The Fellow Traveler J. B. Matthews

A clear task in politics and everyday life today is to separate the card carrying Covid criminals from the fellow travelers (also written traveller), the more or less easily manipulated, simple dupes who went along with the crowd without real thought. For example, this substack article makes the distinction, “It’s likely that only a relatively small number of these actors knew they were making fraudulent claims about the generic, repurposed drugs, and knew they were taking action to impede access to these drugs based on fraudulent claims. These actors were the conspirators.  [emphasis in the original] Countless others unwittingly played roles in the conspiracy because they themselves believed the propaganda.”

My allusion to “card carrying” is of course a throwback to the heyday of Communism and their fellow travelers. In fact, the divisions in public life are deeper now than anytime since the Communist versus anti-Communist period from the 1930s to the 1950s. The origin of the term fellow traveler in the American Communist context has been attributed to J.B. Matthews. Matthews was well known in his day but is now obscure. As I will explain, he was the embodiment of the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end of anti-Communism in the United States through two specific incidents where he was the subject of headlines all across the country. The aggregate of his life is also interesting to me as this small sample of the people he spent time with will attest: he met Rudyard Kipling in Singapore, he traveled with George Bernard Shaw in the USSR, he met with Leon Trotsky when Trotsky was in Mexico, he had an active communication with Hollywood stars, he was a frequent host to Joseph McCarthy when McCarthy visited New York, and he and his wife often had Ayn Rand for dinner at their penthouse on the upper West Side.

I most likely never would have known of Matthews if not for the happenstance that his widow Ruth donated his papers to the Duke University Library where I did my graduate studies. She lived nearby the university. We met and were regular lunch companions until I left Durham. She was an exceptional person in her own right. She had undergraduate and masters degrees from Stanford and a PhD from Bryn Mawr College. She was a professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Washington. While traveling back east she happened to meet J.B. on a train. Ruth was a friend of his second wife, also called Ruth, who had divorced J.B. at this point. She quit her teaching post, moved to New York, and married J.B. in 1949. In effect, she became his partner in what I call his “professional anti-Communist” activities.

Early Days and Education

Matthews was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1894. Matthews attended Asbury College (now called Asbury University) in Wilmore, Kentucky and graduated in 1914. Nelson L. Dawson explained for the Kentucky Historical Society, that “he was particularly attracted to the Social Gospel movement with its theological progressivism, an effort to apply the teachings of Jesus directly to current social problems.” So in 1915 he left to spread the Social Gospel in the Dutch colony of Java in 1915. It is not hard to imagine that this experience had a profound effect on him. Among the many acquaintences in the Far East was Rudyard Kipling. He wrote in his memoir Odyssey of a Fellow Traveler (1938):

One of the most important results of my residence in Java was that its rich and varied intellectual experiences did to my first panacea. Hardly had I plunged into a study of its culture and languages when my vision of a world refashioned after the pattern of a Kentucky Methodist meeting house began to grow dim. I had gone to Java to teach. I received infinitely more than ever I imparted.

Matthews returned to the United States in 1921 and recalled in his memoir that, “…. Java was a transitional period in my life: the leaving behind of one naïve panacea [Social Gospel] rooted in the Kentucky mountains and the preparation for embracing yet other equally naïve panaceas [pacifism, socialism, communism] rooted in the universal political and social turmoil of my time.”

He began extensive graduate study at various theological seminaries in languages including Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Sanskrit, and Persian resulting in a B.D. from Drew University in 1923, a S.T.M. from the Union Theological Seminary in 1924 and the same year an A.M. from Columbia University in Oriental literature. In 1924 he became a Professor of Hebrew and the History of Religion at the Scarritt College for Christian Workers in Nashville. He held many controversial positions including taking an “advanced position on race relations in the South.” So he resigned his position at Scarritt before being fired and went on to teach at the traditionally black Fisk University, and then Howard University, starting in 1927.


Also in that very busy year of 1924 Matthews joined the third party, proto-socialist presidential campaign of Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette. He became an important speaker at mass rallies in Tennessee, a role he would continue to play for many years.

