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William Mandel, American Dissident

by Dwayne Eutsey Sunday, Apr. 06, 2003 at 4:12 AM

"If you think that I am going to cooperate with this collection of Judases, of men who sit there in violation of the United States Constitution, if you think I will cooperate with you in any manner whatsoever, you are insane!" From William Mandel’s 1960 testimony before HUAC

As the title of his autobiography Saying No to Power suggests, William Mandel’s remarkable life is one characterized by a defiant rejection of his right to remain silent.

Throughout his 85 years, Mandel’s outspoken activism has left a deep impression on those he has encountered. In his introduction to Saying No to Power, Howard Zinn counts Mandel among “those dissenters whose words and actions kept alive the hopes and dreams that we might build a just society, a peaceful world.”

William Mandel is probably best known for his words to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960 (for his complete testimony, actuality audio as well as text, visit http://www.billmandel.net/h/HUAC.shtml). His provocative appearance before the Committee is considered by many to be one of the sparks that ignited a decade of rebellion in the 1960s. It has been featured in six documentary films, a dozen TV specials, a play, and was even sampled by the reggae band Latin Quarter in their ‘80s release, Modern Times.

I am among those who find inspiration in his testimony as well. When I told him that I thought his testimony was one of the great moments of American history, Mandel thought I was going “over the top.” Perhaps I am overstating its significance, but in today’s increasingly controlled society—where presidential press conferences and mainstream war coverage are so carefully scripted—it’s refreshing to hear someone speak truth so passionately, even if it happened 43 years ago.



Mandel’s confrontation with HUAC is only one of many aspects of his lifelong activism and scholarship that has earned him both praise and notoriety as a tireless fighter for social justice and free speech in America and around the world.



He was expelled from the City College of New York in 1933 for his role in anti-ROTC demonstrations; participated in a “premature Freedom Ride” in 1951 to save seven Black men from execution in the South; and basically created the format now known as talk radio during his nearly 40 years with Pacifica Radio (www.pacifica.org).



A highly regarded Soviet-affairs scholar who has worked for United Press International and was a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Mandel found a home at Pacifica in 1958 after his academic and professional career had been destroyed by McCarthyism.



Because of his books on Soviet culture and membership in the Communist Party USA (which he left in the late ‘50s), Mandel was among the many American intellectuals on the Left who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Today, Mandel lives in Oakland, California where he says a major part of his activism involves the Internet (you can visit his web site at www.billmandel.net), through which he broadcasts messages as events warrant to over 7,000 subscribers and receives hundreds of emails a day from all over the world.

It was through the Internet that I interviewed William Mandel on the day the American-led invasion of Iraq began.

****

Question: So, it’s war with Iraq. What are your thoughts today?

William Mandel: War with Iraq? As soon as Bush announced it, I posted that we now need actions that would be American equivalents of Rachel Corrie's heroism (Ed. Note: Corrie was the American peace activist killed while trying to prevent an Israeli soldier from bulldozing a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip). I have her picture on my wall. I can tell you that the first appeal by anyone, anywhere, for foreigners to insert themselves between physically contending forces in Israel-Palestine was a broadcast of mine after Rabin's assassination. I also posted yesterday to Left and labor-oriented lists that the resolution by the San Francisco Central Labor Council denouncing the war means nothing now that hostilities have begun. All that would count is shutting down the port, and I added that, regrettably, that would not be done. That's why the direct-actionists messing up San Fran traffic today was a necessary step in the right direction.



Once in my life I offered a prediction of the world scene that proved accurate for a ten-year period. That was when Stalin and Mao signed their treaty of alliance in 1950. (It was the occasion of my first appearance on KPFA, through which I was passing on a lecture tour.) Today such a prediction is impossible. The next decade can bring anything from great prosperity for the United States thanks to successful establishment of a world empire (remember that that's how the people of Britain experienced a marked increase in living standard) to a collapse worse than 1929, thanks to the costs of wars, the destruction of the world market system, and the rebellions, intifadas, that will occur in response to the attack on Iraq, never mind more ingenious acts of terror against American cities. Forecasting of time-lines for predictable occurrences has always been a hopeless undertaking.



