Ohio History Journal

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The "Naive Liberal,"

the "Devious Communist"

and the Johnson Case

by David L. Sterling

Particularly during the decade of the 1950's, but by no means unheard

today, the allegation has been made that in any cause where liberals and

Communists join, either fortuitously or by design, the former are inevitably

manipulated by the latter for propagandist and even more sinister pur-

poses. The accusation has emanated from congressional committees, news-

papers and other publications, veterans and patriotic organizations. What-

ever the source, the theme of the charge has essentially been the same:

naive, if well-intentioned, liberals, "tools and dupes," have been molded

like putty by devious and maladroit Communists. While the historian would

be wrong to generalize from limited evidence, it might yet be instructive

to test the allegations that have so long been taken for granted. That is the

purpose of this paper: to offer a corrective to the portrait of the naive liberal

and the devious Communist by examining the cooperative and conflicting

roles of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Communist-controlled

International Labor Defense in the appeal of Johnson et al. v. State of

Ohio, the first important case brought under the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism

Act. This appeal was made in the Seventh District Court of Appeals for

Belmont County, St. Clairsville, Ohio.

As a reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution and the organization and activi-

ties of the Industrial Workers of the World and the American Communist

party, during and just after the First World War, eighteen states and two

territories passed acts penalizing what was denominated as the advocacy of

criminal sydicalist doctrine.1 The Ohio statute was not unique in its ter-

minology or in its purposes;2 its enactment had been urged as necessary to

preserve American democracy from revolutionary groups, Bolsheviks, "radi-

cal aliens," and the members of the Industrial Workers of the World. On

April 15, 1919, the Ohio house passed the proposal by a vote of 105-0; the

senate immediately followed with a 30-0 ballot in favor; and the bill became

law on May 7, 1919.3