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…

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