Great differences among academics and personal antagonisms in their fields of specialization are common in the best of times. But the 1950s were not the best of times. In what was to become known as the McCarthy era, differences within American university faculties were stark and personal antagonisms often poisonous.
To some extent this was inevitable. Ideological loyalties and attachments formed during the Depression years, and then strengthened by the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, came into head-on conflict with the attitudes shaped by a fuller knowledge of the real nature of communist regimes and the beginning of the Cold War.
Senator Joseph McCarthy's peculiar contribution to this conflict was two-fold. First, he coarsened and polarized it to an extent that made it extremely difficult to sustain some vital distinctions. One such distinction, drawn most clearly by Sidney Hook, was encapsulated in the title of his book Heresy Yes, Conspiracy No. The book represented a rational approach that too few appreciated. Another and even more fundamental distinction for academics was that between what was ideologically correct to believe and what was actually the case. Second, McCarthy's behavior--his bullying, his lying, his demagoguery--gave those who had an interest in doing so a perfect opportunity to change the subject.
Instead of the extent, nature, and consequences of allegiance to a political party controlled by a foreign totalitarian power being made the proper object of attention, "McCarthyism" could itself be made the central issue. In some ways, McCarthy's cynical and outrageous antics made it as difficult to be a serious and principled anti-communist in the America of the 1950s as it was to be a fellow-traveler.