From The Archive
Robert Nedelkoff
No. 13  December 1999

Remainder Table: Jack B. Tenney and Lawrence Dennis

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Jack B. Tenney (1891–1970)

Jack Tenney, the man who led the California legislature’s famous red-hunting committee, began his career, ironically, as a lawyer whose politics veered from progressive to socialist. Since his views precluded his doing much work with the more profitable type of client, he found himself with a great deal of time on his hands. Like another young attorney of the day named Hoagy Carmichael, Tenney kept himself busy by writing songs. In 1923, capitalizing on a demand for California-related tunes, he composed a ditty called “Mexicali Rose,” which was performed by some dance bands of the day and then forgotten.

During the depths of the Depression, Tenney was a supporter of Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty In California) movement, and was even named as a “subversive” in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in its earliest days in 1938. Soon after that, however, Tenney’s polities seemed to change overnight. The shift began with his unsuccessful bid for re-election as president of Local 47, the Los Angeles local of the American Federation of Musicians. Tenney blamed radicals in the L.A. union movement for his defeat, then proceeded to run for the California Assembly as a newly minted anticommunist and was elected. Around the same time, Tenney’s songwriting efforts began to pay off when Gene Autry had a gigantic hit with his version of “Mexicali Rose.”

At the start of the assembly’s session in 1941, Tenney was selected as chairman of the state’s very own committee for investigating political radicals. By the spring of that year, Tenney’s committee was calling one “subversive” after another to testify, with particular attention given to Harry Bridges, a chief demon of the redbaiters’ universe, and to members of his longshoremen’s union in San Francisco.

By the summer of 1941, Tenney began investigating what he termed “red infiltration” of the motion-picture business, issuing subpoenas to several screenwriters, directors, and actors. However, the erstwhile composer did not receive the sort of cooperation from the studios that the famous HUAC hearings would get six years later. Only Walt Disney, convinced that the leaders of the animators’ strike at his studio in ’41 (including the father of Yo La Tengo’s drummer) were fellow travelers at the very least, extended any degree of support to Tenney.

With Pearl Harbor, Tenney abandoned his efforts to Americanize the movies and turned to the “threat” posed by California’s Japanese-American population. Throughout the shameful episode that ensued, state and federal officials, sadly including California Attorney General Earl Warren, relied heavily upon the questionable testimony generated by Tenney’s committee as they sent Japanese-Americans off to Manzanar and similar internment camps. In 1944, after becoming a state senator, he investigated the “zoot-suit riots” in Los Angeles—naturally placing the blame on Mexican-American youth.

He counted several bigots of regional note among his clients.

After the war, as the nation came around to his special kind of inquisition, Tenney resumed his hearings into what he deemed “Red Fascist” labor and motion-picture infiltration, developing a particular animus for dancer Gene Kelly. In 1952 he felt he was ready to be promoted to the bigotry big leagues: the U.S. Congress. His opponent in the Republican primary for the 26th District of California was Jon Holt; Holt’s campaign manager was Murray Chotiner, the political guru behind Richard Nixon’s various campaigns. In a new book on Nixon, historian Irwin F. Gellman reveals that Chotiner wrote to Nixon asking for the HUAC file that contained information on Tenney’s early days as a radical—evidently preparing to red-bait the great red-baiter himself. With considerable misgivings, Nixon sent the file, along with a letter reminding Chotiner that Tenney had reformed himself in the fashion of Whittaker Chambers and that the information in the file was not to be introduced into the campaign. Chotiner did not use the information; Tenney lost in the primary anyway.

Tenney soon began to move in increasingly racist and extremist circles. He appeared on ballots in a number of states that November as the vice-presidential candidate of the Christian Nationalist party. The party’s candidate for president, who never accepted its nomination but took no particular steps to keep his name off the party’s ballot in the several states in which it appeared, was General Douglas MacArthur. The party’s organizer was Gerald L.K. Smith, who was for a decade the country’s leading anti-Semite.

