Political Surveillance of the University

The first American student political movement developed on college and university campuses throughout the United States in the 1930s, including at the University of Minnesota.

Robert Cohen. When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement 1929-1941. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Activists took up the struggles to oppose entering a war in Europe, to stop mandatory on-campus military drills, and to strengthen student rights. African-American students led the efforts to integrate student housing and fight for the rights of African Americans on the campus. Students embraced a great diversity of politically progressive opinions at the University of Minnesota, which included visions inspired by communism, socialism, liberalism, and the ideas of the Farmer-Labor Party. Students at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere worked for civill rights off campus.

President Lotus Coffman and a small number of Regents were personally opposed to left-wing politics and began to question why there were radicals on the campus. They treated a student movement and student political debates as problems to be contained rather than as a normal part of either American or campus life. At the same time, some politicians, legislators, and citizens attacked the University of Minnesota as a campus that harbored anti-American Communists, vastly exaggerating or inventing the number of faculty or students who identified as communists for their own political purposes.

Abolish ROTC Poster

Poster used to protest the presence of the Reserve Officers Training Corps on American college campuses, which involved training male students to join the American military. It was founded in 1916.

Abolish ROTC Poster

This was one of several posters created for use by the student movement by the Rebel Arts Group in 1934. Rebel Arts was committed to exploring the relationship between art, politics, and revolution. The group also sponsored drama, chess, camera clubs, and a puppet theater. Rebel Arts was part of the Rand School of Social Science, which was founded in 1906 by the Socialist Movement of America in order to provide an education for workers and to serve as a research bureau, a publisher, and to provide a summer camp for workers, trade union activists, and socialists.

In this poster, the Rebel Arts Group portrayed those who joined ROTC as headless conformists. Founded in 1916, ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) trained male students to prepare for war, and was a target of the anti-militarism movements during the 1930s, and for many generations on college campuses thereafter.

 

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Gopher Communist

This cover page of the Gopher Communist was found in the Ray P. Chase files related to the University of Minnesota. It dates from the 1930s.

Gopher Communist

This cover page of the Gopher Communist was found in the Ray P. Chase files related to the University of Minnesota. It dates from the 1930s. The articles listed on the cover are typical of the concerns of the American Left of this period.

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Declaration of Rights of Youth, Poster

On July 4, 1936, members of the American Youth Congress announced their “Declaration of the Rights of American Youth.”

Declaration of Rights of Youth, Poster

The full text of the American Youth Congress’ “Declaration of the Rights of American Youth” is available here.

On July 4, 1936, members of the American Youth Congress announced their “Declaration of the Rights of American Youth.” Noting the threat of war, they asserted the need for “full educational opportunities, steady employment at adequate wages, and security in time of need, civil rights, religious freedom, and peace.” The inclusion of an African American and a white woman student underlined their commitment to diversity.

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Republican Politician and Dean of Student Affairs Create Campus Political Surveillance

Ray P. Chase (1880–1948), a Republican operative, aggressively advanced the idea that Communists had too much power at the University of Minnesota and in Minneapolis, and during the mid to late 1930s used those accusations as the foundation of the campaigns of Republican candidates for political office, including his own.

Ray Chase could not have accomplished this task without a close working relationship with Dean Edward E. Nicholson (1873–1949), who held the position of Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Minnesota from 1919 until his retirement in 1941. Dean Nicholson provided Chase not only with the names of faculty and student activists, but their on-campus activities and the political organizations they joined and led, as well as his overviews on radicalism on the campus His lists and abstracts of University Senate meetings about student petitions for recognition of left-wing organizations remain in Chase’s papers, which are housed at the Minnesota Historical Society. Ray Chase’s requests for information about the activities of students and on-campus speakers are there as well, and can be found in the documents section of the website.

Hyman Berman. “Political Antisemitism in Minnesota During the Great Depression.” Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3/4, American Bicentennial: I (Summer - Autumn, 1976), p 259, excluding fn 38.

Information about left-wing student activism flowed from Nicholson to Chase, to members of the Board of Regents, and to other administrators in order to track “radical” students and a small number of faculty. Ray Chase also received information about students from Lieutenant Colonel A. E. Potts, the head of the ROTC on campus, among others.

Together, Ray Chase, through his Chase Institute, Dean Edward Nicholson and others contributed to creating the University of Minnesota as a political surveillance campus, where monitoring of student political activity became the norm. Political clubs were infiltrated by students or people who appeared to be students, and their notes were ultimately sent to Chase. Students were queried about their political beliefs at meetings of the University Senate on Student Affairs Committee if they wanted to create organizations, and that information was passed on to Chase as well. Political on-campus rallies were monitored and information about them was sent to University administrators and Chase. Surveillance information became an invaluable commodity to be used by Chase to influence and affect Minnesota elections. Chase used every technique available to him to paint his opponents with a “red” paint brush, including innuendo, outright deception, racism, and antisemitism. Chase and Nicholson also collaborated on influencing the choice of regents, which is discussed in the essay “Regent George Leonard and the Political Fight Over Selecting Regents.”

Ray P. Chase

Ray Chase (1880–1948) was a Republican operative whose Chase Institute gathered information on University of Minnesota students and faculty to use in his campaigns against Farmer-Labor candidates.

 

Ray P. Chase

Ray P. Chase (1880–1948) was born in Anoka, Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1903. He received a law degree from William Mitchell Law School in 1919. He served as State Auditor from 1920–1931, and as a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1933–1935. He failed in his bid to become Governor of the State of Minnesota, losing to Farmer-Laborite Floyd B. Olson in 1930. He was a popular and highly praised figure among conservatives. But he had strong ties to a number of right-wing organizations, including the fascist Silver Shirts that were popular in Minnesota in the 1930s. He was opposed to taxation, and remained a right-wing figure in Republican politics.

Chase opened the Ray P. Chase Institute in Minneapolis and Chicago around 1936 in order to exert political influence over every aspect of Minnesota political life. His goal was to collect and keep “valuable information” on those whose ideas he opposed. He found spies to gather information, and frequently invented his opponents’ positions in order to advance his political agenda. Chase gathered information to use in order to smear the Farmer-Labor politicians running against the Republicans he supported, including the publication of Are they Communists or Catspaws?

