Seeing Red, Review of John E. Haynes' Red Scare or Red Menace? American Communism and Anticommunism in the Cold War Era

Seeing Red, Review of John E. Haynes' Red Scare or Red Menace? American Communism and Anticommunism in the Cold War Era

Mini Teaser: Seeing Red, Review of John E.

by Author(s): Joshua Muravchik

Seeing Red, Review of John E. Haynes' Red Scare or Red Menace? American Communism and Anticommunism in the Cold War Era (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996); Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh's The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1996); and Richard Gid Powers' Not Without Honor: The History of American Anti-Communism (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

From the 1960s through the 1980s, the strongest taboo in American political discourse was the subject of Soviet influence within the United States. The only way an American could be labeled a communist in the prestige press, it seemed, was to be the nominee of the Communist Party USA for president of the United States. To be nominated for vice president was insufficient: Gus Hall, the party's perennial presidential candidate, was identified as such; but Angela Davis, several times his running mate, was ordinarily identified only as a "black activist."

The main reason for this taboo was the searing legacy of McCarthyism. McCarthy's modus operandi was to toss off serious accusations of disloyalty and treason with a disgracefully cavalier regard for accuracy. He seized center stage with sallies against communists in the State Department--an arm of the federal government that had in fact harbored communists. But how many, or who they were, or whether they were still employed at Foggy Bottom were details McCarthy could never get straight. Nor did he deign to distinguish between communists, fellow travelers, dupes, naifs, or critics of Joe McCarthy--all were smeared with the same brush.
McCarthy's name attaches not just to his own antics but to an era of obsession with subversion. No lives were taken as a result of this obsession, nor did many go to jail. But some lost their jobs, still more had careers disrupted, and many suffered agonizing periods of unwarranted scrutiny in which their patriotism was impugned. Such distinguished public servants as Cord Myer and Chip Bohlen, men who served their country with devotion, have recounted in their memoirs the ordeal of having to defend themselves against vague and baseless charges. All this was enough to convince many Americans that McCarthyism itself constituted a threat to the very freedoms it claimed to defend.

What kind of threat did it pose? In popular memory, McCarthyism constituted a threat to free speech, but it is a myth that anyone was silenced, least of all McCarthy's opponents. As the critic Leslie Fiedler put it in a 1954 essay, "From one end of the country to another rings the cry, 'I am cowed! I am afraid to speak out!', and the even louder response, 'Look, he is cowed! He is afraid to speak out.'" It is true that legal constraints were applied to the Communist Party and its members. But these aimed to suppress communist subversion, not communist ideas. In 1954 the liberal paragon Senator Hubert Humphrey introduced a bill to outlaw the Communist Party on the grounds that it was "an illegal conspiracy to overthrow the Government of the United States by force and violence and not a legitimate political party." The Senate passed Humphrey's proposal by a vote of 85 to 1, but it was soon dropped because of doubts as to whether it could withstand constitutional scrutiny.

Americans ultimately turned from McCarthyism with a shudder, not because free speech had been impaired but because of the growing conviction that the obsession with subversion bred a spirit of suspicion and distrust that degraded our public life. In theory, it was possible to distinguish, as the philosopher Sydney Hook did, between heresy and conspiracy. Indeed it was not difficult to do so. But an environment of nervous vigilance was bound to bring to the fore, and indeed sustain, those like McCarthy who could not or would not make such distinctions.

In late 1954 McCarthy was censured by the Senate, and little more than two years later he was in his grave. Coincidentally, American communism collapsed at the same time. The Cold War, Korea, government persecutions, and the self-purge conducted in the ranks of organized labor beginning in the late 1940s had already badly weakened the Party. The added blows in 1956 of the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian rebellion, and, even more devastating, the revelations of Stalin's crimes in Khrushchev's speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, proved fatal.

So when the "end of ideology" was proclaimed in the last year of the 1950s, both communism and McCarthyism were dead in America. Communism, however, was to have a reincarnation of a kind in the 1960s. Not that the Party ever came back to life. Rather, its soul entered the body of the New Left, which swept to the fore on college campuses, and which was to have clear attitudinal and emotional links to communism.

