Red Scare or Red Menane?: American Communism in the Cold War Era.

Red Scare or Red Menane?: American Communism in the Cold War Era. – book reviews

James G. Ryan

By John E. Haynes. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996. Pp. viii, 214. $24.95.)

Three recent studies challenge the prevailing academic consensus on the nature of American Communism and anticommunism. They may well constitute the first rumblings of a literary avalanche that, during the next century, could change the way historians view these movements. The larger context in which these very different, yet related, books appear is as important as any words printed on their pages.

Scholarly study of the far left in the United States began 40 years ago, when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s shadow still lingered over much of the land. Popular consensus deemed the domestic Communist Party (CPUSA or CP) an illegitimate offspring of a foreign power, spawned during the early twentieth century’s tempestuous romance with Marxism. Predictably, the movement’s first histories reflected this Cold War outlook. They argued that the CPUSA was never a normal participant in the nation’s political life. Although its local activities merited attention, it followed an agenda that was set abroad and, with invertebrate flexibility, that adjusted its tactics as needed.

During the 1960s and shortly thereafter, the Civil Rights, New Left, antiwar, and women’s movements (and Communist Party participation therein) brought dramatic challenges to social and political orthodoxies. By the mid-1970s a vigorous, pro-CPUSA revisionist school had emerged. Composed partly of activists from the 1960s, who had achieved graduate degrees, and CP veterans-turned-writers, it produced a rich harvest of articles, dissertations, and books on every aspect of American Communism. Revisionists generally displayed greatest interest in the Popular Front years of 1935-1939, when the CPUSA supported New Deal reform and anti- fascist collective security. Such accounts have tended to portray the CP as simply a legitimate, even valiant, component of America’s radical tradition. Many leftists found them a breath of fresh air after what seemed to have been decades of stifling anti-communism.

Also in the 1970s, the “new social history” arrived in the United States. It rejected, and at times castigated, political studies as too focused on presidents, prime ministers, and kings. Often labeled “history from the bottom up,” the American discovery of social history helped to shift emphasis toward multicultural and feminist concerns, frequently treating them from a neo-Marxist perspective. Meanwhile, doctoral programs had begun churning out far more historians than the market could absorb, a problem the historical profession still seems unable or unwilling to address nearly three decades later.

It should astound no one that, as hundreds of relatively young, new Ph.D.s faced blighted careers, or worse, some found aspects of Communism attractive. The most fortunate of their number obtained full-time university positions and began to rise through the ranks of academia. Revisionism began to achieve its own orthodoxy; indeed, its proponents have tended to dominate American Communist studies for over 20 years. Relations with the earlier camp have often been as emotion-laden as they have been scholarly, and they have not always been cordial.

Revisionists have been inclined to belittle as unreliable, or dismiss altogether, the accusations of former Communists concerning the CPUSA’s clandestine activities: maintaining a secret apparatus, receiving funds from the Soviet Union, infiltrating the government during the New Deal era, and recruiting espionage agents. That some apostates could not prove their charges, exaggerated wildly, and lied openly is certain. That a few of them, obviously disillusioned, testified before right-wing Congressional committees and secured lucrative publishing contracts has discredited virtually all such persons in revisionists’ eyes. Many scholars have echoed Steve Nelson’s commonsense argument that no sane spy would go near the party. In the historical profession, anticommunism, long before the notion of political incorrectness, often became suspect as akin to racism or sexism.

In 1992 the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History (RTsKhIDNI) opened its doors to Western scholars. Previously the Soviet Communist Party’s archive, it provides undreamed-of sources on twentieth-century politics. Two collections among its holdings are vital to understanding the history of Marxism. One includes papers of the Communist International (Comintern), which supervised member parties through subordinate bodies, including a standing “Anglo-American Secretariat,” and various ad hoc “American Commissions.” The CPUSA regularly sent its top leaders to Russia and maintained a permanent Moscow liaison. The International also stationed emissaries in the United States. Instructions, requests for orders, reports, and cross-examinations fill literally tens of thousands of pages in their records. A second section contains the records of the American party’s national headquarters, shipped secretly to the Soviet Union long ago. Including more than 4,300 files, the holdings span the years 1919 to 1944; the existence of these archives was not widely known until 1992. Although, by 1995, the reinvigorated Russian intelligence services had closed several sections of the Comintern collection, a substantial portion of this material remains available. Yet, historians of the United States have been remarkably slow to realize the richness of these resources.

By contrast, another documentary trove has stimulated a cottage industry for writers. Over the past two years the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency have released some 2,200 intercepted World War II-era messages to Moscow. Concealed among Soviet diplomatic telegrams by NKVD and GRU spies in the United States, these messages were decrypted by the army’s Signal Intelligence Service, mostly between 1947 and 1952. Code named “Venona,” they contain an abundance of Soviet intelligence agency material.

