Series editors: Alvin Finkel and Greg Kealey
The Canadian Committee on Labour History is Canada’s organization of historians and other scholars interested in the study of the lives and struggles of working people throughout Canada’s past. Since 1976, the CCLH has published Labour/Le travail, Canada’s pre-eminent scholarly journal of labour studies. It also publishes books, now in conjunction with AU Press, that focus on the history of Canada’s working people and their organizations. The emphasis in this series is on materials that are accessible to labour audiences as well as university audiences rather than simply on scholarly studies in the labour area. This includes documentary collections, oral histories, autobiographies, biographies, and provincial and local labour movement histories with a popular bent.
Champagne and Meatballs: Adventures of a Canadian Communist
by Bert Whyte, edited and with an introduction by Larry Hannant
ADVENTURES of a
edited and with an introduction by
CHAPTER ONE Early Years
CHAPTER TWO The 1930s
CHAPTER THREE The War
CHAPTER FOUR Postwar Years
CHAPTER FIVE Letters from China with a foreword by Monica Whyte
In my ongoing quest to interview communists of a certain age, in 2006 I made the acquaintance in Toronto of John Boyd. How I had missed him before that year is one of life’s oddities. Then over ninety years of age, John sat with me for three hours answering my questions and engaging in a lively discussion about the inner politics of the Communist Party of Canada, which he knew intimately for decades. Towards the close of the conversation, he said to me, “You should look up Monica Whyte in Victoria. She has the manuscript memoir of her husband, Bert Whyte.” With that, I came — to my pleasure and instruction — to know Monica and to gain access, indirectly, to Bert Whyte. John has continued to offer assistance that has helped turn Champagne and Meatballs from a manuscript into a book. Numerous other people have also contributed in many ways. Monica Whyte’s input is too comprehensive to begin to describe. Jon Rathbone transformed Whyte’s original typescript into clean computer copy ready for editing; he scanned photos, transcribed a lengthy interview with Monica, and has retained an enduring interest in the Whytes and their story. Bryan Palmer’s assistance has been invaluable. He will disagree — perhaps quite strongly — with some aspects of the introduction. But the fact that, despite his objections, he read both the introduction and the manuscript carefully and made numerous insightful comments speaks to his dedication not just to scholarship but to Left politics in Canada and beyond. Others have read the introduction in various manifestations and offered important suggestions. Jim Hamm, Franca Iacovetta, David Lethbridge, Reg Whitaker, and an anonymous reader for Athabasca University Press are among them. Kim Willoughby encouraged me to persist in the project. All errors, of course, are my own.
— LARRY HANNANT
In addition to John Boyd, I would like to thank Lori Boittiaux for her assistance in organizing and copying the many letters that Bert wrote to Rick and to me, excerpts from which now form a final chapter to Champagne and Meatballs.
If not for Larry’s driving force, this book would still be a manuscript sitting in a drawer.
— MONICA WHYTE
Champagne and Meatballs is Bert Whyte’s account of how he navigated half a century of historical upheaval, mayhem, and catastrophe. Historians call it the twentieth century. Whyte cut a merry path through the Roaring Twenties, bummed across Canada like countless others during the Depression of the 1930s, battled fascism in the Second World War, and held fast to communism throughout the 1950s, despite the Cold War. Communism and anti-communism marked much of his life. He lived through decades when people worldwide were expected to choose between being Red or White. Always the rebel, Whyte dared to be Red. Yet while his choice imposed a burden on him, Whyte was never weighed down by it, and his writing displays this ebullience. Champagne and Meatballs is by turns funny, irreverent, and revealing. Whyte considered it to be an “autobiography of sorts.” He thought it presumptuous to claim to write a formal autobiography, so he assembled a collection of engaging stories about a life of adventure.
As we’re swept into Champagne and Meatballs we discover a man of action with considerable writing talent. True, it’s untutored. Whyte never spent so much as an hour in journalism school. But even the first articles he wrote for the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) press — “What I Know About Relief Camps,” “A Worker Is Dead,” and “Night Freight” — illustrate a capacity to use first-hand observation to vividly sketch the reality of life for common folk. Whyte began writing for the communist press in 1936 and continued to do so for almost forty years. Not only did he cover events across a good part of Canada, he also filed articles from Europe during World War II, and, as official Canadian Tribune correspondent, from Beijing, Moscow, and other parts of Asia and Europe.
Like all of us, James Albert Whyte — known simply as “Bert” — was blessed and cursed by his birth and upbringing. Both his mother and father could trace their ancestry to Scots United Empire Loyalist settlers in eastern Ontario. In 1784, when the Loyalists came to what would become Canada, being Scottish was no special advantage in life, and might in fact have been the mark of McCain. But by 1909, the year of Whyte’s birth, Scottish ancestry had come to be a badge of honour. That didn’t pay the grocery bill, of course. Whyte’s father, Jack, was a skilled worker, but ill health and the vagaries of the boom-and-bust mining economy in northern Ontario, where his folks found their livelihood, cast a net over the family. It let them imagine prosperity but kept them from seizing it.
