President Trump has clearly staked out one theme of his 2020 reelection rhetoric: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the “Squad” and the Democratic Party are socialists and un-American. No one should be surprised—this tactic has been used for a century. Since the closing days of World War I, smearing opponents as socialists, Bolsheviks, Reds or Communists has been an effective partisan tool, not only in national politics but also locally.

The most instructive Cincinnati victim of America’s first Red Scare of 1919-20 was the Mohawk-Brighton Social Unit.

Three years earlier, Mayor John Galvin, School Superintendent Ralph Condon and the Cincinnati Enquirer successfully lobbied the National Social Unit Organization (NSUO) to choose Cincinnati over 15 other cities to host a demonstration community-based health care project. The experiment selected the Mohawk-Brighton neighborhood (northern West End), home to about 15,000 mostly working class people.

Wilbur Phillips, the founder of the NSUO, believed that traditional social agencies failed to fundamentally change health outcomes because they operated with a top down model. Community leaders, medical professionals and social workers selected and delivered services they thought were important with no engagement by residents.

In contrast, Phillips promised that the Mohawk-Brighton Social Unit (MBSUO) would promote “a type of democratic organization through which citizenship as a whole can participate directly in the control of community affairs, while at the same time making a constant use of the highest quality technical skill available.”

Residents of each of the 31 blocks in the neighborhood elected a representative to a Citizen’s Council. The doctors and nurses who served the neighborhood formed an Occupational Council. Representatives of each sat on a General Council that collaboratively prioritized community needs (based on data collected by block workers) and formulated strategies to address those needs.

Opening in December 1917, the Mohawk-Brighton Social Unit quickly demonstrated measurable successes. At the request of residents, the Social Unit focused initially on prenatal and infant care. In the first year almost all pregnant women and over 86% of all infants received medical exams in the clinic. In the next year the program expanded to incorporate 1,075 neighborhood children under age 6.

In early 1918 the Social Unit swung into action at the first news of the influenza outbreak, which quickly ballooned into a pandemic that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans and 20 to 50 million worldwide. Through targeted education and coordinated services in the clinic and in homes, only 2.26 per thousand residents of Mohawk Brighton died when the city as a whole lost 4.10 per thousand.

But success could not save the Social Unit in the face of the Red Scare that erupted in 1919 in reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Though the Social Unit spoke of “participatory democracy” and did not employ a socialist critique or rhetoric, the idea that working class residents would direct the services of doctors and nurses suddenly looked suspect to political and business leaders. Mayor John Galvin turned on the Social Unit, charging they represented an alien political philosophy and “a serious menace to our municipal government and but one step removed from Bolshevism.”

The Red Scare of 1919 burned itself out by the late 1920, but the suspicion of socialism smoldered just below the surface through the dark days of the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II.

Coinciding with the onset of the Cold War, the fear of a Communism burst forth again. Beginning in 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy led a fevered hunt to identify anybody in government, military, media or the entertainment industry who had any contact with socialists and communists.

A local echo of McCarthyism roiled Cincinnati politics beginning in September 1953. The FBI secretly passed information to Cincinnati City Manager Wilbur Kellogg that Sydney Williams, the recently appointed director of city planning, had attended meetings of a Young Communist organization in the months after his discharge from the WWII Navy.

Although Williams never joined the Communist Party and stopped attending the meetings because he disagreed with the Marxist analysis, the FBI report gave the city manager and the Republican minority on council the leverage to force his resignation.

Because the controversy erupted in the midst of a council campaign, the Republican Party seized on this incident to flip the existing 5-4 Charter/Democratic council majority. Republicans demanded the resignation of two members of the Planning Commission, architect and city planner Henry Bettman and businessman Wallace Collett, who had overseen Williams’ hiring.

Republicans called public hearings and bought full-page ads in the newspapers headlined “Should Cincinnati Hire Ex-Communists for Key Jobs in City Hall?” The Charter/Democrats countered with headlines that asked, “Should Cincinnati Citizens be Condemned Without a Fair Trial?” Local TV stations provided both sides with airtime. On Nov. 4, voters rejected the Republican message and sustained the 5-4 Charter/Democratic majority. The Bettman-Collett Affair lost steam.

Charges of socialism and disloyalty, whether during the Red Scare of 1919, the McCarthyism of 1953 or today, always have one goal—to shut down any in-depth exploration of the issues that confront us as a dynamic society.


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