Elizabeth A. Osborne

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How do the stories we tell ourselves about the past inform what we think about the present? What role do performances of history play in shaping those narratives? How might these performances become more “real” than the history itself? My current research is about remembering, forgetting, and the ways that performances of history manipulate cultural memory.

This exhibit focuses on one example: the communist invasion of Mosinee, Wisconsin, which appears in more detail in my 2019 article, published in Theatre Survey. This “object lesson in Americanism” was a town-wide pageant that imagined a possible future and instructed audience members in how to prevent a communist takeover. I argue that May Day in Mosinee is a highly visible—and effective—example of leveraging performance to rewrite US history.

“It was 14 hours of the most smashing, dramatic demonstration of what communism really is and what it means to the ordinary citizens ever staged in an American town.”
Source: “It Happened One Day in Mosinee,” American Legion Magazine (June 1950)

“An Object Lesson in Americanism”: Performing Cultural Amnesia in Mosinee’s Communist Invasion

On May 1, 1950, a communist army invaded the small town of Mosinee in central Wisconsin. Occupying soldiers dragged the mayor from his home, interrogated and executed the police chief, and exiled religious, civic, and political leaders to the stockade. They ransacked citizens’ homes and raided the public library in search of capitalist propaganda. They set up roadblocks and parked cars across the railroad tracks to cut off the town. Within hours, the paper mill, the newspaper, and other local businesses had fallen to the invading communist army.

This tale of communist invasion may seem unbelievable, and in the strictest historical sense, it is. The “Mosinee Americanism Plan” was an elaborate pageant conceived of by the American Legion Department of Wisconsin and executed in concert with the people of Mosinee to demonstrate just how dangerous communism was. To drive home the “object lesson in Americanism,” Mosinee residents gathered in their new “Red Square,” built an enormous bonfire stoked with communist propaganda, and rejected communism with a rousing chorus of “God Bless America.”

Mosinee may not have been invaded by a real communist army, but the performed invasion of this small Wisconsin town is a matter of history. Like wildfire, the story spread across the nation, appearing in hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and radio and television broadcasts. In fact, it’s one of the town’s most memorable moments. In this event, history, possibility, and performance intertwined, so that the performance of this potential future became history even as the event it portrayed was imagined.

My study of “May Day in Mosinee” focuses on how this intricately planned performance plays into the larger anticommunist fervor that swept the country in the late 1940s and 1950s. I consider it as both performance and political weapon. Even more, the choice to replace May Day festivities—which were for and about workers and had become connected to communism—was deliberate. “May Day in Mosinee” was one of many performances of loyalty that overwrote the workers’ day in a larger process of revising cultural memory.

This piece fits into my larger project about how performances of history shape, erase, and revise cultural memory. As far back as the 1980s, theorists pointed to a growing crisis: widespread historical amnesia, in which the rising generation had lost their connections to their collective pasts. We’ve seen a “memory boom” as a result, with monuments, memorials, reenactments, and other ways to connect to the past. I point to a corresponding performance-of-history boom and ask how performances of history shape the stories we tell ourselves about the past, and how they inform what we think about the present and the future.

The Red Star, special edition of The Mosinee Times.

After it was taken over by the invading communist army, Mosinee’s local newspaper released this special issue, The Red Star. It includes a proclamation that the new United Soviet States of America abolishes private property, takes ownership of all land and industries, and renounces the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Parade to the “mass meeting of the population in ‘Red Square,’” 
Life magazine, May 1, 1950, photo by Francis Miller.

More than a thousand people—nearly half the town—march to the newly dubbed “Red Square” carrying communist banners and flags. Note that nearly everyone is clearly wearing a white armband. The Chicago Sun-Times noted that “most of the residents wore the [armbands], thus signifying their willingness to take part in the demonstration.”

Invitation from Francis Schweinler to the townspeople
Communist Takeover of Mosinee Collection, Woodson History Center, Marathon County Historical Society.

Francis Schwienler was editor of The Mosinee Times and chairperson of the Legion program in Mosinee. In this letter, preserved at the Marathon County Historical Society, he asks the people of Mosinee to participate in the “Day Under Communist Rule.” Townspeople who chose to participate received ration cards, entry permits, and a paper armband with a red star—props and costumes for the mock invasion.

“It Happened One Day in Mosinee” – Schedule of Events
Communist Takeover of Mosinee Collection, Woodson History Center, Marathon County Historical Society.

The mock invasion was meticulously planned, as this schedule of events shows. The schedule incorporates the mayor’s early-morning arrest, the arrest and confinement of clergymen, massive parades and meetings, the commissar’s address to the new Young Communist League at the high school, the takeover of the theatre, and, of course, myriad opportunities for the press to share the events with the outside world.

The Chief Commissar Addresses the Youth
Life magazine, May 1, 1950, photo by Francis Miller.

“Student indoctrination” followed the seizure of the high school in a scene that relied on crowd participation. The students attended school that May Monday and, at the end of the school day, assembled to become the future “Young Communists League.”

“So this is supposed to be communism?” – Communist Party Leaflet, 
Communist Takeover of Mosinee Collection, Woodson History Center, Marathon County Historical Society.

This leaflet is part of a jarring intersection between the performance and real life. While the American Legion staged a mock communist invasion, complete with mock communist propaganda, the Communist Party of Wisconsin distributed real communist leaflets throughout Mosinee.

Bonfire at the Americanism Rally, Mosinee
“Iron Curtain Day,” by G. F. Zimmerman, Harvester World (May 1950) page 10.

At the end of the mock invasion, the townspeople came together to publicly renounce communism. They sang “God Bless America,” listened to patriotic speeches, and built an enormous bonfire. This moment blended the fantasy and reality, because when the townspeople—as performers—burned the performance’s propaganda in their symbolic rejection of communism, they also burned real-life communist leaflets as themselves.

The Chief Commissar and the Press
, Life magazine, May 1, 1950, photo by Francis Miller.

The American Legion worked toward an “authentic” invasion, so they hired Joseph Kornfeder, a reformed communist who had trained in political warfare at Moscow’s Lenin School, as Chief Commissar. Here, Kornfeder poses for the press. In fact, journalists dictated much of the action in town. They asked for repeats of key events—the mayor’s “arrest” was repeated at least three times so photographers could get a good picture—and positioned townspeople for effect.

"Communism & the Mock Invasion of Mosinee," Paramount News, Year of Division, narrated by George Putnam, Maurice Joyce, and Frank Gallop.

This Paramount newsreel incorporates footage from the mock occupation of Mosinee. It describes “life within a police state” by focusing on the performance and the real danger it represents – that of the rise of communism in the United States.

Face to Face with Communism (1951), National Archives and Records Administration.

Created by the Department of Defense, Face to Face with Communism is a film that follows an airman who in on furlough and visiting a small town. He wakes to find that the town has been taken over by Communists, and later learns that the event has been staged—it was a performance to show what could happen in the event of a Communist invasion. This was filmed one year after “May Day in Mosinee” and was clearly inspired by the day’s events.

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While there is no overarching theme that unites every faculty member in this exhibition, everyone is connected to someone else through a web of ideas and provocations. We encourage you to use these tags to navigate from one scholar to the next, while understanding that these concepts do not fully account for the depth and nuance of the work you are encountering.

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