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The Red Scare

Ellen Schrecker’s Many Are the Crimes appears at a time when, thanks to the fall of the Soviet Union, new information about the subject of communism is becoming available. The sporadic release of classified documents here and abroad has settled matters hotly disputed only decades ago. We know now that the American Communist Party served from its inception in 1919 as an outpost of the Moscow-based Communist International (Comintern) and that a disciplined espionage “apparatus,” controlled by Soviet intelligence, infiltrated the US government in the 1930s and 1940s and placed spies inside the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.

How does this knowledge affect our understanding of anticommunism, particularly McCarthyism and the excesses committed in its name during the 1950s? Did those years, as Schrecker maintains, produce the “most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history”? Was anticommunism, at least in some of its forms, an often reasonable, although overzealous, reaction to a serious danger? In the post-Communist world, these questions have assumed new importance, and Schrecker is not alone in raising them.

Indeed her book is in effect a counterstatement to Richard Gid Powers’s Not Without Honor,1 a neoconservative survey of American anticommunism published in 1995. Reviewing the opposition to Russian communism from its origins in 1917 to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Powers concluded that “there was no one thing that was American anticommunism” but rather “many American anticommunisms.” He praised “responsible anticommunists,” including the liberals and leftists who in the 1930s tried to keep the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) from taking over labor unions and who supported organizations like John Dewey’s Commission of Inquiry, which challenged the legitimacy of the Moscow Trials.

At the same time, Dewey and his fellow liberal anti-Communists opposed right-wing anti-Communists who weakened the cause by adulterating it with longstanding prejudices against immigrants, ethnic minorities, and all forms of liberalism. In Powers’s account, the contest over anticommunism grew most intense during the early years of the cold war, when by a kind of Gresham’s law the bad anti-Communists drove out the good. The movement touched bottom with the ascendancy of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose “rabid charges that there were Communist traitors among the nation’s most trusted leaders‌eclipsed the sober and truthful accounts of communism that anticommunists had provided over the past half decade, making anticommunism seem nothing more than the ravings of a dangerous madman.”

But in fact, the two strands of anticommunism, high and low, could not be so easily disentangled. Sidney Hook, a social democrat and strong critic of McCarthy, was willing to jettison civil liberties in order to keep Communist teachers out of American schools. Just being a member of the Party was, in his view, enough to bar a math teacher from the classroom. James Burnham, a former Trotskyist and Partisan Review editor, drafted one-sided reports for Red-hunting Senate investigating committees. Powers neglected to consider that it was as much the contradictions and excesses of principled anti-Communists as the example of McCarthyite extremism which created the enduring impression that anticommunism of every kind was a blight on our political culture.

With fresh disclosures from the Soviet archives, some discussions of anticommunism again fall into oversimplifications and convenient elisions. The publication of Harvey Klehr and John Haynes’s documentary history The Secret World of American Communism (1995), 2 which corroborated the existence of an underground, Soviet-controlled Communist underground at work in the US in the 1930s and 1940s, inspired more than one reviewer to draw the conclusion that McCarthy, for all his many excesses, was not inaccurate in his claims of an “immense” Communist conspiracy centered in the US government and still active in the 1950s. In fact, the evidence shows the opposite, that there was a limited conspiracy, which, for the most part, ceased to function after 1945.3

We have seen, too, the revival of the familiar cold war Manichaeanism whereby the entire burden of world communism is laid crushingly upon every CP member or sympathizer. For instance, the journalist Michael Kelly recently criticized The New York Times for publishing an affectionate feature article about a California nursing home populated by elderly socialists and Communists, one of whom, at age ninety, had the effrontery to predict that one day “Socialism, crushed to earth, will rise again,” and another of whom, aged 101, still judged Lenin “the greatest politician we ever had in this world.”4

On the backs of these die-hard leftists Kelly heaps “between 45 million and 72 million victims of the state in China, 20 million in the Soviet Union, 2.3 million in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, 1 million in Vietnam, 1.7 million in Africa.” He declares, too, that these nursing-home inmates, whose activities include riding through the streets of Los Angeles in wheelchairs in support of striking janitors, are the moral equivalents of a “brave little band of aging Nazis,” who keep “a bust of Hitler in the living room.”

Ellen Schrecker’s closely documented book, twenty years in preparation, presents an altogether different picture of communism and anticommunism. She has consulted dozens of archives, obtained useful new files from the FBI, and interviewed a number of Communists. She has also had the benefit of examining many, if not all, of the important records released from vaults in Moscow and Washington in the 1990s, some of them available only since 1996. In Schrecker’s view the disagreements among anti-Communists were less consequential than the objective they all shared. Where Richard Gid Powers described “many American anticommunisms,” she detects

many McCarthyisms, each with its own agenda and modus operandi. There was the ultraconservative version peddled by patriotic groups and right-wing activists that manifested itself in campaigns to purge textbooks of favorable references to the United Nations. There was also a liberal version that supported sanctions against Communists, but not against non-Communists, and there was even a left-wing version composed of anti-Stalinist radicals who attacked Communists as traitors to the socialist ideal. In addition, there was a partisan brand of McCarthyism, purveyed by ambitious politicians like Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy who hoped to further their own careers and boost the Republican party. All, however, sought in one way or another to protect the nation against the threat of domestic Communism. And all contributed in one way or another to the overall success of the anticommunist crusade.

