Monday, November 19, 2012

Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, 2: A Senatorial Inquisition


The year 1919 opened with American troops bogged down in Siberia as part of an Allied intervention during the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution.

The Senate announced that hearings would begin on February 11 to investigate Bolhevik propaganda. Sen. Lee S. Overman, a Democrat from North Carolina, headed the subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose five male members had an average age of 61.

The other committee members were Knute Nelson (R-Minn.), Thomas Sterling (R-N.D.), William H. King (D-Utah) and Josiah O. Wolcott (D-Del.).

In New York, Jack Reed was putting the finishing touches on his manuscript of Ten Days That Shook the World.

To promote her book Six Red Months in Russia and refute the lies being circulated by critics about the new Russia, Louise Bryant was about to begin a cross-country speaking tour on “The Truth About Russia.” 
Reed and Bryant had wired Senator Overman offering to testify as witnesses but received no reply.
On Sunday afternoon, February 2, Louise was in Washington for an appearance at Poli’s Theater at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. After her talk, she remained in Washington and managed to get arrested in front of the White House. She was released following a brief hunger strike.
Louise attended the hearings and listened to a series of friendly witnesses. During a recess she confronted the chairman and demanded to be heard. He promised to tell her the next day when she would be called to testify, but failed to keep his promise.
Only after she stood up during a hearing, identified herself and publicly demanded that her testimony be scheduled was she called before the Overman Committee. She testified for two days as the first unfriendly witness, starting on February 20.         
Bryant’s treatment during her testimony initiated the practice of congressional witch-hunting that would culminate in the discredited House Un-American Activities Committee under J. Parnell Thomas and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Armed Services Committee hearings in the 1950s.

      Throughout her testimony Overman Committee members were both bullying and belligerent. At the outset, they grilled her at length about her belief in God. Although she admitted that she believed in the sanctity of an oath, Senator King pressed on, stating. “A person who has no conception of God does not have any idea of the sanctity of an oath, and an oath would be meaningless,” he insisted.
Unsatisfied with her concession of belief that there was a God, she was asked by Senator Wolcott whether she believed “in a punishment hereafter and a reward for duty.” An exasperated Louise Bryant responded, “It seems to me as if I were being tried for witchcraft. Very well, I will concede--I concede there is a hell.”
Senator King asked Louise where she stayed in Washington. She told him that it was at the headquarters of the National Women’s Party, a militant suffragist group. He asked whether she belonged to the NWP “picket squad” that had actively picketed the White House.
She responded, “I do not know what that has to do with the truth about Russia, but I did.  I believe in equality for women as well as men, even in my own country.”
“We want to know something about the character of the person who testifies,” he told her, “so that we can determine what credit to give to their testimony.”
Under further questioning by Senator Nelson, she admitted that she took part in the burning of the president in effigy, an act for which she was jailed. After probing questions about her first and second marriages, Senator King asked if she participated in Bolshevik meetings. She replied that she took notes at such meetings, as other reporters did.

Three white men in suits sitting at a table, with a chandelier hanging and a mirror in the background
Three of the five members of the Overman Committee in 1919. From left: Senators Josiah O. Wolcott, Lee S. Overman (Chairman) and Knute Nelson.
She was asked about Jack Reed’s employment by the Bolsheviks. Holding copies of propaganda documents printed in German, Louise proudly admitted that her husband did a lot in Russia to bring about the abdication of the Kaiser.
Senator Nelson maintained that he wanted facts. Bryant insisted the papers she was holding were the facts. Nelson cautioned her: “Don’t be so impertinent.” When spectators applauded, the chairman warned that he would clear the room if the noise was repeated. It was and he did. Louise refused to testify in a closed session. After about an hour, spectators were allowed to return, with an admonition against “cheering.”

Senator Overman asked about her lecture at Poli’s Theater. “Its purpose was to protest against intervention in Russia.” she explained. “I, as an American, believing in self-determination, cannot believe in intervention. I do not see how we can fight for democracy in France and against it in Siberia. I believe we ought to take our troops out of Russia. It would be better for both nations to have friendly relations.”
Senator Nelson demanded to know whether she was “anxious” for the Bolsheviks to remain in power.
“I am anxious—" she began.
“Answer my question,” Senator Nelson interrupted. “Are you anxious to have the Bolshevik government there as a permanent thing?” he thundered.
Louise replied calmly, “I think the Russians ought to settle that.”
He posed the question again, and she replied, “I answered you. I said I believed in self-determination.”
“Self-determination at the point of a gun?” he asked.
“All governments have had to be self-determined at the point of a gun. There never has been the government established except after a war,” was her reply.
When the hearing opened the next day, Louise Bryant asked the chairman to be allowed “to speak a whole sentence before this committee without being interrupted.” He assented.
She criticized the hearings, pointing out that previous witnesses who did not support the revolution were allowed to talk at length, but she was not allowed to answer questions fully. She had been treated like “a traitor,” she charged.
Chairman Overman told her patronizingly: “You seem to want to make a martyr of yourself, when you have not been treated unfairly that I can see. You’re a woman and you do not know anything about the conduct of an examination such as we have in hand here. We’re going to treat you fairly and treat you as a lady.”
Louise’s answer has become a classic: “I don’t want to be treated as a lady, but I want to be treated as a human being.”
She wanted the record to show that she believed she had been “lectured at” and subjected to “a sort of third degree” by Senator Nelson. She was told by Senator Sterling, “You were not given lectures. You were cross-examined.”  Senator Nelson described her as “deluded,” adding, “You are young, too, and I feel sorry for you.”
The chairman declared that as a judge on the bench in Utah the senator frequently had before him witnesses who were charged with having no faith in the Christian religion. Bryant countered by asking, “How would you have treated me if I had been a Jew?”
Jack Reed followed Louise as a witness. His answers were crisp and clear. The committee obviously had no desire to tangle with him, and he was allowed to depart quickly.

Back in Croton
      In April of 1919, Jack and Louise acquired a German shepherd puppy and began gardening and laying flagstones at the house on Mount Airy. Reed fell ill in the influenza epidemic sweeping the country and became delirious. “For some days he seemed not to understand anything,” Louise noted. Getting a doctor to make house calls or finding a nurse was impossible. A phone call to Dr. Harry Lober in New York brought the advice “give him aspirin and eggnog with plenty of brandy."
She was wife, doctor and nurse to Jack. Because the little house was cold, she moved the bed to the living room near the fireplace. Each day she gave him an alcohol rub, "starting with his toes and working all over his body." She turned him regularly to prevent bedsores from developing.
Widespread fear of contagion made it futile to ask neighbors for help. Louise chopped wood and brought in armloads of logs for the fire. When he slept, she hurriedly descended into the village for groceries and supplies and struggled back up steep Mt. Airy Road.
Louise had ordered some trees. With a recovering Reed sitting by the window and giving instructions, Boardman Robinson and Louise planted a small red hawthorn where he suggested. She later wrote a touching poem about it:

     All the fruit-trees were in bloom.
     They were little girls
     Going to communion.
     But the hawthorn broke my heart.
     It was the little son
     I dreamed about and never had.

As strength slowly returned, Jack began to dream about making his way back to Russia where so much was happening. Louise was furious at the idea of another separation.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Comments: Post a Comment | Postscripts Homepage

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?