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 leaders…eclipsed 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.

Filming went forward anyway, with a makeshift cast that included the actual striking mine workers along with Jencks and his wife. A Hollywood trade paper called the project an “anti-American racial issue propaganda movie,” and in his widely syndicated column, the labor writer Victor Riesel, a longtime critic of Jencks’s union, ominously warned that the crew was choosing sites in dangerous proximity to Los Alamos. This raised the specter of espionage. Riesel also reported that Jarrico had brought in “two carloads” of African-Americans as extras to be used in scenes depicting mob violence. The project was denounced on the floor of Congress. When the filmmakers scouted for sites in New Mexico towns, local vigilantes threatened the crew and beat up Jencks. Once Salt of the Earth was completed the FBI tried to delay its being shown, and Jarrico had difficulty in getting his film processed and then getting it edited and exhibited. Theaters declined to book the film even “at a time when competition from television darkened almost half the nation’s movie screens,” Schrecker writes.

Shortly after the movie was finished, Jencks was arrested by the FBI. As a union leader, he had been required, under the Taft-Hartley Act, to sign an affidavit affirming that he was not a Communist, and he did so although, Schrecker concludes, in all likelihood he belonged to the Party. He was indicted for perjury after the informer Harvey Matusow identified him as a Party member. Matusow later confessed that most of his many claims, including his statements about Jencks, were fabrications. But this retraction came after he had denounced Jencks to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), and after Jencks had received a five-year perjury sentence, ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court. In the end, as Schrecker points out, his tormentors had included “federal bureaucrats, labor leaders, businessmen, judges, law enforcement officials, politicians, journalists, and professional anti-Communists [i.e., informers].”

It is appalling that so many different public and private forces should have combined to persecute people like Parker and Jencks, and to create the impression, despite the transparent lack of evidence, that national security was somehow endangered by their activities. No one could have seriously feared that Jencks would steal secrets from Los Alamos or that Parker would contrive to sink a Coast Guard vessel or mastermind a crippling Coast Guard strike. Yet this was the contorted logic of the time. No Communist was too inconsequential to escape persecution. “The janitor might prove to be in as important a spot security-wise as the top employee in the building,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark in an opinion—since, in theory, a Communist would make it his business to find out information from his unsuspecting tenants and then pass it along to his contacts.

Why did otherwise reasonable men, at the highest levels of our political culture, succumb to these extreme suspicions? Schrecker’s answer to this question is that the excesses of the cold war originated in “a sense of panic” that dated back to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

To nativist American eyes, she argues, Bolshevism was the latest and most virulent instance of the imported radicalism that had begun to invade American shores in the late nineteenth century. In 1901, President McKinley had been assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, a deranged self-professed “anarchist.” In the months leading up to the 1917 revolution Trotsky himself had been living in New York, awaiting the summons back to Russia.

Such incidents, or hyperbolic accounts of them, were used to justify the brutal raids on immigrant radicals authorized by Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, in 1919, and carried out by his young adjutant, J. Edgar Hoover, who deported hundreds of “anarchists” and threw thousands more in jail until judicial intervention and public criti-cism forced him to stop. Hoover was by no means alone in his zeal. In 1922 Sinclair Lewis’s George Babbitt would say, “We got no business interfering with the Irish or any other foreign government. Keep our hands strictly off,” only to make an exception for Russia. “And there’s another well-authenticated rumor from Russia that Lenin is dead. That’s fine. It’s beyond me why we don’t just step in there and kick those Bolshevik cusses out.”5

The Soviet Union would always be a special case. In the radical Thirties, the labels “Bolshevik” and “Communist” were ritually applied to President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Two congressional investigations of the CPUSA resulted in published lists of allegedly subversive organizations6 while a third, conducted by HUAC, made a national figure of its flamboyant chairman, Martin Dies. When he denounced “New Deal Communists,” real and fancied, the radio demagogue Father Coughlin, idol of millions, said Dies should run for president.7

