* American leader of the Communist Party USA, notable for his arrest and conviction under the Smith Act in the 1950s
Born on March 26, 1920 to a prominent North Carolina family, Junius Irving Scales was named for his grandfather, a Confederate colonel. As a boy, Scales lived in a 34-room mansion built by his father in a new development of his, just west of the then-city limits of Greensboro. According to Scales, his father, a lawyer and real estate developer, was then a millionaire several times over. Among the family’s servants was a black woman born into slavery; she wore a servant’s uniform and attended to young Scales.
The family fortune faltered in the late 1920s, however, and they left the mansion and rented a home in Chapel Hill. Scales was an avid reader, and at age 15 he became a fixture at Chapel Hill’s Intimate Bookshop. There, as expressed by historian Glenda Gilmore in her book Defying Dixie, Scales “breathed in the radical politics that mingled in the bookstore’s dust.” In the 30s, according to Gilmore, “varying shades of liberals, Socialists, anti-Fascists, and new Communists came together to create a hotbed of agitation among students and professors at the University [of North Carolina]….” Scales enrolled at the University, where he soon became disenchanted with his classmates; disenchantment led to depression, and he attempted suicide. Later he found some like-minded friends interested in radical politics, and as Gilmore concluded, “Radical politics held out a lifeline to Scales.”
That lifeline led Scales into advocacy and activities for union organization and racial equality. His new affiliations developed during the Communist Party’s Popular Front strategy of aligning with liberal advocacy groups and portraying communists as merely “liberals in a hurry.” Scales soon considered himself a communist, and he joined the Communist Party USA in 1939, on his 19th birthday.
Despite some early doubts about the Party, Scales became committed to it after the Party district organizer took him to Greensboro. Gilmore concluded that “No ideological lesson could have been more effective for Scales than visiting [the Party organizer’s] ‘run-down little house’ across town from the thirty-six-room mansion that had sheltered Scales during his unhappy early childhood.” With his new ideological commitment, Scales engaged in organizing black and white college students to promote union organization and racial equality, thinking, according to Gilmore, that the Communist Party “furnished the only platform from which he might work to overthrow white supremacy.”
Scales recalled later that he had explained to University history professor R.D.W. Connor his motivation in joining the Party: “I told him that there were four main things: fear of war and Fascism; the plight of Negroes, especially in the South; the helpless, unorganized condition of most workers; and the belief that socialist redistribution of the wealth would be the basis of the brotherhood of man.”
With his new commitment, Scales attended a Communist Party school at a secret location north of New York City. The curriculum included study of what Scales called “the Negro question” but focused on the study of Soviet Communism. Attending the school, Scales said, gave him “an undreamed-of grasp of Marxist-Leninist theory …” and aroused “a sort of exultation and decisively chang[ed] my plans for the future: henceforth the socialist revolution would be the determining force in my life…. I was going to become a professional revolutionary…. I had taken sides! I had chosen to be with the wretched of the earth on their march to a better world.”
The revolutionary march would have to wait, however, for after Pearl Harbor Scales enlisted in the Army. During his service, he complained about his limited assignments and lack of promotion, attributing them to his Communist affiliation. Upon his discharge he returned to Chapel Hill in 1946, resumed his education at the University, and returned to his Communist activities. He later reported that the Party in Chapel Hill had grown in the late 40s from one to four, and soon six, “clubs,” its term preferred over “cells.” The clubs catered to different constituencies: students, faculty and their wives, white townspeople, and blacks. Scales recalled later that there were approximately 200 Communists, including 30 blacks, in Chapel Hill then, and that the University was the main center of Communist activity in the Southeast. Most Communists kept their membership secret, even though membership was legal, but during the war some became open members, perhaps because of our alliance with the Soviet Union.
In 1947, pressured by the Party, Scales announced publicly that he was a Communist. He professed his motivation as hoping “that I may in a small way dispel some of the dangerous illusions and falsehoods about Communists…. As a Southerner, I am especially glad to belong to the only organization which fights for the full and complete equality of the Negro.” Scales became the Party’s district chairman for the Carolinas in 1948, a district chairmanship soon expanded to four states.
