October 30, 2008
Dreams from Frank Marshall Davis
As more and more audio and video emerge on Barack Obama's desire to redistribute wealth, not to mention his views on the housing crisis that has torpedoed the U.S. economy, I keep returning to two columns I've read by Frank Marshall Davis, the communist journalist-agitator who mentored Obama in Hawaii. While much attention has been paid to Obama's relationship with communist-terrorist Bill Ayers -- and rightly so -- much less attention has been devoted to Davis. That's a mistake, since Obama was influenced more by Davis than Ayers.
Davis, who is now deceased, was an African American from the Midwest who had worked as a columnist for the Chicago Star, the communist newspaper of Chicago, a city that had one of the largest CPUSA affiliates, and, in fact, hosted the September 1919 convention that launched the American Communist Party. Though Davis always tried to conceal any communist associations -- ironically, Obama supporters have picked up that torch -- there's no question that Davis was a communist, as is immediately evident upon reading his columns, examining his background, or consulting with people in the party (to this day) who confirm he was a communist. The fact that he was at least a lower case "c" "communist" is obvious. It takes a little more digging to find evidence of his membership in CPUSA -- but not much. Among the sources that reveal his membership are Davis himself, notably in a letter he wrote to a friend, published posthumously by his biographer, Professor John Edgar Tidwell. "I have recently joined the Communist party," wrote Davis.
In 1948, Davis just happened to arrive in Hawaii the same time that leaders of the Communist Party in Hawaii -- realizing the limits of national party organs like the Daily Worker and People's Daily World -- established their own weekly newspaper, the Honolulu Record. In 1949, Davis began writing a regular column for the Record, titled, "Frankly Speaking." This was a key form of agitation work that Davis would do for the party in Hawaii for decades.
A young Barack Obama knew Davis in the latter 1970s, introduced by his maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, who, in many ways, saw eye-to-eye with Davis, and saw in Davis a potential role model and father-figure to his grandson. Dunham and Davis were close friends.
Though proud of Davis, and very affectionate toward him, Obama sought to obfuscate the identity of Davis in his book, Dreams from My Father, where he strangely referred to him only as "Frank," conspicuously avoiding his full name. Politically, Obama needed to make Davis anonymous, whereas, personally, he could not avoid acknowledging in his memoirs a man who meant so much to him.
I've connected these dots through my Cold War research, which is grounded in primary sources like the Soviet Comintern Archives on CPUSA, FBI files, recently released CPUSA documents at Tamiment Library, and much more. This has brought me into contact with various communist characters and fellow travelers who have molded or worked with Barack Obama, from Davis to Bill Ayers to Saul Alinsky.
So, that's all background on Davis's identity and how Obama knew him.
Now, what about those columns I mentioned earlier? Obama's recent remarks on wealth redistribution made me think of two Davis columns in particular, both for the Honolulu Record:
The first was Davis's January 26, 1950 piece, "Free Enterprise or Socialism?" Davis hoped that America and its economy were at a turning point, as if a kind of perfect storm was brewing that could at last allow him and his comrades to realize their dreams of a socialist America. They would need to trash the current free-enterprise system and argue for a change to something else. Of course, they could not fully disclose themselves, their beliefs, and their intentions, although any thinking observer could easily read between the lines. The key was to gain the support of the people who didn't know any difference.
Davis began his article by asserting, "Before too long, our nation will have to decide whether we shall have free enterprise or socialism." He pointed to actions in Congress, where he quoted the then-chairman of the Congressional committee on small business, who, according to Davis, warned that "at the present rate, either the giant corporations will control all our markets, the greatest share of our wealth, and eventually, our government, or the government will be forced to intervene with some form of direct regulation of business."
Davis did not like "big business" and the rapacious, "tentacled" rich men who ran it. "For instance," wrote Davis, "Alfred Sloan of General Motors announced that his gigantic company made a profit last year of $600,000,000, more than any other corporation in history. Over the years, General Motors has swallowed up or knocked out car manufacturer after car manufacturer so that today less than a handful of competitors remain. Free enterprise, eh?"
"Monopolies" like GM had to be controlled by the government, said Davis. If not, the likes of GM would control the government. "Obviously, a business that can show a profit ... of $600,000,000 is in a position to control government," wrote Davis. "When we remember that the directors and major stockholders of one industry also shape the policies of banks and other huge corporations, it is easy to see that the tentacles of Big Business control just about everything they think they need to insure continued profits." Davis claimed that, "The control of our wealth and government by the giant corporations ... [was] accomplished fact."
Davis believed that it was such free enterprise run amok, allegedly un-regulated and un-checked by the federal government, that had caused the Great Depression: "For many years now we have been living under the virtual dictatorship of Big Business which all but drove us to ruin in 1929."
Davis was grateful for the grand intervention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who he believed had saved the day: "By curbing the excesses of the giant corporations that had led to the economic crisis, Roosevelt was able to save the system from complete collapse."
Even then, FDR, in Davis's eyes, had not done enough: "And yet the moneyed men who were bailed out by the New Deal program were our late president's [FDR's] biggest enemies. They have refused to see that in order to preserve their hides, they had to hand out a few drops of gravy to the common man."
