McCarthyism

McCarthyism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 19 1998 3:30 AM

McCarthyism

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Dear Ron:

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       I wasn't surprised that you trashed my book, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, in the recent issue of the New Republic. Though what did surprise me was that you devoted so much space to it--11 pages--but dealt only with less than a quarter of its contents. Sure, we disagree about American communism, but why did you ignore the rest of the book and its detailed discussion of the way in which professional anti-Communists such as J. Edgar Hoover created and disseminated the McCarthy era's political repression? I wrote about communism only because of its importance in shaping the political repression directed against it.
       Of course, all authors claim their unfriendly reviewers "didn't get it." And a discussion of all the stuff you missed, invented, or distorted would be of interest only to card-carrying members of the Historians of American Communism. (Yes, Slate readers, there really is such an organization--and both Ron and I belong.)
       I won't defend communism. It was, I believe, a genuine political tragedy that the Communist Party dominated the American left during the 1930s and '40s. Certainly our nation's politics might have been much healthier if a more indigenous and democratic form of radicalism had got the franchise. But, we can't redo the past and, as historians, we are stuck with having to assess a complicated movement that harbored everything from spies and Stalinists to folk singers and real social reformers.
       In any event, I'd rather find out why the communism and anti-communism of the McCarthy era still evoke so much passion among people like you. The Cold War is over and the Communist Party has been a tiny, ineffectual sect for nearly 50 years. Whatever danger it may have posed to America's national interests had been essentially eradicated by the time Joe McCarthy came on the scene. Can't you step back and cede the CP to history instead of forcing those of us who study it to subscribe to a loyalty oath, affirming that we are not now and have never been apologists for the Communist Party? Hey, I just want to find out what happened.
       Sometimes it seems as if the end of the Cold War has restored respectability to McCarthyism, by which I mean the anti-communist political repression of the 1940s and '50s and not just the antics of Senator Joe. If, as most of us believe, the American system, for all its flaws, was a more decent regime than the Soviet one, shouldn't we expect it to abide by its own higher standards? When there is injustice, as there so obviously was during the McCarthy years, even if it was hardly in the same category as the horrors of Stalin's Russia, we should not rationalize it by claiming the atrocities of the latter exonerate the sins of the former. Both are bad. And, those of us who study McCarthyism are not ignoring the evils of Soviet communism. We're just looking at something else.
       I'm also bothered about the way your belligerence contributes to the contemporary culture wars by reinforcing the position of those groups and individuals who want to return to a more simplified, celebratory version of the American past. I realize you are far too sophisticated a historian to endorse the kind of knee-jerk patriotism the opponents of the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay exhibit demanded a few years ago. Still, I sense a similar hostility to the complexities that engage most professional scholars. Since when has "nuance" become a dirty word?
       Back in the 1950s, the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter noted the anti-intellectualism that suffused the anti-communist crusade. A similar phenomenon may be operating today in the quasipopulist assault on the academic mainstream. The attempt to delegitimize much of contemporary scholarship by demonizing it as too radical and elitist threatens to emulate McCarthyism by narrowing the boundaries of acceptable intellectual debate--and dumbing it down. This is a dangerous project, Ron; surely you don't want to participate in it.
       I look forward to hearing what you have to say.