The Left Fork
When Vorse returned to Paris she discovered that the transportation to the United States promised her by the Red Cross was not available. She was forced to remain in Europe through May and most of June, awaiting space on a ship. Those few weeks were central to her life, for it was then she fell deeply in love.
Vorse met Robert Minor through an old friend from the Village, the reporter Griffin Barry. (Barry, who would later attain some fame as the actual father of the two children born to Bertrand Russell’s wife, had also introduced Vorse to Joe O’Brien.) Twenty-three-year-old John Dos Passos, recently released from the U.S. Army medical corps to attend classes at the Sorbonne, was another member of Barry’s circle of friends in Paris in early 1919. Dos Passos remembered meeting Vorse and Robert Minor then.
“Paris was the capital of the world that spring of the Peace Conference,” Dos Passos wrote. “It looked as if every man and woman in the United States who could read and write had wrangled an overseas job.” Dos Passos recalled Robert Minor as “a big opinionated Texan, whose charcoal cartoons we had all admired in the Masses. Bob Minor was just on the edge of becoming an active revolutionist. He dropped tantalizing hints about the hazards of the Russian revolution and the German underground and Jack Reed’s adventures. He was already a little too deaf to listen to anyone else’s notions. With Minor came Mary Heaton Vorse with her charming look of a withered Irish rose.”1
Dos Passos wrote this memory of Paris decades later. His postscript was shaded by the compassion he felt for Vorse’s tailspin of the 1920s, a descent for which Dos Passos always blamed Minor. Dos Passos was not the only one, however, to find Mary Vorse and Bob Minor an incongruous pair—Vorse, at forty-five, the well-bred New England lady, and Minor, ten years younger, the frenetic Western zealot.
Like Dos Passos, many who knew Bob Minor have been most impressed by his dogmatic opinions, his inability to recognize or balance contradictions. Orrich Johns remembered Minor’s “tremendous definiteness” and “implacable rejections.” Joseph Freeman, who admired Minor, spoke of his “gleam of fanaticism” and the “pontifical finality” of his words. Steve Nelson thought Minor “bombastic . . . not seen as much of a thinker.” Waldo Frank captured the essence of Minor’s personality when he described a conversation he once had with Minor over the validity of Marxism as an absolute science:
Robert Minor was a cartoonist of genius who gave up his art to become a Party functionary. He was a man with a mission, convinced that his faith in Marx was objective and precise as mathematics. I recall an argument with him on the beach of Truro on Cape Cod. We were talking about the “certain” Marxist future; and I cried: “But the imponderables, Bob! The imponderables. . . .” His smile was somewhat a sneer: “There are no imponderables,” he said.2
Bob Minor was six feet, two inches, with extraordinarily bushy eyebrows, a long cocky stride, and a booming voice. The rebellious son of a Texas lawyer, he began work as a reporter and cartoonist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1905. There he was schooled in radicalism by Leo Caplan, his socialist physician who treated him for growing deafness. Minor joined the Socialist Party in 1908. By age twenty-seven, he was reputedly the country’s highest-paid political cartoonist.
He was offered a larger salary in 1911 from Ralph Pulitzer’s New York Evening World. As an inducement to Minor to accept the job, Pulitzer gave him a salary advance to study art for a year in Paris. Minor spent more time talking to French workers than he did in art classes. In France, Minor became an anarchist. He worked at the Evening World until the paper changed its policy and moved to support the war. With the intransigence that was his major trait, Minor refused to draw prowar cartoons. He contributed his biting art to Emma Goldman’s anarchist monthly, Mother Earth, and to the New York socialist daily, the Call. In August 1915, he joined the staff of the Masses. Pulitzer promptly fired him.
