Editor’s note: This summer and fall, Capitol Report is dipping into the Minnesota Historical Society’s political archives and scooping out documents and artifacts exploring the state’s rich record of voting reforms, colorful politicians, contested elections, curious facial hair and more.
A smear campaign featuring doctored photographs, communist name-calling and naked anti-Semitism helped clinch Minnesota’s 1938 gubernatorial election for Harold Stassen.
The scurrilous attacks on Stassen’s opponent, Gov. Elmer Benson, were spearheaded by a former congressman and newspaper editor named Raymond P. Chase. In the heat of the election, Chase mass-distributed a 60-page pamphlet titled “Are They Communists or Catspaws?” The booklet contained altered photographs that stressed the Jewishness of four of Benson’s aides, repeated fascist calumnies and took issue with the “insulting,” anti-Christian “alleged poetry” of Langston Hughes, who the text claimed was invited to the University of Minnesota by Benson appointees. “Just as one rotten apple can pollute a binful, one mosquito spread yellow fever, one fly start a typhoid epidemic — so one aggressive Communist can make an awful mess of a Democracy,” reads one typically purple passage.
Chase had plenty of likeminded friends. While researching “Communists or Catspaws?” he struck up a correspondence with William Dudley Pelley, an admirer of Adolf Hitler whose white-supremacist movement of “Silver Shirts” had gained a foothold in the Twin Cities, according to an article by the late U of M history professor Hyman Berman printed in the academic journal Jewish Social Studies. He also corresponded with U of M Dean of Student Affairs Edward E. Nicholson, who kept Chase apprised of “Jew Reds” on campus and reported that a Benson speech writer, Sherman Dryer, was a “Jew, Communist, agitator and publicist” who looked like “a typical Jew.”
Chase’s ugly project was funded by the chairman of General Mills, the president of Hormel and a number of other prominent Minnesota businessmen, according to Berman’s article. While Stassen never explicitly endorsed Chase’s tactics, “Communists or Catspaws?” was available at Republican headquarters, and the Stassen campaign printed a red-baiting pamphlet of its own, called “Here is the Proof.”
Benson tried to counter the propaganda with “Forgery! Frame-Up,” a four-page leaflet detailing how Chase counterfeited photographs to make it appear the governor’s closest confidantes were Jewish communists. “The Republican fascists have fabricated, composed, superimposed, pieced together and faked pictures by trick photography,” his rebuttal reads. “Hands have withered into nothingness, into emptiness [and] bodies have been lifted into the unknown.”
But Benson, an anti-capitalist Farmer-Laborite whose political coalition welcomed socialists, was unable to dispel critics’ allegations of communist sympathies. Benson was hampered by a short temper and, after a speech in Red Lake Falls, he lashed out against a Lutheran pastor who asked if he held communist beliefs. “If you really believed in Christian principles,” Benson vented, “you wouldn’t come to a meeting like this and attempt to disrupt it. You preachers aren’t going to get away with this sort of thing in this campaign.”
When you’re accused of being a communist, berating the clergy is rarely an effective defense, and Benson’s gaffe was widely pilloried. The Pioneer Press wrote that the outburst went against “all the rules by which political candidates and parties have guided themselves in the past.” Stassen called the incident “the turning point of the campaign,” and he defeated Benson at the polls by a 25-point margin.
Stassen’s victory was, Berman wrote, “the most successful use of political anti-Semitism in the United States.”