Commonsense Anticommunism

Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars

By Jennifer Luff

304 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-2212-5
    Published: December 2014
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-6989-5
    Published: May 2012
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8384-1
    Published: May 2012

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Between the Great War and Pearl Harbor, conservative labor leaders declared themselves America's "first line of defense" against Communism. In this surprising account, Jennifer Luff shows how the American Federation of Labor fanned popular anticommunism but defended Communists' civil liberties in the aftermath of the 1919 Red Scare. The AFL's "commonsense anticommunism," she argues, steered a middle course between the American Legion and the ACLU, helping to check campaigns for federal sedition laws. But in the 1930s, frustration with the New Deal

order led labor conservatives to redbait the Roosevelt administration and liberal unionists and abandon their reluctant civil libertarianism for red scare politics. That frustration contributed to the legal architecture of federal anticommunism that culminated with the McCarthyist fervor of the 1950s.

Relying on untapped archival sources, Luff reveals how labor conservatives and the emerging civil liberties movement debated the proper role of the state in policing radicals and grappled with the challenges to the existing political order posed by Communist organizers. Surprising conclusions about familiar figures, like J. Edgar Hoover, and unfamiliar episodes, like a German plot to disrupt American munitions manufacture, make Luff's story a fresh retelling of the interwar years.

About the Author

Jennifer Luff is lecturer in U.S. history at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
For more information about Jennifer Luff, visit the Author Page.


"The author has done a great deal of research, and the book adds to the understanding of the historical roots of McCarthyism. Recommended. All academic levels/libraries."--Choice

"A valuable contribution to labor history and to the history of civil liberties."--Journal of American History

“Luff’s book deepens our understanding of American Federation of Labor (AFL) leaders’ relationship to the state.”--American Historical Review

Commonsense Anticommunism is an unusually good book about a subject usually dealt with poorly. . . . A genuine contribution to historical literature.”--Journal of Cold War Studies

“A brilliant book. . . . The most complex reading to date of the politics of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the first half of the twentieth century and the ideology that drove its enigmatic first president, Samuel Gompers, and his successor, Bill Green.”--Labor

“An important study of conservative labor that provides fresh insight into the tensions between conservative labor movements and Communism in respect to labor civil liberties in the United States.”--Journal of the North Carolina Association of Historians