In 1916 Minor moved to San Francisco to head the defense effort to free Tom Mooney. Mooney—charged with planting a bomb that killed ten bystanders at a military preparedness parade in San Francisco—was convicted by a conspiracy involving the San Francisco district attorney, who bribed witnesses and created false evidence in order to convict Mooney. Imprisoned for twenty-three years, Mooney was pardoned in 1939 by California’s first twentieth-century Democratic governor. By that time, tens of thousands of Americans had joined the worldwide campaign to release Tom Mooney. Theodore Draper concluded that Minor, “who organized the first Mooney defense committee and wrote the first pro-Mooney pamphlet,” did “more than any other single man” to save Mooney. Minor would later write: “The last underpinnings of respect for the ‘democratic’ social organization were knocked out of me by the Mooney case.” In this experience, Minor was not alone. As Draper observed, Mooney’s plight was “a crisis of conscience” for a whole generation of American radicals.3
Minor traveled to Russia in March 1918, determined to judge the revolution for himself. In early 1919 he spent three months in Germany, where he witnessed, and apparently participated in, the failed Spartacist uprising of the extreme left against the moderate socialist government. Minor reached Paris at about the same time that Vorse arrived there from Serbia. They became lovers almost at once after meeting.
Vorse’s attraction to Robert Minor sprang from a complex set of emotions. She seemed to feel most comfortable with a decisive male companion. Perhaps less certain males only served to remind her of her father’s passivity before her mother’s will. The presence of a powerfully self-directed male also served to counter her own impulse toward action, which she had been taught to contain, as well as to strengthen her own courage to face conflict, which she had been trained to avoid. Strong men seemed to alleviate her deepest anxieties about self, allowing her more power without fear of its impact, while providing her with a sort of surrogate ego to confront the world bravely.
Minor’s concentration of purpose and absorption in work delighted her. She found in him a commitment to ideas and effort as intense as her own—a welcome contrast to her memory of Bert Vorse’s defeatism in the face of struggle. Minor’s vitality, physical and mental, was memorable. For Vorse, he was “more alive and sensitive to life than anyone in the world.”4 His obstinacy of belief could also emerge as scorn for tradition. Like Joe O’Brien, Minor pierced the world with a keen radical analysis. At times he could sweep away the mystification shrouding events with a few phrases. Vorse saw in him someone as concentrated as herself. She felt she had never before “met anyone . . . who seemed as unafraid of life as I.”
Most important, Minor never chided her for inattention to her family. For Minor, there was no higher responsibility than to labor against injustice. He encouraged her effort to escape the restrictions imposed on her by tradition and by children. He would let her go. “The only way I can have a sweetheart or a husband,” she wrote him, “is to let go. . . . Someone to go out into the world and bring back new things. Someone who will like me to go out into the world and bring back new things.” She once grumbled at one of his letters to her, which seemed to address her as a mother. Domesticity as identification repelled her. “Did you write that letter to me or to the mother of Joel?” she scolded him. “I have a house and children and I can paint screens and cook and darn stockings; but I can also swim and sail a boat and my spirit goes streaming out to the dangerous places. . . . I am not Home or Peace or a Mate!” she warned him.
And after five years, Vorse’s body was fired again, no small thing for a woman of her sensuality. She felt young and strong and free—rocketed to the “wide horizons of a wind blowing clouds across the sky that I always feel when I have been with you.” Exhilaration was rebirth: “At a moment in my life,” she wrote to Minor, “I said to life ‘No more—I have had all of you. No more. My body is young but I am old—peace—quiet—Let me be.’ Since then life and love in a thundering torrent have overwhelmed me. I found I didn’t know love and that growth was in the future.”5
While Vorse and Minor awaited a berth home to the United States and relished the dual pleasures of new love and springtime in Paris, she was offered an impelling assignment. The officials of the American Relief Administration asked her to go on a mission to Central Europe, in exchange for their assurance of speedy transportation home upon her return to Paris. She was told that ARA director Herbert Hoover wanted her to publish in American popular women’s magazines the story of how the lifting of the Allied food blockade affected women and children in Austria.
On June 3, Vorse left Minor in Paris and departed for Vienna on a Polish military train. She was accompanied by a friend from New York, the socialist newspaper editor Abraham Cahan. Thus, solely because of fortuitous circumstances and timing, Vorse became embroiled in the political intrigue of the moment, which centered around the denial of American food relief to the new Communist government in Hungary.6
In company with Cahan, she arrived in Vienna on the morning of June 5. The streets were crowded with men and women in light clothing, the cafes and boulevards gay with tricolored flowers. But after a while, the flowers seemed to her more like the decor for a funeral than a sign of spring.