The Secret World of American Communism, written after the RTsKhIDNI opened, but before the Venona papers became public, is arguably one of the most dramatic books ever published on the CPUSA. In it, Harvey Klehr of Emory University, the Library of Congress’s John Earl Haynes, and Russian Comintern scholar Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov stress the “more sinister and less innocent” nature behind the CPUSA’s “public facade” (323). They analyze the party’s clandestine operations and ties to Soviet espionage in the United States. The authors provide photographs of nine of the most startling English-language documents and six in Russian. Altogether they reproduce, fully or partially, 92 important documents. Klehr, Haynes, and Firsov supply historical context and describe controversies that the source materials help illuminate.

The book demonstrates that it is no longer possible to argue: that the USSR did not fund the American party generously; that the domestic CP did not maintain a covert apparatus, eagerly collaborating with the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) and GRU (Soviet military intelligence); that Communists did not have secret caucuses in several federal agencies during the 1930s and 1940s; that caucus members did not steal confidential documents or try to influence government policy; that key leaders, including general secretaries Earl Browder and Eugene Dennis, had no contact with espionage; or that the stories told by leading ex-Communists (including Benjamin Gitlow, Walter Krivitsky, Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, and Louis Budenz) lack substantial archival documentation. The book does not, however, establish Alger Hiss’s guilt. While the CPUSA`s espionage efforts seem sporadic and inept, they underscore the party’s extrinsic orientation and aberrant role in a democratic polity.

In short, the authors have begun to revise the revisionists. The Secret World of American Communism represents the first wave in a tide that promises to inundate the world’s reading rooms with RTsKhIDNI materials. Yale University Press plans to publish 16 subsequent Volumes. Readers need not share Klehr and Haynes’s conservative political views to accept their overwhelming evidence. Perhaps anticipating sensationalist right-wing press headlines, they clearly denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy as a vicious “political bully,” who recklessly smeared hundreds of innocent individuals (325). Calmly the authors note, however, that to “recognize the excesses, mistakes and injustices of McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade is not to accept the distorted view” that the CPUSA knew nothing of “nefarious activities” (16). The “Venona” papers, released after The Secret World of American Communism went to press, confirm and reinforce the authors’ thesis dramatically. Historians will have to await the opening of KGB and GRU files for further corroboration.

John E. Haynes’s Red Scare or Red Menace? does not compete directly with Richard Gid Powers’s Not Without Honor, because the authors set out to do quite different things in these volumes. Using both the RTsKhIDNI and traditional sources, Haynes strives to “make American anticommunism in the 1940s and 1950s historically explicable,” remedying “four deficiencies” that he identifies in previous accounts. First, such earlier interpretations have tended to “downplay or even deny” CPUSA links to Soviet espionage. Second, they often “fail to delineate the historical continuity of post-World War II anticommunism with prewar antifascism.” Third, they tend to neglect “the breadth and variety of anticommunist sentiment,” Finally they generally “treat opposition to Communism as irrational” (vii).

Haynes, a conservative anticommunist who writes with reason and restraint, succeeds admirably. His format is particularly suitable for U.S. history surveys or upper division courses; this study is a concise, dear 214 pages. Although it is scholarly throughout its length, Red Scare or Red Menace? will most benefit young people who do not know Eugene McCarthy from Joe.

Haynes shows that “right-wing extremists found limits to free speech” during the “antifascist era” preceding 1939 (24). Several hundred “were imprisoned for publishing or giving speeches judged to interfere with military recruiting” or for receiving foreign subsidies (30). Isolationists and others “unfairly tainted” led “a strong drive for revenge” against liberal democrats once “the political atmosphere changed after World War II” (29). The campaign against indigenous Communism “was more sweeping because of the greater seriousness of the threat. America’s domestic Nazis and fascists never enjoyed the membership, financing, organization, and institutional support” that the CPUSA once had (163). Now the Communists’ popular likeness “drew directly on the late 1930s images of Nazi fifth-column activity” (19). Anticommunist liberals “retroactively defined the New Deal” to minimize its earlier alliance with the left (139). Haynes finds no sellout at Yalta: “the cost of pressing the Soviets too far on Poland might have been reckoned in hundreds of thousands of Americans killed in the invasion of Japan.” He does, however, castigate President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failure to explain “such a cold-eyed realism” to the public, particularly Polish Americans and other Eastern European ethnic groups in the U.S. (46). Even after Joe McCarthy began gobbling up the allegedly disloyal, his “understanding of Communism remained primitive: a jumble of ill-digested truths, half-truths, myths, and flat-out lies” (146). Prior to “World War 11 the Communist Party’s activities had been troublesome, even occasionally scandalous, but tolerable; in the Cold War era its activities were potentially dangerous and intolerable’ “The U.S. could not achieve the “negative ideological mobilization” which was deemed necessary while containing a native CP wielding the institutional power that it seemed to possess in the late 1940s (199). All of this notwithstanding, “most Americans regarded Communism, as they regarded all politics, as just one concern among many in life” (188).

