Archive for the ‘Winston Smith’ Tag

1968 and All That… MLK, LBJ, Bobby, Tet and the Prague Spring.   Leave a comment

The Escalation of the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive:

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At the beginning of 1968, US President Lyndon Johnson thought that victory in Vietnam was worth the sacrifice the US servicemen had already made since President Kennedy had committed 16,500 troops to the support of the South Vietnamese in 1961-62. By 1968, Johnson had committed up to half a million men to the conflict. On taking office in 1964, he had said, I am not going to be the President who saw South East Asia go the way that China went. But by the end of February 1968, he was increasingly isolated in Washington. Robert McNamara, who had been John F Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, had left the White House to become president of the World Bank. He said he did not really know whether he had quit or been fired. The new Defense Secretary, Clark Clifford, opposed General Westmoreland’s latest request for another 200,000 men, arguing that there would soon be further requests, “with no end in sight.” He recommended pegging the level at twenty thousand, and Johnson agreed. What had happened in the war, and the response to it, to change his mind?

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In January 1968, just as President Johnson was announcing that the United States was winning the war in Vietnam, the Vietcong had launched the Tet Offensive within virtually every town and city in South Vietnam. It was their most spectacular offensive yet. In Saigon, a commando unit even penetrated the US Embassy compound; it had to be flushed out man by man. This feat, which took place in front of television cameras, stunned America and public opinion worldwide. Although the US military had intelligence that an attack was imminent, they appeared to have been caught completely by surprise. But the bitterest fighting in the Tet Offensive took place in Hue, previously a tranquil city, where intense house-to-house fighting and killing went on for several weeks. The photo on the right below shows US Marines call for assistance for those wounded in the bloody fighting which took place in the city on 1st February. The beleaguered president finally accepted that there was a limit to the losses of US servicemen in Vietnam that the American people would accept. The photo below (left) of Lyndon Johnson shows him preparing a speech on Vietnam.

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On the other side, the Tet Offensive was intended to inspire a popular rising across South Vietnam. It totally failed in this, but rather led to massive losses of some of the Vietcong’s best fighters. Nevertheless, in propaganda terms, the offensive was a magnificent victory for them. Before Tet, the American leaders had talked of grave enemy weaknesses and of how the Vietcong had met their match and were desperately hanging on. Now the Vietcong had shown that they could attack at will and could strike even at the very nerve centre of the US presence in South Vietnam. The gap between what the US Government said and what people saw on their television screens had never been greater, nor credibility lower. Support for the president’s handling of the war dropped to an all-time low in the polls. Eighty per cent of Americans felt that the United States was making no progress in the war. Tet was thus a turning point.

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Added to this, there was international revulsion and outrage at the American tactics. The British journalist, James Cameron, reported:

There was a sense of outrage. By what right do these airmen intrude over a country with which they are not formally at war? Who gave these people the sanction to drop their bombs on roads, bridges, houses, to blow up the harvest, to destroy people of whom they know nothing? Would this sort of thing blow Communism out of their heads?

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Despite the bombing, North Vietnam continued to supply the Vietcong in South Vietnam with ever-increasing amounts of aid. Much of it came from the Soviet Union and was driven across the border at night in convoys of heavy, Russian-built trucks. They regularly moved weapons and ammunition into the South, smuggling them right into the hearts of towns and cities. President Johnson had hoped for a ‘quick kill’. But the tactics of America’s land forces in South Vietnam were based on several errors of judgement. First, the soldiers were told to fight for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. Yet the GIs simply shot and killed the peasants on sight, often en masse and without discrimination, assuming that they were Vietcong supporters. They also destroyed the land itself, as James Cameron testified (above). Richard Hamer, an American journalist commented, after his visit in 1970, that Vietnam had become a country of refugees … once the rice bowl of Asia, now unable to feed itself. Secondly, the USA believed it could ‘win’ the war and simply could not believe that the US could be defeated by a bunch of guerrillas in black pyjamas. But the reality of guerrilla warfare was very different:

… this enemy is invisible … it is not just the people but the land itself – unfamiliar … frightening … it can be that field ahead littered with land mines … the enemy can be the kind who comes out smiling and then lobs a grenade … or that bent old lady carrying a watermelon.

You walk down a road between rice paddies. Vietnamese are in every paddy. Then a mortar shell lands right in the middle of a patrol. A couple of guys are dead, others are screaming in agony with a leg or arm blown off, or their guts hanging out. Did one of them (the peasants) lob the mortar? If so, which one? Should you kill all of them or none of them at all?

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There was widespread opposition to the American presence in Vietnam, not least from within the US itself. The determined peace protesters outside the White House would not leave Johnson in peace, continuing to chant:

Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?!

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In fact, the hostile chanting accompanied him wherever he went and had a devastating effect on him. Senator Eugene McCarthy announced he would oppose Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination; Robert Kennedy also declared he was a candidate and spoke out harshly against Johnson’s foreign policy and conduct of the war. In the second half of March, the ‘wise men’ went into conclave again to review progress and consider their options in Vietnam. By now the civilians in this group were openly critical of the assessments presented by the military commanders. When told that eighty thousand of the enemy had been killed and that the normal ratio of killed to wounded was 1:3, UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg calculated that would mean that all of the enemy’s manpower must be dead or injured: “Then who the hell are we fighting?” he asked. Then, on 31st March, in a live television address, Johnson announced that the US would halt all bombing above the twentieth parallel in the hope that peace talks could begin promptly. He then went on to surprise everyone, even his own advisers, by announcing  that he would “not seek … nor accept” his party’s nomination for a second term in the White House. With his crushing triumph over Goldwater only four years behind him, Johnson now recognised the deep unpopularity of his policy of escalating the Vietnam War. He had lost his fight with public opinion.

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Martin Luther King’s Death in Memphis:

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Above Left: Martin Luther King, Jr., waves to the marchers at the Lincoln Memorial, on 30th August 1963, before making his “I have a dream…” speech. Above Right: Lyndon Johnson shakes King’s hand after signing the Civil Rights Bill into law, 2 July 1964.

Four days after Johnson’s announcement, on 4th April, Martin Luther King was assassinated at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had gone to Memphis to support a workers’ strike, marching with the strikers, who wanted to protest peacefully, singing and holding hands. Most of them were black street-cleaners, who were badly paid. But gangs of young blacks had not wanted to protest peacefully and had begun rioting, breaking shop windows and fighting with the police. One of them had been killed during the fighting.  After the march, King had talked to the gangs and told them that violence was not the answer and that all protests had to be peaceful if they wanted the workers to win. Some of the gang-leaders had argued back, saying that times had changed and that peaceful protests no longer worked. Finally, King had persuaded them to join the workers on their next march, and they had promised him not to use violence. The date for the second march had been set for 5th April.

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On 3rd April, King had returned to Memphis and had made a speech at the Baptist Church prayer-meeting. It had been full of hope about the cause, but also of foreboding for his own life:

I have been to the mountain top … I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

On the next day, 4th April, King had told his friends that he needed some air. He went out of his hotel room just after six o’clock in the evening. Suddenly, there was the sound of gunfire. His friends ran outside and found him lying on the ground, shot. Jesse Jackson, one of King’s young supporters, held him in his arms while the ambulance was sent for. An hour later Martin Luther King died in hospital. He was just thirty-nine years old.