From  Odyssey of a Fellow Traveler

This first dive into political activity morphed into anti-capitalism and pacifism. He attended the first World Youth Peace Congress convened in Holland in 1928. Matthews wrote that, “My pacifism gradually shifted from a religious to a political basis. The pacifist movement was and is predominantly anti-capitalist and socialist.” He officially joined the Socialist Party in 1929.

From Odyssey of a Fellow Traveler

By 1932 Matthews was in the process of becoming a “full-fledged fellow traveler.” In his own mind he was so sure that “Marxism was a scientific answer to the riddles of social organization” that during a trip to the Soviet Union that year, in spite of witnessing “appalling sights of poverty” and hearing “whisperings about a great famine.”

He later recognized the problem of his world view.

In my own mind there was the dominant thought that the Soviet Union was the “fatherland of the working class,” the great Marxist fulfillment of history. How, therefore, could it have a famine which would take its toll of lives by the million, even though I had seen the evidences [sic] of it with my own eyes?

He would also write of his Marxist beliefs in his memoir, “What a colossal piece of self-deception!”

He was now active in the united front against fascism, the movement organized from Moscow to unite the leftist parties. Matthews was particularly valuable to them because he was not a card carrying communist. The list of organizations he participated in and the speeches he made around the country were extensively documented in his memoir.

Consumers’ Movement

Among all of his political activities Matthews’ strong interest in consumerism was pivotal in totally changing his political orientation. On his visits to the Soviet Union he thought he would find a consumers’ paradise because, in contrast to the capitalists’ search for profits over serving consumers, the state put the best interests of the workers, i.e., the consumers, first. The horrible state of the consumer in Soviet Russia was a revelation. But it turns out that the consumers’ movement became strikingly political itself, and through this particular conflict Matthews soured on Communism.

Matthews became active in the consumers’ organization Consumers’ Research, Inc., dedicated to providing objective technical information on products. In 1935 Mathews was living in Washington, New Jersey near the Consumers’ Research offices and testing laboratory. The Communists instigated a strike after  three employees who tried to form a union were fired. The strike became a literal battleground in the ideological conflicts of the 30s. Matthews described fighting Communism with “tear gas and sawed-off shotguns.” The duplicity and violence of the Communist instigators of the Consumers’ Research strike was influential in Matthews turning against Communism and the left in general.

Dies Committee

The Overman Committee (1918-19) was the first to investigate Un-American activities of the German and Bolshevik strains. Later incarnations were the Fish Committee (1930) and the McCormack–Dickstein Committee (1934–1937). In 1938 the special Committee on Un-American Activities of The House of Representatives, chaired by Martin Dies, a Democratic congressman from Texas, was instituted.

The Dies committee had a rocky start. The witnesses were not credible and/or the interrogations were not well researched or performed. Thus, the Dies committee was easily dismissed as depicted in the film Cradle Will Rock. This was the moment that Matthews volunteered to testify in front of the committee. As noted in the book The Dies Committee: A Study Of The Special House Committee For The Investigation Of Un-American Activities, 1938-1943, (1943) written by the Christian Brother August Raymond Ogden; “He undoubtedly, more than any of the previous witnesses, knew what he was talking about.”

The Dies Committee: A Study Of The Special House Committee For The Investigation Of Un-American Activities, 1938-1943, (1943)

Martin Dies’ Story (1963)

The day following his testimony there were front page stories across the nation. But the headlines were for the child movie star Shirley Temple more so than Matthews. Dies recounted how this incident was a great early example of spin by the Roosevelt administration (also see this article by Mollie Hemingway).

Explaining how Communists work, Dr. Matthews testified: “The Communist Party relies heavily on the carelessness or indifference of thousands of prominent citizens in lending their names for its propaganda purposes. For example, the French newspaper Ce Soir, which is owned outright by the Communist Party, recently featured hearty greetings from Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, James Cagney, and even Shirley Temple. … No one, I hope, is going to claim that any one of these persons in particular is a Communist.”

