Commentary Magazine


Many Are the Crimes by Ellen Schrecker

Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America
by Ellen Schrecker
Little, Brown. 592 pp. $26.95

Treatments of the McCarthy era by radical writers are nothing new. Most of them, however, are so tendentious, and so awash in political bathos, that they can persuade only those already persuaded. Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University and a self-described radical, has set out to be more credible. As she says in the introduction to this wide-ranging study of domestic anti-Communism, her aim is to transcend the usual revisionist pieties, to “investigate” the various actors in the drama rather than “judge” them. Unfortunately, the book she has written honors only half of this intention, being at once both impressively investigated and utterly unconvincing in its all too frequent judgments.

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Schrecker begins with a description of domestic Communism that is notable for its moments of candor. She admits—if grudgingly—that the American Communist party (CP) was “subservient to the Kremlin”; that the party’s image as a criminal conspiracy “was persuasive in large part because it was based on reality”; that the Communists, while insisting on the most expansive possible definition of their own civil liberties, displayed no concern for the civil liberties of their enemies; that the CP was “secretive, authoritarian, opportunistic, and insulting” in its dealing with liberal allies in the Popular Front; and that, finally,

despite the widespread contention that [Senator Joseph] McCarthy and his colleagues picked on innocent liberals, most of the men and women who lost their jobs or were otherwise victimized were not apolitical folk who had somehow gotten on the wrong mailing lists or signed the wrong petitions. Rather, . . . they had once been in or near the American Communist party.

Here we find, in short, ample evidence for the view that Communism in America during the first decade of the cold war was a genuine threat, and the reaction to it, however excessive at times, a reasonable act of self-defense. And yet every concession to the truth is immediately enveloped in Schrecker’s account by a cloud of qualifications and extenuations. Yes, American Communists did follow the line dictated by the Kremlin, “but not everywhere, not all the time, and not in everything they did.” Yes, the party “harbored” an “underground” that performed espionage for the USSR, but, she quickly adds, not all Communists were involved, much of the information gathered was unimportant, during some of this period the Soviets were our allies, and anyway the spies were motivated by their ideals. For Schrecker, the sins of the Communists turn out, on closer examination, to be not so bad after all.

Or if bad, not nearly so bad as those of their persecutors. Though conceding that the actual behavior of Communists made it easy to “demonize” them, Schrecker nonetheless insists that the image of the Communist party as a threat to national security was “built on perjury,” and that participants in the anti-Communist crusade systematically resorted to “lies and dirty tricks.” The true aim of McCarthy, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and the other villains in her story was not to protect the nation against subversion but to destroy “the power of the Left.”

This was, moreover, a Left to which the Communists had made a formative and in many respects healthy contribution. It is “because of the problematic nature of the CP’s ties to the Soviet Union,” Schrecker writes, that we tend “to overlook the more positive elements” of its agenda. In fact, she maintains, the party was a “progressive” force that “stimulated many of the most dynamic political and social movements of the 1930′s and 1940′s,” particularly trade-unionism and the push for racial equality. Its demise in the face of the anti-Communist onslaught thus did lasting harm to the liberal cause.

Finally, looking back on the era, Schrecker wonders if the Communist party, for all its misdeeds, really warranted so ferocious a response:

Were these activities so awful? Was the espionage, which unquestionably occurred, such a serious threat to the nation’s security that it required the development of a politically repressive internal security system?

Her answer, needless to say, is no. At root, Schrecker suggests, Communism was just another “unpopular political movement,” a tragic but not untypical victim of America’s abiding intolerance of dissent.

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Many Are the Crimes is, as I have already noted, a scrupulously researched book, and Ellen Schrecker possesses an obvious command of all the relevant literature. Unfortunately, these virtues are not enough in the end to keep her book from being a work of revisionist propaganda. All the documents she has read, the interviews she has conducted, and the facts she has been forced to acknowledge avail nought against her determination to salvage what she can of the “positive elements” in the Communist agenda.

It is a doomed quest. In her nostalgia for the days of the Popular Front, when Communists allied themselves with liberals and others on the broad American Left, Schrecker insists on separating the CP’s Soviet connection from its “progressive” politics. Yet, as she herself documents in damning detail, on every issue of any consequence, foreign or domestic, the party acted strictly on instructions from its Soviet masters, following the tortuous twists and turns of the line laid down in Moscow. Even during periods of cooperation with others, Communists—as, again, Schrecker’s own evidence reveals—felt free to deceive their allies as the needs of the party dictated. For the CP, the politics of the Popular Front was a politics of convenience.

It is true that not every member of the Communist rank and file was the self-conscious agent of a hostile foreign power. Idealists of various sorts and of varying degrees of idealism moved in and out of the party over the years. But 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. Some Communists came to grips with the true nature of their moral situation when, in 1939, they were asked—or, rather, ordered—to swallow the Nazi-Soviet pact; others postponed the day of reckoning until later; many evaded it altogether.

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As for Schrecker’s account of the anti-Communist movement, it is fatally marred by what she chooses to downplay or ignore. Thus, for instance, she scants the international context in which domestic anti-Communism flourished in this country, minimizing the obvious effects on American sensibilities of the cold war and especially the war in Korea. Civil liberties have never fared well anywhere during wartime, and it is no accident, as a Marxist would say, that the most fevered events of the anti-Communist crusade—blacklists, economic sanctions, and political dismissals—occurred while the U.S. was engaged in conflict against the Communist regimes of North Korea and China. Without the Korean war, Joseph McCarthy would likely have been but a minor footnote in American history.

This is not to excuse the excesses committed in the name of anti-Communism; but neither should such episodes be allowed to obscure the sober consensus that prevailed in America at the time. Schrecker complains bitterly about the crudeness of the anti-Communist view of Communism, but she allows herself to tar any and all opposition to the CP as “McCarthyism.” She thus never comes to grips with the cold-war liberals and others on the Left who agreed with the social-democratic philosopher Sidney Hook that Communists in the U.S. had rights as heretics but not as conspirators—not to mention with those on the Right like Whittaker Chambers who opposed McCarthyism because of the damage it was doing to, precisely, the anti-Communist cause.

What all these people and millions of ordinary Americans understood is that the American Communist party was a conspiracy, the wholly subservient tool of Joseph Stalin—a monster of world-historical proportions—and of the totalitarian regime over which he presided. The remarkable thing is that, at least at some level of consciousness, Ellen Schrecker knows it, too. It is a pity that the incompatibility between the facts she cannot quite fail to notice and the ideological filter through which she interprets them should have led her to write a book of which the best that can be said is that it is incoherent.

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About the Author

James Nuechterlein, a former professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.




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