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Ray Chase and Edward Nicholson’s Shared Political Agenda

Ray Chase, a Republican operative, past State Auditor and Congressperson, and Edward Nicholson, long-time Dean of Student Affairs, seem an unlikely pair to be active together in Minnesota and University politics. Nevertheless, the ten existing letters that they exchanged between 1936 and 1941 reveal two men who avidly worked together on political matters. Every letter from Chase asks for information from Nicholson on political matters related to the University of Minnesota. Most letters from Nicholson provide information, and some ask for help in addressing political matters, particularly around influencing the choice of University of Minnesota Regents. These ten letters may be found in the Documents section of the website, and described with more context in this essay and the essay entitled, “Regent George Leonard and the Political Fight Over Selecting Regents.”

The first letter in the Chase files to Nicholson, written shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unprecedented win over his Republican rival Alf Landon, reveals that Ray Chase was opening a business to provide information (what he loosely called “facts”) to clients, an activity he had undertaken during the 1936 election on behalf of Republican candidates in Washington D.C. and elsewhere. He intended for his business of providing information to shape political campaigns, and to inform the University of Minnesota and businesses of their “dangerous” students, faculty, workers, and administrators.

That first letter suggests that Chase and Nicholson had worked together for some time. Chase wrapped his announcement of his new business not only in pleasantries, but he acknowledged that Dean Nicholson did favors for him that he was anxious to reciprocate. He also requested that any information or “facts” be sent to him in Chicago. The letter assumed that Edward Nicholson knew just what sort of “facts” and “information” Chase sought.

What these letters unquestionably reveal is a connection between two men who not only shared a particular political agenda that Ray Chase termed “Conservative,” but that it was built on a quid pro quo relationship in which information was exchanged for political influence and favors. Chase’s request for facts included, over time, recordings of speeches by “radical” students, information about faculty and students with left-wing political perspectives, and lists of speakers and fees paid to them. This information was valuable because in the 1930s in Minnesota information about labor and political activism was central to the work of big business. Both Ray Chase and Edward Nicholson were part of that world. Other people on the campus of the University of Minnesota provided information to Chase that he requested, but none had a documented relationship of exchange of information for influence that he shared with Nicholson.

In the first decade of the twentieth century the big businesses of Minneapolis in Hennepin County organized into an association that was called the Citizens Alliance of Minneapolis. Its overarching goal was to defeat unions and stop labor from organizing or striking. Its founders and leaders were drawn from lumber, milling, mining, furniture manufacturing, banking, printing, iron works and many other businesses. The Citizens Alliance encouraged all businesses large and small to join, but the organization was controlled by a small board made up of the leaders of the largest industries. Avowedly anti-Communist, the Citizens Alliance painted all of their enemies as communists. Some in the labor movement were, but the vast majority were not.

William Millikan. The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society 2001. Lois Quom and Peter J. Rachleff. “Keeping Minneapolis an Open Shop Town: The Citizens Alliance in the 1930s.” Minnesota History, Fall, 1986 pp 195-117.
The Citizens Alliance of Minneapolis

This pamphlet was published by the Citizens Alliance of Minneapolis in 1935. The Alliance positioned itself as a pro-business civic association, but the group’s overarching goal was to defeat workers’ rights to organize labor unions and expose their imagined and real communist connections.

The Citizens Alliance of Minneapolis

This pamphlet was published by the Citizens Alliance of Minneapolis in 1935. The Alliance positioned itself as a pro-business civic association, but the group’s overarching goal was to undermine the labor unions and expose their real or imagined communist connections. Through relationships with banking and finance, the National Guard, and the grand jury system, the CA attempted to defeat efforts to organize workers. When they could not defeat the Teamsters’ strikes of 1934, they regrouped and renamed themselves the Allied Industries, but continued the same politics.

Dean Edward Nicholson and Ray Chase shared the political agendas created by the Citizens Alliance and the interests that they represented. Those interests depended upon a remarkable system of informers, spies, and infiltrators developed by the Citizens Alliance and its many branches and organizations throughout Minneapolis.

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The Citizens Alliance leadership created a system of interlocking organizations that included, for example, an employment bureau during the Depression that required those applying for jobs to agree not to join unions. They built vocational schools that taught the superiority of employers and the importance of loyalty to them. They built a separate relationship with the National Guard, and had ties to the grand jury system. The Citizens Alliance had strong allies in police enforcement, the courts, and among Republican politicians. They worked with the largest banks, which denied loans to businesses that were willing to employ unionized workers. Every business that joined the Citizens Alliance was required to take a pledge to refuse to employ unionized workers.

William Millikan. The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947. St. Paul: Minneapolis Historical Society 2001 pp 42-58.

The Citizens Alliance formed a Law and Order League following an intense period of labor activism in Minneapolis in 1934, focused on a Teamster strike. Edward Nicholson was one of four directors of the Law and Order League. He joined the leadership around 1935 and served with a General Mills Executive, among others. In addition to its opposition to unions, the League fostered a reverence for “law and order,” ideas contested by the student activists who frequently challenged the Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

William Millikan. A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society 2001 pp 325-326.

During this period, Ray Chase no longer held political office and was working with Republicans and big business to defeat not only Farmer-Labor Party candidates, but the commitments of the New Deal, and the rights of farmers and workers. Chase gathered and provided information to General Mills and other clients. This was one arena of Nicholson and Chase’s political activism.

Edward Nicholson and Ray Chase shared political agendas created by the Citizens Alliance and the interests that they represented. Those interests depended upon a remarkable system of informers, spies, and infiltrators developed by the Citizens Alliance and its many branches and organizations. The Citizens Alliance created The Special Services under the leadership of Lloyd M. MacAloon in 1929. He focused his surveillance on “radicals and trade unionists” and the Communist Party. The organization employed “investigators” who infiltrated every labor union organization in the city, even joining the ranks of union leadership. These spies provided information about union membership, finances, and plans to organize shops, all invaluable to the anti-union forces of the Citizens Alliance. MacAloon also kept copious files on “progressive thinkers,” college professors, lawyers, and anyone who might be viewed as “liberal” or might question business. His files gave basic information about individuals, linked them to others with these attitudes, and documented their personal histories. The Law and Order League that Nicholson helped to lead devoted two-thirds of its budget to intelligence gathering. This surveillance work was focused on the Farmer-Labor Party, “socially minded and progressive movements,” and others termed “enemies of society.”

William Millikan. A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society 2001 pp 223-224.

Chase and Nicholson’s quid-pro-quo relationship was fully aligned with the work of the Citizens Alliance. They viewed those students and faculty members as most dangerous to the University of Minnesota who were activists aligned with the Farmer-Labor Party, or were pro-union, or were critical of capitalism and opposed war. Dean Nicholson and Ray Chase made common cause in their rejection of these ideas and activism, and pursued the politics of law and order that made these students and faculty “enemies of society” as much as Farmer-Labor appointees to the Board of Regents.

