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Truman and the Beast

The Politics of Loyalty: The White House and the Communist Issue, 1946-1952

by Alan D. Harper
Greenwood, 318 pp., $13.00

Seeds of Repression: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism

by Athan Theoharis
Quadrangle, 256 pp., $6.95

Herbert Butterfield noticed in the early Charles James Fox an uncontrollable itch to add “the final strokes to the argument of his friends, as though determined to drive the whole logic of the situation to a further extreme—to go one note higher than the top note of the piano.”1 This observation seems unjust to Fox, whose life is our best argument for the social uses of demagoguery; but it does perfectly describe Joseph R. McCarthy, our strongest recent argument against them.

That image may also explain why no very helpful assessment of what got itself called the Age of McCarthy is possible unless we get the figure of Joe McCarthy as far from center stage as we can. The enormities of the musician who abuses the piano have a way of obscuring the disharmonies of the score which was appointed as entirely appropriate for him to play. Over-attendance upon the excessive can distract us from noticing how bad the normal is.

All three of the works under review come from younger historians whose perspective across fifteen years ought to give us some hope that they can hold McCarthy in just proportion. The first two do not quite succeed. Mr. Griffith seems indeed to suffer a fixation very like the one that used to afflict so many of us who were his seniors at the time: the generation of children which was truly traumatized by that ogre’s face on television may only now be reaching the age to instruct us.

Mr. Harper does better, since his study of Mr. Truman’s Loyalty and Security Program begins five years before most of us ever heard of Joe McCarthy. Even so, McCarthy’s first two years of fame occupy as much space in The Politics of Loyalty as the five which preceded them; and the figure of Mr. Truman, shadowed—to put it delicately—through the first and second acts, is enabled to complete the third in the blinding light of his defiance of the Beast, those having been times that required the blackest of villains before their heroes could be redeemed.

Mr. Theoharis, on the other hand, has so escaped the pieties and sentimentalities of the Fifties as to offer them nothing kinder than a withering smile. Our desire to have the period’s characters rendered in their proper proportions could hardly be better satisfied. McCarthy is relegated in this composition to the place and comparative dimensions of one of Veronese’s dwarfs, since it is Mr. Theoharis’s judgment that Mr. Truman set the tone of the national possession by fear of the Communist danger and that McCarthyism was only Trumanism carried to its logical conclusion.

His argument is not without weaknesses; but none of them seriously affects its essential strength. He has successfully, if not always gracefully, closed the question of major blame. Still, one finds oneself wishing that Mr. Theoharis’s eye for documents were as busy as his head for judgments. There is a deficiency of sustaining data here; one ends not entirely trusting the material underpinning the assertion. He has that low opinion of the motives of public men which should commend itself to other historians; but it leads him to assert reasons for their actions more often suppositious than is comfortable. Having seen the matter whole, Mr. Theoharis does not bother as much as he should about light and shadow. Curiously the fruits of Mr. Harper’s hunt through the Truman library files tend to support Mr. Theoharis’s thesis rather better than Theoharis’s researches do.

And, then, it seems too easy for Theoharis to blame the cold war and the national assumption of American omnipotence so entirely on Mr. Truman’s ability to infect the population with his own fantasies. Mr. Theoharis is very stubborn in his refusal to notice that we had come through years when the figure of Adolph Hitler—who does not remember the movies of the Hollywood Ten?—had given many of us the habit of thinking of wars as pitting Light against Darkness, and that it was not simple-minded to see Joseph Stalin as not altogether different. Mr. Theoharis’s thesis would be in no way damaged, and his argument closer to precision, if he recognized that the 1948 Stalinist coup in Czechoslovakia did at least as much to harden attitudes and to arouse alarms as the Hiss-Chambers case. One does not redress the balance by lifting a weight placed too heavily on one side and setting it on the other.

Still, if Mr. Theoharis overlooks some of the things the Fifties saw, he sees many more of the things the Fifties overlooked; and his argument that Mr. Truman was more to blame than any other American for the excesses of the time survives so powerfully that it deserves to be sketched in some detail—with its bones Mr. Theoharis’s and its flesh Mr. Harper’s.

Mr. Truman’s course was set in November of 1946 when he established his Temporary Commission on Employee Loyalty. Its inspirations were various but powerful—the passions of his Justice Department’s permanent party; a successful Republican Congressional campaign to a degree founded on the issue of internal subversion; and the alarms of the Gouzenko and the Amerasia cases.2

The Loyalty Commission’s membership included representatives of the Civil Service Commission and of the Departments of State, Treasury, War, Navy, and Justice. Justice, War, and Navy were the dominant chorus, with a few ineffectual bleats of caution from State and Treasury.

The Temporary Loyalty Commission’s chairman was Assistant Attorney General A. Devitt (Gus) Vanech, who had equipped himself for engaging this sensitive subject through years in the Land Division. Vanech, Harper tells us, persisted “in the debatable line that the presidential mandate required the commission to assume the problem, not to study it.” This guiding assumption was set forth in Attorney General Tom Clark’s testimony to the commission on January 23, 1947, when he appeared, as an example of hierarchical values, as a substitute for J. Edgar Hoover:

I do not believe [Clark said] that the gravity of the problem should be weighed in the light of numbers, but rather from the view of the serious threat which even one disloyal person constitutes to the security of the United States government.

