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What has come to be known as McCarthyism should, with more respect to chronology and power, be known as Hooverism

by James T. Patterson

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Many are the Crimes:
McCarthyism in America

by Ellen Schrecker.
Little, Brown, 573 pages, $29.95.

The Soviet World of American Communism
by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson.
Yale University, 378 pages, $35.00.

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.
Discuss this article in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

From the archives:

  • "The Never-Ending Wrong," by Katherine Anne Porter (June, 1977)
    "It is hard to explain, harder no doubt for a new generation to understand, how the 'intellectuals' and 'artists' in our country leaped with such abandoned, fanatic credulity into the Russian hell-on-earth of 1920."

  • "The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti," by Felix Frankfurter (March, 1927)
    "Boston was one of the worst centres of the lawlessness and hysteria that characterized the campaign of the Department of Justice for the wholesale arrest and deportation of Reds.... Sacco and Vanzetti were notorious Reds. They were associates of leading radicals; they had for some time been on the list of suspects of the Department of Justice."

    Related links:

  • The Soviet Union and the United States
    A Library of Congress Exhibit which shows "how Soviet-American relations were conducted between governments, between the publics of the two countries, and between the Communist parties of the USSR and the USA."

  • Senator Joe McCarthy -- A Multimedia Celebration
    A collection of sound clips and videos of famous McCarthy speeches and public appearances.

  • "The Impact of McCarthyism," by Ellen Schrecker (1995)
    An essay by the author of Many Are the Crimes.

  • Communist Party U.S.A.
    The Web site of the United States Communist party.

  • Cold War Policies 1945-1991
    An overview of the Cold War with photographs and links to various documents and primary sources. (Posted by the University of San Diego History Department.)

  • 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."

    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."


    The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

    James T. Patterson, a professor of history at Brown University, is the author of Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974, which won the 1997 Bancroft Prize for History.

    Illustration by Daniel Adel

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; October 1998; The Enemy Within; Volume 282, No. 4; pages 106-112.

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