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Guide to the Arnold Johnson Papers TAM 137

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Caroline Moseley, 1992. Edited by Bonnie Gordon to reflect the incorporation of non-print materials, 2013.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on April 18, 2018
Description is in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical/Biographical Note

Arnold Samuel Johnson was born in Seattle, Washington on September 23, 1904, one of four children (3 boys and a girl). His parents, both Scandinavian immigrants, had met in a Michigan lumber camp. After moving to Seattle his father worked in the lumber mills of Washington; both parents were devout members of the Swedish Evangelical Church. As a young man Arnold Johnson was drawn to the christian socialist philosophy, and he became deeply commited to the plight of the working class. After becoming an active participant on behalf of workers his attitudes gradually changed. Acting on strong personal principles he moved away from religion in the traditional sense, but continued with his commitment to the working class.

He worked from the age of 12 in lumber related jobs but was still able to complete high school (in Hoaquim, WA), benefitting from having two older brothers working. The family moved to Los Angeles where Johnson briefly attended UCLA before he moved to Washington DC to study law in 1924. He attended the National University Law School but after a year returned to Los Angeles, with the intention of becoming a preacher, and entered California Christian College. He graduated with a BA in 1929 and moved to New York City to continue his religious education at Union Theological Seminary (UTS); at the same time he attended Columbia University Teachers College. In 1931 Johnson received a Masters Degree in Christian Education and in 1932 a bachelors of Divinity from UTS.

The summers of 1929 and 1930 when Johnson helped to organize Sherwood Eddy's "American Seminar in Europe", and the summer of 1931, when he was involved in the National Miners' Union struggle in Harlan Kentucky, were formative experiences for Arnold Johnson. Even while he continued his Christian education he was moving away from the church as a means of effective social reform. The American Seminar, led by Sherwood Eddy, a preacher and lecturer on social questions, was attended by educators, writers, preachers and politicians. The seminar introduced the participants to prominent people in education arts and politics in London, Paris, Geneva, Berlin and Warsaw; the climax for Johnson was the final 2-3 weeks spent in the Soviet Union where he received his "first introduction to Communist thinking" and "saw socialism in construction." (this and following quotations are from Johnson's notebook, Series V F. 19).

His first acquaintance with communists in struggle was in Harlan County, KY, where Johnson, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, spent 6 weeks in jail in company with striking miners. He was arrested (but never tried) for criminal syndicalism after distributing a pamphlet (by Roger Baldwin) on freedom of speech. He met communists (such as Jesse Wakefield) who were involved in the struggle of the miners. Johnson later felt that he "should have studied the role of the Communist Party and joined it at that time."

Although he completed his studies, he decided in 1931 not to pursue a career in the church. Affected by his experiences in "bloody Harlan", by the deepening national depression, and by the belief that the religious community was too often compromised by "idealism in the service of capitalism," Johnson became involved in the unemployment movement. In 1932 he joined the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) led by A. J. Muste. In 1933 he was appointed Ohio organizer of the Unemployed Leagues. Also in 1933 Johnson was elected secretary of the first National Unemployed League at a convention in Columbus, Ohio. He worked primarily in Ohio but also helped to organize the unemployed in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. While in Ohio (in 1933) Johnson met and married Aurelia Ricci who was also involved with the unemployed leagues.

Between 1932 and 1936 the CPLA underwent name changes, program changes and mergers; Johnson became disillusioned with the lack of unity and the anti communist sentiment which was often an undercurrent in the movement. In 1936 he was influential in the merger with the communist organized unemployment councils to form the Workers Alliance; Johnson became national secretary of this group, and in the same year he joined the Communist Party. He later said of this decision "I cherish my membership with a certain positive pride and joy." By 1936 he had become convinced that the Communist Party was the most sincere and effective battler for the rights of the unemployed. In addition the hope of a system of scientific socialism aimed at eliminating poverty, racial discrimination and war, strongly appealed to Johnson.

He continued working with the Workers Alliance after 1936 but also became increasingly involved in the running of the Ohio Communist Party. In 1939 he became state secretary and from 1940 to 1947 he was state chairman. He ran for office as a Communist Party candidate for Governor (1940), Mayor of Cleveland (1941), and Senator (1946); although not elected Johnson received substantial support in his runs for the Board of Education in Cleveland in 1943 and 1945.