The working class of Vienna was still suffering from famine, eight months after the end of the war. The Allied blockade was only partially lifted. Vorse sat at lunch in a restaurant off the Ringstrasse. She cut an unsavory piece of fat from her ham. A middle-aged woman, selling field flowers, approached. Looking fearfully over her shoulder at the waiter, the woman asked Vorse if she could have the discarded strip of fat. At Vorse’s nod, the woman “snatched at it with a gesture of horrid and eloquent eagerness” and shoved it into her mouth.
Vorse visited the model tenements of Vienna, especially built for the large families of the workers. Many of the inhabitants were now widows. “Everywhere swarmed the children: pale children, children with blotched and scarred faces, children with skinny, crooked legs,” Vorse reported. The women told her the stories of their slow starvation, of the long nights they waited in line, wrapped in bedclothes to keep warm, to obtain bread for their children. In doorways, little boys and girls stood staring at her. Most of them had tubercular lumps under their eyes, or showed signs of skin disease or rickets. Children who looked to be nine or ten years old told her they were actually in their teens.
The upper class of Vienna, and the people of the middle class with salaries or savings, could afford black-market food. It was the poor and their children who were most affected by the Allied blockade. The armies were fed; the national leaders were inconvenienced; the women and children of the wage earners of Central Europe paid for the blockade with suffering and their lives. In Germany, where the blockade was still in force, eight hundred people a month died of malnutrition. The Viennese workmen on the street who saw her American Red Cross uniform shouted at her: “Why don’t they take the men out and shoot them instead of starving our children to death?”7
When the ARA began the importation of food into Austria, Vorse witnessed the public feeding of fourteen hundred children at the palace of the Hapsburgs. Austrian women with brisk, competent movements fed the children soup, cocoa, and bread. The hunger of the youngsters here was but a dim mirror of the hunger of children in the industrial areas of Eastern Europe and Russia. The barbarism of war, and her knowledge that the families of the poor bore the brunt while the workers cleaned up its mess afterward, again overwhelmed her.
In Vienna, Vorse met with Captain T. T. C. Gregory, ARA director of Central Europe. She was probably unaware that six months before, Gregory had been appointed as one of the covert American political intelligence officers operating in Central and Eastern Europe. Gregory, like the Allied chiefs then meeting in Paris, had been thrown into panic in late March 1919, when a Bolshevik government under Bela Kun took power in Hungary. With Lenin victorious in Russia, the Spartacist uprising in Germany, the flare of Bolshevik organization throughout Europe, left-led strikes in England, France, Italy, and the Ruhr, the fear of communism greatly accelerated at the peace conference. Lloyd George told the Council of Four: “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. . . . The whole existing order in its political, social, and economic aspects is questioned by the masses . . . from one end of Europe to the other.” Moreover, the red governments in Russia and Hungary stressed that their own survival depended on the extension of social revolution throughout Europe. Although the Allied chiefs in Paris held diverse opinions on how to counteract Communist successes, they were at one in their perception that bolshevism was an immediate threat to international capitalism.8
The proclamation of the Soviet government in Hungary was quickly followed by withdrawal of all Entente missions from Budapest. With official diplomatic relations cut, ARA chief Herbert Hoover and President Woodrow Wilson were dependent on a few Americans for direct knowledge of the situation in Hungary—chiefly ARA officials and the American professor A. C. Coolidge, head of a mission sent to Vienna to study and recommend new boundary lines in Central Europe. In late March, President Wilson had directed Hoover to send him daily reports on events in Hungary. Captain Gregory necessarily became Hoover’s main source of information.