Following the elections Tenney began to use his sizable royalties from the many versions of “Mexicali Rose” (still considered a country music standard to this day) to write and publish a stream of books and pamphlets denouncing the “Zionist influence” in American life. With the demise of McCarthyism he left politics to establish a law practice, counting several bigots of regional note among his clients. By the mid-Sixties, his name was appearing on the masthead of Western Destiny, one of the era’s more rabid journals espousing “Nordic culture.” (Among the other notables whose names figured in the masthead were Arthur Ehrhardt, editor of National Europa, which featured a number of old Third Reich propagandists among its contributors; Fabrice Laroche, the intellectual mentor of some of the leaders of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s movement; and, in one of his early appearances in the annals of extremism, Richard K. Hoskins, whose White Cycles, Black Cycles was found in the van of Jewish Community Center attacker Buford O’Neal Furrow.)

Lawrence Dennis (1893–1977)

When Ralph Ellison’s posthumous, unfinished novel Juneteenth appeared last summer, many reviewers found something quite implausible about the character Bliss, the light-skinned African-American orphan who is informally adopted and raised by a black minister, tours the South as a boy preacher, runs away, and re-emerges as the race-baiting, reactionary U.S. senator from a New England state, Adam Sunraider. Whether or not the forthcoming three-volume edition of Ellison’s drafts and manuscripts will establish that he had a real-life model in mind, the fact remains that the writer did not have to search very far in American history to find a man whose career, at least in its early stages, followed this exact trajectory: Lawrence Dennis, the intellectual godfather of American fascism.

In 1897, a couple in Atlanta, classified “mulatto” by the standards of the day, adopted a three-year-old boy and gave him the name Lonnie Lawrence Dennis. Dennis’s biological mother was black, so far as the laws of the Peach State were concerned. All that is known of his father is that he was probably white. Lonnie showed an early aptitude for reading and public speaking, and by his fifth birthday he was preaching the Gospel before black congregations in Atlanta. Before long Lonnie, billed as “The Mulatto Boy Evangelist,” was touring tent shows from Virginia to Louisiana, appearing at churches across the country and even in England, and speaking before large crowds both white and black. By the age of ten he had written and published his autobiography.

By 1913, Lonnie had long outgrown the role of boy preacher and, no doubt, understood that opportunities of any kind for a “mulatto” in the South were severely circumscribed. Accordingly, he applied for admission to Phillips Exeter Academy—then as now the most prestigious prep school in America—and was accepted. Though it is unclear whether the school knew of his activities as an evangelist, he apparently was thought to be white when he arrived in New England. Though considered rather reserved and not especially sociable by his classmates, the student now calling himself Lawrence Dennis compiled an outstanding academic record and continued after two years to Harvard, where he became a member of the debate team. After a stint as an officer in France during the First World War, Dennis returned to Harvard, graduated in 1920, and joined the State Department.

Dennis’s first posting was to Romania; but after a few months he was sent to Haiti, then occupied by the U.S. Marines but still nominally an independent nation. The abruptness of the change of assignment, and the fact that Dennis was sent to a “black” nation where nonwhite American diplomatic personnel were then customarily posted, suggests that the State Department initially assumed he was white but subsequently learned of his background. From Haiti he was sent to Honduras (also a nation with a substantial black population) and then became chargé d’affaires in Nicaragua (which also has a number of immigrants from the West Indies). In 1926, he found himself in the crossfire, literally and figuratively, between insurgents supporting Augusto Sandino (from whose name “Sandinista” derives) and a coalition of U.S. business interests and their local compradors. Following the arrival of the Marines and the loss of a hundred American and three thousand Nicaraguan lives, Dennis negotiated a settlement between the factions that satisfied American corporate interests in the region and kept Sandino on the defensive until he was killed in 1935. Disgusted by his part in enforcing the Monroe Doctrine, Dennis publicly denounced the settlement in June 1927 and resigned from the State Department. For several years he worked in Peru as a banker for the New York-based house of J. and W. Seligman, in which capacity he offered his views on the advisability of loans to Latin American governments (he usually opposed them). In April 1930, six months after the stock market crash, he resigned his banker’s job, settled in New York, and began work as a social critic.

In November and December 1930, Dennis’s series in The New Republic, “Sold On Foreign Bonds,” a scathing critique of investment banking, caused a sensation with its combination of cool analysis and acid wit, elements which continued to distinguish Dennis’s writing through nearly all the twists and turns of his career. In early 1931, he published a well-argued critique of American intervention in Central America in Foreign Affairs. By that time he had been offered a book contract, and Dennis set to work on his first book, Is Capitalism Doomed?

