John Gates, the son of Polish Jews, was born in New York in 1913. His name was originally Solomon Regenstriet but he later changed it to John Gates. His parents owned a shop in the Bronx. "My father was now owner of the inevitable candy store. Six years later he bought a large ice-cream parlor on Fordham Road in the Bronx."
The family lost their business after the Wall Street Crash. He recalled in his autobiography: "My father went back to work as a waiter. He finally scraped enough money together to buy another candy store and returned to the drudgery of a sixteen-hour day and a seven-day week."
In 1930 Gates enrolled in the City College of New York. While a student he discovered the writings of Karl Marx: "These writings provided me with what seemed to be the key to the universe. Poring over the pages, I found the answers I had been searching for: the causes of depression, of war, of injustice, oppression and inhumanity, and the solution through the socialist reorganization of society and the creation of a world brotherhood of man." Soon afterwards he joined the Young Communist League. He also became involved in the campaign to free the Scotsboro Boys.
Gates moved to Youngstown, Ohio, in 1932 where he met Joe Dallet, the local American Communist Party organiser. According to Cecil D. Eby, the author of Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War (2007): "Gates... had surrendered his Regents Scholarship at City College to join the YCL as a Party organizer in the steel industry."
As an active member of the American Communist Party, Gates found it difficult to obtain work: "When I moved from Warren to Youngstown, I lived with various families who shared their scanty larder with me. After a year of living this way, I managed to get on relief which amounted to $1.75 a week for single men and was later raised to $2.25 and to $2.75. Then as various works projects got under way, I obtained a job at $7 a week on a National Youth Administration project, at $25 under the Works Progress Administration, and at $35 on Public Works Administration construction. Many public works were built which still stand in Youngstown today - bridges, roads, grade crossings, buildings - all of them monuments to the government programs of those days. Even had we never built anything of permanence, this program would have been more than worthwhile; it was an investment in human beings. Nothing is more demoralizing than to be out of work with no prospect of getting a job. The projects restored the confidence of millions of Americans in themselves and in their country, gave them back their self-respect, brought them hope again."
In May 1935 Gates was arrested for distributing leaflets during a strike in New Castle, Pennsylvania. "The town mayor acted as judge in the case. I was not even given a chance to plead, let alone explain my case. The mayor proceeded to read me a lecture and denounced me as a foreigner in Pennsylvania since I had come in from Ohio. Without permitting a word to be said, he pronounced me guilty and sentenced me to spend thirty days in jail, or drink a glass of castor oil. No loving relatives had ever succeeded in forcing castor oil down my throat when I was a child, and no two-bit would-be Mussolini would either. I served the thirty days."
At the beginning of 1937 Gates decided to join the International Brigades, an organization that was attempting to to defend the Popular Front during the Spanish Civil War. He arrived in Paris in February: "Beautiful as Paris was, we were all impatient with the three days' delay. A train carried us to Perpignan on the Mediterranean at the Spanish border. There we simply boarded a bus for Figueres, and in a few minutes we were in Spain."
After spending time in Albacete he was sent to the southern Cordoba front. Later that year he received a letter with a clipping from the Youngstown Vindicator containing his picture and a story that he had been killed in action in Spain. He remarked in The Story of an American Communist (1959): "I immediately wrote the Vindicator that I had read about my death but could not confirm it."
The American forces suffered heavy casualties in the war. In March 1938 the Lincoln-Washington Battalion lost two of its most senior officers, Robert Merriman and David Doran, when they were killed at Gandesa on the Aragón front. Milton Wolff now assumed command of the battalion and Gates became battalion commissar. As Joe Dallet pointed out in a letter to his wife: "This is a funny place. Some of the most prominent people back home... turn out badly here, while some insignificant people like Johnny Gates rise to the top."
John Gates soon developed a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. He later admitted that he became "intolerant of criticism. I increasingly used vile language against subordinates, and disciplined people for minor questioning of my authority." For example, in March 1938 Paul White was sent to get further supplies of ammunition. Instead, he deserted and drove to the French border. However, on hearing that his wife had given birth to a son, he began to feel remorse for what he had done. White wanted his son to be proud of his father and he returned to the front where he made a full confession of his actions.
White was unlucky that John Gates was now the battalion commissar. Gates recently had ordered that all deserters should be court-martialed and some of them should be executed as an example to the rest of the soldiers. Milton Wolff agreed with Gates and White was charged with desertion.