Meanwhile, FDR himself, concerned about Nazi and Communist fifth columns, authorized J. Edgar Hoover to renew the hunt for subversives in 1936. Three years later, Hoover reactivated the antiradical division of the Bureau, moribund since the fiasco of 1919, and began compiling dossiers on known and suspected Communists, drawing extensively on the confessions of defectors who supplied the names of their former comrades. The FBI eventually had roughly “a thousand informers within the CP,” Schrecker estimates. She adds, in a loosely formulated conclusion: “In a sense, then, the Roosevelt years were a rehearsal for McCarthyism, a period when the nation’s anti-Communists developed the machinery of the later political repression and perfected its operations.” Once the search for Communists came to be seen as an urgent matter, during the first bitter months of the cold war in 1946 and 1947, Hoover’s files became indispensable, and he made them available selectively to his political allies: conservative congressmen, Roman Catholic clergy, anti-Communist labor leaders, and Hearst journalists. Hoover’s long menu of illegal front groups would be codified as the attorney general’s list of subversive organizations, published in 1947. “Membership in, affiliation with, or sympathetic association” with any group on the list made federal employees vulnerable to charges of disloyalty as determined by newly established “loyalty boards”on which FBI alumni were strategically placed.8

This systematic assembling of a prosecutorial apparatus made the FBI, in Schrecker’s assessment, “the single most important component of the anticommunist crusade and the institution most responsible for its successes—and its inequities.” Far more than any other US agency the FBI indulged in wiretaps, surveillance, mail-tampering, and the planting of evidence. Yet Hoover’s reputation remained unassailable. Determined not to suffer again the embarrassment of the first Red Scare, he had remodeled himself, by means of relentless public relations, into a paragon of responsible law enforcement.

So carefully did he cultivate this reputation, says Schrecker, that “an entire generation of Democratic politicians sought political cover in [Hoover’s] arms.” She quotes the reassurances offered by the Democratic Party during the 1948 elections: “As you read and hear the hysterical outbursts of wishful-thinking Republican politicians, just remember the record of the FBI.” Even the civil libertarian Adlai Stevenson, nominated for president in 1952, pointedly praised “the quiet professional work of the FBI.” By 1953, Hoover’s influence was so great that his former subordinate Scott McLeod was appointed the chief security officer of the State Department, screening nominees for such key posts as the Russian ambassadorship.

The powerful role Hoover created for himself in the anti-Communist campaign is essential to Schrecker’s argument that the cold war Red hunts were a replay of the first Red Scare, only more harmful because their targets were far more numerous and because so many more prosecutors joined in, all part of a “network of political activists who had been working for years to drive Communism out of American life.”

But why did the crusade reach the pitch it did when it did? This is the question Schrecker fails to answer, primarily because her grasp of both communism and anticommunism as political movements is weak. She is not a reliable guide to the cold war and the tensions it created. Her cursory discussion of the post-Yalta superpower conflict tilts the balance of blame heavily toward the United States. This is the revisionist view put forward in the 1960s, and since discredited by archival records in Moscow.9 More moderate than some revisionists, Schrecker acknowledges that in the mid-to-late 1940s the USSR “solidified its hold over Eastern Europe, imposing communist governments throughout the region.” She finds, however, that this expansionism was justified by the USSR’s understandable imperative “to ensure its own security.” Why did this benign-sounding objective require the imposition of puppet regimes and the crushing of all dissenters, even of loyal Communists who were falsely accused of subversion when this suited the Party? Schrecker doesn’t say. Instead she criticizes the “stereotypes and oversimplifications” that characterized American thinking about the Soviets, and caused our “ideologically immobilized” leaders to exaggerate the strength and misread the intentions of the USSR and also to impute sinister motives to Stalin.

Those “stereotypes,” however, were based partly on the memory, fresh in 1945, of Stalin’s bargains with Hitler, including the nonaggression pact the two dictators signed in 1939. Schrecker asserts that Stalin made this deal only because he was “disillusioned by the Western democracies’ failure to stand up to Hitler at Munich in 1938.” But this ignores Moscow’s previous instructions to German Communists to thwart Socialists during the crucial 1933 elections, thereby helping the Nazis gain power. It also ignores evidence that Stalin made overtures to Hitler throughout the decade and willingly turned exiled German Communists in Russia over to the Nazis after the pact was signed.10

But it is Schrecker’s flawed interpretation of American communism that most distorts her analysis. Readers of her previous studies, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986) and The Age of McCarthyism (1994), will encounter here the same sentimental view of the CPUSA set forth in those books, scarcely retouched despite the accumulation of new evidence that has been in Moscow and Washington dossiers. Like many other “new historians” of American communism, Schrecker recasts the entire movement in the image of its short-lived Popular Front phase between 1935 and 1939, when, as she puts it, “the party now had a real role within the American polity…as the unofficial left wing of the New Deal.”