Yet Whyte’s family also favoured him with a stable and nurturing nest. Despite — yet also in part because of — the stern Christianity of his mother, Edith, there was space for reading, inquiry, and the development of social consciousness. The last was sometimes abstract to the youthful Whyte. Where was Armenia, and why exactly would him finishing the food on his dinner plate help the starving Armenians? Nevertheless, as a boy he learned the simple fact that “there” and “here” are part of a dialectical whole.
Whyte had relatively little formal education, completing school just to grade eight. Still, he became and remained an avid and eclectic reader. In 1950, for instance, he gave a lecture at the Vancouver Book Fair comparing Soviet and Western novelists of the mid-twentieth century, then published the lecture. In 1954 he wrote articles on the Doukhobors, a group of Russian cultural and religious dissidents living in Canada. The series included excerpts from works by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who had helped the Doukhobors escape from tsarist persecution and emigrate to Canada. He introduced his second wife, Monica, to the nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire. But Whyte’s learning was not confined to books. He showed an endless curiosity about the world and the people in it. He could glean the makings of a newspaper story from a bar stool or at the rail of the racetrack as well as in a formal interview with notepad in hand. He drew inspiration for columns based on both the terrifying “hurry up” aspects of army life and the tedious “wait” phases. Characteristically, in 1950, when he interviewed Mary Kardash, a CPC activist just returned from a Moscow conference of the World Federation of Democratic Women, he told her to spare him the formal conference report. “I want to ask you about other things. The people you met. The stores you shopped in. The children. Your impressions of Moscow.”1
Whyte’s determination to savour life’s experiences is never far from the surface in Champagne and Meatballs. He’s a storyteller fascinated by people in all their forms and peculiarities. And he’s intent on making the most of life’s opportunities. As a youth hitchhiking and riding the rods across North America in the 1920s and 1930s, his greatest joy is in his fellow travellers and the folk he encounters en route. Intrinsically he sides with the underdog. But this bias emerges out of action and observation, not study and ideology. Indeed, ideology seems to him almost an afterthought. In this way Champagne and Meatballs contradicts the common image of a communist. Communists are frequently presented in Western culture as ideologically dogmatic, narrowly political, austere, and humourless. Novelist Earle Birney offers up the usual stereotype in Down the Long Table, which depicts the 1930s in Toronto. Among the characters is Kay, a fictional alter ego of communist Jean Watts, who was a contemporary of Whyte’s. Birney has his protagonist, Gordon, describing Kay as a “long, thin-breasted, humourless pedantic wildcat.”2 By contrast, the Whyte we observe in Champagne and Meatballs seems to embrace Karl Marx’s favourite phrase — “Nothing human is foreign to me.”3 Whyte revels in the sensual experience of the pool hall, the boxing ring, the race track, the burlesque theatre. Life for Whyte is a multi-hued kaleidoscope, even if red is the dominant colour in it.
If we take our cue only from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, communism defined Whyte’s life, from his decision to join the CPC, when he was twenty-seven, to his death in 1984, at the age of seventy-four. Relentlessly bureaucratic, the RCMP built up a 3,400-page file on Whyte that is preoccupied with the superficial details of Whyte’s communism. Who did he associate with? What was his position in the party? Where were the meetings he attended? When did he become the Canadian Tribune correspondent in Beijing? But we must ask more penetrating questions. Why did Whyte, the good-humoured sensualist, throw in his lot with this little band of outcasts? Why did he show lifelong loyalty to a party that was saddled with controversy, watched and harassed constantly by the RCMP, and damned for its allegiance, some say subservience, to the Soviet Union? How did the free-spirited Whyte endure party discipline and routine? What kind of communist was Whyte?
Whyte’s decision to take up with the CPC was based on a very practical assessment of which political force in 1930s’ Canada was on the front lines of change. In 1934, when he found himself in Vancouver after riding freight trains and thumbing rides across Canada, he was briefly intrigued by the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW, or Wobblies, was a long-standing collection of militants who had waged epic free-speech battles on the west coast in the first decade of the twentieth century. But, as Whyte observes in his memoir, “for all the fiery speeches, everyone [in the IWW] was either gray-headed or bald.” As for the other left-wing political contender in that volatile decade, J.S. Woodsworth’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), Whyte had an equally utilitarian objection: “All they seemed to want was my vote, with a promise that by 1955 they would be elected to power federally. I couldn’t see that outfit doing anything very revolutionary.” Conditions cried out for fundamental change; if that was what you wanted, the CPC was your choice.
Whyte’s account of throwing in his lot with the Reds is a droll scene like so many in his memoir. Working at the copper smelter in Noranda, Quebec, in the sixth year of the Great Depression, Whyte is trying to organize a union. He’s advised that “someone from Toronto” wants to meet him at midnight. At an all-night diner after his 3:00-to-11:00 p.m. shift he’s indulging in a plate of ham and eggs. He notices a small fellow sidle into the café. The stranger sits down beside him. There’s no intellectual foreplay. The recruiter gets right to business: “You wanna join party?” “Which party?” “Communist Party!” “Sure.” Through this delightfully commonplace exchange, James Albert Whyte set himself on a path that took him into a life of activist journalism, underground organizing, a world war, years of political persecution, and travel across half the world.
