As someone who has the highly unusual task of researching old, declassified Soviet and Communist Party USA archives, I often get quizzical looks as to why certain things from the distant past still matter, beyond mere historical curiosity. In a sense, it all matters. Truth is truth. History is history.
Even then, I often get asked why something I’ve found in communist archives from, say, the 1920s, pertains to America right now in the 21st century. Well, indeed, past is often prologue, as what happened a century ago is hardly irrelevant to today’s political stage.
That certainly seems the case with what I’ve found on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), from its challenging of Christmas carols in public schools seven decades ago to its recent actions trying to compel Catholic hospitals to do abortions and denouncing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for opposing birth control and contraception in “health care” reform legislation. Few organizations have been as consistently radical in advancing abortion as the ACLU, to such a degree that Alan Sears and Craig Osten, authors of The ACLU vs. America, refer to “the ACLU’s crusade against the unborn child.”
How ironic that I would find the seeds of these things in communist archives or, even more directly, in the pro-communist or pro-Soviet writings of the ACLU’s founders.
The ACLU’s early atheism is no surprise, and of obvious relevance, given the organization’s consistent challenging of faith in the public square for decades — driven by severely misguided interpretations of church-state separation. Its founders’ early sympathies toward Bolshevism and the Soviet state are not disconnected from that atheism. Yet, most interesting, and unexpected, is how the ACLU’s founders’ views on the Leninist-Stalinist state’s advancement of abortion and birth control might be connected — symbolically, at the very least — to the organization’s advancement of abortion and birth control today.
I’ll focus briefly here on the founder of the ACLU: Roger Baldwin.
To get a sense of where Baldwin stood on all of this, probably the single best source is his 1928 book, Liberty Under the Soviets. The title was no joke. This champion of American “liberties” and founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, was, like many ACLU founders and board members, alternately fascinated and enthralled with the Leninist-Stalinist state, having traveled there with other progressives in the hope that they had found the “new world.”
It was a hope shared by ACLU board members in the 1920s that ranged from Harry Ward (a Methodist minister) and author of The Soviet Spirit (1934); Corliss Lamont, a Columbia professor, rabid atheist and author of Russia Day by Day (1933); John Dewey, a man practically worshipped by our teachers’ colleges and educators; and ACLU board members who were hard-core pro-Soviet members of the American Communist Party, from William Z. Foster to Ben Gitlow, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Louis Budenz. Among this latter crew, Gitlow and Budenz changed, with Budenz becoming an influential convert of Fulton Sheen.
This is the quite interesting, quite untold history of the founding of the ACLU, conveniently sunk into a historical-educational black hole.
As to Roger Baldwin, it isn’t easy to pin him down at the time of the Soviet legalization of abortion and birth control in the early 1920s, where the communists were way ahead of their time, even ahead of Margaret Sanger’s Planned Parenthood and other American “progressives.” That said, Baldwin’s book, Liberty Under the Soviets, comes close. Baldwin had to tread lightly on abortion in particular, as even birth-control feminists like racist-eugenicist Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, felt compelled to publicly denounce abortion. (See Sanger’s January 1932 article for The Nation, “The Pope and Birth Control.”)
Baldwin understood that only the most vulgar, obscene, vicious Americans of the time even considered supporting the legalization of abortion. This is tragic, in light of where liberals and the likes of the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have “progressed” today.
So, what did Baldwin say about these things in Liberty Under the Soviets? Early in the book, he hailed the “significant” “new freedom of women” in Soviet Russia, without being specific. He championed those “freedoms” as he moved along in the book, usually fairly generally, though sometimes in specific reference to things like labor rights. On page 118, however, he came nearer to endorsing the Soviet abortion and birth-control policy, though again somewhat guarded. Baldwin wrote:
“Birth control is legal throughout Russia, but not encouraged as an official policy. Abortions are legal also, but may be performed legally only in hospitals or by qualified physicians upon permits issued by local commissions to whom women apply. This, however, does not prevent illegal abortions by practitioners to whom women may go when refused permission by the commission. Birth control not being generally understood and abortions being controlled, women are not yet freed from unwilling childbearing, though the regime is extending its efforts to aid them.
“Such are the freedoms of women under the Soviets today, on paper and in practice. On paper they are an advance over the status of women elsewhere in the world, pushing to their logical ends what are only tendencies in other lands. In practice they are a great advance over the very limited position of women before the Revolution. They are constantly expanding and growing.”
Here, Baldwin seems to support the Soviet legalization of abortion and birth control and generally freeing women from the shackles of “unwilling childbearing.” This he viewed as an advance, if not “great advance,” on paper and in practice.
Where did Soviet Russia go from here? The rest of the story is hellacious.
Within a decade, there were millions of abortions in the country. It got so bad that Joseph Stalin, a mass-murdering tyrant, was horrified — for pragmatic (not spiritual/moral) reasons — and temporarily banned abortion, given that entire future generations were being wiped out in the womb. Re-legalization took place under Nikita Khrushchev in the mid-1950s. By the 1970s, there were a staggering seven to eight million abortions per year in the U.S.S.R., with some five million-plus in Russia alone, according to official Soviet statistics. The very worst year for abortion in America, post-Roe, pales in comparison to the average year for abortion in the Soviet Union. It was a death culture that makes modern America look like a life culture. To the extent that Roger Baldwin, ACLU founder, supported that legalization, here was the bitter fruit.
To that end, the ACLU is a group with some rotten roots, and I believe today, a century later, we are reaping the dark harvest in America. The killing fields of Russia under atheistic communism — with abortion run amok just one manifestation — now consume America under the throes of secular relativism. When the ACLU today challenges the liberty of Catholic hospitals to refuse to do abortions — obscene as that challenge is — or blasts the bishops for opposing taxpayer-funded contraception, it isn’t a surprise to those of us familiar with the sins of the father.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College.
His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand and the newly released Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.