McCarthyism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 17 1998 3:30 AM

McCarthyism

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Dear Ellen,
       I'm afraid your response shows once again that you just don't get it. You imply I continually "demonize" American Communists and that I fault you for not doing so. But in everything you write, you continue to demonize anti-Communists. You make them into a homogenous group, all of whom are McCarthyites. Yet the anti-Communists constituted, as Richard Gid Powers has argued, a more complicated and diverse movement than did the Communist Party--which was a Leninist party operating under strict rules of discipline, i.e., "democratic centralism." And you exaggerate the supposed differences between the party's leaders and rank and file. The historian Aileen S. Kraditor, in her little-known book Jimmy Higgins: The Mental World of the Rank-and-File Communist, provides sufficient data to show that the culture and worldview of the average party member was thoroughly infused with core Stalinist attitudes. In contrast, the anti-Communists were not a party. Anti-communism was a stance taken by a wide variety of people and different groups, many of whom intensely disliked--and politically opposed--one another. If anyone is engaging in "demonzing," I'm afraid, it is you.
       Moreover, you keep changing your arguments. Now you write that you can "understand why someone at the height of the Cold War might be upset about the Communist Party." But such an understanding is noticeably absent from your entire book, in which you portray anyone opposed to the CP as either a McCarthyite or inherently evil. At the end of one of your postings, you portray yourself as someone seeking a voice for the losers, the lonely dissenter wishing to allow alternative voices to be heard. Yet, earlier in your response, you assert I am outside the "mainstream" of historical scholarship, which, supposedly, I "reject." Actually, as Thomas C. Reeves, one of McCarthy's biographers, pointed out in his discussion of your book in the New York Times Book Review, this is clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Reeves writes: "Given what we know about the designs and disasters of Communism, it is simply unacceptable to continue to cling to the absurd illusion of heroic Reds as the champions of the highest ideals of humanity. Most historians, let alone most Americans, had that figured out long ago." Perhaps the problem is that in the small group of left-wing academics you work with in New York, your view is the mainstream. But if that is the case, it reveals only how much your colleagues are out of touch with reality. So which are you--the lonely dissenter fighting for truth or the voice of the historical Establishment? And what am I--part of that Establishment trying to suppress dissent or a dissenter from the mainstream? Really, you can't have it both ways.
       Again, you continually claim that American Communists were always a "powerless" sect. But, in fact, they were not that weak. The party's numbers may have been small but, as it always bragged, its influence far exceeded its numerical strength. It played a major role in the Congress of Industrial Organizations, in political organizations in New York City and California, as well as in Washington state, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In the 1940s and early 1950s, our political system was forced to deal with the Communist Party, which was not simply a legal radical party putting all its cards on the table. It was a party loyal to and secretly funded by the Soviet Union, whose members, when asked, willingly cooperated with Soviet espionage against the United States; which maintained a secret underground organization; and which, as policy, infiltrated other groups and operated through secret caucuses. Its members led more than a dozen CIO unions, but only one of the union chiefs, Ben Gold of the Furriers, was open about his CP affiliation. Its raison d'être was to promote a totalitarian ideology and to try and remake America in the image of the worker's paradise, the USSR--"Towards a Soviet America," as the slogan used to be before the tactical development of the Popular Front.
       Any serious American government had to find a way to deal with such a duplicitous movement. You essentially say that any opposition to communism was unacceptable. And when liberals--liberals opposed to HUAC, the Smith Act, and Joe McCarthy--made clear their singular opposition to the Communists and their desire to isolate them politically, you argue that these liberals were, as expected, nothing less than McCarthyites. You write that they may have meant well, but that they had come to accept "the venomous caricature of American communism that Hoover and his allies were pushing." You are wrong. They opposed communism for their own very valid reasons. Through years of experience, liberals and left-wing anti-Communists had learned how the CP operated and what its real agenda was. This is, however, something you seem completely unaware of.
       Of course, the giveaway about how you see things lies in your last paragraph, where you argue that "red-baiting" is nefariously used to justify "America's triumph in the Cold War." Really. I didn't think that the U.S. victory in the Cold War needed any justification. That victory destroyed one of the most vicious political systems in the modern world, opened up areas of the world to both a market economy and democratization, and created the possibility of a new beginning for the peoples of the former Soviet Union and its once large Eastern European empires. Who, if not the United States, would you have wanted to win the Cold War? I assume it would have to be the Soviet Union, since it appears you think any enemy of the evil United States is to be preferred or supported. If this is how you define red-baiting, then the red-baiters were right, and still are!
       Now there was McCarthyism--or Hooverism--as you more aptly call it. And those who practiced it regularly went after individuals for their political beliefs, rather than for any illegal activities. Classic is the case of the individual who was asked by a loyalty board hearing if he voted for the Socialist Party's perennial candidate, Norman Thomas. And J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, as you and others have documented, regularly played loose with civil liberties and moved way beyond their legitimate investigative role. But as you note yourself, for all those who lost their jobs in loyalty board hearings, the number of employees actually "driven out of their jobs" was "surprisingly low." And of those who at first lost jobs, more than 90 percent found that the courts would reinstate them. Fighting back against the McCarthyites, in other words, was more than possible. In our democracy, civil liberties was extended and a consensus was forged that saw the likes of Hoover and McCarthy in a very negative light. As for the Communist Party, it certainly was persecuted, harassed, and isolated. But even at the height of the McCarthy years, it was never outlawed: It continued to operate legally and maintained offices, published newspapers and magazines, and recruited members. And while its opponents, especially some on the far right, engaged in ugly practices and carried out their own abuses of democratic practice, the anti-communism of the '40s and '50s was a necessary and understandable response to an actual danger to American democracy.

Click to order Schrecker'sMany Are the Crimesor Radosh'sThe Rosenberg File from Amazon.com.

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