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Veterans Smash the Machine

by Albert L. Reeves, Jr.

(originally appeared in the March 1947 edition of The American Magazine)

OUT along the Stilwell Road, in Kunming or Ledo or Burma a couple of years ago, we used to gather in a tent, always keeping an eye out for pythons, rats, or errant Chinese bandits with lend-lease Tommy guns, and talk about home. More often than not one of the men would bring out a crumpled letter or a yellowed newspaper clipping telling about the nefarious activities of the stateside political rats, the pythons who squeezed graft from little merchants, the bandits who bled the citizens of their taxes – the men who controlled the machines.

“When I get back home,” someone nearly always said, “I’m going to do everything I can to get rid of corrupt machine government in my community.”

Image Copyright: The Estate of Willard Mullin

Perhaps, at the time, it was just another gripe, like poor chow or clinging mud or army life in general. But back home, when we finally got there, we found that there were several million more veterans like us, men who had crouched in foxholes, in tail turrets, and on destroyers’ decks and still had found time, somehow, to realize that the corrupt machines in their own home towns were depriving them and their fellow citizens of their civil rights just as surely as Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo had done with the peoples of Europe and Asia.

As a consequence, ex-GI Joe, the fellow who took the whipping a year or so ago from the mud and the weather and the bombs and the bullets, is a new and bigger and more important man today. In scattered sections of the country, in Tennessee and Rhode Island, Alabama and New York, Joe has found new ammunition, new enemies, new and just as strong dislikes. He has organized his army and trained his sights on a new objective – the elimination of rotten political machines and bossism in this own community, the return to the individual of the rights the GI Joes of 1776 fought for.

This movement by veterans to clean up government is only the beginning of a reform which may well sweep the country. An article in The American Magazine last August pointed out that the old-line machine politicians were then “scared stiff” of the returned war veterans. The fall elections proved that they had every reason to be.

The veterans’ pent-up hatred of machines blew wide open one day last August, when former GI’s, armed with guns and a determination that a primary election would be honest, blasted the McMinn County, Tennessee, political ring out of office.

In one way, it was an unfortunate occurrence, because violence instead of normal processes of law had been employed. But, in another way, it was just what the veterans needed. It proved to them that no political group, no matter how long it had been in power, no matter how firmly entrenched, no matter how many votes it controls or how much ill-gotten money it has in its slush fund, is so strong that it cannot be uprooted.

And all over the land a movement started which has not yet ended, and which probably will not end until every political dynasty – even Kelly, Crump, Tammany, Hague, and dozens of smaller ones we’ve never heard of – is wiped out.

Everywhere the vets took the advice of the men of Athens, Tennessee:

“Tell those ex-GI’s we don’t like shooting here any more than people do anywhere else. Tell them gunplay’s the wrong way to get the good government they want. We had to do it, but they don’t. Tell them now, before they get the wrong idea.”

It really wasn’t necessary to tell them, because, in at least two prominent but little publicized cases, the veterans had already started their campaign against corruption.

Outwardly, Pass Christian was a sleepy little resort town on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, its 3,000 inhabitants playing host to visitors who enjoyed the sunshine and quiet and semitropical nights. But, for years, “The Pass” had been ruled by a negligent, inefficient, overconfident, and blatantly dishonest political ring.

Early last year, Francis Hursey, a former Seabee, returned home to Pass Christian intent on realizing the dreams he had dreamed during 20 months’ service in the Pacific. For instance, he wanted to fish for mullet off the municipal pier. But the pier was a dilapidated wreck, decayed and unsafe. “When we asked City Hall for money to get it repaired, we found the money was gone, too,” Hursey later reported.

Hursey wanted to know, also, why the city’s streets were in such bad shape. He, and some 100 other veterans who formed the Veterans’ Good Government league, did some digging. Checking through a $10,000 “road fund” appropriation, they discovered that $6,300 went for wages, more than $1,000 for gas and oil, and, actually, only $587.81 for road repair materials. So, as a major attack against the incumbent ring, the vets charged the city administration with paving the private driveways of its friends, neglecting the city’s streets.

The League also charged that personal telephone expenses had been added to municipal accounts, that elections had been stolen in the past by dishonest election commissioners, that a tax dollar practically disintegrated into a “tax dime” after the machine got its claws on it.

