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“An Object Lesson in Americanism”: Performing Cultural Amnesia in Mosinee's Communist Invasion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 August 2019


On 1 May 1950, a communist army invaded the small town of Mosinee in central Wisconsin. Occupying communist soldiers dragged Mayor Ralph E. Kronenwetter from his home at six that morning, interrogated and executed Police Chief Carl Gewess, and exiled other religious, civic, and political leaders to the stockade. They ransacked citizens’ homes and raided the public library in search of capitalist propaganda. Cars parked across the local train tracks isolated the town. Roadblocks disrupted travel, and armed soldiers demanded identification cards from anyone hoping to enter or leave Mosinee. Within hours, the paper mill, the newspaper, and other local businesses had fallen to the invading communist army. Food prices tripled and ration cards were required to purchase potato soup, borscht, and black bread. Nearly half the town—more than a thousand of the twenty-two hundred total Mosinee residents—marched in a parade that led to the town square, renamed “Red Square” by the invaders. The townspeople carried red flags and banners espousing famous communist ideology (Fig. 1). The Red Star, a special edition of the Mosinee Times, issued the official “United Soviet States of America” manifesto and abolished the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Copyright © American Society for Theatre Research 2019 

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My sincere thanks to Chris Woodworth, Sara Freeman, Stuart Hecht, my ASTR working-group colleagues, Marlis Schweitzer, and the two anonymous Theatre Survey readers; their comments and support have been invaluable.



1. Quoted in “Mosinee's May Day Ends on Note of Relationship between Christianity and Democracy,” Mosinee Times, 3 May 1950, 1, 10, at 1.

2. Joseph A. Saracini, “The Fall of Mosinee, Wisconsin,” Mosinee Times, 3 May 1950, 3.

3. It Happened One Day in Mosinee: Wisconsin City Residents Get a Peek at the Iron Curtain,” American Legion Magazine 48 (June 1950): 32Google Scholar. The title of this article parodies Sinclair Lewis's semisatirical 1935 novel, It Can't Happen Here.

4. Zimmerman, G. F., “Iron Curtain Day: Citizens of Mosinee, Wisconsin Stage ‘Communist Coup’ on May Day,” Harvester World 41.5 (May 1950): 611Google Scholar, at 6.

5. The Red Star 1.1 (1 May 1950). In addition to its inclusion in the microfilm of the Mosinee Times, this special issue is available in the collection “American Legion. Wisconsin Records, 1919–1969” at the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Benjamin Gitlow Papers at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

6. Fried, Richard M., The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): 72–3Google Scholar.

7. Schneider, Rebecca, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011), 9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8. Pine, B. Joseph II and Gilmore, James H., The Experience Economy, rev. ed. (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

9. Magelssen, Scott, Simming: Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Alvarez, Natalie, Immersions in Cultural Difference: Tourism, War, Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10. Zimmerman, 6.

11. See “object, n.,OED Online, December 2018, Oxford University Press;, accessed 23 February 2019.

12. “Legion's ‘Red Coup’ at Mosinee Smashes across Face of World,” Badger Legionnaire 27.6 (June 1950): 1–2, at 1. The Badger Legionnaire lists thirty-seven specific news outlets as part of the “known line-up” covering the mock invasion, including the following: newspapers—Detroit News, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Sentinel, Milwaukee Journal, Minneapolis Star, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Houston Chronicle; radio—WFHR in Wisconsin Rapids, WWJ in Detroit, and WTMJ in Milwaukee; radio networks—CBS, NBC, and Mutual; newsreels—Paramount News, News of the Day, Fox Movietone, Universal News, and Warner–Pathé News; television—NBC and WWJ.

13. “News Coverage for ‘May Day’ Greatest in City's History,” Mosinee (Wisconsin) Times, 26 April 1950, 1.

14. Figures are based on records in Newspaper Archive: Academic Library Edition, which includes many small, local newspapers and periodicals, and excludes most national and international newspapers and magazines.

15. While invasion by communists and nuclear war are certainly not the same thing, I group them here as part of a similar practice of using the elements of rehearsal and performance to train citizens to respond to civic dangers in particular ways. Davis, Tracy C., Stages of Emergency: Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 23–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 106–7.

16. Original typography is indicated throughout all such quotations. “It Happened One Day in Mosinee, Schedule of Events,” Benjamin Gitlow Papers, 1918–1963, Box 5, Folder 5, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University [hereafter Gitlow, HIA].

17. Benjamin Gitlow, quoted in “Mosinee Seized by Reds: Security Police Stage Coup while City Sleeps,” Wausau (Wisconsin) Daily Record-Herald, 1 May 1950, 1.

18. “It Happened One Day in Mosinee, Schedule,” Gitlow, HIA. For photos of some of the day's events, see “U.S. Town Stages a Communist Coup,” Life 28.20 (15 May 1950): 46–7.

19. “It Happened One Day in Mosinee, Schedule,” Gitlow, HIA.