Ray P. Chase and His Campaign Against the University of Minnesota

Ray Chase was born in Anoka, Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1903. He received a law degree from William Mitchell Law School in 1919. He served as a municipal judge of Anoka, Minnesota from 1911 to 1916, and as deputy State auditor and land commissioner of Minnesota from 1916 through 1920. Chase was State Auditor from 1920–1931 and a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1933–1935. He failed in his bid for reelection to the House of Representatives, as well as to become Governor of the State of Minnesota, losing to Farmer-Laborite Floyd B. Olson in 1930. He was a popular and highly praised figure among conservatives and extremists with strong ties to a number of right-wing organizations that were popular in Minnesota in the 1930s. He was opposed to taxation, and remained a right-wing figure in Republican politics.

Hyman Berman. “Political Antisemitism in Minnesota During the Great Depression.” Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3/4, American Bicentennial: I (Summer - Autumn, 1976) p 257. Chase is also discussed in Dorothy Dorsey Hatle. The Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota. Charleston, South Carolina: History Press 2013, pp 65-67, 70-71, 152-153.

Chase’s efforts to intervene in the affairs of the University of Minnesota began in the 1920s. In 1925, while he served as Minnesota State Auditor, he refused to approve a voucher in payment of a Board of Regent member’s expense. The expense in question was for a survey for the purpose of “installing a plan of group insurance of members of the faculty and other permanent employees of the University.” The Regents were concerned that this denial of an expense was a threat to the University of Minnesota’s autonomy. They were aware that Ray Chase and Republican governor Theodore Christianson, who served from 1925–1931, sought to make the University of Minnesota an agency of state government. Their goal was to take from the Board of Regents the right to expend money from “any source” and to put it under the control of the commission headed by the auditor. The Board of Regents sued Auditor Ray Chase over his claim to veto power regarding expenses, arguing that it violated the State of Minnesota constitution because it made him the “final arbiter” of the University of Minnesota.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota, in “State Ex Rel. University of Minnesota and Others v. Ray P. Chase,” found for the University of Minnesota in its 1928 ruling. The decision stated that the rights of the Regents could not be transferred to “any other board, commission, or office.” This decision gave the University of Minnesota and its Board of Regents a special legal status of “constitutional autonomy,” which made it a separate department rather than an agency of government. Nevertheless, Ray Chase continued to intervene in the affairs of the University throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, although his focus was on political activism on the campus and a relentless hunt to reveal those he labeled Communists.

https://casetext.com/case/state-ex-rel-university-of-minnesota-v-chase Supreme Court of Minnesota July 27, 1928.

Chase opened the Ray P. Chase Institute in Minneapolis and Chicago in 1936 following FDR’s reelection, which he worked against. Following this strategy, he created an organization that allowed him to exert political influence over every aspect of Minnesota political life. His goal was to collect and keep “valuable information” on those whose ideas he opposed. He found spies, colleagues, and those who shared his political vision to gather information for him. However, he was not bound by facts, and frequently invented his opponents’ positions in order to advance his political agenda. Chase gathered information to use in order to smear the Farmer-Labor politicians running against the Republicans he supported.

Ray Chase to Henry Veeder

Ray P. Chase wrote to lawyer Henry Veeder about why he opened the Chase Research Bureau (later called Chase Institute). He emphasized the value of information to be used against “our radical friends.”

Ray Chase to Henry Veeder

Henry Veeder (March 13, 1867-June 9, 1942), served as General Counsel of Swift and Company as well as St. Joseph Stock Yards of Missouri. Swift and Company was a major meatpacking company in the midwest. The meatpacking industry in general, and the Swift, Armour and Company in particular, was in constant conflict with its workers and their efforts to unionize.
Chase explains to Veeder that he will continue to secure information of the type that would be valuable to the type of industries Veeder worked for.
Chase notes that he conducted “research” in Washington DC, for the Republican National Committee, and for business, all focused on “our radical friends.”
Chase both suggests that he can make more money in the business of information, and notes that he offers his services without charge. He is clearly supported by those in business and elsewhere who want information made widely available to politicians, businesses, and other groups who share Chase’s political views

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He devoted himself to a number of overarching themes, including “Keep America American,” and saw enemies of that vision in the presence of the Farmer-Labor Party, Jews, and left-wing activists, among others. He and his allies decided who was “Un-American,” “Red,” “Trotskyite,” or “Jew Communist.” He vowed to eliminate communist activity in higher education, particularly at the University of Minnesota. Chase’s claim to have “documentary evidence” underlines why he needed allies at the University of Minnesota to provide him information that he could twist to make a case for his extreme anti-communism position. He promised more sympathy from the legislature if the University of Minnesota would work with him in attacking “academic freedom,” or the open exchange of ideas.

For Chase, taxation and public-sector jobs, even in the midst of the Depression, “paved the way for communism.” What Chase termed government and University “inefficiency” often meant the use of funds for the common good.

Keep America American, Chase Flier

This 1937 circular aimed to create a “Voluntary Committee” to carry out the work of the Chase Institute, which was committed to closing the nation’s borders to Catholics, Jews, and people of the Third World.

Keep America American, Chase Flier

The Ray P Chase Institute offered information about people and groups Chase deemed subversives, Communists, and dangerous. This 1937 circular sought to create a “Voluntary Committee” to carry out this work. He used the language of “facts” in all of his work to carry out political campaigns to smear the people he disagreed with. Ray Chase claimed the work was “non-political,” despite its highly partisan approach. He drew on the right-wing’s language to “Keep America American,” and made clear that those who were foreign born, Jews, or whose ideas disagreed with his were not “American.”

The phrase “Keep America American” was derived from the motto of the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, founded in 1929 by one of the architects of the movement to limit immigration to the United States, John B. Trevor Sr.. Chase’s choice of phrases aligned him with xenophobic, anti-immigrant activists and eugenicists. T

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Chase on U of M “Existing Situation”

This 1937 Chase Institute flyer is directed to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents to offer information about the purported infiltration of the University by “Russian-directed” Communists.

 

Chase on U of M “Existing Situation”

This 1937 Chase Institute flyer is directed to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents to offer information about the infiltration of the University by “Russian-directed” Communists. His constant appeal to “facts” belies an ideologically driven misreading of campus activism. He clearly opposed any open debate and discussion of ideas. There is no evidence that his “offer” of information was accepted by the regents.