Desperate for detailed knowledge of developments in Hungary, Captain Gregory urged Vorse to go to Budapest. He wanted her to carry a message to Count Mihály Károlyi, the former prime minister who had capitulated to Kun. Gregory felt that as a woman journalist she would not be suspected as a courier. She might be allowed to interview Károlyi and to observe freely the operation of the Kun government. Vorse needed no persuasion to accept such a journalistic plum.9
Before her departure, Gregory briefed her on recent developments in Paris. Gregory gave her a copy of the five-page letter he had written to Hoover on June 4 in which Gregory argued for direct Allied military intervention to overthrow Kun. At Versailles, the French general Foch also urged the peacemakers in Paris to advance their armies through Hungary to attack the real source of Communist contagion in Russia. Hoover and Wilson initially rejected a military solution. They still hoped that Kun could be brought down through internal pressure. They were reluctant to begin what amounted to a new war, and opted instead for the use of American economic force against Kun. In mid-May, however, Kun had won a spectacular military victory over the Czechs and held his own against the rapacious advance of the Rumanian army bent on swallowing large chunks of Hungarian territory. By June 9, Professor Coolidge and ARA chief Herbert Hoover would join Captain Gregory in his hard-line stance in favor of Allied military intervention in Hungary.10
On June 8, Vorse sped in an American car over the empty, flat roads to Budapest. Abraham Cahan went with her. The duo was a most unlikely crisis team on a mission for American politicians. “When we got to the frontier and [Cahan] actually saw the Red guards, the hammer and sickle upon their caps,” Vorse recalled, “he got out to embrace them. Mr. Cahan, an old Socialist, was in a state bordering on ecstasy. He was like a spiritualist who, having had to go on faith all his life, finally sees a materialization and can hardly believe his eyes for joy.” How ironic, Vorse wrote sixteen years later, remembering that day, that Cahan became one of communism’s bitterest enemies.11
The city of Budapest was silent, its streets nearly empty, its gray shutters closed. The new Communist society announced itself on the walls of Budapest in red flags and gigantic posters. The revolutionary placards were everywhere, in enormous quantities, most in color with red dominant—figures swinging sledges against chains, pictures of Red Guards rushing to aid their comrades, posters linking prostitution to alcoholism, and both to capitalism. Over the Austro-Hungarian Bank hung a scarlet banner: “Property of the Proletariat of Hungary.” The atmosphere was unreal. The Communist government had established, overnight, through government fiat, the people’s state in feudal Hungary.
The Bela Kun regime inherited the results of four hundred years of aristocratic and clerical brutality toward the peasants and workers of Hungary. In 1917 Hungary had been ruled by feudal lords as though it were the Middle Ages. One-half of the rich land was held by a few nobles; one-third of the people were illiterate; one-fifth suffered from tuberculosis induced by malnutrition; only one-twentieth of the males were allowed the vote. The outbreak of war in 1914 had been welcomed with the usual delirium by the military and politicians, while the clergy blessed the guns and beseeched God to kill the enemy. Austro-Hungarian war losses were horrendous. Two-thirds of the monarchy’s soldiers were killed, wounded, or imprisoned. The war pushed the masses past endurance and focused their infinite hatreds on the old regime. The spread of socialist ideals, massive strikes, and the disintegration of the German armies had brought the bloodless October Revolution of 1918, which dismissed the monarchy and installed Count Károlyi as prime minister.
The Károlyi union of bourgeoisie and assorted malcontents preached revolution while stumbling toward mild reforms. Károlyi’s failure to carry out land reform was fatal. His center coalition was already near collapse when, on March 20, 1919, the representative of the Entente in Budapest issued an ultimatum to Hungary that abrogated the Armistice agreement by slicing some 100 more miles off its territory as a gift for the Rumanians. The Entente’s purpose in setting these new lines was to secure the rear guard of the Rumanian army in the hope that the Rumanians could be used against the Bolsheviks in Russia. Betrayed by the Entente, Károlyi resigned and handed over power to the Social Democrats. But the popularity of the Hungarian Communists had grown day by day, even though their leader Bela Kun was in jail. The Social Democrat leaders rushed to Kun’s cell to negotiate. Thus did state power virtually fall into Kun’s lap. Released from jail, he immediately declared a workers’ republic, sweeping land reform without compensation, separation of church and state, universal suffrage, the organization of a Red Army, and alliance with the Russian Bolsheviks.
