San Francisco's Press and the 1934 General Strike

Historical Essay

by George Seldes


July 5 1934 San Francisco News front page

George Seldes on San Francisco's Press and the 1934 General Strike

First (there was) the San Francisco strike of 1934 when the press itself played the role of strikebreaker. This was something new. I had known that all Pittsburgh papers could more or less suppress news of a strike, but so far as I knew there had never been a planned campaign by united publishers. (It did of course happen in the early days of Fascist Italy.) But San Francisco of 1934 in my opinion has written the most shameful page in the history of that city's journalism.

San Francisco was not friendly to organized labor; naturally the press was unfriendly. In May, 1934, the longshoremen went on strike and in the course of several months gained the sympathy of many big unions who voted the general strike. It was called. In the first three days the city was in a holiday mood and there was no real suffering from lack of food deliveries. The strikers did not stop the rounds of the milkmen.

Those same three peaceful days the press of San Francisco, augmented by the voice of paid radio orators, preached fear and hatred. News was distorted, invented, colored with propaganda; radio speeches were pure demagoguery, and the villains were always the "Reds" and "foreign agitators."

Labor was smiling, quiet; the newspaper-reading citizenry and the radio masses were quick to respond to hysterical suggestions, when as a climax General Hugh Johnson, arriving as mediator, delivered himself of a senseless blast against labor which became the newspaper signal for hysteria. "When the means of food supply--milk for children-- necessities of life to the whole people are threatened, that is bloody insurrection," Johnson said.

Not a hand had been raised, not a shot fired, not a milk delivery missed, no one had gone hungry for lack of transport, and all the fundamental public services were functioning. The general strike began peacefully. It followed the police attack and the shooting of two men several days earlier. Labor had surprised itself and the press with the spontaneous march of twelve thousand men behind the victims' coffins. Despite the press, union after union enthusiastically declared for the strike. When it came, labor permitted the press to function, the telephones to ring, the deliveries of bread, milk and ice to continue and nineteen restaurants were allowed to remain open the first day, fifty the second. Doctors received gasoline for their cars. The few instances of violence, a truck overturned, an altercation between a picket and a strikebreaker, were unimportant. To the press, however, they were sensations worth headlines. As in Italy in 1922, and in Germany in 1933, the politicians of big business, big business itself and the newspapers it controlled were united in San Francisco, but having no Fascist Duce or Fuhrer they called upon the mayor to ask for national troopers to put down the Red Revolution. In the offices of the Chronicle, the Call-Bulletin and the other papers which raised the Red scare and defeated labor, type was being set by members of the typographical union.

34strike$media-distortion---1934-strike$examiner itm$1934-examiner---strike-starts.jpg

The first day of the General Strike, the Examiner fans the flames

The publishers, minor Machiavellis, gave the union men a raise in wages on the eve of the strike. And union labor, here as elsewhere, scabbed on its fellow men.

As a preparation for the general strike the majority of newspapers of San Francisco began a series of inflammatory editorials and distorted news items calling it a revolution; on the other hand, many newspapers failed to print even the official declarations of the strike committee giving the reasons, causes and grievances. A Hearst paper under a headline


reported that Colonel H. H. Mittlestaedt, commanding the soldiers, had ordered the court-martial of any man who fired a shot into the air and told them "in case the strikers attack again, that they would first clip their opponents with the butts of their rifles, then bayonet them, and finally shoot them."

The people of San Francisco were completely befuddled by the press, which was itself hysterical and which raised the usual Red banner to pass its hysteria over to the masses. "Deliberate journalistic malpractice" is the characterization of San Francisco's editors by the correspondent of the New Republic, Evelyn Seeley, who exempts only one newspaper, the Scripps-Howard News. But even this journal, which is known as friendly to labor, omitted from a late edition the column in which Heywood Broun had said: ". . . and so I still think that the lawless employers should be restrained, and if they don't like it here I see no possible objection to sending them back where they came from."

The Chronicle, for example, went in for rabid expressions like these: "The radicals have seized control by intimidation. What they want is revolution. . . Are the sane, sober working-men of San Francisco to permit these communists to use them for their purpose of wreckage, a wreckage bound to carry the unions down with it?" while the Los Angeles Times stated that "the situation in San Francisco is not correctly described by the phrase 'general strike.' What is actually in progress there is an insurrection, a Communist-inspired and led revolt against organized government. There is but one thing to be done - put down the revolt with any force necessary and protect the right of ordinary people to conduct their ordinary occupations in security . . ."

The Sacramento Bee informed Mayor Rossi that his program had the united support of the law-abiding citizens and spoke of the strikers as persons seeking to overthrow the government of the United States. The San Francisco Call-Bulletin upheld the "conservative union men [who] have been shouted down by an element bent seemingly on strife and self-aggrandizement." The Oakland Examiner said: "If the small group of Communists, starting with their control of longshore and maritime unions, extend their power over the community of the Bay Area--and thence into the whole or even part of the State--California would be no more fit to live in than Russia."

