"To make America live up to its ideals": Britt Haas on Youth Activism in the 1930s

Today on Gotham, Peter-Christian Aigner speaks with Britt Haas about her new book, Fighting Authoritarianism: American Youth Activism in the 1930s, exploring the lives of young radicals in New York City and their attempts to create a free, democratic society amid the Great Depression.

There are some historical topics which are so heavily researched the first line of any new review inevitably begins, ‘What more can possibly be said about X?’ But Fighting Authoritarianism provides genuinely new insights onto the 1930s. Unlike the 1960s, there is little historical research on youth activism in this period, but you call it “America’s first student movement," and give it considerable significance. What have others missed?

I think people tend to see the 1930s as a monolithically depressed and depressing time period and if they do focus on it at all, it is either in terms of economics (causes/consequences of Black Tuesday) or politics (roots and legacy of the New Deal). Very little attention is given to social movements in general or the youth movement in particular, at least as far as the United States is concerned. Historians have covered the Hitler Youth and the organized youth of Italian Fascism extensively, so it is rather curious that they haven’t turned their attention to the ways leftist and moderate groups in the United States also sought to harness youthful enthusiasm and energy.

But I actually wouldn’t call it “America’s first student movement.” Historian Ralph Brax did, though, in his 1981 study. I insist on calling it a youth movement because although most of the leaders were activist students and graduates from NYC colleges, it was not a movement focused specifically on students. It was much more inclusive. It did, however, lay the groundwork for 1960s youth activism. There are both organizational and personal ties between the two.

Many of the leaders in national youth organizations and umbrella groups hailed from New York City. You describe it as the “epicenter” of the movement, even though some associations were headquartered elsewhere. Steve Jaffe and Don Mitchell have each recently published books surveying New York City's long history as a site of constant mass activism, and we'll be asking them for their thoughts on why that has been so in a few weeks. After finishing this book, what are yours?

So much has to happen for a social movement to come together and then be effective. New York City is and has been the locus for such activity because it provides the people and the platform; the networking opportunities and the communication apparatus. The NYC colleges and universities — Columbia and CCNY, in particular — were hotbeds for intellectual and ideological exploration and many of the activist leaders hailed from such places. They were able to find like-minded young people as well as adults in NYC to support their causes. And they expertly culled those relationships for access to the media and policymakers. This is how their voice was heard. NYC is perfectly situated for all this because it is a city with national reach and firm attachments to Washington, DC.

These youth leaders in NYC were a lot more radical than the organizations they led, you write. But as democratically elected figures, you argue they legitimately represented their peers across the nation in terms of their calls for basic social, political, and economic reform. So, college activists from NYC are speaking for youth in the Midwest and rural South?

In their personal beliefs, the youth activists, like Joseph Lash, were more radical than the average young person in America, certainly. However, I think they realized their ideology was an ultimate goal and they therefore tempered this with practicality. Aside from the staunch leftists (who spent most of the 1930s fighting with other leftists for not being radical enough), their focus was on getting things done — getting youth concerns, especially youth unemployment, on the public agenda; it wasn’t to foment rebellion. So, yes, I absolutely believe they were speaking for the vast majority of people aged 18-25 (as “youth” was understood then). And they were politicians, in the best sense of the word. They had to convince delegates to vote them in as leaders and though they no doubt finessed points, schmoozed, and manipulated, they also stood on a well-recognized and well-received youth platform. A NYC native like Lash, then, didn’t need to be familiar with animal husbandry or the life cycle of cotton to have fundamental common interests with young people living in the Midwest or rural South.

They also saw no conflict between their radicalism and faith in America, you say, which brought to mind Thomas Devine's recent study of Henry Wallace's presidential race. Are these youth the sort who later go on to form the major base in his Progressive Party?

Yes and no. Wallace’s Progressive Party espoused many of the positions young people in the 1930s held, for sure. However, most of those young people were no longer young in 1948. It’s not just that some grew out of their youthful radicalism, but that some, like James Wechsler, turned against that radicalism and became staunch anti-communists. And like Wechsler, many would have believed a third-party campaign simply quixotic especially since so many youth activists, e.g. Joseph Lash and Molly Yard, had become enmeshed in Democratic Party politics. Still, Wallace’s support of labor unions, relief measures, integration, and US-Soviet Union relations would be in line with what young people wanted and he certainly had their support in the 1930s.

You argue that the New Deal had a short-sighted understanding of young people’s problems, and neglected them, even though many of the leaders had enviable access to leaders in FDR’s Cabinet from New York, including no less than Eleanor Roosevelt. Could you explain why?

New Deal administrators wanted to help young people. But young people were not their priority. So, when hard decisions had to be made first about budgets and then about wartime economic exigencies, youth policies and programs were inevitably put on the chopping block. And this was easy to do because youth policy was always enacted on an ad-hoc rather than permanent basis and most young people couldn’t and didn’t vote, let alone dispense congressional favor. That Eleanor Roosevelt routinely bent the president’s ear and consistently maneuvered behind the scenes on behalf of young people indicates how much convincing it took to make politicians consider youth’s needs. The “for the duration” mentality underlying so many New Deal policies ran counter to youth’s vision of what America should be doing for them.

