, July 30, 2010
(view all comments by OneMansView)
Informative overview of an era of extremism from the right
This fairly short book provides a good overview of the so-called Second Red Scare occurring in the 1940s and 50s. It was an era of witch hunting, hysteria, paranoia, and demonization. The author covers in some detail the mindset, actions, effects, and pervasiveness of anti-communism in our governments, especially at the federal level, and in the greater society. While there may be the perception that Sen. Joe McCarthy was the principal figure of this Red Scare mania, hence the advent of the term “McCarthyism,” denoting uncontrolled extremism and ruthlessness in labeling others as disloyal or otherwise undesirable, in actuality the atmosphere of rabid anti-communism predated the rise of McCarthy by a decade and involved many other officials and committees, ranging from the President to numerous Congressmen. Hence, McCarthy lurks in the book more than being an actual presence. His bombast and rash forays looking for all manner of communists and subversives made him the most visible figure of anticommunism for about four years, 1950-54, but just as assuredly resulted in his self-destruction when he turned his guns on esteemed military leaders. In many ways McCarthy was a creation of the press, who simply could not resist the sensational regardless of truthfulness. But, then again, Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” show and the round-the-clock coverage of the McCarthy-Army hearings by ABC permitted the American public to witness firsthand McCarthy’s bullying. His demise soon followed.
In the early decades of the 20th century more Americans than may be thought turned to socialism, and some to communism, as an answer to the depredations of recession prone capitalism, especially in the Great Depression. However, rightist political elements, already enraged by the New Deal, saw the rising acceptance of communism, including FDR’s diplomatic recognition of the USSR in 1933, as not only a threat to security but as an opportunity to discredit FDR’s administration. By the early 1940s several responses were underway: the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) under Texas Democrat Martin Dies was investigating subversive activities; the Hatch, Voorhis, and Smith Acts were passed; and lists of individuals and organizations were being compiled by the General Intelligence Div of the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, and the Justice Dept. All of these efforts were designed to find subversives or label as a subversive anyone associating with a hostile organization and to prevent them form being employed by the federal gov, if not prosecuted for their membership.
In addition to, or despite, the author focusing on the hysteria of anti-communism, he makes clear that Russian agents had infiltrated key US governmental offices in the 1940s, including the Manhattan Project where the atomic bomb was developed. It is safe to say that many in the intelligentsia of the US in the 30s and 40s were left-leaning, even to the point of flirting with communism. However, rigid conservatives hardly distinguished between alternative thinking, supposedly protected by the First Amendment, and advocacy of the overthrow of the established order. In their eyes “disloyalty,” which included flirtations with the left, was rampant. The defection of Soviet spies Igor Gouzenko and Elizabeth Bentley in the mid-40s uncovered Soviet spy rings as well as important spies such as Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist, the Rosenbergs, and the enigmatic Alger Hiss. But the FBI and watchdog bodies hardly stopped at genuine security risks.
After the War, anti-Russian sentiments ratcheted up considerably. At least partly to deflect charges of being soft on Communism, Pres. Truman issued Executive Order 9835 establishing a loyalty-security program for all federal employees. The due-process and “reasonable ground” aspects of that order were scarcely practiced by the many bodies that took the hint of rooting out subversives. The hounding of the Hollywood Ten, mostly screen writers and directors, by the HUAC and member Richard Nixon, for their communist ties set the tone for the era. The courts rejected their First Amendment defense, that is, their rights to speak or not speak and to assemble peaceably. All served jail terms. Moreover, it represented the start of blacklisting, making future employment nearly impossible. Professors and school teachers were particularly subjected to loyalty grilling. Being either associated with Communists or taking the Fifth Amendment, that is the unwillingness to admit assumed guilt, would often result in being fired. The business community pushed for the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 that forced union officers to file yearly affidavits disavowing connections with Communism to remain covered by labor laws. Despite the large role that Communists had played in CIO unions since the thirties, the CIO purged eleven unions that refused to abide, a move that the labor movement has never recovered from. Even movements for civil and women’s rights were subjected to the red-baiting of McCarthyites.
Numerous worldwide developments exacerbated McCarthyism in the late 40’s and early 50’s: the blockade of Berlin, the ascension of Communists in Eastern Europe, the creation of the People’s Republic of China, Russian success in testing atomic bombs, and the invasion of S. Korea by the North. This is the climate that McCarthy exploited in his so-called coming out speech in March, 1950, whereby he declared that 205 card-carrying Communists worked in the State Dept, a number that he was reluctant to reiterate. McCarthy went on to head the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations, where he became obsessed with the subversive nature of the Voice of America. 1950 also saw the passage of the McCarran Internal Security Act and the establishment of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS). There, Democrat Pat McCarran became obsessed with showing, ultimately unsuccessfully, that China Hand, Owen Lattimore, was a tool of the Communists.
As predicted by many, McCarthy would overstep his self-assigned mandate to root out subversion. His defiance toward the Senate concerning his accusations of Army disloyalty earned him a formal censure from his fellow Senators in Dec, 1954. His power to intimidate vanished overnight and the Red Scare phenomenon lost some of its dynamic. However, McCarthyism had a momentum that lingered for years with the FBI taking on the predominant role in keeping an eye on subversives and radicals, even resorting to dirty tricks to discredit. As the author points out, the Supreme Court under Justices Earl Warren and William Brennan finally cracked down on the violation of rights that were being so flagrantly abused by the legislation and investigative bodies of the period. He suggests that the US was a bit lucky in those appointments. Who can say how McCarthyism would have been resolved by a more conservative Court.
The author captures that the McCarthy era was highly complex. McCarthyism did have considerable public support: veteran’s groups, rural Americans, those opposed to social change, etc. There was genuine fear of the Communist threat and unwelcome social change. However, there is no doubt that those fears were fanned for political gain – something at which McCarthy was quite adept. But American ideals of freedom did suffer tremendously in this climate. And thousands of individuals were harmed, losing their livelihoods, usually with no recourse. Contentions that national security justified such excess are simplistic at best, ignoring the costs to the national culture. The penetration of Soviet spy rings was well in hand by the late 40’s, making the extremism of the era seem even more questionable. In some respects the most un-American aspect of the entire era was the ruthlessness displayed by elected officials and judges in hunting down their fellow Americans. What does that say about our democracy?
Because the era is so complicated with so many actions occurring over a number of years, it is difficult to write a linear book on the subject, hence the objection of some to its seeming disorganization. But the book is a nice overview of the period with an amazing amount of detail. The author is clearly not enamored of McCarthyism, but the book is hardly a leftist diatribe.