Gordon D. Hall, 1921-2001: The Early Decades
By Richard D. Hall
By any conventional yardstick, Gordon Hall’s rise to prominence as the country’s leading expert on Twentieth-Century American political extremism and dissent was improbable at best. Gordon was born in New York City the last of nine children at the beginning of the roaring 1920’s. Shortly after his birth, fate would deal Gordon, his mother and his eight siblings a devastating blow. His father was a successful industrial exhibitor and early dabbler in the motion picture industry who suffered a fatal heart attack on his walk to purchase the morning newspaper. Widowed at a relatively young age, left with nine children to support, with only meager savings, and no life insurance or social security to fall back upon, his mother began a sharp downward spiral.
Within a few years the big house in Queens, their two automobiles, and their domestic help were gone. Gordon’s mother turned to alcohol, and the older siblings fled one-by-one as soon as they were old enough to make their escape. By the time Gordon was twelve years old, the Great Depression had solidified its stranglehold on the nation’s economy, and an even greater depression was gripping the remnants of his tattered family. Coming home from grade school every day to find little food in the house and an intoxicated mother passed out on the living room couch, the younger siblings were forced to fend for themselves. Survival is a strong motivator and Gordon took a fulltime job at a local drugstore’s soda fountain as soon as he was old enough to be hired. He had just finished the Ninth Grade. He never again enrolled in school of any kind. Six decades later when Gordon read Frank McCourt’s searing autobiography Angela’s Ashes, he said it described his childhood perfectly.
By 1940 Gordon managed to make some modest but tangible improvements in his life prospects. He took an entry-level job as a payroll clerk at Grumman Aircraft Company on Long Island, met his future wife Dorothy, and cultivated a life long interest in jazz and sports, particularly baseball and basketball. But, in truth, there was nothing in his profile that would distinguish him from several million other American, depression-era men his age. Finishing high school apparently didn’t figure in his plans, and the idea of a college education, if it occurred to him at all, must have seemed as realistic as living in Shangri-La.
But life is about unexpected turns-of-event. Fate and fortune, which had been so cruel in early childhood, were about to open new doors for Gordon, even if he didn’t realize it at the time. The Great Depression would eventually be subsumed by the start of World War II. The most violent cataclysm of the Twentieth Century would soon bestow its surprising beneficence on Gordon Hall in a way most unexpected.
Drafted in 1942 into the Army-Air Force, he drew a lucky card right at the outset. Rather than being sent as so much cannon fodder to storm some South Pacific atoll or European beachhead, he got shipped to an advanced bomber base in the Aleutian Islands, that barren and frozen archipelago stretching off the Alaskan mainland.
But what would turn out to be his great stroke of good fortune could hardly have looked that way at the time. He was trained as a teletype operator, one tiny cog in a mind-numbing communications bureaucracy where individuality was frowned upon, if not actively discouraged. And the place itself was god awful. For more than 300 days of the year there was unremitting rain, fog or snow. There were no trees, virtually no vegetation and little to break the monotony of bitterly cold, dark winters, and dreary, rain-soaked summers. Most of the time, the bombers couldn’t even get into the air. It had all the makings of a soul crushing experience.
Then he saw the bulletin. His Army/Air Force base was recruiting a traveling basketball team to tour the islands. Gordon tried out and was selected. He would eventually become team captain. His selection might as well have been an admission to Harvard or Yale for the impact it would have on him after the war ended.
He was quickly transferred from the teletype pool to Special Services, an elite unit composed of writers, journalists, musicians, actors, entertainers and athletes like himself. He suddenly found himself surrounded by a worldly and sophisticated group of people with a broad frame of reference, a knowledge and understanding of the world, its politics and history. Everybody read books and passed them around. There were all night bull sessions about economics, the Spanish Civil War, capitalism versus Marxism, as well as music, art, and modern fiction. Of politics and history, Gordon knew nothing, absolutely nothing. He had never heard of the Spanish Civil War and wasn’t even certain where Spain was located. After the war, Gordon would joke that before he learned otherwise while in the Aleutians, he thought Generalissimo Franco referred to a brand of canned spaghetti.
