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THE BATTLE OF DETROIT AND ANTI-COMMUNISM IN THE DEPRESSION ERA*

  • ALEX GOODALL (a1)
Abstract
ABSTRACT

This article is an exploration of Diego Rivera's visit to Detroit in 1932–3. It seeks to use his experiences, and in particular the spectacular popular reaction to the Detroit Industry murals he painted, as a prism for analysing varieties of anti-communism in Detroit in the depression era. The article argues that close relationships between private capitalists, most notably Henry Ford and a Mexican communist, expose contradictions in big business's use of anti-communism in the interwar period, and suggest that anti-communism was a more complicated phenomenon than simply a tool for the promotion of ‘free enterprise’. Moreover, by comparing the public reaction to the artists' work with their original intent, it is possible to see how members of Detroit's society unconsciously used anti-communism to sublimate broader concerns over race and ethnicity, gender, politics, and religiosity in a region in the throes of profound social change. The article seeks to highlight elements of these latent anxieties and fears in order to show how anti-communism acted as a vessel for social debate.

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Corresponding author
Department of History, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DDag566@york.ac.uk
Footnotes
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*

I would like to express my thanks to those who have provided advice, comments, criticism, and support during the writing of this article: particularly Tony Badger, Andrew Hemingway, Emily Critchley, Pat Flack, and Robert Tombs and the anonymous reviewers of the Historical Journal.

Footnotes
References
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1 In terms of the murals' position in art history, I defer to Linda Bank Downs, Diego Rivera: the Detroit Industry murals (New York, 1999); Patrick Marnham, Dreaming with his eyes open: a life of Diego Rivera (London, 1998); Desmond Rochfort and Julia Engelhardt, The murals of Diego Rivera (London, 1987).

2 For the political context, see M. J. Heale, McCarthy's Americans: red scare politics in state and nation, 1935–1965 (Basingstoke, 1998).

3 Theodor W. Adorno, The authoritarian personality (New York, 1950); Daniel Bell, The radical right (New York, 1964); Richard Hofstader, The paranoid style in American politics, and other essays (New York, 1965); Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, The politics of unreason; right-wing extremist in America, 1790–1970 (New York, 1970).

4 Nelson Polsby, ‘Towards an explanation of McCarthyism’, Political Studies (October 1960); Earl Latham, The communist controversy in Washington: from the New Deal to McCarthy (Cambridge, MA, 1966); David Caute, The great fear: the anti-communist purge under Truman and Eisenhower (London, 1978); Mary S. McAuliffe, Crisis on the left: Cold War politics and American liberals, 1947–1954 (Amherst, 1978); Kenneth O'Reilly, Hoover and the un-Americans: the FBI, HUAC, and the Red Menace (Philadelphia, 1983); Regin Schmidt, Red scare: FBI and the origins of anticommunism in the United States (Copenhagen, 2000).

5 M. J. Heale, American anticommunism: combating the enemy within, 1830–1970 (Baltimore, 1990); Heale, McCarthy's Americans; Alan Brinkley, Voices of protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York, 1982); Leo Ribuffo, The old Christian right: the Protestant far right from the Great Depression to the Cold War (Philadelphia, 1983); M. J. Heale, ‘Beyond the “Age of McCarthy”: anticommunism and the historians’, in Melvyn Stokes, ed., The state of U.S. history (Oxford, 2002), p. 145.

6 Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The secret world of American communism (New Haven, 1995); John Earl Haynes, Red scare or red menace? American communism and anticommunism in the Cold War era (Chicago, 1996); Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson, The Soviet world of American communism (New Haven, 1998); John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: decoding Soviet espionage in America (New Haven, 1999); Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The haunted wood: Soviet espionage in America – the Stalin era (New York, 1999).

7 Ellen Schrecker, Many are the crimes: McCarthyism in America (Princeton, 1998), p. xiv; Richard Gid Powers, Not without honor: the history of American anticommunism (New York, 1995), pp. 67, 426; Markku Ruotsila, British and American anticommunism before the Cold War (London, 2001), p. xi.

8 See Daniela Spenser, The impossible triangle: Mexico, Soviet Russia, and the United States in the 1920s (London, 1999).

9 Andrew Hemingway, Artists on the left: American artists and the communist movement, 1926–1956 (New Haven, 2000), p. 93; Desmond Rochfort, Mexican muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siquieros (London, 1993), p. 123.

10 Robert Evans, ‘Painting and politics: the case of Diego Rivera’, in New Masses (Feb. 1932).

11 Marnham, Dreaming, p. 249. The California visit occasioned similar anti-communist outrage to the Detroit scandal. See Elizabeth Fuentes Rojas, Diego Rivera en San Francisco (Mexico, 1991); Anthony W. Lee, Painting on the left: Diego Rivera, radical politics and San Francisco's public murals (Berkeley, 1999).

12 Rojas, Diego Rivera en San Francisco, p. 13. My translation.

13 On Ford, see Allan Nevins, Ford: the times, the man, the company (New York, 1954); Allan Nevins and Frank Ernest Hill, Ford: decline and rebirth, 1933–1962 (New York, 1963). Bennett's story can be found in Harry Bennett, We never called him Henry (New York, 1951).