This volume, the only book of Dennis’s never subsequently republished by his extremist admirers, appeared in 1932 and was well received, especially on the left; Norman Thomas gave it a thoughtful review in The Nation, and the next year John Strachey, in the bestselling Marxist tract The Coming Struggle For Power, commented that “Mr. Dennis has written a far more penetrating analysis of the crises [of the Depression] than has been achieved by any professional capitalist economist.”

Dennis’s argument, simply put, was that for thirty years or more Americans had been unable to accept the closing of the frontier, and that our use of Latin American and Asian nations as economic fiefdoms was an attempt to feed an expansionist economy that, as recent events showed, was doomed to contract. It was Dennis’s view that Americans should, first of all, lower their economic expectations. To put the Depression behind it, Dennis argued, the United States had to abandon economic intervention in other lands, close its borders to imports and forget about exports, impose heavy taxation on large fortunes, and use the revenues to administer relief to the middle classes. The government should discourage expansion and mechanization of American agriculture, end the tendency toward conglomeration in business, and reinstate the Jeffersonian vision of the United States as a predominantly agricultural, self-sufficient nation.

Although his ideas were seen as impractical, Dennis was prominent enough in those years to be invited to testify before Ferdinand Pecora’s famous Senate committee inquiring into the causes of the Depression. The improvisational nature of the first Roosevelt administration, though, convinced him that democratic institutions, while capable of averting disaster in the short term, were too weak to bring about recovery in the long term. Before long Dennis was flirting with the most alarming sort of authoritarianism. A letter of April 15, 1933 gives an idea of his state of mind at the time and, in a way, foretells his future:

In times of prosperity when there is a great demand for all kinds of services, people like me find places without seeking. But, when the competition becomes keen, things become impossible for us. Mind you, I am not whining. I am a fatalist. I am prepared to take my medicine in the bread line, the foreign legion or with a pistol shot in the mouth, and I ask no sympathy and would resent an indication of pity just as I would have neither sympathy nor mercy on thousands of people now in the seats of the mighty if I came to power. I should like nothing better than to be a leader or follower of a Hitler who would crush and destroy many now in power. It is my turn of fate now to suffer. It may someday be theirs. I am too intelligent or intellectual to believe it is anyone’s fault. This mechanistic philosophy saves me from a sense of inferiority, guilt, or personal failure.

In the years to come, Dennis wrote of his neo-Jeffersonian ideals in more theoretical terms and came around more and more to the idea of a strong leader who would utilize the capitalist class instead of eliminating it—what he characterized as the “authoritarian executive state,” or, in a word, fascism.

By late 1933, he was associate editor of The Awakener, a publication edited by the notorious anti-Semite Joseph P. Kamp and which had ties with the Nazis and Mussolini’s government. Dennis began work on another book, The Coming American Fascism, and sometimes spoke of becoming a right-hand man to an American Duce or Führer; he would sometimes compare this advisory role to a Göbbels, sometimes to a Harry Hopkins. His handful of collegiate and intellectual followers, including budding architect Philip Johnson, were puzzled as to why Dennis, a commanding speaker and debater who held his own in panel discussions, was reluctant to become a leader himself; they knew nothing of his days as Lonnie Dennis.

In late 1934, with Dennis’s encouragement, Philip Johnson and another follower, Alan Blackburn of the Museum of Modern Art, traveled to Louisiana to sound out Huey Long about joining forces; Long, uninterested, declined to work with Dennis. In 1935, Dennis left The Awakener and joined E.A. Pierce and Co., a New York brokerage firm, as an economist. The next year, The Coming American Fascism was issued, and Dennis began contributing a series of articles to The American Mercury at the invitation of editor Paul Palmer, with titles such as “The Highly Moral Causes Of War” and “Liberalism Commits Suicide.” He became a fixture at Park Avenue dinner parties; Matthew Josephson, in his autobiography, mentions an exchange at one of them. Dennis, asked to expostulate on his social theories, was outlining to a spellbound table his vision of revolution, complete with fascisti mercilessly lining up leftists against the wall. A freshly minted graduate from one of the Eastern colleges interrupted him: “Mr. Dennis, I have to tell you that I attend Communist Party meetings, so I suppose you’ll have to shoot me when you come to power.” Dennis’s expression shifted instantly from the stern gaze of the zealot to amusement: “Shoot you, ma’am? Why, I’ll do no such thing—I’ll give you a job!”