Yet it was also in this period that Moscow assembled a spy ring, centered in Washington, that was active throughout World War II; and Soviet intelligence continued to use other agents during the cold war. Schrecker makes a blanket acknowledgment that Soviet spying really did occur, but her treatment of specific cases is evasive. She finds Alger Hiss’s guilt “problematic in many ways” and says the evidence produced by Whittaker Chambers still lacks corroboration from other sources. In fact, the Austrian ex-Communist Hede Massing identified Hiss as a Soviet agent in the second of his two perjury trials, in 1949. Her testimony was confirmed by Hiss’s close friend, the US diplomat Noel Field, who defected behind the Iron Curtain in 1949 and, in 1954, identified Hiss as his accomplice in a statement long held in Budapest files and made public in 1993. More recently, Soviet intelligence files have also identified Hiss as a Soviet agent.11

Schrecker accepts the guilt of Julius Rosenberg, as confirmed by the Venona documents, decrypted messages released by the National Security Agency in 1995 and 1996, only to wonder,

But were these activities so awful? Was the espionage, which unquestionably occurred, such a serious threat to the nation’s security that it required the development of a politically repressive internal security system? It may be more useful to take a more nuanced position and go beyond the question of guilt or innocence to ascertain not only how dangerous the transmission of unauthorized information was, but also why it occurred.

Schrecker’s explanation is that American Communists spied because they “did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism; they were internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national boundaries. They thought they were ‘building…a better world for the masses,’ not betraying their country.” This “nuanced position” is indistinguishable from the “progressive” dogma of the Popular Front.

In truth, when Hiss and the Rosenbergs were convicted, in 1950 and 1951, a great deal depended on “the question of guilt or innocence,” not least for the defendants, who firmly maintained that the crimes imputed to them were unthinkable. The question of guilt matters, too, because the evidence developed at their trials lent credence to the testimony of Soviet defectors like Victor Kravchenko, the former captain in the Red Army who warned that “every responsible representative of the Soviet Union in the United States may be regarded as a possible economic, political or military spy.”12 Schrecker dismisses this statement as hyperbole, but makes no attempt to disprove it. Nor does she take into account that the transnational allegiances she endorses were seized on by the US authorities and helped make it possible for a ship’s waiter like Lawrence Parker to find himself labeled a security risk and for Clinton Jencks to be portrayed as a potential atomic spy.

In Schrecker’s sentimentalized portrayal, American Communists remain heroic figures borrowed from the CP’s own propaganda, champions not of the USSR but of “the masses.” She reminds us that many American Communists were civil rights activists who “picketed segregated restaurants, amusement parks, and barber shops” and came to the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. They were selfless advocates for the downtrodden who “mobilized unemployed workers and marched them to local city halls to demand relief”; tireless organizers who “formed militant unions of migrant laborers, miners, longshoremen, and textile workers.”

There is truth in this picture, as Schrecker’s account of the union leader Clinton Jencks, among others, suggests; but it is diluted by her determination to absolve all Communists of any serious wrongdoing. Even documented conspirators earn her sympathy. She devotes several indignant pages to the tribulations of Gerhart Eisler, a German Communist who lived for a number of years in the US in the 1930s and 1940s but was barred from returning to Europe in 1945 after several informers, including his sister and his ex-wife, identified him as a top Comintern agent. This was probably an exaggeration, although Eisler was, as Schrecker herself notes, a ranking CP official who had engaged in activities that “were technically illegal and [took] place within the context of a secret, ostensibly revolutionary, operation.”

Schrecker thinks those activities, whatever they actually were, merely provided the pretext for the US authorities to persecute him. The government’s real reason for singling him out, she writes, was that he conveniently offered “the quintessential embodiment of the specter of international Communism, invariably portrayed as a sinister Central European whose shadowy power was all the more terrifying because it was so intangible.” She doesn’t mention that soon after Eisler made his escape from the United States, in the spring of 1948, he was appointed to an important propaganda position in East Germany. Whatever function he had really served in the US, he was far from a hapless immigrant who “sim-ply updated the image of the bomb-wielding, foreign-born anarchist of the late nineteenth century.”