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Upon appointment to the role of Dean, Nicholson exercised unprecedented control over the lives of students because he oversaw student discipline, housing, student activities, the publication board that advised the Minnesota Daily, the literary journal and humor magazine, and the control of many political activities. He created the apparatus in the University Senate Student Affairs Committee that made it possible to monitor and contain the ideas of students whose politics disagreed with what he believed was American. He also refused recognition of some student organizations, including the National Student League, the Student League for Industrial Democracy, the Young Communist League, and the American Student Union. Students who were directly or tangentially associated with these student groups and allied causes (labor rights, racial integration, diversity of thought, racial and religious freedom and rights) became targets for administrative surveillance.

Historian James Gray’s history of the University of Minnesota from 1851 to 1951 discusses Dean Nicholson’s tenure at the University. He praises his “unselfish interest in the welfare of students,” and notes the many stresses faced by students due to “war, depression, and changing mores.” He also refers tactfully to his “inflexibility,” which he attributes to Nicholson’s “idealism.” He also suggests that there was an irony in his nickname “Dean Nick,” since it evoked his opposite, Saint Nick. Gray lacks any acknowledgment of Nicholson’s right-wing politics. At the same time, he makes clear that Nicholson was viewed as rigid, which is surely an understatement. James Gray. The University of Minnesota 1851–1951. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1951 pp 349-356.
Nicholson’s History of Radical Movements Requested by Regent

Dean Nicholson provided this “history” of radicalism at the University in 1940 at the request of Regent James Ford Bell. He blames the Farmer-Labor Party for student radicalism, rather than crediting student activists with their own ideas.

Nicholson’s History of Radical Movements Requested by Regent

Dean Nicholson provided this “history” of radicalism at the University in 1940 at the request of Regent James Ford Bell, who was President of General Mills from 1928 to 1934 and had employed Ray Chase for unspecified work. In this private document, Nicholson revealed his belief that the Minnesota Daily was controlled by Marxists, that the Farmer-Labor Party gave rise to student activism, and that students from New York came to campus in order to foment radical activities. His facts were often incorrect. He will continue to attack this political party on and off campus throughout the 1930s.

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Ray Chase and Edward Nicholson Created a Political Surveillance Campus

Dean Edward Nicholson, among others, provided the names of people he viewed as radicals or Communists to Ray Chase. The Chase archive contains lists of students who were key leaders in the anti-war movement as pacifists or anti-militarists, worked on the Minnesota Daily, or were active in student government. Abstracts of University Senate meetings, found in Chase’s files, contained the names of students who sought approval for University recognition of a variety of political organizations, a process that Nicholson controlled. White students involved in the fight to end segregated housing were included as “Troublemakers.” Most African American students were not included in any of the existing lists because they were not viewed as radicals or Communists by Chase or Nicholson. Others on campus also provided names.

What was particularly striking about this list was the absence of names of some students who described themselves as Communists. Rather, this list is devoted overwhelmingly to members of the Jacobin fraternity, which is discussed in the essay “Student Movements on Campus.” Dean Edward Nicholson was particularly embattled with these young men, who occupied important roles in the leadership of the Minnesota Daily and the anti-war movement. The lists include those students who Dean Nicholson particularly disliked because of their activism and attacks on his authority.

Ray Chase then created dossiers on these students that sometimes included their parents’ names and occupations, and noted if they were Jews. He labeled some of these activists as “Communists,” when virtually none of them described themselves in those terms. Chase saw left-wing Jews as dangerous agitators. Non-Jews on the lists were never identified by race or religion.

In 1941, “Dean Nick” (the Dean’s nickname) provided a St. Paul FBI agent with the name of the student president of the American Student Union, the most important organization in the student movement. It was the year he retired. Eric Sevareid also had an FBI file, and his student activism was included in it, as was that of Robert Loevinger and Lester Breslow. The sources of information to the FBI were sometimes anonymous, but for Sevareid in particular, it read much like Chase’s sketch of him. Breslow’s file indicates that a letter had been sent by Edward E. Nicholson in 1942 to the Special Agent in Charge concerning “the subject matter of the letter,” which was Lester Breslow.

Eric Sevareid's FBI file is referred to in the Wikipedia entry for Sevareid. It refers to his declassified file from 1966, and discusses his on-campus associations at the University of Minnesota. wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Sevareid, accessed July 14, 2019. Robert Loevinger's FBI file was accessed by his son, Neal Loevinger, and made available by him. Lester Breslow's FBI file was accessed through The Black Vault July 14, 2019.
Notes on Radicalism at the University of Minnesota

This list covered 1934 to 1937 and is one of his most detailed. It focused on student activists from the Minnesota Daily and leaders in the anti-war movement. It also named the organizations that he described as radical.

Notes on Radicalism at the University of Minnesota

Ray P. Chase created these lists based on information provided to him by Dean Edward E. Nicholson, among others, about students from 1934 to 1937. These FBI-like dossiers included political organizations to which students belonged, their on-campus activities, and information about their fathers, in many cases. Chase listed which students were Jews—an antisemitic association of Jews with radicalism and a lack of true Americanism. His accusations of who was a Communist were most often wrong. Chase used this information to demonstrate that the University of Minnesota was infiltrated by communism. He also included the names of organizations he deemed as radical.

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In 1935, Dean Nicholson filed a report to his own files laying out his history of radicalism at the University of Minnesota as well as a very detailed analysis of how communism influenced each group. Some of the students he labeled Communists were not, as described in their memoirs or papers. Richard Scammon, Warner Shippee, and Eric Sevareid among others were not, for example. Nicholson suggested that African American activism about integrating student housing was initiated by communists. It was not. He railed against student use of the term “strike” in their anti-war demonstration, which revealed his own Law and Order Forum anti-labor politics. Finally, he noted that a member of the Social Problems Club taught young children about communism, a fact taken directly from an “undercover” report the same month as this document in the Chase files. Was Dean Nicholson the person asking Ray Chase to be careful to protect the source in that report?

Dean Edward Nicholson’s Statement on Radical Organizations

Dean Nicholson summarizes radicalism on the campus from his perspective.

 

Dean Edward Nicholson’s Statement on Radical Organizations

Dean Edward Nicholson created his own report on radical organizations in April of 1935 at a moment of significant political change on the campus and in the Minneapolis labor movement. He laid out in detail his account of how left-wing activism developed at the University of Minnesota. He linked it to the arrival of two activists from New York, who he identifies as Jews, in the same way that other right-wing political partisans of the era did.

