Liston M. Oak Papers, 1910-1970

Summary Information
Title: Liston M. Oak Papers
Inclusive Dates: 1910-1970

  • Oak, Liston M., 1895-1970
Call Number: Mss 171

Quantity: 1.4 c.f. (4 archives boxes)

Archival Locations:
Wisconsin Historical Society (Map)

Papers of Liston Oak, a journalist and liberal political activist who, in the 1920's, became active in the Communist Party, but repudiated communism in the late 1930's. Oak edited or wrote for many publications including Soviet Russia Today (1932-1934), and Fight (1935-1936). After rejecting communism he edited the magazines Antiques (1938-1943) and The New Leader (1943-1948), and served as labor and economics editor of the Voice of America (1948-1965). The bulk of the papers date from the late 1940's to the early 1960's and largely document Oak's work at The New Leader and the Voice of America. Included is correspondence, much of which reveals Oak's opinions and political philosophy; speeches and articles by Oak; research materials on leftist and labor movements; Voice of America materials, including scripts for Oak's radio broadcasts; and personal information. Among the prominent correspondents are Socialist leader Norman Thomas, labor leader George Meany, ex-communist and informer Whittaker Chambers, Polish leader Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, and leftist writer Max Eastman. Also included are minutes of a 1937 meeting of the Theater Union, a leftist theater group which Oak managed briefly.

Language: English

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Liston M. Oak, journalist and activist in liberal politics, was born in the Southern California town of Perris in 1895. Oak came from a prosperous business-class home, but he was restless and discontented with its secure and sheltered existence. At the age of 15 he left home for Los Angeles, where he attended art school. In 1915 he became a reporter for the Los Angeles Record, and around that time he married his first wife. In the years 1916-1917 he taught school in California's Imperial Valley, and after the United States' entry into World War I he enlisted in the Medical Corps. After spending 13 months in France, from 1918 to 1919, Oak returned to the United States and took a teaching job at Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York. The college had been founded by Socialist leader Norman Thomas. In 1920 Oak returned to Southern California and, having obtained teaching credentials from the University of California, worked as a teacher in the Los Angeles high schools.

Oak had been sympathetic with the cause of Soviet Russia since 1917, and because of his communist leanings he was forced from his teaching job in 1924. In that year he went to New York City where he found work with the All-Russian Textile Syndicate, known as Amtorg. The Syndicate, headed by Oak's life-long friend Alexander Gumberg, served as the Soviet Union's purchasing agent in the United States. In 1927 Oak joined the Communist Party, resigned from Amtorg, and became a publicist for the Party and an editor of communist publications. Around that time he married his second wife, Margaret Larkin. Between 1927 and 1936 he held a variety of jobs, most of which involved writing or editing. These positions included editorial assistant for the Modern Monthly and Americana (1928-1929); publicity agent for the first Exposition of Russian Peasant Arts and Crafts (1928-1929); travel publicity agent for the State of New Mexico (1928-1929); executive secretary and publicity agent for the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts (1930-1932); editor of Soviet Russia Today (1932-1934); publicity agent and member of the board of the Theater Union, a leftist theater group (1934-1935); and editor of the magazine Fight (1935-1936). In 1935 Oak's second marriage ended in divorce. The following year he led a group on an Intourist trip through Europe and the Soviet Union, and in 1937 he served in the Spanish Civil War as Director of Publicity for the Loyalist Republican government.

Oak's experiences in the Soviet Union and Spain helped to solidify what had been a growing discontent with the communist movement. In 1937 he openly criticized Stalinist policies, expressing his views in the pages of the New Statesman and the Nation. In a series of lectures to political and trade union groups Oak decried conditions in Russia and accused the Soviets of contributing to the Spanish Loyalist defeat. Although he continued to consider himself a Leninist until 1940, Oak distanced himself from politics during the late 1930's. In a reflection of this philosophical change, he served as managing editor of the relatively apolitical magazine Antiques from 1938 to 1943.

In 1943 Oak returned to the political arena as a liberal critic of communism. From 1943 to 1948 he worked as managing editor of The New Leader, an anti-communist liberal weekly. This publication was one of the first to denounce suspected Soviet spy Alger Hiss, and the magazine labeled many leaders of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as communists. Oak's last job was with the Voice of America. From 1948 until his retirement in 1964 he worked as the Voice's labor and economics editor. There he wrote radio scripts and delivered anti-communist commentaries over the air. Once a dedicated member of the Communist Party, Oak ended his career as one of the Party's most vocal opponents.

Liston Oak died in 1970 while on a trip to Israel. He was survived by the two children from his first marriage, Alan Ben and Joan Oak Matheson.

Scope and Content Note

The papers document the professional and intellectual career of Liston Oak. There is very little in the collection of a personal nature. Although there are scattered items from the 1930's and earlier, the bulk of the papers date from the late 1940's through the 1960's -- years of Oak's involvement with The New Leader and the Voice of America. The collection is organized in six series: CORRESPONDENCE, SPEECHES AND ARTICLES, AMERICAN INDIAN ART, LEFT/LABOR MATERIAL, VOICE OF AMERICA, and PERSONAL INFORMATION.