In Budapest, Vorse found Count Károlyi in seclusion at his villa, protected by Red Guards. He asked her to forcefully impress upon Hoover and Wilson his belief that some form of socialism would prevail in central Europe. He argued that the shortage of food and goods due to war and blockade, as well as the huge indemnities to be imposed on the Central Powers, would necessitate the cooperative endeavor of a socialist economy, rather than the expensive competition of a capitalist one. He was “absolutely convinced,” he told Vorse, that despite what American business and political leaders might prefer, “capitalism is henceforth ‘impossible’ in Central Europe. It is doomed.”12
Later, Vorse and Cahan set out on a fantastic Marxist sightseeing tour in a society turned upside down in three months. In retrospect, Kun’s short-lived revolution-via-proclamation seems like opera buffa, so rapidly was the old world abolished and the new instituted. The output of government directives was phenomenal. Alcoholic beverages, prostitution, and horse races were outlawed. Artists, writers, and composers were placed on the state payroll. Dozens of tubercular children in the city were shipped to fresh air and nutritious food in the country. All material glorifying war was erased from the school curriculum. Suffrage was granted to all but capitalists, idlers, priests, criminals, and the insane. Women’s equality in work and at home was proclaimed. Medical care was socialized. All the workers’ cherished goals were legalized: the abolition of piecework; the forty-eight-hour week; higher salaries; accident, health, and maternity insurance; and full employment. All industries, mines, transportation, stores, banks, and hotels became state property. Even death ensured equality; rich and poor, all were to be buried in identical graves.
Vorse observed the darker side of Communist rule. Rigid state censorship of the press, the publishing houses, and the schools was established. The vast state bureaucracy so suddenly born was corrupt and inefficient, mostly because so many of its officials were the same people who had served the old regime. Speculation and the hoarding of food and goods contributed to bitter relations between urban and rural populations. The botched land-reform program and overall monetary chaos lost Kun the support of peasants and trade-union leaders. The effect of decades of economic exploitation, religious oppression, and enforced ignorance could not be cured in a few months by government decree, particularly in a country fighting a defensive war on its borders.13
Six weeks after Vorse left Budapest, Kun’s government collapsed. With Allied encouragement, the Rumanians resumed their attack on Hungary. On June 26, at Hoover’s urging, the Council at Paris issued an ultimatum: If a non-Communist government was established in Hungary, the Allies would lift the blockade and begin shipment of food and goods to the Hungarian people. On August 1, Kun fled into exile. Captain Gregory in Vienna sent the first trainload of food through to Hungary the next day. Gregory would later claim that he and Hoover, by their machinations, had toppled Kun’s government.14
After a brief Hapsburg revival under Archduke Joseph, the bloody Admiral Miklós Horthy regime assumed power in Hungary. Anti-Semitic pogroms of Christian Terror convulsed the land. The dictatorship of Horthy and his associates lasted for the next twenty years. Thousands were killed, tortured, and imprisoned and the old feudal tyranny was let loose again. Allied policy makers could relax. Communist Hungary was but a memory.
On her return to Vienna, Vorse was greeted by the hotel manager who cheerfully announced that tomorrow her room might be nationalized. “Revolution tomorrow,” he explained. Vorse went to investigate. She spent the day going about the city by foot and on streetcars. Everywhere people told her, “Tomorrow is the Revolution.” Most seemed resigned. Things were so bad they might as well try a new government, they said.
Inspired by Kun’s victory in Hungary, the Austrian Communists planned to end their uneasy alliance with the Social Democrats. The Communists planned a putsch, hopeful that the Volkswehr, or People’s Army, would refuse to fire on Communist workers. Vorse arranged to go to the Revolution the next morning with a young ARA man. So odd was the atmosphere of the time that the bizarre appointment seemed perfectly natural.
Her young friend failed to show, so she went alone. During the night, the government had arrested 115 Communists. Several thousand protesters demanded the release of their leaders. Vorse took a cab and cut through town to the university where she intercepted the marchers. A row of spectators watched, and a crowd of little boys ran along the edge of the demonstration. She got up on an iron table to see better.