20. “Mosinee's May Day Ends,” 1, 10.

21. Paul F. Thielen to Francis Schweinler, 2 February 1950, American Legion, Wisconsin Records, 1919–1969, Wisconsin Historical Society [hereafter American Legion, WR/WHS].

22. Quoted from handwritten note addressed to Paul Thielen on copy of letter. Francis F. Schweinler to various, 8 April 1950, American Legion, WR/WHS. Paul F. Thielen to G. E. Sipple, 13 April 1950, American Legion, WR/WHS.

23. N. S. Stone to employees, memorandum, 28 April 1950, Mosinee Historical Papers, Joseph Dessert Public Library, Marathon County Public Library at Mosinee.

24. Quoted in Barry Adams, “On Wisconsin: Communism for a Day, a May Day Remembered in Mosinee,” Wisconsin State Journal, 4 May 2014;, accessed 25 May 2018.

25. Zimmerman, 9.

26. Jack McPhaul, “May Day in Wisconsin: ‘Red Dictatorship’ Rules a Town,” Chicago Sun-Times, 2 May 1950, 9, 22, 23, at 9.

27. Worker, politician, author, and activist, Benjamin Gitlow was a founder of the US Communist Labor Party, two-time candidate for vice-president on the Communist Party ticket (1924, 1928), and secretary-general of the Communist Party, USA. Expelled from the Communist Party by Stalin himself, and from the Communist Party, USA, he renounced communism in HUAC testimony and thereafter became a popular lecturer and writer. Kornfeder, a Slovakian tailor who immigrated to the United States, joined the Communist Party in 1919, trained in “political warfare” at Moscow's Lenin School (1927–30), and served as a covert communist agent in Latin America. Like Gitlow, Kornfeder subsequently renounced communism and became a cooperating witness before HUAC. Paul F. Thielen to Francis Schweinler, 3 April 1950, American Legion, WR/WHS; C. P. Trussell, “Stalin Held Responsible for Browder Heading Communists: Charge Supported with Documents,” Baltimore Sun, 9 September 1939, 11; “Peace and Good Will and a Clenched Fist,” New Brunswick (New Jersey) Daily Home News, 9 November 1955, 16; “Reds Fire Up Anti-U.S. Mobs in S. America,” Daily News, 13 October 1959, 10; Zimmerman, 11.

28. Kornfeder, quoted in Zimmerman, 11.

29. As far as I have found, Drengler's firearms were the only weapons to have been seized. Newspapers have been careful to note that the weapons of invading soldiers were unloaded and had the firing pin removed, and unplanned seizures would have presented a safety hazard. McPhaul, “May Day in Wisconsin,” 9; “It Happened One Day in Mosinee, Schedule,” Gitlow, HIA.

30. Zimmerman, 7–10.

31. For context, factory workers in the nearby city of Milwaukee earned between $1.30 and $2.07 per hour, depending on their skill level, particular job, and late-shift incentives, with an average of $1.53. Two-thirds of these employees worked between 37.5 and 40 hours a week, while the rest worked additional hours, typically with the benefit of a shift differential. McPhaul, “May Day in Wisconsin,” 9; US Department of Labor, “Occupational Wage Survey: Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” Bulletin no. 1099, March 1952, 14.

32. The mayor was supposed to make a speech as well, but accounts about whether or not he gave one conflict, owing to the cerebral hemorrhage he suffered that night. Zimmerman, 6.

33. Gillon, Steven M., The American Paradox: A History of the United States since 1945, 3d ed. (Boston: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2013), 10Google Scholar.

34. The Newspaper Archive: Academic Library Edition database is constantly expanding with new material, so these numbers will likely grow as more materials are added.

35. The number of alleged communists within the State Department shifts between 57 (McCarthy) and 205 (some newspapers), depending on the source. Evans, M. Stanton, Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight against America's Enemies (New York: Crown Forum, 2007), 180–90Google Scholar, quote at 180.

36. Fried, 1–9.

37. Ibid., 22–7.

38. “51 Organizations Join to Fight Reds: Represent 80 Million in U.S.,” New York Times, 15 May 1950, 11.

39. The Chicago strike in 1886 preceded two important events in labor history: the 3 May 1886 McCormick Riot in which police fired on strikers, killing at least two; and the Haymarket Square Riot the following day, when a bomb was thrown as police advanced and shots were fired, ending in the deaths of at least seven policemen and four protesters. Haverty-Stacke, Donna T., America's Forgotten Holiday: May Day and Nationalism, 1867–1960 (New York: New York University Press, 2009)Google Scholar, 2, 33; Messer-Kruse, Timothy, “Strike or Anarchist Plot? The McCormick Riot of 1886 Reconsidered,” Labor History 52.4 (2011): 483510Google Scholar.

40. Fabre, Geneviève and Heideking, Jürgen, “Introduction,” in Celebrating Ethnicity and Nation: American Festive Culture from the Revolution to the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Heideking, Jürgen, Fabre, Geneviève, and Dreisbach, Kai (New York: Berghahn Books, 2001), 124Google Scholar, at 2–3.