The CORRESPONDENCE, arranged chronologically, consists mostly of letters to and from Oak in his positions as editor of The New Leader and labor and economics editor of the Voice of America. Among the few items dating from the 1930's is correspondence relating to Oak's involvement in the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts (1930-1932), and materials from the late 1930's concerning his growing dissatisfaction with communism. Filed with the correspondence are the minutes to a 1937 meeting of the board of the Theater Union. Among the materials from the 1940's are letters commenting on the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, including a letter to the committee dated September 26, 1947; a letter of October 7, 1947 to Attorney-General Tom Clark; and a letter to ex-communist and informer Whittaker Chambers, dated December 6, 1948. Much of the correspondence from the 1950's concerns Oak's outcries against the spread of communism. Also among the correspondents are Alfred Nohlberg of the American China Policy Association, labor leader George Meany, Socialist leader Norman Thomas, Polish leader Stanislaw Mikolajcyk, leftist writer Max Eastman, and writer Upton Sinclair. A list of prominent correspondents is an appendix to this register.

The extensive file of Oak's SPEECHES AND ARTICLES contains both complete and fragmented drafts. The drafts are generally arranged alphabetically by title. The majority of Oak's writings concern historical treatments of Russian communism, but also included are a variety of articles on topics such as anarchism, Waldo Frank's Spain, spy rings in Canada, and the Polish underground resistance. Filed under the title “People's Platform” is a 17-page transcript of a 1949 radio debate between Oak and Harvard professor John K. Fairbank regarding the United States' China policy.

The series AMERICAN INDIAN ART contains materials relating to Oak's involvement with the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts, 1930-1932. Included here are clippings, a program brochure, and an article on Indian art by Oak. Correspondence concerning the exposition is filed with the Correspondence series.

The series LEFT/LABOR MATERIAL is made up of newspaper and magazine articles and pamphlets. Here are included many of Oak's own writings on these subjects. These materials include commentaries on the international situation in the late 1940's and document Oak's interest in the testimonies before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and 1949 trials of Communist Party leaders. The pamphlets are generally filed by topic.

The VOICE OF AMERICA series contains printed materials publicizing the activities of the agency; correspondence and memoranda relating to programming policy; and printed program scripts on a great variety of anti-communist subjects. Most of these scripts date from the early 1950's.

The last series in the collection, PERSONAL INFORMATION, includes Oak's address book, a file of letters of recommendation from many notable persons, and a group of autobiographical and biographical materials. Among the autobiographical materials can be found many resumés Oak used in searching for employment.

Administrative/Restriction Information
Acquisition Information

Presented by Joan Oak Matheson, Long Valley, New Jersey, May 7, 1971, and Joanne Matheson Lancaster, Saxton's River, Vermont, November 27, 1972. Accession Number: M71-100, M72-462

Processing Information

Processed by Dan Harrison and Karen Baumann, January 1972; K. Frederick and Joanne Hohler, March 1977; and Geoffrey Wexler, March 1986.

Contents List
Series: Correspondence
Box   1
Folder   1-9
Box   2
Folder   1
1967-1969; undated
Series: Speeches and Articles
Box   2
Folder   2
“Anarchism” - “Jesuitism and Bolshevism”
Box   2
Folder   3
“Jews” - “The Men of the Forest”
Box   2
Folder   4
“Middle East”
Box   2
Folder   5
“Nationalism and the Balkans” - “Twenty Years of Totalitarian Terror II”
Box   2
Folder   6
“Twenty Years of Totalitarian Terror III” - “Will Rearmament Destroy Civil Liberties?”; Untitled
Box   2
Folder   7-8
Manuscripts Regarding “War Danger”
Box   2
Folder   9
Box   3
Folder   1
Untitled, continued
Box   3
Folder   2
Series: Indian Art
Series: Left/Labor Material
Box   3
Folder   3-4
Newspaper and Magazine Articles, 1928-1965; undated
Box   3
Folder   5
Box   3
Folder   6
Box   3
Folder   7
Trade Unions, U.S.S.R., Miscellaneous
Series: Voice of America
Box   3
Folder   8
Printed Voice of America/United States Information Agency Materials, 1951-1965
Box   3
Folder   9
Correspondence and Memoranda, undated
Box   3
Folder   10-11
Box   4
Folder   1
Series: Personal Information
Box   4
Folder   2
Address Book, undated
Box   4
Folder   3
Autobiographical and Biographical Materials
Box   4
Folder   4
Letters of Recommendation, 1936-1947; undated
Appendix: Prominent Correspondents

This list includes letters both to and from the person named. Not all correspondence with those listed is noted here.

Clark, Tom 1947, October 7
Dehorn, O.J. 1948, May 24
Eastman, Max 1948, October 4
Judd, Walter 1948, May 13
Kohlberg, Alfred 1950, May 5
1951, June 27
1951, June 28
Lamont, Corliss 1938, March 3
Mandel, Ben 1938, June 10
Meany, George 1953, February 12
1953, November 6
1955, July 15
1959, July 2
Mikolajcyk, Stanislaw 1948, January
Novack, George 1948, October 4
Sinclair, Upton 1951, March 8
Swim, Allan L. 1950, May 3
Thomas, Norman 1938, October 19
1947, August 12
1955, April 15
1959, June 23
Wolfe, Bertram D. 1953, August 22
1969, August 4