The OAH Magazine of History

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D-Day in Mosinee

Carl Weinberg Carl Weinberg is the editor of the OAH Magazine of History.

It was six o’clock in the morning on May 1, 1950. In Mosinee, Wisconsin, a small Marathon County papermill town, Mayor Ralph Kronenwetter was still in his pajamas. Suddenly, outside of his house, a man shouted, “Come out with your hands on your head.” Five armed guards stormed inside. They grabbed the mayor, paraded him out the door, and informed him that the Council of People’s Commissars had taken over the town. The man leading the assault was Chief Commissar Joseph Zack Kornfeder (see cover image), who declared Mosinee part of the United Soviet States of America. The communist invasion of Mosinee had begun.

It ended the next day. The brainchild of state and national leaders of the American Legion, the two-day mock communist takeover of Mosinee aimed to teach Americans the horrors of communist rule. The Legion selected May 1 to coincide with International Workers’ Day, traditionally celebrated by the communist movement worldwide. The attack also came at a propitious time in the early Cold War. In August 1949, the Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb. Two months later, Mao Tse-Tung’s People’s Liberation Army triumphed in China. In February 1950, less than three months before Mosinee’s D-Day, Wisconsin’s own Senator Joseph McCarthy broke onto the national scene, warning of communists in the U.S. State Department. The Legion’s timing and the invasion’s novelty combined to generate fantastic media coverage. Television networks, newsreel companies, wire services, Life magazine, Readers’ Digest, and even the Soviet TASS news agency sent reporters.

Today, Mosinee and its Cold War past have been largely forgotten, save for viewers of the chilling documentary Atomic Café (1982), which features live invasion footage, or readers of historian Richard Fried’s The Russians are Coming! (1998), which chronicles the story in engaging detail. Even more obscure than Mosinee, however, is the man who roused the mayor out of bed that chilly morning. And yet, Joseph Kornfeder’s story has much to teach us about the history of the Cold War. In 1950, anticommunist Kornfeder pretended to be a communist. But from 1919 to 1934, the Czech-born garment worker was a central leader of the American communist movement. In the late 1920s, he spent three years in the Soviet Union on political assignment. He married a Russian woman, who bore him a child, both of whom stayed in the U.S.S.R, while he organized for the Communist International in Latin America in the early 1930s. On the eve of the Mosinee invasion, the American Legion hired Kornfeder, along with former American communist leader Benjamin Gitlow, as a “technical advisor” who could make the reenactment “authentic.” In the context of the articles in this issue, Kornfeder’s evolving identity raises a fundamental question that emerges in a multitude of ways when we teach about the Cold War: what exactly is a communist?

One could easily begin with George Orwell, the man who coined the term “Cold War,” as Jeremi Suri points out in his Foreword. Known widely as an “anti-communist” for his novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Orwell was, at the same time, a socialist and no friend of capitalism. When fascist Francisco Franco launched a revolt against the legally elected left-leaning government of Spain in 1936, Orwell traveled there and fought fascists by joining a socialist militia organized by the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). As he relates in Homage to Catalonia (1938), however, Orwell was deeply disturbed by the policies of the official Communist Party of Spain, which launched murderous attacks on socialists and anarchists, supposedly allies in the fight against fascism. Orwell retained his hopes that workers could one day run society, but he turned against Stalinism for good. Similarly, when Kornfeder left the American Communist Party in 1934, disgusted with its tame Popular Front politics, he briefly joined the Workers Party, made up of Trotskyists and followers of radical labor cleric A. J. Muste. He paid for his betrayal of Stalin. In 1937, his wife, still in the Soviet Union, was arrested in the Stalinist purges and was never heard from again. Two years later, Kornfeder made the first of several appearances as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

During the postwar era, the question of who was a communist went beyond the issue of organizational membership. As Jeff Woods’ article indicates, advocacy of racial integration could transform anyone, black or white, into a communist in the eyes of the segregationist public. In her exploration of children and the Cold War, Donna Alvah reveals that part of the motivation for Americans to adopt children from poor countries was the fear of “the misery that might lure desperate people to communism.” My piece on Salt of the Earth (1954), a film that documented a New Mexico zinc miners’ strike, suggests how ordinary Mexican American workers and their family members, few of them members of the Communist Party, came to be seen as tools of the Kremlin. And in Mitchell Lerner’s article on presidential tapes, we hear President Richard Nixon conspiring with Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman to infiltrate the anti-Vietnam War movement with their own stereotype of political subversives--“long-haired, dirty-looking bastards.”

For many Americans, the identity of communists during the Cold War clearly revolved around a military threat. In his teaching strategy about the declassified Venona documents, Paul Frazier focuses on decoded messages tying atomic scientist Klaus Fuchs to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their complicity in sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union. John DeRose uses a photograph of a Nike antiaircraft missile base located near downtown Milwaukee to teach students about the Cold War military presence at home. The opening illustration for Marc Selverstone’s survey of anticommunist historiography provides a colorful, nightmarish vision of the Soviets as zombie-like killers. His article summarizes the evolution of literature on the Cold War since the OAH Magazine of History last covered the topic in 1994, including the literature on Cold War pageantry from Manhattan to Mosinee. While the 1950 Mosinee invaders fired no guns, there were two casualties. On day two, the mayor fell ill, suffered a cerebral hemmorhage, and died on May 6. A minister who was “arrested” died from a heart attack on May 7. Joseph Zack Kornfeder worked as a professional anticommunist for another thirteen years. In 1963, at the age of sixty-five, he checked into a Washington, D.C. hotel, had a heart attack, and died. It was May Day.

Sad to say, there is one contributor to this issue of the OAH Magazine of History who will not read his article in print. Longtime OAH member David Ghere, author of the teaching strategy on the Yalta Conference, passed away earlier this year. Please see the bio and tribute written by his former colleague David Arendale, whom we thank for helping prepare the article for publication. We salute all of the authors and consulting editor Jeremi Suri for their excellent work on this issue.

Carl R. Weinberg