Why you should care
Because optics can be scarier than reality.
Early one fine May morning, five security guards approached the house of Ralph Kronenwetter, the mayor of Mosinee, Wisconsin. “Come out with your hands on your head!” Chief Commissar Joseph Kornfeder yelled. The mayor stumbled out the front door in his pajamas and bathrobe and surrendered. The commissar and the guards weren’t the only ones on hand to witness the mayor’s craven capitulation, however. So were nearly 60 reporters, including newsreel camera operators who demanded re-enactments to get the best shot. Welcome to fake news — 1950-style.
What would communist America be like? During the Cold War, the Communist Party USA said equal rights for all, good living standards, unions, economic security and peace. But the American Legion saw totalitarianism lurking under the surface of those promises and set out to educate the public about the dangers of communism with a stunt in Mosinee.
[The pageant was] 14 hours of the most smashing, dramatic demonstration of what communism really is.
American Legion Magazine, 1950
The idea originated with John Decker, a lawyer and World War II veteran who thought that a mock communist takeover “would vivify the precious liberties that would be forfeit in the event of real communist triumph,” writes Richard Fried in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Pageantry and Patriotism in Cold-War America. The Wisconsin legionnaires liked Decker’s idea and enlisted the help of former Communists Kornfeder and Ben Gitlow. They chose May 1 for its significance as the traditional worker’s holiday and selected Mosinee, where the editor of the local newspaper was a legion member.
Newspapers publicized the event beforehand, and the Communist Party USA created its own counterstrategy. On the morning of the the faux takeover, Mosinee citizens awoke to find Communist Party members had left copies of the Daily Worker around town, along with pamphlets that asked: “So this is supposed to be communism; says who?” The propaganda spelled out what the party was really about and how the bosses and American Legion big shots were in cahoots to keep the people of Mosinee down.
The literature both frightened and motivated the legionnaires. Some said the pageant was instigating the Reds and a mistake; others said it proved how organized the communists were and that they were a threat that needed to be confronted. Either way, the show had to go on.
After the fake commissar and his henchmen arrested the mayor, the death of liberty continued with the insurrectionists locking up religious leaders in a concentration camp, rationing food (soup and dark bread), closing the library and burning its unsuitable books, and turning the Boy Scout troop into a Communist Youth group. “Its whole purpose was to demonstrate to the people of America the treachery, betrayal and ultimate slavery which is masked by the term ‘communism,’” the American Legion Magazine reported after the event. The fake communists also eliminated collective bargaining rights for the millworkers and told high school students they would only learn what the state wanted them to study — policies not so different from the status quo.
The publicity surrounding the stunt was a problem for some locals. “I think they weren’t happy [about it],” Fried tells OZY. “It got in the way.” The citizen players accommodated the newsreels with retakes as necessary, while a professional photographer captured the events of the day. In the end, the resulting media had a real impact, Fried adds. Articles about the takeover appeared in more than 1,200 newspapers nationwide and generated coverage on radio and TV and in newsreels.
“Different people responded in a range of ways, depending on their politics and the sophistication — or otherwise — of their worldview,” says Susan Carruthers, author of Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape and Brainwashing. Not surprisingly, the American Legion Magazine praised the pageant as “14 hours of the most smashing, dramatic demonstration of what communism really is.” The Daily Worker reiterated that fake communism had been put on display. One letter to the editor in The Washington Post asked a valid question: “Aren’t we all pretty well convinced of what totalitarianism means in any form?” The publisher of the Madison Capital Times warned of “the growing outlines of dictatorship that are looming over on the right … financed by the forces of monopoly and corporate wealth.”
Real tragedy followed the event when Mayor Kronenwetter suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and the Rev. Will Le Drew Bennett had a heart attack. Both men died within a week of the experiment. And soon Americans didn’t need fake insurrections to focus attention on communist threats: Less than two months after the Mosinee pageant, the Korean War broke out, and Americans had real communists to fight.