Sensitive to the indignities inflicted on a Communist like Eisler, Schrecker is oddly indifferent to the injustices suffered by those falsely accused of being Communists during the post-war Red hunts. This is most apparent in her treatment of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his destructive rampage. Playing down his importance, she writes, “The official campaign against domestic Communism and all the individuals, institutions, and ideas associated with it would have effectively hounded its targets and ruined the lives and careers of thousands of people without the help of Joe McCarthy.”

But McCarthy’s significance was of a different order. Almost single-handedly he shifted the targets of the Red hunts from Communists to liberal policymakers, whom he depicted as traitors. As Richard Rovere wrote in 1959, McCarthy was “in many ways the most gifted demagogue ever bred on these shores. No bolder seditionist ever moved among us—or any politician with a surer, swifter access to the dark places of the American mind.”13 McCarthy grasped, more firmly than any of his contemporaries (with the possible exception of Richard Nixon), that in the emerging atmosphere of the cold war the figure who could most profitably be demonized was not the immigrant Gerhart Eisler, with his spectacles and his thick accent, but the upper-class American mole Alger Hiss, whose sponsors had included Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Foster Dulles. It was McCarthy who seized upon Hiss’s perjury conviction, in 1950, as evidence that the most dangerous “enemies within” were Ivy League products with New Deal résumés and conspicuous ties to the Eastern establishment. From this it was an easy step to begin casting high officials such as Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and General George Marshall in treasonous roles, which had the effect, at a critical moment, of undermining confidence in the statesmen who were formulating the Truman administration’s foreign policy. The audacity of McCarthy’s performance, and the magnetizing effect it had on the public, caused contemporary observers such as Richard Hofstadter to interpret McCarthyism as a new variant of American populism, rooted less in ideology than in class resentment.

This analysis underestimated the partisan factor in McCarthy’s success; at his height he was supported by a majority of mainstream Republicans, including Robert Taft and other leading figures in the Senate. Still it captured an important truth about the nature of McCarthy’s appeal. He presented himself as an authentic radical who defied the “consensus” politics of the 1950s. His achievement, if that is the word, was to appropriate the formula of the Popular Front, supplanting its Depression-era image of Communists as homespun progressives with a new postwar ideal of the “common man” based on McCarthy’s own image as the rough-hewn populist, “Tail Gunner Joe,” who was fighting the Harvard-educated Reds with both fists. In so doing, he effected a transformation of political values that helps to explain why, to give one example, the powerful columnist Walter Winchell, a one-time New Dealer and self-styled “people’s champion,”14 could be reborn as a McCarthyite twenty years later.

Schrecker misses all this because she rejects political analysis in favor of political romance, at least in Many Are the Crimes. Writing recently in the on-line magazine Slate, she lamented the “genuine political tragedy that the Communist Party dominated the American left during the 1930s and ‘40s. Certainly our nation’s politics might have been much healthier if a more indigenous and democratic form of radicalism had got the franchise.”15 This contradicts the glowing account of the Party she sets forth in her book, and it implies sympathy with those on the left who tried to limit the CPUSA’s influence. But that sympathy is nowhere evident in Many Are the Crimes. On the contrary, Schrecker disparages all the CP’s many adversaries on the left, including socialists whose “sensitivity, perhaps even hypersensitivity, to communist tactics made it hard for them to cooperate effectively with the CP.” One would not guess from her narrative that those tactics included political deviousness of an extreme kind. She obscures the facts behind two incidents that permanently estranged socialists from the CP: the premeditated breakup by Communists, in 1934, of a rally in Madison Square Garden held to denounce the repression of Austrian Socialists; and the active part played by Earl Browder, the head of the CPUSA, in the government’s prosecution of members of the Socialist Workers Party under the Smith Act in 1941 after they organized strikes in Minneapolis. To Schrecker, Communists who made war on other leftists, far from injuring the overall radical movement, were instead forgivably, even admirably, “tough-minded.”

