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. Students embraced a great diversity of politically progressive opinions at the University of Minnesota, which included visions inspired by communism, socialism, liberalism, and the Farmer-Labor party.
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.
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 dozens of student activists, but their on-campus activities and the political organizations they joined and led. These lists remain in Chase’s papers, which are housed at the Minnesota Historical Society.Hyman Berman. “Political Antisemitism in Minnesota During the Great Depression.” Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3/4, American Bicentennial: I (Summer - Autumn, 1976), pp. 247-264.)
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 “dangerous” 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.
Together, Ray Chase, through his Chase Institute, and Dean Edward Nicholson contributed to creating the University of Minnesota as a political surveillance campus, where monitoring of students became the norm. 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 outright deception, racism, and antisemitism.
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 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.Hyman Berman. “Political Antisemitism in Minnesota During the Great Depression.” Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3/4, American Bicentennial: I (Summer - Autumn, 1976), pp. 247-264.)
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.
He devoted himself to one overarching theme, “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. For Chase, taxation and public-sector jobs, even in the midst of the Depression, “paved the way for communism.”
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 leadership of the Minnesota Daily, and the control of many political activities. He created the apparatus in the University Senate 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, diversity of thought, and 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 suggest 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 pp349-356
Ray Chase and Edward Nicholson Created A Political Surveillance Campus
Dean Edward Nicholson provided the names of people he viewed as radicals or Communists to Ray Chase. The Chase archive contains numerous 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. White students involved in the fight to end segregated housing were included as “Troublemakers.” 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.
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 many of them were not. Both Chase and Nicholson saw 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.
Potts spied for Ray Chase when he recruited an unnamed person to join the Marxist Club in 1939. 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.”
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
His 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, and most likely, Eric Sevareid’s name as well.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.
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 and Nicholson’s descriptions of student activists. 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.”Hyman Berman, Political Antisemitism in Minnesota during the Great Depression. Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3/4, American Bicentennial: I (Summer - Autumn, 1976), pp. 247-264
The pamphlet focused on Benson’s close political allies and members of his administration. Without using the world “Jewish,” Chase mounted an antisemitic attack on Benson by suggesting that he was surrounded by Jews who were Communists. He included photographs of these advisers that emphasized so-called Jewish facial features.
Many pages were also devoted to the University of Minnesota. Joe Toner and Sherman Dryer, who were 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.
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.
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 he received with Nicholson’s help. Langston Hughes was included in Communists or Catspaws as further proof of the University’s domination by communism.
The Benson Campaign Responds
A Jewish Response
Both Governor Benson and Harold Stassen had Jewish supporters. Communists or Catspaws was an antisemitic attack that members of the Jewish community did not want to ignore. One of the outcomes of its antisemitism was the creation of the Jewish Community Relations Council, a defense organization created to counter such attacks. More immediately, American Jewish World, the newspaper of the Jewish communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, founded in 1912 by Rabbi Samuel Deinard and 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 the result.