Gordon was fascinated by this new circle of colleagues, and intellectually challenged. He began to read, and read voraciously. This is something he would do for the rest of his life. It served him well. He estimates he read more than 300 books during his tour of duty. He was insatiably curious, and luckily for him, quite gifted. He had a keenly analytical mind. He sorted through complex arguments, made connections and synthesized important information clearly and without cant.
Of the many influential people he met in his Special Services unit, one in particular was to play a pivotal role in his political maturation. Dashiell Hammett, the great American mystery writer, was both an elder statesman in the unit and Gordon’s commanding officer. He was also (although it was not widely known at the time) a member of the Communist Party of the USA.
In 1944 the US Armed Services were still racially segregated which meant their sports teams were as well. However, the segregated teams did occasionally play each other, and when they did, the African-American teams usually prevailed. As much out of self-interest for the team as any other motive, Gordon raised the issue with Hammett of pressing for an end to segregated teams in the Aleutians. It would make for better games, more competition, and greater interest from the troops, he argued. Knowing Hammett’s strong views concerning the injustice of segregation, he fully expected a sympathetic hearing, even if the change in policy was beyond their control. Gordon was in for a rude awakening. Hammett chastised him for not realizing that real social change can’t occur without powerful, emotional symbols to oppose. Without them, no movement can rally its forces. Racial segregation was one of the most potent of those symbols, and was therefore better left in place until the old, corrupt order could be swept away in the coming tide of revolutionary change.
As much as Gordon’s political philosophy had progressed during his Aleutian education, it hadn’t progressed this far. He wasn’t buying Hammett’s line. To Gordon it smacked of cynicism and hypocrisy. Some things were elementary. Segregation was clearly wrong and he believed, counterproductive. Gordon’s next step could be interpreted as either courageous or foolhardy, but it was characteristic of the integrity with which he would conduct himself through his subsequent career.
Unwilling to back down, he took Hammett on. Details of exactly what happened nearly seven decades ago are no longer conclusively known, but it’s safe to say it wasn’t a fair fight. Military hierarchies respect commanding officers, especially famous ones, over unknown corporals. Hammett was so angered by this insubordinate’s challenge that he not only stripped Gordon of his team-captain’s title, but he threw him off the basketball squad altogether. As an avowed atheist, Hammett inflicted one final punishment on Gordon. He assigned him the job of Chaplain’s Assistant, thereby removing this irritant from Special Services for the remaining months of the War.
Back in New York City after discharge, Gordon quietly resumed his job in the payroll office of Grumman Aircraft. As most returning veterans do the world over, soldiers recount their war experiences. By late 1946, his tale of political misadventure in the Aleutians brought him to the attention of one of the founding brothers of Grumman Aircraft and for a short time made him a minor celebrity with upper management.
Gordon was summoned to meet this politically active Grumman brother. The aircraft corporation was well known to be ultra-conservative and virulently opposed to collective bargaining, and was, in fact, the last major defense contractor to unionize. Mr. Grumman congratulated Gordon for standing up to Hammett, and gave him some unsolicited advice on what needed to be done to counter similar communist sympathizers. He suggested Gordon make a trip to Union, New Jersey to meet Conde McGinley who ran an organization that Grumman thought really understood the secret forces behind this kind of thinking. Armed with a personal introduction, Gordon felt he had nothing to lose. And his curiosity was piqued. He wanted to find out about this mysterious McGinley character for himself.
Sometime in 1947, he made the short trip. McGinley welcomed Gordon warmly and stated at the outset that the country needed more upstanding Aryan foot soldiers to beat back the Jewish/Communist threat to our shared Christian civilization. Gordon just listened. It was clear McGinley wasn’t looking for a dialogue, and McGinley (who published a virulently anti-semitic monthly newsletter Common Sense with a circulation approaching 50,000) simply assumed Gordon was eager to enlist in the struggle.