The New Left was not pro-Soviet. Its ideology was amorphous and its style self-indulgent, contrasting starkly with the discipline of old Leninists. Still, the connection was there: in the New Left's conviction that America was deservedly headed for the ashheap ("a dying civilization", in the words of the trademark song, "Age of Aquarius"); in its embrace of Third World communists and its rejection of anti-communism (spelled out first in the seminal 1962 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society); and in the fact that a substantial share of the leadership and cadre of the New Left consisted of "red diaper babies" (children of Communist Party members). Indeed, the remnant of the old communist movement found new purpose and influence by adapting its political skills and resources to the civil rights and Vietnam antiwar movements.

McCarthyism experienced no similar reincarnation, and seemed to get buried ever deeper with the passing years. Its ghost, however, was skillfully conjured in order to discredit all anti-communist sentiment. To the communists who reemerged in the 1960s and their anti-anti-communist offspring in the New Left, McCarthyism represented not a metastasized outgrowth of anti-communism that scarred innocent victims but the very essence of anti-communism. The exemplar of this way of thinking was playwright Lillian Hellman, whose 1976 work Scoundrel Time portrayed those investigated for subversion in the 1950s as innocent victims of witch-hunts. Hellman, about whom Mary McCarthy famously said that every word she ever wrote was a lie, "including 'and' and 'the'", denied that she herself was a communist, but in fact she was a loyal hack to the end, willing part of her estate to the creation of a fund for the advancement of "the doctrines of Karl Marx."

The memory of McCarthyism also protected the remnant of the old Communist Party as it found new life in the civil rights movement. In recent years various accounts have surfaced of the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of President Kennedy's personal appeals to King to rid himself of the communist apparatchiks in his entourage. Just as the communists had risen to near dominance in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s by supplying experienced, disciplined, and courageous field organizers, so a relatively small number of communists contributed substantially to civil rights activism in the 1960s.

In this respect, I experienced an epiphany during an all-night vigil outside the Manhattan offices of the Justice Department in the summer of 1964, held to demand a more energetic search for three young civil rights workers who had disappeared in Mississippi (two of whom were white, northern, red-diaper babies). As the night wore on, the refrain of our freedom song turned to "race-haters and red-baiters ain't a gonna turn me 'round." It appeared that everyone else knew this lyric and sang it with gusto, and that I was alone in thinking that it raised an extraneous issue.

The accounts of the FBI's King surveillance provided by David Garrow, Taylor Branch, and Murray Friedman contend that the communists in the King entourage had severed their ties to the party, and that in any event the wiretaps revealed that these advisers consistently offered counsels of moderation. While this may be so, it is still reasonable to doubt whether it was healthy for the evolution of black activism that the civil rights movement's formative years were so influenced by ideologues whose view of American society was antipathetic to the core. As the movement grew increasingly unwieldy, producing all kinds of extremist, violent, and crazy factions, the communists rushed in to support many of them, most notably the Black Panthers.

It is not just in relation to black politics that one may question whether the 1960s would have been as politically noxious as they were in the absence of McCarthy's legacy. For those of us who were student activists then, the first and necessary step toward a balanced understanding of the world was to see our country in perspective. But riveted by the civil rights movement's struggle with unconscionable racism here at home, too many of us failed for too long to appreciate that other countries were guilty of rights violations much more grievous than America's--and that, unlike America, they were doing nothing to remedy the situation. But the ethos of anti-anti-communism discouraged any such exposition of the sins of America's enemies.