The marchers broke through a line of soldiers thrown across the street. Suddenly the machine guns spit. She watched as a score of men were hit, threw up their hands, and dropped. For the first time she saw workers shot down before her eyes. A policeman forced her off the table and ordered her to her hotel. She walked a few blocks, then doubled back to the university which had become an impromptu hospital. She spent the day walking about the city. By nightfall, Vorse saw hundreds of soldiers who were wearing red flowers like the ones the demonstrators had worn in their buttonholes. The flowers indicated that the soldiers supported the workers. But finally enough troops stood with the government to defeat the putsch.15
The next evening, Vorse left Vienna for Paris. She carried with her copies of the correspondence that Captain Gregory had impulsively shown her. The documents contained Gregory’s and Professor Coolidge’s advice to Hoover to support Allied military intervention to overthrow Kun. But Vorse had somehow obtained from Gregory’s office knowledge of a much more interesting document—Hoover’s June 9 dispatch to Wilson in which Hoover also had urged immediate military intervention against Kun by the French troops then stationed in Yugoslavia. Wilson’s reply to Hoover on June 10 had counseled caution, but Hoover’s June 9 dispatch exposed as false the ARA chief’s hard-won reputation for moderation.
An ARA official in Vienna in some way discovered Vorse’s scoop, and wired Gregory, who was then in Trieste: “Mrs. Vorse has returned your letters to Hoover which you gave her but obtained copies of them without my knowledge and is leaving tonight for Paris with them. Stop. She will arrive Paris Thursday morning and sails for America Saturday.”16 Apparently there was no attempt by the ARA in Paris to confiscate the copies Vorse held, possibly because of bureaucratic snarl. More likely, Gregory was reluctant to admit his own ineptitude to his chief in Paris. Vorse arrived in Paris on June 19 and made her report to Hoover. She sailed for New York on schedule two days later, carrying the incriminating documents with her.
She returned home with great ambivalence. On the one hand, she knew she must return to her children since Miss Selway could no longer be persuaded to stay in Provincetown to care for them. Yet Vorse could not bear to leave France, for when she returned to Paris from Vienna, she learned that while she was in Hungary Robert Minor had disappeared from his Paris apartment, mysteriously abducted by the French police. He was being held by American military authorities in solitary confinement at Coblenz, guarded day and night by a soldier with a fixed bayonet. Minor was accused of spreading Bolshevik propaganda among American troops in Germany with intent “to create unrest, dissatisfaction, defection, revolt and mutiny.” He was charged with treason and faced a death sentence. Her first day afloat she wrote him: “My life, my heart has been torn before, but never as it is now on going and leaving you. There is every reason to go, but my reason shrinks back, ashamed before the light of my heart. . . . I went swept out by the epic tide of small things and work to do, a story to write. . . . I did not know before how much I loved you.”17
When she reached New York, she read that he was to be tried by a high-powered military court composed of five generals and two colonels. Meanwhile, labor circles in England, France, and Italy had launched a campaign to save Minor, the man who had championed Tom Mooney. Lincoln Steffens claimed to have played the major role in the effort to win Minor’s release. Steffens approached Colonel Edward House, President Wilson’s close friend, in Paris. He convinced House that if a well-known radical like Bob Minor were executed, the resultant chaos would jeopardize Steffens’s and House’s plan to win a general amnesty for all the political prisoners being held in the United States. House asked Banbridge Colby, soon to become secretary of state, to urge the army to free Minor. Minor was released without explanation on July 8.
In early July, the New York Times got wind of political influence in the Minor case. It began a countercampaign to ensure Minor’s conviction. The Times kept up its front-page and editorial crusade against Minor through the fall of 1919. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a special investigation to inquire into the proceedings of the Minor arrest. Two right-wing senators charged the Wilson administration with harboring Bolsheviks in high places. Upon his return home, Minor went on a national speaking tour to denounce American military intervention against the Soviet Union. He traveled most of the way under the surveillance of Department of Justice agents. His report on conditions in Russia drew large crowds in cities across the nation, according to the federal informers.18
Minor’s narrow escape from persecution and the aid extended him by high political officials made him seem to Vorse more heroic than ever. To cement the physical and emotional tie she felt to him came the added pleasure and reflected glory of involvement with a radical figure of some international standing.