If Gordon’s earlier run in with Hammett was his first loss of political innocence, this encounter was an even greater eye-opener. Throughout his diatribe, McGinley let it be known that the Nazis had the right idea, but just pushed it a little too far. Years later, Gordon would say it was as if World War II hadn’t even been fought when listening to McGinley.
Wondering how many groups like this existed, Gordon stayed in touch with McGinley and soon found himself drawn into a semi-clandestine world of hate-mongers, rabid anti-communists, and white supremacists. It was during this phase of exploratory investigation that he developed a method of self introduction which was entirely truthful, but never failed to reassure those whom he was studying. He would simply declare that reading their publications and listening to their arguments gave him a much clearer understanding of the dangers threatening our freedom. It was an approach he and his associates would use to great effect throughout years of undercover investigation.
By 1948, he was ready to begin his life’s work. Gordon had come into contact with Leon Milton Birkhead, an activist Unitarian minister from the Midwest, who had founded an organization, Friends of Democracy, nine years earlier in New York City. Dedicated to fighting extremist movements on the right and the left, Birkhead’s organization was looking for someone to run a small satellite office in Boston, and hired Gordon for this task.
Taking his cue from Birkhead, Gordon set out to learn everything he could about these groups and individuals, and derail them through public exposure and education. He began keeping files, collecting hate literature, and cataloging the groups he learned about. These files would grow into the tens of thousands over the next 50 years. Although many of the groups were small and geographically isolated, they shared a few things in common which tended to exaggerate their strength and distort their political influence. They were secretive, disciplined, and fanatical. When they went on the attack, they could inflict disproportionate damage, especially if the target and public were taken by surprise.
Gordon quickly developed a coherent and effective political strategy. He believed you fought falsehood, paranoia, lies and bad ideas not with suppression and censorship; but with discernable truth, facts, and better ideas. It is one of the singular ironies of his life that this man with so little formal schooling, always retained an abiding commitment to rationality and an informed citizenry in the broadest sense.
It is worth noting that the study of political extremism was not part of the university lexicon at Mid-Twentieth Century. No courses were being offered in Political Science Departments. It was not an elective from the liberal arts curriculum. No one was writing dissertations on this subject. This field of study simply did not exist at the time.
Shortly after Gordon moved his young family to Boston, Friends of Democracy ran into big trouble. It became embroiled in a number of national libel suits, lost its tax exempt status, and disbanded for good in 1951. Fortunately for Gordon, however, he had made some crucial contacts during his brief employment in Boston. None was more important than Max Lerner, the renowned Professor of History at the newly founded Brandeis University in nearby Waltham, Massachusetts. Lerner suggested that Gordon continue his research and investigations, while supporting his work and family through public lecture tours, which Lerner would help sponsor while Gordon got started.
As improbable as Gordon’s career path turned out to be, he went on to become the nationally recognized expert on Twentieth Century American Political Extremism. Over the next forty years, he gave thousands of lectures across this country at schools and colleges, civic and church groups, and business and professional organizations. He wrote hundreds of op-ed pieces for major daily newspapers and worked closely with many well known scholars, journalists, civic, religious and political leaders. These included Senator J.William Fulbright, President Gerald R. Ford, Walter Reuther of the UAW, Walter Cronkite of CBS, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Gordon Allport of Harvard University, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, and Norman Cousins of the Saturday Review to name just a handful.
The collection of interviews and recordings assembled here at Illinois State University by Professor Walter Mead is a representative and important piece of Gordon Hall’s legacy and life’s work.
About the author: Richard D. Hall is Gordon Hall’s son. He vividly remembers his childhood growing up in Boston during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. His father worked at home where news and current events were the daily topic of conversation around the dinner table. Richard studied political philosophy at Lake Forest College and University of Massachusetts, and earned a Masters Degree in Public Administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. After a life-long involvement in politics, public policy and community development, Richard is now an online bookseller in Boston.
14 June 2011