KCRC, and extensive coverage in the press.
There were many ups and downs in the case, initially mostly downs, with Kutcher’s firing upheld in the main. From the beginning, the government’s case rested solely on his membership in the SWP, which Kutcher always openly and proudly declared. This distinguished him from many Communist Party witch hunt victims, who refused to affirm their CP membership.
Kutcher’s main defense was that the government violated his right of free association by holding his SWP membership against him, and his right to his socialist beliefs. The government would often refer to the 1941 Smith Act trial in defense of its actions.
In 1952 the government attacked him on another front, using a witch hunt law that banned families with any members in organizations on the Attorney General’s list from federally subsidized housing, which meant that he and his parents would have to leave their apartment. This was eventually overturned after a public outcry.
In 1955, the VA told him his WWII disability benefits would be suspended, a big blow because that could take away not only his disability pension which he and his ailing parents relied on, but also his medical care (which he continued to need, including operations on his legs), his VA-supplied car with special equipment so he could drive using his hands, and even his artificial legs and canes. This too was overturned after a fight.
Finally, in June 1956 he won his job back. But then he had to fight for the back pay he was owed because of his suspension from his job for seven years. The government’s argument against this was the same old one, his continued membership in the SWP which was on the Attorney General’s list. The government was forced to grant his back pay in 1958 — 10 years after his ordeal began.
The book ends with a brief description of James Kutcher’s expulsion from the SWP in 1983. He was tried on a trumped up charge, one of many such internal trials that became a feature of SWP life in this period, which were designed to terrorize the membership, consolidating the dominance of a cult around SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes.
This cult gradually emerged over a number of years. His expulsion was part of a purge of dissidents that was one aspect of the degeneration of the party.*
Lessons of a Struggle
At the age of 22, I joined the SWP at the end of 1959, and learned about the case. Like many new members I read the book Kutcher authored in 1953, during the fight, called “The Case of the Legless Veteran,” so I knew something about it. But Goldstein’s book has opened my eyes to many new (to me) aspects of it, some formerly kept secret as classified:
• The head of the FBI, the notorious J. Edgar Hoover (the FBI building in Washington D.C. is still named after this evil persecutor of communists, socialists, civil rights activists and homosexuals) took the case personally in hand. In May 1948, Hoover instructed the field office in Newark (where Kutcher lived) to “open a full field investigation” of Kutcher on the basis of reports that he “had been visiting the SWP headquarters daily and performing clerical duties,” as well as “participating in meetings and other functions of the SWP.” Hoover also directed the FBI Washington office to “review the files of pertinent Government agencies” and asked the St. Louis office to examine Kutcher’s army personnel records.
Goldstein writes, “Correctly anticipating that the Kutcher case might prove highly sensitive and reflecting his notorious sensitivity to criticism, Hoover noted that Kutcher had ‘lost both legs in action in Italy,’ and cautioned that due to his ‘physical condition’ resulting from his wartime service ‘this case should be assigned to an experienced Agent’ and ‘each interview should be conducted in a discreet and circumspect manner so that no criticism can be directed at the Bureau.’”
• The case for Kutcher gained wide support from unions in the first years. Over 300 union bodies at the state and local level endorsed his fight. This is especially striking today, when the labor movement bureaucracy shies away from supporting victims of today’s witch hunt against Muslims, and supports the Patriot Act. But as anticommunism increased in the 1950s, this support dropped off, a reflection of the labor bureaucracy’s increasing support for U.S. imperialism in the Cold War, at home with drives against militants in the unions, and against unions in other countries Washington considered too left.
• The massive coverage in the major newspaper, which the book documents, dwarfed many other cases such as those of Hiss and Oppenheimer. It stirred the nation’s conscience at a time when too few followed their better instincts.
• Kutcher played a key role in his own defense. From a self-described “ordinary man” he became an accomplished public speaker in front of hundreds of organizations and meetings. He went on two national speaking tours, one in 1949 and one in 1956. Throughout the fight even when he faced possible terrible consequences, especially the threat that his parents would be evicted, and the possible loss of his veteran’s benefits, he persevered.
• The reports of informers in the SWP or attendees at public meetings at first seemed to me to be ridiculous in their mundaneness. Most were things like reporting that he attended an SWP meeting, signed a petition to put SWP candidates on the ballot, was seen collecting contributions at a public forum, attended an SWP convention, spoke at such and such a meeting in his defense, etc. etc.
But then I realized this was all “proof” of the government’s main charge that he was an active SWP member, something he not only never denied but proudly proclaimed was his right. There were a few informer reports that were completely outlandish, such as he supposedly shouted out at a meeting that the SWP would kill all people in the government. Probably the informer thought this fiction was what the FBI wanted to hear.
A Non-sectarian Campaign
Something that was not surprising to me was the detailed description of how the KCRC functioned. Supporters endorsed only Kutcher’s civil rights, not his political views or his party. Finances of the KCRC were kept strictly separated from those of the SWP, and were only used for the defense, for such things as lawyer’s fees, legal documents, travel expenses related to the defense, and so forth.
This principle characterized all defense movements the SWP supported, whether of its own members or other class struggle fighters. This was the legacy of the International Labor Defense (ILD) formed by the early U.S. Communist Party in the 1920s.
The head of the ILD was James P. Cannon, until he was expelled with others from the CP for Trotskyism in 1928. One of his collaborators in the ILD was Max Shachtman, who helped Cannon form the first Trotskyist group after the expulsions. The Stalinists would break with this legacy.
Another ILD legacy was that it would defend all workers who were victims of capitalist “justice” regardless of political differences. This went back to earlier workers’ organizations under the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
The Stalinists would break with that principle too. As Goldstein notes, they did not defend the first Smith Act defendants in 1941. In contrast, the SWP came to the defense of the CP’s Smith Act victims after the war. The CP also did not defend Kutcher.
Goldstein has not only resurrected the “Case of the Legless Veteran,” he has produced the exhaustive and definitive history of this aspect of the Red Scare. It is written in a clear style, not encumbered with academic language.
This book contains many lessons for those today who would oppose the current attacks on civil liberties under the rubric of the “War on Terror,” from the Patriot Act to the police and FBI infiltration of Muslim organizations and mosques to surveillance of antiwar, Black Lives Matter and other dissident movements.
*For a further explanation of the degeneration of the SWP, see Volume Two of my political memoir about the SWP, Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988. It includes a chapter on my own complicity in this degeneration.
September-October 2016, ATC 184