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The Siege

No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities

by Ellen W. Schrecker
Oxford University Press, 437 pp., $20.95

McCarthyism began earlier and lasted longer than the notoriety of the senator from Wisconsin who gave the phenomenon its name. In Ellen Schrecker’s account he is characterized as “the most unsavory” of the numerous inquisitors, but otherwise receives little attention. More than half of her book is devoted to the years and events preceding Joseph McCarthy’s appearance on stage in 1950 and much more than that before he gains any prominence in her narrative, if he ever does. But for an occasional offstage growl and a one-line snarl or two he remains more a symbol than a participant.

Universities were not, of course, the only institution, or scholars the only profession, victimized by McCarthyites. This was a nationwide witch hunt penetrating nearly every corner and virtually all institutions and professions of the country—the press, bureaucracy, and military included. How then justify this much attention to the academy, which supplied only about 20 percent of the witnesses before the various investigating committees, while only a hundred or so professors lost their jobs?

But McCarthyism is not a subject readily or meaningfully quantifiable. One might more relevantly inquire how many public executions it takes to quell resistance in an occupied city, or how many lynchings to terrify a race. This was the most devastating and demoralizing blow ever struck at American universities by their own government, state and national. The importance of the experience justifies all the prolonged research the author has lavished on this book. And a subject of such a nature as to induce both victims and victimizers to conceal or destroy significant evidence necessitates a lot of digging. Ellen Schrecker does not pretend to have unearthed everything, but she has made a good beginning and produced a book that should receive respectful attention and the gratitude of the many readers it deserves.

As the first serious investigator of so controversial a subject, Ms. Schrecker, a lecturer in history at Princeton, realizes that the reader will have a legitimate curiosity about her own point of view. She is leftist in leanings but not uncritical toward all of that persuasion, or of all McCarthyite victims. While she says that “McCarthy never found any subversives,” and that “most of the men and women he denounced were perfectly loyal,” she declares that but for a handful of “innocent liberals” almost all of the witnesses called before the anti-Communist investigators “had once been in or near the Communist Party.” Of the Party itself she writes:

At its peak it was a dynamic and often effective movement for social change, yet it was also—and at the same time—a doctrinaire, secretive, and undemocratic political sect. Its main flaw, of course, was its uncritical relationship with the Soviet Union, a relationship that required its members to conform their political activities to the dictates of Stalin’s foreign policy rather than the exigencies of American life…. As an ostensibly revolutionary organization, the CP enforced a type of disciplined and conspiratorial behavior that may well have stunted the development of a viable socialist tradition in America.

Despite “these serious defects” she maintains that the Party made some positive contributions such as helping to organize the CIO and gaining a hearing for black citizens. “The record is mixed. To view it in any other way is to distort the past.”

One break she makes in the wall of secrecy around the subject provides insights into the nature of CP activities in the academy, the behavior of academic Party members, and the response of the universities. This was during the 1930s, the years of greatest Party presence and activity on the campus, and the period of greatest interest to the McCarthyite inquisition of the 1950s. One fresh source of importance is the interviews the author conducted with surviving participants of the events in any of several capacities, including that of Party member. She lists 140 people interviewed and says there were others who “requested anonymity.” In addition she draws on interviews conducted by other people, and nearly a hundred manuscript collections, FBI material obtained by the Freedom of Information Act, not to mention published documents and secondary works.

Youthful members of the CP were not on as tight a leash in the 1930s as the Party later imposed. From the start Communists were involved in, and sometimes dominated, the main national student organization. Party membership was kept secret by card holders, but Ms. Schrecker finds that “few of them were revolutionaries, nor were they even particularly interested in the Soviet Union.” They usually joined because they thought it the best way to fight fascism or end the Depression. They were joining because of the views they held, not holding those views because of what they joined and were thus obligated to hold. Or so it seemed to them. Party members of faculty status who were interviewed professed their scrupulous avoidance of indoctrinating or recruiting students. For the most part faculty Communists were more passive than active in Party duties and complained of the boredom of constantly taking part in drives, rallies, benefits, parades, and picket lines.

