Kostis Karpozilos (Kωστής Καρπόζηλος), Κόκκινη Αμερική. Έλληνες μετανάστες και το όραμα ενός Νέου Κόσμου 1900-1950 [Red America: Greek Immigrants and the Vision of a New World 1900-1950]. Ηράκλειο: Πανεπιστημιακές Εκδόσεις Κρήτης. 2017. Pp. 541. Paper €16,80.
Books that bridge the history of Greek immigration to the United States with the history of Greece are few and far between. Although the immigration of Greeks to North America alerted Greek scholars early on of the phenomenon’s importance, very few historians of Greece and the Greek diaspora followed in the steps of J. P. Xenides or Andreas Andreadis, two of the first scholars to study Greek immigration to North America. Kostis Karpozilos, Director of the Archives of Contemporary Social History (ASKI) in Athens, has enriched the historiography of Greeks in the United States (comprised primarily of the work by Dan Georgakas, Alexander Kitroeff, Steve Frangos, and Yiorgos Anagnostou, as well as the work of Ioanna Laliotou, Yiannis Papadopoulos, and Christos Mandatzis), simultaneously contributing to the history of the U.S. labor movement—heretofore unknown to Greek audiences—and written in an engaging, lucid and often moving prose.
Delving into the history of Greek radicals in the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century, the book, Kokkini Ameriki (Red America), tells the story of a few but influential and very committed political activists who wrote, demonstrated, mobilized, and went on strike together with their immigrant comrades in many corners of the United States. An extension of the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Crete, the original work was complemented with extensive periods of research at Princeton and Columbia Universities. The narrative is engaging, the references to archival sources abundant, and the sequence of events from the early years of the twentieth century to the 1940s, to the demise of the U.S. Left in the postwar period, is clear. With the dissolution of the U.S. Communist Party, this chapter of Greek American history and period of radicalism came to an end. The latter, of course, was a much more complex story, as the activism of many Greek American radicals succumbed to the often formidable pressures of assimilation into middle-class Americanism and the rising tide of anticommunism that gripped the United States in the first years of the Cold War.
The book narrates the story of Greek radicalism in America before and during the emergence of the U.S. Communist Party in 1919 and creates a truly transnational narrative of the Greek Left, making connections between Greek communists in Greece and those who radicalized in the United States, as well as their participation in the solidarity brigade of the Spanish Civil War that fought in defense of republicanism. The subtitle of the book, Greek Immigrants and the Vision of a New World, 1900-1950, speaks to the aspirations of the politically mobilized “progressives” who migrated to the Americas and, specifically, to the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century and developed a politicized progressive vision of the country. The timeline of the book distinguishes it from other histories and accounts of “Greek Americans” or of “the diaspora” (in the singular, as that term commonly appears in the relevant literature). Kostis Karpozilos’s book invites us to rethink this often singular and narrow definition and interpretation of diaspora history. The book demonstrates empirically how to approach the history of the Greek (Left) diaspora, not only to study the history of Greek Americans in the first half of the twentieth century but to also examine the history of other diasporas such as Greek Canadians and Greek Australians in the postwar period.
The book’s innovative approach, as the title of the first chapter (“Radicals of Two Worlds”) indicates, builds on the story and fortunes of the Greek Left movement, broadly speaking, from its first encounters with the radical labor movement to the cataclysmic 1940s that undermined all certainties, including those held by the radical left in the United States, and eventually led to the dissolution of the American Communist Party in 1944. Drawing on microhistories, on the hybrid identity of the book’s protagonists as simultaneously Greek, American, and radical, the book represents the best social and political history of migration—a history of the social and political lives of Greek migrants in the United States—in the Greek language. I have no doubt that the book would generate interest among historians working in various fields if it were published in English. The book also places the history of the Greek immigrant experience in the context of the history of the American Left, a history largely unknown to its Greek audience, without being a grand narrative that propagates uncritically the struggle of the Left; instead the book demonstrates the “multiplicity of the immigrant experience” through the story of Greek American radicalism (14). A few years ago Karpozilos turned his research into public history, popularizing this story in the documentary Tαξισυνειδησία: Η Άγνωστη Ιστορία του Ελληνοαμερικανικού Ριζοσπαστισμού [“Class Consciousness: The Unknown History of Greek American Radicalism”]. His findings are similar to those of the radicalization of Greeks in Egypt as seen in the work of Angelos Ntalachanis (2015; 2017).
