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Building a Left Coast: The Legacy of the California Popular Front and the Challenge to Cold War Liberalism in the Post-World War II Era


The Cold War in the late 1940s blunted attempts by the Truman administration to extend the scope of government in areas such as health care and civil rights. In California, the combined weakness of the Democratic Party in electoral politics and the importance of fellow travelers and communists in state liberal politics made the problem of how to advance the left at a time of heightened Cold War tensions particularly acute. Yet by the early 1960s a new generation of liberal politicians had gained political power in the Golden State and was constructing a greatly expanded welfare system as a way of cementing their hold on power. In this article I argue that the New Politics of the 1970s, shaped nationally by Vietnam and by the social upheavals of the 1960s over questions of race, gender, sexuality, and economic rights, possessed particular power in California because many activists drew on the longer-term experiences of a liberal politics receptive to earlier anti-Cold War struggles. A desire to use political involvement as a form of social networking had given California a strong Popular Front, and in some respects the power of new liberalism was an offspring of those earlier battles.

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1 J. Roosevelt, speech at the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, Roosevelt MSS, Box 239, Commonwealth Club file.

2 See Bell Jonathan, The Liberal State on Trial: The Cold War and American Politics in the Truman Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

3 See Dudziak Mary L., Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Plummer Brenda Gayle, ed., Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945–1988 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Borstelmann Thomas, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

4 See Brick Howard, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006); Mattson Kevin, When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (New York: Routledge, 2006); Rossinow Doug, Visions of Progress: The Left–Liberal Tradition in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). One criticism of Rossinow's otherwise excellent book, tellingly, is that it barely touches on the foreign-policy element of the American left's turbulent history in the twentieth century: see Geary Daniel, “Left Out,” Reviews in American History, 37, 1 (March 2009), 8592.

5 See Hurewitz Daniel, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

6 Kent Roger, “Building the Democratic Party in California, 1954–1966,” Bancroft Regional Oral History Office (1981), 19.

7 See Mayhew David, Placing Parties in American Politics: Organization, Electoral Settings, and Government Activity in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

8 Frank Furstenberg to James Loeb, 4 Feb. 1946, ADA MSS, Cambridge University Library, reel 57, no. 5.

9 Art Arthur to editor, New Republic, 12 June 1946, ADA MSS, reel 57, no. 5.

10 James Loeb to Art Arthur, 1 July 1946; Harold Shapiro to James Loeb, 20 June 1946, ADA MSS, reel 57, no. 5.

11 James Roosevelt to J. Howard McGrath, 19 Oct. 1947, Roosevelt MSS, Box 196, McGrath file.

12 To take one example, Claude Welch, a leading Democrat in LA who had managed FDR's 1940 campaign in the city and ran for LA State Senator in 1946, argued this exact point in a letter to Harold Ickes when the latter was heavily involved in debates over what to do about the unravelling Popular Front. See Welch to Ickes, 4 Oct. 1946, Ickes MSS, Box 71, liberals 1946–7 file.

13 Address by Henry Wallace, Commodore Hotel, New York, 21 Sept. 1948, Harold Ickes MSS, Box 91, Henry Wallace 1946–7 file.

14 Address by C. B. Baldwin, Commodore Hotel, 21 Sept. 1948, Ickes MSS, Box 91, Wallace 1946–7 file.

15 Meeting of LA branch of NCPAC, 29 March 1946, Film City Playhouse, Hollywood, Ickes MSS, Box 83, Russia 1946–51 file.

16 Nathalie Panek to Bob Greenock, 28 June 1946; Harry Girvetz to Panek, 28 Sept. 1946, ADA MSS, reel 57, no. 5.

17 Panek to David Williams, 20 May 1954, ADA MSS, reel 58, no. 7.

18 Statement of policy of the California Democratic Party, 1947, Roosevelt MSS, Box 189, Democratic State Central Committee file.

19 McDonough to Jim Farley, 20 Dec. 1948, McDonough MSS, Box 1, outgoing letters 1948 file.

20 “Roosevelt blasts at third party,” Tacoma Sunday Ledger News Tribune, 14 March 1948, Roosevelt MSS, Box 214, third party file. For ample evidence of anti-Roosevelt stirrings on the party's right, see McDonough MSS, outgoing letters 1948 file and 1950–51 file.