The Oakland Chronicle said, "The radicals have seized control . . . The radicals have wanted no settlement. What they want is revolution." The Portland (Oregon) Times said the strikers were refusing the public the necessities of life and blamed "rampant radicalism for unrestrained rule or utter ruin."

The editorials in the press range all the way from falsehood to hysteria; they unite in raising the Communist scare; throughout the strike they blamed the strikers daily for general violence. The eastern press reprinted the editorials and the news which came largely from the offices of the California papers. The East naturally believed that a revolutionary uprising was occurring in San Francisco. Yet the question of veracity and integrity of the press must certainly arise in the mind of any man who reads the following dispatch from America's national humorist and generally unprejudiced observer. Will Rogers telegraphed from California to the scores of newspapers which take his daily idea:

"In 1926 I was in England during their world-famous general strike. And brother it was general. Not a paper printed, not a train, not a bus, not a wheel turned. Well, I never got through telling of the composure of those level headed people.

"Well, I went to San Francisco, and I tell you we were not so 'nutty' under stress as you might think. It was as quiet as the British. The only thing went haywire was the headlines in the out of Frisco papers. I hope we never live to see the day when a thing is as bad as some of our newspapers make it.

"There is lots of sense in this country yet."

Again, for his Sunday readers, Will Rogers, whom no one has yet called a Bolshevik, summed up San Francisco. Saying as usual that all he knows is what he reads in the papers, he added that everything in San Francisco was quiet, that eighteen restaurants were open, that "all the trucks you saw on the street was either ice, milk, bread or bare necessities." Roger concludes that, inasmuch as manufacturers and bankers have associations, "there is nothing fairer than workmen having unions for their mutual benefit . . . but that when people felt that the Reds were running the thing . . . they turned against 'em . . . But what I want to get over is that the people were just as down to earth, as peaceful and law abiding as you ever saw. Again, a dog fight would have constituted excitement. There is lots of Reds in the Country, but you would be surprised at the amount of Whites. . . ."

On the subject of violence either the majority of California papers or Mr. Rogers is not telling the truth, and knowing both, I would say, even if I had no other evidence, that the facts are those given by the latter.

The strike was smashed. The press announced that the public was to be congratulated upon this action. "The truth, born of long experience, that a great strike cannot be won if it outrages public opinion," said the New York Times, "has apparently been grasped by the strategy committee. . . ." Does or doesn't the Times know who makes and controls public opinion? Has or hasn't the Times ever heard about the "power of the press"?

Two days later, July 22, 1934, the Times under an editorial headline "The American Way" was jubilant. "This country may rightly take satisfaction at the way in which the general strike at San Francisco was met and conquered . . . the local authorities stood fast. . . . Best of all, perhaps, was the spirit displayed by the citizens near whom the danger pressed. They were not thrown into a panic. . . . Doubtless there must be some 'mopping up' in other cities before troubles are over. But what already has been accomplished is sufficient demonstration that Americans will not harbor anarchists, nor tolerate revolutionists, and are still able, as Abraham Lincoln said, to 'keep house.'"

The mopping up, which the Times foresaw, took another direction. Thanks to the daily dose of anti-Red poison administered to the public by the press, groups of business men, thugs, morons and super-patriots did exactly what the Reds had been accused of doing: they took the law into their own hands and indulged in violence. They broke into private homes and offices, confiscated and destroyed property, wrecked, stole and burned. This rioting by the Vigilantes was too much even for the Times which reported that "constitutional rights were disregarded outright" by the mob, "or lightly brushed aside by the constituted authorities." It is a fact that the San Francisco police followed the thugs, entered the wrecked buildings, destroyed what was left undestroyed, and arrested the victims, not the aggressors. Four hundred men and women, described as "Reds," were thrown into prison but not one thug was touched. An attorney for the Communists, George Anderson, whose life had been threatened by the Vigilantes, demanded jury trials. For this invocation of constitutional rights Municipal Judge George Steiger threatened him with contempt action.

This exhibition of lawlessness was hailed with delight by several newspapers. They were the inspirers and did not disown their handiwork. Some of them commented bitterly, moreover, on the apologies of Municipal Judge Sylvian Lazarus, made to the four hundred victims when he released most of them the next morning. "I am disgusted to think that this good old town should have acted like a pack of wolves," he said. "I don't know who is responsible, but it should be traced back to its source." The source confronted the judge from every news stand.

Peter Gulbrandsen, journalist, writes in the San Francisco News that "the so-called vigilante raids are a disgrace to the community. The newspaper editors who have allowed the whipping up of insane anti-red hysteria have shown a decidedly un-American behavior. . . . It has been a sad spectacle during this crisis to have the large San Francisco dailies, with one solitary exception, indulge in the encouragement of these abominable raids. . . . I am not a Communist myself, but I want to register an emphatic protest against the disgusting vigilante tactics and the tacit approval of such Hitlerian violence by certain San Francisco dailies and the dailies of the East Bay cities."

Source: Freedom of the Press by George Seldes

courtesy of Brasscheck

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