That premise so controlled the first draft of the commission’s report, as circulated on January 28, 1947, that, says Harper, its “estimate of the seriousness of the loyalty issue rested entirely on a letter presented by the FBI…and couched in the most general terms,” apparently because Justice was so suspicious of the ambassadors from State and Treasury that it feared to trust them with any detailed information about the size and character of the FBI’s file on subversives. The draft report also cited with emphatic approval the conclusion of the House of Representatives Committee on Civil Service “that all doubts relative to employee loyalty should be resolved in favor of the government.” The objections of what may be called the civilian departments produced some moderation in the final language, but did nothing to alter the basic philosophy.

The initiation of the loyalty program happened, moreover, at a turn in Mr. Truman’s foreign policy where he felt a need, not merely spiritual but also tactical, to rely on the devil theory of Communism. He had decided, in the late winter of 1947, that he would have to take over Great Britain’s place as shield against Communism in Greece; while searching for ways to justify such a risk, he sought the advice of Arthur Vandenburg, the only Republican paladin he could entirely trust in the Senate. Vandenburg’s counsel was that Mr. Truman “had to scare hell out of the country.”

The President acted so manfully upon this instruction that, when the Truman Doctrine was enunciated, the enemy was flatly identified as the Soviet Union and the national duty as desperate resistance to the gravest peril, not only in Greece but everywhere.

Mr. Theoharis provides us some clangorous chords that thereafter seemed to Mr. Truman entirely proper for the piano:

We must not be confused about the issue which confronts the world today…. It is tyranny or freedom…. And even worse, communism denies the very existence of God. Religion is persecuted because it stands for freedom under God. This threat to our liberty and to our faith must be faced by each one of us. [President Truman, Saint Patrick’s Day, 1948]

We must beware of those who are devoting themselves to sowing the seeds of disunity among our people…. We must not fall victim to the insidious propaganda that peace can be obtained solely by wanting peace. This theory is advanced in the hope that it will deceive our people and that we will permit our strength to dwindle…. [President Truman, St. Patrick’s Day, 1948]

Our homes, our Nation, all the things we believe in, are in great danger. [President Truman, 1951]

The forces that are most anxious to weaken our internal security are not always easy to identify. Communists have been trained to deceit and secretly work towards the day when they hope to replace our American way of life with a Communist dictatorship. They utilize cleverly camouflaged movements, such as some peace groups and civil rights organizations, to achieve their sinister purposes. While they as individuals are difficult to identify—the Communist Party line is clear. Its first concern is the advancement of Soviet Russia and the Godless Communist cause. It is important to learn to know the enemies of the American way of life. [Department of Justice press release, July, 1950]

There are today many Communists in America. They are everywhere—in factories, offices, butcher shops, on street corners, in private business—and each carries in himself the germs of death for society. [Attorney General McGrath, April, 1950]

All the tempests of the score—the image of a godlessness more dangerous than tyranny; the threat of an alien presence everywhere; the reiterated warning that no stranger, however innocent his countenance, could be trusted—had thus been sounded by the Truman Administration before McCarthy began abusing the piano.

Mr. Theoharis is convinced that, with these hyperbolic utterances, the President and his assistants succeeded in thoroughly alarming the American people about their peril. This assertion is his weakest point, depending as its evidence does on the confusions and contradictions of public opinion polls. We can concede Mr. Truman’s intention to alarm without necessarily granting its achievement. Historians can make the mistake, once they have proved that a speech was made, of going on to the assumption that many people paid it much attention.

For example, what are we to make of the findings Mr. Theoharis offers us from the polls reported in Public Opinion Quarterly?

In April, 1947, 18 per cent [of one sample] believed American Communists were loyal to the United States….

Mr. Truman then opened up all the stops on the anti-Communist theme and, nine months later when he was in full blast,

  1. 1

    In George III, Lord North and the People (Russell & Russell, 1968).

  2. 2

    The linking in history of Gouzenko and Amerasia is the best example of the period’s habit of confusing categories. The Gouzenko case involved the alliance of attachés of the Soviet embassy in Canada and certain members of that country’s Communist Party in activities that might fairly be described as espionage. In the Amerasia case, three employees of the State Department gave documents to a magazine which then published them.

    Philip Jaffe, Amerasia‘s publisher, was a warm supporter of the Chinese Communists; but his State Department sources seem to have been drawn to their alliance with him more by their distaste for Chiang Kai-shek than by any particular sympathy for Mao Tse-tung. They appear to have used Amerasia in one of those intradepartmental Washington wars whose best weapon is the leakage by one side of some internal document that could embarrass the other. Drew Pearson made his career and Senator Joseph McCarthy advanced his because each made himself hospitable to any federal employee who would support his own discontents with the evidence of a classified document.

    Amerasia‘s offense then was in essence no more than an exercise of that journalistic initiative which, given the government’s habit of using the device of security classification as much to protect itself as the country, serves society more often than it harms it. But Jaffe seemed to be a Communist; and the fact that he was pursuing his cause openly by journalistic standards, if sneakily by standards more elevated, could not protect him from the immediate assumption that he had engaged himself in espionage for an unfriendly power. His conduct was judged simply by the label he bore; and Amerasia‘s activities have ever since carried a cast in the minds of persons sensitive to the Communist peril no less sinister than those of Klaus Fuchs.

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