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The Red Scare’

In response to:

'The Red Scare': An Exchange from the April 8, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

I found the purported exchange between Sam Tanenhaus and nineteen critics over his essay “The Red Scare” [NYR, April 8] interesting not so much for the issues they disputed as for those they evaded. Ellen Schrecker’s book Many Are the Crimes is surely a huge disappointment, an immense amount of worthy labor and a professional lifetime of scholarship warped by the author’s illusions about American communism. Nevertheless, Schrecker’s early chapters on the development of anticommunism during the New Deal are important and significant and worthy of discussion.

Tanenhaus spends most of his article demolishing Schrecker’s idea of American communism, the literary equivalent of the invasion of Grenada. The argument over the dual nature of American communism—whether the party was essentially Stalin’s waterboy or an indigenous expression of American radicalism—is getting a bit long in the tooth and beginning to resemble a debate with flat-earthers. The much more interesting debate is over anticommunism and especially its McCarthyite phase. Here Tanenhaus fails to engage Schrecker where she is strongest. While I am a great admirer of his book on Whittaker Chambers, I was disappointed that Tanenhaus treated McCarthyism itself (the ostensible subject of his review) in a rather cursory and sweeping fashion. Tanenhaus writes of McCarthy: “Almost single-handedly he shifted the targets of the Red hunts from Communists to liberal policy makers, whom he depicted as traitors.” Later Tanenhaus asserts that McCarthy “effected a transformation of political values” that explains McCarthyism.

This seems to me precisely backwards. Was McCarthy a cause or an effect of the ism that he gave his name to? The orthodox school of McCarthy scholarship (Daniel Bell, et al.) essentially labeled McCarthy a gate-crasher at the party of anticommunism, a populist or pseudoconservative who might have had some relatives in the ugly recesses of American history but surely wasn’t invited to the grand ball of American politics by anyone in the establishment—such as, say, liberal scholars who also happened to be ardent anti-Communists themselves. This view has been subjected to some rather harsh, often convincing, criticism by revisionist historians, the upshot of which is that liberals had a lot more to do with McCarthyism than they cared to acknowledge (viz., Truman’s federal loyalty program, etc.). As Murray Kempton put it: “A persistent complaint of liberals was that Joe McCarthy, by his inaccuracies, damaged the legitimate cause of anticommunism. The legitimate cause expressed itself by sending old ladies to jail on the solemn finding that they were a clear and present danger.”

Tanenhaus attacks cold war revisionism in his reply but leaves McCarthy revisionism unexamined. But you don’t have to believe that the US precipitated the cold war to believe that McCarthy was more shaped by his times than he shaped them. Yet Tanenhaus makes it sound as if McCarthy were somehow original in tarring liberals as traitors. He may have been more bold and reckless in his utterances but the essential charge was a long-established trope on the right (see, for example, Gene Lyon’s The Red Decade, published in 1941). The best part of Schrecker’s book is her delineation of anticommunism during the Thirties (i.e., HUAC’s founding, the Smith Act’s creation, J. Edgar Hoover, busier than Kris Kringle, making lists of who’s naughty and who should be locked up in the event of a national security emergency). The rewardfor liberal anticommunism, as Reinhold Niebuhr’s Union for Democratic Action discovered in 1942, was being trashed by HUAC as “an organization composed chiefly of individuals who have been a significant part of the interlocking directorate of the Communist movement in the United States.”

Thus by the beginning of US involvement in WWII the battle lines between liberal and conservative anti-Communists were already drawn. Politicians as different as Martin Dies and Pat McCarran were flogging the horse of liberal subversion long before McCarthy ever arrived in Washington. Not long after the war ended, the Red scare began anew and rather late in the show—after the Truman loyalty program, the trial of the American Communist Party’s leadership, the Hiss-Chambers case—McCarthy made his dramatic debut.

What if McCarthy had made a success of chicken raising and never left Wisconsin? Would the history of the era have looked largely different? I don’t think so. There was no shortage of right-wing lunacy in the air. Those who implicitly or explicitly make the case that McCarthy was somehow central to McCarthyism either assume or state that something in American society changed qualitatively after February 9, 1950. But was McCarthy different in degree or kind? Did he actually light the fires of McCarthyism, as Tanenhaus seems to say, or merely throw gas on it? He grabbed more attention than his predecessors but how effective was he? It’s often been pointed out that McCarthy never caught any Communists, but then he didn’t really do much to catch them: the institutional framework—the scaffolding of internal security and immigration laws that enabled the government to persecute, indict, jail, deport, and exclude Communists—was built over many years by many men, McCarthy not among them. And McCarthy’s much-vaunted hearings were actually a firecracker compared to the investigations by HUAC and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.

Perhaps the case for McCarthy is stronger than I think it is. I’d like to hear it.

Michael Ybarra
San Francisco, California

Sam Tanenhaus replies:

Michael Ybarra objects to my review of Ellen Schrecker’s Many Are the Crimes on three grounds.
1. The review slights the book’s most valuable chapters, which describe “the development of anticommunism during the New Deal.” In fact, I devoted several paragraphs to Schrecker’s account of the origins and development of anticommunism, with particular emphasis on the 1930s. (Thus, though Ybarra implies otherwise, I noted the dangerous excesses of both HUAC’s first chairman, Martin Dies, and of J. Edgar Hoover, and described the latter’s legacy in some detail.) But in general I followed Schrecker’s own emphasis, which falls on the years between 1946 and 1956, and gave only as much room to her account of the Thirties as seemed necessary to convey the reasoning behind her thesis, quoted in my review, that “the Roosevelt years were a rehearsal for McCarthyism, a period in which the nation’s anti-Communists developed the machinery of the later political repression and perfected its operation.”

  1. The review belabors “the argument over the dual nature of American communism” but only skims “the much more interesting debate…over anticommunism.” In fact I wrote at roughly equal length about both topics. More important, the two are not so easily disentangled, at least not for Schrecker, whose critique of anticommunism proceeds from specific assertions she makes about the nature of the Communist Party and its place within the broad history of radicalism in the United States. If Ybarra thinks Schrecker is a “flat-earther” on these matters, then perhaps he should reconsider whether he really wishes to be counted among her defenders.

  2. I “treated McCarthyism itself…in a rather cursory and sweeping fashion.” Here Ybarra poses a series of questions about Joseph McCarthy and the context in which he flourished. Some of these questions are important, and I will be taking them up in a forthcoming review.

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