There were doubtless many other angry young Canadians in the 1930s who joined the CPC in a similar way. But while he was typical in that sense, Whyte was different in another. Whyte remained in the party, while most quit. One detailed study of rank and file members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) in Chicago from 1928 to 1935, for example, reveals that half of those who joined left within a year.4 The desertion rate from the Canadian party was likely similar. Political disenchantment, boredom, and just plain overwork drove out many. Not Whyte. He stuck with the party through events that led others to see it as The God That Failed — the 1939 German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, the reversal of the party’s stand on World War II, the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s, Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 attack on Joseph Stalin’s leadership, and the Soviet military interventions in the Hungarian political conflict in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. If these crises caused Whyte to doubt the party, he did not confide this to his memoir. Virtually to the end of his life he devoted his verve and his verbs to writing for what he must well have understood were fringe newspapers and audiences.5
Perhaps Whyte weathered all these trials because communism was merely one part of his life. At times, in fact, politics seemed to be mere sideshow. His 1938 political statement in the files of the Communist International, for instance, reads like an early version of On the Road. He recounted adventures and peccadilloes with a breezy frankness: “In 1926 I went on my first . . . tramping trip down to Kentucky. . . . I worked at Noranda from fall 1931 to spring of 1934. . . . I made good money, did plenty of drinking and didn’t save much.”6 What Communist International functionaries in Moscow thought of this is not hard to imagine. Doubtless it confirmed an already well-established Comintern disdain for the political backwardness of leftist Canadians. International commissars’ criticism of the lack of political discipline of Norman Bethune and other Canadians who joined the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War, for example, is well documented.7
Although Whyte stuck with the CPC, he remained a dissident Red until his death. This is well illustrated by a penetrating assessment of the woes of the Communist Party leadership recorded by the RCMP in March 1970. The report was written as communism worldwide struggled to deal with the great blow it suffered with the events in Czechoslovakia of 1968. In April 1968 the Czechoslovakian Communist Party adopted a reform program that promised the country “socialism with a human face.” But when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, led by Leonid Brezhnev, crushed the Czech initiative by military invasion in August 1968, communist parties worldwide, including the CPC, were thrown into what historian Norman Penner described as “a state of utter confusion.”8 Divisions in the CPC were marked, and the party leadership itself changed its stand on the issue several times. (Whyte was the Canadian Tribune correspondent in Moscow at the time; this distance from internal debates within the CPC allowed him to avoid having to take sides on the matter directly.) The RCMP assessment of March 1970, based on the observations of an informer who was extremely well placed in the CPC, detected a profound malaise in the party. The five-page report surveyed the outlook of CPC leaders and offered trenchant judgments of their strengths and weaknesses and the difficulties each faced in the power struggle within what the source considered to be an ailing, stagnant organization.
Whyte’s position and outlook were succinctly summarized when the RCMP informer turned to the problem of how the party would memorialize Leslie Morris, the longtime editor of the Canadian Tribune and, from 1961 to his death in 1964, the general secretary of the CPC. Whyte had worked with Morris for several years and was approached by the party elite to write a biography of him. “Source referred to WHYTE as an opportunistic rather than a dogmatic Communist,” the RCMP report noted. Whyte agreed to write the biography but insisted that he be free to portray Morris “as a man and a Communist. He wanted to write a biography that could be sold as a pocket book on the newsstands which would tell ordinary Canadians what a leading Canadian Communist was like.” This was too radical for the leadership, the RCMP source reported, and they turned to another party insider, John Weir, who wrote an ideological tract whose analysis irritated the Morris family and set off inner-party squabbles. As a result, it was never published.9 So Whyte was denied the chance to present Morris “as a man and a Communist.” But, when it came to an account of his own life, he put up with no such restrictions. The memoir likely benefited from being written in Moscow, where he was living at a safe distance from CPC oversight. Champagne and Meatballs is his unvarnished declaration of independence, a statement of self-affirmation in the face of authorities from right and left.
Why, despite being a dissident in his own party, Whyte remained in it is never openly addressed in the memoir. This is at once its weakness and its strength. Champagne and Meatballs is not a chronicle of self-reflection but a recollection of events and action. As the narrative of an engaging rogue, especially in its account of life on the bum in the 1930s, it joins a long list of picaresques from the legions who were made into drifters by the Great Depression.10 But Whyte’s experience differs in one key way from that of most of his fellow hobos. He quit a good job to join thousands of young men who had no work. And when he tired of tramping, when the daily toil of not working finally wore him out, Whyte returned to the hard-rock smelter he had left earlier. Giving up a job in 1934 was a brave, some might say foolhardy, act. Many working people were putting up with wage cuts, speedups, and other daily humiliations just to keep jobs. It was an act that displayed Whyte’s sense of class solidarity, his independent spirit, and his determination to chronicle life’s experiences. Choosing to leave a job and becoming a blanket-stiff put him among the hundreds of thousands of men his age for whom the open road was not a choice. Equally important, the Depression and World War II were the singular events of his generation. Whyte could no more miss that train than Émile Zola could fail to descend into the satanic mines of nineteenth-century France to chart the agonizing birth of the industrial world.