Schrecker’s study centers on the first decade of the cold war, between 1946 and 1956, the years in which the fear of domestic communism became a national obsession and the “machinery of McCarthyism,” in her phrase, ground on most efficiently. Much has been written, of course, about the period’s major controversies: the Hollywood Ten, Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, the trial of the CPUSA leaders under the Smith Act, the Army-McCarthy hearings. Schrecker has sifted through the public record and also through FBI files to find the cases of victims whose harsh treatment has never been publicized and was shared by thousands of others.

She describes, for example, the case of Lawrence Parker, a black waiter on board a Coast Guard ship who in 1951, at the peak of the Korean War, was notified that he had been blacklisted from the waterfront, along with nearly three thousand other longshoremen and seamen. Parker was accused of no specific wrongdoing, and when he demanded to know what his offenses were, he was told only that his “‘presence aboard ship was ‘inimical to the security of the United States.”’ In fact his dismissal came as the result of a routine Coast Guard screening undertaken to ensure that no one was allowed on board who might “engage in acts of sabotage.”

How likely was Parker to commit sabotage? It was a question the Coast Guard’s security board did not have to answer since the acts so designated ranged from “sinking vessels in harbors or channels” to spying to “inducing unrest, strikes and work slowdowns.” Schrecker writes that Parker’s actual offense was his membership in the Communist-dominated Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. Parker had joined it in the 1940s because, unlike the other maritime unions, it did not discriminate against blacks. And since, during the two-year period before the US entered World War II (that is, from September 1939 to December 1941), some CIO unions, in keeping with the USSR’s policy of “nonaggression” against Hitler, did indeed organize work stoppages at factories that were supplying the Allies with war materials, the fear of strikes was a valid cause for concern.

But Parker’s union of cooks and stewards could not plausibly be linked to such activities. His loyalty to the union was rewarded when it hired lawyers to challenge the mass dismissals, with Parker’s as the test case. After protracted litigation, his firing was overturned by a federal appeals court in 1955, the first time any government security program had been repudiated by the federal judiciary on constitutional grounds. In its decision the court asked, “Is this system of secret informers, whisperers and tale-bearers of such vital importance to the public welfare that it must be preserved at the cost of denying to the citizen even a modicum of the protection traditionally associated with due process?” Schrecker adds: “To ask the question was to answer it.”

As Parker’s case shows, many of the Red hunts of the Fifties were carried out by government bureaucracies in an atmosphere of elaborately contrived legalism. Schrecker goes on to describe how different components of the McCarthy inquest were connected, for example in the case of Clinton Jencks, who came from a “conservative, rather religious working-class family” in Colorado Springs, and was a decorated World War II airman. During the 1940s, he had joined the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, a Communist union that, like Lawrence Parker’s, challenged the racial taboos of the period, in this case by welcoming Mexican-American laborers into its ranks. In 1950, Jencks led a walkout against a small mining company during a conflict over wages and working conditions. The strike lasted fifteen months, during which there was fighting between the strikers and police. At one point, the miners’ wives and children, including infants, were put in prison, an incident that received national attention.

Jencks and his cause were taken up by a blacklisted screenwriter, Paul Jarrico, who made a protest film, eventually titled Salt of the Earth, in which he planned to use actors and technicians who had also been blacklisted. Jarrico and his principal collaborators were “among the film industry’s most energetic Communists,” says Schrecker, all veterans of the Popular Front. They immediately encountered opposition from Hollywood studios and from the industry’s strongly anti-Communist labor officials. The head of the film technicians union barred members from working on the project and threatened to use all his influence to keep the film from being made and exhibited. Some Hollywood actors chose not to participate lest they incur the wrath of the anti-Communist Screen Actors Guild and its president, Walter Pidgeon, who had succeeded Ronald Reagan in the job.

  1. 1

    Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism (Free Press, 1995; reissued in paperback by Yale University Press, 1998).

  2. 2

    Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (Yale University Press, 1995). Reviewed in these pages by Murray Kempton, July 13, 1995.

  3. 3

    See, e.g., Roger Kimball, “One Book on Communism That Should Shake the World,” Wall Street Journal, April 11, 1995, p. A20; for a discussion of current views of McCarthy, see Ethan Bronner, “Rethinking McCarthyism, if not McCarthy,” The New York Times, October 18, 1998 (“Week in Review,” pp. 1, 6). The evidence that the spy ring was broken up in 1945 is contained in Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood, p. 106 (forthcoming from Random House in January 1999), which I have read in galleys.

  4. 4

    Sara Rimer, “Leftist Causes Keep an Old Age Home Active,” The New York Times, April 6, 1998, p. A35; Michael Kelly, “Oh, Those Heartwarming Communists,” The Washington Post, April 8, 1998 (Op-Ed column), p. A23.

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