With shrimp fries, sound trucks, and terse, straightforward literature, the Veterans’ Good Government League started a campaign that was a model of political sagacity, although not one of the veterans had ever run for office before.

“The Veterans Saved Ourt Country; Help Them Save our City,” and “We Killed Dictatorship with Bullets; You Can Kill It with Ballots,” were two of their campaign slogans. Their platform got immediate support from tax-burdened merchants and citizens. Here it is:

“(1) No Graft; (2) Taxes spend only for purposes collected; (3) A dollar’s service for each tax dollar collected; (4) Equal consideration for all sections of the city, its citizens, residents, and visitors; (5) Full protection of life, property, and personal happiness; (6) Return of city government to the Board of Aldermen and an end to dictatorship.”

That simplicity and the veterans’ strong campaign for fundamental decency sold the citizens. Nine out of ten municipal offices, with Hursey as mayor, were won by Veterans’ League candidates.

The Pass Christian victory for vets had its northern counterpart in Brewster, a town of 2,500 people a few miles north of New York City. Fed up with Old Guard control of the Board of Town Trustees and the School Board, the veterans set up a loose but effective “GI Party” without any other affiliation.

“One of the firs things we decided,” said a spokesman, “was that every one of our candidates did not necessarily have to be a GI. We decided the main thing would be, ‘Is he capable?’ We decided we wanted people who were progressive and young. Then we wanted people who’d run the town to suit the greatest number of people, not just a few rich, old conservatives. In other words, we wanted a little democracy.”

They got it, principally by working hard to get out the vote, offering their cars to bring voters to the polls, and putting their simple platform before the people. In less than a year, here is what they’ve accomplished:

Elected a former navy boatswain’s mate and a local grocery clerk to the Board of Town Trustees by majorities of 311 and 323 votes, respectively. (The last previous town election drew a total of only 80 votes!) Elected 5 veterans to 5 vacancies on the School Board. Enlarged the local police force and raised police salaries. Hired a street cleaner – Brewster had never had one before. Mapped out a sewer system, with state aid. Planned to buy two new fire trucks from war surplus to replace the city’s one worn-out rig.

These two instances of veterans’ rebellions against strongly entrenched machines were directed at the major evils which one finds in almost every ring.

All machines have, in a greater or lesser degree, the same basic characteristics. Directly or indirectly, the machine influences groups of voters who, through fear or ignorance or favor, accept and support hand-picked candidates for public office. In elections, it corrupts the ballot by fraud, misrepresentation, and, on occasion, violence. It always dominates and controls public officials who are elected or appointed with its support. Invariably, it subsidizes itself with patronage and misappropriated public funds, and its leaders and friends profit greatly from illicit liquor, gambling, prostitution, petty rackets, and the abuse of police power.

Political machines and political bosses are not new to America. The first such well-organized coterie was the Albany Regency, which, from 1820 to 1854, controlled the State of New York. Others, more corrupt and notorious followed. Tammany Hall for years ran New York City. Huey Long made Louisiana a national disgrace. Boss Tweed, back in 1874, was convicted of having stolen millions of dollars from New York. And, in Kansas City, the Pendergast machine maintained an open alliance with ruthless criminal elements, provided sanctuary for gangsters sought for major crimes in other states, ran elections with all the corruption familiar to the Nazis in their plebiscites in conquered countries, and stripped the people of millions of dollars.

I speak emphatically of Kansas City, because the people of the 5th Missouri Congressional District in that city saw fit last November to repudiate and defeat the machine-supported candidate who was my opponent for representative in Congress from the 5th Missouri District. And no little part of my victory is directly attributable to a group of young veterans who, when provided with convincing evidence of vote fraud, campaigned vigorously against the reconstituted Pendergast ring, which still held all county offices, although it had been kicked out of City Hall in 1940.

That evidence was provided by the Kansas City Star, which had played an important part in exposing the widespread vote stealing in elections prior to 1940, resulting in scores of Tom Pendergast’s ward heelers being sent to federal prison. Experienced political reporters on that newspaper were quick to note “queer” figures in the returns from the August primary of the Democratic Party. They dug into the situation and found definite indications of an attempt to revie the old-time election skullduggery.

