One of the most radical State leaders in 1934 was Floyd Bjerstjerne Olsen, elected governor of Minnesota in 1932. While a student at the University of Minnesota he tried to stir a revolt against compulsory military training and ended his private career on the Seattle docks and as a labor union agitator. Lincoln’s army included many socialist refugees from Europe, including the “Swedish communistic venture [of Bishop Hill, Illinois which] raised a company in 1860, the Svenska Uniongardet . . .“ (Foreigners in the Union Army & Navy, Lonn). Scandinavian immigrants were scattered throughout the Northern army.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Red Cards in Minnesota
“For all his jauntiness, Olsen conveyed a deep and biting dislike for the existing economic system. “You bet your life I’m a radical,” he told one interviewer. “You might say I’m radical as hell.” And he rode upon a tradition of social conflict which had torn his State from the days of Ignatius Donnelly and the Populists.
The violent truck strike of the spring and summer of 1934 showed the degree of genuine class bitterness. In addition, even middle-class Scandinavians had long chafed under their exclusion from places of social and business prestige by the old New England families of Lowry Hill. Feelings were explosive and Floyd Olsen was prepared to give these feelings full expression.
Shortly after Roosevelt’s inauguration, Olsen told him that this was no ordinary depression but a collapse of the economic order. “If the so-called “depression” deepens,” Olsen said, “I strongly recommend to you, Mr. President, that the Government ought to take and operate the key industries of the country.”
Unless and until this was done, he repeated in August 1933, there could be no “economic security for the common man.”
He wanted the government to begin by using unemployed workers in production-fir-use factories which, by underselling private firms, would gradually put them out of business, until the major part of industry would be government-owned, producing for use, not for profit. At other times he talked of abolishing the profit system through the extension of co-operative ownership and control, presumably on the Scandinavian model.
Within Minnesota, he promised to call out the State militia if that were necessary, to see that the hungry were fed and the homeless sheltered. “I shall declare martial law. A lot of people who are now fighting the [relief] measures because they happen to possess considerable wealth will be brought in by the provost guard.”
“You go back to Washington,” he told an emissary of Harry Hopkins’s in the anxious days of 1933, “and tell ‘em that Olsen isn’t taking anybody who doesn’t carry a Red Card.” “Minnesota,” he boasted, “”is definitely a left-wing State.”
Such pronouncements were enormously exciting to American intellectuals seeking radical leadership. Here at last was a practical and successful politician, authentically American, governor of the very State which had inspired Gopher Prairie and Zenith, who yet saw clearly through the pretenses of capitalism and proposed his rough Midwestern way to build the good society.
By 1934 he was an object of attention in the national liberal press. He received the pilgrims from the East, signed articles for their magazines, and played affably with the general idea of a new party and a new society.
He declared that he was tired of tinkering and patching and wanted to change the system . . . he added, “When the final clash comes between Americanism and fascism, we will find a so-called “red” as the defender of democracy.”
(The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960, pp. 99-101)