Left in Andover: The pacifist peril in the ’50s

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In 1950, my parents settled in Andover, coming directly from Stratton Mountain, where they had thrived as part of the lively community that formed around Scott Nearing, vegetarian/pacifist/socialist guru of the modern “back to the land” movement.

My dad, Herbert Leader, had met Scott years earlier, when he was hiking in the national forest and heard Scott splitting wood. Scott became my dad’s mentor, confirming his opposition to war as a means for conflict resolution, and faith in socialism as a means of creating an equitable society.

Herbert and Miriam Leader in their tent at the Nearing Community in Stratton. Click on any photo to launch gallery.

In 1952, Scott and his wife Helen moved from Stratton to a remote homestead in Maine. My dad, a born and bred “Bennington boy,” as he liked to describe himself, was not tempted to follow them. In his own words:

“I had read somewhere that you should live within fifty miles of your birthplace … There was an ad in the Rutland Herald for a ‘one-man farm’ in Andover, and that was exactly fifty miles. So I looked it up … The farmer showed me how he hayed with one man, the hay fork, and all the rest …”

As have so many buyers before and since, Popplewood Farm evoked in my dad love at first sight, and he negotiated on the spot to buy it.

It was a challenge for my folks to make the transition to living on their own in a very culturally and politically conservative community. (The reverse was true as well. We heard many years later that one family in town kept their kids in line by threatening to leave them off on our front lawn if they misbehaved.) Nevertheless, they entertained what seemed a reasonable expectation that, with hard work, we would prosper in our new home. Unfortunately, my dad had not reckoned with the long arm of McCarthyism – and his actions of over a decade earlier.

The saga of my father’s firing from his position at the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C., in 1940, at the age of 23, for refusing to proof-read draft cards in the run-up to World War II, and his eloquent response to his employer, is preserved solely because it was included in his FBI dossier.

I quote:

October 25, 1940
Hon A E Giegengack
Public Printer
Government Printing Office
Washington, D.C.

Dear Sir:

I have been charged with insubordination, in that I refused to comply with the request of my superior officer to take part in the distribution of Selective Service material. I have been notified that my removal from the service of the Government Printing Office has been proposed. I have been invited by Mr E C Mellor, Acting Chief Clerk, to file this answer:

One FBI document labeled Herbert Leader ‘communist.’

I am being charged with insubordination to my superiors in the Government Printing Office. I stand guilty of that. It is an objective fact that I am guilty of that, easily demonstrable. My motivation is known to your Office, but it will bear repetition. First let me say that people with pacifist conviction will receive consideration under the Selective Service law. I request that my act of insubordination be given consideration in the spirit of that law, which I mean to obey to the letter.

My action was the result of sharp conflict of duties. I had a duty to my employer, to do certain work assigned to me. I had another, a greater duty, to mankind, to work solely and at all times for its spiritual, cultural and material emancipation and elevation.

I was called by my employer, a mere agent of a mere government, to assist actively in a program leading to the preparation of human beings for a horrible war against other human beings. I am proud to declare that at the moment of decision I was able to remember my obligation to mankind, while having yet in mind the sure knowledge that repudiation of a lesser duty would flow implicitly from my action; a lesser duty which could not be reconciled with a paramount one.

I have been called upon to act upon a pacifist conviction, by some quirk of chance, quite before I had the opportunity, as provided by law, to register this conviction. When the proper time comes, I shall register my conviction with my local draft board, and it will receive consideration under the Selective Service law. I request again that my act of insubordination be given proper consideration in the spirit of that law, and in light of all the above.

Very truly yours,
Herbert Leader
12-E Parkway Road
Greenbelt, Md

The Leader family at Popplewood Farm.

Having labeled him a person of suspicion — and likely some sort of a communist for this, and his association with other war resisters — the FBI surveilled my dad into the 1950s, tracking him all the way to his rocky homestead in Andover as he fought to secure a livelihood for his growing family.

This surveillance, often carried out by well-meaning local informants, aside from being a waste of time (as various informants repeatedly state), did my family grave harm. Of course, we were unaware of the dynamics of this until much later, with the passing of the Freedom of Information Act.

The FBI hit the nail on the head categorizing my dad as being in “extremely poor financial straits.” In a case of Catch-22, my father, who held a master’s degree in education and was eager to serve as a teacher, was indeed unemployed, but this was due to the rumors circulating in the area that he was a communist, which were in fact instigated, then fueled, by the FBI through its investigative efforts.

‘Extremely poor financial straits’ reads one FBI document.

My dad was never a communist, whatever that might have encompassed in an era when virtually any nonconformist behavior was at risk of being labeled as such. Being a vegetarian could be construed as un-American. His sin was to have been a pacifist, and to have kept the company of other radicals, most notably Scott Nearing, an early champion in opposing child labor, an advocate for free speech and a free press.

Being surveilled by the FBI, then and now, can have real consequences. My dad may have been his own worst enemy, but he was never a threat to society.

In his own words: “We were idealists, dreaming of a life-style not too different to that of, perhaps, our neighbors’ parents. We had chosen to settle in Andover precisely because it seemed a likely place for simple living a la nineteenth century.”

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. James Stack says:

    Susan, thanks ever so much for sharing this with us. As someone who lived in Popplewood Farm from 2002-2008, I’ve enjoyed hearing the truth about your father. Ron and I were told many tall tales, so it is wonderful to know facts about the people who occupied that land and home prior to us.

    I would have been proud to have had a father such as yours. Our world needs many more such men. If only….

  2. Sam Chauncey says:

    Susan, Your father’s superb letter should serve as an example us all of how, in our Republic, a citizen can disagree with the government. And you have upheld that example. Thank you.

  3. Susan, your father was the embodiment of strength of conviction, courage and dignity in the presence of adversity. These are a few of the traits we like to ascribe to the true Vermonters who wove the fabric that made Vermont a place that so many of us from away were happy to find.

    Sharing the stories of your family with us broadens our perspective on the members of our community. May we take a moment to reflect.

  4. Maya Drummond says:

    Some of the greatest people are shunned because they are catalysts for change. Your father was an inspiration, Susan, and it is a very special thing that you have shared his life story with us today. Not many people anymore have the courage of their convictions. We need many more people like your father.

  5. Tim Roper says:

    What a damn shame that our country would be so afraid of the beliefs of a single individual so as to initiate and continue such an investigation as described here. And equal shame on Gear Shaper for caving to local rumors in making a decision not to hire an honest, hard working person with no evidence or any other clear cause.

    Thank you for sharing this publicly, Susan.