After the convictions of some national Party leaders for conspiring to overthrow the government by force or violence, the Party in 1951 ordered Scales to go underground. He left Chapel Hill, his wife, and their three-month old daughter for New York. For three years he led a secret life, using assumed names, pretending to be a traveling salesman, and holding clandestine meetings with other Communists in his four-state district. Scales’ underground activities ended abruptly in 1954, when FBI agents, pistols drawn, confronted him and commanded, “We’ve got you, Scales! Don’t move.” They charged him with violating the so-called membership clause of the Smith Act of 1940.
Other events paralleled Scales’ Communist activities and arrest, of course, and some add context to his indictment:
- A major event occurred in 1939, when Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist and courier for a Soviet spy ring, attempted to warn President Roosevelt personally of Soviet infiltration of his administration. Chambers was allowed to meet only with a Roosevelt assistant, whose notes taken at the meeting, later made available to investigators, recited that Chambers reported that several high administration officials were Soviet agents. Included on the list were White House assistant to the president Lauchlin Currie, assistant secretary of the treasury Harry Dexter White, and state department official Alger Hiss. Nothing came of Chambers’ allegations until investigations began in 1945.
- That year, the Amerasia spy case became the first of the postwar spy cases. At the offices of Amerasia, a pro-Communist publication about American-Asian relations, American intelligence agents discovered two briefcases filled with numerous classified documents from the State Department and American intelligence agencies. Six people were charged initially with espionage for the Communists, but after a grand jury proceeding only two, the editor of the publication and a State Department employee, were indicted and convicted, and only for the lesser crime of unauthorized possession of government documents. A cover-up, orchestrated by Lauchlin Currie and other high-ranking officials, had kept the grand jury from delving too deeply into the case. But the case provoked charges of Communist infiltration of the government and countercharges of a witch-hunt.
- Also in 1945, just two weeks after the end of the war and our alliance with the Soviets, Elizabeth Bentley, a former Communist and courier for her Soviet-spy lover, walked into an FBI office and began to tell her story. Whittaker Chambers soon joined her as an FBI informer and corroborated much of her story. A grand jury investigated her charges and heard her testimony, but Chambers was not called before it for corroboration; no indictments were issued based on her testimony.
- Separately, however, Chambers’ allegation to investigators that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy, an allegation denied by Hiss under oath, led to Hiss’ conviction for perjury. Just weeks after Hiss’ conviction, Senator Joseph McCarthy gave his 1950 speech alleging that the State Department was infiltrated by a number of Communists. A national sensation and much controversy followed.
- Of major significance for Scales, Eugene Dennis, the leader of the Communist Party USA since 1945, and other national Party leaders were prosecuted under the Smith Act for conspiring to advocate and organize for the overthrow of the government by force or violence. Some scholars suggest that these prosecutions were prompted by the earlier failure to obtain any indictments after Elizabeth Bentley’s grand jury testimony and by the grand-jury cover-up in the Amerasia spy case. Whatever the motives for the prosecutions, Dennis and the others were convicted, and most received maximum five-year prison sentences. The Supreme Court affirmed the convictions in 1951, the year the Party ordered Scales to go underground.
- Also in 1951, a year after physicist Klaus Fuchs confessed to espionage concerning the Manhattan Project and was convicted in Britain, the Rosenbergs were tried and convicted in New York of espionage related to the project; they were executed in 1953, the year before Scales’ arrest.
Although arrested during that controversial era of conspiracy and espionage, Scales was charged with neither. He was charged under the Smith Act’s clause making it unlawful to be a member in an organization knowing that it advocated the overthrow of the government by force or violence. He was one of only a few people so charged, and his case became the leading one and resulted in a Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of that clause.
The indictment charged that from 1946 to 1954 the Communist Party USA was such an organization, and that Scales was a member of it with knowledge of the Party’s illegal purpose. Scales was tried in Greensboro in 1955, convicted, and sentenced to six years imprisonment, but a retrial was ordered because of a new Supreme Court ruling regarding defendants’ access to FBI files on witnesses testifying against them.