Gradually over the 1970s and 1980s, a series of dramatic events--the Cambodian holocaust, the plight of the Vietnamese boat people, the rise and suppression of Solidarity in Poland--made anti-communism respectable again. Now, in the aftermath of the Cold War, even the taboo against discussing domestic communists is beginning to give way. The process of bridging this gap in America's history is being spurred on by evidence emerging from Soviet archives, and from files newly released by American intelligence, fruits of the operation code-named "Venona", a partial decoding of intercepted communications between Moscow and its agents in the United States. This is rich grist for the mills of a small group of American historians--notably John Earl Haynes, Ronald Radosh, Harvey Klehr, and Richard Gid Powers--who are reopening the story of American communism and its enemies. Together, their recent books will help readers who want to cut through the myth and proscription to understand the McCarthy episode, as well as the larger story of the combat involving American communists, anti-communists, and anti-anti-communists.

John Haynes, in Red Scare or Red Menace?, shows how the anti-communist hysteria that McCarthy stoked and exploited grew out of a bitter sense of betrayal. In the interests of our wartime alliance, Americans had suppressed their misgivings about Stalin's Soviet Union. "It is bad Christianity, bad sportsmanship, bad sense to challenge the integrity of the Soviet government", fatuously wrote the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Joseph E. Davies. "The Soviet Union has shown by its deeds in the war and by its actions before this war that its word can be trusted." Soon after the war, however, a rapid succession of events shocked Americans out of their naivete and brought the wartime alliance to an end. The subjugation of Eastern Europe, the rejection of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin blockade, the communist victory in China, the revelation that the formula for the atomic bomb had been stolen, and North Korea's invasion of South Korea--all unfolded within five years of our victory, in alliance with the Soviets, in the Second World War. Americans realized that they were once again enmeshed in a life-or-death struggle, this time with a foe toward whom they had recently shown much warmth and generosity. Worst of all, they seemed to be losing that struggle, a perception that bolstered McCarthy's charges of conspiracy within the very heart of the U.S. government.

Haynes reminds us that even though reckless accusations were made in the 1950s, not all were false or made up out of whole cloth. The "Hollywood Ten", who were blacklisted for their refusal to give testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), are often remembered as martyrs, but Haynes informs us that "nine were party members and the tenth a close ally." Laughlin Currie, a Treasury Department official, testified before HUAC, stoutly denying the uncorroborated accusation by Elizabeth Bentley (a repentant former Soviet agent) that he had aided the Soviets. According to Haynes, however, new documents show Currie "providing the Soviets with diplomatic intelligence and warning them that the FBI had begun to suspect [Nathan] Silvermaster", the leader of a Soviet spy ring in the Treasury Department.

Haynes also shows us that even the slanderously accused are not necessarily innocent. Owen Lattimore was famously defamed by McCarthy as "the top Russian espionage agent" in the United States, although he was not a spy at all. He did, however, deliberately serve Soviet purposes and had a penchant for duplicity. Lattimore wrote to colleagues that they should support Soviet "international policy in general but without using their slogans", and shortly before the Korean War he said that he wanted "to let South Korea fall--but not to let it look as though we pushed it." Haynes' general conclusion is that "for all its sporadic ugliness, excesses, and silliness, the anti-communism of the 1940s and 1950s was an understandable and rational response to a real danger."

One of the many virtues of Haynes' book is the light it sheds on the interplay between the ideological battles over communism and more parochial partisan conflicts. "McCarthy did not really care if he proved that Lattimore was a spy", says Haynes, "because his objective was not Lattimore or even Soviet spies. McCarthy's chief target was the Truman administration in particular and New Deal liberalism in general; the communist issue was the means to an end." In their embarrassment, the Democrats responded by attempting to sweep under the rug the whole issue of communist subversion in the government. When this became untenable, as it soon did, the Truman administration went too far in the other direction and "implemented a broader-than-needed [security clearance] system to protect its flank from Republican criticism."

