McCarthyism

McCarthyism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 2 1998 3:30 AM

McCarthyism

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Dear Ellen,

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       I am rather amazed that each time I quote you accurately, you disown your own words and accuse me of taking things out of context. I agree that intelligent readers should read your book, and I am quite sure that having done so, they will see that my remarks were accurate and totally in context. I think it quite revealing that two other reviewers of your book have independently reached much the same conclusions as I have. Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes that your "aim is not so much to attack McCarthyism as to claim that American communism belonged to a native radical tradition, was more a force for good than bad, and was betrayed by liberals who didn't display sufficient solidarity with embattled communists." How did he gain such an impression, or is this a case of another historian who has misread you? And James Nuechterlein adds that "for Schrecker, the sins of the Communists turn out, on closer examination, to be not so bad after all." In that reviewer's eyes, your book is really about a "determination to salvage what [you] can of the 'positive elements' in the Communist agenda." I guess he has misread you also.
       On the other hand, it is clear, if we are correct, why you think that those nice old folks in the California home have nothing to apologize for. They may have been idealists who meant well--as I'm sure you are--but as Nuechterlein so wisely puts it, "even the most idealistic of them bears a burden of moral culpability for joining and remaining with an organization whose inherently corrupt nature they had to work so hard not to recognize." Or as the Marxist historian Eugene Genovese put it some years ago, "it has never occurred to me that the moral responsibility falls much less on those of us on the American left than it fell on Comrade Stalin and those who replicated his feats in one country after another." But then, you still seem to not recognize it today, since you still view the old reds as one of the most progressive forces in our nation's past.
       Indeed, I think it is you who persists in refusing to look realistically at the nature of American communism. For example, you still can say that American Communists "did not send anyone to the gulag." But if you take the time to read the other book I dealt with alongside yours, Harvey Klehr and John Haynes' The Soviet World of American Communism, you will learn that is not true. The American black communist leader Lovett Fort-Whiteman, having been accused of Trotskyism while in the USSR by American party leaders, was arrested and sent to the gulag, where he died in a labor camp. And hundreds of American-Finnish communists, having gone to the Soviet Union to work for socialism, were similarly condemned and sent to their deaths--all with the knowledge and support of the American party. And at least 12 members of the American CP, including two New York City high-school teachers, were involved actively in the plot to assassinate Leon Trotsky, as well as to try and free his assassin after his imprisonment.
       As for nuance, your desire to tar every anti-communist with the brush of McCarthyism itself smacks of McCarthyism. You now say that you don't defend communism and that it was a tragedy that the CP dominated the American left in the '30s and '40s. If this is the case, why do you treat anyone who opposed the Communist Party--left, right, or center--as a bunch of McCarthyites? Do you really believe--sorry, I'm quoting you from your book again--that the "New York intellectuals' depiction of Communism differed little in its main outlines from that of Joe McCarthy"? These same intellectuals--people like Irving Howe, Sidney Hook, Dwight Macdonald, William Phillips, and others--all of whom emerged from the socialist movement and who were in their own right serious critics of American society. McCarthy, as you know, saw all liberals--like the New York Post's editor James Wechsler--as proto-Communists. You seem to look back and see all those who weren't fellow travelers and supporters of the Popular Front as McCarthyites or, as you put it, "a kind of intelligence service for the [right-wing anti-communist] network." Please, if this illogic isn't guilt by association, classic McCarthyism, what is?
       You ask for a realistic look at American communism and criticize the American party's opponents for "demonizing" them. But that is the point. The critics were right and the supporters of the Popular Front were wrong. The rank-and-file communist may personally not have been responsible for every crime Stalin committed but, in fact, they justified those crimes, rationalized them, and did everything possible to ostracize Stalin's opponents as fascists and reactionaries. Much in the same way you still treat them as secret allies of the far right wing.
       As for McCarthyism, it is apparent that it could not, and would not have, developed outside the context of the developing Cold War waged by Stalin and the hot war in Korea. The fact is that the real danger to America's national security was abroad--that of the attempt of the expansionist Soviet state to take advantage of the end of the war to expand its own brutal Stalinist empire. By the mid 1950s, the CP was, as a party, rather inconsequential. That is precisely why the espionage of people like Lauchlin Currie and Harry Dexter White was so dangerous; they were trying to achieve what they could never gain through the democratic political process by working secretly for Stalin. And in the mid 1940s, the party was, in fact, quite influential--in a form that was way beyond its own numbers. It managed to control a good portion of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, as well as to have great influence in Hollywood. And at the start of the Cold War, its fellow travelers did all they could to try and stop the Marshall Plan.
       As for McCarthy himself, he was never serious. He was both a latecomer to the anti-communist effort and, as that wonderful old film The Manchurian Candidate suggested, was Moscow's best friend in America. The issue was really the Cold War, not whether the American CP was ever in a position to seize power. McCarthy, whose isolationism was akin to that of Pat Buchanan today (who is himself still a proud McCarthy supporter), was in fact endangering a solid Western alliance that could stand up to Stalin.
       You are right that anti-communism was a "mainstream phenomenon." And that is the point. That consensus was necessary and right. McCarthy, in poisoning the well by going after anyone with an independent thought, confused some decent liberals into believing that anyone accused was innocent. As it turns out, most of those named by people like Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers were in fact guilty precisely of what they had been accused of. The failure of some liberals to realize this allowed a Joe McCarthy to flourish. And it is the continuing mindset of people like yourself, not the fortunes of a thankfully defunct political sect, that still is a danger to our contemporary culture.