The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Smith Act Four

IF Stone's Truman book (yesterday) naturally has a fair amount of stuff on the Red Scare, and reminded me of the utter and complete funk in which the Congressional Democratic Party found itself on the Smith Act (aka the Alien Registration Act of 1940).

I was surprised to find out (February 11) that the bill passed on a voice vote in the Senate; and that only four votes were cast against it in the House [1].

They should get to take a bow, I think.

The only one I'd heard of is Vito Marcantonio (NY-20), first elected in 1930 as a Republican, defeated in 1936, who was re-elected in 1938 on the American Labor Party ticket [2] - a firebrand insurgent in the heart of Tammany country.

Marcantonio sponsored the first FEP bill in Congress.

As with the CIO, the ALP proved an apt instrument for the Popular Front - Stalin's notion of infiltrating Communists into liberal organisations to subvert them to the purposes of Moscow.

A puzzle (for me, at any rate) is how the current of anticommunism in the late 1930s (that led to the formation of the Dies Committee and the passage of the Smith Act) did not then result in the discrediting of the ALP and its representative in Congress. But it didn't - or not then, at least.

According to this, Marcantonio's undoing was the 1947 Wilson-Pakula Act [3] which prevented him entering the Democratic primary: he therefore appeared on the ballot only on the ALP line (he'd survived a redistricting - from 1944 his seat was the 18th - which had brought in an area of hostile voters).

The rest of the Smith Act Four seem to have made not much more impression on Congress than they had on me: Martin Sweeney served several terms in the 1930s and won in 1940 despite his Commie-loving vote (he lost in 1942); Thomas Smith served just one term; Caroline O'Day served four terms as an at-large member for New York [4].

O'Day was, it seems, a member of the Georgia aristocracy, a leading New York do-gooder and a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt's (which came in handy in snagging that seat in Congress!). It says here that
O'Day was chair of the committee that sponsored singer Marian Anderson's historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

I can see why Marcantonio and O'Day might have been moved to vote their consciences on the Smith Act: why the other two, of the entire Democratic party in the House , should have been the only others to do so is still a mystery.

FDR's statement on signing the Smith Act gives no hint of mental reservation - pure Pangloss.

  1. I have an idea that it needs 20% of members present to require a roll call - how did the four get to force one on the Smith Act?

  2. The genesis of the ALP I looked at on January 1 2004.

  3. Since no one by the name of Pakula has served in the US Congress, I surmise this is a New York act named after Irwin Pakula, Senator from the 7th District. Was this act specifically designed to get Marcantonio?

  4. New York apparently had two at-large seats in Congress from 1933 to 1945.

    Is O'Day the first woman to win a statewide election in New York? In any large state? Hattie Caraway had won election in 1932 to the Arkansas seat in the US Senate to which she had previously been appointed.

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