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."
The Truman Administration also abetted the Red scare. In 1947, facing pressure from the right, it instituted "loyalty tests" that denied civil liberties to government employees. It later depended heavily on FBI informants to prosecute eleven top leaders of the CPUSA. Their "crime," as defined by the Smith Act of 1940, was belonging to an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the government. Upholding their convictions in 1951, Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson justified restrictions on free speech by citing "the inflammable nature of world conditions, similar uprisings in other countries, and the touch-and-go nature of our relations with other countries with whom petitioners were in the very least ideologically attuned."
WERE these frightened reactions in any way justified? Schrecker acknowledges that leaders of the Party -- secretive, contentious, pawns of Moscow -- were sometimes their own worst enemies. But she nevertheless concludes that the fear of Reds in America was vastly exaggerated. Critically evaluating the so-called Venona documents (recently released decrypts of messages sent from the United States to Moscow by Communist agents during the Second World War), she agrees that Julius Rosenberg recruited an espionage ring. Moscow seems to have welcomed data from the ring about radar, jet planes, and other advanced weapons. But Rosenberg's people (unlike Klaus Fuchs, the physicist-spy who worked on the Manhattan Project) divulged no useful information concerning the atomic bomb. Indeed, very few members of the CPUSA seem to have engaged in spying. (Schrecker thinks that the jury is still out concerning Alger Hiss.) Many Are the Crimes concludes that the prosecution's evidence against Ethel Rosenberg was weak, and that the government colluded with the judge to ensure that both Rosenbergs would receive the death penalty. This draconian sentence amounted to "judicial murder."
Having detailed America's anti-Communist excesses in the late 1940s, Schrecker brings McCarthy onstage three fifths of the way through her drama. He appears as a bit player whose role was to "ratchet up the intensity" of an already fevered crusade -- he was the "creature," not the "creator," of the Red scare. McCarthy was a shameless liar who claimed to have flown on thirty-two combat missions in the war though he had flown on no more than two, and to walk with a limp from "ten pounds of shrapnel" though he had hurt his foot at a party. McCarthy, Schrecker reminds us, was so reckless that even Hoover ceased to cooperate with him by mid-1953. For these reasons she allots only twenty-five pages to his activities.
In relegating McCarthy to the wings, Schrecker is correct to stress that the Wisconsin senator was a Joe-come-lately to the anti-Communist cause. But her sketchy treatment of McCarthy belies her title, and she skims too rapidly over many highlights of the Red scare after 1950, including the confused and sometimes craven responses of the Eisenhower Administration to the boorish senator who nearly dominated American politics for four years.
I have other, larger reservations about Schrecker's book. Piling up details about the sins of the anti-Communist crusaders, Schrecker concludes with a long and labored chapter highlighting the ravages of the Red scare, not only from 1945 to 1955 but also in the forty-odd years since then. She would have us believe that McCarthyism "destroyed the left" (Irving Howe, among others, has argued that the CPUSA, blindly following Moscow during the tense years of the Cold War, bears much of that responsibility) and has badly corrupted much of American life since the 1950s -- scholarship, scientific research, publishing, philanthropy, films, social reform, labor unions, and the civil-rights and women's movements. She contends that anti-Communist excesses in the 1940s offered the model for repression of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, for Ronald Reagan's double-dealing concerning the Iran-contra scandal, and for Watergate. McCarthyism promoted a general "sleaziness" -- its "main legacy" -- that has blighted American politics since that time.
Has McCarthyism had such profound, long-range effects? Schrecker pauses here and there to remind us that many forces have coalesced to cause the decline -- as she wants to see it -- in the quality of American life since the 1950s. But she then presses on with prosecutorial zeal, essentially dismissing her own caveats, to identify McCarthyism as the source of all manner of subsequent sins.
