The National Defense Committee (...for the Defense and Relief of Class War Prisoners -- known as "The D" in underground party lingo) was the first "mass organization" of the American Communist movement dedicated to legal defense. In the summer of 1919, a wave of raids leading to document seizures and arrests was launched, with an emphasis on organizations in New York City. Mailing lists and correspondence files were a particular target of government raiding parties -- groups including New York policemen, "patriotic" volunteers, and employees of the New York "Joint Legislative Committee Investigating Seditious Activities" (the so-called Lusk Committee) and "Radical Division" of the Bureau of Investigation of the US Justice Department. By the fall of 1919, the radical political activities of some 60,000 individuals were listed and categorized, according to the congressional testimony of Attorney Gerneral A. Mitchell Palmer.

On January 2, 1920, a massive operation of coordinated raids was implemented -- the so-called "Palmer Raids" -- resulting in several thousand arrests of political radicals and union activists. Non-citizens were particularly targeted due to the lack of applicable laws with which to charge the native born. The mass arrests created a gargantuan legal problem for the American radical movement, as thousands needed to meet bail, to obtain legal assistance and financial aid for dependant families. While the individual organizations (CPA, CLP, IWW, etc.) came to the immediate aid of their members as best they were able, a certain amount of duplication of legal effort entailed in the vast number of cases quickly became apparent.

The National Defense Committee was established in June 1920 as a non-party organization dedicated to raising funds, coordinating legal efforts, and distributing relief among among the thousands of American prisoners and their affected families. The organization was first formed as a means of raising defense funds for the Summer 1920 mass trial in Illinois of members of the Communist Labor Party for having participated in the September 1919 founding convention in Chicago. A second trial against indicted members of the Communist Party of America was planned but never completed.

The NDC was headed by Edgar Owens, a founding member of the Communist Labor Party from Illinois, and maintained a central office located at 7 Bank Street, New York City. Also listed on the group's 1921 letterhead as officials of the organization were Max Bedacht, I.E. Ferguson, L.E. Katterfeld, and C.E. Ruthenberg -- Ferguson and Ruthenberg being in prison at the time. In addition, there was a "Finnish Auxiliary Defence Committee" as part of the NDC organization, headed by Henry Askeli and Elis Sulkanen.


1. Convention --- Chicago, IL --- Jan. 9-10, 1921.

The National Defense Committee held a secret convention in Chicago, attended by 63 delegates from around the United States, including 2 from Canada. Meeting in a small hall attached discretely to the back of a saloon, the gathering sat in a 13 hour marathon session, starting at 2 pm on Jan. 9 and concluding at 3 am Jan. 10. Among the ranks of delegates was a secret informant for the Bureau of Investigation, the Mason City, Iowa delegate using the party-name "Mike Benton." The informer "Benton" provided a comprehensive report of the gathering to his handlers.


The organization involved itself in the legal cases of radical political defendants without regard to their organizational affiliation, including former mermbers of the Communist Party of America (Harry Winitsky), those who left the CPA to form the United Communist Party (C.E Ruthenberg, Isaac E. Ferguson), those from the Communist Labor Party/United Communist Party (Ben Gitlow, Jack Carney), and those from the Industrial Workers of the World (Gus Alonen, Carl Paivio).

The NDC raised and spent about $21,000 during its first year of operation, exclusive of money raised for bail.

In April of 1922, the Administrative Council of the Workers Party of America appointed a subcommittee to solidify the connection between the new "legal political party" and the legal defense apparatus. A set of theses was adopted establishing a local structure for the organization, assuring that there would be no co-mingling of funds, creating a card-and-stamp system for 5 cent assessments of party members for defense needs, and formally establishing the post of "Secretary of the National Defense Committee," to be apointed by the CEC of the WPA. Edgar Owens was retained in this position due to his experience with the task and "widespread satisfaction" with his work.

[fn. Comintern Archive, RGASPI f. 515, op. 1, d. 146, ll. 63-64.]