Not only in recounting his experiences on the road but throughout Champagne and Meatballs, Whyte portrays humanity affectionately but not romantically. He presents a host of engaging characters — the small businessman who gives Whyte his first job, his hobo pals, his workmates in the smelting plant, his comrades in the Communist Party. Although Whyte is political, these vignettes are often not politicized. Even the magistrate in Sioux Lookout, in northern Ontario — who would represent, for most leftists, an instrument of class-based capitalist injustice — shares a laugh with Whyte and his co-accused at the expense of the dumb cops who believe they’ve snared a cell of international revolutionaries rather than five mouthy youths fed up with the indignities of life at a federal slave labour camp. For Whyte, experience came first, ideology second. Humanity was primary for him, communism secondary.
Like many young Canadians who in the 1930s rode the freights to a leftist political consciousness, Whyte was ready to make the next logical step and fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini armed and aided General Francisco Franco’s military rebellion against the elected republican government in Spain, hoping to add another country to the fascist bloc. Tens of thousands of people worldwide saw it as their duty to fight this fascist threat. Close to 1,700 of them were from Canada. Whyte desperately wanted to join them, but internal Communist Party dynamics ruled this out. Party leaders saw Whyte as a relative rarity among party activists — a native-born, articulate Canadian with a knack for organizing. They were not prepared to let this promising activist, whose roots went back to the United Empire Loyalists, run the risk of dying in Spain. So Whyte was kept at home, while his long-time friend and travelling buddy, Jimmy Black, volunteered and went overseas with the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. In Spain, Black earned commendations for his bravery in battle and, at the age of only twenty-six, an untimely death.11 No one can enumerate all the factors, from the global to the personal, that may lead people to act, but the memory of Black’s death was no doubt part of what sent Whyte into the Canadian army in January 1942 to fight in the next round of the world war against fascism. This time the party did not stop him.
The RCMP began tracking Whyte in 1936, when it noticed his articles in the communist paper the Daily Clarion.12 The RCMP’s file on him would continue to grow, so that by the time of his death it would contain (complete with military records) over 3,400 pages. (Most of the retrieved pages have, unfortunately, been severely redacted by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which has the authority to vet RCMP Security Service files now in Library and Archives Canada.)13 The frequency of the RCMP’s reports would increase during World War II. One police document, from the period when the party was banned, suggests that although Whyte was “underground,” he had not totally escaped the attention of the RCMP. It notes that “Bert Whyte, a member of the CP, who is organizing in small country towns where he is not well known, is trying [to] cause trouble wherever possible.”14 Even though he was under surveillance, Whyte avoided arrest, unlike many communists who tried to disappear. Ben Swankey, another CPC organizer who was instructed by the party to vanish and organize secretly, was not so lucky. Swankey, who admits that he “knew nothing about underground work” and apparently received no instruction in it from party leaders, decided that avoiding arrest meant that “I never appeared anywhere in daytime.” As a result he “felt isolated . . . and out of touch with the CPC leadership.” Even this didn’t stop him from being picked up by the RCMP and interned in 1940. Swankey concluded that “this ‘underground’ activity was as amateurish as it was ill-advised.”15
No doubt it was poorly carried out. Despite repression in the 1930s, the Communist Party of Canada had little experience in this kind of politics. But, had the two men conferred, Whyte might have taught Swankey a few lessons. Whyte positively thrived during his days underground in Ottawa. He sketches the time with a delicious humour that also reveals how different was his strategy from Swankey’s. Whyte decided that avoiding arrest required being open and looking as conventional as possible. His cover was that he sold picture frames, which justified him travelling in and around Ottawa. And, to complete the image, some well-deserved luxury: “When I needed a haircut I went to the expensive barber shop in the Chateau Laurier. I avoided eating in cheap cafes and often conferred with the chain store manager [a covert CPC member] over a good dinner at a respectable hotel dining room — letting him settle the tab. I dressed conservatively and wore a blue homburg.” Once Whyte was in an elevator in the parliament buildings when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, no doubt wearing a similar three-piece suit, joined him.16 One suspects that Whyte might just have enjoyed playing the bourgeois.
Another aspect of his strategy for survival underground involved hobnobbing with people who could never be accused of radicalism. Whyte joined a bridge club at the YMCA, for instance, where he frequently found himself in a foursome with the editor of a Roman Catholic newspaper that was “known for its anti-communist views.” Although he later admitted to his wife, Monica, that from time to time he feared his cover had been blown, he continued to play his hand as a respectable member of Ottawa society.
