America at its Best
Not Without Honor: The History of American Anti-Communism
by Richard Gid Powers
Free Press. 554pp. $30.00
Not Without Honor is a scholarly, start-to-finish account of American anti-Communism. It is also the first book of its kind. Though hundreds of volumes have been devoted to cold-war politics, and a small library could be filled with titles on McCarthyism, until now there has not been a single comprehensive treatment of one of the most important ideological movements in American history.
At fault for this neglect are the universities. Since the 1960’s, anti-Communism has been viewed by most academic writers as a species of obscenity: something utterly without redeeming social value. For an untenured historian to deviate from this view has meant risking a career, while for a tenured scholar it has often meant abuse and ostracism by one’s professional peers. The net result is that the literature on the subject has been lopsidedly hostile, veering off at the extremes to such judgments as that of the psycho-historian Joel Kovel that anti-Communism is a certifiable mental illness, with deep roots in the American psyche.
Powers, himself a professor of history, did not come to his subject intending to provoke the ire of his colleagues; rather, his views changed in the course of his labors. “I began,” he writes, “with the idea that anti-Communism displayed America at its worst, but I came to see in [it] America at its best.” Precisely how this is so, Powers chronicles with an impressive abundance of detail. His research is thorough and substantially original, his prose fluent, and his analysis consistently illuminating. This is an exemplary work.
Powers begins by distinguishing two strands of American anti-Communism that developed in reaction to the Bolshevik coup of 1917: Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalism and what Powers calls “countersubversive anti-Communism.” The first strand, from which derive most varieties of liberal anti-Communism, was linked to a foreign policy aimed at isolating the Soviet Union in the hope of extinguishing its revolutionary ardor. Countersubversives, by contrast, were concerned mostly with the threat posed by domestic Communist organizations to America’s internal affairs, and sought to expose and punish them through the use of patriotic societies, congressional committees, and the FBI.
As Powers’s narrative unfolds, many prominent countersubversives emerge in a dismal light. Sometimes ignorant and bullying, they could also be disgracefully tolerant of anti-Semites and conspiratorial nuts who insinuated themselves into their camp. More often, however, they were just plain gullible. Powers tells the story of Ralph Easley, head of the influential National Civic Federation, who was deeply worried about Communist influence among industrial workers. Taken in by a confidence man, Easley was inveigled into spending much of his own money tracking down trunks of documents said to contain valuable information about the Soviet underground in America. In 1930, he persuaded Congressman Hamilton Fish, chairman of a House investigative committee, to gather police for a raid on a Baltimore produce warehouse where the trunks were supposedly hidden. The derisive press coverage that ensued when it was discovered that there were no documents, only lettuce, did much to discredit the anti-Communist cause.
Ironically, it was the liberals who scored the two most important early victories in the domestic battle against Communism: the ejection of Communists from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the defeat of Henry Wallace’s Progressive party in 1948. In describing the former episode, Powers emphasizes especially the role played by Walter Reuther, a socialist who had cooperated with Communists in founding the United Auto Workers (UAW), the CIO’s largest union, only to come away with a deep loathing of them. When, during World War II, Communist activists pressured the UAW to replace hourly wages with piecework pay, presumably as a way of boosting war production, Reuther led the charge against the proposal, saying that Communists “don’t give a tinker’s dam what happens to the American labor movement” and only pushed it because they thought it would “help Russia win the war.” The issue helped to elevate Reuther to the presidency of the UAW in 1946, and his subsequent elimination of Communists from his union enabled Philip Murray, the CIO president, to do the same by 1950.
A graver danger than Communist infiltration of the labor movement was posed by Henry Wallace, who had been Vice President during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third term and was very nearly his successor. Not only was Wallace a vocal opponent of the policy of containment (for which Harry Truman, after succeeding Roosevelt in 1945, fired him as Commerce Secretary), but he quietly encouraged the participation of Communists in the third party he organized for his 1948 presidential bid. In response, a number of prominent liberals formed Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), with the aim of preventing Wallace from coopting the progressive wing of the Democratic party.
The Message of the ADA was best articulated by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in The Vital Center (1949). That landmark book, Powers writes, “carved out a position for anti-Communist liberals between the fellow-traveling progressive Left and the countersubversive anti-Communist Right.” Schlesinger argued that fascism and Communism, far from being opposites, were in fact cut from the same cloth, and that free societies had no choice but to wage the cold war against Communism with the same vigor they had brought to the war against Nazism.
