A college journalist and the last interview of Gus Hall

Last week, I was the keynote speaker for the June meeting of the Finnish Americans and Friends club in Hibbing. I wish I could say it was because they were super impressed with my 1/8 Finnish heritage. Alas, that was not so.

Rather, they wanted to know about an interview I conducted when I was just 19 — early in my journalism career.

Gus Hall, American communist leader, 1910-2000.

In 1999, I become the last reporter to interview the late American Communist leader Gus Hall. Born Arvo Kustaa Halberg in 1910, this son of Finnish-American immigrants became radicalized at home and in the lumber camps of the 1920s.

The story was a team effort. My friend Andy Miller, a fellow college student, reported on his early life in Cherry, the small Iron Range hay farming community where I grew up and attended school. Andy also sat in on the interview, conducted by phone from the principal’s office of the school where I had graduated just a year earlier. We thought it best to have two witnesses.

Whenever I think about that opportunity I wish I had another crack at writing the story. I was far too inclined to parrot the subject’s version of the truth at that time. My story could have used some editing and more information. As I told the crowd, I knew there was trouble when the Communist Party newspaper People’s Weekly World asked to reprint the story. They called it the “finest coverage the CPUSA has ever received.”

Never a good sign.

I recounted that amusing detail in my book, “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.” My lecture last Tuesday was an effort to provide a clearer picture of the Gus Hall story.

Gus Hall was a remarkable figure in the Finnish-American radical socialist movement of the 20th Century. A man of  considerable speaking ability, he nonetheless became wedded to a vision of Stalinist communism that failed to take root. In fact, he defended a brutal regime later repudiated even by the Russians.

Early in his career Hall deftly organized unions in the steel industry. This would lead to dramatic improvements to quality of life in steel and iron mining towns. However, Hall refused to adapt to changes, even within his own movement. Ultimately, his stubbornness doomed his beliefs and the last half of his life’s work to obscurity.

Hall was probably best known as a four-time presidential candidate on the Communist ticket during the 1970s and ’80s. Often treated as a punchline, Hall nevertheless remained a true believer in communist revolution. This, even as the Soviet Union began its long decline.

At the time I talked to him, about a year before he died, Hall was a kind, grandfatherly figure. He preferred to talk about his childhood in Cherry, not Stalin or his time in prison. He loved his family and he loved the working class, even as he took positions repugnant to many Americans in doing so.

My colleague and former neighbor Jack Lynch was there to cover the lecture for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Comments

  1. Ranger47 says:

    Gus Hall…an ugly stain on Finnish-American heritage. The statue of him in Cherry ought to be torn down.

  2. I assume you’re kidding about the statue. I find Gus Hall to be a divisive figure even in Cherry. Plenty of folks don’t like him (as you know Finnish immigrants differed in their politics, depending on which side they were on back in Finland.) Those who do like him are more interested in what he stood for when he left, not what he became. And no one has forgotten what happened to the Finns who left America for Karelia before Stalin’s purges.

  3. Mary T Anderson says:

    Interesting read Aaron. My Mother who will be 92 in a couple week tells stories of her youth in rural Deer River and her Finnish friends from the Soumi area. She tells of a young man who’s family left Soumi and returned to Russia in hopes of a workers utopia. They returned some years latter just by the skin of their teeth. They endured starvation and violence. Such a wonderful mix of Americans we have stirred together!

  4. David Gray says:

    I don’t know why we’d want a statue of a Chekist agent in Minnesota. Replace it with someone of good character, like Robert E. Lee.

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