In 1947 Johnson left Ohio for New York to become National Legislative Director of the CP. Gus Hall replaced him as chairman of the Ohio CP. During the next 32 years Johnson continued to dedicate himself to the communist cause. His wife Aurelia supported and joined him in this commitment. Although he never held key leadership positions in the Communist Party USA, Johnson did hold several high profile appointments which gave him considerable public exposure. In addition to his legislative work Johnson also became a representative of the Civil Rights Congress and later held office as Vice Chairman of New York State CP, Public Relations Director of the CPUSA and Chairman of the Political Action Commission.

As Public Relations Director Johnson received and responded to Lee Harvey Oswald's inquiries about CPUSA in 1963. He also represented the Communist Party in various peace coalition movements such as the New Mobilization against the War in Vietnam (New Mobe). He travelled extensively as a representative of the Communist Party, twice to Europe and the Soviet Union (1961 and 1966), and also to Cuba (1976) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1975) for ceremonial occasions.

Johnson's activities on behalf of the Communist Party were interrupted on several occasions by federal investigation. The most serious being his Smith Act indictment at the height of McCarthyism in 1951. He was charged (along with 20 other leaders of the Communist Party) with advocating the overthrow of the government. In Johnson's case the evidence used against him centered around an article of his published in Political Affairs in 1949 "The Communists Fight for the Traditions of July Fourth" in which he quoted Abraham Lincoln "All that serves labor serves the nation. All that harms labor is treason to America." Johnson was found guilty in 1953 and sentenced to 3 years in jail and a $6000 fine. After the appeal process had failed he was jailed in 1955 (January) and released after 2 years and 5 months in 1957 (May). Johnson was indicted on two other occasions, in 1962 under the McCarran Act, for refusing to register as a Communist Party member, and in 1970 by the House Internal Security Committee for refusing to cooperate with the investigation of the New Mobilization Against the War in Vietnam. Both these charges were later dropped.

Arnold Johnson retired from active involvement in the Communist Party in 1979 after a stroke and a heart attack had left him in ill health. Johnson died September 28, 1989, a few days after his 85th birthday.

1904 Born Seattle, Washington
1929 Graduated from California Christian College, Los Angeles, CA.
1929-30 Spent 2 summers as secretary and organizer for Sherwood Eddy's "AmericanSeminar" held in Soviet Union and Europe.
1929 Joined State Socialist Party in New York
1931 Spent the summer with coal miners in "Bloody Harlan" Kentucky as a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, jailed for 6 weeks.
1932 Received Bachelor of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, NY & MA from Teachers College, New York (1931).
1932-38 Moved to Ohio, became involved in local and national unemployed leagues and the Workers Alliance (1936).
1933 Married Aurelia Ricci
1936 Joined Communist Party (CP)
1939-47 State Secretary and then Chairman of the Ohio CP.
1940 Elected to Central Committee of CP
1947 Moved to New York to take the position of National Legislative Director of the CPUSA.
1950 Became executive of Civil Rights Congress
1951 Arrested and charged with conspiring to overthrow government (Smith Act).
1953 Sentenced to 3 years in Jail and a $6000 fine
1955-57 Imprisoned in the Federal Penitentiary in Petersburg, VA.
1958 Secretary of Public Affairs of the CPUSA
1960 Vice Chairman of New York CP.
1960 Peoples Right Candidate for Congress (New York, Washington Heights).
1961-66 Visited communist countries with Gus Hall
1962 Ordered by Subversive Activities Control Board to register as a member of a communist organization (McCarran Act)
1966- Public Relations Director for CPUSA.
1970, 1974 CP candidate for Senate in New York.
1970 Cited for contempt of Congress when he refused to testify before the House Committee on Internal Security (as a board member of New Mobilization Committee for Peace in Vietnam - New Mobe).
1960's & 70's Represented the CP in coalition peace movements such as New Mobe.
1975 Visited Democratic Republic of Vietnam
1975 Visited Cuba for the First Congress of Cuban CP
1979 Retired from active service with CP due to ill health.
1989 Died