During their first year together, Vorse and Minor shared a common politics. His experience in revolutionary Russia convinced him that highly centralized government was not the best road to socialism. When he presented a critical analysis of his interview with Lenin in the New York World, Max Eastman denounced Minor for holding to old-fashioned utopian dreams and for printing his anti-Bolshevik comments in a capitalist newspaper. In the summer of 1919 Vorse also was one of the few American reporters who had seen a Bolshevik-style government in operation. She agreed that Bolshevik leaders favored an oppressive state bureaucracy. Her strongly critical view of Kun’s censorship cost her the intellectual approval of Max Eastman and Floyd Dell, who were then arguing that tyranny was an unfortunate but necessary component of revolutionary change.19
Yet Vorse’s political judgment fell far short of the hatred of communism felt by many American liberals in this period. She was most concerned with her own government’s denial of food and medicine to diseased and starving peoples, a savagery it defended as realistic and democratic in aim. How uninformed and utopian her single-minded focus on famished children would have seemed to the great Allied leaders, faced as they were with massive political dilemmas, the solution to which would theoretically determine the movement of vast armies, the wealth or poverty, the freedom or oppression, of millions of people. How uninformed and utopian her single-minded opposition to state dictatorship would have appeared to the great Marxist rulers and thinkers, faced as they were with immensely powerful reactionary enemies, the destruction of whom would theoretically determine the liberation of all the peoples of the world from centuries of grinding exploitation.
Vorse’s social thought, in 1919 as for the rest of her life, had carried her into the no man’s land of political philosophy cordoned off and marked “effeminate,” “visionary,” “unrealistic.” These ideas, together with the few who voiced them, were regarded as peripheral to world events. They were not so much denounced, for that would accord them a sort of power, as they were simply dismissed by the ruling powers and intellects of the time.
Vorse did not move any further left during her three-year affair with Bob Minor. Yet because American society was moving to the right so fast, federal surveillance of her activities increased. In June 1919, Vorse returned to a country gripped by conservative reaction. For over ten years trade unionism and radical politics were suppressed, all amid continuing and increasing maldistribution of wealth—only to end in 1929 in what Edmund Wilson called “the sudden unexpected collapse of that stupid gigantic fraud.”20 American radicals were to spend their energies during the 1920s fighting a defensive holding action.
By 1920, the IWW had been effectively eliminated and the Socialist Party severely damaged by the joint impact of governmental and vigilante action. Beginning with the Armistice, there came one and one-half more years of reprisals against the left in the United States. This period left the stain on American history called the Red Scare.
Often historians have explained the Red Scare through reference to the residue of wartime discords, the fear of bolshevism abroad, or postwar dislocations such as the inflation of 1919. In naming these valid factors, many historians have failed to emphasize that the Red Scare was not irrationally based. Rather the Red Scare was the response of government and business elites to the tremendous upsurge of American radicalism within and without the labor movement in 1919. The Red Scare destroyed this developing threat to the status quo. When the destruction was nearly complete, the Red Scare ended.
In June 1919, just as Vorse returned from Paris, the left-socialist groups in the United States split over whether an American Communist party should be formed at once or in September. The extreme factionalism that marks the early history of American communism was off to a fine start. Signs of radical influence were apparent far beyond the formation of Communist parties in 1919. Support for fundamental reform was widespread among American intellectuals, clergymen, and progressives. Demands for the enactment of minimum-wage laws and for social insurance against unemployment and old age sounded like red propaganda to many members of the American elite in 1919. To business leaders, the most ominous sign of unrest was the increasing radicalism within the organized labor movement. The tremendous number of strikes occurring in 1919 was a monumental threat to the old political and economic bosses. More than fifteen years would pass before the trade-union movement again demonstrated such militancy. One of every five workers in America was on strike in 1919.
