Americans for Democratic Action

The Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) was established in 1947 as an organization to support the advance of liberal causes. Members included Arthur Schlesinger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, Hubert Humphrey, Asa Philip Randolph, John Kenneth Galbraith,Walter F. White,Louise Bowen, Chester Bowles, Louis Carlo Fraina, Stewart Alsop, Reinhold Niebuhr, George Counts, David Dubinsky and Joseph P. Lash.

The ADA came into conflict with another left-wing group, the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA). Its members included Henry A. Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Arthur Miller, Dashiell Hammett, Hellen Keller, Thomas Mann, Aaron Copland, Claude Pepper, Eugene O'Neill, Glen H. Taylor, John Abt, Edna Ferber, Thornton Wilder, Carl Van Doren, Fredric March and Gene Kelly.

Both groups had been established because after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt members of the Democratic Party feared it would move to the right. ADA's main dispute with the PCA was that they that it allowed members of the American Communist Party to join: "We reject any association with Communism or sympathizers with communism in the United States as completely as we reject any association with Fascists or their sympathizers."

Stewart Alsop, a member of the ADA, was co-writer, with his brother Joseph Alsop, of the thrice-weekly "Matter of Fact" column for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1946 Joseph and Stewart Alsop urged militant anti-communism. They warned that "the liberal movement is now engaged in sowing the seeds of its own destruction." Liberals, they argued, "consistently avoided the great political reality of the present: the Soviet challenge to the West." Unless the country addressed this problem, "In the spasm of terror which will seize this country... it is the right - the very extreme right - which is most likely to gain victory."

In 1948 ADA selected civil rights as its main issue and tried to persuade the Democratic Party and the Republican Party to support civil rights legislation. Harry S. Truman responded to this by promising legislation on civil rights, fair employment practices and opposition to lynching. When Truman won the Democratic Party nomination, Southern Democrats formed the States' Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) and Storm Thurmond was chosen as its presidential candidate. He won 1,169,063 votes but came a poor third to Harry S. Truman (24,105,812).

In the 1950s and 1960s Hubert Humphrey was the main ADA figure in Congress. Elected as vice-president in 1964, Humphrey was able to influence the decision by Lyndon B. Johnson to support the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Immigration Act (1965).

Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1968 but was defeated by Richard Nixon , the Republican Party candidate. However, membership of the American for Democratic Action continued to grow and reached 75,000 in the early 1970s.

Primary Sources

(1) Henry A. Wallace, speech (12th September 1946)

During the past year or so, the significance of peace has been increased immeasurably by the atom bomb, guided missiles, and airplanes which soon will travel as fast as sound. Make no mistake about it - another war would hurt the United States many times as much as the last war... He who trusts in the atom bomb will sooner or later perish by the atom bomb - or something worse.

I say this as one who steadfastly backed preparedness throughout the thirties. We have no use for namby-pamby pacifism. But we must realize that modern inventions have now made peace the most enticing thing in the world - and we should be willing to pay a just price for peace....

The price of peace - for us and for every nation in the world - is the price of giving up prejudice, hatred, fear and ignorance....

Hatred breeds hatred. The doctrine of racial superiority produces a desire to get even on the part of its victims. If we are to work for peace in the rest of the world, we here in the United States must eliminate racism from our unions, our business organizations, our educational institutions, and our employment practices. Merit alone must be the measure of men.

(2) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959)

A strong progressive trend in the Democratic Party led by Henry Wallace opposed Truman's cold war policy and advocated peaceful coexistence between East and West. When Wallace was ousted from the cabinet, he chose finally to head a new party and be its candidate for President; this meant breaking with influential forces within the Democratic Party who agreed with Wallace's policies but not with his departure from Democratic ranks. At the same time, lacking the support of Labor, the new Progressive Party was doomed to failure.

(3) Peter Beinart, The New Republic (13th December, 2004)

During World War II, only one major liberal organization, the Union for Democratic Action (UDA), had banned communists from its ranks. At the Willard, members of the UDA met to expand and rename their organization. The attendees, who included Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, issued a press release that enumerated the new organization's principles. Announcing the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the statement declared, "Because the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere," America should support "democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over." That meant unceasing opposition to communism, an ideology "hostile to the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic has grown great."

At the time, the ADA's was still a minority view among American liberals. Two of the most influential journals of liberal opinion, The New Republic and The Nation, both rejected militant anti-communism. Former Vice President Henry Wallace, a hero to many liberals, saw communists as allies in the fight for domestic and international progress. As Steven M. Gillon notes in Politics and Vision, his excellent history of the ADA, it was virtually the only liberal organization to back President Harry S Truman's March 1947 decision to aid Greece and Turkey in their battle against Soviet subversion.

But, over the next two years, in bitter political combat across the institutions of American liberalism, anti-communism gained strength. With the ADA's help, Truman crushed Wallace's third-party challenge en route to reelection. The formerly leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled its communist affiliates and The New Republic broke with Wallace, its former editor. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) denounced communism, as did the NAACP. By 1949, three years after Winston Churchill warned that an "iron curtain" had descended across Europe, Schlesinger could write in The Vital Center: "Mid-twentieth century liberalism, I believe, has thus been fundamentally reshaped... by the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man. The consequence of this historical re-education has been an unconditional rejection of totalitarianism."