The Farmers Union, McCarthyism, & the Demise of the Agrarian Left

Article excerpt

The cold war took a toll on U.S. liberalism. Subjected to McCarthyite attacks, liberals often had to defend themselves rather than advance their agenda. In many cases, besieged reformers adopted a defensive strategy, attempting to portray themselves as more anti-communist than their conservative opponents. Recent scholarship on these subjects provides us with a rather tarnished image of U.S. liberalism. In a manner of speaking, the liberal response to McCarthyism itself often was illiberal. The country's leading liberal farm organization - the National Farmers Union (NFU) - coped with cold war pressures in the decade after 1945 by moving toward the political center and assuming a more conservative stance. Thus, the cold war years marked a major transition in the history of this farm group.(1)

The NFU was formed in 1902. Its organizers were veterans of the populist movement and the organization claimed a populist image for much of its history. It was not a political movement but rather a farm organization, more like a trade union than a political party. It built cooperatives, educated farmers and their families, lobbied state legislators and congressmen, and often sided with organized labor. The Farmers Union was the country's third largest farm organization and the only one consistently left-of-center. Its membership was concentrated in the Upper Midwest and on the plains, with its greatest influence in states such as North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma. In the late 1930s, a pro-New Deal faction took over the national leadership and remained in control throughout the period covered in this study.(2)

The NFU played a major role in the left wing of the New Deal coalition in the 1940s. Its president, James G. Patton, was a national figure with a standing in liberal circles, and he was not publicly identified as a strident anti-communist. His organization seemed part of a left-liberal political movement or what some historians have characterized as popular front liberalism. Patton and the Farmers Union often had the hacking of communists in the 1940s and there was no public parting of the ways until the 1948 Wallace campaign. Even then, the NFU leadership remained critical of the Truman Doctrine and the administration's internal security program. One 1950 observer claimed: "Proud of the fact that it consists of basic American radicals, the Farmers Union has, by word and deed, shown that it will not be dissuaded by red herrings and witch-hunts from winning its objectives of fighting monopoly and building up regional developments, improving public health and educational services and liberalizing our foreign policy." Yet, there was a considerable range of opinion on many issues within the organization. Until 1950, a left-liberal grouping made national policy while more conservative elements within the union were normally outflanked. This would change with the outbreak of fighting in Korea.(3)

There were strong conservative pockets in the Farmers Union, such as the Nebraska organization, but they were unable to find a more conservative candidate to challenge Patton at a national convention. By 1948, Patton himself had become reconciled to Truman, largely because of the appointment of Charles Brannan as secretary of agriculture. Still, many NFU members had little enthusiasm for the Truman candidacy. A number of influential Farmers Union members had publicly backed Henry Wallace and others, including Patton privately, often agreed with the former vice president on foreign policy. The NFU continued to resist efforts to ban communists from its membership or adopt a strident anti-communist stance. None of its functionaries were fired or expelled for endorsing Henry Wallace's 1948 candidacy or for opposing the Marshall Plan. As late as 1950, the NFU stood in marked contrast with liberal organizations such as the American Veterans Committee (AVC), Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) on these issues. …