14 The Ford payroll fell from $181 m to $35 m between 1929 and 1933. Laurance P. Hurlburt, The Mexican muralists in the United States (Albuquerque, 1989), p. 133.

15 J. R. Prickett, ‘Communists and the communist issue in the American labor movement, 1920–1950’ (Ph.D. thesis, UCLA, 1975), p. 117.

16 Theodore Draper, American communism and Soviet Russia (New York, 1960), p. 188.

17 For the CPUSA reaction, see Felix Morrow, ‘Class war in Detroit’, New Masses (May 1932).

18 ‘Edsel Ford: artistic industrialist’, The Dearborn Herald, 8 (Spring 1979).

19 Marnham, Dreaming, p. 256.

20 Ibid., p. 258; Hayden Herrera, Frida: a biography of Frida Kahlo (London, 1998), p. 134.

21 Albert Lee, Henry Ford and the Jews (New York, 1980), p. 14. Also see Neil Baldwin, Henry Ford and the Jews: the mass production of hate (New York, 2001).

22 Ford, in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, My life and work (London, 1924), p. 251.

23 Ford, in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, Today and tomorrow (London, 1926), p. 24.

24 Diego Rivera, My art, my life: an autobiography (New York, 1991), p. 111. Henceforth MAML.

25 On artistic representations of the Ford plants, see Mary Jane Jacobs, Linda Downs et al., The Rouge (Detroit, 1978).

26 Rivera, MAML, pp. 112–14.

27 Ibid., p. 115.

28 Karl Marx, The communist manifesto (London, 1998; first edn 1848), p. 38.

29 Bertram D. Wolfe, The fabulous life of Diego Rivera (London, 1968), p. 307.

30 Evidence suggests Ford was in negotiations with Soviet representatives as early as 1919, whilst it was still illegal to export to Russia. See Edward Jay Epstein, Dossier: the secret history of Armand Hammer (London, 1996); Joseph Finder, Red curtain (New York, 1983); Mira Wilkins and Frank Ernest Hill, American business abroad: Ford on six continents (Detroit, 1964).

31 Benson Ford Research Centre, Henry Ford Museum, Accession 65, Reminiscences of W. J. Cameron (Draft, 1952), p. 26.

32 Dearborn Independent, 13 June 1925, pp. 4–5, 26 Oct. 1926, p. 11, 6 Nov. 1926, p. 10.

33 William Adams Simonds, Henry Ford: a biography (London, 1946), p. 193.

34 Cited in Rochfort, Mexican muralists, p. 8.

35 Alicia Azuela, ‘Rivera and the concept of proletarian art’, in Cynthia Newman Helms, ed., Diego Rivera: a retrospective (New York, 1986), p. 125.

36 Biancamaria Tedeschini Lalli, ‘“Art as a weapon” as a popular issue: Detroit's reception of Diego Rivera's murals’, in Rob Kroes and Alessandro Portelli, eds., Social change and new modes of expression: the United States, 1910–1930 (Amsterdam, 1986), pp. 203–20.

37 Detroit Free Press, 17 Mar. 1933.

38 See MacKinley Helm, Modern Mexican painters (New York, 1941), p. 54.

39 Rivera, MAML, p. 116.

40 Detroit Free Press, 20 Mar. 1933.

41 Detroit News, 19 Mar. 1933.

42 Cited in Lalli, ‘ “Art as a weapon”’, p. 211.

43 Detroit Free Press, 21 Mar. 1933.

44 Ibid., 17 Mar. 1933.

45 Detroit News, 21 Mar. 1933.

46 Quoted in Hurlburt, Mexican muralists in the United States, p. 158.

47 Wolfe, The fabulous life of Diego Rivera, p. 311; Rivera, MAML, p. 119; Downs, The Detroit Industry murals, p. 175; Detroit Free Press, 21 Mar. 1933; Donald Lochbiler, ‘Battle of the Garden Court’, Detroit News, n.d., http://info.detnews.com/history/story/index.cfm?id=187&category=locations [accessed 11 Apr. 2005].

48 Downs, The Detroit Industry murals, p. 176.

49 Rivera, MAML, p. 120.

50 See also Rivera's comments in Detroit News, 19 Mar. 1933.

51 Wolfe, The fabulous life of Diego Rivera, pp. 310–11. A similar quip is found in Wolfe's text in, Diego Rivera, Portrait of America (New York, 1934), p. 52. Henceforth Rivera, POA.

52 Rivera, MAML, p. 117.

53 For example, Francis McCullagh, Red Mexico (New York, 1928).

54 Reminiscences of Reinhold Niebuhr (1953), Columbia Oral History Project, Columbia University, pp. 28–9.

55 On Coughlin's changeable relations with Ford, see Charles J. Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal (New York, 1965); Sheldon Marcus, Father Coughlin: the tumultuous life of the priest of the Little Flower (Boston, 1973); Brinkley, Voices of protest; Donald Warren, Radio priest: Charles Coughlin, the father of hate radio (New York, 1996).