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The whole world grieved the loss of this man of peace. All the people who had worked so hard for peace and civil rights were first shocked and then angry. Go and get your guns! Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther leader, told a crowd in Washington DC. Riots swept the American nation; a hundred cities erupted, the rioters fighting the police. There were more than twenty thousand arrests and forty-six more black deaths. Seventy-five thousand troops were called out to keep the peace. For many, King epitomised the dream of racial equality, but for two years his influence had been diminishing. Now the leadership of the black community passed to more radical figures like Carmichael, who wanted to replace passive, nonviolent disobedience to active and violent resistance. The Black Panthers trained as paramilitaries in the ghetto of Oakland, California, for a civil war with racist police. Other black ‘nationalists’ called openly for revolution.

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James Earl Ray, a white supremacist, was arrested and went to prison for King’s murder, though many believed he had not acted alone. Even Coretta King did not believe that Ray had killed her husband. King’s body lay in his father’s church in Atlanta. Thousands of people came to pay their respects to the civil rights leader. Later, his body was buried next to those of his grandparents, and written on his headstone, are the last words of his most famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial five years earlier:

Free at last, Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, 

I’m free at last!

From Paris to California and on to Chicago:

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Above: Robert Kennedy, campaigning in California.

In May, preliminary peace talks began in Paris. In the face of obdurate North Vietnamese negotiators, the talks soon ran aground. The dispute focused on whether or not the United States would halt all bombing of the North and who could sit at the negotiating table; would the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong sit down with the United States, as well as North and South Vietnam? There was no agreement. With a million college students and faculty members boycotting classes because of Vietnam, the stage was set for the confrontation between McCarthy and Kennedy for the Democratic Party nomination. In the California primary, in June, Kennedy won by a whisker. Then, as he was leaving his hotel through a back entrance, he was shot in the head and stomach (below). He died in hospital the next morning. There was no rioting, just silence. The American nation was traumatised by these killings, asking what was wrong with the country to make it so violent.

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Above right: Police and anti-Vietnam War protesters do battle in Chicago.

Everything came to a head when the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose its nominee for the presidency – now either McCarthy or Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Chicago was controlled by Mayor Richard J Daley, a hard-liner who ruled the streets through a broad network of ethnic supporters. He promised, as long as I am mayor, there will be law and order on the streets. In the riots following Martin Luther King’s death, he had given his police authority to “shoot to kill” arsonists. Daley was determined to keep order during the convention when rumour predicted that a hundred thousand activists and anti-war campaigners would assemble in Chicago. Only about one-tenth of that number arrived, but Daley had no intention of allowing any marches to go ahead. His police, some out of uniform, attacked a group of ‘hippies’ and ‘yippies’ in Lincoln Park and pursued them – and anyone else who happened to be on the streets – with clubs and batons.

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On the night that Humphrey was to accept the nomination, the police used tear gas to break up the demonstration outside the convention hotel. More than two hundred plainclothes policemen tried to infiltrate the march. Demonstrators, newsmen, and even elderly passers-by were all clubbed and beaten. Tear gas got in the air vents of the hotel, including Humphrey’s suite, as he was preparing his acceptance speech. Live on television, the cameras kept cutting between the convention and the extraordinary scenes outside. Humphrey left feeling shattered, despite having secured his party’s nomination. Chicago was a catastrophe, he said later; My wife and I went home heartbroken, battered and beaten.

According to the to the New York Times, the Chicago police had brought shame to the city, embarrassment to the country. Lawyers defending those charged for their role in the demonstration spoke of a “police riot.” Senator George McGovern denounced Daley and his “Gestapo” for creating a “bloodbath.” Radicals were driven even further outside the political system; they believed that the government was now totally illegitimate and led by war criminals so that only further militancy could win the day. Bring Us Together was the campaign slogan of the Nixon camp, but as the campaign hotted up, there was little prospect of this happening in reality. In fact, Governor George Wallace had declared himself as an independent candidate. Wallace’s plan to stop the trouble on the streets appealed only to the right-wing Republican heartlands:

We ought to turn this country over to the police for two or three years and then everything would be all right.

Meanwhile, Richard M Nixon had won the Republican nomination for president. With conservative Spiro T Agnew as his running mate, Nixon tried to defuse the support for Wallace. He also met with Johnson and agreed not to attack the outgoing president over Vietnam during the campaign, in return for an understanding that Johnson would not abandon Saigon. Nixon tried to come across as the statesman and peacemaker. He spoke of a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam and to bring peace with honour. Nixon also agreed that during the campaign he would not call for a pause in the bombing. In October, the Paris peace talks were still deadlocked over the issue of representation, with President Thieu, in Saigon, deeply opposed to negotiating with North Vietnam if the Vietcong were also present. This would imply formal recognition of his hated enemy. With the election only days away, Johnson received FBI reports that Anna Chennault, a Nixon fund-raiser, was acting as a go-between for the Republicans with Thieu. Nixon’s campaign manager had asked her to tell Thieu to oppose the cessation of bombing, and so undermine the peace talks, promising that Thieu would get a better deal under the Republicans. Thieu held out and refused to attend talks at which the Vietcong were present. Despite this, Johnson called a halt to the bombing on 31st October.

Nixon talked of the “tired men” around Johnson and the need for a new team with “fresh ideas”. The opinion polls showed a swing away from Humphrey, who up to this point had had a narrow lead. On 5th November, the American people came out to vote. In the end, the vote was nail-bitingly close: Wallace won thirteen per cent, and Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey with 43.4 per cent of the vote to 42.7. There was to be a new team in the White House, but outside America was split into two nations. But, although the North had set out the terms on which the war would eventually end, the fighting in Vietnam would go on for another five years and cost many thousands more lives.

The anti-war movement clearly boosted North Vietnamese morale and sustained Hanoi’s will to fight on. The hostile chants had almost certainly upset Lyndon Johnson and helped persuade him not to stand for re-election. The movement also affected the atmosphere of decision-making by which it was resolved not to broaden the conflict into a wider war in Southeast Asia. More than anything, the protests against the war exposed a growing cultural divide among the American people and, in the rest of the world, provoked widespread anti-American sentiment on both sides of the Cold War divide. The protest movement was international. In Paris in May 1968, the Fifth Republic was nearly toppled when it came into conflict with a massed combination of workers, students, and intellectuals. In London, police laid into anti-war demonstrators outside the Grosvenor Square US Embassy, in full view of television news cameras. In Northern Ireland, civil rights marches, modelled on those in the American South, sparked a new phase in the long-running confrontation between Irish republicanism and the British State. In Germany and Japan, radicals fought with the police.

Another Year Ending in Eight – The Prague Spring:

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The action of the Chicago police took place just a week after Soviet troops shocked the world by moving into Prague. In Central/Eastern Europe, new thinking had been influenced by the counter-cultural currents in the West, but the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 also had their origins in the fight for Czech independence which goes back four hundred years and seems to contain major events in years ending in the number eight. It began with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, following the defenestrations of Prague, when the Bohemian Calvinists refused to acknowledge Ferdinand, a Hapsburg, as their king, inviting Frederick, the Elector Palatine and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of James VI of Scotland and I of England, to become their king and queen. This was both a religious and a political challenge to the Emperor. Frederick was overwhelmed by Bavaria and Austria at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, having received no help from the Protestant Union of German princes, or from his miserly father-in-law, James Stuart. Frederick and Elizabeth went down in the annals of Czech history as ‘the Winter King and Queen’ due to the brevity of their reign, and it took another three centuries for independence to be restored, in 1918/19. It was then taken away again in 1938/39, by Hitler, with Chamberlain’s connivance and, after a brief post-war restoration, in 1948 the Communists seized power at Stalin’s insistence.