His hope was sadly shattered. Liberal reporters rushed to the telephones. Newspapers, Liberal and Conservative alike, announced in screaming headlines that the Dies Committee had called Shirley Temple a Communist. Since she was still playing with dolls, such a claim was an insult to the intelligence of every member of the Committee. Also, it was indicative of the extent of the bigotry of the Liberal, or his ignorance of the English language. I had greater faith in the American people. I got time on NBC to broadcast Matthews’ testimony verbatim, and compare it with the newspaper accounts. Public reaction was fast and decisive. Tele- grams and letters landed on Congressional desks in a deluge. Conservative newspapers took a second look and printed the testimony accurately, accompanied by editorials denouncing the attempted distortion.

It would have been easy to handle the attacks of Communists. Far more difficult were the attacks and innuendoes which came in a steady stream from President Roosevelt and his Liberal supporters in Government, labor unions, newspapers and radio. These were largely responsible for blinding and deafening the American people to truths, which, had they been recognized then, could have changed the course of history.

Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, guffawed, “They have found dangerous radicals there led by little Shirley Temple. Imagine the great Committee raiding her nursery and seizing her dolls as evidence.” . Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, scolded, “Perhaps it is fortunate that Shirley Temple was born an American citizen and that she will not have to debate the issues raised by the preposterous revelations of your Committee in regard to that innocent and likable child.”

The Shirley Temple incident was the end of the beginning of the anti-Communist movement. Despite the negative spin, Matthews’ testimony had given credibility to the “conspiracy theory” of the day, Communist infiltration of American life. Following Matthews’ testimony Dies invited him to become the Director of Research for the Committee on Un-American Activities. Dies wrote later:

This nation owes him a debt of gratitude which will not be paid, or even fully acknowledged, in this generation. Matthews’ testimony should be read and re-read. If it had been headed by Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy many of our costly blunders in dealing with the Soviets would have been avoided and America would not now be in such dire peril.

As the key person working for the Committee he became involved in many interesting personal stories including the Soviet intelligence officer Walter Kritivisky. In 1940 Mathews had a chance meeting with Kritivisky on a train. Kritivisky told him that he and Leon Trotsky had been targeted by Stalin’s agents. Mathews later wrote that, “As director of the staff of the Dies Committee, I went to Mexico City to interview ….. I saw Trotsky in November 1939. Among other things, I warned him of his impending assassination at the hands of Stalin’s agents.” Trotsky had agreed to testify before the Committee but the details of how his testimony would be taken were never agreed to. He was murdered in Mexico in August 1940. As for Kritivisky, he was found dead in a hotel room in February 1941. Matthews was the person called by the authorities to identify the body in the morgue. The death was ruled a suicide but for those who knew him it was believed that he was also murdered.

Professional Anti-Communist

Matthews’ work for the Committee was the first incarnation of what would be his career for the rest of his life, a professional anti-Communist. That is, someone who approached the problem of Communism in American life in a systematic, knowledgeable way and made his living through those activities.

In 1944 Martin Dies did not run for reelection. Through his own inclination or due to lack of support from the incoming Congress, Matthews left Washington to live and work in New York. Through his personal knowledge before and his work on the committee itself, a card file was created, today this would be called a database. It consisted of people and organizations that documented Communist activity in the United States. This was published in 1944 as Appendix IX Communist Front Organizations, with Special Reference to the National Citizens Political Action Committee, “the seven volume set numbered 2,138 pages. Only 7,000 sets were produced by the Government Printing Office, and these were distributed to a number of government agencies and private individuals.”

Matthews was in high demand to write and speak in the US and abroad. He also took on assignments or projects, for fees consistent with his expert status. In a 1948 letter to Matthews, the columnist Westbrook Pegler recognized his expertise and indicated that worked behind the scenes, “By the way do you object to publicity or would you rather work in the dark. If it is okay with you I would like to salute you now and again as the greatest individual authority on the personnel of the conspiracy.” This is just one of the many people who recognized this expertise. In a 1956 letter to Matthews, William  Buckley wrote, “You are one of the two or three experts on Communism and on anti-Communist legislation in the western world.”

