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American Labour's Cold War Abroad: From Deep Freeze to Detente, 1945-1970

American Labour’s Cold War Abroad is a wide-ranging study of the international free trade union movement in the post-war years. The context is the Cold War, the book’s central concern being the way international events in this conflict were perceived in labour circles and how, in response, American labour’s policies were developed and implemented.

At a time when trade unions were a substantial force in both American and European politics, the fiercely anti-communist American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) set a strong example for labour organisations overseas. It cooperated closely with the US government on foreign policy and enjoyed an intimate if sometimes strained relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The book maps the international programmes of the AFL-CIO and the relations with labour movements abroad, in addition to providing a summary of the labour situation in a dozen or more countries including Finland, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Greece and India.

The book deals thematically with the shaping and implementation of labour’s international policy against the background of developments in the Cold War. Unbending in its anti-communism, the AFL/AFL-CIO played a crucial role in waging the Cold War. In contrast, labour organisations in other western countries often gave greater priority to pragmatic trade union concerns, taking an anti-communist stand when appropriate but also compromising when circumstances deemed it necessary. A central theme is thus the tension that existed among western trade union centres over the issue of anti-communism. This factor led over time to the marginalisation of the AFL-CIO within the international labour movement and the consequential weakening of international labour as an organised force.

The debates that raged in the international free trade union movement inevitably revolved around the work of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) whose history has already been extensively chronicled by the author. The campaigns waged and overseas programmes undertaken in the name of American labour are presented here in the context of the evolution of the ICFTU over a generation.

American labour’s strained relationship with the ICFTU was compounded by differences within the US labour movement over international policy that pitted the AFL and the CIO (led respectively by George Meany and Walter Reuther) against one another before their merger in 1955, only to continue thereafter in the tense relations between the AFL-CIO and the Reuther wing based in the United Automobile Workers (UAW). Much of this acrimony was a product of historic rivalries, but it acquired a new salience in the 1950s in a specific dispute over access to CIA funding. More generally it stemmed from the contrasting responses of Meany and Reuther to cold-war developments. The latter differed from Meany in that his anti-communism was couched in the more liberal language of “peaceful coexistence” and in the closer relations he enjoyed with the ICFTU leadership.

Two Americans in the international labour field who take centre stage in the book were Jay Lovestone, executive secretary of the Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC) and later director of international affairs of the AFL-CIO and Irving Brown, the Federation’s main field representative for Europe and Africa. Lovestone and Brown, both former Communists, became Meany’s chief foreign policy advisers and important architects of American labour’s international stance from 1944 to the 1980s. Often operating in cloak and dagger fashion – their biographies read like characters from a le Carré novel – they exerted a major influence on relationships in Europe and beyond.

Jay Lovestone was a mystery man personally and professionally. As leader of the American Communist Party in the 1920s, he had spent much of his time living undercover and was forced to travel using forged documents. He had a string of aliases, but interestingly he continued to use them in his post-communist phase when he was no longer “underground.” Few people were ever close to him and though he had three long-term relationships with women that overlapped he somehow managed to keep each of his paramours in the dark about his other relationships. He preferred to operate largely out of sight, even to the point of installing a back door to his office within the AFL-CIO headquarters so as to avoid having to walk through the typing pool to and from his desk. In conversation, he had a habit of backing towards the wall as if afraid someone might come behind him when his back was exposed. Lovestone’s immediate line manager in the AFL-CIO, Mike Ross, a former Comintern staffer in his younger days, spent many sleepless nights wondering just what Lovestone was up to and, indeed, whether he had ever really left the Communist Party.

Lovestone’s closest collaborator, field representative Irving Brown, was on the surface a less complicated character but no less inscrutable. A nondescript figure with a permanent seven o’clock shadow, habitually attired in rumpled suit, grubby collar and tie and with shoes in need of a polish, he was not someone likely to be taken for a holder of the United States Presidential Medal of Honour or the Federal German Republic’s Order of Merit. But Brown was a man of many secrets, “a black bag man” for the CIA who rubbed shoulders with heads of state, prime ministers and military strong men. The book's cover depicts Irving Brown in Athens sitting alongside the corrupt Greek trade union leader, Fotis Makris, both men appearing very pleased with themselves following the American’s delivery of a financial “shot in the arm” to Makris. At times Brown courted serious danger and on two separate occasions in France in the 1950s felt the need to go into hiding—once from the French security services and on the other occasion in fear of assassination. A jet-setter before passenger jet travel, Brown spent most of his working life travelling and living out of a suitcase. Time described him the American labour figure that European communists “know best and hate most”. Under the heading “Mr Brown vs Generalissimo Stalin”, which inflated Brown’s importance, Readers’ Digest nevertheless echoed a common view of the press that European communism’s growing enfeeblement in union circles was very much attributable to the efforts of Brown, a “superb fighter for freedom”.

