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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

What Reviewers Thought

  • “Anthony Carew has unlocked the secrets long held fast by Jay Lovestone, George Meany, and the CIA. In masterful fashion, he brings to light the complex skullduggery, the myriad rivalries, and the geopolitical impulses that propelled key leaders of American labour to collaborate with the US government at the depths of the Cold War and even afterwards. This is a fascinating book that commands the attention of all those, on both sides of the Atlantic, who seek to illuminate a hidden history vital to labour’s fate in the second half of the twentieth century.” 
    Nelson Lichtenstein, Distinguished Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • “Drawing on decades of original research, Anthony Carew’s magisterial survey provides the definitive account of American labour’s role in the Cold War. Spanning the origins of the East-West conflict, its expansion into the Third World, and the dawn of détente, American Labour’s Cold War Abroad profoundly deepens and extends our understanding of both the “global Cold War” and modern labour history.” 
    Hugh Wilford, Professor of History at California State University at Long Beach and author of The Mighty Wurlitzer and America’s Great Game
  • “The American labour leadership’s response to the onset of the Cold War was first to dismiss the European unions' reaction to the Communist threat as hopelessly half-hearted and then to throw very big money (heavily subsidized from American government sources) and a lot of manpower into international activities and structures of its own devising.  Much of the relevant data and documentation was buried in tightly guarded archives until Carew’s prodigious patience and persistence won him access.  His American Labour’s Cold War Abroad is an absorbing and indispensable contribution to any informed understanding of the activities and mindsets of those febrile times.” 
    Harold Lewis, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, 1977–1993
  • “The product of archival research conducted over four decades, American Labour’s Cold War Abroad is meticulously documented, compellingly argued, richly peopled, and vividly written. It will become the definitive text on organised labour’s role in the Cold War conflicts that dominated global politics from 1945 into the 1970s.” 
    Professor John McIlroy, Middlesex University
  • “This is outstanding research that uses entirely new archival sources. Moving us through the corridors of political influence in Europe and America during the east-west Cold War, Carew reveals the intrigues, arguments, and double-dealing between labour activists who could be characters in an espionage novel. An important contribution to our understanding of international relations in this period of recent history.” 
    Victor Rabinovitch, Distinguished Fellow in Policy Studies, Queens University
  • “Twenty years ago, Tony Carew proved American labor depended upon CIA subsidies to finance its Cold War foreign policy operations. Now, with American Labour’s Cold War Abroad he tells the full, gripping story from the end of World War II to 1970. Combining drama, character studies, and hard facts, Carew shows the reader how American unions moved from early efforts in Europe to interventions around the ‘Third World.’ Seldom has a book combined such rich detail with careful attention to the overall arc of history, scrupulous fairness, and a notable flair for bringing out the drama of real life.” 
    Robert Anthony Waters, co-editor of American Labor’s Global Ambassadors: The International History of the AFL-CIO during the Cold War
  • [T]his book is essential reading for anyone seeking to explore the structure and history of the international trade union movement…Not for the first time, Carew has undertaken painstaking research to show how US money, including from the Central Intelligence Agency…influenced the scope and shape of trade unionism and anti-communist activities around the world. The result is a book of truly global scale…One of the excellent aspects of the telling is that there is as much focus on individuals, personalities and experience as there is on money and power. The reader comes away with a strong sense of the characters of the main players…The documentation of the funding, influence and quarrels is exemplary…detailed in a style of writing that is engaging and informed meaning that although the author is tasked with the challenge of describing the minutiae of meetings and briefings, the result is highly readable…It is the attention to detail both of financial transactions and leading characters…that makes this a major contribution to knowledge.”
    Professor Melanie Simms, Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow
  • “With Anthony Carew’s new book, we are much closer to having a definitive empirical history of US Labour’s foreign policy operations…Based on extensive archival research and personal interviews by a careful and extremely meticulous scholar…
    It is a devastating account of the top-down business unionism developed within US labor and projected around the world.
     …it is doubtful that a more complete understanding of the events [Lovestone and Brown] were intimately involved in will be developed…a stunning authoritative account.”
    Kim Scipes, Associate Professor of Sociology, Purdue University Northwest
  • Thirty years after his excellent Labour Under the Marshall Plan, which was never translated into French, Anthony Carew continues his research into the American grip on European trade unionism through the creation at the end of 1949 of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)... the weapon designed by the American Federation of Labour (AFL) to oppose the work of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). He itemises the dollar amounts paid from 1947 to the "free" trade unions of Greece, France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom to promote splits or to oust militant trade unionists and then affiliate to the ICFTU. Correspondence between the leaders of the AFL's Free Trade Union Committee, Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown, his representative in Europe and Africa, confirms that they were agents of the State Department and the CIA, which provided the finance. The author... establishes...that the anti-communist obsession put at risk the economic interests of allies and rivals alike. Will this book one day be translated?
    Annie Lacroix-Riz, Le Monde Diplomatique.
  • “The book is a significant work for readers interested in American labour, American foreign policy and international labour movements in the Cold War.”
    Dr Hisanao Takase, Journal of the Ohara Institute for Social Research, Tokyo
  • “…fascinating and, above all, well researched.”
    Kari Tapiola, former Executive Director and Special Advisor to the Director-General, International Labour Organisation
  • "Just read your new book. It is simply terrific."
    Mark Anderson formerly of the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department and Head of the AFL-CIO Task Force on Trade in Negotiations over NAFTA
  • “this ‘remarkably researched book’ was singled out as a ‘landmark reference for years to come,’ with a potential to transcend the scholarly community.”
    Scholarly and Academic Book of the Year Category, Alberta Book Publishing Awards, 2019.
  • "The role [of the AFL-CIO] in the Cold War has a complex history that is still not fully understood. Anthony Carew's detailed account of the first decades after World War II opens a vast new range of evidence of upper-level manoeuvring for power and influence is a major achievement, with research in every major labour archive related to the subject in North America and Europe...This book is essential to understanding how the AFL-CIO operated during the Cold War. It opens up entirely new areas of research and potential analysis."
    David Palmer, University of Melbourne.
  • "What has been lacking [in the treatment of US labour's controversial role in the Cold War] is a thorough, comprehensive and scholarly history of the AFL-CIO's role. This very large void has now been filled beyond the best expectations. The British labour historian Anthony Carew has written a thoroughly researched history that is likely to remain the definitive account of a now largely forgotten but crucial episode in American labour history. A massive volume, the book is the product of forty years of research, professionally carried out, scrupulously factual, devoid of political or academic jargon. At most, Carew allows himself the occasional dry, understated touch of humour. Much of the research appearing in the book is entirely new...[leading] into many directions, nationally - in the United States - and internationally, into the politics of the wider international trade union movement. It would lend itself to becoming the reference and the starting point of further explorations, by Carew himself and by others...A promised second volume should complete the task and will be widely anticipated."
    Dan Gallin New Politics