It was enough, too, to really fire the interest and attention of certain young voters in Kansas City, who some time earlier had formed the Jackson County Federation of Young Republicans. Up to the primary, the group had been somewhat lethargic, but now they saw and grasped opportunity.

They worked avidly on a checkup of voters’ addresses. In one precinct they found 40 people had been voted from houses and apartments that had been burned out, locked up, condemned, or were nonexistent. In another, they found 70, in another, 55. Some of the names were on graveyard tombstones. The damaging, incriminating toll mounted to over 10,000 false registrations in the final count.

And when the general election came on November 3, the young voters swarmed into Kansas City’s North Side, where the machine vote was always heaviest, as workers and watchers at the polls. They challenged illegal votes, kept repeaters from repeating, and in a dozen ways, helped put a brake on machine voting methods.

The result of it all was that non-machine candidates gained their first foothold in Jackson County offices in many years – presiding judge (commissioner) of the county court and prosecuting attorney, always coveted – and definitely killed machine aspirations to hold a Congressional seat in the 5th Missouri District, despite President Truman’s personal appeal for and the machine support of his hand-picked candidate.

In few large cities were machine candidates so badly mauled as in Kansas City. But in nearly every one hastily organized veterans’ groups made their weight felt, their intentions in future elections obvious. None of these groups operated under the banners of established national veterans’ organizations, for neither the American Legion nor the VFW, the new AVC or Amvets, admits to political partnership. But they did their work well, cutting New Jersey’s Frank Hague’s plurality in his own county, Hudson, down to a relatively weak 67,000 from a usual 100,000; slashing away at Chicago’s Mayor Kelly and depriving him of four Congressional seats and two vital county offices; raising hob with New York City’s long-standing county machines with the election of three veterans to Congress and scaring the daylights out of Manhattan’s Vito Marcantonio.

The matter of personal fitness, of integrity and decency of officeholders has entered into every campaign the veterans have fought against the machines, not with name-calling and personal abuse, but with direct action against abuses permitted by incumbents.

Because four rookie policemen attempted to clean up their Rhode Island town last July, they suddenly found themselves the storm center of a clean-government-versus-machine controversy which, before it was over, threatened to embroil the entire state.

Central Falls, Rhode Island, is only one mile square and has a population of 25,000, the most densely populated city in the nation. Yet for years it has been openly countenancing slot machines, crap games, and bookies.

The four rookies, all veterans with overseas service, angered at the flagrant violations of gambling laws, bluntly told local interests last July that “we have got to do something to prevent the continued corruption of the morals of our minors.” They began by reporting all gambling violations to their superiors. Then, on July 19, while off duty, they moved into a local bookie parlor and confiscated two slot machines. A district court judge ruled the action illegal because the quartet acted without warrants.

For their previous zealousness, they had been assigned to all-night guard duty at city dumps, lonely patrol on the town’s outskirts, and were forced to answer fire alarms when off duty. The raid brought them almost immediate suspensions by the police chief. The charges – undisclosed “misconduct.”

Every veteran’s organization in town mobilized behind the suspended cops, hiring notably adept attorneys to represent them at a proposed Board of Aldermen’s hearing upon the matter and forming a “Veterans’ Committee of Twenty” to fight local corruption. For thousand veterans and citizens attended a mass meeting protesting the suspensions and offering support to clean up Central Falls.

Even for a long-established machine, the pressure was too great. The day before the scheduled hearing, the four men were reinstated, vague “misconduct” charges dropped. Gamblers and slot machines suddenly disappeared. The Vets’ Committee voted to ask impeachment of the mayor.

The action of those policemen and the support given them by veterans so aroused the people of Central Falls that it is doubtful if a machine will ever get a foothold there again. Even the mayor, a few weeks later, gave up. He announced that he would not run again for the office he had held for 12 successive years.

From these and other cases in other parts of the countyr, it is easy to see that the defeat of the machines has become a moral rather than a political issue; that the veterans have, where necessary, passed over party lines in their fight for decent government according to the Constitutional democratic processes.

Probably more openly and viciously than in any other part of the nation the battle of the veterans to smash the machines has raged in the South, for it has always been there, where local and state political bosses have been delivering huge vote pluralities ever since the end of the Civil War, that government has been so badly abused, so divorced from the principles originally conceived by the men who founded our government.