Scales left the Party in 1957, the year after Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged Stalin’s terror. Scales later summarized the effect [of Khrushchev’s revelations] on him: “[M]ost of what the capitalist press and the professional anti-Soviet experts had been saying about the Soviet Union for years was true…. Stalin—my revered symbol of the infallibility of Communism … had been a murderous, power-hungry monster!… My idol had crumbled to dust forever.”
By that time, the CPUSA had fewer than 20,000 members, less than a fourth of its peak soon after Scales had become a member. The FBI reported the membership in North Carolina in 1957 was a mere thirty.
Scales was retried in 1958, again in Greensboro. The government proposed, and the trial judge gave instructions to the jury requiring, that Scales’ membership had been “active” as opposed to “nominal” or “passive,” and that he had the specific intent to bring about the violent overthrow of the government “as speedily as circumstances would permit.” The government presented testimony about the character of the Party from five ex-Communists, two of whom had been bona fide members and three of whom had become members as FBI informers. Along with two others who had dealt with Scales, Ralph C. Clontz Jr. testified regarding Scales’ activities. Clontz was a graduate of Davidson and Duke Law School and had served as an Army intelligence officer during the war. After his discharge, while a student at Duke, he had become concerned about Communist activities and offered to the FBI to try to penetrate the Communist Party. Clontz testified extensively. Scales called ten witnesses. His mother and aunt testified to his good character and conduct, and others testified that Scales’ statements to them were inconsistent with any advocacy of violent overthrow. Scales did not testify. The jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to six years imprisonment.
The federal court of appeals and the Supreme Court rejected Scales’ constitutional and other arguments and affirmed his conviction; the Supreme Court was divided, 5-4. The Court summarized the evidence it held sufficient to support Scales’ conviction, further summarized as follows:
“Regarding the CPUSA and its reconstitution in 1945, a former bona fide Communist had testified that during the pre-1945 leadership of Earl Browder the Party claimed that change to a communist society could be achieved through peaceful, democratic means. But in 1945 the Party replaced Browder with Dennis and returned to the principles of Marxism-Leninism, including Lenin’s teaching that communism could only be achieved by violent revolution. Another bona fide former Communist had testified that after the 1945 reconstitution she attended a Party training school where various Party officers and functionaries were ‘reeducated’ in the principles of Marxism-Leninism, including that Party members were to prepare workers to be ready to take power when a revolutionary situation arose. Specifically, she said ‘the class was told that the coalition of workers and peasants which had proved so successful in Russia should have as its counterpart in America a coalition of workers and Negroes, especially in the South.’ She attended and taught other, similar classes, where the teachings were that ‘the means would be forcible’ and that the Party should win the confidence of ‘the working class,… the Negro people, the poor farmers, other national groups, and in this way, in the course of struggle, constant struggle taking the forms of strikes and demonstrations and picket lines and marches and various kinds of activities to train the working class and the people for revolutionary battle.’ Other witnesses described similar Party training-school instruction, including that the only way to change the capitalist system was that it ‘had to be taken away by force and violence….’”
Regarding the testimony of Clontz and two other witnesses about Scales’ activities, the Court found it of “special importance in two ways: it supplies some of the strongest and most unequivocal evidence against the Party” based on the statements and activities of Scales and “his high Party position” …; and it appears clearly dispositive as to the quality of [Scales’] Party membership, and his knowledge and intent….” Clontz had sent Scales a postcard expressing interest in Communism, and Scales responded by sending him a box of Communist literature. They began to meet. At an early meeting, Scales said that for the Communists to succeed a forceful revolution would be necessary, and in a subsequent meeting Scales explained the basic strategy for bringing about the revolution—the Party as the vanguard of the working class would “bring the working class … and what [Scales] termed the Negro nation, together to bring about a forceful overthrow of the Government.”
