Harry Truman
Harry Truman; drawing by David Levine

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.

A key to both the merit and the weakness of the book is its organization. After two brief and sketchy opening chapters on the Democratic and the Republican responsibility for the loyalty purge, the author discards chronological sequence. He organizes most of his findings in two categories: he examines first the “machinery of repression,” whether administrative or congressional, federal or state, and then he deals with the victims according to their professions, whether in government service, labor organizations, teaching, the army, Hollywood, or other fields. The result of this approach is to give us a meticulous account of what occurred in different segments of American society while leaving a number of vital matters unexplored. With respect to the persecutors, we are frequently in doubt which of the purge’s ravages are to be ascribed to Truman and which to Eisenhower. With respect to their targets, we are seldom told who was a communist (or Stalinist) and who was not. Granted that establishing such distinctions never was the main point of the exercise—granted that until the late 1960s it would have been heartless to expose such allegiances in print—the fact remains that a study which deals only tangentially with the phenomenon of home-grown Stalinism is necessarily incomplete.

Caute’s failure to ask why so many intelligent and high-minded Americans vested their hopes in a blood-stained tyranny logically fits his assignment of blame for the indignities heaped upon them. Far more than the presidents of the era, his culprits are the “Cold War liberals,” whose ideology he describes as “dominant…within government, the press and the world of learning.” That such liberals did harm there is no doubt—and some of them (including Dean Acheson) subsequently expressed regret for their contribution to the purge mentality. That they were ever “dominant” is far from clear. Still more, a hatred of Stalinism did not invariably coexist with a strenuous advocacy of Pax Americana, as Caute would have us believe. Just as Stalinism itself was a more insidious temptation than Caute implies, so the ethical revulsion from it was frequently uncontaminated by concern for the imperial interests of the United States. One of the tragedies of the era was that it consigned men and women of comparable good will to opposite sides of an impassable ideological divide.

Despite Caute’s simplistic and bludgeoning manner, his book, in contrast to Donovan’s, marks a real advance. He is right in sparing scarcely anyone who occupied a position of authority. For example, in the light of his detailed marshalling of the evidence, the Supreme Court presided over by Fred M. Vinson comes off very badly indeed. While “Black and Douglas cannot be too highly praised,…against Frankfurter and Jackson it can…be charged that they…should have known better, and that their collapse most perfectly illustrated the retreat into Realpolitik and purblind patriotism of many of the best minds of American liberalism.” Similarly with education and the science community: only a scattering of elder statesmen such as Kirtley F. Mather and Edward U. Condon emerge unscathed from Caute’s survey of the behavior of professors and administrators toward the politically suspect. As though all this were not enough, the victims themselves receive a share of the blame: Caute scarcely conceals his distaste for those who “took the Fifth” when summoned for questioning. He contrasts their furtiveness with the pride of the young radicals of the 1960s who “scorned to conceal their commitments.” And of the Communist Party itself he declares that it “suffered from its addiction to camouflage and its perverse decision to present Marxism as a kind of quicktempered Fabianism, rather than to rely on the American revolutionary tradition.”

Here I cannot refrain from interjecting that it was considerably more dangerous to avow revolutionary sympathies in the early 1950s than it became a decade later. In the meantime the spectacular fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy had made it safer to show civic courage. Caute’s assessment of McCarthy’s “objective role” is one of the most original features of his book. He downplays the horrendous inquisitor and refuses to follow the usual practice of calling the great fear by the senator’s name. Instead Caute ascribes to McCarthy the “historically healthy” function of bringing the nation to its senses. “He dramatized intolerance, lent it crude, villainous features, personalized it, stole it away from the low profiled bureaucrats. Once he had turned their own weapon against themselves, writ large, the leadership cadres concluded that enough was enough, that liberty was, after all, not easily divisible.” Or—to return to Caute’s major culprits—McCarthy finally alerted the liberals to how far afield they had strayed.

A second original feature which deserves comment is Caute’s emphasis on the punishment of little people who seldom if ever made the headlines—New York schoolteachers, for example, and more particularly trade unionists. In trying to explain the relative lack of scholarly concern for “the persecution of the radical minority within the American working class,” he notes that industrial workers lacked “the glamour of film stars, the symbolic importance of scientists and the kinship status that academics…have for historians.” The records he has unearthed show that by and large workers were fired more summarily than professionals. His research also demonstrates (and this is a tribute to his sophistication as a Marxist) that “the corporations most deeply involved in government defense contracts” were surprisingly slow to respond to the anti-communist clamor, preferring “business as usual…a low profile.” Yet once the major industrialists had caught the ideological drift, they were only too happy to join in the hue and cry. In the end, an overwhelming combination of pressures, public and private, broke every left-oriented union in the country. The result was the “hard hat” reaction familiar to us from the Vietnam years: long after the purge had subsided, “the government could embark on virtually any foreign adventure without fear of a murmur of dissent from organized labor.”

