The Trial(s) of Harry Bridges

In the 1930s and '40s, conservative forces waged a relentless campaign to deport militant labor leader Harry Bridges.

Harry Bridges at a negotiating session during the 1934 waterfront strike. Bancroft Library

Donald Trump may be grabbing headlines over his proposals to impose ideological litmus tests on Muslim immigrants, but the fear of “foreign” ideologies and the use of immigration policy to police political heterodoxy are not original to the billionaire mogul.

For one, the Obama and Bush administrations both barred individuals from entering the United States because of their political views.

But even farther back — when the fear of anticapitalist labor agitation weighed especially heavily on the minds of elites — lays the illustrative case of Harry Bridges, the Australian-born labor leader. Though largely forgotten today outside of labor circles, Bridges was on the receiving end of a vast, unrelenting campaign in the 1930s and 1940s that sought to have him deported from the country.

Right-wing newspapers, business associations, and the American Legion pressured the federal government to expel him. Local police departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to dig up reasons to deport him. Multiple cabinet level officials oversaw deportation efforts against him, and met with President Roosevelt directly about the matter. Congress held hearings, passed legislation, and even considered impeaching Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, for what they deemed an inappropriate delay in the proceedings against Bridges. The Supreme Court ultimately heard two cases concerning Bridges’ removal. There was not a branch of government that wasn’t somehow involved in the attempts to expel Harry Bridges.

Above all, the Bridges deportation odyssey serves as a reminder of the lengths the state will go to police political expression, especially of the radical variety.

Bridges — who immigrated to the United States from Australia in 1920 and briefly joined the Industrial Workers of the World — was a staunch proponent of left-wing unionism. Not only should the rank and file control the union, Bridges argued, but unions should support their fellow unionists when they were on strike, and take strong stands for racial equality and civil liberties.

It was Bridges’ involvement in the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike, however, that really triggered the sustained witch hunt against him. For eighty-three days, workers shut down ports across the coast. After police shot two strikers, workers in San Francisco launched a four-day general strike. The end result was a victory for workers, as ports up and down the West Coast unionized.

Leading a successful strike and angering the capitalist class was not, on its face, a deportable offense. But thanks to an immigration law passed during the post–World War I Red Scare, being “affiliated” with an organization that advocated the overthrow of the United States government was.

The first call to deport Bridges came just six days into the strike. Opponents of Bridges wrote to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (who at the time had jurisdiction over immigration), alleging that Bridges was a member of the Communist Party and urging Perkins to deport him. Bridges maintained that though he had openly praised their role in the labor movement, he didn’t belong to the Communist Party.

Perkins responded to the requests by asking for evidence against Bridges, including signed affidavits that Bridges was in fact a member of the Communist Party. She had no immediate takers. Nonetheless, she conferred with Roosevelt about whether she should initiate deportation proceedings against Bridges, directed immigration officials to investigate Bridges’ political activity, and asked the FBI for information on him.

In 1938, after four years of swirling rumors that the Department of Labor was preparing to remove him from the country, Bridges wrote to Perkins asking her to produce charges and evidence against him so he could contest them. Perkins offered up four vague charges, all related to his supposed affiliation with an organization that advocated the overthrow of the US government. Even after submitting to a formal arrest — and in spite of his lawyers’ repeated requests for detailed charges against him — Bridges only managed to secure one additional tidbit: the organization in question was the Communist Party. The defense wasn’t even apprised of the witnesses that would appear at the hearing.

Bridges would have to wait a year to face his accusers, however. Perkins opted to delay his hearing as the Supreme Court decided whether a Polish immigrant who had freely volunteered to immigration officials that he had previously been a Communist Party member for three and half months could be deported. “To most people,” Bridges biographer Charles P. Larrowe notes, “the action Miss Perkins took was reasonable,” as the Supreme Court’s ruling would have immediate implications for the Bridges case.

Reasonableness, however, was not a trait of Bridges’ fiercest political opponents. Members of the House Un-American Activities Committee, then a bastion of reaction that sought to smash New Deal liberalism as much as genuine radicalism, demanded Perkins’ impeachment. At one point the chairman of the Democratic Party, James A. Farley, even insisted that Bridges be deported regardless of the evidence — not doing so, he said, was hurting the party.

In 1939, Perkins renewed the deportation proceedings; the Supreme Court had decided that an immigrant could be expelled from the country if they were a member of the Communist Party at the time a warrant was issued, but not for a membership that had since been terminated. For two and half months, Bridges sat in the kitchen of a US federal building as the dean of Harvard Law School presided over his deportation hearing.