The book follows a chronological sequence from 1900 to 1956 and is divided into six chapters that delve into various themes that dominated the history of Greek American radicals, the history of the U.S. labor movement, as well as the reaction of the American government to that movement. To this end, the book draws connections beween developments in the United States and the response to those developments among supporters of the Left in Greece, and vice versa. This is an engaging, transnational story of the Left and of Greek American radicals that takes the now-dated debate of the middle- and working-class history of Greek Americans much further. Indeed, Karpozilos links the important events of Greek and U.S. history through the history of organizations, individuals, publications, and movements. The story that emerges is one of an impressive, connected, and politically committed internationalist movement that promoted the socialist cause, the interests of the working classes, and the defense of democracy from Spain in the 1930s to Greece in the 1940s. The book also details how the economic and social tragedies of the Great Depression did not leave Greek Americans unaffected, sending shockwaves among communities and organizations within the United States. In this manner, Karpozilos traces how such turning points in the history of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century also punctuated the history of Greek Americans. The book would have been even more engaging had it unearthed information about the character, contexts, and complexities of working-class lives of Greek radicals (and other immigrants) in the United States. Aspects of immigrants’ everyday lives, of their struggles and experiences other than those on the factory floor or in the union, would have been invaluable. The story includes a chapter that reveals a very powerful surveillance and suppressive state network—one that eliminated the possibile emergence of an autonomous labor movement, ultimately crushing it during the Cold War. Some of the most fascinating episodes include the transformation of the bastion of Greek publications in the United States, The National Herald, from a liberal to a conservative newspaper, following the shift of a number of Greek associations, including the American Hellenic Progressive Association (AHEPA), from liberal to conservative during the Cold War. In its final chapter, the book reveals the infowar waged during the Greek Civil War over control of the information that would reach both Greek Americans and, especially, the U.S. public. The U.S. authorities and, particularly, the FBI fabricated news, clamped down on individual liberties, and sought to restrict individuals’ freedom of movement.
While Karpozilos’s monograph is illuminating, the book could have been more critical of the reactions and responses Greek workers elicited from other immigrant workers when they were hired to function as strikebreakers. Given the brief but telling history of anti-Greek riots, it is unlikely that such intraclass conflicts did not arise among newly arrived immigrants in the industrial and labor centers of the United States; however, these are largely ignored by the author. Additionally, Karpozilos could have engaged more extensively with other literature on Greek immigration to North America and beyond, a much-needed task in the field of Modern Greek (diaspora) history.
As far as historiographical contributions go, however, Karpozilos’s book goes beyond the commonly established periodization of Greek American history, one that typically distinguishes between two periods—the period before 1940 and that after 1950—filling the existing gap of the extremely important decade of the 1940s. During that time, a fascinating inversion took place: while Greek communists learned from and followed Greek American radicals until 1940, in the 1940s Greek Americans and the U.S. Left drew inspiration from the Greek resistance of the Nazi occupation period. However, following U.S. intervention in the Greek Civil War, Greek American associations, such as AHEPA, adopted the anticommunism of the Truman years. Indeed, the development of the American Relief for Greek Democracy is an early and, perhaps, first example of the transformation of a Greek American agency from political to philanthropic, a shift from radical politics to the politics of humanitarianism—all under the watchful eye of the United States. Specifically, the American Relief for Greek Democracy, which changed its name from Greek American Council in 1946, attempted to explain to the U.S. public the ongoing suffering of people in Greece as war erupted between the Greek state and the Greek Left. In 1947, when Kostas Kouvaras, representing the American Relief for Greek Democracy, testified to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations regarding assistance to Greece and Turkey, he unambiguously placed the blame for the raging civil war in Greece on the Greek government. However, such opinions were being marginalized among the U.S. mainstream, if not deemed outright “unpatriotic,” and the organization was targeted, as Karpozilos shows, by the U.S. security state. Eventually the American Relief for Greek Democracy and the American Council for a Democratic Greece were codified as being “red” and were listed in the 1948 California Committee on Un-American Activities Report. Thus, while the mission to send aid to Greece in 1946 was an important victory for the Greek Left, it was also the case that the few vocal Greek American leftists who existed found themselves under threat of expulsion for anti-American activities. The witch hunt was on: about seventy Greeks and Greek Americans were expelled from the United States by the early 1950s, and most of them settled in Poland, where they met up with communists who had been defeated in the Greek Civil War. As the author concludes, “To be American from now on [post-1945] meant to be anti-communist” (493). It also meant that to be a good Greek American, one had to ascribe to anticommunism as well.
Red America concludes with a profound analysis of the contradictions of what the author calls “the immigrant Left”: “in the end, the immigrant Left became a prisoner of its own formation” (491). The prospect of overcoming ethnic divisions to strengthen the unity of the working class never materialized in the postwar period. Instead, rather than overcoming ethnic divisions, ethnicity remained a central reference point for subsequent generations of immigrants. Indeed, it could be argued that ethnic origin—in this case Greek—still remains important in today’s globalizing world, and class seems to be making a comeback as an organizing concept in the academic analysis of ethnicity. Overall, Kostis Karpozilos has offered a narrative of Greek American history about a period previously ignored; a period before community organizations, media, and other institutions of the diaspora were co-opted by some of the most conservative factions among Greek immigrants and their descendants. While a great deal more remains to be written about the multiple histories of Greek Americans, Kokkini Ameriki shows some of the ways this can be done.
Sakis Gekas is Associate Professor and Hellenic Heritage Foundation Chair of Modern Greek History and Hellenic Studies at York University. He has published on the history of the Ionian Islands and on aspects of Greek and Mediterranean economic and social history. His book Xenocracy: State, Class, and Colonialism in the Ionian Islands, 1815–1864 was published by Berghahn Books in 2017. He currently works on the history of Greek immigration to Canada and the history of the veterans of the Greek War of Independence.