001Jan Masaryk, the independent foreign minister and son of the first president of inter-war Czechoslovakia, was also defenestrated in 1948, by the Communists. A re-examination of the case in 1968 turned up a document which stated that scratch-marks made by fingernails had been found on the window soon after he had fallen to his death. The ‘Prague Spring’ also had economic roots, in common with other protest movements in the Eastern bloc countries. There was deep concern about declining growth rates and the failure to keep up with Western levels of consumer progress.

In Poland, agricultural output had been dropping year after year, and the régime of Wladyslaw Gomulka, so rapturously welcomed in October 1956, was growing steadily more oppressive. Intellectuals who spoke out against the government were imprisoned and in March 1968 a student demonstration was brutally broken up by the police, resulting in several days of street rioting in Warsaw. Gomulka had lost almost all of his support in the country, but Brezhnev and the Soviet Union stood by him. But the crises of 1968 passed quickly in Poland, and Gomulka remained in power for two more years, until food shortages and rising prices finally brought his régime to an end.

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Above left: Alexander Dubcek in Spring, 1968, promising “socialism with a human face.” Right: He shakes hands with Brezhnev in Bratislava, 3rd August 1968.

In Czechoslovakia, there were also concerns over lack of growth in the economy, and in 1966 the government of Antonín Novotny took the first steps towards decentralising the economy, giving greater power to local managers and greater priority to the production of consumer goods. Profits rather than quotas were made the measure of performance, a practice dubbed market socialism. However, these reforms were too slow, and, against a background of student revolts, Alexander Dubcek was appointed party chairman in January 1968. He was no fiery revolutionary, but as the boss of the Slovak party machine, he was a committed party loyalist. He did, nevertheless, promise the widest possible democratisation of the entire sociopolitical system aimed at bringing communism up to date. His appointment speeded change, as he widened the reform debate to those outside the party. Censorship was eased; freedom of speech was introduced in newspapers, on the radio and on television. Amidst unprecedented debate in the press and on television, in April the party approved an Action Programme with a two thousand word manifesto in June, when writers and intellectuals advocated democratic reforms within a broad socialist context. Dubcek’s reforms became known as socialism with a human face. Above all, Dubcek was trying to improve living conditions in Czechoslovakia:

We want to set new forces of Socialist life in motion in this country, allowing a fuller application of the advantages of Socialism.

Trade with the West was developed; different religions were allowed. Dubcek’s Government, though still Communist, wished to have less control over people’s lives. In this, he had the full support of the Czechoslovak people. The thaw in Czech Communism in early 1968 was therefore known as the ‘Prague Spring’. The Prague leadership tried very hard not to upset the Kremlin. They remembered how Hungary had been crushed in 1956, and Czechoslovakia, unlike Imre Nagy’s Hungarian one of twelve years earlier, had no desire to make changes in its foreign affairs or to leave the Warsaw Pact.

Over these months, Moscow and the other Warsaw Pact capitals became increasingly agitated by the so-called ‘Prague Spring’. They believed that economic reform would inevitably test the party bureaucracy’s ability to maintain control, and would ultimately undermine its monopoly of power. They feared that fervent debate about economic objectives would be contagious. Indeed, in Poland demonstrators did call for a “Polish Dubcek.” Gomulka in Poland and Walter Ulbricht in East Germany led the hard-line against reforms in Czechoslovakia. Dubcek continued to proclaim his commitment to the one-party system and his loyalty to the Warsaw Pact, but other Satellite states grew more and more impatient. Moscow itself despaired over the Prague reforms. Inside the Kremlin, it was feared that Dubcek’s government would dismantle the internal security apparatus and evict the KGB from the country. The Soviet military was also worried about its agreements with Czechoslovakia. In the early sixties, the Soviet Union had agreed on terms with its Warsaw Pact allies for stationing nuclear warheads in Central/Eastern Europe. Under these terms, the weapons would remain under strict Soviet military control. The USSR had large numbers of troops stationed in Hungary, Poland and East Germany, but no permanent garrison in Czechoslovakia. When Prague embarked on its reform programme in the first half of 1968, the Soviets delayed their deployment of nuclear weapons there, fearing that they would not be able to maintain tight control over them. Moscow saw Prague as a weak link in the Warsaw Pact frontier.

In July, Leonid Brezhnev met the leaders of his Central/Eastern European allies in Warsaw. Dubcek’s changes were too much for Brezhnev, and the other Warsaw Pact leaders, who shared their concerns over events in Czechoslovakia. They warned the Czechoslovak leadership not to run the risk of opening up a ‘hole’ in the iron curtain:

The word ‘democracy’ is being misused. There are campaigns against honest Party workers. The aim is to end the leading role of the Party, to undermine Socialism and to turn Czechoslovakia against other Socialist countries. Thus … the security of our countries is threatened.

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Above: Students occupy Wenceslas Square, awaiting the invaders

A few days later Brezhnev, Kosygin, and the senior Soviet leadership met with Dubcek (see the photo above), and made new demands on him to re-impose censorship and tighten control over the media. An agreement at Bratislava appeared to promise a reconciliation between Prague and Moscow, but when Yugoslavia’s Tito was given an enthusiastic reception in Czechoslovakia it seemed yet again that Dubcek was steering the country down its independent road. The Soviet Politburo went into a three-day session on 15 August to consider what action to take. When Brezhnev spoke to Dubcek on the telephone, he shouted at him that the whole Communist system in the Eastern bloc could crumble because of what was happening in Prague. Why were the Soviets so frightened of change in Czechoslovakia? The Czech historian, Zeman, has given us this clue:

Twice in this century the Russians have had to face an onslaught from the centre of Europe. Only they know the extent of their losses in the last war … and the country is still governed by the men who fought in it. The Russians have no intention of dismantling their defences to the west.

The Iron Fist and the Heavy Hand:

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At midnight on 20th August, Ladislav Mnacko awoke. He peered out of his window to see shadowy shapes in line all along Stefanik Street. But the road was closed for repairs; nothing could be driven along it. Then he realised that they were tanks, which could be driven anywhere, and there were a lot of them. Czechoslovakia had been invaded; Soviet paratroopers had seized control of Prague airport. Over the next few hours, half a million Warsaw Pact troops crossed the borders into the country. In marked contrast to the events in Hungary twelve years earlier, the government told the Czech and Slovak people to stay calm and not to resist with arms, but only to offer ‘passive resistance’. There were pockets of such resistance, one led by the young playwright, Václav Havel. This campaign was organised through radio station broadcasts, like the following:

Citizens! – go to work normally … keep calm … do not give the occupation forces any excuse for armed action … show the invaders your scorn in silence.

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But the Warsaw Pact tanks moved against unarmed civilians, and again demonstrated how ill-prepared the USSR and its allies were to allow change or national autonomy within the Warsaw Pact. The West was shocked by the invasion but was no more likely to support Czechoslovakia than it had been to support Hungary in the previous decade, perhaps even less so, since the USA had long-since abandoned its ‘roll-back’ foreign policies, and was still heavily committed to its war in Vietnam which, as we have seen, was increasingly unpopular both at home and abroad. The West spoke out but could not intervene without risking nuclear confrontation, and therefore did not attempt to do so. The most significant critic of the USSR’s action was China, partly due to the already strained relations between the two Communist powers. The Chinese leadership had urged Khrushchev to invade Hungary in 1956, but it was now quick to condemn the Kremlin’s invasion of another Warsaw Pact member.