When he was in character as a Red, Whyte’s underground party work in early World War II involved writing, reproducing, and distributing the clandestine Ottawa Clarion and other CPC leaflets. They were simple mimeographed productions, but for the better part of six months, as the party struggled under illegality, these publications tweaked the noses of the establishment. Indeed, living under the threat of arrest didn’t deny Whyte and the other CPC activists in Ottawa their fun. Just to show that the arrest and jailing of party members like Harry Binder in 1940 had not entirely stifled opposition, in January 1941 Whyte and his comrades mailed a copy of the Clarion to the editor of the Globe and Mail. Alarmed, a Globe editorial writer lamented that “there is published in Ottawa, right under the Government’s nose, The Clarion, boldly announced as ‘organ of the Ottawa District of the Communist Party of Canada’. There is a defiant ignoring of the fact that the Communist Party is declared an unlawful organization in this country.” The Ottawa Citizen then took up the case and asked the local RCMP where the Clarion was being printed. The resulting article gave Whyte and his comrades still more grist for humour. As the Clarion summed it up: “In other words, no paper is printed here but the police are actively searching for the printing shop where it isn’t being printed. Simple, isn’t it? Perhaps the RCMP sleuths lack only a starting clue — a whiff of perfume, a broken comb, a soiled handkerchief, or something. The editor of The Clarion, anxious to be of help, is herewith enclosing a lock of his hair with this issue of The Clarion going to the Globe and Mail.”17
The first two years of World War II, however, were not all spy-vs.-spy thrills for the Communist Party. It was not just a matter of being outlawed. The CPC also found itself losing support because of dramatic shifts in its political position. After the outbreak of hostilities on September 1, 1939, the CPC leadership initially thought that Canada should join the war, viewing it as a campaign against fascism. Yet on September 20 it reversed direction, calling the war a fight between rival imperialists that people should reject.18 In his memoir, Whyte skated around the switch, explaining only that “after a period of indecision, the CPC declared that it was an imperialist war, between imperialist powers, for imperialist aims on both sides.” Assessing the reversal, historian Norman Penner asked why communist parties worldwide made such an about-face. “The answer is that . . . Joseph Stalin issued [a] directive through the Communist International to all Communist Parties” declaring the war to be imperialist and unjust.19 In his memoir, Ben Swankey declared that the party’s “uncritical acceptance of the [Communist International’s stand on the war] was a major error.” On June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the Canadian party, following the Comintern’s decree, reversed itself again and declared the war to be a general struggle against fascism and urged an all-out Canadian war effort.
The “Stalin-as-master-manipulator” argument has come to be widely accepted as an explanation for the peregrinations of the CPC during World War II and for a broad range of flaws in the party’s political line and practice. But it’s important to recognize that conditions from 1933 to 1941 worldwide were extremely complex and rapidly fluctuating. The reason was the political volatility of the Great Depression and the terrifying advance of fascism, which was an aggressive, anti-democratic bid to preserve capitalism in what appeared to be its hour of final crisis. The intense political manoeuvring inside Germany that led to Hitler being appointed chancellor of Germany in January 1933 soon turned into an even more complicated international contention over the political future of the world. In this time of heightened conflict, the consequences of error could be catastrophic — witness the destruction of the sizable Communist Party of Germany after Hitler took power.
In response to these explosive changes, international communism was forced to shift its tactics more than once. But to claim that communists alone changed their tactics in this complex situation is to ignore the facts. The British elite, for example, reversed course frequently between 1938 and 1941. In September 1938 Neville Chamberlain, a prime minister whom historians Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel describe as colluding with Hitler, signed the Munich deal with Germany. Chamberlain hoped that sacrificing part of Czechoslovakia in this way would guarantee peace between Britain and Germany. Hitler, however, upped the ante in the spring of 1939, seizing the rest of Czechoslovakia. As a tactical response, the British elite shifted to threats of war. When, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, which Britain had pledged to defend, Britain declared war. But it did nothing to help Poland; for eight months the conflict remained strictly the “Phoney War.” In May 1940, when what the British press had taken to calling the “sitzkrieg” became a German blitzkrieg throughout western Europe, Hitler-colluder Chamberlain was replaced by Hitler-antagonist Winston Churchill. In June 1941, Britain did another about-face after Germany turned its military forces on the Soviet Union. The fiercely anti-communist Churchill contradicted his own political stand and embraced the USSR as an ally. Thus, in a bid to live on, from 1938 to 1941 the British elite acted like nothing more than a child’s top, constantly spinning.20 Virtually every world political party and leader of any significance shifted to and fro in a similar fashion as concrete conditions changed. The international communist movement, centred in the Soviet Union, well understood Western capitalism’s hostility to it. If communism had not adjusted its tactics to keep abreast of the new developments that emerged daily, it would have been doomed to oblivion. Instead communism not only survived this period of contention but emerged considerably strengthened from the dozen years of struggle against fascism.
If they were mindlessly following Stalin’s decrees, Whyte and his comrades at the Ottawa Clarion displayed some considerable political panache in their subservience. On February 1, 1941, the Clarion laid out an impressive synopsis of the war under the headline “Communists and the War.” The article noted that after seventeen months of war, its character in Canada was clear. Civil liberties had been suppressed, national registration and conscription legislation had been passed and the screws of state control tightened. “War profiteers are having a field day. . . . The rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer.” The Communist Party, the Ottawa Clarion added, had anticipated this, and at its Eighth Dominion Convention in October 1937 it had urged Canadians to fight for peace. However, the CPC had declared at the time that “should imperialist war none the less break out despite the struggle for peace,” communists would follow the plan of the Communist International, which called on progressive people “to work for [the war’s] speedy termination” and use the opportunity to “hasten the downfall of capitalist class domination.” With considerable foresight the Communist International also anticipated the German invasion of the USSR, advising communists worldwide that in the event of “a counter-revolutionary attack on the Soviet Union,” it would be the duty of all progressives “to do everything possible for the defeat of the imperialist and fascist forces.”21 This points out that what is commonly referred to as the Second World War was not one war but a series of wars with different characteristics at different moments. Different tactics, therefore, were required at each unique moment. Was fascism such a scourge that its opponents should never contemplate any tactical shifts? To argue that is to believe that all wars must be fought by an unrelenting offensive — surely a recipe for failure.