56 Rivera, POA, p. 13.

57 Ibid., p. 18.

58 Max Kozloff, ‘The Rivera frescoes of modern industry at the Detroit Institute of Arts: proletarian art under capitalist patronage’, in Henry A. Millon and Linda Nochlin, Art and architecture in the service of politics (Cambridge, MA, 1978), p. 224.

59 Wolfe, The fabulous life of Diego Rivera, p. 307.

60 Rochfort, Mexican muralists, p. 130.

61 Detroit Free Press, 21 Mar. 1933.

62 On conditions of Ford workers, see Sidney Fine, The automobile under the blue eagle: labor, management and the automobile manufacturing code (Ann Arbor, 1963); Roger Keeran. The Communist Party and the auto workers unions (Bloomington, 1980); Nelson Lichtenstein and August Meier, On the line: essays in the history of auto work (Detroit, 1976); August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, Black Detroit and the rise of the auto workers (Oxford, 1979).

63 Cited in Marnham, Dreaming, pp. 254–5.

64 Azuela, in Helms, ed., Diego Rivera, p. 127.

65 New York Times, 14 Dec. 1931; also cited in Wolfe, The fabulous life of Diego Rivera, p. 276.

66 Barbara Braun, Pre-Columbian art and the post-Columbian world: ancient American sources of modern art (New York, 2000), pp. 215–34; Downs, The Detroit Industry murals, pp. 142–4.

67 Marnham, Dreaming, p. 262.

68 Clinansmith Michael S., ‘The Black Legion: hooded Americanism in Michigan’, Michigan History, 55 (Fall 1971), pp. 243–62.

69 Alejandro Portes and Robert L. Bach, Latin journey: Cuban and Mexican immigrants in the United States (Berkeley, 1985).

70 Nodín Valdés Dennis, ‘Mexican revolutionary nationalism and repatriation during the depression’, Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, 4 (Winter 1988), p. 3; Zaragosa Vargas, Proletarians of the north: a history of Mexican industrial workers in Detroit and the Midwest, 1917–1933 (Berkeley, 1993), pp. 21, 51.

71 Emory S. Bogardus, The Mexican in the United States (New York, 1970; 1st edn, 1934), pp. 17, 65–6.

72 Cited in Valdés, ‘Mexican revolutionary nationalism’, p. 11.

73 Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, Decade of betrayal: Mexican repatriation in the 1930s (Alburquerque, 2006), p. 173.

74 Vargas, Proletarians of the north, pp. 185–6.

75 Cited in Manuel Gamio, The Mexican immigrant: his life story (Chicago, 1931), pp. 227–9.

76 Detroit Free Press, 17 Mar. 1933.

77 Detroit News, 21 Mar. 1933.

78 Lochbiler, ‘Battle of the Garden Court’.

79 Margaret Sterne, The passionate eye: the life of William R. Valentiner (Detroit, 1980), p. 201.

80 Detroit Free Press, 21 Mar. 1933.

81 Ibid., 17 Mar. 1933.

82 Ibid., 21 Mar. 1933.

83 Downs, The Detroit Industry murals, pp. 176, 180.

84 Rivera, MAML, p. 118.

85 Pierrot George F., ‘Frescoes and finance at the DIA’, The Dearborn Herald, 8 (Fall 1979).

86 Downs, The Detroit Industry murals, p. 178.

87 Rivera, POA, p. 18.

88 For a general discussion of the New Deal murals and Rivera's legacy, see Belisario Contreras, Tradition and innovation in New Deal art (London, 1983); Karal Ann Marling, Wall-to-wall America: a cultural history of Post Office murals in the Great Depression (Minneapolis, 1982); Barbara Melosh, Engendering culture: manhood and womanhood in New Deal public art and theater (Washington, DC, 1991); Richard D. McKinzie, The New Deal for artists (Princeton, 1973); Francis V. O'Connor, ‘The influence of Diego Rivera on the arts of the United States during the 1930s and after’, in Helms, ed., Diego Rivera; Francis V. O'Connor, ed., Art for the millions (Boston, MA, 1973).

89 George Biddle, An American artist's life (Boston, 1939), p. 268.

90 Cited in Contreras, Tradition and innovation, p. 51; Biddle's recollection also in Marling, Wall-to-wall America, p. 42.

91 Philip Evergood, ‘Concerning mural painting’, in O'Connor, ed., Art for the millions, p. 49.

92 Marling, Wall-to-wall America, p. 46; Contreras, Tradition and innovation, p. 46.

93 Cited in McKinzie, New Deal for artists, p. 57.

94 Barbara Melosh has written, ‘The absence of automobile manufacture in public art in the very heart of Ford and General Motors territory speaks volumes about Section cultural policy.’ Melosh, Engendering culture, p. 121.

95 Compare, for example the reactions to Rockwell Kent's Puerto Rican Post Office mural, or the NCWC reaction to Maurice Sterne's Cruelty. Contreras, Tradition and innovation, pp. 51–5.

* I would like to express my thanks to those who have provided advice, comments, criticism, and support during the writing of this article: particularly Tony Badger, Andrew Hemingway, Emily Critchley, Pat Flack, and Robert Tombs and the anonymous reviewers of the Historical Journal.

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