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Many of the Soviet soldiers were told they were being sent to protect Czechoslovakia from invasion by the Germans and Americans. As they learned the truth, some sympathised with the demonstrators. A few defected to them and were executed when they were caught. As the Soviets took control, arrests of Dubcek and the other leaders began. The invading troops tried to find the radio stations and close down their transmitters:

We do not know how long we will be able to broadcast. If you hear an unknown voice on this station, do not believe it.

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The Russian troops were surprised to see how much the Czechoslovak people hated them. They had believed Soviet propaganda:

‘Tass’ is authorised to state that the leaders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic have asked the Soviet Union and allied states to render the Czechoslovak people urgent assistance. This request was brought about by the threat which has arisen to the Socialist system, existing in Czechoslovakia.

(Tass, 21 August 1968)

There were continual rumours that key Czechoslovak party officials invited the Soviets to invade their country to reimpose hard-line law and order. The key documents were locked away in a top-secret folder in the Moscow Communist Party Archives, and have only recently (c 1998) become available. They prove that this was indeed the case. It is now known that the anti-reformist Slovak Communist Party chief, Vasil Bilak, wrote to Brezhnev a direct letter of invitation “to use all means at your disposal,” including military force. to “prevent the imminent threat of counter-revolution.” Bilak warned that “the very existence of socialism in our country is in danger.” Rather than risk sending the letter directly to Brezhnev, he passed it to a Soviet intermediary in a men’s lavatory.

When the Politburo began its three-day meeting to review its options on Czechoslovakia, Bilak dispatched another message to the Soviet leader, on 17th August, not only encouraging the Soviets to act quickly but also offering to form an alternative government that would oust Dubcek and seize control in Prague when the Warsaw Pact troops arrived. It is doubtful that this was a decisive factor in the Soviet decision to invade, but it must have boosted the pro-military faction in the Kremlin, and it helped to provide a pretext for the Soviets to claim that they were acting on behalf of a legitimate alternative government. In reality, the anti-reformists were entirely unable to deliver a government, and the Soviet Union ended up having to reinstate Dubcek’s, which survived for several months. In any case, Brezhnev’s own justification for the intervention was based on the common security of the Warsaw Pact countries, not just on the Tass statement:

When forces that are hostile to Socialism try to turn the development of some Socialist country towards capitalism … it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem of all socialist countries.

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Others among the satellite countries took careful note of this concept, which came to be known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. Of the Warsaw Pact nations, only Romania refused to participate in the invasion. Nikolae Caecescu had visited Prague during the ‘Spring’ (above) and had become an unlikely ally of Dubcek, since he also wanted to pursue a more independent line within the Soviet bloc. János Kádár (pictured below), the Hungarian leader whom the Soviets had installed after the 1956 Uprising, and was to survive in power for another twenty years, had tried to caution Dubcek not to fall too far out of line with the Kremlin. In spite of Kádár’s desperate effort to mediate between the Kremlin and the Czechoslovak leadership, whose experiment was not very different from what was happening in Hungary at the time, Hungary’s foreign policy was marked by unconditional loyalty to Big Brother on all accounts (Kontler, 2009). This meant taking part in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to avert a counter-revolutionary takeover. That was a decision which lost Hungary many of its remaining ‘friends’ in the west and led to a further worsening of its bilateral relations with the US administration. Martin J Hillebrand, a skilfull career diplomat who had been appointed as the first US Ambassador to Hungary in September 1967, noted Kádár’s…

… early endorsement  of reformist developments in Czechoslovakia, his widely-publicized mediatory role, and his apparently only last-minute conversion to a need for forceful measures.

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In any case, it was already too late for mediation by the time the invasion was underway. Alexander Dubcek was flown to Moscow and for days, the Czech and Russian leaders talked. He was forced to accept the end of Czech moves towards democracy. On 27th August the Czech leaders returned from Moscow and the Czech President Ludvik Svoboda announced the ‘mixed’ news:

Dear fellow citizens … after four days of negotiations in Moscow we are back with you. Neither you nor we felt at ease.

Dubcek added the bad news:

… to normalise the present complex situation … it will be necessary to take measures limiting freedom of expression as we have become accustomed to it.

In addition, Soviet troops were to stay in Czechoslovakia and censorship was brought back. Yet, for a time, at that time, after the tanks of the Warsaw Pact had invaded Czechoslovakia, there had seemed to be a feint possibility that the reformists could stay in power and the reforms of the Prague Spring would continue. Dubcek, though taken to Moscow in chains, returned as Chairman of the Communist Party still. President Svoboda (his name means ‘freedom’) was still the head of state of the People’s Republic. Together, they promised that nothing would change, but everything did change, though they resisted for as long as they could; virtually every change that had been made during the Prague Spring was overturned within a year.

The heavy hand of Moscow once more gripped Czechoslovakia. A Czech student, Jan Palach, set fire to himself in the centre of Prague as a protest. Over the next year, hard-line Czechoslovak officials replaced their reformist predecessors at all levels. An experiment in political pluralism had come to an abrupt end. The orthodoxy of one-party rule was restored. In April 1969 Dubcek was forced to resign; his idea of making Czechoslovakian Communism more human lay in ruins. He was sent to Turkey as an ambassador, where he was a virtual prisoner in his own embassy. Svoboda died shortly after being replaced by Moscow’s nominee, Gustav Husák, obedient to the central authority in Moscow, who remained in power for the next twenty years until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In 1970, Dubcek was expelled from the party and the people of Czechoslovakia, eager for freedom, were either purged or effectively ‘buried alive’.

Throughout the Prague Spring the secret police, the Statni Bezpecnost (StB), had continued to operate for their old masters, not their new ones. Photographs existed of everyone who had spoken at every important public meeting throughout the short interlude of freedom. Large numbers of people in the crowds had been photographed too, and notes were taken of everything that was said. All this had been carefully collated. The tribunals began to sift through the StB’s material. Every member of the government, the civil service, the management of factories and businesses, was investigated to see what line he or she had taken during the Prague Spring. It was a long and careful business, carried ou with obsessive attention to detail of a new Inquisition. As with the original Inquisition, the purpose was not to rescue the individual soul of the heretic but to preserve the integrity of the faith. Active supporters of the heresy were dismissed. Usually, they could find only menial jobs. The applications of young men and women applying for places at universities were examined with the same care. No active supporter of the reform movement was accepted.

Lethargy, Legacy and the ‘unhoped-for moment’:

The caretakers, road sweepers, stokers and maintenance men of Czechoslovakia were the best educated in the world. Distinguished academics, senior civil servants, leading journalists and economists tended furnaces, washed steps, and cleaned out lavatories. The men and women who took their jobs in the Party, the government and the economic life of the country were less well-educated. The looking-glass world was well represented in Czechoslovakia. There was no let-up in the tight control, not just of the Party, but also in the group that headed the Party – the group which took power in 1968 and 1969. Gustav Husak, Milos Jakes and the others remembered the last months of the old Party leader, Antonín Novotny, in 1967, and how the hope of greater liberalisation had split the Party and forced even the liberals to go much farther than they intended. Husak and the others knew that if there were the least easing up, they would be swept away. Under such tight control, it remained difficult for the Party to generate any enthusiasm or activity even among its own members. Three days after the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion, the Party newspaper Rude Pravo complained, on the 24th August 1983:

It is a serious matter that our Party members live in near-anonymity. They cannot be formally rebuked for this, because they pay their membership dues, regularly attend Party meetings, and take part in agitprop sessions. However, they have nothing to say on serious matters under discussion, they never raise their hands, and they never speak their mind. They never oppose others, but they never fight for their Party.

