Francis Xavier Waldron (he later changed his name to Eugene Dennis) was born in Seattle, Washington, on 10th August, 1905. He worked in various trades and was active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Dennis joined the American Communist Party in 1926 and was involved in organizing workers in California. He was arrested several times and in 1929, after jumping bail, fled to the Soviet Union. He returned in 1935 and became a loyal supporter of the new leader, Earl Browder.
The leadership of the American Communist Party remained loyal to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. It was argued that this was the best way to defeat fascism. However, this view took a terrible blow when on 28th August, 1939, Joseph Stalin signed a military alliance with Adolf Hitler. Dennis and other leaders of the party decided to support the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
In 1944 Earl Browder controversially announced 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." Ring Lardner, another party member, explained: "The change seemed only to bring the nomenclature in line with reality. Our political activities, by then, were virtually identical to those of our liberal friends." Dennis also supported the ideas of Browder.
Earl Browder was the American Communist Party candidate in the 1940 Presidential Election, but the government imposed a court order forbidding him to travel within the country. His campaign efforts were limited to the issuing of written statement and the distribution of recorded speeches. In the election he won only 46,251 votes. Later that year he was found guilty of passport irregularities and sentenced to prison for four years. When the United States joined the Second World War and became allies with the Soviet Union, attitudes towards communism changed and Browder was released from prison after only serving 14 months of his sentence. Membership of the party also grew to 75,000.
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 Earl 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."
William Z. Foster now became the new chairman and Dennis the general secretary. Two years later, after being criticised by leaders in the Soviet Union, Earl Browder was expelled from the American Communist Party. He was later to argue: "The American Communists had thrived as champions of domestic reform. But when the Communists abandoned reforms and championed a Soviet Union openly contemptuous of America while predicting its quick collapse, the same party lost all its hard-won influence. It became merely a bad word in the American language."
After the Second World War it was decided to use the Alien Registration Act against the American Communist Party. On the morning of 20th July, 1948, Eugene Dennis, and eleven other party leaders, including William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis, John Gates, 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 Dennis and his fellow comrades 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 the 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."
In his autobiography, Being Red, the author, Howard Fast commented: "That the jury made a mockery of the months of evidence and came to its verdict of guilty almost instantly tells more about the nature of this trial than a hundred pages of legal evidence. What fell to us - and by us, I mean those of us in the arts - was the question of what we could do in the new conditions of anti-Communist propaganda created by the trial. It was not only the twelve defendants in Foley Square who were under attack; in every trade union where the Communist Party had any influence, Communists and suspected Communists were being attacked and driven from their leadership positions, from the union, and from their jobs. In this, the anti-Communists (many of them in their jobs because of the work and courage of the Communist organizers) in the AFL and the CIO turned and led the hunt against the Communists."
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."
In April 1956 Eugene Dennis published a report on the American Communist Party. John Gates pointed argued that it "was a devastating critique of the party's policies over a whole decade. Like all reports, it was not only his own, but had been discussed and approved by the National Committee members in advance. Dennis characterized the party's policies as super-leftist and sectarian, narrow-minded and inflexible, dogmatic and unrealistic." William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis and Robert G. Thompson, constituted a minority of the leadership that led the attack on Dennis.
According to Joe North, Dennis was not easy with people. Howard Fast meet Dennis for the first time in 1956. "He sat behind his desk; he did not rise nor did he offer his hand. Nor did he smile. Nor did he ask me to sit down. Nor did he indicate that he was either pleased or displeased to meet me... Now this is the national leader of the Communist Party of the United States. Here I am, one of the leading and - at that time - most honored writers in the country... But Dennis never asked me to meet him, and now that I was in his office, he looked at me as a judge might look at a prisoner before passing sentence."
Dennis continued as general secretary of the American Communist Party until 1957. Eugene Dennis also served as national chairman of the party from 1959 until his death on 31st January, 1961.