Gates was born Sol Regenstreif on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His parents, Joseph Regenstreif and Rosie Snapf, were Jewish immigrants from the Galicia region of Poland. His father was a waiter at Ratner’s Restaurant on Delancey Street. His mother was a homemaker. In 1917 his father bought a candy store and moved the family to West Ninety-eighth Street, near Central Park. Six years later the family relocated to the Bronx, where Gates’s father operated a large ice-cream parlor. Gates graduated from De Witt Clinton High School in January 1930, at age sixteen, and immediately entered the City College of New York.
The seminal event in Gates’s early life was the Great Depression, which he believed was the inevitable result of the capitalist system. Attracted by communist and socialist doctrines, he joined the Young Communist League in March 1931 and quit City College in early 1932 to work full-time for the Communist Party. Over the next four years he helped organize steelworkers in Warren and Youngstown, Ohio. Before leaving for the Midwest, Gates changed his name to John Gates. He selected his new name at random, out of a newspaper. “There was no compelling reason to change the name except that it was the thing to do in those days,” he wrote in his 1958 autobiography, The Story of an American Communist. “This was not to hide anything but to symbolize a change in a way of life.”
In February 1937 Gates joined a contingent of several hundred young men from the United States who were volunteering to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He fought in several battles and was named a commissar in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the highest rank of any American who served in Spain. In 1937 Gates was elected to the National Council of the Young Communist League in absentia. After the fascists won, Gates returned to the United States in December 1938.
Ten days after Pearl Harbor, on 17 December 1941, Gates enlisted in the U.S. Army and was posted to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, where unlike his action-filled experience in Spain, the only enemy he battled was boredom. In March 1945 he volunteered for the paratroopers and was sent to France. He was honorably discharged on 17 January 1946 as a first sergeant in the famed 101st Airborne Division. Shortly before he enlisted, Gates met Texas native Lillian Ross, an education director in the New York City branch of the Young Communist League. They were married on 5 February 1945, in Bennettsville, South Carolina. After the war they lived in the Borough of Queens in New York City. They had no children.
When the Soviet Union expanded its dominion over Eastern Europe and the cold war began, the American Communist Party lost the relative respectability that it had accrued as a result of the alliance with the USSR during World War II. In June 1947 Gates was appointed the editor in chief of the party’s newspaper, the Daily Worker. Although not an experienced journalist, he proved a capable editor, and his influential position put him in the line of fire when the specter of communism grew to dominate the postwar national agenda.
On 20 July 1948 a federal grand jury indicted John Gates and eleven other leaders of the Communist Party, under Title I of the Smith Act. This 1940 legislation made it illegal to organize a political party to teach and advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The indictment did not allege that the defendants had committed any overt revolutionary act, only teaching and advocating. The trial opened on 17 January 1949 in the Manhattan federal court building. Gates later remarked that the “anti-Communist hysteria was so intense, and most Americans were so frightened by the Communist issue, that we were convicted before our trial even started.” They were indeed found guilty after a raucous trial that lasted nine months. The defendants each received a five-year prison term and a $10,000 fine. Gates remained free while the case was appealed, until 4 June 1951, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6 to 2 decision, upheld the constitutionality of the Smith Act. He served his sentence in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Released on 1 March 1955, he returned to New York City and his post as editor in chief of the Daily Worker.
During his imprisonment, Gates had begun to question his commitment to the Communist Party. By 1956 thousands of Party members were quitting in the wake of the Soviet suppression of the revolt in Hungary and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s speech revealing some of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities. Gates was also repulsed by revelations of the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews. For him, “the Jewish question has been the acid test of the democratic-mindedness and humanity of societies,” and the Soviet disclosures were the “most shameful blot on its record.”
Over the next two years, Gates led a faction within the party that sought to institute reforms. He believed the basic reason for the party’s failure was its “worshipful and imitative relationship to the Soviet Union.” The party, he said, must reject unquestioned acceptance of the Soviet interpretation of Marxist theory and formulate its own more democratic policies corresponding to conditions in the United States. Gates’s ideas were promulgated in a Draft Resolution of 1956, but the American Communist Party leadership briefly accepted it but then backtracked, dooming the reforms to failure. For Gates, the last straw was the decision of the party’s leadership in December 1957 to suspend the Daily Worker. “When the Daily Worker went, I would go with it,” he had decided. He resigned from the party on 9 January 1958.
After his resignation Gates became a research assistant for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City, helping union members with workers compensation and jobless claims. He retired in 1987 and moved with his wife to North Miami Beach. He died in 1992 at the Miami Heart Institute of heart disease and stroke. His remains were cremated.
John Gates was not a big man (he was five-feet, eight-inches tall and slender), but throughout his life, his calm, cool demeanor in all types of confrontational situations gave him a commanding presence. His story is representative of what happened to a generation of Americans whose lives were transformed by the Great Depression of the 1930s. The desire for change that led him to the Communist Party did not end with his resignation in 1958. “I am no longer a Communist,” Gates wrote in 1958, but “American life does need basic changes and there have always been plenty of problems requiring radical solutions, even in ‘good times’.”
Gates’s autobiography, The Story of an American Communist (1958), provides a detailed and comprehensive account of his life up to 1958. His role in the Communist Party is discussed in David A. Shannon, The Decline of American Communism: A History of the Communist Party of the United States Since 1945 (1959), and Joseph R. Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943–1957 (1972). Obituaries are in the New York, Times (24 May 1992) and Los Angeles Times (26 May 1992).
Kenneth R. Cobb