John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, likened this state of mind to that of Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. Czechoslovakia, he said, had undergone a kind of lobotomy. People had been encouraged to express their political opinions in 1968 and then had suffered for doing so. It was rare to find anyone, during his visit in 1983, who was prepared to make the same mistake again. Czech journalists who did try to talk to Simpson about 1968 found the awakened memories too painful to share and, perhaps more significantly for that time, they saw no “point” to “raising” them since it would just remind them of the way things used to be, just for a bit … We’ll never be like that again! The authorities demanded quiescence and offered in return a decent material standard of living. The shops were well stocked with food and every weekend in the summer people would head out of the cities to the dachas which were made available in large numbers. It was, Simpson wrote, a sleepwalker’s existence.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia came at a crucial time in the rebuilding of relations between the USA and the USSR. The Americans knew that any serious action on behalf of the Czechs and Slovaks would, at the very least, set back the slow process of improving East-West relations. So, in 1968 the Czechs were left to their fate by the West, as they had been in 1948 and 1938. However, there is a comforting, if comic, codicil to this story. The following year, the Czechoslovak ice-hockey team secured a rare win over their Russian rivals. They became world-wide heroes literally overnight, but in the real global power-play, they were still the victims rather than the victors.

Global, ‘regional’ and ‘local’ events in 1968 blurred the distinctions in the images of the two superpowers in the Cold War. It was hard to view the United States as freedom’s ‘sheriff’ in the world when at home, its police were clubbing civil rights and anti-war protesters, and abroad its GIs were being made to commit war-crimes in an escalating and undeclared war in south-east Asia. On the other hand, the failure of the Communist system to feed its own people with grain from the United States, and the crushing of the Prague Spring with tanks, tarnished a form of government which claimed to rule on behalf of its ‘proletariat’. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia ended, for decades at least, a possible third way in Central/Eastern Europe, and the possibility of liberal reform within the Soviet bloc.

On the morning of 23rd October 1988, I was standing with a group of British Quaker teachers, at the Esztergom Basilica on Hungary’s ‘Danube Bend’. Looking down to the river, we could see a ruined bridge which, until the Second World War, had connected Hungary and Czechoslovakia. We were excited, together with our hosts, about the changes taking place in Hungary, two of which had been announced on the radio that morning, the thirty-second anniversary of the beginning of the 1956 Uprising. The first was that those events would no longer be referred to as a ‘counter-revolution’, as they had been, officially, ever since. The second was that a phased, but complete withdrawal of Soviet troops would begin the next year. Our excitement was tinged with sadness when we looked across at what, today, is Slovakia. Our host, a fellow historian, expressed her view that Husak’s hard-line régime would be the last of the Warsaw Pact to liberalise. Almost exactly thirteen months later, Husak and Jakes had gone, and Alexander Dubcek was back in Wenceslas Square, addressing crowds of 300,000. Yet in 1988, he was still, officially, the ‘disgraced leader of the Prague Spring Movement’. His granddaughter had told him:

Grandpa, don’t be sad. We never take any notice when our teachers say what a bad man you are. I always leave the classroom and the teachers never say anything. I know that you’re good.

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Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

 

 

 

Posted June 11, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Cartoons, Civil Rights, Cold War, Communism, Conquest, democracy, Egalitarianism, Europe, France, Germany, guerilla warfare, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Ireland, Journalism, Marxism, Militancy, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Renaissance, Resurrection, Russia, Satire, Second World War, terror, terrorism, Trade Unionism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, World War Two

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The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951; part eleven   Leave a comment

The Road to 1945 and Beyond (4/4)

 

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As the debts mounted for maintaining Britain’s global status and its benevolence at home, so did the doubts about the ideological basis on which the new Jerusalem could be built. Even those who had been the most ardent supporters of the collectivist approach, like Stafford Cripps, became, after 1949, equally determined supporters of the mixed economy. Attlee set the date of the general election as 23 February 1950, and the Labour Party fought the election on the manifesto Let us win through together, an endorsement of Cripps’ economic policy.

Despite polling a record 13.3 million votes, the Labour majority was cut to six. Nevertheless, the social reforms enacted by Labour were clearly popular with the British people, since it not only succeeded in winning more votes, but also won more seats in the 1950 election than it had done in 1945, on an even higher turn-out.

 (Above: The end of sweet rationing in 1949)

012Although it polled nearly fourteen million votes, slightly more than the Conservatives, Labour lost the October 1951 election. Historians have argued that this was, in part, because its achievements in the postwar years had been accompanied by continued, and sometimes intensified, austerity for the British people. Wartime rationing of some essential foods continued into the new year following the government’s re-election. However, there were clear signs, for instance in the Festival of Britain celebrations of that summer, that the drabness of the period was coming to an end. Interestingly, one woman, a wartime child, recalled in 1963, that a great deal was determined by differing expectations within the population. Not everyone’s experience of the prewar years was of prolonged economic depression, of course, but it should be remembered that those born after 1930 did not yet have a vote:

002For those who remembered the years between the wars the gradual climb back to prosperity was a long, dispiriting haul, echoing with prewar memories of better days. For the wartime children it was different. Those years were not a return but a revelation. They were lit by surprises; between 1945 and 1951 we saw not only the first pineapples and bananas of our lives, but the first washing machine, the first fountain, the first television sets.

The world opening before us was not a pale imitation of the one we had lost but a dip of extraordinary things we had never seen before. If later, we seemed to snarl with baffled rage at the disillusionment and apathy of our elders, perhaps this was why. They treated it all as a dreary mess; they forget that for us it could have been a brave new world.

 

As this wartime child suggested, many older, ordinary people had become tired and disillusioned by Labour’s Big Brother style. We work or we want, proclaimed the irritating government posters. Many had worked hard, and industrial production increased by a third between 1946 and 1951, but people wanted more consumer goods in the shops, even, as a tantalising 1946 advert suggested, some lovely lingerie, and ’Lux’ to look after these pretty things. They remembered how pure, safe Lux preserved the beauty of these delicate fabrics… and how easily it rinsed out. For the time being, they had to wash their treasured things with the soap or flakes available. Of course, there were ways and means of getting some of these goods on the black market:

 

The spivs were tense, dubious, insecure. Yet the essence of spivvery was deeply English, a small, boyish lust for life, and eagerness to play practical jokes on the clumsy, long-winded motions of a bureaucracy.

 

One woman, quoted in a radio broadcast, said she was happier when she lay listening to bombs and daring herself to tremble; when she got romantic letters from abroad; when she cried over Dunkirk; when people showed their best side and we still believed we were fighting to gain something. However, for many (now) teenage evacuees, like Daphne Gulliver, returning home after five years, was a much longed-for occasion and they were keen to settle back into their families and communities, to finish school and salvage whatever they could of their childhood and teenage years. Daphne left school at sixteen in 1947 and then went to work as a short-hand typist at the Rolls Royce engine factory at nearby Ansty, using her bicycle to get up the farm lane on the other side of the river Sowe and up the hill each day. She remembered how much she treasured her cycle which one of her relatives put together with true Coventrian craftsmanship:

Tommy Hatfield had a sort of workshop and you could go up there and say you wanted a bike, and he’d measure you up for size and look through all these frames, and find one the right size. Then he’d dip it in acid, then he’d dip it in a stone enamelling vat. I suppose they were always black. He’d tell you which day he’d finish it, and then you’d come home riding your bike, pleased as punch. Lovely thing a bike.