At his court-martial White confessed: "After Belchite I knew I was afraid to go into action again. I tried all this time to overcome my feeling of fear. I felt we were doomed and fighting futilely. I dropped out of line and made up my mind to desert and try and reach France." Paul White was found guilty of desertion and the following day he was executed by a six-man firing squad. Joe Bianca complained bitterly about the way White was treated, but as Cecil D. Eby pointed out: "Having just been publicized as the best soldier in the Battalion, Bianca had passed beyond the range of commissariat retaliation."
Soon afterwards Gates and Milton Wolff conducted the trial of Bernard Abramofsky, accused of multiple desertions and black marketeering. Abramofsky was executed by a firing squad. The news of these executions caused a great deal of dissent in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and it was quickly announced that no further executions would take place.
On 25th September 1938, Juan Negrin, head of the Republican government, announced for diplomatic reasons that the International Brigades would be unilaterally withdrawn from Spain. John Gates later recalled: "The main farewell took place in Barcelona on Oct. 29. For the last time in full uniform, the International Brigades marched through the streets of Barcelona. Despite the danger of air raids, the entire city turned out... We paraded ankle-deep in flowers. Women rushed into our lines to kiss us. Men shook our hands and embraced us. Children rode on our shoulders. The people of the city poured out their hearts. Our blood had been shed with theirs. Our dead slept with their dead. We had proved again that all men are brothers."
On his return to the United States Gates was appointed head of the Young Communist League in New York State. He also served as Secretary of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In the Young Communist Review Gates upset some members when he argued that as the Soviet Union was "a socialist island in a sea of hostile capitalism" it would be understandable if Joseph Stalin signed a military alliance with Adolf Hitler.
In private Gates was highly critical of Stalin's foreign policy. He later admitted how the party attacked people like Eleanor Roosevelt: "We turned on everyone who refused to go along with our new policy and who still considered Hitler the main foe. People whom we had revered only the day before, like Mrs. Roosevelt, we now reviled. This was one of the characteristics of Communists which people always found most difficult to swallow - that we could call them heroes one day and villains the next. Yet in all of this lay our one consistency; we supported Soviet policies whatever they might be; and this in turn explained so many of our inconsistencies. Immediately following the upheaval over the Soviet-German non-aggression pact came the Finnish war, which compounded all our difficulties since, here also, our position was uncritically in support of the Soviet action."
After Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on 22nd June 1941, the American Communist Party, under instructions from Joseph Stalin, changed its policy towards the war: "This is not to suggest that our lightning-change was made without pangs of conscience. Many of us were ashamed now of the policy we had followed since August 1939 and were determined to make up for it. We were justified in emphasizing the new danger to America from Hitler's attack on Russia; but had not the invasion of France and the bombings of Britain endangered us too? We who had fought in Spain had been called premature anti-fascists (which had always made us feel proud); when Russia was invaded we had become anti-fascists come-lately, of which we could not be proud. Even from the narrow point of view of supporting the Soviet Union, our policy of 1939-41 had been stupid. Had it prevailed, our country's ability to assist Russia in the moment of crisis, let alone defend ourselves, would have been considerably weakened. In fact, had our stand against aiding the allies won out, the United States might never have aided the Soviet Union at all."
Gates, like many members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, immediately joined the US Army in order to take part in the Second World War. As Hank Rubin pointed out in Spain's Cause Was Mine (1997): "We were pariahs to our government. When Brigaders volunteered for the armed forces in World War II, the official army line, at first, was that we were not to be sent outside of the continental limits, so that we would not have contact with European communists."
Gates was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Field Artillery Training Centre. After spending over a year at the base, the division was sent to Europe. However, because of Gates' communism, he was left behind. Gates personally contacted Franklin D. Roosevelt in his attempt to fight for his country. Earl Browder, Vito Marcantonio, Drew Pearson and Clare Booth Luce, all took up his case.
In an attempt to serve on the front-line, Gates volunteered to join the Army Parachute School at Fort Benning, Georgia. "In my class were 1,600 men, but only five of us were over the age of 30. The rest of the men were under 23. Parachute jumping is definitely a young man's game and I was soon called Pop. The younger men found the physical training under the supervision of All-American athletes fairly easy; for me it was most difficult. On the other hand, while the younger men found the psychological hazard of jumping from an airplane extremely difficult, this was somewhat easier for me because I had joined to get into combat. Even with this incentive, however, every jump was frightening; the paratroopers said nobody ever jumped, they were pushed. But finally I passed all the tests. The paratroops were an elite corps and I was not at all modest about my special wings insignia and characteristic jump boots."
