From Republican Reformer to Radical: Congressman Vito Marcantonio

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Vito “Marc” Marcantonio (1902-1954) first attracted political attention while in high school. He delivered a speech advocating for old age insurance in front of Congressman Fiorello La Guardia (R-N.Y.), who was so impressed that he hired him on his campaign and when he graduated law school, employed him in his law office. He saw great potential in this young man and intended that he would be his successor. Although La Guardia lost reelection in 1932, 1933 would see him elected Mayor of New York City and Marc would be elected to Congress the following year from La Guardia’s East Harlem district. He voted much like his mentor, taking some very progressive positions on numerous issues and even voted against Social Security because it was insufficiently generous by his standards. Although Marcantonio’s career was temporarily derailed by losing reelection in 1936 due to the GOP requiring him to not endorse Roosevelt for reelection, he triumphantly returned in the 1938 election as a member of the American Labor Party. The Marcantonio who returned was different from the one who had left: his politics had grown distinctly more radical. He would win reelection four times thanks to his staunch commitment to constituent service; there are numerous stories of how he helped individuals and families who suffered through hard times. Marc would also run in the Republican, Democratic, and American Labor primaries, and multiple times won all their nominations, ensuring his reelection.

Marcantonio of the American Labor Party backed the New Deal without reservation, although he would have preferred much more. On foreign policy, matters were a bit more complicated. While he opposed American involvement in World War II and voted against Lend-Lease, his mind changed later in 1941, after Operation Barbarossa. This change was suspect as that happened to mirror the American Communist Party’s shift on American intervention. Marc defended his change, stating that if the USSR fell, the USA would be in greater peril. Although he was not a member of the CPUSA, he was a sympathizer and considered a friend by them. Marc can safely be regarded as a “fellow traveler”. He also championed the interests of Puerto Ricans, Italians, and blacks; all these groups forming crucial elements of his electorate. It logically follows that Marc actively supported civil rights, having sponsored anti-poll tax bills that passed the House in 1943 and 1945, but met their demise in the Senate. He also advocated Puerto Rico’s independence.

After World War II, he favored friendly relations with the USSR and opposed the Truman Administration’s new focus on anti-communism. Marc voted against the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, again positions that were favored by the American Communist Party as well as non-interventionists. In 1948, he supported former Vice President Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party presidential run; the campaign had been thoroughly infiltrated by communists. In 1950, awareness of communism was at its peak in America as the US had gone to war in Korea. Marc had been the only member of Congress to vote against military intervention in Korea and voted against the McCarran Internal Security Act (required Communist organizations to register with the Justice Department), which over President Truman’s veto. Given this political environment, Republican and Democratic parties finally got behind fusion candidate Democrat James Donovan, who defeated Marcantonio for reelection that year.

In 1954, Marcantonio sought a rematch against Donovan, but he collapsed on the subway just after finishing printing campaign fliers, dead from a heart attack at 51. Vito Marcantonio was one of the few American legislators who was overtly pro-Communist, a stance that many of his constituents didn’t seem to mind terribly until the year of his defeat. For his supporters, Marcantonio fought for the common man and for them personally while for his detractors, he was a communist all but in name.

References

Bell, C. (2013). East Harlem remembered: Oral histories of community and diversity. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Meyer, G. (1989). Vito Marcantonio: Radical politician, 1902-1954. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

 

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