Anti-Communist Salon

Situated in New York with a very good income, Matthews and his wife Ruth regularly entertained guests with anti-Communist views. For several years in the 1950s they were living on 24th street, and then in a penthouse apartment on 77th street on the upper west side. Decades later I visited the penthouse after writing a letter to the current occupant. First of all, one enters directly into the apartment from a private elevator. I was told it had been remodeled at a cost of millions of dollars. But the layout itself was amazing, including an enormous terrace and spectacular view of the Hudson River. One guest wrote, “I wanted to tell you what fun it all was and such a penthouse! Everyone enjoyed it and we are all still gasping over your culinary powers. I am practically hungry right now thinking of all the good things you prepared–particularly the curry.”  Ruth told me she did the shopping and he did the cooking of Indonesian cuisine that I think must have been highly unusual for his guests. Another guest wrote to Ruth in 1962, “There is something quite wonderful about being with a group of men and women who have like understanding of our times–perhaps it was the way those early Christians felt after the Ascension–bewilderment gave way to faith. I always leave your home with freshness of mind, and zeal, to press forward.”

A sense of Matthews’ Hollywood connections can be ascertained in his 1951 letter to John Wayne’s acting crony Ward Bond.

A sense of Matthews’ Hollywood connections can be ascertained in his 1951 letter to John Wayne’s acting crony Ward Bond.

Dear Ward,

It’s good news to know that you are out of the hospital. Now stay out!

I enclose the tabulation of Arthur Miller’s Communist affiliations from my file. I did not stop to check what the Tenny reports and Red Channels have about Miller.

My files would not contain anything on March [Fredric March] which is not in Red Channels. Perhaps you know that Red Channels was compiled from my files, and, of course, since its compilation Fredric March has been careful not to get into any Communist affiliations.

We had some good visits with ‘Dolphe [Adolphe Menjou] when he was in New York.

Did you see Sok’s [George Sokolsky] column on the American Legion article?

Did “Duke” Wayne get the stuff I mailed him?

Ruth and I are awaiting that autographed picture when you feel up to a little work.

She joins me in best wishes.

For LRC readers perhaps the most relevant guest was Ludwig von Mises himself. In the memoir of Mises’ widow Margit is this description of their relationship.

Lu took great interest in Dr. J. B. Matthews, the well-known anti-Comunist. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Matthews and his wife, Ruth, often included us in their parties, which were gatherings for many conservatives. For a brief period in the 1930s, Dr. Matthews had been a “fellow traveler,” a term he popularized when he became a staff member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. At a turning point in his life, J. B. wrote in a moving letter of gratitude to Lu how much he was influenced by his writing. Dr. Matthews fought the socialist trends in the United States until his death in 1966. Over the years, Ruth became one of my best and most loyal personal friends and still is today.

My Years with Ludwig von Mises

In a 1957 letter to National Review’s Willi Schlam, Matthews wrote  [underlines in the original] :

I’m delighted to see that National Review is helping to revive Irving Babbitt. A generation ago, Seward Collins (now deceased and of whom you probably never heard) had the notion that I was worth rescuing from the Left. He sent me Literature and the American College, Democracy and Leadership, The New Lackoon, Rousseau and Romanticism, and The Masters of Modern French Criticism. About the same time, I had obtained a copy of Von Mises’ Socialism. I read them all. The combination of Babbitt and Von Mises hit my leftism like an H-bomb.

I might add that it was through Ruth that I came to know about von Mises and the Mises Institute. There was a copy of Human Action sitting on her coffee table. I had been thinking of economics at that point in time and borrowed the tome without any previous knowledge of its author or his context in economic history. And it was Ruth that ordered a subscription for me to the old Rothbard-Rockwell Report (archived here). So if you are reading this article, or any other I have written for LRC, it is through her influence.

McCarthy Episode

There was another frequent guest that it is important to consider, Senator Joseph McCarthy, who appointed Matthews as staff director to his subcommittee. Wikipedia in the article on McCarthy recognized the importance of this episode.