Schrecker's gloomy indictment leaves the impression that virtually all elites succumbed to the hysteria of the time. Almost no one, it seems, displayed courage. Such a view tends to ignore people who deplored what was happening. The historian Bernard De Voto spoke for many Americans in decrying Hoover's use of "gossip, rumor, slander, backbiting, malice and drunken invention, which, when it makes the headlines, shatters the reputations of innocent and harmless people.... We know that the thing stinks to heaven, that it is an avalanching danger to our society." Schrecker says little about Americans who tried to distinguish between Soviet foreign policy, which seemed highly dangerous in the postwar era, and communism within America, which seemed hardly dangerous at all. Members of the Americans for Democratic Action, which receives only cursory attention here, were among the people who sought (at least at times) to make this distinction and to distance themselves from excesses of the Red scare at home while remaining firm in their anti-communism abroad.
Readers of Schrecker's book will also have a hard time understanding what non-elites were doing and thinking during these troubled times. Her account does not look at public-opinion polls or electoral results, and it does little to explore the sources of McCarthyism. Can it be said that Red-hunters enjoyed considerable support among religious people who loathed "Godless communism"? Did McCarthy have special appeal among Catholic believers? (John F. Kennedy, scarcely mentioned in the book, seems to have thought so.) What about Americans with backgrounds and relatives in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe? In the absence of solid documentation on the wider world of anti-communism, it is unfortunate that Schrecker's ambitious book focuses so relentlessly on the elites -- the bad guys -- and fails to dig deeper into the significant social foundations of the postwar American right.
Finally, readers may wonder how the elites managed to develop such power at the time. Were the American people ignorant, hapless pawns of Red-baiters? Missing here is a serious account of how Americans in the 1940s and 1950s perceived the political and military ambitions of the Soviet Union. Although Schrecker repeatedly mentions "the Cold War," she tends to treat it as an abstract, offstage problem that undermined the good sense of people. There is no discussion, for instance, of the coup in Czechoslovakia, the Berlin airlift, or Soviet brutalities in Eastern Europe. Korea gets a few lines here and there but is equated with Vietnam as something that involved the United States in "years of bloody, fruitless warfare." By downplaying the international dimensions of the domestic Red scare (dimensions that featured in the sensational Hiss case), Schrecker robs her story of vitally important context and relegates a generation of elites to the psychiatrist's couch.
T which focuses on the international activities of leaders of the CPUSA from 1919 to the mid-1940s, offers a different point of view. Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University, and John Earl Haynes, a historian of twentieth-century politics at the Library of Congress, are productive scholars who have already written several books critical of the CPUSA. In 1995 they published, with the Russian historian Fridrikh Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism, a collection (with extensive annotation and commentary) of newly available documents from Moscow. These documents included information about espionage by the CPUSA, thereby providing much more solid evidence about such activities than scholars had suspected existed. Secret World was the first of twenty-five proposed volumes in Yale University Press's ambitious "Annals of Communism" series -- books all to be based on documents in the Soviet Union. Klehr and Haynes have now teamed up with Kyrill Anderson, a Russian archivist, to dig into records in Moscow of the Communist International (Comintern) and the CPUSA. They reprint ninety-five documents, many in full, choosing those that focus on "previously unknown or unexpected aspects" of the relation between the CPUSA and the Comintern. Their extensive notes cite many additional documents.
The authors repeatedly slam home their central point: American Communist leaders (and many of the rank and file) checked their brains in Moscow. A few brief quotations will capture both their thesis and their unbending tone: "The CPUSA was never an independent political organization"; "The dictates of the Comintern almost invariably superseded policies offered [by the CPUSA] on the basis of local conditions"; "One finds no documents in the Soviet archives ... that show American Communist leaders refusing to carry out Comintern orders as a matter of principle"; "Both the CPUSA leaders and the rank and file absorbed Stalin's ideological hatreds as their own"; American Communists wore "special glasses that allowed them to see only what Moscow saw and that rendered all else invisible." For these reasons the CPUSA was in fact "'un-American.'"