The only concrete proposal I would make, beyond direct action resistance, is for a Democratic ticket of Byrd and Kucinich. I have no use for either of the major parties, but war makes the election of 2004 critical for the future of humanity. No winnable third-party movement has appeared. Byrd's age and his many negatives in the domestic sphere are simply secondary at a time when the one thing that must be done is to turn foreign policy around. Kucinich has the youth and the positives in internal policy. I do not insist on Kucinich. I'd love to see Barbara Lee get that nomination, but I don't think that is realistic. I do say that Byrd is a winner, and no one else in sight is.



Question: Why did you name your autobiography “Saying No to Power”?

Mandel: The title of my autobiography? The Acknowledgments page explains that a variety of sources (more than I list) asked me to write it, in 1969 and 1970. The working title was A Part of My Own Country, because I wanted people to know that my life had consisted of more than being an expert on the Soviet Union. So it was changed to the obvious: Speaking Truth to Power. But titles cannot be copyrighted, and one with that title appeared just as mine was to go to press. So I asked the family for suggestions. One son and his wife came up with Saying No to Power, which is certainly an accurate description of what I've done.



Question: What is the value of dissent? Wouldn’t the world be nicer if we all just shut up and waved our flags?

Mandel: The value of dissent? A nicer world if we shut up and waved our flags? Come off it. This afternoon I saw Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer," in which starving kids in the Galapagos literally eat a rich American alive. Keep up what Washington is doing now, and that can happen.



Question: In the 1950s, you were among the initiators of talk radio. How did this format become so dominated by the rightwing in this country, which uses it to stifle dissent and promote propaganda?

I didn't think I was inventing anything. As a professional lecturer, I had always asked hosts, usually unsuccessfully, to permit me to start not with a presentation but with questions from the floor, so as to get a feel for the particular audience and a given city's or student body's perspective. When I started on KPFA in the 1950s, the audience was still an epistolary generation. I went to the manager, saying I was getting masses of mail, and that most of the questions were of broad interest, so why don't we do it by phone? He said yes, and that was it. Why me, and why KPFA? Because HUAC was still riding high, while we and I believed in freedom of speech.

I don't have an answer regarding talk radio. Maybe it's because right-wingers latched on to it early in its history (except for Pacifica) when the paid commentators didn't froth at the mouth enough to suit them.



Question: Newt Gingrich believed the 1950s, characterized by racial segregation, McCarthyism, blacklists, repression of women, etc., were the golden age of American civilization. He apparently wanted to bring our society back to that era after taking Congress in 1994. It seems like he and his cohorts on the right are succeeding in doing this. What do you think?



Mandel: I don't think today's Gingriches are winning. Read the wonderful speech by Dr. Robert Muller, retired assistant secretary-general of the UN (link: http://www.westbynorthwest.org/artman/publish/printer_340.shtml). The world movement against the war, and at that even before it began, is without precedent in history. I've been e-mailing that view for months, but he has the prestige to make it carry weight, and he expressed it beautifully.



Question: Why do you think the Left in America is largely so ineffective and marginalized?



Mandel: The Left in America is no longer marginalized, nor would I call it ineffective. The anti-war movement is led by ANSWER, which is fundamentally the Workers' World Party, essentially Stalinist, although the chief figure in ANSWER is a former attorney-general of the U.S. The movement did not start with ANSWER but in Seattle, and went on to a very strong and clear anti-corporate emphasis. When the war in Vietnam was ended by Ho's military victories aided by a huge movement led by the Trotskyist-led Mobilization Against the War, people went back to their knitting. When the war against Hitler and Mussolini was won, on the one hand the Communist parties in Italy, France, and virtually every mainland European country had won such prestige both by their heroism as guerrillas and by the reflected glory of the Red Army that they were admitted to the cabinets of just about every country east of England. In the U.S. Communists won great prestige for leading support for the Spanish Republic and much else both internationally and at home. But that was lost when the leaders of the CIO, Phil Murray and others belonging to the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, said to labor, relative to the Cold War: "If you believe the Reds that there's no danger from Russia, arms appropriations will drop and you'll be back out in the streets. If you believe us about the Soviet menace, we'll have to build tanks and planes and nukes, and you'll have jobs." Labor chose jobs.