… McCarthy appointed J. B. Matthews as staff director of the subcommittee. One of the nation’s foremost anti-communists, Matthews had formerly been staff director for the House Un-American Activities Committee. The appointment became controversial when it was learned that Matthews had recently written an article titled “Reds and Our Churches”, which opened with the sentence, “The largest single group supporting the Communist apparatus in the United States is composed of Protestant Clergymen.” A group of senators denounced this “shocking and unwarranted attack against the American clergy” and demanded that McCarthy dismiss Matthews. McCarthy initially refused to do this. As the controversy mounted, however, and the majority of his own subcommittee joined the call for Matthews’s ouster, McCarthy finally yielded and accepted his resignation. For some McCarthy opponents, this was a signal defeat of the senator, showing he was not as invincible as he had formerly seemed. [my emphasis]

What is not mentioned by Wikipedia is how this particular Matthews article about Protestant clergymen became McCarthy’s Achilles heel. It was reported that an ecumenical group of religious leaders sent a telegram to the White House.  The key revelation by Emmet John Hughes, a speech writer for Eisenhower,  is that the telegram was instigated by the White House itself. They also delayed McCarthy announcing Matthews’ resignation to make it appear he was moved to quit by Eisenhower. For a second time Matthews was in all the headlines as a victim of White House spin. As Matthews put it himself in a 1954 letter, “The exchange of these telegrams was nothing more nor less than a malicious and mendacious attempt on the part of the unscrupulous gang surrounding Eisenhower to make it appear that Eisenhower had successfully slapped down the Senator from Wisconsin.” I believe this incident would be the beginning of the end for McCarthy and the anti-Communist movement.

One more distinctive guest to mention is Ayn Rand. Ruth described to me how she dined with them during the Mccarthy controversy. She was obstinate that Matthews must not resign. Ruth went to bed while Rand was still badgering Matthews. This argument ended their friendship.

Last Years

Matthews’ last years were not easy. His health deteriorated over several years due to Parkinson’s disease and other ailments. Ruth provided years of devoted care before he died from a brain tumor in 1966.  There was also the shocking event in 1959 when his son J. B. Matthews Jr., an engineer with a wife and three children, went on a suicidal rampage, killings his three kids with a baseball bat and bludginning his wife who somehow survived. Then he shot and killed himself.

In several letters he expressed bitterness about certain situations or against certain individuals. In one from 1958 he wrote this screed, “I note you, like so many others who have written me, say, “It has been a tough fight for you.” If that is a fact, it has escaped me completely. I have never been aware that it is “tough.” On the contrary, I have found it exhilarating. I have enjoyed every minute of my 25 years of hating Communism. It may not be a Christian feeling, but I think hatred is one of the more constructive motives in life. It is my firm conviction that anybody who says he loves everybody is a witting or unwitting liar. In varying degrees of intensity, I hate people of every race, color, and creed, without discrimination; and I stand on my constitutional right to do so. Incidentally, I think I stand on solid biblical grounds in so doing. I hate Eisenhower, FDR, and too many others to mention. I also hate things, such as abstract painting, the noisy dissonance of Leonard Bernstein’s symphonies, television commercials, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s columns in the New York Post.”

Delving back into the life and times of J. B. Matthews one can see the similarities to our current situation as I noted at the start of this article. When Matthews denounced someone who wrote about the famine in the USSR he stated that “I had no more thought of lying than flying.” This is critical for us to understand today about our fellow-traveler opponents. They really believe what they say, no matter how powerful the evidence that is presented against them. This is a problem of worldview (see my discussion of worldview here) that is not easily addressed.

It seems that now the right, really the populists, are being harassed by the powerful government actors, while the historiography depicts the left oppressed by McCarthyism. Yet Matthews was attacked by the powerful left in the Roosevelt administration, and the powerful right in the Eisenhower administration. Thus, the old fight of Matthews is in many ways, I think, the same fight we find ourselves in today.

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