In Not Without Honor, Richard Gid Powers relates the extremes and the excesses of the 1950s and 1960s to a longer history of political conflict, one that began with the Bolshevik seizure of power and lasted until the Soviet collapse. The Russian Revolution of 1917 touched off spasms of chiliastic radicalism elsewhere, including the United States, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. This in turn caused a wave of repression most often remembered as the "Palmer raids", after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer who organized the arrest and deportation of radical aliens. Here, Powers spares neither side. He reminds us that Palmer was direly provoked: his own home was bombed, one of dozens of such attacks carried out by anarchists. On the other hand, Palmer's protŽgŽ, a 24-year old Justice Department attorney named J. Edgar Hoover, proceeded indiscriminately, recklessly labeling liberals, civil libertarians, and his own critics as "parlor pinks." Hoover later learned to be much more disciplined in his accusations, but he had set a lamentable precedent. Powers does a fine job of capturing the dialectic of false charges by anti-communists and false denials by communists that continued for decades.

A fascinating illustration of the effects of mundane politics on the exotic issues of espionage and subversion is contained in Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh's riveting account of the Amerasia case. Amerasia, a small journal of Asian affairs, was a thinly disguised communist front operation. It was the successor publication to China Today, which had been openly communist in its allegiance. Phillip Jaffe--the editor who oversaw China Today's transition to Amerasia--was apparently not a party member, but he was a devoted fellow-traveler. In the process of denouncing the leftist journalist I.F. Stone for insufficient fealty to Moscow, Jaffe once declared, "I would say that the first test of a real radical is, do you trust the Soviet Union through thick and thin, regardless of what anybody says?" When Jaffe was approached with a request to spy for Moscow, his only hesitation was concerning whether the man who approached him might be a U.S. secret agent.

During the latter months of the Second World War, when Amerasia began publishing classified documents, the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the CIA) broke into its offices and found it awash in classified documents. Government surveillance of the editors and their contacts ensued and resulted in six arrests: three journalists, including Jaffe, and three government employees, including John Stewart Service, one of the State Department's most prestigious China hands. In the end, however, the arrests led to little. Jaffe and a few others paid small fines and the rest got off altogether. The grand jury refused to indict Service. Although some historians claim that this showed that the government's case was trumped up, in fact, as Klehr and Radosh demonstrate, the outcome appears to have been the result of deliberate efforts within the Justice Department and perhaps elsewhere in the Truman administration to bury the case in order to avoid partisan embarrassment. As the authors point out, "the whitewash that did occur certainly gave right-wingers a ready-made cause cŽlbre and deep suspicions about the loyalty of government employees and the willingness of the U.S. government to prosecute betrayals of its secrets." Thus was the way prepared for McCarthy's notorious speech at Wheeling, West Virginia--in which one of the few people he actually named as a communist was John Stewart Service.

In the end, American communism was thoroughly defeated, and despite some abuses, there was no major derogation from democratic standards. No elections were canceled, no books were banned, no innocents were railroaded to jail. McCarthy contributed nothing to the defeat of communism. Instructively, that battle was fought and won primarily in the private sector--within the labor movement and liberal organizations. As Haynes puts it:

"Communists had not become a political factor by operating under their own banner; much of their influence came from their ability to influence established institutions of political liberalism. Once outside the protection provided by mainstream labor and liberal institutions, American communists faced isolation and near annihilation."

Powers describes how "nearly every democratic group on the left that had had any dealings with the Communists . . . turned into adamant anti-Communists" because of the communists' operational duplicity and insistent hidden agenda. He also emphasizes how disillusioned communists played a significant role in the downfall of the Party: "The American Communist Party and its fronts became schools for anti-Communists." In labor circles there was also an explicitly Catholic movement that embodied the church's hostility to communism, which mirrored communism's hostility to the church. Powers and Haynes each makes the point that most Americans historically have had no use for communism but also not much interest in actively fighting it. But these three sources--the democratic Left, the former communists, and the Catholic trade unionists--did produce cadres willing to fight the communists with a matching fervor.

Perhaps the cardinal theme of twentieth-century history has been the remarkable resilience of democracy in the face of foes that held it in contempt and seemed to possess important advantages against it. In its battle with domestic subversion, American democracy has proved sturdier than either the anti-communists or the anti-McCarthyites had perhaps feared.

Essay Types: Book Review