Nicholson’s perspective provided a distorted lens on political activism. He viewed all activism through the lens of communism. For example, Nicholson stated that left-wing students tried to convince “Negro” students to protest segregation, denying the strong leadership of African-American students. Or, he claimed that communists were behind student petitions for conscientious objection. Warner Shippee, one of those students, was a committed pacifist, a campus Jacobin, and not a communist. He distorted student interests in Marxist thought as identical to membership in the party. Because several of these student activists documented their interests at the time, there is counter evidence to Nicholson’s assumptions.

Nicholson also bridled at students referring to their peace demonstrations as “strikes,” echoing labor activism. He expressed great frustration over their insistence on the term because of his anti-labor stance.

These comments underline how deeply Nicholson’s own Law and Order League, Citizen’s Alliance, anti labor politics shaped his understanding of campus activism. There were certainly communists on the campus of the University of Minnesota as there were in all movements of the 1930s. Nicholson seemed to see them everywhere.

Interestingly, Nicholson seemed to know that one member of the Social Problems Club taught young children about communism. That obscure fact was included in a report found in Ray Chase’s files in a report by someone who passed as a member in order to spy. Was it Nicholson who urged Chase to be cautious and not to out the source?

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Ray Chase’s files include many lists of campus speakers during the 1930s. He carefully monitored who spoke at the University of Minnesota as an important weapon in his arsenal to be used to prove that the University of Minnesota harbored Communists. He did this for two reasons; he sought to censor any open exchange of ideas, and he argued that public funds were being misappropriated by paying people with whom he disagreed.

The Student Forum was the organization that invited a variety of speakers to campus. The members of the Student Forum were included in the Gopher yearbook each year. More than one-third of the names of members of the 1935 Student Forum appear on Ray Chase’s lists of radical and politically suspect students. The speakers invited to campus that year are also in his files. Dean Nicholson supervised the organization, knew the students, and may well be the important link between Ray Chase and this information. Nicholson did not censor the students. Instead, information about them and the guests invited to campus were used by Chase to “prove” his claims of communist infiltration, which became part of his attacks on Farmer-Labor politicians.

Chase List of Student Forum, 1935

This list includes names of speakers who were invited to campus, most likely provided by Dean of Students Edward Nicholson. This annotated list includes who Chase approved or disapproved of because of their political outlook. This is one of many such lists of speakers at the University in Chase’s files.

Chase List of Student Forum, 1935

The Student Forum was a student organization that selected speakers involved with political issues to be invited to campus. Dean of Students Edward Nicholson, who advised the group, most likely provided Chase with the names of those speakers throughout the 1930s. Chase monitored who was invited. He annotated the 1935 list in red for those speakers he disapproved of as “reds,” and used blue for those to whom he had no objection.

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Student Forum, Gopher Yearbook 1935

The members of the Student Forum Committee that invited speakers to campus in 1935. Many of them were on Ray Chase’s lists of radical students.

Student Forum, Gopher Yearbook 1935

These students were members of the Student Forum in 1935. They were the organization that chose speakers to be invited to campus to speak about the important issues of the time. A third of their names were found on Ray Chase’s lists of radical students, many with comments about their activism, their parents’ names and addresses, and their political attitudes. Their names were Lester Breslow, Sherman Dryer, Helen Grant, Robert Loevinger, Richard Scammon, Frderick Rarig, and Gertrude Lippincott.

Chase’s annotated list of the 1935 Student Forum speakers noted that the group was dominated by “liberals,” which is why he kept track of them.

Many of the male students were part of the Jacobins, the group most committed to student activism around ending required on-campus military drills. These students often challenged Dean Edward Nicholson’s power over student life and were in conflict with him.

Dean Nicholson supervised the Student Forum and likely was the source of information about these students to Chase.

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Nicholson Letter to Chase Giving Names, 1941

Dean Edward Nicholson contacted Ray Chase to provide him with names of faculty and students he determined held “dangerous” political views. By clicking on the document, you will find the names he sent and his reference to the FBI.

Nicholson Letter to Chase Giving Names, 1941

Dean Edward Nicholson contacted Ray Chase to provide him with names of faculty and students he determined held “dangerous” political views, which meant anyone he defined as a Communist, including those who were fighting on-campus racism. He mentioned that he was sending Minnesota Daily clippings as well.

Nicholson mentions Shelly. Sheldon Wood was chair of Electric Steel. He and others mentioned, including James Ford Bell, chair of General Mills from 1928-1934, were University regents. They were leaders of the Citizens Alliance, and worked to undermine unions and workers’ rights.

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Lieutenant Colonel Adam E. Potts Spies for Chase and FBI

Lieutenant Colonel Potts provided Ray Chase with the names of left-wing students.

Lieutenant Colonel Adam E. Potts Spies for Chase and FBI

These lists of students were sent by the head of the ROTC to Ray P. Chase. Potts recruited students to infiltrate left-wing student organizations and collect names. He then sent them to Chase. Chase requests students addresses and their “nationality,” which was a code word for whether or not they were Jews or children of the foreign born.

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Lieutenant Colonel Adam Potts spied for Ray Chase when he recruited an unnamed person to join the Marxist Club in 1939 and the Socialist Club. Chase requested that Potts provide the “nationality” of students in order to learn whether they were Jews or had immigrant parents, both groups outside the boundaries of “Keeping America American.”

Ray Chase also received information from others on campus. An anonymous description of a February 27, 1935 Social Problems Club listed all of those attending and the topics discussed. It ends with a plea to be careful with the use of this information in order to avoid uncovering “our informant.”

Dean Nicholson's files contain a report he wrote about radicalism at the University of Minnesota. He discussed the Social Problem Club with information that is remarkably close to this report in the Chase files. Dean of Students Papers. Box 10 - Folder 35, Radical Organizations and Activities Re. Communism, April 16, 1935. University of Minnesota Archive.
Confidential Report on Social Problems Club to Ray Chase

An anonymous report about a 1935 meeting of the Social Problems Club at the University of Minnesota sent to Ray Chase. It admonished him to avoid revealing their source. Dean Edward Nicholson had an identical report in his files.

Confidential Report on Social Problems Club to Ray Chase

This report to Ray Chase about a February 27, 1935 meeting of the Social Problems Club focused on a group that Dean Edward Nicholson viewed as radical. It listed the names of every student and faculty member attending. The report noted what other political organizations the students belonged to, and which student was African American. Many of these individuals-both faculty and students- appeared on the lists of University of Minnesota men and women that Chase was tracking. An identical report appears in the papers of Edward Nicholson. The only difference from the one in the Ray Chase file is that Chase is admonished to avoid revealing the source of the report. Nicholson and others recruited students to spy on organizations.