In April 1945, Gates joined the 17th Airborne Division in Nazi Germany. The unit had jumped a few days earlier on the east side of the Rhine. As he later pointed out: "This was the last combat jump in the European war and I had missed it." The war in Europe ended a few weeks later. Gates now expected to be sent to the Pacific but Japan surrendered after the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Gates was stationed in England after the war. He immediately enrolled at the University of Manchester "spending three delightful months there, little of it at the university but a great deal with my British friends from Spain." He also spent time watching the Labour Party that had just won a landslide victory in the 1945 General Election.
Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party, controversially announced in 1944 that capitalism and communism could peacefully co-exist. As John Gates pointed out in his book, The Story of an American Communist (1959): "Browder had developed several bold ideas which were stimulated by the unprecedented situation, and now he proceeded to put them into effect. At a national convention in 1944, the Communist Party of the United States dissolved and reformed itself into the Communist Political Association."
Except for William Z. Foster and Benjamin Davis, the leaders of the American Communist Party unanimously supported Browder. However, in 1945, Jacques Duclos, a leading member of the French Communist Party and considered to be the main spokesman for Joseph Stalin, made a fierce attack on the ideas of Browder. As John Gates pointed out: " The leaders of the American Communists, who, except for Foster and one other, had unanimously supported Browder, now switched overnight, and, except for one or two with reservations, threw their support to Foster. An emergency convention in July, 1945, repudiated Browder's ideas, removed him from leadership and re-constituted the Communist Party in an atmosphere of hysteria and humiliating breast-beating unprecedented in communist history."
On his return to the United States, Gates became editor-in-chief of The Daily Worker. Gates remained a secret supporter of Earl Browder, but he accepted that he had lost the power-struggle with William Z. Foster for leadership of the American Communist Party.
On the morning of 20th July, 1948, Eugene Dennis, the general secretary and eleven other party leaders, including Gates, William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis, Robert G. Thompson, Gus Hall, Benjamin Davis, Henry M. Winston, and Gil Green were arrested and charged under the Alien Registration Act. This law, passed by Congress in 1940, made it illegal for anyone in the United States "to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government".
The trial began on 17th January, 1949. As John Gates pointed out: "There were eleven defendants, the twelfth, Foster, having been severed from the case because of his serious, chronic heart ailment." The men were defended by George W. Crockett. It was difficult for the prosecution to prove that the eleven men had broken the Alien Registration Act, as none of the defendants had ever openly called for violence or had been involved in accumulating weapons for a proposed revolution. The prosecution therefore relied on passages from the work of Karl Marx and other revolution figures from the past.
When John Gates refused to answer a question implicating other people, he was sentenced by Judge Harold Medina to 30 days in jail. When Henry M. Winston and Gus Hall protested, they were also sent to prison.
The prosecution also used the testimony of former members of the American Communist Party to help show that they had privately advocated the overthrow of the government. The most important witness against the leaders of the party was Louis Budenz, the former managing editor of the party's newspaper, The Daily Worker.
Another strategy of the prosecution was to ask the defendants questions about other party members. Unwilling to provide information on fellow comrades, they were put in prison and charged with contempt of court. The trial dragged on for eleven months and eventually, the judge, Harold Medina, who made no attempt to disguise his own feelings about the defendants, sent the party's lawyers to prison for contempt of court.
After a nine month trial John Gates and other leaders of the American Communist Party were found guilty of violating the Alien Registration Act and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Robert G. Thompson, because of his war record, received only three years. They appealed to the Supreme Court but on 4th June, 1951, the judges ruled, 6-2, that the conviction was legal.
Justice Felix Frankfurter argued: The particular circumstances of this case compel me to conclude that the trial judge should not have combined in himself the functions of accuser and judge. For his accusations were not impersonal. They concerned matters in which he personally was deeply engaged... No judge should sit in a case in which he is personally involved... At frequent intervals in the course of the trial his comments plainly reveal personal feelings against the lawyers.... Truth compels the observation, painful as it is to make it, that the fifteen volumes of oral testimony in the principal trial record numerous episodes involving the judge and defense counsel that are more suggestive of an undisciplined debating society than of the hush and solemnity of a court of justice. Too often counsel were encouraged to vie with the court in dialectic, in repartee and banter, in talk so copious as inevitably to arrest the momentum of the trial and to weaken the restraints of respect that a judge should engender in lawyers... Throughout the proceedings... he failed to exercise the moral authority of a court possessed of a great tradition.