Had we won the struggle to prevent the present war, the new radicalism might well have quickly disappeared as with the CP after World War II, and the Trotskyists after the Vietnam War. Today I don't think it will. So we'll have to defend our rights to think what we please and say what we please and write what we please and broadcast and e-mail what we please, and build organizations to do and defend all that.



Question: What motivated you to be so confrontational with HUAC in 1960 when you called the men on the committee “Judases” who were “in violation of the United States Constitution”?

Mandel: My motivation versus HUAC and my much more important, but unknown to the Sixties and later generations, destruction of Joe McCarthy in 1953, was two-fold. Normally as a speaker, I am conversational or professorial. Get me mad, and a charisma appears because what makes me mad are attacks on my human dignity and beliefs for which I have paid a high price all my life. That latter is the second motivation. As to such specifics as "violation of the United States Constitution," that had to do with the chair being from Louisiana, and having been elected in consequence of Blacks being barred from voting.



Question: For old time’s sake: Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party? What attracted you to communism?

Mandel: A more complete answer to this question is set forth in detail in the book. I was raised a Communist by my father. I saw it as a student at Moscow University in 1932, and it was working. The Party threw me out in the winter of 1952-3 because I was asking questions. Because it believed (contrary to Stalin) that World War III and fascism were around the corner, it assumed that people who asked questions would crack under those circumstances. It invited me back in 1956, after Khrushchev said that what anti-Communists had been saying about Stalin was true. I thought the Party was hopeless, but rejoined on condition that at its 1957 Convention it declare that henceforth it would draw all its conclusions, not only about the U.S. and the world, but even about the Soviet Union, independently. It didn't, and I quit, with a loud blast reported in the NY Times.



Question: As a dissident and apologist for the Soviet Union, how do you reconcile your advocacy of free speech with the fact that the Soviet government regularly cracked down on dissidents?

Mandel: I was never an apologist for the Soviet Union, and I resent that. The head of the Hoover Institution at Stanford invited me to be Senior Fellow for the year 1947, a rank otherwise reserved for Ph.Ds, of whom there were only a fraction then of the number today, I had (and still have) only one year of college, having been expelled from CCNY in 1933 for activism and having refused ever to apologize. When I delivered lectures on and off campus denouncing the Truman Doctrine then just enunciated, the head of the Hoover Institution, a personal friend and protégé of Herbert Hoover, was asked at a reception: "What's Mandel doing here?" I wasn't present, but was told next morning by a graduate student that his answer was: "Because he knows more about the Soviet Union than anyone in the United States." My first two books had been published, and were in use at Yale, Stanford, and elsewhere.

I was a STUDENT of the Soviet Union, which no one else in the Communist Party was, and it broke its neck over that.



As to the Soviet government's cracking down on dissidents, you'd have to understand, which you don't, that that had a history, as did people's (including my) attitude toward it. There was no civil libertarianism in the U.S. armed intervention, along with every other major power (14 countries in all) to destroy the Soviet government in 1918-1920. So those who supported the USSR in those years ridiculed our pretensions to democracy exactly as many opponents of the war in Iraq do today. When I was there in 1931-2, I could talk to anybody, anywhere, about anything, and did. So did they. I learned Russian very quickly, and already knew German, which was widely known, and French. The purges started in 1935. The stories of terror were totally contrary to my experience and, as I knew from personal observation, that most of what was written about the USSR was lies, I thought that was too. I was wrong, and only realized that after Stalin died, and the Russian press began to circulate information most foreign Communists weren't able to read, and virtually none bothered to. I did.

Anyone (there are such people) who concluded that I was an apologist from listening to my Pacifica programs was accepting State Department bullshit or the more subtle Trotskyist or Bukharinist stuff that the State Department became wise enough to integrate into its own arsenal. If I am worth a biography (as distinct from an autobiography), I hope whoever does it will listen to the tapes of my broadcasts and consult on such matters with an academic who knows facts. I will tell you that, way back in 1960, Pacifica hired the RAND Corporation to monitor my broadcasts, and was told that they were an accurate reflection of what the Soviet press was writing. The program's initial title was "Soviet Press and Periodicals."