Yet today, the Southern bosses are shuddering in their ornate and comfortable homes – usually built with graft – and worrying and wondering when their turn to be purged will come. So strong has the feeling become that there has been sincere and widespread talk of starting a third political party with only one plank in its platform – the wiping out of corrupt machines. Proponents of the plan belive that there are already enough successful minor groups in the South to form a nucleus of such a party, all of them composed of veterans.

Personal abuses against returned soldiers and sailors have also played a major role in the national swing toward clean government. Last August, a young navy veteran in Bessemer Alabama was arrested for alleged “misconduct.” The arresting officer not only took the vet into custody, he gave him a bad beating while doing it, the former sailor charged.

Within a few hours, the town’s veterans held a meeting and succeeded in getting the cop suspended for a month without pay. That wasn’t enough, the vets claimed. Fire him and hire his father, also a cop, too.

Evidently the beating administered to the ex-sailor was a climax to a long series of abuses, for the new organization immediately set about circulation a petition asking that the city government be changed to the commission form. In last year’s elections they won with a thumping majority, ousting the long-time mayor and voting in the new commission type of government.

Arkansas, long a home of rotten municipal and county machines, felt the full force of the veterans’ anger at such practices. Backing independent candidates against old-line ringmen, the vets rampaged up and down the state, campaigning for honesty and decency and the elimination of such standard machine practices as gambling, prostitution, divorce and marriage mills, and land-stealing by excess taxation from illiterate tenant farmers.

One of their major objectives was Hot Springs, a winter spa for thousands of Northern tourists who not only enjoyed the waters, but succeeded in relieving themselves of millions of dollars annually dumped into the pockets of well-organized gamblers. The machine took a severe smashing.

In Batesville, 200 determined vets obtained court warrants against the county treasurer and 16 election officials as a result of alleged irregularities in an election.

The vets failed to make the grade in some counties. In Yell County, Arkansas, near the Oklahoma border, long known as “The Free State of Yell,” the machine was just too strong and too tough, as it was in Crittenden, where machine land grabs and luxurious gambling palaces are as common as 26 games in Chicago. But, even though they lost, the local veterans’ groups made dents in the machines’ heretofore impenetrable armor and let it be known that the fight has only begun.

What will of this lead to? Will the veterans become more violent in their attitude and tactics toward machine power? Will there be repetitions of the Athens, Tennessee bullets-fight for an honest election, or will the vets continue their progressive but legal methods of attack to ensure decency and honesty and true representation of the wishes of all the people?

At a recent organization meeting, 500 World War II veterans gathered in Alamo, Tennessee to serve notice on corrupt politicians that they intend to “destroy” machine government in their state. Already they’ve accomplished marvels and are well on their way toward their ultimate objective – defeating Boss Ed Crump, of Memphis. Their slogan is “Dump Crump,” and no doubt they will.

Take the case of a group of North Carolina veterans who, on their return home, were seriously perturbed about the long control of local offices by machines. A friend of mine provides these exerpts from a letter written by a young veteran active in the campaign:

“So far, the people have a great respect for the GI’s (the North Carolina GI Democrats) because they went about their business in an orderly manner, because they offered candidates whose character was unimpeachable and who had never been active in politics before, and because they are carrying out their campaign promises, one by one.

“They include both army and navy veterans, and both officers and enlisted men . . .

“(They) do not attempt to tell candidates or officeholders what to do. They all meet together and thresh out their problems and map their plans and strategy . . .  They all work together on preparing speeches, literature, selecting candidates, drafting platforms, etc.

“It’s a slow process sometimes, but it’s democratic and is proving workable.”

What more can we, the people, ask of any organization or group of organizations which have as their object the return to us of our rights and liberties ass citizens of the United States? In my opinion, nothing!

Of course, I don’t propose government by veterans or veterans’ organizations. Bit I do believe that young and vigorous citizens who fought a successful war should have some say in the government for which they fought.

These ex-GI’s, these men who saw firsthand what tyranny and oppression and the cruelties of despots can do to individuals and peoples are merely following the principles of the men who conceived and wrote the Declaration of Independence:

“That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

The people have had that right for 170 years. Lately, it seems, they have become apathetic. Apparently, it has taken the courage and determination of the men who once more fought for that right to inspire them to protect it against those who would deprive them of it.

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