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The Bad Old Days

The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower

by David Caute
Simon and Schuster, 697 pp., $14.95

At the start of his account of “the anti-Communist purge under Truman and Eisenhower,” David Caute characterizes the first of these presidents as a “peppery little bustler”; a few pages later he finds it “tempting to condemn him as a hypocrite.” And that is just about all Caute tells us of Truman himself. Of Eisenhower he says still less—only that the “slow, soporific, conservative tempo” of his second administration “deflated anxiety” about the presumed communist threat. Yet it was during the illustrious general’s first term that the purge reached its zenith. The almost complete absence from the stage of those who, to judge from Caute’s subtitle, would presumably be his main protagonists makes his book curiously invertebrate. If the two presidents do not figure as the villains in this passionately committed work, who, then, are the culprits in what nearly every well-informed person now at long last regards as our national shame of a quarter century ago? Caute’s answer—since he seems to be a Marxist of some variety—lies in more impersonal forces in American society. Let us hold this question in suspense until we have examined a book totally different in organization and approach, Robert J. Donovan’s account of Truman’s early years in office.

A veteran journalist, Donovan brings to his work his own first-hand knowledge, supplemented by conscientious research both in documentary collections and in the voluminous secondary literature that has appeared over the past two decades. We are likely to get no better chronicle of the years 1945-1948. It is all there—everything you have ever wanted to know (and possibly more) about the first Truman administration. Unlike Caute, Donovan offers at the start a full-length portrait of Roosevelt’s third and last vice-president, who never wanted the job (“Oh shit,” he said on being picked), and upon whom the highest office fell, like a “load of hay,” just under a month before the Second World War in Europe came to an end. Here we find once again the contrasts that have become familiar to us—the sober citizen who relished his bourbon, the devoted husband and father addicted to pungent language (but apparently never in mixed company), the machine politician who had managed to stay clear of scandal, above all, the “mediocrity” who kept surprising people by rising above his level. Donovan writes of him with close knowledge—possibly even affection: I have never encountered a more convincing set of explanations for a president who was both simplicity incarnate and a human being constantly eluding the labels people tried to pin upon him.

In sifting through the detail—both meticulous and highly colored—that Donovan presents, we might as well jump to the autumn of 1945, when the overload of problems cascading on Truman and his staff became unbearable. Here the author is at his best: he depicts vividly and with sympathy the confusion and crisscrossing of unrelated issues with which the inexperienced president had to contend: the intransigence of the Russians, the militancy of labor, the fretfulness of consumers—all the cleavages and hostilities, at home and abroad, that Roosevelt, with characteristic insouciance and, in his last months, utter weariness, had pushed aside for another day, and that the war’s unexpectedly early end suddenly made urgent. In effect, Donovan is retrospectively asking us to give poor Truman a chance: he was learning on the job, and could anyone else so ill-prepared have done better?

Of course one could reply that it was not particularly far-sighted of Roosevelt, who knew he was mortally ill, to have chosen Truman in the first place. But to do so would be to assign responsibility by a process of infinite regression. It would be fairer to adopt Donovan’s own attitude of understanding and forbearance and see how well it proves itself in practice. Certainly it gives us a rich diet of anecdotes (e.g., Truman’s referring to Henry A. Wallace as a “cat bastard” and in a moment of towering annoyance at de Gaulle proposing that “those French ought to be taken out and castrated”). The public seems to enjoy such material; even historians may be grateful for what it adds to (or subtracts from) our image of a president. But unlike the general reader, the historian is constantly asking questions. Where, he may legitimately demand, has Donovan advanced our understanding of the vexed transactions of the years 1945-1948 that are still under debate?

To take the earliest and in the long run the gravest of the major decisions that could no longer be postponed—the dropping of the atomic bomb: here Donovan tells us little that we did not know before and tends to fudge on the critical issues. He starts quite sensibly by informing us that a leader who reasoned as Truman did had no choice but to use the new weapon in the Pacific war: the president “knew instinctively what the consequences would have been for him and for the Democratic party if tens of thousands of [invading] Americans were killed or wounded in Japan while the atomic bomb lay in discard in a laboratory.” But if this statement illuminates the moral and political contours of Truman’s thinking, it does not go to the heart of the debate over “atomic diplomacy.”