Question: Your speech before HUAC, which I think is one of the greatest moments in American history, helped to ignite what Todd Gitlin called a “bursting open of the body politic” that characterized the Sixties. Do the Patriot Act and Homeland Security mark the clamping back down of the body politic? Are these things just cyclical or can we effectively resist this clamp down?



Mandel: Thank you for your words about my HUAC testimony, although you go over the top. As it is still alive more than four decades later, my conclusion is that it will be remembered as long as today's English is understood. That is to say, its merit lies more in the reason given me by a brand-new Ph.D. in English at Ohio State who invited me to speak in 1962 because my testimony was "in the classical English tradition of verbal utterance." I'm not putting down its political significance, or that it played a role in launching the Sixties among whites. It's just that, as I wrote above, my McCarthy testimony of 1953 took incomparably more guts and skill, but is forgotten because people weren't ready for a movement against him.



Question: Although we say we value freedom of expression in this country, there always seems to be a high cost that dissidents pay for voicing unpopular opinions. The flap over the Dixie Chicks’ critical remarks of Bush comes to mind; there are reports of anti-war spokespersons being harassed by organized rightwing efforts. Some are even calling for the arrest of anti-war activists for sedition. What are your thoughts on the current state of free speech in America?

>

Mandel: There is no law of cycles here, but we have had them before: the Alien and Sedition Laws which Jefferson beat down, Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus (there was no greater president, but nothing is simple), the Red Scare after the Russian Revolution, McCarthyism. Of course the Patriot Act and Homeland Security mark a clamping down on the body politic. The answer is to resist, and to nullify, as the state legislature of New Mexico has just officially done by instructing law enforcement not to cooperate with the federal government.



I am currently urging my publisher to take the 200 pages in my autobiography covering the Truman-McCarthy era, to which I will provide a preface explaining how our nullification of those efforts to destroy American democracy are pertinent to the present situation, and an "afterward" of as many chapters and pages as needed to describe the restrictions on freedom already being practiced under the Patriot Act and by the Homeland Security Department. He has sat on the idea for a couple of months (as he did with my autobiography itself), and I guess I have six months of work to do on it, so if it goes through it won't be out for a year.



Despite the clampdowns you list, and the longer list I have compiled with that book in mind, the current state of free speech in America is the best in our history until 9/11, and not much worse than then. Taking the country as a whole, and all its components (Blacks, Latinos, Indians, women, gays and lesbians), it is incomparably better than at any time in my lifetime, and I remember back to when my father worked in Siberia in 1925-6 (to help "build socialism"), and I understood to use phrases like "over there" in my letters to him.



Question: The term “fascism” is bandied about on dissident web sites in reference to the Bush administration. How close to fascism do you think America actually is?



Mandel: America now has the legal framework to become a police state. It isn't yet, remotely, except for people from the Near and Middle East, and Moslems in general. Fascism is something else. Fascism ALWAYS requires a body of citizens who are willing personally to deprive fellow-citizens of civil liberties: Storm Troops, Fascisti, Falange. The closest we ever got to that was in the South when the Klan rode high. But even there it was directed against a single racial element, although it didn't care for Jews and Catholics. So it was possible to overturn its rule by legal means.



Question: A reviewer of your autobiography said your central story is your loss of faith in a kind of religion, communism. Yet, you remain, the reviewer said, “an optimist, a believer that, even amid the wrecks of the 20th century, something will come.” As war erupts, our civil liberties continue to be stripped away, and a century of progress is being rolled back, how optimistic are you these days?

Mandel: As to that review of my book, I disagree with the reviewer (a KPFA broadcaster) and told him so. If the central story were my disillusionment with communism, I would have joined, literally or figuratively, some other political or millenarian organization, and I would certainly not be doing the thinking expressed in this post. He is also wrong about my being an optimist, although my family laughed at me for decades when I said that I didn't believe there would be World War III (US/USSR). My position was best formulated by Frederick Engels: "Human beings make their own history, but they make it within the conditions in which they find themselves." Optimism or pessimism are both best defined as Calvinist. Absolutely nothing is preordained, except that human beings will struggle, individually and collectively, for their own continued existence.

And, of course, now that we have nukes, that too can end.

###

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