The National Defense Council was ultimately supplanted by another mass organization known as the Labor Defense Council, which emerged following the high-profile Bridgman, Michigan raid of August 1922. Initially the organizations were to run in parallel, with the LDC to be dedicated to raising funds among the labor unions for the Bridgman defense, while the NDC was to raise funds from other sources and to confine its fundraising to "all other channels except the unions." In its fundraising appeals, the LDC was to touch "generally only" on the Bridgman case.

Over time this duality could no longer be justified, and the NDC was liquidated in favor of the more effective LDC.

[fn. Letter from Abram Jakira to Boston DO "J. Klein," Oct. 13, 1922. RGASPI f. 515, op. 1, d. 103, l. 32.]



JUNE 1920

"The Great Conspiracy." (leaflet of the National Defense Committee) [c. June 28, 1920]  Text of a rare four page leaflet of the National Defense Committee, a defense organization closely linked to the United Communist Party initially established circa June 1920 for the joint legal defense of 127 defendants indicted in Illinois for violation of state "criminal syndicalism" laws for having participated in the founding conventions of the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party of America. Jury selection in the first mass trial, that of the CLP, had begun on May 10, 1920, the leaflet indicates. Some seven weeks later, after 1200 prospective jurors were examined and tens of thousands of dollars spent on the case, the jury was still not empaneled. This flyer was sent out along with a fundraising form for the collection of funds to aid in the defense effort. Particularly useful is the lengthy list of those indicted in the case -- while not a complete roster of attendees of the two founding conventions, at least a substantial section. Also worthy of note is that a mass trial of the CPA was planned to follow the mass trial of the CLP, to have included about twice as many defendants -- a trial which never took place despite the conviction of all CLP members in the first mass trial.


"BoI Informant's Undercover Report of the UCP Legal Defense Convention, Chicago," by "Mike Benton" [event of Jan. 9-10, 1921] The Department of Justice's Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) managed to infiltrate the underground Communist movement with a small handful of secret informants, including "Mike Benton" from Mason City, Iowa -- previously employed as a labor spy for one of the city's brickmaking firms. On Jan. 9, 1921, "Benton" traveled to Chicago with leading Mason City radical Harry Keas, where he attended a convention of the United Communist Party's legal defense organization, the National Defense Committee. Sixty-three delegates from all over the United States and Canada were in attendance, according to "Benton," attending a marathon 13-hour session held in an inconspicuous hall attached to a saloon located at 228 W Oak Street. "Benton" notes that the various UCP leaders are "hard-boiled fellow that have been revolutionaries for the last 15 or 20 years, most of them have been indicted and some of them have got good beatings, been in jail serving sentence, and some will be tried in the future. They are all getting more radical every day. They are not working as openly as they used to do and all this radical propaganda is going to be handled through underground work." "Benton" frantically warns his government handlers that "If the radicals are let alone with their propaganda for a couple of years we will have a mighty hard task to deal with them because they take men like William Z. Foster, National Secretary of the Steel Workers Union. He is just about to unite with the UCP. If he does he will pull over about 150,000 union members and with them and then the United Miners of America next."

MAY 1921

"National Defense Committee News," by Edgar Owens [May 1921 Report] Monthly report of the American Communist movement's legal defense arm, the National Defense Committee, by its Secretary, Illinois UCP veteran Edgar Owens. Owens notes the progress of the Lindgren-Jakira-Amter case (arrested April 29, 1921 when the apartment housing UCP headquarters in New York was raided) in which the defendants are said to have been "kidnapped by police" and held without warrant for a grand jury to return an indictment following their release from the April raid on lack of evidence. Owens also details a coordinated raid in Philadelphia on April 25, 1921, in which 48 had been arrested and 38 of these later indicted for violation of the Pennsylvania "Anti-Sedition" Law. (The round up of leaflet distributors was probably tipped by the Camden, NJ SDO and police spy Francis A. Morrow). Owens notes in the Philadelphia case that "In ransacking the place the police found some homemade wine and proceeded to get gloriously drunk and indulged in a fight among themselves to demonstrate their respect for law and order." Owens also mentions 3 additional cases in New York, 20 in the Midwestern Division of the NDC, 2 deportation cases in Chicago, 4 in Milwaukee, 10 in Kansas City, and 1 case in San Francisco. Owens also notes the May 8, 1921, arrest of (San Francisco District Organizer) William Costley and UCP touring speaker Floyd Ramp for speaking at a hall meeting. After being held in jail overnight, the pair were released for lack of evidence, Owens notes. Owens also note a number of continuing cases: the appeal of those arrested in the mass Illinois CLP trial, the Reed-Ragsdale case in San Francisco, the Carney-Bentall case in Minneapolis, and ongoing deportation proceedings against Alex Georgian, also of Minneapolis. An appeal for funds to assist the NDC in the defense of all these cases is made, not surprisingly.