But tough-mindedness is a quality she esteems only in Communists. She is unsparing of Trotskyists who turned against the USSR in the 1930s and then criticized the CPUSA’s continued allegiance to Stalin. In Schrecker’s account this moral revulsion, augmented by the Moscow trials and by the purges of millions of Russians, clouded the judgment of American leftists and led them to confuse the horrors of Stalin’s Russia with the more benign program of the CPUSA. Thus, when the cold war began, these anti-Communists set aside “their hesitations about collaborating with their traditional enemies on the right and making their own, albeit limited and indirect, contribution to the postwar wave of political repression.” But this ignores the many anti-Communists who supported civil liberties, for example those affiliated with the American Committee for Cultural Freedom who sponsored the publication of James Rorty and Moshe Decter’s McCarthy and the Communists, a tautly argued book that likened McCarthy, “the demagogue from Wisconsin,” to Father Coughlin and Gerald L.K. Smith.16

Certainly there is a case to be made against the reflexive and narrowly obsessive anticommunism that bewitched so many cold war liberals. Irving Howe, for one, made such a case forcefully in the pages of Dissent, the magazine he founded in 1954 in an attempt to revitalize American socialism. Howe rightly saw that many of those who had drifted away from the Communist Party still employed its tactics of overstatement and diatribe and incorporated these into a dichotomous world view that gave a falsely romantic color to the cold war struggle. But while Howe quarreled with, for instance, Sidney Hook, over Hook’s rigid views, he could see that the two still shared fundamental premises. As Howe later wrote, “Had Hook written down on a slip of paper his general principles in the Fifties—oppose both communism and McCarthyism, link opposition to totalitarian systems with proposals for democratic social change—I would have stood at the head of the line to sign it.”17 Such an analysis has no place in Schrecker’s book since she judges the previous generation strictly on its leniency toward Communists. To her the Socialist Norman Thomas deserves to be lumped with J. Edgar Hoover since each “contributed in one way or another to the overall success of the anticommunist crusade.”

Only when describing the CPUSA does she insist on subtle distinctions, but she gets them wrong. She writes, “On the one hand, the CP was a highly disciplined, undemocratic outfit that tried to apply Soviet prescriptions to American ills. On the other hand, it was also a genuinely forward-looking organization that stimulated many of the most dynamic political and social movements of the 1930s and 1940s. And it was often both at once.” It is true that, as with every other political party—left, right, or center—there were frictions and tensions among the different tendencies within the CP, as its leaders tried to shape a cohesive political identity. What was different about the CP was that in carrying out the policies dictated by the changing Soviet line, the party was constantly purifying itself—driving out dissenters, defaming heretics, and expelling those who fell in with the wrong faction.

Beyond this, Schrecker’s insistence upon a careful distinction between enrolled CP members and the sympathizers who “had more autonomy than their dues-paying colleagues and were not directly subject to the party’s discipline” is one the movement itself repudiated. The CP’s authoritarianism radiated outward from the party’s core and was absorbed by those at its fringes. Fellow travelers were expected to function as an auxiliary, advocating CP policies, and for the most part they did so and therefore came to be called “totalitarian liberals” by some anti-Stalinists in the late 1930s. It was this eagerness to advance CP dogma, under the cover of an ingenuous progressivism, that caused Edmund Wilson to rebuke Malcolm Cowley for publishing defenses of the Moscow trials in the pages of The New Republic and for impugning the character and testimony of the Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky.18

Where Schrecker is most misleading is in her treatment of former Communists, those who broke with the movement and then declared themselves its enemies. To her, they are simply turncoats. She never weighs their grievances against the party that disappointed and finally alienated them. Only the wrongs suffered by Communists matter; the wrongs they inflicted don’t merit discussion. This narrow outlook is inseparable from the provincialism of her study; she fails to consider the international dimension of anticommunism and to note that it was created out of deep disillusionment with a movement gone terribly astray. American nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment don’t explain the apostasy of ex-Communists such as Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Manès Sperber, and others, many of whom, upon quitting the Party, remained on the social democratic left. Nor does it explain the dissident movements that later arose behind the Iron Curtain and in China.