A recent reviewer has criticized Haynes, in this essayist’s view unfairly, for allegedly falling short of America’s “libertarian tradition” by stressing that the loyalty oaths of the 1950s “affected less than 20 percent of the work force” (177). Haynes is no apologist for violations of civil liberties, however. Instead, his book places them in a larger context so as to disabuse readers of the notion that almost everyone with talent or social conscience faced job-site intimidation during the McCarthy era. Indeed, Haynes himself describes the “mind-numbing clumsiness” of federal “application of uniform regulations to diverse situations” (173). He adds, moreover, that “some states attached loyalty oaths to trivial matters,” such as New York’s requirement for “persons wanting a fishing license” and Indiana’s scrutiny of professional wrestlers (176).

If the strength of Red Scare or Red Menace? lies in its pithiness, the contribution of Not Without Honor is its comprehensive nature. Powers argues that “the history of anticommunism is not the same as the story of anticommunist extremism, any more than the history of malpractice is the history of medicine” (427). Powers’s book, which is based on sources both new and traditional, seeks to cover the full range of American anticommunist efforts, both at home and abroad. Moving chronologically from the days of Woodrow Wilson to those of George Bush, it simultaneously travels the political spectrum from countersubversive conspiracy theorists, or “the lunatic fringe,” to Democratic Socialists (167). Not Without Honor is written in an engaging fashion, and it may remain the authoritative single-volume account for a long time to come. Powers’s liberal anticommunism will likely be less unpopular with academics than Haynes’s conservative anticommunism, though the two present essentially the same message. While only the most dedicated undergraduates will read a book of this length, serious students of the CPUSA and its enemies will find their efforts richly rewarded.

Powers writes something quotable on nearly every page. The “countersubversive patriots” who led World War I loyalty drives had already “associated radicalism with disloyalty. But after the Bolshevik Revolution took Russia out of the war to the applause of American radicals, the left’s sympathy for Communism itself was regarded as an act of disloyalty” (12). War’s end had no effect on such suspicions. During the Red Scare that followed, the justice Department formed a “Radical Division” led by 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover. His reckless attacks on dissenters as tools of Moscow had “the unforseen and catastrophic consequence of providing the left with a far more useful counterstereotype of the anticommunist as the sworn enemy, not of Communism, but of civil liberties” (31).

Although countersubversives “chased chimerical conspiracies through paranoid labyrinths,” by 1925 “nearly every democratic group on the left that had had any dealings with the Communists had now been turned into adamant anticommunists” (66-67). During the Great Depression, African-American anticommunist George Schuyler, an exciting figure who seems virtually to leap from Powers’s pages, noted that CPUSA apparatchiks were “devoid of a sense of humor.” They also suffered some illusions. Schuyler wrote, “Because the Communists were exceedingly lucky in Russia, they imagine that they have the same luck elsewhere. They confuse the American capitalists with the decadent Russian nobility. Capitalism here is sick, but it is far from dead” (102).

Readers can enjoy more than a few chuckles at the misadventures of Ralph Easley, a gullible right-wing extremist who was swindled repeatedly by confidence men, and who managed to entangle in his foolishness Congressman Hamilton Fish of New York. Powers terms Senator Joseph McCarthy’s famous (or notorious) 1950 Lincoln Day speech “the greatest disaster in the disastrous history of American anticommunism.” McCarthy “made ludicrous the notion that anticommunism could be based on sound morality or a realistic view of the world” (235). He gave enemies “what they had been looking for since the beginning of the Cold War: a contemporary name and face for their old stereotype of the anticommunist fascist” (236). The most moving parts of Not Without Honor analyze anticommunism’s Post-Vietnam near death and resurrection with help from William F. Buckley, William Casey, Pope John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan. Powers displays the subject’s abundant irony when he writes that President Reagan, the most successful anticommunist ever, committed “one of the most clearly impeachable presidential misdeeds in history” during the Iran-Contra crisis (414).

No account of Not Without Honor’s magnitude and controversial nature is likely to be flawless. A claim that during the First World War America’s “very survival hung in the balance” is dubious (4). An assertion that the public never “turned en masse against” the Vietnam conflict ignores opinion polls from the era (319). The author tries too hard to explain away legitimate criticisms of federal intelligence agencies raised by the Pike and Church Committees during the 1970s (347). This reader would have preferred to see even more on Socialist anticommunism, but that may be a personal fixation. Three questions of interpretation should not, however, detract from the book’s contribution to knowledge and understanding of a heretofore much misunderstood movement.

None of these dramatic and important books can be ignored. All raise fundamental questions about the current consensus among historians of the United States on American Communism and anticommunism. And each of these studies will repay a careful and close reading.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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