JUNE 1921

"Ellis Island -- A Dantean Hell," by Edgar Owens [June 11, 1921] Secretary of the unified CPA's National Defense Committee Edgar Owens reminds readers of the party's legal organ, The Toiler, of the plight of 38 of their comrades, along with a dozen of their wives and 24 of their children, held at Ellis Island, New York, for an indeterminate time pending completion of deportation proceedings. Owens notes: "Ellis Island is a cheerless place at best. But the detention rooms are desolate indeed, especially for those classified as politically undesirable. For them Ellis Island is a prison, stone walls, steel bars, locked doors... They are charged heavily for food of inferior quality; the women complain that the milk contains chalk and is unfit for the children, and when they ask for boiled water for their babies, they are informed that sink water is good enough for them. Are they not Communists? What right have they to expect human consideration? Down with them!" Only the NDC is working on behalf of these unfortunates, Owens declares: "Plans have been made to remove our comrades from the Island. The men can be released providing bail is secured. But bail is expensive, and premiums must be paid. Arrangements are in preparation to establish a place near New York in which to put the women and children where there will be plenty of fresh air and room for the children to play without danger to life or limb." Contributions to further this end are solicited.



"The National Defense Committee." [Dec. 1921]. This report from a pamphlet published by the group was probably written by the NDC's Secretary-Treasurer, Communist Labor Party founding member Edgar Owens. This is a brief history of the establishment and first year's activities of the National Defense Committee, the first of the communist-sponsored mass organizations dedicated to legal defense of political prisoners in the United States. Owens notes that in the aftermath of the January 1920 "Palmer raids," with their thousands of arrests, local Defense Committees were organized to meet the local needs, although much of this work was duplicated from place to place. "Coordination of defense work was imperative. The answer was the National Defense Committee." Includes a summary of the organization's major activity as well as financial receipts and expenditures.


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"The Story of the National Defense Committee in New York." [1922] One of the American Communist movement's first and most effective mass organizations was the National Defense Committee, an organization that jointly provided legal assistance and financial relief to victims of anti-radical repression conducted by state and federal police authorities in the 1919-1922 period. This is the full text of a pamphlet issued in 1922 in conjunction with a series of fundraising events of the LDC in New York City. It provides interesting detail about a series of legal cases in New York, including those of Ignatz Mizher (CPA); Carl Paivio and Gus Alonen (IWW); Ben Gitlow (CLP); Harry Winitsky (CPA); Jim Larkin (CLP); C.E. Ruthenberg and I.E. Ferguson (UCP); Abram Jakira, Israel Amter, and Edward Lindgren (UCP); Minnie Kalnin, Anna Leisman, and T. Jerson (CPA); Paul Manko (CPA); and deportation operations. The multiparty, civil liberties orientation of the radical NDC should be clear. Particularly noteworthy is the charge made that routine certificates of reasonable doubt, which would have allowed defendants to remain free during the appeals process in the series of novel and virtually unprecedented cases, were systematically denied by the legal authorities, with those convicted sent immediately to prison for lengthy terms. Includes supplemental footnotes detailing the disposition of the various cases.

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