Yet in spite of years of investigation, the government failed to make much of a case against the labor leader. One of the state’s main witnesses, who claimed to have infiltrated Communist groups, admitted to not only having perjured himself while testifying in the criminal trial of a Communist organizer, but having lied on the stand the previous day when discussing his past perjury.

At another point during the hearing, the defense and prosecution called dueling experts on Marxist theory to discuss whether the Communist Party promoted the toppling of the government. The meaning of “affiliation” was also a point of contention.

In the end, the judge held that the government had failed to prove that Bridges was affiliated with the Communist Party, and therefore was not deportable under US law.

Bridges’ political opponents had spent the last five years trying to see him exiled. They’d denounced his name in the papers, pressured the federal government, brought charges against him in the courts. And still he stood on US soil.

So they redoubled their efforts. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill instructing the attorney general — who now had the power to deport immigrants — to expel Harry Bridges. That bill, seen as futile, died in the Senate.

But Congress soon took a more serious course of action. In 1940, it passed the Smith Act. Later used to criminally prosecute the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party, the law also made it a deportable offense to have at anytime been affiliated with an organization that advocated the overthrow of the government. While the Smith Act’s passage cannot be attributed solely to an irrational animus against one labor leader, proponents of the bill did cite Bridges in justifying its necessity.

And sure enough, when the Smith Act took effect, Attorney General Robert Jackson asked FBI head J. Edgar Hoover to investigate whether Bridges was deportable under the new law. Hoover wasted no time, personally traveling to San Francisco to oversee the probe. He also made sure the media was well aware of his antics, telling reporters that this was the first time the US had undertaken such an inquiry since 1919, when Hoover had led an investigation into Emma Goldman that resulted in her deportation.

Hoover hoped for a similar outcome this time around. He concluded in his report to Jackson that there was sufficient evidence to expel Bridges under the Smith Act and leaked his confidential investigation to the press (just to make sure the public knew that the man who brought down Goldman had done it again).

So in 1941, the US government once again hauled Bridges into court — this time pressing its deportation case under the Smith Act. The government presented five witnesses, none of which had testified at the previous trial. Of the five witnesses, the presiding judge deemed three of them unreliable. But he then recommended that the government expel Bridges from the US, based on the testimony of the remaining two.

A series of affirmations and reversals of the initial decision followed: the Board Of Immigration Appeals overturned the Bridges deportation in a unanimous ruling. Attorney General Francis Biddle reversed the Board of Immigration Appeals decision and ordered Bridges kicked out of the country (the first time an attorney general had overturned such a decision). The Supreme Court had the last word, ruling in Bridges’ favor in 1945.

The government had once again failed to deport the radical labor leader.

In 1945, Bridges applied for US citizenship. Asked yet again about his membership in the Communist Party, Bridges gave the same answer he had given during the two previous deportation proceedings. For his persistence, they charged him with perjury.

The Supreme Court, however, sided with Bridges a final time. On June 15, 1953, with two justices abstaining due to conflicts of interest, the nation’s highest court found that the government hadn’t proven Bridges had perjured himself, and overturned both his conviction and an order stripping him of his citizenship.

Bridges would live the next thirty-seven years of his life as he had the previous thirty-three — in the United States. He died in San Francisco in 1990.

The Bridges deportation case was never just about Harry Bridges. First and foremost, it was about smashing a successful labor union by decapitating its leadership. Following the successful 1934 strike, the ILWU grew into one of the country’s most powerful, most militant trade unions. For anti-radical ideologues, this could only be the work of outside forces.

Since the inception of the labor movement, immigrants had been blamed for bringing “foreign” radicalism to the US and injecting discord into otherwise harmonious capital-labor relationships. Labor organizing was viewed as tantamount to disloyalty, and immigrants were suspected of working to remake the US in the image of their “un-American” ideasAll that was needed to make America great again, and roll back working-class victories, was to remove them from the country.

The Bridges case was also a stand-in for a larger anti-immigration politics. When asked about one of the many efforts to deport the ILWU leader, Senator Robert R. Reynolds (D-NC) told the media, “Bridges should not be permitted to make the trip out of the country alone. There are thousands of others who ought to be deported or put into concentration camps until we can get rid of them.”

Camps, mass deportations — these are the tools of those who want to “make America great again.” A xenophobic streak is unquestionably at the root of this. But make no mistake: in Bridges’ time and in our own, reactionaries’ ultimate vision of policing — and expelling — political heresy from the body politic extends far beyond the foreign-born.