After Clontz joined the Party at Scales’ invitation, Scales engaged him in a course of instruction, where Scales “repeatedly told Clontz of the necessity for revolution to bring about the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Scales arranged for Clontz to study in New York at a Party school, where he had private instruction from a teacher who, like Scales, told Clontz “that the only … means … would be forceful means…,” and, again like Scales, “that ‘the revolution basically would come about by combining the forces of … the Negro nation and the working class as the vanguard.’” Another witness who had attended the same Party school testified that in a course on Negro history, he and other students, mostly from the South, were taught that the Negro people were the only revolutionary group within the United States that Communists could align with “‘and hope to reach … gains through the avenue of force and violence, by overthrow of the Government….’”
After the Supreme Court affirmed his conviction in 1961, Scales began to serve his six-year sentence. He served only 15 months, however, as President Kennedy commuted his sentence on Christmas Eve 1962.
While the Supreme Court decision and the commutation attracted much commentary, Scales and his wife tried to avoid attention. They secluded themselves in New York, where he worked as a proofreader at The New York Times. Attention returned to Scales in 1977, when a UNC-Chapel Hill professor wrote a play about Scales’ conviction. A production of the play toured North Carolina, playing in courthouses with audiences acting as juries. Of 29 performances, it is reported that 28 resulted in acquittals and one in a hung jury. According to Scales’ daughter, he came to Raleigh and saw the play, and as a result he decided to come out of seclusion and write his memoir.
His memoir, Cause at Heart: A Former Communist Remembers, was published in 1987 and reissued in 2005. An oral history, A Red Family: Junius, Gladys & Barbara Scales, based on interviews in 1971, was published in 2009. In both books, Scales projects himself as a kind and gentle man, motivated to join the Party only by his concerns for working people and blacks. Historian Gilmore, who came to know Scales and found him to be a “sweet, gentle man,” accepts his explanation that he joined the Party “because it was only among Communists that he found nonracist people who cared about the poor.”
Scales’ apologia may explain his early attraction to the Party during its Popular Front pretensions, but it is difficult to reconcile it with his continued activities in the Party after 1945 when it abandoned those pretensions and returned to Marxist-Leninist principles. The Party, and indeed Scales himself according to the testimony against him, taught the doctrine that revolution could occur only by force and violence. In his memoir and in the oral history, Scales denies that he personally advocated force or violence, and he belittles the witnesses against him, especially Clontz, who testified that he did.
Whatever his true thoughts about Communist revolution, Scales’ expressed recollections about his Communist past lack the anguish and critical self-examination expressed by other ex-Communists, such as Arthur Koestler and others in The God that Failed and Whittaker Chambers in Witness, or more recently David Horowitz in Radical Son and Ronald Radosh in Commies. But, after Cause at Heart was published and Scales toured the state and spoke on some campuses, he issued a formal statement, prompted by “thirty years of struggling with the demons of his allegiance with the Communist Party.” Scales began the statement consistently with his earlier explanations of why he had become a Communist, but he added something new:
“Along the way I became a closed-minded ideologue.
“I became a total apologist for the Soviet Union—a country devoid of basic freedoms.
“My tortured ideology became partly destructive of the very things that were constructive.
“I became arrogant, narrow, and sectarian in my outlook….
“But still, with all the wrong turns and missteps I made, those ideals of human brotherhood that led me into the Communist Party and out of the Communist Party are the same ones that I will advocate as long as I live.”
Scales died in 2002, predeceased by his wife, also once a Communist. Although both had broken with the Party, they remained socialists.
* This profile originally appeared as an article titled “Junius Irving Scales, An American Communist,” by Arch T. Allen, published by FrontPageMag.com on December 11, 2013. A few minor edits were made at the beginning of the text on this page, so as to maintain the tenor of a profile rather than an article. (Arch T. Allen is a retired lawyer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a contributing writer for Raleigh Metro Magazine (www.metronc.com). He presented this paper to a history club of which he is a member.)
Junius Irving Scales, An American Communist
By Arch T. Allen
December 11, 2013