Lovestone and Brown were at one and the same time practitioners of international labour politics and, in their extensive correspondence, chroniclers of the events in which they were caught up. The book focuses on their perceptions and concerns as reflected in this richly illuminating personal correspondence. Bound together in a master-apprentice relationship, they had been close political allies for over a decade when the AFL’s FTUC hired them towards the end of the war.

They shared a specific understanding of the role of organised labour based on their political grounding in Leninism – a mind-set that never left them even when they became ardent anti-communists. In their new professional role – the one based in New York, the other engaged in field work overseas – they corresponded regularly and at length, their letters to one another and to George Meany continuing throughout the more than thirty years of their partnership.

At times they managed a double exchange of letters a week between New York and Paris through their access to the official US Embassy pouch. It was almost invariably “business correspondence”, with a deadly focus on the “big issues” of the Cold War as they saw them. Much of it was written as briefings for George Meany, but other correspondence was private, an exchange of thoughts between two people sharing a strong ideological bond. On the most sensitive issues such as the financing of trade union programmes – frequently from US government sources and sometimes of a covert nature from the Central Intelligence Agency – they tended to write in a thinly disguised code. Yet at the same time, they were frequently indiscreet in their discussion of events and criticism of central figures in the field. It is this that makes their letters so rich and revealing.

The range of activities undertaken by Lovestone and Brown and the scale of their ambition to influence international affairs at the highest level was unmatched anywhere else in the international labour movement. Other important national labour centres had their foreign affairs specialists, but these were typically backroom functionaries of a second order – drafters of resolutions, organisers of conferences, arrangers of travel schedules for visiting dignitaries – rather than powerful players engaged in high politics and diplomacy. In contrast, Lovestone and Brown moved in altogether more exalted circles, having ready access to White House staff, high level State Department officials and topmost CIA personnel at home, while abroad they mixed freely with heads of government, cabinet ministers and ambassadors.

In the standoff between George Meany and Walter Reuther, a key figure ­– and foil to Lovestone and Brown – was Reuther’s younger brother and international affairs specialist, Victor Reuther. Dissociating himself from the cloak and dagger style of Brown and Lovestone, he sought to project the image of a plain-spoken labour representative.

In 1951 New York Post columnist Murray Kempton wrote about Victor Reuther in the gritty tones that the US press preferred for this kind of subject. After mentioning that he had been shot a couple of years earlier in an unsuccessful assassination attempt (nothing to do with international affairs—it was the work of a hit man contracted by the Detroit mafia in retaliation for union efforts to stamp out numbers racketeering in Detroit auto plants), Kempton described how Victor Reuther “made a tragic and ruined appearance” at a union convention a few months after the assassination attempt. He was then assigned to international work in Europe – in part to allow him to convalesce away from Detroit. Kempton writes: “He came to New York to sail to Paris, frail, tired, and his voice low-keyed. He seemed no figure then on whom to bet very much. But he went to Paris and he is back now for the first time.”

Kempton records how in the interim Reuther had travelled 50,000 miles to numerous dangerous trouble spots where the cold war most affected labour. “Most of all, he was in France, the key to European labour . . . [his office] in an old sweat shop in a Paris slum where he talks to men who still belong to Communist unions and are looking for the kind of strong labour movement that can lead them out, and wherever he goes the Communists chalk on his car ‘War Propagandist.’ Victor Reuther came back to the CIO platform yesterday. His shoulders were straight, his head was up and the wounds on his soul were gone. He will go back to Europe with a big new allotment from the CIO as organiser not out for dues but to help restore the soul of European labour…The audience got very quiet…[but] at the end the applause welled up…he is as indestructible as any other Reuther.” In fact, the new financial allotment he was to take back to Europe came courtesy of the CIA. Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Victor Reuther was, like Brown and Lovestone, well acquainted with the Intelligence services.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, personal and professional relations between Jay Lovestone, Irving Brown and Victor Reuther grew more toxic. The Reuther brothers were accused of undermining American labour’s ability to present a united front abroad and so creating obstacles to the attainment of AFL-CIO international objectives in the Cold War. They in turn charged the AFL-CIO with waging a 'cold war' on the ICFTU. The book details how, ultimately, antagonism over international matters contributed to the autoworkers union quitting the AFL-CIO in 1968. Two years later, and prompted by this schism in US labour, the AFL-CIO itself disaffiliated from the ICFTU so as to be able to pursue unhindered its own single-minded crusade against international communism.

It was a landmark development and, as the book argues, very much to the detriment of labour solidarity. The days of the long post-war boom that had underpinned union strength in the West were now numbered. And in a harsher economic climate the international trade union movement would, for want of organisational unity, soon find itself in a seriously weakened condition.

Photo of the cover of Carew's book American Labour's Cold War Abroad

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