While Vorse was in Europe, several other events fueled the Red Scare, which would peak in early 1920. In February 1919, sixty thousand workers held on for four days in the Seattle general strike; one thousand federal troops and three thousand police moved into the city. In April, thirty-six packages of unknown origin filled with explosives were mailed to prominent public officials and nationally known antiradicals. On May 1, riots erupted in ten large cities from coast to coast, the result of assaults by police and hoodlums on labor sympathizers celebrating the workers’ holiday. In June, another set of eight bombs was placed outside the homes of public officials and businessmen; one exploded at the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. In July, the federal General Intelligence Division was established, led by twenty-four-year-old J. Edgar Hoover. For six decades to follow, Hoover would successfully connect demands by Americans for social justice to agitation by the reds.
Among the antidemocratic activists, the Lusk Committee of the New York State Legislature can still claim the worst record. In a series of raids it confiscated twenty tons of “radical” material. Since only six of the almost one thousand persons arrested in these raids were subsequently prosecuted, the gravest damage done by the rampaging Lusk Committee was caused by its indiscriminate use of smear tactics. In its full report, it branded as seditious the words of Jane Addams, Roger Baldwin, Lillian Wald, and a host of other American liberals and reformers. The Lusk Committee was the first of several governmental investigative groups to name Mary Heaton Vorse as a threat to the American Way. She was singled out for her treasonous support of Margaret Sanger’s birth control activities back in 1916.21
When Vorse returned from Europe, Harper’s asked her for articles about Bela Kun’s government and the Vienna putsch. Before she could finish the work, Kun’s government had fallen and the putsch was no longer news. In Paris, Vorse had met Thomas Wells, the editor of Harper’s. Wells had complained to her that the war was never portrayed in its undistilled horror in American magazines. Now, in New York, Wells had changed his mind. Vorse was infuriated by his advice to her: “You were brought up in a rose garden and then lived by the sea. Why don’t you write about rose gardens? Why don’t you write about the sea?”22
Vorse planned to publish her inside knowledge of the machinations against Kun by Herbert Hoover and ARA officials in Europe. She thus hoped to bring pressure on the Wilson administration to lift the food blockade against Soviet children. Hoover had repeatedly stated that the ARA was ready to feed the Soviet Union as soon as there was a stable government there. Vorse meant to contrast the ARA’s policy toward Hungary—where it was then feeding the children during the reign of the highly unstable government of the restored archduke—with its policy toward the Soviet Union. Despite her government’s high-minded pronouncements, American policy was simply “not to permit aid to children in a communist government,” Vorse believed.
In August 1919, the Dial agreed to publish the documents she had smuggled from Captain Gregory’s office in Vienna. The editor wrote Vorse that these materials would “get the situation before the public” and “leave no doubts as to the policy of the Administration and the Supreme Council.” But Vorse’s knowledge of Herbert Hoover’s political use of food was never printed. Before she could gather the background information she felt she needed for the article, a fire at her mother-in-law’s house in Virginia destroyed all Gregory’s letters and the other documents she had stored there.23
Devastated by the loss of one of her greatest journalistic scoops, Vorse unsuccessfully attempted to get more information from Captain Gregory and Herbert L. Gutterson, the New York official of the ARA European Children’s Relief. Gutterson stalled his reply to her, pretending that he did not understand what material she needed, while assuring her that he was “in no way attempting to criticize your excellent efforts to inform the public.” To Captain Gregory, Gutterson meanwhile wrote: “We have had to put the soft pedal on this lady” in view of Vorse’s arrogant belief that “she is privileged . . . to publish articles . . . on ARA without any OK of our New York office.”24
In September 1919, Vorse returned her older son, Heaton, to school. She left her younger children with Joe O’Brien’s sister in Virginia. Vorse was on the track of what she felt to be one of the biggest labor stories yet. With an assignment from the Outlook, she headed to Pittsburgh to report the beginning of what would come to be known as the Great Steel Strike of 1919. She planned to finish her steel report in two or three weeks and then return with the children to New York for the winter. Instead, she began a long period of labor work. It would be three years before she and her children would live together again.