In 1942, world events reshaped Whyte’s personal path. When the Grand Alliance of Britain, the USSR, and the USA temporarily fell into place in January 1942, Bert Whyte faced a new future. We don’t know how much of his action was due to his consciousness of an international political trajectory and how much to his personal regret that he had missed an earlier battle against fascism in Spain. But his resolve was clear. On January 26, 1942, Whyte joined the Canadian military to fight fascism in Europe. He served in uniform for the next four years, ending the conflict with the rank of corporal. When he signed up with the Toronto Scottish Regiment at the age of thirty-three, he was an older-than-average soldier. His attestation papers recorded only that he was a reporter in civilian life and mentioned no political activism. The Communist Party had ended its opposition to the war when the USSR was invaded on June 22, 1941, and was now urging the government and all Canadians to exert every effort to defeat fascism. Still, the Canadian military was resistant to allowing communists to enlist, so prudence no doubt contributed to Whyte keeping quiet about his political practice.22
Before throwing himself into the military, Whyte arranged his personal affairs. This included formalizing his first marriage. He wed fellow communist activist Rita on January 9, 1942, just over two weeks before enlistment.23 Although an active western European front was not yet established, and would not exist until June 1944, his assessment of the war up to that point had led Whyte to conclude that quite possibly he would not survive, so it was only fair that Rita should have whatever benefits would be given to war widows.24
More than simply a good soldier, Whyte was a principled one. Being older and having professional skills of a higher level than most recruits, he could easily have negotiated his way out of front-line service. But eradicating fascism from the world required everyone to make sacrifices, and Whyte saw no reason why he should hide behind some less advantaged buddy. So from June 1944 to the end of the war he was part of the Canadian Army’s Second Infantry Division, at the sharp end of the fighting in western Europe.
Just because his life was in danger, of course, didn’t mean that he couldn’t have fun. Indeed, it made a good case for enjoying what life there was. Whyte’s account of the years from 1942 to 1945 in Europe suggests that he didn’t let war get in the way of meeting people, sharing drinks, and writing about his experience for the new communist paper, the Canadian Tribune. On his discharge, Canadian army Captain E.B. Morgan wrote favourably about Whyte and the prospects for him in civilian life, apparently having no difficulty with Whyte’s communist affiliations. “He has maintained his contacts with this work while overseas and is now coming back as political organizer for his party in Toronto. . . . From personal experience, this counsellor is ready to vouch for Whyte’s exceptional ability in this type of work. He is a hard [and] conscientious worker, a good organizer and an able speaker. His newspaper experience will be very handy in coordinating the party paper’s effort with the general policy.”25 Such praise would have fit well into the report of a counterpart in the Soviet military.
Morgan’s optimism notwithstanding, prospects for the Toronto organizer of the Communist Party, which Whyte became in 1946, were not bright. The world popularity of communism that developed as a result of the Soviet Union playing the primary role in crushing fascism did spill over into Canada, but only briefly. The high tide began to ebb as early as September 5, 1945, when the agitated Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko entered the editorial office of the Ottawa Journal. With his heavy Russian accent, no one could understand much of the Soviet spy’s plea for refuge. But one phrase was clear. “It’s war,” he insisted. “It’s war.” War it was. Not the bloody combat that had just engulfed half the world, but a Cold War that would embrace the entire planet.
Toronto was one front in the global anti-communist crusade that Gouzenko helped to launch. In the elections of 1945 and 1946, communist candidates had been elected both to the City Council and to the Board of Control (the predecessor of the Executive Committee). Stewart Smith, the son of the grand old man of Canadian communism, A.E. Smith, had carved out a place for himself on the Board of Control and won respect even in Tory Toronto as an able administrator. But 1947 was different. One of the candidates for the board, M.A. Sanderson, who in his advertisements proclaimed his pride in being a veteran of the First World War, insisted there was only one issue — “no meddling by Moscow in Toronto’s Civil Affairs.” Stewart, apparently, was Moscow’s Man in Maple Leaf Land. The Communists replied with Bert Whyte. Pictured in his Toronto Scottish uniform over the caption “A Vet? You Bet!” Whyte implored voters to keep Smith on the board. Whyte’s appeal failed. A triumphant front page Globe and Mail headline of January 2, 1947 told the story: “Smith Ousted from Board of Control.”26
Despite the defeat, Whyte was seen as a rising figure in the party (which, because the Communist Party had been outlawed, in 1943 rechristened itself as the Labour-Progressive Party). In a report to the second annual convention of the Toronto and York Labour-Progressive Party, leader Charles Sims declared that among the two thousand members in the city and region, young ones like Bert Whyte were the force of the future and could expect to take on new roles. Accordingly, in June 1946 Whyte was chosen as an Ontario representative on the National Committee of the party — colloquially known as the Central Committee — and went on to attend the party’s leadership training school.27 In 1947, as part of a plan to strengthen the Canadian Tribune, Whyte was urged to take up his neglected journalism career. He likely needed little convincing. However, the anti-communist tenor of the times made it difficult for a daily Tribune to survive, and when, after six months as a daily, it returned to being a weekly, Whyte’s thoughts turned to relocating to British Columbia. From 1948 to 1960 he would be a feature of the left wing in Vancouver and southern BC, writing for the communist Pacific Tribune.
