Closed borders

YOUNGSTOWN – In 1955, Soviet travelers could watch a game at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium or stargaze along the sunny streets of L.A. They could not, however, stroll the midway at Idora Park.

For a few years in the mid-20th century Youngstown was among a few dozen American cities that were closed to Soviet citizens with valid passports.

Just a few years prior, even trying to get into the country was out of bounds. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 denied all non-official alien visitors who were communists from entering the United States – meaning all Soviets.

The USSR was a bit more lax. In 1952, regulations kept foreigners from visiting nearly 50 percent of the USSR. By 1953, these regulations were altered to allow access to about 70 percent of the county. It was a situation that didn’t show the United States in the best light, some said.

“The U.S. is placed in a paradoxical position, which is being exploited by Communist propaganda. Despite its traditional policy favoring freedom of travel and its record of having favored a liberal exchange of persons with the USSR in the post-war period, the U.S. is being accused of maintaining an ‘Iron Curtain,'” according to a 1955 U.S. National Security Council Report.

So in 1955, America devised a map of where Soviet visitors could and could not go. In addition to Youngstown and Steubenville, the list included Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Portland,Ore.; Louisville, Ky.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Johnstown, Pa.; and St. Paul, Minn., to name a few.

But why block off Youngstown? In 1950 the city had a population of about 168,000 and about 1,600 of those living in the urban area were originally from the USSR.

“Youngstown makes sense ’cause it’s a state-of-the-art steel producing city,” Youngstown State University professor Dr. Brian Bonhomme said.

Bonhomme, who teaches Russian and Environmental History, explained his theory about the closure of Youngstown revolves around the city’s industrial know-how.

In the 1930s, Bonhomme said, the Soviet Union itself began to industrialize with a focus on the steel and iron industries – Youngstown specialties. When the United States did begin to allow some Soviets into the country, the cities they were not permitted to enter were most likely those with military bases and critical industrialization infrastructure.

“They built cities from scratch using American expertise,” he said.

Dr. Donna DeBlasio, who teaches historic preservation and oral history of the late 19th to 20th century, had a different take on why Youngstown might have been closed off: “a fear of communist interest” not in technology so much as in the workers.

In the 1930s, she said, Gus Hall, chairman of the Communist Party USA, who helped lead strikes at the steel mills, was in Youngstown. By the late ’40s, a large electrical union in the city had been purged due to their communist leanings, she said.

Born Arvo Kustaa Halberg in northern Minnesota, Hall moved to the Mahoning Valley in the mid-1930s. Here he made his name as the leader of the 1937 “Little Steel” strike waged against Republic Steel, Bethlehem Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube that ended in a few worker deaths. Hall was later arrested for trying to transport bomb-making materials to Warren’s Republic Steel.

“My interpretation, based on what I know about the industry at the time, would be a fear that, ‘Oh we don’t really want those people in our area,'” DeBlasio said.

While the exact reason for Youngstown’s block is not known, it is clear from the National Security Council report that a great amount of thought went into the decision of which areas to open and which to keep closed.

The National Security Council hoped to use the broadening of their admission policy to “maintain a reputation of the U.S. as a mature leader and as a believer in freedom” and thus counter any communist propaganda.

Other lofty goals, according to the security report, included wooing Soviet visitors with American ways so they would defect from their homeland and opening up possibilities for more travelers to be allowed into the USSR in response.

“The U.S. is kind of concerned about its PR at that point,” Bonhomme said.

Opening more of the nation didn’t come without considerations to possible consequences – new Soviet travelers “would probably include some intelligence agents,” could gather “strategic information on the U.S.” and might cause “incidents.”

Bonhomme said Americans were rightfully suspicious of Soviets in the 1950s. Immediately after World War II’s end in 1945, the Soviets expanded east, a move that Bonhomme said America saw as aggressive and worrisome since it might cause a larger domino effect.

“There is a huge degree of paranoia and it’s probably warranted in the U.S.,” he said.