21 KECA radio broadcast, 11 June 1950, Roosevelt MSS, Box 233, Roosevelt for Governor committee file.

22 Memorandum, action program of J. Roosevelt, Roosevelt MSS, Box 229, memoranda and personnel data.

23 Patrick McDonough to Welburn Maycock, 8 March 1950, McDonough MSS, Box 1, outgoing letters 1950–51 file.

24 Survey of political attitudes, conducted by Executive Research Inc., July 1949 and July 1950, Roosevelt MSS, Box 252.

25 Final report of the workshop conference at Asilomar, 30 Jan.–1 Feb. 1953, Zetterberg MSS, California State Archives, Box 1, Democratic by-laws 1953 file.

26 Paul Seabury to Sam Beer, National ADA chairman, nd, probably 1959, ADA MSS, reel 57, no. 5.

27 Robert K. Barber to Alan Cranston, 11 Feb. 1957, Cranston MSS, Box 10, CDC president file '57.

28 Democratic Conference on Issues, California Young Democrats, 1957, Phil Burton MSS, Box 16, 1950s file.

29 Alan Cranston, “Why We Cannot Recognize Red China – Nor Admit Her to UN,” 11 Dec. 1957, Cranston MSS, Box 12, CDC China file.

30 President of West Beverly Club, West Beverly Bray newsletter, June 1958, CDC MSS, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Los Angeles, Box 25, file 12. For a larger treatment of the West Beverly Club, see Bell Jonathan, “Social Democracy and the Rise of the Democratic Party in California,” Historical Journal, 49, 2 (2006), 497524.

31 West Beverly Bray, Feb. 1959, CDC MSS, Box 25, file 12; Memorandum, Marshall Windmiller to Marvin Schachter, 26th CD Democratic Party, 30 Aug. 1960, CDC MSS, Box 27, file 8.

32 See D'Emilio John, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970, 2nd edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 5866.

33 Ibid., 60.

34 Mattachine Review, Jan.–Feb. 1955; Promotional memorandum on launch of MR, 1954, Don Lucas MSS, GLBT Historical Society, San Francisco, Box 5, file 20.

35 1959 Mattachine convention program, 4–7 Sept. 1959, Lucas MSS, Box 3, file 6.

36 Ed Lybeck to James Roosevelt, 22 July 1958, Roosevelt MSS, Box 302, California political 1958 file.

37 Democratic Party Issues conference, 3 Aug. 1958, CDC MSS, Box 31, file 2.

38 See, for example, research paper for CFYD “The foreign policy proposals of Acheson, Kennan, and Bowles,” March 1959, CDC MSS, Box 18, file 5.

39 Pierre Salinger of US Senator press release, 12 May 1964, California Democratic Party MSS, Box 4, 1964 campaigns file.

40 Liberal Democrat, June 1964, 1.

41 See Californians for Liberal Representation press release, 22 Feb. 1964, CLR policy positions, Cranston MSS, Box 503, CDC convention file.

42 Rally for Cranston and James Roosevelt, Hamilton High School, 26 May 1964, Cranston MSS, ibid.

43 Cranston press release of speech at San Bernardino, 28 May 1964; press release of speech at Baptist Ministers’ Council, Los Angeles, 12 May 1964, Cranston MSS, Box 503, ibid.

44 There is a large file of letters to Cranston upset at his defeat, and also some in November saying that they wrote his name on the ballot or were tempted to vote Republican in protest at Salinger's candidacy. See, for instance, Allyn Kreps to Cranston, 9 Nov. 1964; Cranston to Kreps, 25 Nov. 1964, Cranston MSS, Box 503, correspondence file.

45 “Scheer takes a stand,” campaign leaflet, Cohelan MSS, Box 6, file 27.

46 Scheer campaign material, Cohelan MSS, Box 6, file 23.

47 Robert Pickus, “Peace Politics, the New Left and the Pity of It All,” essay in Cohelan MSS, Box 6, file 25.

48 Rorabaugh William, Berkeley at War: The 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 101.

49 Stein Buddy and Wellman David, “The Scheer campaign,” Studies on the Left, Jan./Feb. 1967, Social Protest MSS, UC Berkeley, microfilm reel 73.

50 Carolyn Craven, Buddy Stein, Dave Wellman, “Notes from the Underground: A Critique of the Scheer Program,” nd, Social Protest MSS, reel 72.

51 Scheer for Congress letter, Social Protest MSS, reel 72.

52 See “Brown's Active Political History,” in News from Californians for Brown, Nov.–Dec. 1973, Social Protest MSS, reel 74.

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Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
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