So we are left with a puzzle. Caute’s case-by-case analysis of the victims’ fates is exactly what historians and the public alike have long required in order to put the record in order. The zeal with which he has tracked down hundreds of personal histories deserves only commendation. Now at last we can see the purge in the full range of its moral obscenity. But when it comes to Caute’s interpretation of what he has found, I for one am far from convinced. The era of the great fear was one in which it was harder to keep one’s head and one’s conscience clear than his account suggests.

While Caute and Donovan agree in condemning the “loyalty” program (and the even more sweeping criterion of “security” which was applied under Eisenhower), they differ in their assessment of its meaning. For Donovan—at least in Truman’s early years—it seems to rank as an aberration. For Caute it faithfully reflects both the arrogance and the insecurity of our countrymen, torn between pride and anxiety in the strange new world of Pax Americana, and devoured by “incoherent resentment.” To this mass hysteria, the cold war liberals lent ideological respectability.

I have already expressed my skepticism about a view of the purge that advances the notion of an impersonal, generalized psychosis while pinning the major blame on a single sector of society. My own assessment of the phenomenon lies somewhere between Caute’s and Donovan’s. As a member of Donovan’s generation who has both written on the purge and suffered in a minor way from its effects, I can sympathize with his effort at fair-mindedness. Curiously enough, even a “victim” may understand better the anticommunist mentality than a writer such as Caute who is too young to have experienced the events it brought about.

Although Donovan never gets beyond the opening phase of the purge, his reluctance to cast his characters as good guys and bad guys is amply apparent. Caute suffers from no such hesitations: he wields his sword of judgment like an avenging angel. But surely he is too hard on Frankfurter and a number of others who lapsed only temporarily from grace. Where in the roster of the saved and the damned is one to place an anticommunist of stern integrity such as General Marshall—or, for that matter, Eisenhower himself? What are we to think of a president who at first tried to appease McCarthy and subsequently appointed to the Supreme Court the admirable succession of justices that under Earl Warren’s leadership was to reaffirm the full range of American civil liberties?

In case after case—with the role of accusers and defendants now reversed—the record is mixed. Most of those in authority, whatever moral feebleness they displayed, were no more scoundrels than they were heroes. And so it seems to be with the run of human beings in what the existentialists call an “extreme situation,” where the customary recourse of evasion is closed off and it is difficult if not impossible to “sit this one out.”

Perhaps I am asking for the impossible: an interpretation of the purge that is both sharper than Donovan’s and subtler than Caute’s, that both recalls the moral confusion of the era and has the clarity which hindsight bestows. Of the two, a retrospective assignment of responsibility must take first place. Of necessity historians have a double task. They must try to evoke the past in its full untidiness and to make sense of that past. And since Caute does not flinch from the role of judge (hanging judge!), his writing cuts closer to the bone than Donovan’s.

If we attempt in our turn to reflect on the moral squalor of the purge as Caute has recaptured it—its stench will linger in our nostrils long after we have forgotten his verbal infelicities—two conclusions emerge. One is his: communism (or Stalinism) in the United States never constituted a “clear and present danger” to our society and institutions. As an Englishman, Caute sensibly reminds us that his own country, although far closer geographically to the Soviet Union, never experienced the kind of mass hysteria to which the United States succumbed. It was utter madness to have shaken America to its emotional depths in order to track down and deprive of their livelihoods a few hundred powerless and frightened Party members or fellow travelers—and in the course of so doing to make life miserable for tens of thousands more.

A second conclusion Caute does not draw, although it is implicit in his argument. The purge may have sputtered out in the late 1950s and the great fear have come to an end, but their effects lingered on. A few of its victims were rehabilitated—notably the “old China hands” in the Department of State—but their vindication came too late to salvage their careers; by the time their sins were forgiven, the former East Asian experts were dead, in retirement, or working at different jobs. And so it was with countless others. Aside from two or three of the Hollywood Ten, how many managed a real comeback? By and large, a whole generation of American dissidents was forever excluded from positions of public responsibility.

The limits to dissent drawn in the era of the purge defined an ideologically homogeneous elite that with only minor enlargements or modifications has remained in power until the present day. The result has been a continuous impoverishment of our public life. To be sure, the upsurge of the 1960s injected new qualities of imagination into the national bloodstream. But a decade later how much of the hope and the fury remain? How many veterans of the civil rights movement besides Andrew Young have reached the top? For the most part our government, our foundations, our universities are still presided over by the bland and faceless mediocrities whose style of administration first became de rigueur in the era of the great fear.

This Issue

April 20, 1978