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Vern Mohens signed his name to a description of a meeting of the Socialist Club in January of 1942. Mohens worked in the University’s housing office, and in 1941 headed Pioneer Hall. He was also the administrator who, in 1942, closed a cooperative student house, the International House, when he learned it was racially integrated.

V. Mohns, University Administrator Spies on Socialist Club

Vern E. Mohns was a University administrator who worked in the Office of Student Housing. Part of his duties appeared to be reporting on student organizations that Dean Nicholson labeled as radical.

V. Mohns, University Administrator Spies on Socialist Club

V. E. Mohns was an administrator at the University. He worked in the office of student housing in this period. In 1942, he was Director of Pioneer Hall, and he oversaw the International House as well. Mohns reported on the integration of the International House that led him to eject its residents and lock the door.

This report mentions only a few names, but focuses on what occurred and was said. It is impossible to know if Vern Mohns sent this directly to Ray Chase or if it was transmitted by people on campus with direct ties to him, such as Dean Nicholson.

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H.R. Jensen, who is not identified, provided notes for Ray Chase on the Socialist Club meeting the next month, and includes the Minnesota Daily article about it.

Spying on Socialist Club

Ray Chase received a “report” on the meeting of the Socialist Club in February of 1941.

Spying on Socialist Club

H.R. Jensen (not yet identified) provided information about a February, 1941 meeting of the Socialist Club, along with a Minnesota Daily article about it.  His report focused on the inability of the “official administrators” to provide relief compared to the Teamsters Union.The report also focused on the place of violence in Socialist ideology.

It is impossible to know if this person provided this information directly to Ray Chase, or if was transmitted from someone on the campus.

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J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972) built the FBI as a powerful espionage agency.

Tim Weiner. Enemies: A History of the FBI. New York: Random House, 2012.

Hoover’s obsession with communism led him to doggedly pursue left-wing student activists for his entire career while often overlooking right-wing radicals. University and college administrators throughout the United States eagerly cooperated with the FBI, just as Edward Nicholson did when he gave Esther Leah Medalie’s name (misspelled on the report) to the FBI.

Robert Cohn. When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement 1929-1941. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press 1993.
FBI Report on American Students Union

Edward E. Nicholson offers the name of the chair of the University of Minnesota American Student Union to a St. Paul FBI agent., who includes it in his report.

FBI Report on American Students Union

Edward E. Nicholson offers the name of the chair of the University of Minnesota American Student Union to a St. Paul FBI agent, who includes it in his report. Campus political surveillance of student activists was widespread in the 1930s. Dean of Students Edward Nicholson had an ongoing relationship with the FBI.

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The Role of Campus Surveillance in Minnesota’s 1938 Election

Some of the surveillance that Ray Chase requested from Dean Nicholson and others appeared in his self-published, professionally produced, 62-page hardcover booklet the month before the 1938 gubernatorial election between Farmer-Laborite Elmer Benson and his Republican challenger Harold Stassen. It was titled Are They Communists or Catspaws: A Redbaiting Pamphlet. A catspaw is a term that describes a person used unwittingly to accomplish another’s goals. Governor Benson, Chase implied, was being used by “Jew Communists” in his inner circle. Chase estimated that he sent 13,000 copies of his document by mid-October to every legislative candidate and all Conservative Christian clergy. The “pamphlet” was widely discussed in the Minnesota press, and religious and political leaders supported or condemned it. It had an impact on the election, which Stassen went on to win handily. Chase used false information, innuendo, and altered photographs, and wrapped them all in the claim they were “factual.”

Discussions of the pamphlet and its impact on the 1938 election may be found in Arthur Naftalin. A History of the Farmer Labor Party of Minnesota, PhD Dissertation, University of Minnesota 1945 pp 375-376. Hyman Berman. “Political Antisemitism in Minnesota During the Great Depression.” Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3/4, American Bicentennial: I (Summer - Autumn, 1976), p 261. Richard Valelly. State-Level Radicalism and the Nationalization of American Politics: The Case of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. Harvard University Dissertation. University Microfilms International: Ann Arbor, Michigan 1985 pp 260-261. Steven J. Keillor. Hjalmar Petersen of Minnesota: The Politics of Provincial Independence. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society 1987 pp 164-167. William Millikan. A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947. St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press 2001, p 344. The lists of recipients for Are They Communists or Catspaws may be found in Ray Chase Files, Minnesota Historical Society, Box 42, Folder: Undated 1938. All of these scholarly studies underline the antisemitism of the pamphlet.
Are They Communists or Catspaws: A Red Baiting Pamphlet

Are They Communists or Catspaws: A Red Baiting Pamphlet was created by Ray P. Chase and circulated the month before the 1938 gubernatorial election between Farmer-Labor candidate Governor Elmer Benson and Republican challenger Harold Stassen.

Are They Communists or Catspaws: A Red Baiting Pamphlet

Are They Communists or Catspaws: A Red Baiting Pamphlet was created by Ray P. Chase, and circulated the month before the 1938 gubernatorial election between Farmer-Labor candidate Governor Elmer Benson and Republican challenger Harold Stassen. Chase claimed that Benson’s inner circle of five advisors were communists and implied they were Jews.

He devoted many pages to the University of Minnesota to demonstrate that it was infiltrated by Communists under Bensen’s watch. Although attacked for its lies, it was applauded by some in the press and some church leaders. Its lies and manipulated photographs were revealed by the Benson campaign in a response.

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The pamphlet focused on who Chase claimed to be Benson’s close political allies and members of his administration. However, Chase did not mention or picture most of the significant people in the Benson administration. Rather, he focused on four men who were all Jewish, two of whom played minor roles in Benson’s organization. Without using the world “Jewish,” Chase mounted an antisemitic attack on Benson by suggesting that he was surrounded by Jews who were Communists, although some of them had been vigorous in working against communist infiltration of the Farmer-Labor Party. Chase included photographs of Jewish advisers that emphasized so-called Jewish facial features.

