Tuesday, June 10, 2008

George Schmidt on Shanker and Response to Sean Ahern

Sean Ahern writes:
"He [Kahlenberg] specifically addresses the pamphlet written by George Schmidt in the
1980's and dismisses it saying that no evidence was offered to back up the charge that Shanker was working for the CIA. I guess it never occurred to Kahlenberg that the job of the historian is to dig out the information and not just present the official version based on facts handed to him by Shanker's acolytes."

George Schmidt responds:

June 10, 2008

He may dismiss Al Shanker's work on international affairs, but Shanker himself was always proud of it. I have a hunch that Shanker might even get a kick out of my Moe Berg baseball card (facsimile) and copy of "The Catcher was a Spy." I got the impression at one point that Shanker might even have gotten a kick out of seeing a book (a la the Moe Berg book) "The Teacher Was A Spy." Too bad the current hagiography can't do justice to the complexity of all that -- and of Shanker's Cold War "Liberalism". Someone might want to print up an Al Shanker baseball card and send it to Langley. These things, as Shanker knew, were always more complex than the silly Cliffs Notes versions of history that make others comfortable.

Another thing I've been thinking lately, and this one might roll your socks. Just as the 1968 restrospectives on Martin Luther King have unveiled some of the complexity of the final years of King's life (the Vietnam War opposition; the horrors of being a black sanitation worker in Memphis in 1967 and 1969) and counteracted some of the silly (and generally right wing) hagiographic historiography, I personally have a hunch that Al Shanker himself (not the newly emerging Shanker industry, which has a lot in common with the Martin Luther King industry) might have wanted a complete, nuanced, and dialectical appreciation of those years and that work -- and not this simplistic stuff that's being force fed into the next generation like stuffing into a soon to be Fois Gras'd goose.

One reason King comes to mind is that on certain Cold War issues (certainly Vietnam) King and Shanker landed on opposite sides. But in other ways, they are both examplars of the Liberalism of those years (and both descendents of the New Deal, with all that complexity).

One thing for sure. Al Shanker always knew himself to be in the mainstream of American Liberalism and was proud of that, too. To call him a "Conservative" (or "Neocon", whatever that might mean as history moves forward from the Bush nightmare) would doubtless have angered him. But to point out, accurately, his direct role in the Cold War didn't bother him a bit. Other people had "issues" with what we published back then; not Al Shanker.

I never said that Al Shanker was working for the CIA.

Didn't say it then, and haven't said it since.

I said that under Shanker cooperation with the CIA by the AFT was direct. It began as Shanker was ousting Dave Selden and continued for several years. The most dramatic (and in retrospect, horrifying) example was Chile in 1973, where a shadowy lady was down there somehow trading off AFT, AIFLD, and PTTI cover prior to the Pinochet coup, but there were dozens of others less dramatic (and deadly).

Shanker was not ashamed of those facts.

In 1977 or 1978 (I'm not going back to any notes), he and his team scheduled Irving Brown to address an "International Labor Luncheon" that Shanker had scheduled for the AFT convention. That was the Boston convention. Shanker's people scheduled Brown's address in opposition to the Black Caucus Luncheon that year. The Black Caucus luncheon was honoring Paul Robeson. Shanker and his people honored A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, and "everyone" knew that Robeson was a "Communist" and it was making them very very angry that the Black Caucus did that in their face during their convention.

So they got one of their Cold War heroes, Irving Brown, to speak at the same time in a different part of the hotel.

Irving Brown was CIA, proudly so. Now that everyone has Wikipedia, that's a no brainer.

And Irving Brown was there at AFT. He was there along with a pile of "international labor leaders", many of them CIA funded, or from company unions sponsored by their governments. Some had really murky background; my favorite that year was the one from the Philippines, where the "Free Trade Union" was friends with the Marcos people. There was a lot of "International" labor stuff that year for that convention. We had one of our people (a Marine combat veteran from the Vietnam War, for what that's worth) cover Irving Brown, and I published a transcript of Brown's speech in "The American Federation of Teachers and The CIA."

There were few unions in those days as deeply involved with that kind of "international" work, and none more deeply so than AFT. That's just a fact of history.

The AFT connections were through the International Trade Secretariats (like the PTTI that provided AFT for a time with Denise Thiery) and the regional groupings from those days (AIFLD for the Western Hemisphere was just the most famous, then and in retrospect; AALC for African and the Asian American Free Labor Committee for Asia were also in play).

Had the author of this latest Shanker book bothered to call, I would have helped him clarify what he put into his book on Shanker.

I've been in the Chicago phone book since the days I wrote about the AFT's CIA links back then.

But I never heard from him, and now people are asking me when I left the Communist Party, since our author seems to believe, also, that I was (or is) a "Communist" (upper case "C"). I have a hunch that my friends in the CPUSA, both locally here in Chicago and elsewhere, would have clarified that for him, too, had he or his editors bothered to ask. Anyway, with funding from the Broad Foundation to help write the new Shanker book, he could have afforded more careful fact checking, but that's a question for later.

As most people in New York know (but I was only beginning to learn when I began researching the study, since I was in Chicago), Al Shanker was proudly associated with the Schachtmanites and Lovestonites from New York City. Now that Lovestone's work is proudly proclaimed (and Irving Brown is clearly listed in the history books), maybe there can be some retrospective study of the impact of that crazed anti-Communism on the AFL-CIO for those 40 years or so, and the results today for the weakened labor movement in the USA. We can at least hope.

One other thing.

Shanker was very proud of that international work. At a "Wingspread" conference (Johnson Wax, Racine Wisconsin) 20 years ago on "Recruitment, Retention and Renewal" (20 years ago -- the same problem with getting and keeping new teachers we're all discussing today) Shanker and I wound up in the same place at the same time, and had a very calm (and private discussion) about all that stuff. By then, it was clear the USA had "won" the Cold War. It almost seemed like Shanker was interested in being precise about his places in history, and as people know he was always a stickler for accuracy. He made no secret about the Irving Brown connection (those old Cold Warriors idolized Irving Brown, as any of the survivors will tell you to this day), nor was he ashamed of the work with AIFLD or the other groups.

George N. Schmidt
Editor, Substance


Lois Weiner responds:
Where George and I AND Shanker part ways is that I advocate a consistent defense of political and economic rights throughout the world. The CP's defense of workers' rights was as one-sided as was Shanker's.

Shanker and his clique were furious when I spoke in defense of the rights of Soviet dissidents -- and linked these struggles to those of workers and activists in capitalist countries. I explain this in my chapter.

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