Toeing the Stalinist line, as he always did without deviation, Davis then blamed American capitalism for starting World War II. That had been the party line issued by Stalin in his February 1946 Bolshoi Theatre speech. It was a ridiculous, outrageous lie, one that infuriated Democrats and Republicans alike. Nonetheless, the lie became marching orders for Davis and other comrades at party organs around the world. It was their duty to follow that party line, and they happily saluted the red flag. In his column, Davis zeroed in on the true bad guys of World War II: "This bolstering of a sick economy ended at the outset of World War II. Multi-billion-dollar expenditures for the means of killing fellow humans brought added profits and Big Business emerged stronger than ever before in history after V-J Day."
And now, in January 1950, things were especially grim under President Harry Truman, who Davis particularly despised, given that the Democratic president was, at the time, publicly condemning, countering, and seeking to contain Stalin. Moscow had told the good comrades to take special aim at the "fascist," "Hitlerian" Harry Truman, and Davis did precisely that, unceasingly demonizing this icon of the Democratic Party. For the hard left, the current American president had to be bludgeoned beyond recognition; the left did so with great success, as Truman would eventually leave office the most unpopular president in the history of American polling -- until a man named George W. Bush.
There was a conspiracy, suggested Davis, between Truman and even larger monopolies "fattened" by recent mergers. Wrote Davis: "With this added weight to throw around, and a president [Truman] willing to do their bidding after the death of Roosevelt, our giant corporations have had things pretty much their own way. Government policy is fixed in Wall Street and transmitted through the corporation executives who have been appointed by Truman to high federal office. OPA was killed, the Marshall Plan launched and the nation placed on the brink of war economy -- so that such firms as General Motors could make $600,000,000 profit while unemployment skyrocketed."
Davis, for the record, hated the Marshall Plan as much as he hated Truman and Wall Street. That was because Moscow hated the Marshall Plan, which was intended first and foremost to keep Western Europe from falling to communism.
What's worse, said Davis, was that America was busy simultaneously giving a bad name to socialism. Many Americans, especially conservatives, recklessly tossed around the "S word." "At the same time we have manufactured a national horror of socialism," wrote Davis. "Meanwhile, the dictatorship of the monopolies is driving us down the road to ruin." Alas, we could expect "still rising unemployment and a mounting depression."
"[T]he time draws nearer," advised Davis, "when we will have to decide to oust the monopolies and restore a competing system of free enterprise, or let the government own and operate our major industries."
I will let you guess which solution Davis preferred.
Comrade Davis put it more bluntly a few weeks later in his March 2, 1950 column, approvingly quoting Woodrow Wilson: "The masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States." In that column, Davis was most concerned with the inability of poor Americans to purchase "a decent home."
For Davis, the only hope was a huge, emboldened federal government that could save Americans from the capitalists, that could rein in fat-cat corporations, that could slap down Wall Street and its excesses, that could spread the wealth, and that could ensure that the poor could buy a home.
To bolster his case, Davis went back to the height of the Great Depression, borrowing a 1935 quote (allegedly) from the governor of Pennsylvania: "I warn you that our civilization is in danger if we heed the deceptive cries of special privilege, if we permit our men of great wealth to send us on a wild goose chase after so-called radicals while they continue to plunder the people .... We are constantly told of the evils of Socialism and Communism. The label is applied to every man, woman and child who dares to say a word which does not have the approval of Wall Street."
Do not look to the conservatives for help, said Davis. The conservatives were racists: "If I were conservative, that would mean automatically that I think we have gone too far in trying to break the yoke of color bondage and that I am in favor of greater discrimination ... not less."
Davis warned that some fear-mongers would try to silence the likes of him by branding him a socialist, or a "Red engaged in subversive operations," or "an agent of Moscow." "But I, personally, have no intention of being silenced by a label," wrote a stoic Davis. "I do not intend to be frightened into submission to the status quo."
What I've shared from these two columns is only a sample of what Frank Marshall Davis, Barack Obama's self-acknowledged mentor, wrote for decades. This was his thinking. Coincidentally, Davis's form of agitation would have been at home right now with the current housing and economic crisis in America. He would have been in his element, thriving -- on autopilot.
It is amazing, though not surprising, that today's Democrats will help cover for Frank Marshall Davis, given that Davis despised their party and constantly worked to undermine its heroes throughout the Cold War. Modern Democrats are oblivious to the nuances of the early Cold War and still don't appreciate the communist threat of their day, including the fact that the communists viewed them as idiots to be duped; the communists were not their friends. Still, liberals will dutifully protect the likes of Frank Marshall Davis so as to elect Barack Obama, the current Democratic nominee -- as Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy roll over in their graves.
To what degree are Obama's comments on the economy and taxes influenced by the communist-socialist ideas of Davis? No doubt, the question is fair, given that we only know of the Obama-Davis relationship because of Barack Obama himself, who opened the door in his memoirs. I could never have written this piece if Obama hadn't acknowledged Davis. Obama was mentored by Davis in his late teens, before heading off to college, where, as Obama wrote in Dreams From My Father, he hung out with the "Marxist professors" and attended "socialist conferences."
And yet, not a single one of our nation's leading journalists has asked any such questions. They are far more interested in Sarah Palin's wardrobe and Joe the Plumber's license. The New York Times is busy with bigger issues, like Cindy McCain's history of murder and mayhem.
It is truly, truly amazing to behold. For modern journalists, truth is second to their politics.
Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007) and professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).