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Daphne was also happy to be able to take part in chapel life again. There were marvelous harvest festivals after the war and everything was decorated. Then the produce would be sold off to raise money and there would be a concert to follow. The choirmaster was quite strict and if anyone wasn’t behaving themselves, he would throw a hymn book in their direction to bring them to attention. After the war, the chapel was taken under the wing of Queens Road and the Rev Gordon Wylie, succeeding Rev Ingli James, brought the thirty-four year-old Rev Arthur J Chandler (left), my father, to Walsgrave from Wednesbury, Staffordshire, in 1948. In addition to overseeing Ansty and Shilton chapels, he helped to build up the Walsgrave congregation again. As Daphne’s mother, Vera, was a deacon at the chapel, he was a regular visitor to their house and around the time of Daphne’s twenty-first birthday in 1952, they got engaged. Her Aunt Jessie’s husband, Tommy Gardner, worked for forty-five years at the Austin Motor Carriage works in Holbrooks. Although they had no children of their own, Jessie and Tommy fostered two children from the Barnado’s Home Tommy had grown up in before the First World War. Jessie lived on in Coventry to be a hundred and two. Aged ninety-one, in 1992, she concluded her memoirs with these remarks about the heritage of her family:

So, they (the Gullivers and Tidmarshes) were good people and that’s where it’s coming out in these generations, because we came from good stock; honest, God-fearing workers. We all seem to be doing very well these days, after all these years. So, I can’t say much for the good old times that they talk about. I’m all for these times.   Some things are better, some things are worse, I will admit. But, on the whole, we are looked after much better in our old age now.

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George Orwell died in January 1950, in a London hospital. His last published piece was a review of Churchill’s memoir, Their Finest Hour which had been published the previous year. He wrote that Churchill’s memoirs read more like those of a human being than those of a public figure. There was, Orwell felt, a certain largeness and geniality about the wartime PM, soon to become a peacetime leader too, which made him cherished by ordinary people, and the stories circulating about him testified to that affection. The same year that Churchill published Their Finest Hour, Orwell published what many consider to be his finest work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is usually remembered as a nightmare vision of the doublespeak future, in which the tyranny of Big Brother presides over an English state where War is Peace and Lies are Truth. However, it needs to be read as an English novel, and its title simply as a reversal of the numbers four and eight, rather than as an extended essay, warning of future abuses of power.

For Orwell, as for many others in the world, the themes of the novel were evident in current and recent experiences. In fact, the fundamental conflict in the book is between history (as collective memory) and tyranny. When O’Brien, the arch-deceiver who has persuaded Winston Smith that he is running a resistance group, suggests sealing his recruitment with a toast to the future, Winston lifts his glass and drinks instead To the past. O’Brien agreed, The past is more important. By encouraging forgetfulness, the Party became free to impose on its subjects its own version of whatever past it chose. But, somehow, memory was not quite obliterated from Winston’s consciousness, so that he had a sense that things had not always been as they were in the present. Gradually, the past starts to come back to him through a series of encounters with objects and people. Finally, he denounces the revolution and the Party for destroying all archives: History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. He also dreams of a Golden Country, in which nature, love, liberty and history are all interlaced. This is Orwell’s vision of a True England. Searching for a True Coventry, the sociologist, Leo Kuper, made an astute observation on the gap between workers’ perceptions of Coventry in the late 1940s, and the realities of working class life there:

It is as if there were many worlds; a world of objective reality, Coventry and its people and neighbourhoods, and the worlds of interpretation of this objective reality, the images projected from many and contrasted points of view.

 

Kuper showed how many of those who considered themselves real Coventrians viewed the image of post-war cosmopolitan Coventry in wholly negative terms which led to racial stereotypes being applied to those who were seen as being the major contributors to this image. A leading Coventry official referred to the Rhondda Valley section of Coventry, where he said that there was continual trouble among the Welsh, second only to the centre of the city. He also portrayed the Irish as having to fight every Friday night, after receiving their wages, in order to complete the evening’s revelries; Indians as creating troubles with young girls and living like pigs; Negroes, like the Irish and Scots, as having little respect for the police and the Poles as being unable to understand why they were not beaten up for committing misdemeanors. He went on to suggest that the only real solution to these problems was to segregate these different national groupings until they had come to appreciate our way of living. Kuper commented, with not a little understatement, that there was more in these comments than cool observation of ethnic differences.

In any case, even in 1951, the description of Coventry as a cosmopolitan city, heterogeneous throughout, was as misleading as it had been in 1931. The Census showed that the overwhelming majority of immigrants to the city were of British origin, with just under ten thousand from Ireland. This was a new migrant stream in the postwar period. In the 1931 Census there were only just over two thousand Irish in Coventry, but this number may have expanded rapidly during the building boom of the later 1930s. At the close of the second world war the streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s Roman Catholic churches had a distinctive Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, and the two churches provided useful ports of call for itinerant building workers or those after a start in local factories. Although casual building workers formed an important part of the Coventry Irish community, many more workers began to settle permanently.

The Polish community in Coventry, as in Britain as a whole, came about as the result of three waves of immigration corresponding to the period up to 1940; the decade 1940-50, known as the Emigracja and then the period after 1950. It has been estimated that during the wartime Emigracja some 165,000 Poles arrived in Britain, though numbers decreased by about thirty thousand after 1950 through onward migration to other countries or voluntary repatriation to Poland. The Polish exile community was made up of members of the Polish Armed Forces who escaped to the west through Hungary following the Nazi-Soviet invasion and partition of their country in September 1939 which led to the surrender of the forces in Poland, together with political prisoners from concentration camps in Germany and Russia. Many of the latter, perhaps several hundred, were people with professional qualifications which could be used in Britain, especially doctors and dentists. In addition, there were about two thousand skilled engineers. Later, a rather larger group of unskilled workers, including some disabled and elderly relatives, entered the postwar British economy. Many ambitious immigrants with lesser qualifications set up small businesses, becoming householders and small-scale landlords. The location of Polish forces during the war largely determined the places to which Polish immigrants gravitated. Most of those in the Midlands were airmen, based in Nottingham or Leicester. London, as the home of the Polish government-in-exile became the largest Polish resettlement area, accommodating a quarter of the total immigrants. Birmingham and Manchester were the recipients of the next largest groups of four to five thousand each, but Coventry accommodated as many as three thousand.

Of course, these first generation Polish wartime exiles had every intention of returning to their homeland, and therefore made every effort to maintain their language and to cultivate their Polish heritage. The wartime Emigracja determined the later shape and character of the life of the Polish community in Britain. It was an exile community which arrived with a network of various military, civilian and religious institutions, as well as welfare associations such as the Polish Red Cross, the Polish Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), servicemen’s clubs and a Polish press. There were over two hundred periodicals published in Britain between 1939 and 1949. Factors such as patriotism, class and the negative attitudes towards Polish immigrants ensured a high level of community participation in these institutions and strengthening ethnic identity and vitality. These conditions gave shape to the social, religious, economic life of the community, allowing it to meet a variety of needs among new Polish immigrants. The Polish YMCA was founded in 1949 as a dynamic organisation responsible for the promotion of Polish history and cultural heritage not only within the Polish and British communities but all over the world through exhibitions of Polish art, folklore, song, dance and music.

