It was the great liberal Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis who best described the fate of civil liberties in wartime: "During a war…all bets are off." What he might well have added is that it is also true that in the aftermath of war widespread ignorance, revenge, mindless hysteria, and fear follow in its wake.
In this country the madness and shame of the Red Scare that followed the end of WWII damaged far too many people who were neither Stalin’s apologists nor KGB spies. In his book, Washington Gone Mad, Michael Ybarra shrewdly noted, "There actually were Communists in Washington. But it was the hunt for them that did the real damage."
One of the victims was James Kutcher, an unheralded and long forgotten genuine American hero, His challenge to the U.S. Government, portrayed in his memoir published in 1953 and updated in 1973, remains strikingly relevant given the dilemma it presents to critics and dissenters in a nation which is today consumed with dangerous, radical imperial dreams and its threat to initiate a series of endless wars.
Kutcher was a member of the fractious Socialist Workers Party, a fringe Trotskyist group. Drafted in 1941, he lost both legs in combat on the Italian front. Fitted with prosthetics, he learned to walk with them and two canes and returned home to live with his working class family in a federal low-rent housing project in Newark, N.J. The Veterans Administration also hired him for $40 a week.
The story begins in 1948 when the VA decided to fire him because he and his party were "subversive," a term with no precise legal definition (any more than who is and is not a "loyal" citizen today) but which is a favorite tool of repressive governments everywhere.
How Kutcher fought back is the heart of his book, The Case of the Legless Veteran. Originally published by a small British house in 1953 since no American publisher would dare touch it, terrified lest its appearance on its lists might bring Washington’s inquisitors down on its neck. "Sooner or later McCarthy or those other congressional committees are going to start in on the publishing business," he says an editor told him. "You can call it cowardly, if you want to, but I call it caution and common sense." Pioneer Publishers, another miniscule publisher, finally issued it here. Twenty years later, still a loyal SWP member, he added two additional chapters.
The book opens with a modest disclaimer. "In most respects," Kutcher begins, "I am an ordinary man. I have no special talents. I never showed any capacity for leadership."
Even so, he was no Milquetoast. Because of his dismissal he became tough and single-minded.
He went public and received the backing of non-communist labor unions and civil libertarians of all stripes — few of whom sympathized with the SWP. Conservatives such as Harold Russell, his onetime hospital buddy who had lost both his hands in the war, came to his support (Russell was best known for his role in the classic post-World War II film The Best Years of Our Lives). The once famously liberal New York Post and its memorable columnist Murray Kempton and others rushed to his defense. In a frightened era when so few people and media lacked the courage to challenge America’s false patriots and powerful government, Kutcher relentlessly battled back and ultimately won. In 1956 the VA finally rehired him.
"Legless Veteran" was aimed at two targets: The U.S. Government and opportunistic and scurrilous profiteers of an anti-Red crusade gone mad and the Communist Party, perhaps because of the longstanding bitterness between Stalin and Trotsky. But mainly I believe it was because of the Party’s dishonesty and duplicity.
Nowhere was this more evident than in 1941, while Kutcher was still in the Army, when eighteen SWP members and other Trotskyists were convicted under the infamous Smith Act. The Communists and their sycophants cheered — together with conservatives and liberals — disappointed only that the sentences meted out had not been harsher. Seven years later, when their leadership cadres were indicted under the same outrageous law, they unashamedly denounced it as a challenge to civil freedom and called for all friends of freedom to fight the charges.
In 1949, their leaders already in the dock, the West Coast party newspaper Daily People’s World had the gall to turn on Kutcher. "What is being touted as the u2018case of the legless vet’ and a u2018test case’ for civil liberties hasn’t the remotest connection with the defense of civil rights," they commented. In other words, convicting Party leaders was a violation of the Constitution but Kutcher’s cause was not. Their reasoning was eerily similar to that of the government’s Loyalty Board, which approved his dismissal from the VA.
During his ordeal there were other hard-to-believe obstacles he had to confront. In 1952 he and his family received a letter from the local public housing authority ordering them to sign a loyalty oath and swear that no Kutcher family member belonged to any of the 203 groups cited on the U.S. Attorney General’s list of subversive groups. Failure to do so, they wrote, would mean eviction. The order was in compliance with a new federal law demanding that every tenant in federal low-rent apartments sign loyalty oaths.
Kutcher’s father was furious, more so at his son for not quitting the SWP. He pleaded with the public housing bureaucrats: "I have begged [my son] again and again to leave this organization but he refuses, saying it is not subversive and he is not subversive…What should I do? I want to sign the certificate [but] I do not want to break up my family because my son needs help to take care of him. Please help, please tell me what to do, so that I can keep my home."
Naturally, no one answered his plea. The law was sacrosanct, no matter how unjust, faceless bureaucrats must have reasoned. Besides, no one wanted to defend "disloyal" people. So Kutcher turned to the American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully persuaded a court to issue a restraining order preserving the apartments of the Kutchers and eleven other families who refused to swear that they were "loyal Americans."
James Kutcher left the SWP in 1983 and died in 1989. During the years since his reinstatement, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI carried on extensive spying on the SWP until the group sued and won its case. In essence, the court ruled that they like others had a right to be as political as they wished.
In 2005 and beyond it remains to be seen how much we have learned. We need to wonder if freedom of expression will survive the war on terrorism. Certainly, James Kutcher’s legacy is that we need not genuflect before any current or future Torquemadas.
Murray Polner [send him mail] wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous, a dual biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan. A version of this article originally appeared on the History News Network.