41. Dennis, Matthew, Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 251Google Scholar; Alexander Feinberg, “750,000 Witness Loyalty Turnout,” New York Times, 2 May 1948, 3.

42. Dennis, 251.

43. Fried, 18–27; Hogan, Michael J., A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 426–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44. Haverty-Stacke, 220.

45. Ibid., citing Dennis, 7.

46. Paul F. Thielen, press release, April 1950, American Legion, WR/WHS.

47. Fried, 180.

48. Erll, Astrid, “Cultural Memory Studies: An Introduction,” in A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies, ed. Erll, Astrid and Nünning, Ansgar (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2010), 115Google Scholar, at 5.

49. Connerton, Paul, How Societies Remember (1989; repr. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014)Google Scholar, 2.

50. Fred Blair, Letter to the Editor, Mosinee Times, 3 May 1950, 1.

51. “As We See It,” Mosinee Times, 3 May 1950, 4.

52. Dennis, 7.

53. Ruby Cooper, “Mosinee Mayor Dies: Victim of Legion ‘Raid,’” Daily Worker, 9 May 1950, 1, 9, at 9.

54. “Legion's ‘Red Coup’ at Mosinee,” 1.

55. “Mosinee's May Day Ends,” 1, 10.

56. Lacey, Stephen and McElroy, Ruth, “Real Performance: Ordinary People and the ‘Problem” of Acting in Constructed Documentaries,” Studies in Documentary Film 4.3 (2010): 253–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 259.

57. Fried, 78. Italics in the original.

58. “Mosinee ‘Restores’ Democracy but Observance Is Marred by Grave Illness of City's Mayor,” Wausau (Wisconsin) Daily Record-Herald, 2 May 1950, 14.

59. “Notes on Those Who Made Notes,” Mosinee Times, 3 May 1950, 3.

60. “Anti May Day 1950,” Associated Press Photo ID 500501085, 1 May 1950; online at, accessed 3 May 2019.

61. Italics and punctuation in the original. “Anti May Day 1950,” Associated Press Photo ID 500501076, 1 May 1950.

62. Jack Cejnar to Paul F. Thielen, 7 April 1950, American Legion, WR/WHS. Ten days later, Cejnar reiterated this concern to Thielen in a second letter when he “urged that no picture of Stalin be used” because it might convince readers abroad that Wisconsin supported communism. Jack Cejnar to Paul F. Thielen, 17 April 1950, American Legion, WR/WHS.

63. “For Peace: May Day 1950,” Gitlow, HIA; “Real Communists Bring Truth to ‘Red Day’ Town,” Daily Worker, 1 May 1950, 7.

64. “So This Is Supposed to Be Communism,” Mosinee Historical Papers, Joseph Dessert Public Library, Marathon County Public Library at Mosinee.

65. Jack McPhaul, “Town Holding ‘Red’ Day Gets Real Commies,” Chicago Sun-Times, 1 May 1950, 4.

66. “Real Communists Bring Truth,” 7; “Reds Infiltrate Town in Wisconsin to Deride Mock May Day Seizure,” New York Times, 1 May 1950, 1, 3.

67. “Reds Infiltrate Town,” 1.

68. “Real Communists Bring Truth,” 7; Francis Schweinler, “‘Commies’ Call Mosinee Plan ‘Police-State Idea’ in Attack,” Mosinee Times, 3 May 1950, 1.

69. “Mosinee Mayor Stricken at End of Red May Day,” Milwaukee Journal, 2 May 1950, 1.

70. “Community Pays Last Respects to R. Kronenwetter,” Mosinee Times, 10 May 1950, 1.

71. “Reverend Bennett Dies in His Sleep Early Sun.; Buried Tues.,” Mosinee Times, 10 May 1950, 1; “Two Mosinee Men Who Had Roles in ‘Red Coup’ Program Are Dead,” Wausau Daily Record-Herald, 8 May 1950, 1.

72. Dozens of newspapers across the country featured stories on Mayor Kronenwetter's death, citing complications from a fishing accident, heart attack, and cerebral hemorrhage as possible catalysts. See, for example: “Mayor, Minister Dead after Mock Red Coup,” New York Times, 8 May 1950, 25; Ruby Cooper, “Mosinee Mayor Dies,” 1; “R. E. Kronenwetter Stricken at Close of May Day Show,” Mosinee Times, 3 May 1950, 1. See also Papers of Benjamin Gitlow, 1910–1968, call no. MS0108, Box 1, Folder 27, J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

73. “It Happened One Day in Mosinee.”

74. Schneider, 3.

75. Ibid., 21, 23.

76. Dennis, 7.

77. Ibid., 25.

78. Fried, 80–3.

79. Ibid., 85–6, quote at 85. Fried suggested Mosinee failed to inspire subsequent pageants because of its national and international success, the timing of the McCarthy hearings, and the Korean War (86).