With the move to the west coast, Whyte lost his celebrity status within the party. But he might not, in fact, have seen this as a drawback. At the Pacific Tribune he was far removed from petty political sparring at party headquarters, and he could engage other facets of his character and intellectual interests. Literature, sports, politics — he would write on all these topics and more in Vancouver.
Not everything was idyllic on the coast. Whyte had an independent streak that landed him in trouble with both capitalist authorities and his own comrades. Tormenting the former was, of course, a communist’s very raison d’être. Still, it could be traumatic. In 1952, for instance, Whyte broke a story in the Pacific Tribune that exposed Vancouver cops’ racist violence against the city’s black citizens. Beatings of blacks by the police, systemic bias against them in the city’s Hogan’s Alley bars, and anti-black job discrimination were all common in Vancouver of the early 1950s. The beating of fifty-two-year-old black longshoreman Clarence Clemons on July 19, 1952, might have been another instance that was ignored by the media and politicians except for two factors: Clemons was battered so severely that he died five months later, and the Pacific Tribune featured the story. After Clemons was assaulted by Constable Dan Brown, whom local blacks called “a Negro-hating cop,” Clemons’s family and supporters went to the Vancouver Sun. The Sun refused to run an article. Whyte, however, picked up the case and, beginning on August 8, 1952, for the next several months wrote articles that kept the issue prominent in the city.28 In January 1953 the matter took a new turn when Brown initiated a libel suit against the Pacific Tribune and two of its editors. Whyte managed to avoid being included in the court case because the paper did not make frequent use of bylines then, so the key articles about Clemons and Brown did not appear under Whyte’s name. But the financial pressure of a libel case weighed heavily on a struggling weekly paper, and editor Tom McEwen confided to a friend in Toronto that the legal action promised to be “loaded with . . . headaches.”29 The paper emerged, however, with a victory of sorts — an out-of-court settlement that required no apology and a payment to Constable Brown of just $750.
A story that Whyte was not so happy to have explode in his hands was the controversy over the March 17, 1955, riot by Montreal Canadiens’ fans over the suspension of their hero, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, by National Hockey League President Clarence Campbell. The fans were infuriated over Campbell’s decision that Richard could not play out the balance of the season or in the playoffs because he had violently attacked both an opposing player and a referee. Joined by other Montrealers, who were stirred by a rising national and class militancy in Quebec, fans trashed downtown Montreal, causing $500,000 damage. Whyte weighed into the donnybrook in his column, Sportlight, and in a news article about the events. The article — more column than reportage — blamed Richard for the trouble, saying it was “high time such temperamental outbursts were ended.” As for the fans and the “punk hoodlums” involved in the riot, “well, they deserve the full penalty of the law.” This was a continuation of Whyte’s ongoing campaign against excessive violence in NHL hockey, which he contrasted to the cleaner, quicker game played in the Soviet Union. Still, coming from a communist, it sounded curiously conservative. In an accompanying column, Whyte made matters worse by skating with the class enemy, arguing that “NHL president Campbell was right.”30 The Communist Party’s National Executive Committee was not impressed. Party brass wanted Whyte to write a column to recant, but he refused.31 That shot the puck back behind Toronto’s blue line. In the next issue of Pacific Tribune, headquarters sent in the party line: the issue in the dispute was national and class bias. Campbell’s suspension of Richard was “unwarranted . . . and a clear case of discrimination against French Canada’s Mr. Hockey.” Richard was merely doing what others taught him, and “why should the Rocket take the rap” for Anglophone hockey club owners and coaches such as “the Smythes, the Adams and yes, the Irvins too?”32 The issue likely confirmed an important fact to party leaders: just as war is too important to be left to the generals, reporting on the politics of sport is too delicate to be left to the sports reporter. Whyte was furious about being overruled, but he kept his mouth shut and remained on the team.33
Aside from favourite hobbies like horse racing, Whyte could and did pursue in Vancouver another interest — women. To say that Whyte was a handsome man would be an understatement. Boxing in his youth and an early life of roughing it had given him a broad set of shoulders that was topped by a well-crafted face. Even the RCMP remarked on his dapper appearance. And his physical good looks were augmented by an appealing wit and intelligence. His attractiveness to women was matched by his interest in them. His marriage to Rita was marked by occasional dalliances. Aside from what he no doubt heard about this at home, his appreciation for the finely etched shape of a woman got him into political trouble more than once. In a 1951 Sportlight column that featured a photo of a Soviet female gymnast wearing shorts, he slyly referred to what he regarded as excessive Communist Party puritanism: “The last time this column printed a picture of a pretty girl in a bathing suit it resulted in a deluge of protests (2) against exhibiting a gal’s l-gs.”34 Victorian furniture had to have its legs covered, lest they prove suggestive. In the 1950s’ Communist press, females had to have the very mention of theirs abbreviated in order to purge impure thoughts. But the “protests (2)” against Whyte did not teach this clever reprobate a lesson. In 1965, briefly back in Toronto, he wrote a review of a show titled “This Was Burlesque” at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, calling this celebration of a passing era “a trip down mammary lane.” The Canadian Tribune editor, John Boyd, took momentary leave of his political sanity and published it. Then he compounded his infraction by including a photo of burlesque artist Ann Corio. Feminists in the party did not appreciate the article.35