With such repartee and argument—combined with some skill at predicting the fluctuations of a market slowly climbing out of the Depression—Dennis, now commonly referred to as “the intellectual leader of American fascism,” began to assemble an audience for his writings, some of whom were well-heeled enough to shell out $24 a year for a weekly newsletter featuring his comments on world events and investment advice. Accordingly, he left E.A. Pierce in 1938 and began to publish the Weekly Foreign Letter. If he avoided anti-Semitism in the Letter, he made it clear that he considered Hitler’s regime to be a permanent part of the world scene, and warned against U.S. involvement in European affairs. Joining England and the Soviet Union in war against the Nazis, he reasoned, would simply deliver Germany and perhaps all of Europe to the Communists, while the strain of war would leave America open to fascist invasion and waste lives and materiel. It would be much better, he argued, if America simply moved in a fascist direction on its own and avoided the European war altogether.

The principals of the Third Reich were highly appreciative of Dennis’s thinking and warmly welcomed him when he visited Berlin with an E.A. Pierce partner in July 1936. Details of this visit are given in The Official German Report, a book prepared in 1946 by O. John Rogge, an assistant attorney general investigating American contact with the Nazis. Rogge recounts a conversation between Dennis and the “philosopher” of the Nazi movement, Alfred Rosenberg. The American asked the Nazi leader: “Why don’t you treat the Jews more or less as we treat the Negroes in America?” That is to say, perhaps: Instead of modifying the law to strip them of all their rights as citizens, why not modify it to guarantee them all the rights of citizens, and then enact upon that a mountain of regulations and rules, and selective enforcement of laws, making the rights conferred worse than meaningless? Dennis’s next suggestion, indeed, supports this interpretation: “You can practice discrimination and all that, but be a little hypocritical and moderate and don’t get in conflict with American opinion.” Rogge doesn’t give Rosenberg’s reply, but years later Dennis reported that it was that such a course of action would be nicht anständig, a rough translation of which would be somewhere between “disgraceful” and “dishonorable.”

As war clouds gathered, Dennis’s articles and public appearances became more frequent: In January 1941, he participated in a debate sponsored by The Nation on the question of U.S. intervention in the war. He began to spend time with some of the leaders of the America First movement, including Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In 1940 Harper printed Dennis’s third book, The Dynamics of War and Revolution, but after protests from a number of the firm’s authors who supported the Allied cause, publication was canceled and the sheets were turned over to Dennis, who bound and distributed them himself. “I do not believe in democracy or the intelligence of the masses,” Dennis wrote.

Contrary to the apparent belief of the Republican Party sponsors of reactionary stooges, no political movement anywhere today can long succeed as the ostensible cause of the rich versus the poor. Hitler was able to exploit with guile the gullibllity of the “best” people, and with the utmost sincerity the patriotism of the nationalists who wanted to see Versailles avenged. The anticommunist line got the capitalists, the anti-Versailles line got the army and the nationalists, and the anti-Semitic line got the masses as well as the classes, while, at the same time, sugarcoating the initial pill of anticapitalism.

