Red Web - Blair Coan

The Conspiracy of 1922

"What shall be done with the railroads?"

This was an engrossing question in the last years of the Wilson administration. William G. McAdoo, as director general of the railroads under wartime governmental control, had made for himself a vast political following in the railroad brotherhoods, but in consequence of the governmental operation of the railways $18,000,000,000 worth of privately owned property was brought to a State bordering on ruin, due to political mismanagement and extravagance. The experience was one of great profit to the employees of the roads, but it was one of tremendous loss to the American public and to the owners of the lines. Government operations in 1918 entailed a loss of no less than $266,000,000, and the loss in 1919 was even greater than that.

The question, "What shall be done with the railroads?" was readily answered by the railroad brotherhoods themselves. Why should they surrender to its owners $18,000,000,000 worth of property that was proving such a boon to themselves?

Whether the general counsel for the organized railway employes, Glen E. Plumb, got his idea from the newly instituted system of running affairs set up by the bolsheviki in Russia, I am not prepared to say. I do not even take the responsibility of hazarding a guess on that point. The idea may have been entirely original with him, and just another of the "coincidences" peculiar to the "trend of the times." However that may be, Representative Everett Sanders, of Indiana, now secretary to President Coolidge, can not have been far wrong when, writing to George W. Greenleaf, secretary of District 72, International Association of Machinists, in October, 1919, said of the Plumb plan:

"This is not government ownership but the Russian soviet system with slight variations. Of course, the nationalization of the railroads would only be the opening wedge. Street railways, coal mines, steel mills, automobile factories, lumber mills, leather factories, clay plants, and every large industry would have to follow as a natura! law of economics. In fact the proponents of this measure recommended that this nationalization scheme be used as to other like industries whenever the employes desire."

A league to "put over" the nationalization scheme of Plumb, himself a publicly acknowledged admirer of the genius of Lenin et al who had set up sovietism in Russia, had been organized in February, 1919. Throughout that year, when the administration was being bedeviled by agitation, intimidation and violence at the hands of the reds, with plenty of encouragement from the pinks, and in time thereafter the Plum Plan League was an industrious institution, striving with all its might, and with none too particular scruples as to the means employed, to bring about this "opening wedge" to the nationalization of American industry.

Samuel Gompers, in spite of his firm claims to "conservatism" and his denial of susceptibility to "radical influence," received the distinction of being the "honorary president" of the Plumb Plan League. The president was the grand chief of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Warren S. Stone, later destined to become the treasurer of the camouflaged Socialist party, the Conference for Progressive Political Action. The vice presidents of the league were the presidents, acting presidents and other high officials of the various unions of railway employes. Bert M. Jewell, acting president of the Railway Employes' Department of the American Federation of Labor, and J.J. Forrester, grand president of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employes, were members of the league's executive committee.

Never before nor since was such pressure brought to bear upon a Congress of the United States as was brought to bear by the railroad brotherhood officials, through the Plumb Plan League and other agencies, to pass the Plumb plan for solving the problem presented by the plight of the well-nigh wrecked railway systems of the country, and this campaign was aided and encouraged by every shade of radical in the country from "new freedom" pinks to communistic reds. The Congress was a Republican Congress, but there were plenty of Democrats, too, who stood forth in strong opposition to the plan. The scheme really didn't have a chance, and President Wilson, whether or not he was privately sympathetic to the proposal, enraged the brotherhod officials, who had been justifiably friendly toward him when, with Director General Hines, McAdoo's successor, he made counter proposals.

"We demand," said an "appeal to the public," issued August 4, 1919, under the signature of Warren S. Stone and other officials, "that the owners of capital, who represent only financial interests as distinguished from operating brains and energy, be retired from management, receiving government bonds with a fixed interest return for every honest dollar that they have invested in the railway industry. We ask that the railroads of the United States be vested in the public; that those actually engaged in conducting that industry, not from Wall Street, but from the railroad offices and yards and out on the railroad lines, shall take charge of this service for the public. These represent all the brains, skill and energy that is in the business."

The very phrasing of the demand would have done credit to the politician, Lenin, or the propagandist, Trotsky, in spite of its lack of grammatical correctness. It reads as well, and is as definitely a socialist demand, as though it had been lifted from a textbook of the Marxist school of political economy.

The officials of the railroad brotherhoods were uncompromisingly for the Plumb plan, and they were for no other. They were for nationalization of the railways, but they were, also, for the nationalization of industry generally—the railroads first, because they were, as the officials of the brotherhoods frankly said in their "appeal" of August 4, "the key industry of the nation." They were for socialism, and against capitalism, as definitely as the communists of Moscow and as clearly as the Socialist party of the United States had been in political campaign after political campaign since Debs was a youth.


The quotation is from Bert M. Jewell, of the Railway Department of the American Federation of Labor, a member of the executive committee of the Plumb Plan League, as reproduced in the New York Tribune in its issue of August 10, 1919.

Of course, he and his colleagues never fulfilled this threat and were not then confronted with the test as to whether they could fulfill it, but it was, when uttered, a fair indication of the temper of the organized movement then on foot to sovietize industry in the United States, beginning with the "key industry," the railroads.