To what extent were the new president and his advisers prepared to exploit their unprecedented military advantage as a means of pressure on the Russians? Truman, Donovan tells us (on the strength of a single dubious source), postponed the Potsdam conference to mid-July in part because he wanted to learn in the course of the meeting whether the test drop in New Mexico had succeeded. Yet—to continue with Donovan’s account—the president did not follow up on his advantage. When the time came two weeks later to give the fateful order, the author explains, “the possibility that the thunderclap would shake Stalin into a more cooperative attitude did nothing to stay the decision.” That is all the information we get: the cautious language betrays Donovan’s uncertainty. By the following autumn, he concludes, it was becoming clear that Truman “had no grand design for using possession of the atomic bomb to coerce other nations.”

So we historians are left where we started—with the accusation still unproven that the president and his advisers resorted to atomic blackmail. To jump now to the end of the administration, on an apparently lesser issue (but one of enormous current concern), the future of Palestine, Donovan is crispness itself. Here his major themes of administrative foul-up and agonizing decision come together in a fresh and admirably paced narrative. His almost day-by-day account of strife between the covertly anti-Semitic foreign service and the politicians with their eyes on the Jewish vote rings true to my own memories of Washington in early 1948. The grand climax of the recognition of Israel, which found the president squared off against his own secretary of state, is handled with skill and understanding. The secretary—General George C. Marshall—might well have chosen to resign in protest; that he did not do so tells us a great deal about the mutual esteem between him and his chief.

Why is Donovan so gingerly in his treatment of atomic diplomacy and so sure of touch on the emergence of Israel? I think it is because the former issue is strewn with ideological boobytraps, while the latter—although carrying a heavy charge of ethnic passion—has seldom clearly pitted right against left. Whenever Donovan runs up against ideology, his tone shifts: his usual breeziness turns to caution. Acutely aware of the “revisionist” history that has preceded him, he takes care to guard his left flank.

Thus he refrains from comment on the guilt or innocence of Harry Dexter White, the highest official accused of working in behalf of the Soviet Union; he deals gently with Wallace’s presidential campaign of 1948, charging him with little worse than being “poorly informed about the realities of the conflicts in which the United States found itself.” On the Truman Doctrine, against which Wallace was to do battle, he seems unable to make up his mind, merely stressing its “controversial” quality and the “rigidity” it bequeathed to the future conduct of foreign relations. Most surprisingly of all, he cannot bring himself to be forthright even about a matter that is no longer at issue—the communist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia: “The popular view,” he tells us, “was that a democracy-loving, friendly nation had been swallowed…in a coup d’état staged by the Kremlin.” The verdict is ascribed to the public (and, one might add, reflects the consensus of historians); Donovan does not quite make it his own.

In sum, he comes down unequivocally on neither side of the continuing controversy over Truman. Of the two major stereotypes now current—Truman the staunch defender of nations struggling to preserve their freedom, Truman the progenitor of visceral anti-communism—Donovan leans toward the first. My own view is closer to the second—and this because I believe that Truman pursued the cold war with a quite unnecessary venom. Abroad, it is true, Stalin gave him little choice. But he did nothing to halt—indeed, he contributed to—the steady erosion of relations that in the end resulted in a total breakdown of Soviet-American understanding. At home he lacked the excuse of having a monster for an adversary. If one argues (as I have) that even the wisest statesmanship could not have headed off a confrontation resembling the cold war, one is unable to say the same of domestic anticommunism. The count against Truman is not so much that he waged the cold war as that he encouraged the mentality of brutal intolerance which accompanied it. It was this mentality that inflicted long-range damage on our society, and it is on this that Truman must ultimately be judged.

The charge of trying simultaneously to please Truman’s admirers and to appease his critics on the left cannot be lodged against Caute. (In fairness, one should add that on the topic of Caute’s book, the “loyalty” program, Donovan is uncharacteristically categorical in his condemnation.) For the author of The Great Fear Truman’s executive order of March 1947 launching the loyalty program ranks as the single “most sinister and destructive departure in postwar domestic politics, one which was to ramify far beyond the federal service and poison wide areas of American working, educational and cultural life.” The sentence is typical of Caute’s downright style. While Donovan’s book is readable in an undistinguished way, Caute’s lacks both grace and nuance. He belongs to the younger generation of Englishmen who have as much trouble with English prose as the Americans whom their elders used to mock. “Redbait” appears again and again as a verb; the constitution is “concussed” in the courts; defiant witnesses face the “ruination” of their careers. Such stylistic strictures, however, should not be taken as in any way reflecting on the substance of Caute’s work, which is of first-rate importance.

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