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Ayn Rand's Defense of an Anti-Union Massacre

Photo from records of LaFollette Committee, National Archives and Records Administration

In July 1943, former Hollywood screenwriter Ayn Rand was still tracking responses, critical and commercial, to her first major novel, The Fountainhead.  It had been published two months earlier by Bobbs-Merrill after being rejected by a dozen other companies.   Rand had written two previous novels, along with two stage plays, none of which proved successful.  Now The Fountainhead was off to a slow start with audiences and reviewers.

While this was transpiring, Rand received in the mail a set of galleys for the memoir (eventually titled Boot Straps) by Tom M. Girdler, chairman of Republic Steel, which operated several massive plants in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. Many Americans had probably already forgotten the most tragic incident that Girdler was associated with, almost exactly six years earlier.  If Rand was among them, her memory (and high estimate of Girdler) was surely revived in reading those galleys.  Soon she would model a key character in her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, partly on Girdler.

Near the end of May 1937, workers who had been on strike for several days at Republic Steel in Southeast Chicago had called for a Memorial Day picnic on the wide open field several blocks from the plant entrance to build support.  Tom Girdler wouldn’t even recognize the union, famously vowing that he would retire and go back to growing apples before he’d do that.  At least 1500 workers and family members, including many women and children, turned out for the picnic.   After the festivities, organizers called on the crowd to march to the gates of the plant where they might establish a mass, legal, picket. 

Halfway there, the marchers, at least 500 strong, were halted by a large contingent of Chicago police and ordered to disperse.  A heated discussion ensued.  A few rocks were thrown in the direction of the police.  Suddenly, some of the police drew their pistols and opened fire on the protesters at point blank range, and then as the marchers fled.   They chased after the survivors, clubbing many of them. 

Forty in the crowd were shot, with ten dead within two weeks. Dozens of the survivors were arrested and lifted into paddy wagons without medical attention.  Only a handful of police required treatment for minor injuries.  

Despite these one-sided results, local and national newspapers, right up to The New York Times and Washington Post, almost uniformly portrayed the marchers as a “mob” intent on rioting—that is, as the perpetrators of this tragedy.   Some falsely suggested that the unionists fired first. 

The only footage of the incident is quite graphic, showing the police shooting and then clubbing marchers; it was suppressed by Paramount News, a leading newsreel company. 

Then the Progressive Party senator from Wisconsin, Robert LaFollette, Jr. convened a sensational three-day hearing into the tragedy. The Paramount footage was screened in its entirety—and then in slow motion (you can watch it here)--providing more proof of police malfeasance.  It emerged that Republic Steel had collaborated with police on this day, allowing them to set up headquarters inside their plant and supplying them with tear gas and axe handles to supplement their billy clubs.

When the LaFollette committee released its report (most of it, along with witness testimony, printed for the first time in my new book on the Massacre), it harshly criticized the police: “We conclude that the consequences of the Memorial Day encounter were clearly avoidable by the police. The action of the responsible authorities in setting the seal of their approval upon the  conduct of the police not only fails to place responsibility where responsibility properly belongs but will invite the repetition of similar incidents in the future.”

Ayn Rand clearly did not agree.  On July 12, 1943, she typed a five-page letter to Republic boss Girdler after reading his galleys.  “Allow me to express my deepest admiration for the way in which you have lived your life,” Rand wrote from New York City, “for your gallant fight of 1937, for the courage you displayed then and are displaying again now when you attempt a truly heroic deed—a defense of the industrialist….”  Then she offered to send him a copy of her novel.

“The basic falsehood which the world has accepted is the doctrine that altruism is the ultimate ideal,” she related.  “That is, service to others as a justification and the placing of others above self as a virtue.  Such an ideal is not merely impossible, it is immoral and vicious.  And there is no hope for the world until enough of us come to realize this.  Man’s first duty is not to others, but to himself…

“I have presented my whole thesis against altruism in The Fountainhead….Its hero is the kind of man you appear to be, if I can judge by your book, the kind of man who built America, the creator and uncompromising individualist.”

But Rand also admitted that “it shocked me to read you, a great industrialist, saying in self-justification that you are just as good as a social worker.  You are not.  You are much better.  But you will never prove it until we have a new code of values.  ​ 

“You had the courage to stand on your rights and your convictions in 1937, while others crawled, compromised, and submitted.  You were one of the few who made a stand.  You are doing it again now when you come out openly in defense of the industrialist.  So I think you are one of few men who will have the courage to understand and propagate the kind of moral code we need if the industrialists, and the rest of us, are to be saved.  A new and consistent code of individualism.” 

She concluded the letter “with deep appreciation for your achievement and that which you represent.”

Girdler replied on July 27, 1937, that he had just purchased The Fountainhead. A few months later, he met Rand in New York and told her that he had read and enjoyed novel, which pleased her immensely, and he suggested they meet for lunch.

This apparently did not take place, but she would, a short time later, create one of the key characters in Atlas Shrugged, troubled steel industrialist Hank Rearden, based partly on Girdler.

Greg Mitchell’s new film Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried, premiered over PBS stations in May and can now be watched by everyone via PBS.org and PBS apps.  He has also written a companion book with the same title.  He is the author of a dozen previous books.