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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.