McCarthyism

McCarthyism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 20 1998 3:30 AM

McCarthyism

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Dear Ellen,

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       When I read your letter, I had to double-check to make sure you were the same Ellen Schrecker who, among other things in her book, praises the "internationalist sensibility that characterized American Communism," accuses anti-Communist scholars of overlooking "the more positive elements of [the Communist Party's] international program" and, above all, argues that all opponents of the American party, including the anti-Stalinist left, were in essence McCarthyites because they "attacked Communists as traitors to the socialist ideal." And was this the same writer who argued in her book that those who engaged in espionage for the Soviets should be excused for their sins, because they "did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism" and, since they thought they were contributing "to the cause," were not "betraying their country"?
       As for passion, when it comes to studying our recent past, you should be the last one to criticize anyone for being passionate. Your entire study of the McCarthy era is a study in passionate scholarship, as it should be. Why, for example, is there such a passionate response to Goldhagen's book on the Holocaust? The answer is simple. Because the issues raised when one is looking back at the past still resonate in our culture. True, the Cold War is thankfully over. And more thankfully, there is no more Soviet Union. It used to be that all communists were villains, and all anti-communists, including Joe McCarthy, were unadulterated heroes. Beginning in the 1970s, J. Edgar Hoover and company were viewed as perverts and demons, and the communists were seen as prescient, noble heroes. The new material from the Soviet archives about the nature of American communism should now allow us to correct both of these caricatures. But unfortunately you continue to perpetuate the latter one.
       Rather than desiring a return to a simple and celebratory version of our past, I would like a frank accounting, especially from those on the left who really seek to know what went wrong with their hopes. But we don't seem to be getting it. Take the New York Times story last April 6 about Sunset Hall, a home for the aged in Los Angeles, many of whose residents are veterans of the old American communist movement. Here the reporter, one Sara Rimer, reported joyfully how these old folks stayed true to Mao, Lenin, and Trotsky, and even included one 101-year-old man who was a "messenger in the Bolshevik army" and who "is unwavering in his admiration for Lenin." This story, which appeared on the front page of the paper, was there for one reason. As columnist Michael Kelly wrote, readers are supposed to feel their hearts warmed because the old folks at Sunset Hall "are sustained by their old faith." So what if that faith was communist totalitarianism, an experiment that killed between 45 million and 72 million of its citizens in China, 20 million in the Soviet Union, 2.3 million in Cambodia, as well as others throughout the world. It is anywhere between 85 million and 100 million dead on four continents, in less than three-quarters of a century. A great cost to have paid for sustaining one's faith. And you wonder why I show some passion.
       Well, at least your second thoughts have led you to decide not to defend communism. Better late than never. Neither you nor I have ever been spies, although candor compels me to plead guilty to having been both a Stalinist and a folk singer. I agree with you that it was a tragedy that the American CP dominated the left during the '30s and '40s. As for McCarthyism, recall that my review essay was called "The Two Evils." You are correct. Both communism and McCarthyism were bad. But nowhere do I argue that Stalin's atrocities exonerate Joe McCarthy and company's sins. One could, as Hilton Kramer put it years ago, be opposed to both HUAC and the communists. At any rate, I certainly don't want to repeat points I made in my review. Interested Slate readers can find it online at www.frontpagemag.com. I assure you the last thing I want is to narrow intellectual debate. So let us proceed.