"It is plainly a venture into radical socialism that the brotherhood chiefs propose," the New York Times said of the plan; "more than that, it is a very long step toward the principles of Lenin and Trotsky and of soviet government." The plan, according to the Times view, was "so violently at war with all human experience and human reason," that it was the conclusion of that newspaper that the railway brotherhood chiefs entertained no serious hopes of its acceptance but, rather, were using the scheme as an instrument with which, if possible, to coerce Congress into granting wage increases to the amount of $800,000,000 payable out of the taxpayers' contributions to the national treasury.

Since President Wilson was himself perfectly willing thus to be coerced, and his counter-proposal to Congress virtually amounted to a granting of the wage demands at public expense, and in view of the belligerency of the brotherhood officials as indicated by the quotation from Mr. Jewell above noted, it would seem that the brotherhood chiefs were probably much more serious in their demands than the Times suspected. However this may be, the President's proposal was received with as much coldness on Capitol Hill, Washington, as had been the Plumb plan. Congress reminded the President that he already had been vested with sufficient authority to act in the emergency. I do not know what Mr. Wilson thought of this reminder; but, whatever he thought, it is to be noted that Director General Hines took one of the few firm stands against radicalized labor organizations in the Wilson administration, and the result was that neither was the Plumb plan "put over" nor did the railroad brotherhoods "tie the railroads up so tight that they will never run again."

The further history of this particular period is, however, of no great concern to the present narrative, and so I pass on from it to 1922—when the railroads had been returned again to private control, but when the Plumb plan for nationalization had not, by any means, been discarded by the railway brotherhood chiefs from their program for future action.

The hope of sovietization of the railroads had by no means been abandoned by the chiefs of the railroad brotherhoods in 1922. Far be it. The Plumb Plan League had been doing business at the same old stand, and its "campaigns of education" had received valiant support from every radical organization in the country.

It has been shown in an earlier chapter how the Moscow-controlled communist organization of America had determined upon a change of tactics, laying stress upon parliamentary political action and subordinating, somewhat, the program of violence which had been found so futile in 1919 and 1920 as a means of precipitating "working class revolution" in the United States. It should be said, however, that the program of violence was not and has not been abandoned. It was continued, and has continued, and will continue wherever and whenever it is possible to fan an industrial controversy into a flame of industrial warfare, however petty or sanguinary.

The railroad brotherhoods, dominated by radicals of one degree or another in official positions, had tried their hand at essentially coercive methods, too, without success. And they, too, had "come in on" a suggestion for a change of methods, and joining the socialists and "all radical and labor organizations in the country," to quote the Hillquit resolution, had now brought into being the Conference for Progressive Political Action. It should be said, also, in this instance, that adoption of a program for political action did not mean at all the abandonment of that earlier program of coercion operated, however unsuccessfully, upon the American public and the public's representatives in the Congress and in administrative executive positions. Coercion was continued, has been, and will be continued whenever and wherever there is the slightest hope of its getting somewhere, and so long as radical politicians remain the directing influences within well and extensively organized unions of the so-called "working class."

The Conference for Progressive Political Action, of socialist origin, dominated by socialists and depending principally for its existence upon the Socialist party and the railroad brotherhood, had been formed in February, 1922. During the months that followed, the "committee of fifteen," appointed to weld the various organizations and factions into a strong and homogenous unity for political action, set about its job of accomplishing this purpose.

The coal strike was on. Red influences were manifest in outbreaks of violence and the practice of "sabotage." Attorney General Daugherty in March gave warning that the government would be obliged to take stern measures if rioting and other forms of violence were not curbed. There developed instances that the warning was not idle talk on the part of the Attorney General. The "general amnesty" campaign was being continued, with the Attorney General an outstanding mark to shoot at, but his failure to be utterly "soft" in dealing with "class warfare" that put the government itself upon the defensive was the occasion for the hurling of missiles at him from every radical quarter, regardless of the redness or the pinkness of it.

Samuel Untermyer, the financing genius of Senator La Follette's People's Legislative Service, delivered himself of a broadside at the Attorney General and the Departmnt of Justice at a meeting held in Washington under the auspices of the P.L.S. in May, the burden of the attack being that the Attorney General was "the connecting link between the administration and Big Business." Senator Borah introduced in the Senate in May his resolution calling for American recognition of the soviet regime in Russia, which, of course, had no tendency to discourage the reds or to disconcert the pinks.

A month later there were put into circulation rumors that impeachment of the Attorney General was to be sought in the House. The railroad strike, the outstanding event of 1922, was then in the immediate offing, and it was not long afterward that the Attorney General revealed evidences of collusion existing between the promoters of the railroad strike and those of the coal strike.

The railroad strike began the 1st of July. From the very outset, indications of widespread bolshevist influence in the conduct of it were manifest from the prevalence of violence and the character of it, as well as from the evidence of "sabotage" on an extensive scale, revealed by investigations made for the Interstate Commerce Commission. The influence of the bolsheviki and the consequent riots, kidnappings, murders and sabotage, did not have the sanction of the chiefs of the railroad brotherhoods. The strike doubtless was beyond control of its leaders and most prominent sponsors. The explanation, if any, is for them to make; it is not needed from the present writer.

The outstanding fact that the American public was in grave need of the protection of the government was very quickly, emphatically and thoroughly demonstrated. This protection the government proceeded to give. The medium was the Federal Department of Justice and the courts. The agent was the Attorney General of the United States, Mr. Daugherty.

The public looked to the government for protection from a manifestation of civil warfare that might have wrecked the nation. It did not look in vain. It got what it looked for.

But in the soil of that protection there was planted the germ of what may very fittingly be called the conspiracy of 1922.