Steven J. Keillor. Hjalmar Petersen of Minnesota: The Politics of Provincial Independence. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society 1987 pp 155-157. Much of the antisemitism of Ray Chase's “pamphlet” emerged from the primary fight for the Farmer-Labor Party nomination for Governor. Benson was challenged by Petersen. Steven Keillor argues that Petersen did not stop those in his campaign who were overtly antisemitic even if he was not. The antisemitic attacks created by the Petersen organization in the primary were taken up by Chase and fueled his “whisper” campaign against Benson in the general election. Steven J. Keillor argues that Ray Chase's Research Bureau began its attack against Governor Benson by investigating “wasteful spending.” However, by the spring of 1938 he focused on the “backgrounds” of Benson's aids. Chase showed “great interest in identifying Jews in the liberal ranks,” a cue he took from the primary campaign between Benson and Hjalmar Petersen, both Farmer-Laborites. The research by his assistant resulted in finding links between Communists and Jews by means of the infamous forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Steven J. Keillor. Hjalmar Petersen of Minnesota: The Politics of Provincial Independence. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society 1987 pp 163-164.

Many pages were also devoted to the University of Minnesota. Sherman Dryer, who was included on the “Radical Leaders” list, also appeared in his “pamphlet.” Chase devoted several pages to the poet Langston Hughes, who was a convocation speaker at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1935. Hughes spoke at the University’s opening convocation to an unprecedented 4,000 people at Northrop Auditorium, and his talk was broadcast by radio. He also lectured at the St. Paul YWCA, sponsored by the City-Wide Interracial Committee of St. Paul, and at the Citizen’s Aid Building, sponsored by the Interracial Committee of the Urban League.

“Hughes to Discuss Economic Problem of Modern Negro”

The Minnesota Daily called on students to “Make America what its founders really intended it to be, a place of freedom for everyone of every color.”

“Hughes to Discuss Economic Problem of Modern Negro”

The Minnesota Daily reports on Langston Hughes’s upcoming lecture and poetry reading at Northrup Auditorium. The poet addressed issues of race, class solidarity, Italy’s war with Ethiopia, and his visit to the Soviet Union. However, the main purpose of Hughes’s lecture was to foster the literary efforts of Black writers like himself, and to support rights for African Americans.

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By 1935, Hughes was a significant literary figure, a published poet, and novelist who had received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, among other awards. In the 1920s, he was a major and influential figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and went on to write for a large audience of Americans of many races and cultures. By the time of his death he had published and edited in every literary genre, including as a journalist.

Arnold Rampersad. The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume 1: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America. p 313. (Second Edition) Oxford University Press 2002.

Langston Hughes was also a political activist throughout the 1930s, concerned with the rights of African Americans and working people. During that period, he participated in causes led by the Communist Party, which he never formally joined. Over his life he was attacked by both the right and the left wing for his ideas.

Chase tracked the fee that Hughes received with Nicholson’s help. Langston Hughes was included in Communists or Catspaws as further proof of the University’s domination by communism.

Chase to Nicholson requesting information on the funding for Langston Hughes’ Lecture

Ray Chase sought information from Dean Edward Nicholson about Langston Hughes.

Chase to Nicholson requesting information on the funding for Langston Hughes’ Lecture

Letter from Ray P. Chase to Edward E. Nicholson requesting information about how much Langston Hughes was paid for his public lecture at the University of Minnesota. That information appeared in Are they Communists or Catspaws, his attack on Governor Benson. Chase does not know Langston Hughes’s first name.

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Langston Hughes

Winold Reiss painted this watercolor portrait of Langston Hughes in 1925 when Hughes was 23 years old. Hughes was a major American poet, novelist, journalist, and playwright.

 

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was a major American poet, novelist, journalist, and playwright. He was known for his insightful and powerful portrayal of African American life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He was also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing. He had an enormous impact on shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

During the twenties, Hughes “used language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read . . . Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.”

Hughes wrote eleven plays and countless works of prose.

He was particularly active in the left during the 1930s, though he never joined the Communist Party, and his politics led to Ray P. Chase to include his lecture at the University of Minnesota in Are They Communists or Catspaws, with information provided by Dean Edward Nicholson.

Hughes spoke at the University in 1935 when he was most politically involved.

To learn more about Langston Hughes see Langston Hughes – Poet | Academy of American Poets.

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The Benson Campaign Responds

Benson Campaign Responds to Pamphlet

The Benson campaign responded to Chase’s well-funded publication with limited time and resources.

Benson Campaign Responds to Pamphlet

The Benson campaign responded to Ray Chase’s well-funded publication with limited time and resources. The response focused on a small fraction of the images that Chase had manipulated to create the illusion of Governor Benson appearing with a Communist activist, among many others. Chase hid behind his smear tactics and never responded to these accusations.

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White Nationalism, Nativism, and Antisemitism in Minnesota Politics in the 1930s

Are They Communists or Catspaws was the tip of an enormous iceberg built of nativism, antisemitism, populism, and pro-Nazi and fascist politics. In Minnesota, it took the shape of false accusations about which Farmer-Laborites and others were Communists. Its ideas were driven by appeals to “America First” ideologies, which were born out of the “One Hundred Percent Americanism” of the WWI era that punished any form of dissent. That attitude was joined in equal measure to a nativist hostility to immigrants and their children that was energized by “scientific racism” and its attacks on people of color as well. “America First” weaponized an antisemitism that insisted that Jews were Communists and “internationalists,” as they were portrayed in Ray Chase’s pamphlet.

John Higham. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. Loc 347, 382 accessed July 20, 2019.

Chase corresponded extensively with the leaders of Minnesota’s most extremist and right-wing groups of the 1930s. They are described in detail in the essay Antisemitism at the University of Minnesota. In Minnesota, Republicans, leaders of big business, churches, and right-wing organizations created disturbing alliances. Among the most prominent fascist, pro-Nazi groups were the German American Bund, the Silver Shirts (Silver Legion), and the Christian Nation. Three smaller organizations were headquartered in Minnesota in the mid-1930s, some only briefly. They were the Christian Vigilantes of Minneapolis, the Pro-Christian American Society, and the White Shirts in Virginia, Minnesota. Each combined an anti-Farmer-Labor, anti-union perspective, with Christianity and antisemitism.

Luke Rader, a self-styled Evangelist at the River-Lake Gospel Tabernacle in Minneapolis, who claimed that Communists “controlled our governor” and were dangers to Christianity, was another prominent figure. Rader subscribed to a great number of conspiracy theories regarding Jewish control of the world and strongly advocated for the need to defeat Jews. It was no surprise, then, that he provided Ray Chase with antisemitic pamphlets.

Steven J. Keillor. Hjalmar Petersen of Minnesota: The Politics of Provincial Independence. St. Paul: Minnesota History Press 1987 pp 153, 154, 163, fn 146 p 298.