Paradoxically, just as Britain was retreating from its formal imperial commitments, Commonwealth immigration into Britain, principally from the West Indies and South Asia, was becoming an increasingly salient issue in British domestic politics. The census of 1951 recorded just seventy-four thousand New Commonwealth immigrants; ten years later, this number had more than quadrupled. The 1948 Nationality Act reaffirmed the right of British citizenship and free entry to the United Kingdom to all Commonwealth citizens and colonial subjects, without restrictions. But as growing numbers of Caribbean and South Asian people began to take up this right to abode, the British authorities became increasingly alarmed. The most significant group of Commonwealth workers in Coventry were those of Indian origin who took up the right to settle in Britain under the 1948 Act, though a small number but significant number of them had been employed in the textile industries in the thirties. By the early fifties they were estimated to have expanded to about four thousand, though the 1951 Census only showed less than two thousand Commonwealth immigrants in total. They took over some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area near the textile factories. However, even as early as the summer of 1951 there was evidence of colour prejudice when the Indian workers tried to get semi-skilled jobs in engineering and metal-working factories. At the Sterling Metals works, the management, under union pressure, stated at the Works Conference that it was the main desire to recruit white labour. It also agreed to keep black and white gangs segregated and to give white labourers guarantees against the upgrading of Indian workers.

Certainly, by 1951 Coventry was predominantly a city of newcomers. It has been estimated that in that year only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of a quarter of a million were born in the City, though when those born in outlying and incorporated areas of Warwickshire are taken into account, this proportion must have been somewhat higher. Of the thousands who came to the city many soon left, having failed to find accommodation or work. One study claimed that in 1949, while eighteen thousand newcomers entered Coventry, but that nearly the same number left. Surveys suggested that Coventrians were far from welcoming to newcomers generally, so that friendship and social networks followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and churches often catered for specific migrant groups, and there was a lack of interest in establishing neighbourhood friendships. However, there is little evidence to suggest any hostility or negative stereotyping between immigrant groups, perhaps because of Coventry’s general status as a city of immigrants. The London area continued to send just under ten per cent of the total immigrants, but by the late 1940s there were more from Northumberland and Durham. As recently as 1940, insurance book analysis highlighted a dearth of migrants from coalfields other than Wales. Perhaps the general increase in mobility of labour during wartime encouraged Geordies to move, together with the high wages available in Coventry.

Paul Addison, in his well-known book, The Road to 1945, attributed the Labour victory to the growth of middle opinion among English intellectuals and to the impact of the war upon popular consciousness. He paid scant attention the pressures from below to the new industrial areas of the Midlands and South East of England, including the contributions to the growth of trade unionism, the Labour Party and working class culture made by immigrants to these areas before and during the Second World War. Besides the role played by migrating militants in the unionisation of the Pressed Steel works in Cowley and later at Morris Motors, there were a number of significant individual immigrants involved in the development of the Labour movement in Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham. For example, Evan Roberts, a former Welsh miner and railwayman, became the first Labour Councillor for the East Ward of Oxford in 1945 and eventually became the first Lord Mayor of Oxford in 1962.

William Parfitt, a former miner from Tylorstown in the Rhondda, came to Coventry to work for Daimler, after which he became Industrial Relations Officer for the West Midlands Region of the National Coal Board. He was elected to Coventry City Council in 1945 and in 1965-6 became Lord Mayor of Coventry. William Tegfryn Bowen worked as a miner in the Rhondda between 1916 and 1926, moving to Birmingham in 1927, where he studied at Fircroft College, the workers’ college in Selly Oak, before working for the Austin Motor Company in 1928. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He then endured long periods of unemployment before becoming a City Councillor in 1941, an Alderman in 1945 and between 1945 and 1949 was Chairman of both the Council Labour Group and Chairman of the Health Committee. This latter position led to his becoming a member of the Executive Council of the NHS and a member of the Regional Hospital Board. On becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on a City which, under the Chamberlains, had been considered a Tory stronghold. In his answer he referred to a large influx of workers from other areas, with a different political outlook.

 

Harry Richards was from Tonypandy in the Rhondda. Between 1939, aged seventeen, and 1945 he was an apprentice draughtsmen at Armstrong Siddeley Motors and a design draughtsman at Morris Motors. He then became a schoolteacher and was elected to the City Council in 1954. He also became Chairman of the Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, and became Lord Mayor of the City in 1979. Roberts, Parfitt, Bowen and Richards shared the motivation for their involvement with other immigrants from the depressed areas like Elsie Jones, who born and reared in a mining area… realised the need for reforms very early in life. It is also apparent that the political attitudes of many of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were largely derived from their memories of the depression years elsewhere in Britain.

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The result of the 1945 general election in Coventry had been the confirmation of the Labour Party’s local supremacy since taking control of the Council in 1937. Between them, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman took just over sixty per cent of the votes cast. Crossman’s majority in Coventry East, which included Walsgrave, was nearly twenty thousand. When the Labour government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of municipal socialism in Coventry, from 1937 to 1947, can clearly be seen, like Bevan’s own political progress, as a practical and ideological expression of an impetus to reform which arose out of the determination of Labour leaders to attain better living and working conditions than those which they had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.

After 1945, the housing crisis presented an even greater challenge for Coventry’s municipal socialists than it did for Aneurin Bevan, who was Minister of both Health and Housing. The shortage of housing was not simply a short-term crisis for the Labour Government, but remained a huge national problem for the whole decade and a half after the war. In Coventry, for obvious reasons, it was particularly severe. By 1948 there were fifteen thousand families on the waiting list, widespread squatting in old military buildings and an illegal campsite facing the Council House, yet politicians and planners failed to act swiftly, preferring to concentrate on the city centre development. It was not until a decade later that the worst of the housing crisis was over. In the late 1940s, the large, so-called neigbourhood units of Canley, Tile Hill, Bell Green and Willenhall were designed to accommodate between fifteen to twenty thousand residents in decent dwellings within a planned environment. Several social surveys were conducted by the planners and the University of Birmingham on behalf of the council. What the authorities wanted to find out was what the attitude of the residents of this type of estate was, and the potential services they required. They concluded that the residents had only a thin attachment to their particular neighbourhood. The survey revealed that neighbourhood friendship networks were generally narrow, usually confined to immediate and very near neighbours.

Coventrians in these areas thought of the Welsh, Scots and Geordie women in their city as being unemancipated by comparison with themselves. They were more content than Coventry women to accept traditional roles as housewives, nurses and maidservants. Both oral and documentary sources suggest that very few Welsh women entered insurable employment in Coventry before the war, compared with both native women and immigrant women from Lancashire. However, there is little evidence to suggest that immigrant women were more fertile, as was suggested, or that they had more children. In Coventry, there was, however, a marked tendency for them to select their own countrywomen as friends, rather than their immediate neighbours. This clannishness was perhaps understandable if they were from the more strongly Welsh-speaking western valleys, and were not working, but it cannot have helped them to integrate, and in some cases reinforced the stereotypes of them held by Coventrian women. The Welsh immigrants in general were also accused of being all out for themselves… rootless… thrusting, trying to get on committees and councils in order to run the town, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians.

