Murray Polner: Review of James Kutcher's The Case of the Legless Veteran (Pathfinder, 1973)
It was the great Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis who best described the fate of civil liberties in wartime: “During a war…all bets are off.” What he might well have added is that it is also true that in the aftermath of war ignorance, revenge, mindless hysteria, and misery follow in its wake.
In this country the viciousness and ultimate shame of the Red Scare that followed the end of WWII damaged far too many people who were neither Stalin’s apologists nor spies for the KGB. In his book, Washington Gone Mad Michael Ybarra shrewdly noted, “There actually were Communists in Washington. But it was the hunt for them that did the real damage.”
0ne of the victims was James Kutcher, an unheralded and long forgotten genuine American hero, His challenge to the U.S. Government, here portrayed in a memoir published in 1953 and updated in 1973, remains strikingly relevant given the dilemma it presents to critics and dissenters in a nation which is consumed today with radical imperial dreams and its threat of endless wars.
Kutcher was a member of the minuscule Socialist Workers Party, a fringe Trotskyist group. Drafted in 1941, he lost both legs in combat on the Italian front. Fitted with prosthetics, he learned to walk with them and two canes and returned home to live with his family in a federal low-rent housing project in Newark, N.J. The Veterans Administration also hired him for $40 a week.
The story begins in 1948 when the VA decided to fire him because he and his party were “subversive,” a term with no precise legal definition (any more than who is and is not a “loyal” citizen) but which is a favorite tool of repressive governments everywhere.
How Kutcher fought back is the heart of his book. 0riginally published by a small British house since no American publisher would touch it, terrified lest its appearance on its lists might bring Washington’s inquisitors down on its neck. “Sooner or later McCarthy or those other congressional committees are going to start in on the publishing business,” an editor told him. “You can call it cowardly, if you want to, but I call it caution and common sense." Pioneer Publishers,another small publisher, finally issued it here. Twenty years later, still a loyal SWP member, he added two additional chapters.
The book opens with a modest disclaimer. “In most respects,” Kutcher begins, “I am an ordinary man. I have no special talents. I never showed any capacity for leadership.”
Even so, he was no Milquetoast. Because of this outrage he became tough and single-minded.
He went public and received the backing of non-communist labor unions and civil libertarians of all stripes—few of whom sympathized with the SWP. Moderates such as Harold Russell, his onetime hospital buddy (who acted in the classic postwar film,"The Best Years of 0ur Lives") who had lost both his hands in the war, came to his support as did newspapers like the pre-Rupert Murdoch liberal New York Post and columnist Murray Kempton. In the end, Kutcher won his battle and was rehired by the VA in 1956.
Legless Veteran was aimed at two targets: The U.S. Government and opportunistic and scurrilous profiteers of an anti-Red crusade gone mad and the Communist Party, perhaps because of the bitterness existing between Stalin and Trotsky, but mainly I believe because of the Party’s corruption and duplicity.
Nowhere was this more evident than in 1941, while Kutcher was in the Army, when eighteen SWP members and others were convicted under the infamous Smith Act. The Communists cheered, disappointed only that the sentences meted out had not been harsher. Seven years later, when their leadership cadres were indicted under he same law, they unashamedly decried it as a challenge to civil freedom and called for all friends of freedom to fight the charges. In 1949, their leaders already in the dock, the West Coast party newspaper Daily People’s World had the gall to turn on Kutcher. “What is being touted as the ‘case of the legless vet’ and a ‘test case’ for civil liberties hasn’t the remotest connection with the defense of civil rights.” In other words, convicting Party leaders was a violation of the Constitution but Kutcher’s cause was not. Their reasoning was eerily similar to that of the Loyalty Board, which approved his dismissal from the VA.
During his ordeal there were other now hard-to-believe obstacles he had to confront. In 1952 he and his family received a letter from the local public housing authority ordering them to sign a loyalty oath and swear that no Kutcher family member belonged to any of the 203 groups cited on the U.S. Attorney General’s list of subversive groups. Failure to do so, they wrote, would mean eviction. The order was in compliance with a new federal law demanding that every tenant in federal low-rent apartments sign loyalty oaths.
Kutcher’s father was furious, more so at his son for not quitting the SWP. He pleaded with the public housing bureaucrats: “I have begged [my son] again and again to leave this organization but he refuses, saying it is not subversive and he is not subversive…What should I do I want to sign the certificate [but] I do not ant to break up my family because my son needs help to take care of him. Please help, please tell me what to do, so that I can keep my home.”
Naturally, no one answered. The law was sacrosanct,or so the faceless crew in the housing office must have reasoned. So Kutcher turned to the American Civil Liberties Union. Which then successfully persuaded a court to issue a restraining order preserving the apartments of the Kutchers and eleven other families who refused to swear that they were loyal.
James Kutcher left the SWP in 1983 and died in 1989. During the years since his reinstatement, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI carried on extensive spying on the SWP until the group sued and won its case. In essence, the court ruled they had a right to be as political as they wished.
In 2005 and beyond it remains to be seen how much we have learned from our descent into repression of domestic political opponents. We need to wonder if freedom of expression will survive the war on terrorism. James Kutcher’s legacy, then, is that we need not genuflect before any current or future Torquemadas.
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