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Bernard, John Toussaint (1893–1983)

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Black and white photograph of John T. Bernard, c.1938.

John T. Bernard, c.1938. Photograph is from the John Bernard papers, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Minnesota Congressman John T. Bernard fought throughout his life for working people against strong opposition. His outspoken and uncompromising views led him, on his second day in office, to cast the single “no” vote in Congress against the Spanish arms embargo. Bernard’s vote proved farsighted as the Spanish Civil War became, in many ways, a “dress rehearsal” for World War II.

Born in Corsica on March 6, 1893, John Toussaint Bernard followed his parents to the United States and Eveleth, Minnesota, in 1907. In 1910, he found work at the Spruce Mine. In 1916, he enlisted in the army, served on the Mexican border, and was sent overseas during World War I. While in France working for naval intelligence, he met Josephine Dinois. The couple married in 1928.

Back in Eveleth, Bernard was blacklisted from the mines because of earlier efforts to unionize fellow workers. Eventually finding work as an Eveleth fireman (1920–1936), the blacklisted Bernard was elected twice as president of the Governor Olson Local of the International Association of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. Bernard also organized and served as chairman of the first Farmer-Labor Party club in Eveleth and served two terms as leader of the St. Louis County Farmer-Labor Association.

In 1936, Morris Greenberg, an Eveleth attorney and Farmer-Labor organizer, approached Bernard about running for the Eighth District seat in the U.S. Congress. Bernard agreed after Governor Floyd B. Olson contributed $200 towards the filing fee and campaign. Bernard, along with gubernatorial candidate Elmer Benson, was swept into office on a wave of Farmer-Labor support.

A test of Bernard’s integrity came on his second day in Congress. President Roosevelt had asked for a unanimous vote in both houses to deny military and financial support to either the democratically elected Republican government of Spain or to rebel general Francisco Franco.

Bernard saw a Spanish arms embargo as pro-fascist because Hitler and Mussolini already backed Franco. Although many progressives agreed and thought the measure anti-democratic, they considered voting against an embargo “political suicide.” When the call for a unanimous vote came, on January 6, 1937, only Bernard objected.

During the remainder of his term, Bernard supported the Spanish Loyalist cause. He also advocated for striking autoworkers, timber workers, and anti-lynching legislation. He alienated many in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) by organizing for its rival, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Bernard’s outspoken, left-wing stance, combined with political backlash against Roosevelt and the New Deal, led to defeat in his 1938 re-election bid. His opponent, and much of the AFL leadership, accused him of being a Communist. Because the Catholic Church backed Franco in Spain, Bernard was denounced in nearly every local Catholic pulpit. His support of civil rights and anti-lynching laws also angered northern Minnesota’s chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. Bernard ran again in 1940, but lost.

Following his 1938 defeat, Bernard was blacklisted on a grand scale on the Iron Range. His vocal criticism of corporations and big banks and support of working people made it impossible for him to find work. His essentially popular-front political stance between the time of the Hitler–Stalin pact of 1939 and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 also made enemies. Although fluent in French, Italian, and Spanish, Bernard was rejected for service in World War II, even after writing directly to Roosevelt.

In 1952, Bernard was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). His affiliations with Loyalist Spain, the CIO, and many other groups were deemed Communist. Bernard defied the committee. He called a previous witness a “stool pigeon” and asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege on many questions. But he also insisted on his loyalty to America and his willingness to fight in its defense.

A 1977 “Tribute to John T. Bernard” at Mesaba Co-op Park near Hibbing included many old Farmer Laborites, including Benson, veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and Communist Party head Gus Hall. It was at this event, at age eighty-four, that Bernard accepted a membership card in the Communist Party of America.

Bernard died in 1983 in Long Beach, California. He was ninety years old.

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Bernard, John T. “The Vote.” In The People Together: One Hundred Years of Minnesota, 1858–1958, edited by Meridel LeSueur, 38–39. Minneapolis: People’s Centennial Book Committee of Minnesota, 1958.

——— . Congressional Record, 75 Congress, 1 session (1937), 89, 98–99, Appendix 66.

“Communist Activities in the Chicago Area—Part I, Bernard, John T., testimony, September 2 and 3, 1952.” Hearings Before The Committee On Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eighty-Second Congress. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1952: 3683–3699.

Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

De Graff, John, and Jim Mulligan. A Common Man’s Courage: The Story of John Bernard. VHS. Minneapolis: UCV, 1978.

