1939 Fifty Years Ago

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Louis (“Lepke”) Buchalter, the man J. Edgar Hoover called the most dangerous criminal in the United States, surrendered by secret agreement with the FBI chief on August 24 after evading a nationwide manhunt for several months. Lepke had made his fortune controlling unions in the New York garment industry, but his notoriety came from his role as head of a group of underworld assassins known as Murder Inc.

Under intense pressure from the New York County district attorney, Thomas Dewey, Lepke had gone into hiding in 1937, running his crime empire and ordering contract assassinations from subway platforms, restaurant washrooms, and cheap apartments. By 1939 the federal government was also hounding him, and his entire operation was in jeopardy. Desperate to maintain their own organizations, Lepke’s underworld associates convinced him that he would be treated leniently if he gave himself up to Hoover on a lesser narcotics charge. Upon surrendering, though, Lepke quickly learned that his friends had double-crossed him to take the heat off themselves. He was convicted on a narcotics charge and sent to Fort Leaven-worth for a fourteen-year term.

While Lepke was in prison, a mob informer broke the story of the hundreds of hits carried out by Murder Inc., giving Dewey enough evidence to convict Lepke again, this time for murder. Though it was rumored that Lepke had offered the district attorney information about New York’s underworld that would make Dewey an unbeatable presidential candidate, nothing came of it, and he was sentenced to death. On March 4, 1944, Lepke became the only national crime kingpin to go to the electric chair.

On August 23, after failing to convince France or Great Britain to sign a treaty of alliance, the Soviet Union signed a ten-year nonaggression pact with Germany that shocked the rest of the world and cleared the way for the German invasion of Poland that would begin World War II the following month. The German chancellor, Adolf Hitler, had long been convinced that if he could secure himself from the threat of war with the Soviet Union, Germany could expand through Western Europe at will. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin hoped the agreement would delay the war with Germany that he believed was inevitable. The pact did not create a military alliance, but it did obligate each country not to make war with the other or support a third country that did so.

Communists in the West, who had followed Stalin’s party line in condemning Hitler, were puzzled by Moscow’s new, friendly attitude toward Germany. The French Communist party, based in the Western country most likely to be a target of German aggression, found the pact hard to accept. The French Communist leader Maurice Thorez declared that “if Hitler in spite of everything unleashes war, let him know that he will find before him the united people of France, with the Communists in the front line….” In the instantaneous wave of anti-Communism that swept France, both the party and its newspaper were banned.

The American Communist party waited for instructions from Moscow before deciding that the pact gave “greater opportunities for the people and government of the United States effectively to check Japanese aggression in the Far East.” The party’s general secretary, Earl Browder, went so far as to declare that there would be no war if all the world’s powers signed similar agreements. No one was making that argument two years later, when Germany’s three-front invasion of Russia again showed the world the consequences of trusting Adolf Hitler.