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Colonel Evans Fordyce Carlson: Our Most Patriotic Communist?

A military memorandum re: the communist sympathizer who taught Maoist tactics to the Marines’ Raider battalions.
Colonel Evans Fordyce Carlson (Photo: Wikimedia Commons) 

Colonel Evans Fordyce Carlson (Photo: Wikimedia Commons) 

04 JUL 2015

From: Adam Weinstein
To: Readers, Pacific Standard

1. Try to imagine a Fourth of July without the United States Marine Corps. You cannot. The Marines are ubiquitous in America’s myths, from Montezuma’s halls to Tripoli’s shores and points between and beyond. They are the elite of the armed forces, keepers of the “President’s Own” band, lifters of the Iwo Jima flag, dazzlingly uniformed high priests of pomp and patriotism, maintaining the national heartbeat at 120 steps per minute.

2. The Marine ethos rarely tolerates distinctions, but it made a major exception last month. Since 2003, bowing to the demands of expeditionary warfare, the Corps has fielded an elite within the elite, a cadre of special forces clunkily referred to by their designated acronym: MARSOC. But the Corps’ new leadership held a solemn June ceremony at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to re-name MARSOC’s Marines in honor of the service’s earlier elite: the Raider Battalions, born 1942, died 1944.

3. In press coverage of the re-naming, some mention was made of the Raiders’ famous motto, “gung ho,” and its permeation into the American vernacular. No mention was made of the Marine who coined the phrase, who did the most to build the original Raiders’ war-era legend and transform the Corps’ way of warfare with it. This is probably because that officer, Colonel Evans Fordyce Carlson, was a racially progressive, bleeding-heart communist sympathizer. “Gung ho” was a cry of solidarity with Chinese communism.

4. Carlson was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in 1947. Later that year, he was posthumously blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for communist associations. HUAC was not wrong. Carlson had openly sided with Mao Zedong and his Reds in the Chinese Civil War, eagerly telling politicians and audiences that the U.S. should back Mao. Alongside black entertainer and communist activist Paul Robeson, Carlson co-chaired the Committee to Win the Peace, a Soviet-controlled U.S. organization that fought for international engagement and domestic workers’ rights. While fellow Marines were celebrating America’s victory in World War II and our emergence as a superpower, Carlson was admonishing them to practice social justice at home: “Our expanding influence in the world today imposes the responsibility for inspecting minutely our expression of the way of life we sponsor,” he wrote in the foreword to a 1945 book advocating racial integration in the military. “We must mend the fences of our democratic society, and one of the gaps most in need of attention is the prejudice practiced in many communities against the Negro citizen.” Robeson attended Carlson’s funeral. Mao sent his wife a letter of condolence. She would later run unsuccessfully for Congress in Portland, Oregon, as a Progressive.

5. Carlson might have been dismissed as a nut if not for his hotline to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he’d served as a Marine guard at the president’s residence in Warm Springs, Georgia. A longtime China hand, having first served there in 1927, Carlson left the Corps before World War II to travel (freely) to China and publicly speak on behalf of Mao in his struggle against Japan. Carlson maintained a secret correspondence with Roosevelt, offering the president a minority report on Far East developments.

6. When war with Japan broke out, Carlson returned to the Marines and succeeded in convincing FDR to form the Raider battalions to wage guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. Carlson took command of a West Coast Raider battalion. His deputy was James Roosevelt, the president’s oldest son.

7. Carlson’s Raider battalion was consciously patterned after Mao’s Eighth Route Army, with which Carlson had traveled in the late ’30s. Traditional force structure was replaced by a 10-man squad, consisting of a leader and three three-man fire teams—an innovation still used by infantry forces today. The unit was taught by its “Old Man” to think of itself as a single organism, in the spirit of “gung ho”—an “everybody works together” attitude whose name was taken from the Chinese for an industrial cooperative set up to aid the nascent communist communities there. Most radically, Carlson insisted on “ethical indoctrination” of his Raiders: political and moral education about the cause for which they fought. This is not the typical, apolitical sense of duty one tends to associate with the Marines.

8. Carlson was not ideologically alone, even in the ranks. Another old China Marine, Samuel B. Griffith, served in the First Raider Battalion and later took a D.Phil. at Oxford so that he could translate Mao and Sun Tzu into English. When future presidents like John F. Kennedy read Mao—as they invariably did—they read Griffith’s translation.

9. Carlson also stormed Tarawa with David Monroe Shoup, another old friend from the China days, whose valor on that island that day would earn him a Medal of Honor. Shoup would later become the Marine Corps commandant under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy’s cabinet was mulling an invasion of Cuba, Shoup reportedly presented the president with a projected image of the island. He then superimposed a photo of Tarawa, the tiny, nine-square-mile atoll where nearly 2,000 of Shoup’s and Carlson’s Marines had been killed, to make the point that assaulting an island as big as Cuba was suicidal folly.

10. After retiring from the Corps, Shoup would vocally oppose the Vietnam War, American imperialism, and a creeping militarist perspective that he saw supplanting true patriotism.

11. Here is Shoup in one of his last speeches as a Marine, in 1962:

Patriotism is not something you put on each morning like a clean shirt. Patriotism is not something you can buy at the super market. Patriotism is not something you can get in return for a monthly paycheck to a man in uniform.... It is a deep faith in what we are for, not a hatred for things we are against. American patriots need not hate nor fear anyone. Fear and hate are corrosive and carry the seeds for the destruction of the deep patriotism so necessary to ensure the future of America.

12. How could a legendarily lockstep military service accommodate such progressive, vocal dissent? The short answer is that it has always done so, even if we don’t remember it that way. “The Marine Corps cherishes the individuality of its members and, although sternly consecrated in discipline, has cheerfully sheltered a legion of non-conformist, flamboyant individuals and irradiant personalities,” the Marine Officer’s Guide states. “It is a perennial prediction that colorful characters are about to vanish from the Corps. They never have and never will.”

13. It is unclear whether the Corps’ new Raiders will consciously honor lefty forbears like Carlson and Shoup. The Marines have already made clear that they will not be adopting the old Raiders’ legendary skull emblem. But then perhaps there will be space for the old dissenters in the new legends; there’s only one standard of success in the Corps, and it applies to communists and capitalists alike. It’s encapsulated in Shoup’s final apocryphal response to a critic of Carlson. “He may have been red,” Shoup said of the Old Man, “but he wasn’t yellow.”

Very Respectfully,

Unlikely Patriots is our series of essays for July 4th that celebrates surprising, forgotten, and/or contrarian expressions of love for one's country.