Though Dennis’s third book had its share of reviewers (such as Karl Korsch in Partisan Review) who noted his skill at argument but disputed his conclusions, he was clearly on a collision course with the Roosevelt administration. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes denounced him as an “appeaser” in a speech. At the same time, subscriptions to the Weekly Foreign Letter began dropping, the FBI began surveillance of Dennis, and his sources of income became increasingly shadowy. Though Dennis kept some distance from the activities of the German-American Bund, he was in touch with German diplomats through George Sylvester Viereck, and Rogge notes that during 1940 and 1941 Dennis received up to $12,000, some of which seems to have come from various German newspapers. During this time, he also began receiving money for piecemeal editorial work from Reader’s Digest, where his old friend Paul Palmer was an editor.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Dennis promptly offered his services to the Armed Forces. The army refused him a commission, though, and from this point Dennis was practically treated as an enemy agent. The postmaster general barred distribution of the Weekly Foreign Letter in the mails, and Dennis ceased publication of the newsletter in June 1942. By this time he was receiving $400 a month from Reader’s Digest via a public relations firm, in exchange for which he read and condensed various articles. In the fall of 1942 he was visited by the investigative reporter John Roy Carlson disguised as a sympathetic fascist, and Dennis proceeded to offer his usual barbed opinions about American democracy: pondering whether Lindbergh or perhaps the ultra-reactionary General George Van Horn Moseley might be able to run America “with a circle of nationalistic advisors”; predicting that America would go fascist in the process of fighting fascism; and forecasting that a wave of anti-Semitism would usher in such a process. When Carlson quoted Dennis at length in Under Cover, the dramatic exposé of the American far right that was among the top nonfiction bestsellers of 1943, Dennis came under a barrage of attacks in newspapers and radio.

In his book, Carlson commented: “Born in Atlanta,” of a long line of American ancestors: Dennis’s hair is woolly, dark and kinky. The texture of his skin is unusually dark and the eyes of Hitler’s intellectual keynoter of ‘Aryanism’ [a word in none of Dennis’s books, it should be noted] are a rich, deep brown, his lips fleshy.” Lest the reader miss Carlson’s point, Walter Winchell informed his millions of listeners that Dennis, the putative champion of white power, was in fact of “mixed” parentage. Dennis did not reply to this “revelation,” and on those occasions in future decades when he spoke of race relations he made no reference to his being of a particular race.

After being passed over in the July 1942 and January 1943 mass indictments for sedition, Dennis was finally charged in the third and final indictment. His case went to trial in April 1944, and Dennis defended himself on civil liberties grounds. After five months of proceedings, the presiding judge died of a heart attack and a mistrial was declared.

Dennis lived quietly in New York until the end of the war. In March 1946, he resumed publication of his weekly newsletter, whose four hundred or five hundred subscribers, paying $24 a year apiece, provided his income for the next two decades. The subscribers, according to Dennis’s mailing list, included the likes of Herbert Hoover, Burton Wheeler, Amos Pinchot, and Bruce Barton, adman and author of The Man Nobody Knows. In one of his impish moods, Dennis gave the revived newsletter the title of the old Socialist paper, Appeal To Reason.

Week by week, in the Appeal’s five mimeographed pages, Dennis presented arguments very much in keeping with his earliest writings: that most foreign aid did nothing to benefit the recipient and unfairly enriched the nation offering “assistance” that Communism was not the path for America to take, but that it was not America’s business to contain it abroad or to endlessly search for its influence at home; that the United States should get out of Latin America and leave its neighbors in peace. As Ronald Radosh observed (back in the days when he was the bright hope of the William Appleman Williams school of revisionist historians), Dennis frequently anticipated the concerns of the American left of the sixties. He was highly critical of the McCarthy investigations, frequently comparing the techniques employed in them to those of the sedition trial in which he had been a defendant. When McCarthy died, he offered an obituary with his old sardonic touch, calling “Tailgunner Joe” a “typical, sincere, roof-raising American—a most authentic type, who never quite grasped that sin is here to stay and has to be lived with.”

His days as a menace to American democracy long past, Dennis contributed an interview to Columbia’s oral-history program in the early Sixties. In late 1969, he published his last book Operational Thinking For Survival, with the small Denver house of Ralph Myles, which specialized in isolationist volumes. Frederick Schuman, Dennis’s leftist debating partner from three decades earlier and a target of McCarthy’s hearings, reviewed the new volume in The Nation, asserting that Dennis, for all his sinister reputation, still had something to say to America.

But by now Dennis was running out of energy. His newsletter ceased to appear in 1972. Not long afterward he moved up to Spring Valley, New York to be near one of his two daughters, who had married the man who ran Pink Floyd’s light show in the late sixties. Dennis died in August 1977—a man whose solutions to American problems, as expressed in his writings, are unacceptable to anyone who believes in democracy, but whose analysis of those problems reverberates in a fashion, that, while uncomfortable, is serious enough to deserve attention.

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