The Silver Shirts, both locally and nationally, took great interest in the Minnesota governor’s race in 1938. Their members distributed leaflets in support of Harold Stassen and in their newspaper advised their followers, “If you don’t want Jewish Communism with resulting violence, blood-shed and civil war (and, of course, nobody does) get out at once and help defeat Benson and his criminal cohorts—with Ballots. If it can’t be done with ballots, now, there must be bullets later!” Historian William Millikan notes that in August of 1938, just three months before the election, Pelley dispatched one of his top lieutenants, Roy Zachary, from North Carolina to Minnesota to enlist 3,000–5,000 new members. He worked with Associated Industries, the organization of major industrial leaders, and worked to infiltrate the Teamster Union Local 544 that had successfully organized a major strike in 1934.

Sarah Atwood. “ ’This List Not Complete': Minnesota's Jewish Resistance to the Silver Legion of America, 1936–1940.” Minnesota History. Winter 20-18-2019 p 150. William Millikan. A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947. St. Paul: Minnestoa Historical Society 2001 pp 336-337.. Minnesota History. Winter 20-18-2019 p 150. William Millikan. A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903-1947. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society 2001 pp 336-337.

A number of scholars have noted that there were other strong crossovers between the anti-union leaders of big business and the Silver Shirts. George Belden, leader of the Associated Industries, and its predecessor the Citizens Alliance, attended meetings of the Silver Shirts in July of 1938. When Minneapolis Rabbi Albert Gordon wrote to the Associated Industries to inquire what relationship there was between the organization and the Silver Shirts, the organization’s secretary stated the group was opposed to it. Belden defensively replied he was there as an individual and found some good ideas regarding “racketeers,” a code word for union members.

Michael Gerald Rapp. An Historic Overview of Antisemitism in Minnesota, 1920-1960 with Particular Emphasis on Minneapolis and St. Paul. PhD dissertation, University of Minnesota 1977 pp 73-73, citing clippings on Belden in the papers of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Minnesota Historical Society. Albert Gordon commented on this campaign in his sociological study of the Jews of Minneapolis in Jews in Transition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1949 pp 50-51. Joe Allen. “It Can’t Happen Here: Confronting the Fascist Threat in America in the 1930s.” Issue 385: Features, International Socialist Review, September-October 2012. https://isreview.org/issue/85/it-cant-happen-here, accessed July 19, 2019.

A Jewish Response

Both Governor Benson and Harold Stassen had Jewish supporters. Nevertheless, Communists or Catspaws was an antisemitic attack that members of the Jewish community, whatever their political party affiliation, refused to ignore, even if some of the Minnesota press did. Minnesota Jews responded in a number of ways. Most significantly, they expanded a newly-created Anti Defamation Council, a defense organization that countered such attacks.

The American Jewish World, the newspaper of the Jewish communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, founded in 1912 by Rabbi Samuel Deinard and which has been continually in publication since then, ran two ads shortly before the election. The Farmer-Labor advertisement directly addressed the antisemitism of Communists or Catspaws. The Republican advertisement claimed that Stassen was a “liberal,” and without using the term antisemitism, denounced extremism. Stassen’s Jewish supporters pleaded with him to respond to Chase in some way and this advertisement was one result.

Stassen Ad in The American Jewish World

The Stassen campaign responded to Ray Chase’s Are They Communists or Catspaws in an advertisement in The American Jewish World. He never acknowledged the antisemitism in his campaign.

Stassen Ad in The American Jewish World

The Stassen campaign released this advertisement in The American Jewish World in response to the controversy over Are They Communists or Catspaws, an antisemitic pamphlet written by Ray P. Chase accusing Stassen’s opponent, Elmer Benson, of harboring communist sympathies. Stassen states nothing about antisemitism or red baiting in his ad, but identifies himself as a liberal.

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Benson ad in The American Jewish World

This Elmer Benson campaign advertisement in The American Jewish World responded to Are they Communists or Catspaws the week prior to the election, and called it red-bating and Jew-baiting.

Benson ad in The American Jewish World

The Elmer Benson campaign responded to the dissemination of Are They Communists or Catspaws, an antisemitic pamphlet written by Ray P. Chase, with this advertisement, published in The American Jewish World the week before the election for governor. The ad accuses the Stassen campaign and its supporters of red-baiting and Jew-baiting, and implies their association with the Silver Shirts, a national pro-Nazi group with a following in Minnesota.

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Conclusion

In the 1930s, the University of Minnesota was as divided a world as was the State of Minnesota and the Twin Cities. Young men and women contended with the same economic Depression, the same fears about war, and the same limits created by class, sexism, racism, and antisemitism. Many of them were avidly engaged by the same activism and debates about political and economic ideologies that shaped the experience of being American.

The stakes in these battles were exceptionally high, and made even more significant when the progressive Farmer-Labor Party took control of state and national offices in Minnesota. Many student activists supported the party and its commitments to labor and student rights. Many of the University’s administrators did not. Beyond the campus, citizens and elected officials along the political spectrum put the University of Minnesota in the crosshairs of their conflicts with accusations of communism, or suppression of student rights.

Political surveillance became a fixture of American life during WWI, with citizens’ ideas, speech, and actions being scrutinized and punished. The 1930s was another such era. Labor activists and political radicals were constantly under surveillance by political conservatives and big business in Minnesota and the nation. Accusations of communism became cover for attacks on anyone engaged in efforts to change the lives of workers, people of color, and activists. Extremists on the right-wing built movements around attacks on labor, immigrants, their children, Jews, and the President and his New Deal.

It is in this context that political surveillance at the University of Minnesota, and the quid-pro-quo relationship between Ray P. Chase and Dean of Students Edward E. Nicholson, is best understood. In the name of anticommunism, together, though in different arenas, they not only monitored those with whom they disagreed, but used information that Chase labeled as “facts” to shape the politics of the state, the cities, and the University. Rather than being “factual,” Nicholson and Chase misread the politics of a generation of students, seeing a single point of view rather than the great diversity of left-wing positions. It is particularly telling that three years after Are They Communists of Catspaws was published and discredited, Dean Edward Nicholson provided Ray Chase with names of students and faculty for his notorious files. Ray Chase’s politics and methods were transparent to the Dean of Student Affairs, yet their quid-pro-quo relationship continued unabated.

This unlikely alliance between a man who continuously attacked the University of Minnesota and another who was its Dean of Student Affairs was driven by the extreme anti-union, anti-government, and pro-militarism of the decade. This alliance sometimes found links with Minnesota’s most extremist and antisemitic elements, as well as the titans of big business, which were driven by conspiracies, secrecy, and surveillance.