Big Red Fred: 1927-1988

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Theodore Edwards

AFTER LEAVING the navy in 1946, Fred Halstead at first intended to become a school teacher, attending UCLA on the GI Bill and working as a merchant seaman between semesters. Joining the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1948, both careers were closed to him due to President Truman’s subversive list on which the SWP had been placed arbitrarily. Instead, Halstead went to work in the garment industry as a cutter. Thus began his life-long activity in strike struggles, union-organizing drives, and strike support work of one sort or another: from the agricultural workers in California, to the Cherry Rivet plant in Los Angeles, to the Square D strike in Detroit… to the P-9 strike in Austin, Minnesota.

When the movement against the war in Vietnam began to grow in 1965, Halstead represented the SWP in antiwar coalition meetings. He was part of the original staff of the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee in New York and served on the steering committees of the NCC, the National Mobe, the New Mobe and NPAC, as the successive coalitions were popularly called.

In 1968, as SWP candidate for president of the United States, Halstead visited Japan ,South Vietnam and Germany, urging American Gls to oppose the U.S. military aggression in Vietnam.

The book Out Now!, authored by Halstead in collaboration with George Novack, is an account of that historic decade that is now very loosely referred to as the “Sixties” but that actually lasted from the first 1965 teach-ins until the end of the war in 1975. It was a decade in which left-wing elements — radicals, pacifists, socialists, communists, student rebels and assorted morally outraged individuals-set in motion and headed a movement of such vast scope that on April 15, 1967, in October-November 1969, early May 1970, and on April 24, 1971, the millions demonstrating shook American society like an earthquake of magnitude 8.

On the steering committees of the anti-war coalitions, Halstead ably fought for the point of view of the SWP: to keep the anti-war activity from being submerged in the two major party electoral machinations and to prevent barriers from being thrown up that would keep the ordinary American and the Gls from participation in mass protests.

The almost complete absence of trade-union opposition to the war gave greater leeway to the anarchistic elements, the various ultra-left groupings and assorted middle-class radicals; yet all united around the single issue of “Out Now!” — bringing millions into the streets and apoplexy to the warmongers in the White House.

Halstead and the SWP played an important part in uniting diverse and multi-class elements that opposed the war but that agreed on little else. The antiwar conference that brought such diversity together thus had to establish precedents for democratic decision-making, for non-exclusion and for emphasis on mass action that would allow Gls to participate in peaceful protests.

As chief marshall, together with pacifist Brad Lyttle, Halstead — or Big Red Fred, as he was called — successfully labored to give the mass protests a peaceful and orderly character, becoming the very personification of mass activity.

Lasting Impact

The far-reaching effects of the “Sixties” are still with us and not even eight years of Reagan reaction have broken the spell of the turbulent period when a mistrust of the rulers in Washington first surfaced, spurring the radicalization of other sectors of the population, most notably the women’s liberation movement. It certainly stopped the fever of anti-communist hysteria nurtured throughout the previous two decades.

Throughout these events, Red Fred carried out the policies of the SWP. Many of us still think that these goals were basically correct and effective, although not always applied with the necessary tactical flexibility. Of all the SWP leaders, Halstead was the one with the most tactical astuteness that he used to good advantage.

In the life of the SWP, Halstead as well as the writer of these lines was a part of the so-called “silent generation” hanging in limbo between the ’30s and ’60s, sparsely represented inside the party but present nevertheless.

Halstead was the most talented of this generation as far as mass work was concerned, but there were others. What was lacking was the working-class revolution, or even an upsurge, that the Trotskyists had so confidently predicted for the post-World War II period.

The “silent generation” thus represented nothing and proved unable to provide the continuity of leadership that might have prevented the SWP from following the unfortunate political course it has taken in the last decade. Of this thin layer some dropped out, others were unequal to the task and/or were pushed aside; some like Halstead went along with the new uncritical orientation toward Castroism and the concomitant regimentation of internal party life.

In his person, Halstead exemplified what was best and also what was not so good in that “silent generation” that historical circumstances prevented from rising to its true potential.

November-December 1988, ATC 17

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