While from time to time some women were a curse to Whyte, one particular woman turned out to be a blessing. In Vancouver Whyte met a woman as fetching, charismatic, and politically engaged as he was. Monica Roberts, ironically, came from a family of White Russian gentry who had fled the revolutionary changes in their homeland after 1917 and ended up on the west coast of Canada. Given this traumatic history, the family held deep-seated political sentiments — not all of them progressive. Monica, however, benefited from her family’s attention to politics and from being raised by an emancipated, free-thinking grandmother. Ever the rebel, by age seventeen she was a member of the Communist Party of Canada, and, beginning in 1957, was the BC leader of the National Federation of Labour Youth, the CPC organization whose goal was to bring young people into the party. She cut a fine figure in left-wing circles in BC, and it was little surprise that in 1951 she married fellow activist Roy Samuelson. She was just seventeen, he a decade older. She was reluctant to marry, but, paradoxically, was also seduced by the exciting prospect of “wearing a long white dress to my wedding.”36
In 1953 she and Whyte began a relationship that, she said, “started on a light note, with the tacit understanding that it was an affair, nothing more.” Several times a week they enjoyed an adventure together — mini-golf at Stanley Park, a horse race, or the poolroom, where women were rarely seen. All the while, the two couples continued to socialize, celebrate birthdays, and even vacation together. In the midst of this, Monica became pregnant, and late in 1954 Eric (Ricky) was born. After that, Monica later recalled, she grew increasingly unhappy.37
Another complication in their relationship was the Communist Party itself. Most of the party leaders and members were fully aware that, like human organizations of all kinds, theirs was one built of mismatched timber. Party members were not always paragons of bourgeois morality. Many of the leaders — Fred Rose, Harvey Murphy, and Dewar Ferguson, among others — were well acquainted with the bottle. And Tim Buck, the CPC general secretary from 1929 to 1964, carried on a three-decade-long intimate relationship with Bess Mascolo, apparently without the knowledge of his wife, Alice.38 Aside from a wish to avoid scandal that might harm the party, why should communists accept monogamy? Hadn’t communists going back to Friedrich Engels dismissed bourgeois marriage as an extension of capitalist property relations? Ideology aside, however, the Communist Party of Canada was a small subculture, and Whyte and Monica found little privacy within it. For whatever reason — perhaps it was the twenty-five-year difference in age between the two — an anonymous party insider inundated CPC leaders with letters condemning their ongoing affair. Party headquarters in Toronto agreed with Whyte and Monica that this was a personal matter, but the whisper campaign did increase the pressure on the illicit couple. Finally, in 1959, after much anguish, Whyte and Monica broke with their spouses and, together with their son, established a household.
Fate, or opportunity, gave them no time to rest. Late in 1959 Whyte was offered the position of Canadian Tribune correspondent in Beijing, covering events in the People’s Republic of China. Since a small weekly paper could never afford such an extravagance, the Chinese government paid the correspondent’s salary and expenses. (This was a comparatively small financial inducement to the Canadian Tribune; a far more substantial subsidy came from the USSR, which ordered and paid for many copies of the Canadian paper to distribute in a country where almost no one read English.) Whyte accepted the offer, but he was uncertain how the Chinese might react if he brought along a woman to whom he was not married, to say nothing of their child. And so Monica and Ricky temporarily stayed behind. Soon after his arrival in Beijing, however, Whyte spoke with a fellow correspondent, Alan Winnington from the British Daily Worker, who advised him that the Chinese would in fact have no objection. Perhaps the CPC would also be no barrier. On July 4, Whyte exulted in a letter to Monica that Nelson Clarke at the Tribune had advised him that “we consider this to be a personal, family matter” and saw no reason why all three could not be reunited in Beijing. In September 1960, they were.
To arrive in China in 1960 was a superb opportunity to assess the wisdom of the well-known Chinese proverb/curse: “May you live in interesting times.” By March 1960, when Whyte took up his posting, “interesting times” were beginning to be evident in China in the growing rift between the Soviets and the Chinese. Tensions within the international communist system were already becoming public, even if the communists themselves were not prepared to admit to any significant discord. The Chinese revolutionary upheaval had been a challenge to the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union right from the 1920s. Although Joseph Stalin had welcomed the Communist victory in China in 1949, astute political observers elsewhere in the world were alert to possible contention between him and Mao Zedong. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev set out a new foreign policy strategy that called for peaceful coexistence with the United States. Having fought the US military in the Korean War and seen that part of the country’s elite was ready to seize any pretext to attack China and even use nuclear weapons to do so, Mao Zedong was understandably skeptical that US imperialism was capable of “peaceful coexistence.”39 (Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, people worldwide have considerable evidence that supports Mao’s view of US imperialism.) Disagreements between the USSR and China on other matters of international communist strategy followed. Encouraging that rivalry was a plan set out in the bible of the ultra-conservative wing of the American elite, U.S. News and World Report, in January 1950, just three months after the birth of the People’s Republic of China. The magazine suggested the following strategic attitude: “Good Commies