Duluth Labor World, 1937–1942
Newspaper Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Issues contain articles related to political events during and after Bernard’s term in office.

Duluth Midwest Labor, 1937–1942
Newspaper Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Issues contain articles related to political events during and after Bernard’s term in Congress.

Haynes, John Earl. Dubious Alliance: The Making of Minnesota’s DFL Party. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

——— . “Communists and Anti-Communists in the Northern Minnesota CIO, 1936-1949.” Upper Midwest History 1 (1981): 55–73.

Hudelson, Richard, and Carl Ross. By the Ore Docks: A Working People’s History of Duluth. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

P809
John Toussaint Bernard papers, 1934–1973
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Papers, speeches, clippings, and letters connected to Bernard’s work as a Congressman, labor organizer, and civil rights worker.
https://mplus.mnpals.net/vufind/Record/001717454

OHC 1.6
Oral history interview with John T. Bernard, September 1, 1978
Oral History Collection, Minnesota Discovery Center, Chisholm
Description: Bernard discusses his life and career as a miner, fireman, Congressman, labor and civil rights organizer through his move to California in 1962.

Shields, James M. “No!” In Ringing In the Wilderness: Selections from the North Country Anvil, edited by Rhoda Gilman, 55–66. Duluth, MN: Holy Cow! Press, 1996.

Stuhler, Barbara. “The One Man Who Voted ‘Nay’: The Story of John T. Bernard’s Quarrel with American Foreign Policy, 1937–1939.” Minnesota History 43, no. 3 (Fall 1972): 82–92.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/43/v43i03p082-092.pdf

Related Images

Black and white photograph of John T. Bernard, c.1938.
Black and white photograph of John T. Bernard, c.1938.
Black and white photograph of John T. Bernard and his daughter, Marie, c.1930s.
Black and white photograph of John T. Bernard and his daughter, Marie, c.1930s.
Black and white photograph of Congressman John T. Bernard at Mesaba Co-op Park, 1938.
Black and white photograph of Congressman John T. Bernard at Mesaba Co-op Park, 1938.
Color scan of a flyer advertising a Farmer-Labor Party rally held at Mesaba Park on July 5, 1936.
Color scan of a flyer advertising a Farmer-Labor Party rally held at Mesaba Park on July 5, 1936.

Turning Point

On January 6, 1937, his first working day in Congress, John T. Bernard sticks to his principles and casts the lone vote against the Spanish arms embargo. Many see the move as political suicide.

Chronology

1893

John Toussaint Bernard is born on March 6 in Bastia on the French island of Corsica.

1907

Following his father, mother, and sister, who had come earlier, Bernard emigrates with two brothers and an uncle and settles in Eveleth.

1910

At age seventeen, Bernard gains employment at the Spruce Mine in Eveleth.

1916

Bernard joins the United States Army. He serves on the Mexican border and, later, overseas during World War I.

1920

Unable to find employment in Iron Range mines due to a blacklist, Bernard finds employment with the Eveleth fire department.

1936

Riding a wave of Farmer-Labor and New Deal support, Bernard defeats William Pittenger in a bid for Minnesota’s Eighth District Congressional seat.

1937

On his first working day in Congress, Bernard casts the lone “nay” vote against the Spanish arms embargo.

1938

Anti-New Deal and anti-Farmer-Labor sentiment, combined with attacks by the AFL, the Catholic Church, and the Ku Klux Klan, lead to Bernard’s re-election defeat.

1939

Franklin Roosevelt tells his Cabinet that the Spanish arms embargo was “a grave mistake,” and wishes he’d helped Loyalist Spaniards fight to defend themselves.

1942

Unable to find work in northern Minnesota even as a common laborer, former Congressman Bernard moves to Chicago and is employed as an organizer by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union (UE).

1952

Because of his affiliations with the CIO, Loyalist Spain, and many organizations deemed “Communist,” Bernard is called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

1955

Bernard becomes chairman of the Illinois Civil Rights Congress.

1962

Bernard and his wife move to California to be closer to their daughter, Marie, and her family.

1977

Hundreds attend Mesaba Co-op Park’s “Tribute to John T. Bernard,” including former Governor Elmer Benson, James Shields, Viena J. Hendrickson, Gus Hall, and Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans. At the event, Bernard accepts a Communist party membership card.

1983

On August 6, Bernard dies in Long Beach, California, at age ninety.