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The Battle of Detroit

The Battle of Detroit

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The Historical Journal
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THE BATTLE OF DETROIT AND ANTI-COMMUNISM IN THE DEPRESSION ERA
 ALEX GOODALL
The Historical Journal / Volume 51 / Issue 02 / June 2008, pp 457 - 480DOI: 10.1017/S0018246X0800678X, Published online: 05 June 2008
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How to cite this article:
 ALEX GOODALL (2008). THE BATTLE OF DETROIT AND ANTI-COMMUNISM INTHE DEPRESSION ERA. The Historical Journal, 51, pp 457-480 doi:10.1017/S0018246X0800678X
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THE BATTLE OF DETROIT AND ANTI-COMMUNISM IN THEDEPRESSION ERA*
 ALEX GOODALL
University of York 
 A B S T R A C T
.
This article is an exploration of Diego Rivera’s visit to Detroit in 1932–3. It seeks to use his experiences, and in particular the spectacular popular reaction to the 
Detroit Industry
murals he painted,as a prism for analysing varieties of anti-communism in Detroit in the depression era. The article argues that close relationships between private capitalists, most notably Henry Ford and a Mexican communist, expose contradictions in big business’s use of anti-communism in the interwar period, and suggest that anti-communism was a more complicated phenomenon than simply a tool for the promotion of  
  free enterprise 
. Moreover, by comparing the public reaction to the artists’ work with their original intent, it is possible tosee how members of Detroit’s society unconsciously used anti-communism to sublimate broader concerns over race and ethnicity, gender, politics, and religiosity in a region in the throes of profound social change.The article seeks to highlight elements of these latent anxieties and fears in order to show how anti-communism acted as a vessel for social debate.
Mexican artist Diego Rivera travelled with his wife and fellow artist, Frida Kahlo,to the United States in late 1930. Following a series of commissions in Californiaand a visit to New York, Rivera was engaged to paint a mural for the walls of thecentral courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), on the theme of ‘DetroitIndustry’. The mural was paid for entirely by Edsel Ford, son of Henry Fordand appointed successor to the Ford empire, which had its two most importantplants in greater Detroit. The murals remain the centrepiece of the DIA, andtruthfully speaking the only piece of locally commissioned art capable of attract-ing visitors from around the world.
1
From the initial commissioning until long after its completion, Detroit societywas scandalized by the murals, and the outcry – which led to them nearly being 
 Department of History, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD ag566@york.ac.uk 
* I would like to express my thanks to those who have provided advice, comments, criticism, andsupport during the writing of this article: particularly Tony Badger, Andrew Hemingway, EmilyCritchley, Pat Flack, and Robert Tombs and the anonymous reviewers of the
Historical Journal 
.
1
In terms of the murals’ position in art history, I defer to Linda Bank Downs,
Diego Rivera: the  Detroit Industry murals 
(New York, 1999); Patrick Marnham,
Dreaming with his eyes open: a life of DiegoRivera 
(London, 1998); Desmond Rochfort and Julia Engelhardt,
The murals of Diego Rivera 
(London,1987).
The Historical Journal 
, 51, 2 (2008), pp. 457–480
f
2008 Cambridge University Pressdoi:10.1017/S0018246X0800678X Printed in the United Kingdom
457
 
whitewashed, as well as stimulating record-breaking attendance figures at theirunveiling – has given them a particular significance in the cultural history of thecity. The murals were explicitly intended to be a commentary on Detroit society,so friends and enemies of Rivera alike studied the work for hidden messages thatmight lie within the allegorical images. Because of this, the
Detroit Industry
muralsact as a prism for public attitudes toward communism in the midst of the de-pression, and testify to the contestations that lay at the core of America’s responseto it.
2
Historians have acknowledged that there were a multiplicity of anti-communisms and a myriad of anti-communists. But most have traditionallypreferred to focus on characteristically’ anti-communist groups or ways of thinking rather than the public debates that made up most of its history. In the1950s and 1960s, the first students of anti-radicalism, predominantly political andsocial scientists, focused on social typologies, following the lead of Theodor Adorno’s
The authoritarian personality
.
3
Subsequent historians rejected the anti-populist implications of much of this analysis, choosing instead to focus on partypolitics and elite manipulation.
4
But the framework for debate remainedlargely the same: a concern with identifying normative anti-communist groupsand explaining their behaviour through their material or psychological conditionsor ambitions, rather than understanding communism as an issue in public debatewith which different groups concerned themselves and understood in differentways.By the 1980s and 1990s, with post-structuralism on the march throughoutthe historical world, a more encompassing analysis of anti-communism wasoverdue. Michael Heale’s
American anticommunism
presented an encyclopaedic vision of anti-radical tendencies in America dating back at least to the nineteenthcentury that gave ample evidence of the diversity of anti-communism and itscomplex mechanics at a local level. He and other historians wrote local studies of anti-radical politics that testified to the richness of uses to which anti-radical ideascould be put and the variety of ways that anti-communist ideology stemming from the centre was received in the periphery. However, as Heale noted in arecent historiographical essay, this route of study has since received only ‘fitful
2
For the political context, see M. J. Heale,
McCarthy’s Americans: red scare politics in state and nation,1935–1965 
(Basingstoke, 1998).
3
Theodor W. Adorno,
The authoritarian personality
(New York, 1950); Daniel Bell,
The radical right 
(New York, 1964); Richard Hofstader,
The paranoid style in American politics, and other essays 
(New York,1965); Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab,
The politics of unreason; right-wing extremist in America,1790–1970
(New York, 1970).
4
Nelson Polsby, ‘Towards an explanation of McCarthyism’,
Political Studies 
(October 1960); EarlLatham,
The communist controversy in Washington: from the New Deal to McCarthy
(Cambridge, MA, 1966);David Caute,
The great fear: the anti-communist purge under Truman and Eisenhower 
(London, 1978); MaryS. McAuliffe,
Crisis on the left: Cold War politics and American liberals, 1947–1954
(Amherst, 1978); KennethO’Reilly,
Hoover and the un-Americans: the FBI, HUAC, and the Red Menace 
(Philadelphia, 1983); ReginSchmidt,
Red scare: FBI and the origins of anticommunism in the United States 
(Copenhagen, 2000).
458
A L E X G O O D A L L

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