Justice William Douglas agreed: "I agree with Mr. Justice Frankfurter that one who reads the record will have difficulty in determining whether members of the bar conspired to drive a judge from the bench or whether the judge used the authority of the bench fo whipsaw the lawyers, to taunt and tempt them, and to create for himself the role of the persecuted. I have reluctantly concluded that neither is blameless, that there is fault on each side, that we have here the spectacle of the bench and the bar using the courtroom for an unseemly discussion and of ill will and hot tempers."
This decision was followed by the arrests of 46 more communists during the summer of 1951. This included Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was also convicted for contempt of court after telling the judge that she would not identify people as Communists as she was unwilling "do degrade or debase myself by becoming an informer". She was also found guilty of violating the Alien Registration Act and sentenced to two years in prison.
As John Gates pointed out in his book, The Story of an American Communist (1959): "To many in the leadership, this meant that the United States was unquestionably on the threshold of fascism. Had not Hitler's first step been to outlaw the Communist Party? We saw an almost exact parallel."
On his release from prison in 1955, Gates became editor of the Daily Worker. During the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Joseph Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Gates became a supporter of Khrushchev and at his direction the newspaper printed the full text of Khrushchev's speech. This brought him into conflict with leaders of the American Communist Party.
John Gates also encouraged debate on this issue by devoting one page of the newspaper to their readers' views: "The readers thought plenty. The paper received an unprecedented flood of mail, and even more unprecedented, we decided to print all the letters, regardless of viewpoint - a step which the Daily Worker had never taken before. The full page of letters, in our modest eight pages, soon became its liveliest and most popular feature... Readers spoke out as never before, pouring out the anguish of many difficult years."
Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprisingan estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar.
John Gates was highly critical of the actions of Nikita Khrushchev and stated that "for the first time in all my years in the Party I felt ashamed of the name Communist". He then went on to add that "there was more liberty under Franco's fascism than there is in any communist country." As a result he was accused of being "right-winger, Social-Democrat, reformist, Browderite, peoples' capitalist, Trotskyist, Titoite, Stracheyite, revisionist, anti-Leninist, anti-party element, liquidationist, white chauvinist, national Communist, American exceptionalist, Lovestoneite, Bernsteinist".
On 22nd December, 1957, the American Communist Party Executive Committee decided to close down the Daily Worker. Gates argued: "Throughout the 34 years of its existence, the Daily Worker has withstood the attacks of Big Business, the McCarthyites and other reactionaries. It has taken a drive from within the party - conceived in blind factionalism and dogmatism - to do what our foes have never been able to accomplish. The party leadership must once and for all repudiate the Foster thesis, defend the paper and its political line, and seek to unite the entire party behind the paper."
Gates resigned from the American Communist Party on 1st January 1958: "I have come to this decision, after 27 years in the Communist movement, because I feel that the Communist Party has ceased to be an effective force for democracy, peace and socialism in the United States. The isolation and decline of the Communist Party have long been apparent. I had hoped, as a result of the struggle that has been going on in the party for the last two years, that the party could be radically transformed... I have come to the reluctant conclusion that the party cannot be changed from within and that the fight to do so is hopeless. The same ideals that attracted me to socialism still motivate me. I do not believe it is possible any longer to serve those ideals within the Communist Party."
Gates published his memoirs, The Story of an American Communist, in 1959. He wrote: "The American Communist Party has failed, and has disintegrated. Less than 5,000 members remain, of whom no more than a third pay dues, and few carry on meaningful activities. The average age level is past 50, and for a decade there has been no recruitment of young people or new members. All of which contrasts with the 75,000 members at the close of the World War, apart from 20,000 young Communists, and it contrasts also with at least the 17,000 members when the party's crisis broke open in 1956. But all other socialist groups and parties in America have also failed. Their membership is negligible and their influence insignificant.
Over the next few years Gates worked as a senior research assistant for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). He remained a socialist: "I did not quit the American Communist Party in order to embrace the ideas of John Foster Dulles, or to enlist in the cold war. For what we have to do, as a matter of defending the nation's security, is to end the cold war."
Gates hoped that a new left-wing party, committed to equal rights, similiar to that of the British Labour Party, would emerge in the United States. He thought it was the younger generation that would make this possible: "The society they inherit from their elders is not what they had the right to expect, and they surely will remake it. They bear no responsibility for our mistakes, but they may learn from our past, with its great and meaningful moments, and its unworthy ones. These young people will continue the best in our American heritage, in terms of the present as they understand it, and the future they want. To the youth of America, in the hope that they will succeed where we did not."