McCarthyism in America
The Soviet World of American Communism
WHY did the United States undergo such a troubling and wide-ranging Red scare following the Second World War? As early as the 1950s leading scholars, including Daniel Bell, Richard Hofstadter, and Theodore Draper, struggled to answer this and related questions. Since that time hotly contested debates over the Red scare and McCarthyism have merged with larger culture wars over the role of the left in postwar American life. Many Are the Crimes, by Ellen Schrecker, and The Soviet World of American Communism, by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson, now venture into the treacherous historical terrain of the Red scare and the role of the American Communist Party. Although the authors have devoted much of their scholarly lives to the subject, their new books do not guide us altogether reliably through the minefields of controversy.
Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, has made the study of American anti-communism the focus of her career. She is the author of No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986) and The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History With Documents (1994), a handy paperback aimed at students. Many Are the Crimes represents more than twenty years of research, which led her to archives throughout the country. Schrecker relies heavily on interviews and on files wrested (through the Freedom of Information Act) from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Lamenting that McCarthyism has been a "scab that will not heal," she hopes that her account will help us to "reach some kind of closure, and come to terms with the meaning of that troubling chapter of the not-so-recent past."
Like many historians who have studied the post-Second World War Red scare, Schrecker has little patience for the work of Bell and Hofstadter. Writing in the 1950s, they found the roots of anti-Communist hysteria in the insecurities and resentments of ordinary people who felt threatened by social change. Not so, Schrecker quickly informs us.
Much of what happened during the McCarthy era was the result of a concerted campaign by a loosely structured, but surprisingly self-conscious, network of political activists who had been working for years to drive Communism out of American life. With the onset of the Cold War, these professional anti-Communists were able to sell their program to the nation's governing elites, who then put it into practice. Though most ordinary people supported what was going on, McCarthyism was primarily a top-down phenomenon.
To dramatize this argument Schrecker sets a broad stage, offering more than a hundred pages of background to describe the worlds of American communism and anti-communism prior to 1945. The Administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt wiretapped suspected Communist subversives; it began a "security risk" program that ousted nearly 400 federal employees in 1942; and it drew up the first Attorney General's list of allegedly disloyal groups, numbering forty-seven. More important, FDR helped to expand the empire of J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, whose obsessive Red-hunting makes him the leading villain in Schrecker's drama. The FBI, which regularly resorted to illegal wiretaps and bugging, became "the single most important component of the anticommunist crusade and the institution most responsible for its successes -- and its inequities." "McCarthyism," Schrecker concludes, should more properly be called "Hooverism."
To place Hooverism in context: one did not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist in those days to worry about Communist subversion. Wartime anxieties led the American Civil Liberties Union, of all organizations, to exclude Communists from membership. Morris Ernst, a leader in the ACLU, carried on a "Dear Edgar" correspondence with Hoover, naming names of suspected Communists still in the ACLU.
With the way so well prepared, it is hardly surprising that Cold War anxieties promoted a Red scare, which peaked from 1946 to 1949 -- before Senator Joseph McCarthy strode demagogically into the spotlight. Red-hunters like Hoover, along with "card-carrying Republicans," enjoyed great success in "demonizing" American Communists, who were branded as duplicitous, "brainwashed," secretive to the point of paranoia, and engaged in a monolithic worldwide conspiracy directed from Moscow. A number of corporate leaders and Hollywood moguls were quick to dismiss and to blacklist people suspected of having radical leanings. (Hollywood liberals such as Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra protested these purges. "Before every free conscience in America is subpoenaed," Garland cried, "please speak up." Sinatra asked, "If you make a pitch on a nationwide radio network for a square deal for the underdog, will they call you a Commie? . . . Are they going to scare us into silence?") Some universities bent under the pressure of anti-communism and joined the crusade. "There will be no witch hunt at Yale," Charles Seymour, the school's president, pronounced, "because there will be no witches. We do not intend to hire Communists." The presidential candidate Norman Thomas, the longtime Socialist leader, gave this rationale for policies like Yale's: "The right of the Communist to teach should be denied because he has given away his freedom in the quest for truth" -- has sacrificed his mental independence to Moscow, and so traduced his commitment to academic freedom. Labor leaders in the AFL and the CIO drummed Communists -- many of them outstanding unionists -- from their ranks. (Schrecker, citing an unpublished study, estimates that the "body count" of people who lost their jobs and couldn't find new ones ultimately totaled between 10,000 and 12,000.) Imitating conservatives, liberals soon jumped fearfully onto the anti-Communist bandwagon. Many resorted to metaphors of disease to describe the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Hubert Humphrey said the Party was a "political cancer in our society." Adlai Stevenson proclaimed that it was worse than "cancer, tuberculosis, and heart disease combined."