As for the existence of an “underground Communist apparatus” in the United States, however, Schlesinger, like many liberals, felt that its extent was much exaggerated. “The performance of the House Committee on Un-American Activities,” he wrote, “has shown clearly the dangers to civil freedom of a promiscuous and unprincipled attack on radicalism.” Powers is in great sympathy with this position, which is indeed hardly without merit. But it is also too generous to the liberals, and too ungenerous not only to the countersubversives but to the much larger movement of conservative anti-Communism of which they formed only a part.
In fact, though many liberals needed no prompting in their anti-Communism, many more wanted to avoid what was a painfully divisive issue, and confronted it only when their noses were rubbed in the evidence. This certainly was the case when, in 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a one-time member of the Communist underground turned anti-Communist warrior, accused Alger Hiss, a former Assistant Secretary of State and then president of die Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of having been a Soviet agent. The case had the air of a witch-hunt, pitting a cultivated paladin of the New Deal against coarse and unscrupulous reactionaries. Most liberals would have been glad to see the matter dropped. But Congressman Richard Nixon pursued it doggedly, and eventually Hiss’s guilt became too obvious to deny (although some continue to deny it to this day). With the recent opening of Soviet archives it has become abundantly clear that the claims of even the most unsavory countersubversives about the links between American Communists and the Soviet espionage apparatus were substantially true.
In addition to his two main threads, Powers discusses other anti-Communist forces that contributed to the strength of the overall movement: the anti-Communism of the religiously-minded, particularly Roman Catholics; of socialists, many of them Jewish, who based their hostility to Communism on its rejection of democracy; of Jews eager to refute the Jewish-Bolshevik stereotype; of blacks who viewed the party’s emphasis on class as a diversion from race; and of the labor unions for whom Communism was a threat to their autonomy. Then there was, fittingly enough, the Communist movement itself, which Powers calls a “school for anti-Communism,” and whose graduates—Sidney Hook, Bertram Wolfe, and Max Eastman among them—were perhaps the ablest anti-Communists of all.
Throughout most of its history, the anti-Communist movement enjoyed at least the tacit support of a majority of Americans. Yet this advantage was in large measure offset by its unpopularity among the nation’s establishment, and particularly among many of those who set the tone of cultural and intellectual discussion. Here once again Powers assigns blame to the countersubversives, and principally Senator Joseph McCarthy. Their demagoguery, he observes, handed both Communists and the so-called progressive Left an “excuse to shift the . . . controversy from Communism to the excesses of anti-Communism, . . . which was defined as a false and dangerous attack on the civil liberties of all reformers and all Americans.” This, as we have seen, was also the burden of Schlesinger’s complaint in The Vital Center.
Anti-Communism hit its low point in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, which exploded the liberal anti-Communist consensus, and of Watergate, which disgraced its leading conservative exponent. But then, astonishingly, the movement revived in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and arguably achieved its finest hour. Powers sketches the revival by focusing primarily on three individuals.
The first is Paul Nitze, a leading cold-war thinker and strategist in various administrations, who, through the Committee on the Present Danger, highlighted the need for an American military and diplomatic response to Soviet expansion. The second is Norman Podhoretz, who in his own writings and as editor-in-chief of COMMENTARY rejuvenated the arguments of liberal anti-Communism and powerfully reformulated them in the language of what would become known as neoconservatism. And, above all, there is Ronald Reagan, whose anti-Communist foreign policy, stated crisply in moral terms, did more than any other factor to crack the Soviet empire.
Not Without Honor closes with a mordant comment about the reality with which I began: despite victory in the cold war, anti-Communism has still won little respect in the academy. Instead, Powers observes, most academics continue to write and teach about
the melodramatic excesses of anti-Communism at its worst and most extreme, the stereotype of the anti-Communist as McCarthyite, militarist, and bigot. . . . Lost [is] the memory of a movement as diverse as the nation itself, reflecting the convictions of nearly every group in America that their own peculiar experience, as well as their identity as Americans, demanded that they reject Communism and come to the aid of those suffering under it abroad.
That is a fair description—and a telling one. It points vividly to the gulf separating America’s people from its intellectual elites, and to the moral corruption that afflicts the discipline of history in particular and much of the humanities in general. No one book is going to change this state of affairs, but Powers has made a brave start.