In 1954, Junius Irving Scales, a white Southerner with a Confederate family background, was arrested by the FBI and tried and jailed for violating the Smith Act. He neither engaged in espionage nor violence. Still, the law made it unlawful to belong to any organization that championed violence against the federal government. Membership alone served to convict him since he was a district organizer in North and South Carolina for the Communist Party. He ultimately served 15 months of a 6-year penalty before President John F. Kennedy commuted his sentence, though he was never pardoned.
When sentenced, his hometown newspaper gloated, “He got what he deserved.” Thankfully, the Daily Tarheel, the University of North Carolina’s student newspaper had more sense and courage. “It is next to impossible for a Communist to be tried justly today in the United States…In the Greensboro trial, a long troop of excited witnesses, paid performers, spies, and incompetent press reporting have made the outcome, as the informed expected, all but inevitable.”
Cause at Heart was originally published in 1987 by the University of Georgia Press and has now been reissued in paperback with a new foreword – three years after Scales’ death in 2002 and long after he left the Party.
Born in 1920, the son of a Greensboro, North Carolina, textile mill owner, Scales seemingly always sided with blacks who dominated the miniscule southern wing of the party. He writes that he refused to accept the racism, humiliations and violence directed at blacks in his native south. The Party reached out to as many blacks as they could recruit but also tried to organize white workers in southern textile towns and coalfields. But while the Party took the side of blacks and striking working class whites, their myopia and inflexibility led its members to follow without question a corrupted Party leadership and its dedicated followers. They wrote and spoke in support of the widespread purges and executions of Old Bolsheviks and others in the thirties, hailed the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact (Molotov, posing as von Ribbentrop’s friend, declared, “fascism was a matter of taste”) and rationalized the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1940.
When, for example, Trotskyists were charged with violating the Smith Act in 1940, the Party supported the prosecution until their own leaders were indicted under the identical law. Not until Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin’s crimes in 1956 at the Soviet 20th Party Congress and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 did Scales and other party members understand that their dreams had been betrayed.
Despite their “misplaced trust” in the Party’s “ half-baked ideological mishmash” he had enormous affection and respect for his southern Party colleagues. Sadly, those who could not or would not quit, in spite of repeated betrayals, “hopefully followed their blind DO (district organizers) as I followed my blind leaders—most of us bound for disastrous disillusionment.” When that finally happened Party members fled, some with regret and others in anger.
Scales’ memoir is the voice of an unassuming and decent but thoroughly disenchanted utopian. All the same, there are memorable moments throughout his book. His scared academic advisor who rejected his proposal to write a Master’s thesis about Eugene V. Debs (jailed by Woodrow Wilson for opposing the draft during World War I and eventually freed by Warren Harding), his inability to convince frightened witnesses to testify on his behalf, or find attorneys willing to defend him in court, the smarmy, professional ex-Communist witnesses paid by the FBI to testify in court and his incarceration in a federal penitentiary.
John Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Ronald Radosh are certainly correct that some party members were spying for the Soviets. But at the same time, as Michael Ybarra shrewdly noted in his book, Washington Gone Mad, “There actually were Communists in Washington. But it was the hunt for them that did the real damage"-- especially when the victims were neither violent nor spies.
George Clooney’s recent film about Edward R. Murrow and Joe McCarthy, “Goodnight and Good Luck,” may teach contemporary audiences about McCarthyism, but all of us need to be reminded again and again how politicians, the media and nearly everyone else were once too frightened to challenge the authoritarians, bullies and opportunists during those dreadful years, especially those who tormented Junius Irving Scales.