The youth movement came together after three pivotal episodes you describe in Part I of the book. What are those sparks, and how did they become a fire?

First, the trip to Harlan County in 1932 to aid striking miners catalyzed the National Student League into action on behalf of young people’s economic needs. The expulsion of student newspaper editor Reed Harris within one week of the Harlan County trip lead to widespread protests against young people’s lack of freedoms. And their ongoing support for the Scottsboro Boys honed their focus on equality. Their platform — to make America live up to its ideals of economic opportunity, democratic freedom, and equality — was thus born. Coming together in such protests led to the organizational basis for the movement, which would reach full fruition in the creation of umbrella popular front organizations by mid-decade that were dedicated to advancing young people’s vision of and for America.

If Part I is about the embrace of labor democracy, academic freedom, and racial equality, Part II is about the shift from pacifism to antifascist internationalism. What prompts this shift? And is that a NYC story, too?

Organized youth were very much against isolationism and therefore supported internationalism of all kinds, including antifascist internationalism. I think, though, what you’re asking is about the shift away from their strict antiwar stance. The Spanish Civil War and World War II prompted that shift. At first, organized youth were determined to stay out of war since they saw war as a threat to freedom, democracy, and equality. But fascism equally posed a threat to everything they held dear. Wanting to help the Spanish Republicans began as supply drives and fundraising, but then some, like Lash, thought the only way to stop the fascists was through active resistance and so they went to fight. But most did not. Most still hoped to avoid a repeat of the Great War. As the decade came to a close, though, more young people decided such a war was inevitable, and pacifism lost out to intervention as first the socialists and then the liberals withdrew from the umbrella organizations.

The complicated course that change in position took is, indeed, a NYC story. The arguments for and against pacifism/intervention were hashed out during Executive Committee meetings, which took place in NYC headquarters. Even more important, it was the New York Council of the American Youth Congress passing resolutions about aid to Finland that brought the youth movement to the attention of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which cast aspersions on the youth organizations, leading many to turn their backs on youth activism. And it was the New York Chapter of the Young People’s Socialist League that first resigned from the umbrella organizations, prompting the dissolution of the popular front and thus the demise of the youth movement.

You say these activists “forged the popular front,” and that it fell apart not because of the CPUSA’s sabotage for the Comintern, but because the Socialists and liberals defected before WWII, the New York City branch of the Young Socialist League leading the way. Tell us about that.

As I alluded to earlier, the demise of the youth movement was a complicated story that played out in very heated disagreements over the best course of action. This story has been, I attest, misunderstood and misrepresented as a communist “takeover” of youth organizations. While this plays into the pervasive belief that communists were devious masterminds who sabotaged progressive efforts, it is not born out by the evidence. It was, indeed, the socialists who were the first to abrogate their involvement in the collaborative popular front organizations and the liberals quickly followed suit. This left the communists, by default, as the leaders of the rump organizations. Unfortunately, historians who have looked at facets of the youth movement have perpetuated the Cold War anti-Soviet perspective of its first chronicler, George P. Rawick and his unpublished 1957 dissertation, which relied in large part on sources notably hostile to the youth movement and its leaders. In contrast, I sought out sources closer to the story — young people themselves and the documents they left behind. And they tell a very different story.

This project was supposed to focus on gender, but that’s not a real factor in this story. Why?

I thought for sure this project would focus on race, class, and gender.

The genesis for my book began with a paper on Eleanor Roosevelt I wrote for a graduate course. For that paper, I read Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph Lash in which he mentions (surprisingly, in passing) that she was a strong supporter of the youth movement, about which I knew nothing. I hadn’t ever even heard that there was a youth movement in the 1930s. Given that Eleanor Roosevelt was concerned with relief efforts as well as the rights of women and black people, I just assumed I’d find a similar focus among youth themselves. Further, the European youth movements certainly had a lot to say about gender.

And while I found that class and race were central issues for young people, gender was not. That’s not because women were left out. In fact, it’s because women were so involved in all youth’s efforts. Young people coming of age after the ratification of the 19th Amendment who became activists in the 1930s assumed gender equality and thus practiced what they didn’t think needed to be preached. I don’t think they were naïve enough to believe that there were no challenges regarding gender equality and women’s rights left to be faced, but rather than fighting the notion of traditional gender roles, for example, they simply adopted the roles suited to themselves as individuals. That means that women were among the leaders of the youth organizations. And Molly Yard, a leader of the American Student Union, later became the president of the National Organization for Women. I argue that youth activists saw women’s rights as subsumed within the broader goals of democracy, freedom, and equality. It’s almost as if they thought it should go without saying that women deserved full inclusion in such rights. I think there’s a lot to learn from that perspective.