Some surprising facts emerge. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 did not, as is generally believed, cause many academics to desert the Party. According to Ms. Schrecker’s findings “no more than five or six did.” Many more left the Party during the war when the US and the USSR were allies. Deciding to leave often took as long as deciding to join, and leaving the Party did not mean for most ex-members leaving the left. With the cold war, Party discipline grew more rigid, and the exodus of Americans increased. They often left for personal reasons. Some were bored with the dull routine, “fed up with it,” and yearned for more time for scholarly work. Others sensed “the futility of the enterprise,” or were increasingly revolted by what they learned or began to admit about the Russian purges and gulags and felt “rather shameful” over their apologies for Stalin. For a number McCarthyism had the perverse effect of keeping them in the Party longer than they wished in order to avoid the charge of “chicken.”

Referring to the period before Khrushchev exposed the crimes of Stalin in 1956, the author writes that “by the late forties and early fifties there were few, maybe a few dozen, academics still willing to incur the enormous personal and professional risks that remaining in the rigid and ineffectual Communist Party would have entailed. After 1956, of course, there were just about none.” It is her opinion that while they were members most of them were “neither dupes nor conspirators,” that

the academics who passed through the American Communist Party during the 1930s and 1940s were a group of serious men and women who sincerely hoped to create a better world…. That their opposition to fascism and commitment to social justice should take the form of joining the CP was a reflection of that brief moment in history when, because of the Depression and the rise of Hitler, the Party could become relevant to American problems without abandoning its fealty to the Soviet Union…. While they were in it, they did, it is true, follow the Party line…but they did not proselytize in class or try to subvert their universities. On the contrary, they were so anxious about protecting their academic careers that they concealed their membership in the Party. Later on, during the McCarthy period, the clandestine nature of their political affiliation was to cause them problems, but had they been more open about their Party membership they might have lost their jobs.

State legislatures took the lead in Red hunts during the 1930s. Spurred on by the Hearst press and the American Legion, states passed loyalty oaths or established investigating committees. Before 1939, the crusade to purge Communists from the campus had not become universal, but was growing. The Nazi-Soviet pact accelerated the movement by destroying the Popular Front and enlisting anti-Communist support from liberals, Socialists, and ex-Communists such as the followers of Lovestone and Trotsky. Remaining in the Party after the Nazi pact placed members beyond the academic pale. In the prevailing view the CP was not a regular party but a conspiracy dominated by Moscow which made members automatons of the Party line, compelled to indoctrinate their students. This was the stereotype that lasted through the Red scare between 1939 and 1941 and later, throughout the cold war years. After America’s entry into the war in alliance with the Soviet Union, the Red hunt was halted or suspended, but not before the procedures and methods of the postwar McCarthyite inquisition had been established. When it began again the same witnesses were often faced by the same inquisitors, aided by the same informers.

The immediate postwar years saw a brief revival of campus radicalism often by returning veterans, but it never reached the level attained in the Popular Front days and is easily exaggerated. Communists could only mobilize a hundred sympathizers at Harvard compared with four hundred rallied by the Republican Club, and Sarah Lawrence teachers gave Thomas E. Dewey more than twice as many votes in 1948 as they gave Henry Wallace. Of CP members Cornell had a couple of dozen, Michigan about fifteen, and comparable units appeared at Yale, Berkeley, Chicago, and North Carolina during the late Forties. University administrations gave them a hard time by banning their speakers and their student organization, American Youth for Democracy. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) proved of no help, and neither did the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

The opening assault of the postwar Red hunt in the universities began in 1949 with the firing of three tenured professors by the University of Washington as the result of an investigation by an Un-American Activities Committee of the state legislature. The committee marshalled the same professional ex-Communist informers and employed the same procedures as prewar committees had used. Professors at the university circulated an open letter criticizing the dismissals, but only 103 out of a faculty of about 700 signed it. The test of unfitness for academic life applied in this important case was Party membership (at any time)—what counted was affiliations, not conduct, not what individual professors actually did or refused to do, or to think. The test of unfitness proposed by the AAUP—lying about membership—was ignored. Even such respected scholars as Arthur O. Lovejoy and Sidney Hook did not challenge the University of Washington procedure, and that case provided a model the rest of the academy could imitate during the crisis of McCarthyism.

Before the committees of Congress began their purge of the universities in the spring of 1953, the main pressure to fire scholars came from state legislatures and officials. Nearly all the states either conducted some kind of investigation or enacted, or tried to enact, some kind of law to eliminate Communist teachers. Efforts to pass such laws in Massachusetts and Illinois frightened Harvard and Chicago but these fizzled in the end. The most common law, because the most inexpensive to administer, was the loyalty oath, and almost every state imposed one of some sort. They ranged from a simple pledge of allegiance to complicated oaths disavowing certain beliefs and denying membership in certain organizations.

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