According to these documents, CPUSA leaders' subservience to Moscow was total. American Communist officials all but invited the Comintern to choose their leaders, and they acquiesced in sharp turns of Soviet policy -- for example, the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 -- that appalled many Party members in the United States. Klehr et al. argue that top officials of the CPUSA offered no protests against the brutal purges and killings orchestrated by Stalin against his enemies (including some wayward American Communists in the Soviet Union) in the 1930s. The documents also reveal that the CPUSA often depended heavily on funding ("Moscow gold") from the Soviet Union. As late as 1988 the Soviet Union contributed $3 million to the Party in the United States.
This may not, of course, be the whole story: further research into the enormous Soviet archives may alter the record as given here. Moreover, Klehr and his co-authors sometimes draw larger and questionable conclusions not supported by the documents they print. A case in point concerns a group of Finnish-Americans and Finnish-Canadians who were recruited by Moscow in the 1930s to help rebuild the Karelia region of the Soviet Union, near Finland. Many of these people were apparently executed in the late 1930s by Soviet authorities, but Klehr et al. find no documents indicating that CPUSA leaders intervened or protested against what was happening. The authors' evidence for the killings, however, comes from accusations in subsequently written memoirs by family members and from survivors -- not from the archives. No document offered here unambiguously implicates the CPUSA of the time in knowledge of or a cover-up of such atrocities.
In general, Klehr and his colleagues support a thesis that is neither new nor surprising. As early as 1957, in The Roots of American Communism, Theodore Draper established authoritatively that Moscow called the shots for the American Communist hierarchy in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution. We have long known that leaders of the CPUSA obeyed the Soviet Party line thereafter, no matter how dramatically that line changed. As Schrecker's book shows, such obeisance played nicely into the hands of Hoover and his fellow Red-hunters in the 1940s and 1950s.
What Soviet World does not do, however, is establish a broader point that it sometimes seems to advance: that lower-level American Communists more or less blindly followed their leaders. Indeed, as periodic defections from communism in America indicated, not all Party members sold their souls forever. Rather, many were leftists and radicals who had joined the CPUSA during the Great Depression, when the Soviet Union seemed to them to be the only hope against the spread of fascism. Others became members at that time because they had given up on capitalism or because they thought the Party offered the best chance for improvements in working conditions. Communists were strong, for instance, in several CIO unions in the late 1930s and early 1940s. By the late 1940s thousands of such people had left the Party -- some e becausthey were disillusioned with its stands on foreign policy after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and during the Cold War, others because they had regained some faith in the capitalist system. One of the great ironies of the postwar Red scare is that it broke out while defections from the CPUSA were proliferating.
Communism also developed considerable strength in the 1930s among writers and intellectuals. Whittaker Chambers, who broke with the Party and accused Hiss of espionage, was one. In Hollywood, Party members in the 1930s included Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg, and Carl Foreman (later the scenarist for High Noon). Ring Lardner Jr., who was to become one of the "Hollywood Ten" sent to jail by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (and later the screenwriter for the movie M*A*S*H), also had joined the Party in the Depression years. Like thousands of others, these people abandoned the CPUSA. Most of them lamented that they had been obtuse about the Party's submission to dictates from Moscow. But (unlike Chambers) many also continued to support liberal or radical causes.
The experience of one-time Party members like these indicates that scholars are well advised to explore the activities of the CPUSA in the context of broader histories: of ethnic and religious groups, race relations, labor unions, and intellectual life generally in the United States. There were many "worlds" of American communism, not just the small, often pathetic one of the Party leadership.
To be sure, Klehr and his co-authors set a narrower task for themselves than this. They try to tell only part of a larger, complicated story. But even more than Schrecker, they seem eager to prosecute a case -- one that threatens to conflate leadership and followership within the Communist Party of the United States. The minefields that have proved so treacherous for earlier scholars of communism and the postwar Red scare still remain to be cleared.
James T. Patterson, a professor of history at Brown University, is the author of which won the 1997 Bancroft Prize for History.
Illustration by Daniel Adel
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1998; The Enemy Within; Volume 282, No. 4; pages 106-112.