002Of course, this stereotyping reveals a classic pattern of a dominant majority irked by a foreign minority in its midst, except it was not always based on prejudice, but sometimes on real experiences. Seymour Gulliver (pictured on the right with his wife, Vera, in the 1970s), who had himself born outside Coventry, in 1900, albeit in Warwickshire, moving into Walsgrave with his family in 1909, recalled an occasion on which he fell out with the Welsh miner he had helped to settle into Walsgrave and Binley Colliery. This neighbour, Chairman of the Lodge at Binley, was delayed getting to an emergency strike meeting, so Seymour had started the meeting without him. He was annoyed when he arrived at the meeting to find that his place had been usurped, and became even more irate when the men voted for Seymour to continue in the chair. The two men had words after the meeting. Seymour commented that this incident had taught him that the Welsh miners always wanted to be in charge.

On the subject of who was a real Coventry kid, in his survey of Tile Hill, a district of Coventry, conducted in the late forties, Leo Kuper found that only thirty-two per cent of the community were Coventry born, while twenty-five per cent were from the North of England, sixteen per cent from other parts of the Midlands, ten per cent from Wales, and about five or six per cent each from Scotland, Ireland and the South of England. In Coventry, by the late 1940s, it was impossible to tell who the real Coventrians were.

In terms of facilities, especially shopping, the Coventrians of the late forties were unanimous in their desire for a large, well equipped central retail area with suburban outlets confined to the provision of everyday essentials. The findings of these surveys tended to reinforce the major thrust of the reconstruction plan and convinced the civic officers and councillors that they were providing what the people wanted. The residents on the new estates could also look forward to the provision of the ten form entry comprehensive schools, large health centres and new parades of small shops. Even so, the prosperity of the mid-fifties and sixties was still unimaginable, even in high-wage Coventry, in the late forties. In addition, neighbourliness was difficult to achieve on these new estates. It wasn’t just the Welsh who found it difficult to mix, but also the migrants from the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, who often found Coventrians cold and unfriendly.

Earlier immigrants continued to provide a warmer welcome through churches and chapels. One of the leading Welsh personalities at Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the centre of Coventry was Jehu Shepherd, who became organist and choirmaster during the ministry of Ingli James in the 1940s. The Welsh newcomers that Shepherd had formed into a Glee Party in the thirties, found themselves at home among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists which James’ preaching helped to produce in this period. James was from Barry, where his father had been pastor of Bethel Baptist Church before the First World War. In 1917 he was ordained and became Minister at Stoneygate, Leicester, followed by powerful ministries at Cannon Street, Accrington and, from 1923, at Pantgwydr in Swansea. During these ministries, according to a Baptist Union memoir, he saw that the working classes in this country were drifting from the churches and he set himself resolutely to stop the drift. He began his ministry at Queen’s Road in 1931. Besides supporting the initiatives which the immigrants had taken to establish an image of respectability in their new environment, such as the Glee Singers, James also affirmed, from the pulpit, the culture from which they came, continually referring to the miners and unemployment in his sermons. However, his unashamed championing of working class causes and politics, including his appearance on Labour Party platforms (along with Rev Ivor Reece, of West Orchard Congregational Church), brought him into conflict with some of the established professional Coventrians on his diaconate. Jehu Shepherd’s wife, Mary Shepherd, originally from Ystalafera, near Neath, remembered him well:

 

He was a strong Labour man and he upset quite a few people because he just said what he felt – he was true to himself, he would not say one thing and mean another, or say something just to please people. Ingli was not bombastic and what he said was true. I always remember once when he talked about the miners, he said, ’I had a load of coal and paid for it the other day – did I say paid for it? – no money would pay for what they did!’ I can see him now in that pulpit.

 

In 1942 he preached a sermon entitled, How Green Was My Valley, coinciding with the distribution of the Hollywood film of Richard Llewellyn’s book in Britain. Daphne Gulliver remembered the Rev. James preaching at Walsgrave Chapel after the war. She described him as a Welsh ranter, a very famous socialist, and extremely funny. Walsgrave had the kind of pulpit in which you could walk up and down and he used to shake all his black hair into his eyes. James articulated his impetus to reform in his book, published in 1950, Communism and the Christian Faith. In it he acknowledged his indebtedness to the Queens Road congregation for the way they had given him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe the means by which he came to his vision of Christian socialism:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed… I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people. However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no active part in the struggle of the unemployed. At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ’the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…

 

Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945 should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home. The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing on the rights of the other and without resorting to violence… we must show how it might be done.

 

In this passage, Ingli James distilled the essence of the experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars. The migrating millions who found their own way to Coventry, as opposed to being sent there by the Ministry of Labour, showed, by their contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the new industry towns, both in the prewar and postwar periods, that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns of an economic and political system which had displaced them.

Coventry’s 1951 Development Plan was the culmination of a scheme designed by a new class of professionals, implemented by newcomers for the benefit of a population with shallow roots in the city. The shopocracy had been routed in 1937 and the vice of old Coventry continued to be associated with narrow-minded backwardness. The defeat of this old elite was compounded by the support of the Evening Telegraph for the reconstruction plan. The isolation of the Chamber of Commerce, the main opponents of the plan, was increased by the tendency of many of Coventry’s firms, both in retail and manufacturing, to come under the control of outside owners. There was almost an element of irrelevant antiquarianism in the announcement in 1951 that the new Lord Mayor, Harry Weston, was the first Coventrian to hold the office for eight years, at a time when eighty-four per cent of the ruling Labour group on the Council between in the decade after 1945 were born outside Coventry. In November 1945 thirty Labour councillors were returned to face an opposition of eighteen Progressives, an amalgam of Conservatives and Liberals. Despite continuing austerity, Labour maintained its two-to-one majority in 1947 and 1949. The Evening Telegraph, in its editorial on the 1949 poll, concluded that newcomers to Coventry were strengthening the Left. Labour had an apparently unbreachable majority and the Conservative candidates who stood for election in 1951, the year of Conservative victory in the general election, were an assortment of small businessmen, managers and retired publicans. They were the champions of small shopkeepers threatened by municipal socialism.

The newcomers to Coventry prepared to play along with the prejudices and stereotypical images which confronted them. Instead, and in response, they set about fostering a positive self-image in their new environments, and in the process they enabled and enhanced the recovery of working class politics and culture in the Midland cities of England. The memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force on the road to 1945 and well beyond it. Those who had lost almost everything had also lost their fear; they had everything to regain, and were determined to be there at their own remaking, as part of an integrated and relatively united, British working class. In the 1945 government film A City Re-born, a soldier and his fiancée are shown viewing Donald Gibson’s model of the new Coventry. They cannot contain their optimism and enthusiasm about the city where they are going to live, looking forward to their own little home… with a nice little garage… and a nice little nursery, while the film commentary enunciated the official mythology about the City:

Coventry is going to be a place to live where people can believe how pleasant human life can be… It must not be every man for himself, but every man for the good and happiness of all people living… Every man must believe in the good and happiness that is to be shared… to be shared, equally.

By 1951, Everyman had come to Coventry. The city had become not simply the identifiable symbol of the Tue England, but also of the New Jerusalem of the British working class which had relocated and recreated itself there.

Printed Sources:

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Barry Cunliffe (et. al., eds.), (2001),The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. University of Warwick: Cryfield Press.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain, III: 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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