In a final chapter, offered as a postmortem, Schrecker suggests that anticommunism killed the spirit of radical rebellion in the United States. It is a curious argument coming from one who proudly identifies herself with the New Left. What about the protests of the 1960s—the Freedom Rides, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the anti-Vietnam demonstrations? And what about protests abroad, conceived as struggles against Communist dictatorships? There is not a word in this book about Solidarity, the Velvet Revolution, Tiananmen Square. Yet each had objectives and strategies more genuinely radical, effective, and humane than most of those offered by the Communist program.

A strong element of the irrational did indeed guide the American hunt for subversives. No other democracy indulged in an equivalent crusade, though many had more reason to. Italy and France had far larger, better disciplined Communist parties, staunchly loyal to Moscow. In England, the foreign service was thick with moles. Those countries lacked our nuclear arsenal and our robust economy. Yet none conducted a frenzied public hunt for Reds. Thus they were spared the needless trauma of the McCarthy era. Even had the USSR posed a direct military threat to the US in the years between 1946 and 1956—a possibility that never became a reality—this did not excuse a campaign to purge fellow travelers or former Communists from the government, and certainly not a campaign that was carried over into college campuses and high school classrooms, labor unions, and the entertainment industry—activities far removed from policymaking. When the Hollywood Ten testified before HUAC in 1947 they cited not the Fifth Amendment, but the First: the right to free speech. Although they were punished for taking this stand, their constitutional right should have been unchallengeable. They had broken no laws by being Communists; they should not have been required, under penalty of contempt and jail sentences, to say whether or not they had belonged to the Party or supported its aims, or to name other Communists. Particularly odious was HUAC’s demand that witnesses who had broken with the Party identify former comrades, whose names would have been long known to the FBI anyway.

This is not to say “unfriendly” HUAC witnesses were above reproach. Far from it. Even Schrecker admits the majority were Communists, not simply “apolitical folks who had somehow gotten on the wrong mailing lists or signed the wrong petitions.” What she doesn’t admit is that, like her, they wanted it both ways. While most of the accused were CP members who demanded their constitutional rights in full, very few protested the treatment of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain who were at the mercy of a system far more punitive than anything dreamed up by J. Edgar Hoover or Joseph McCarthy. In the introduction to her book, Schrecker promises she will avoid the “victim-centered approach” emphasized in most accounts of the McCarthy period. Had she kept that promise she might have argued that Communists should have been spared persecution not because they were heroic but because they had rights that deserved protection, whatever their beliefs—that is, because the strength of democracy inheres, in no small part, in extending constitutional safeguards even to those, whether members of the Communist Party or the Ku Klux Klan, who would deny them to others.

Laws like the Smith Act, which provided the legal basis for jailing Communists as de facto advocates of violent revolution, and the McCarran Act, which barred foreign visitors with Communist histories, were insupportable infringements of civil liberties, arguably as damaging to our democracy as any secret stolen by Alger Hiss or Julius Rosenberg. Schrecker is right to criticize the era of Red hunts and to point out that many who should have known better were complicit in them. But a just presentation of this case also demands a more candid account of American communism than she is prepared to give.

  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.

  5. 5

    Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (Harcourt, Brace, 1922), p. 21.

  6. 6

    The Fish Committee of the House in 1930, and the McCormack Committee in 1935. See Richard M. Freeland, The Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism (New York University Press, 1985), p. 211.

  7. 7

    Walter Goodman, The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968), p. 30.

  8. 8

    Freeland, The Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism, p. 209.

  9. 9

    For a useful account of recent research see John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 26-53, 290.

  10. 10

    See Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 195-196.

  11. 11

    See my “Hiss Case ‘Smoking Gun’?” The New York Times, October 15, 1993, p. A35. Further information on Hiss is included in Weinstein and Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood, pp. 264-269.

  12. 12

    Schrecker paraphrases this statement on p. 165. The original appears in Goodman, The Committee, p. 197.

  13. 13

    Richard H. Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy (1959; University of California Press, 1996), p. 3.

  14. 14

    See Neal Gabler, Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity (Knopf, 1994), p. 193.

  15. 15

    McCarthyism,” Slate, May 18, 1998.

  16. 16

    James Rorty and Moshe Decter, McCarthy and the Communists (Beacon Press, 1954), pp. 122, 124.

  17. 17

    Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (Harcourt, Brace, 1982), p. 212.

  18. 18

    Edmund Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972, selected and edited by Elena Wilson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), pp. 310, 358.