Political repression and the fear of communism

McCarthyism: political repression and the fear of communism

Ellen Schrecker

THE 28-YEAR-OLD SEAMAN WAS PUZZLED. LAWRENCE PARKER HAD BEEN forced off his job as a waiter on the S.S. President Cleveland in February 1951 as a “poor security risk,” but had not been told why. This was not the first time he had been barred from the waterfront under the federal government’s Port Security Program. But with the help of his union, he had appealed his earlier removal and was reinstated. “I just can’t understand it at all,” Parker told the Coast Guard official who was conducting his hearing. “I would like to have some reason or something definite…. I would like to know whether I will be able to work.” Unfortunately, as his attorney explained, Parker could not clear his record because “there are no facts which have been alleged anywhere … to give him any knowledge of the charges on which the conclusion of a poor security risk is based. Therefore, it is impossible for him to respond adequately to the charges.” (1) Unemployable since being identified as a security risk, Parker was desperate to clear up his case and go back to sea, but as long as his status was unresolved, he could not even draw unemployment. (2)

Parker’s encounters with the Alice in Wonderland world of the West Coast Port Security Program were not unique. Nearly 3,800 seamen and dockworkers lost their jobs under this little-known program that had been established in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War (Report of the Commission on Government Security, 1957: 333). Parker suspected that his vocal support for the left-wing Maritime Cooks and Stewards Union may have triggered his removal, but the vagueness of the charges and the refusal of the authorities to give him any specific information about who had launched them made it impossible for him to rebut them. (3) Parker’s attorney handled dozens of similar cases: union activists in a number of occupations, many of them African Americans like Parker, deprived of their livelihoods on the basis of secret charges by unknown informers. (4) Ultimately, these screened maritime workers were reinstated when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1955 in Parker’s favor on the grounds that he should be allowed to see the evidence against him and confront his accusers (Parker v. Lester 227 F.2d 708). It was a paper victory, however, for the fiercely anticommunist maritime unions that were by then handling most waterfront jobs refused to let the previously screened seamen ship out. (5)

The story of Lawrence Parker shows us how the anticommunist political repression that we now call McCarthyism operated. Today, as we confront the post-9/11 assault on individual rights, it is clear that what happened in the 1940s and 1950s was no aberration but the all too common reaction of a nation that seeks to protect itself by turning against its supposed enemies at home. Obviously, the current crackdown is not a replay of the McCarthy era. Nonetheless, an examination of that earlier moment should help us understand how political repression and the fear that makes it work can take hold within a modern democratic polity like the United States. Significantly, that repression requires no violence, nor–even though it usually suppresses political dissidents–is it always handled by the state. In fact, as we shall see, it is the collaboration of public and private actors that makes American political repression so effective.


It is by now a truism to note that McCarthyism encompasses much more than the antics of a single senator. Joe McCarthy’s contributions to the political witch hunt were far from trivial, but by the time he joined the anticommunist crusade early in 1950, the movement to which he gave his name had been going strong for several years and would continue for several more even after he left the political scene. Nor, despite his notoriety, was he the most influential of the nation’s Cold War redbaiters. That honor belongs to the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover. Still, despite its inaccuracy, the term “McCarthyism” has passed into general usage as a synonym for the anticommunist political repression of the early Cold War. It sticks because of its literary convenience and historical specificity.

It is equally misleading to assume that McCarthyism was a single phenomenon. In reality, there were many McCarthyisms, each with its own agenda and modus operandi. There was the ultraconservative version peddled by patriotic groups and right-wing activists that manifested itself in campaigns like the one in Texas that tried to purge textbooks of favorable references to the UN. There was also a liberal version that supported sanctions against Communists, but not against non-Communists, and there was even a left-wing version composed of anti-Stalinist radicals who attacked Communists as traitors to the socialist ideal. (6) In addition, there was a partisan brand of McCarthyism, purveyed by ambitious politicians like Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy who hoped to further their own careers and boost the Republican party. Local politicos, patriots, and businesspeople brought more parochial concerns to the Cold War red scare. (7) All, however, sought in one way or another to protect the nation against the threat of domestic communism. And all contributed in one way or another to the overall success of the anticommunist crusade. As the maritime unions’ blacklisting of previously screened sailors and dock workers revealed, the diffuse nature of that crusade increased its power. McCarthyism was to become the longest lasting and most widespread episode of political repression in modern American history precisely because of its diversity.

Yet, despite its heterogeneous character, McCarthyism did not well up from below. It may have been a popular movement, but it was not a populist one. It began in Washington, D.C., and then spread to the rest of the country. The federal government was the crucial actor here; its activities transformed the Communist party from an unpopular political group into a perceived threat to the American way of life. But the government’s campaign against communism was not monolithic. Different branches adopted different and sometimes competing strategies for handling the communist threat. That competition simply intensified the anticommunist furor as politicians and bureaucrats struggled to gain attention or to ensure that they would not be seen as coddling Communists or worse. Central to the process was a strategically situated network of full-time anti-Communists like J. Edgar Hoover who had dedicated themselves to eliminating communism from all positions of influence in American life. Some of these people were in the government, some outside. Politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, and professional witnesses, they knew each other and collaborated in a surprisingly self-conscious manner. (8) Together they managed to structure much of the campaign against domestic communism and bring it to the forefront of American political life once the Cold War made it salient.

As the travails of Lawrence Parker and his maritime colleagues reveal, the machinery that these people constructed was deeply flawed. If nothing else, the political repression of the late 1940s and 1950s, like that of today, was marked by serious violations of due process. Secrecy and unfairness may well be essential to political repression–though as Corey Robin shows, they are not invariably involved (Robin, 2004). Whether it was refusing to let people confront their accusers or forcing witnesses to inform on others or illegally bugging people’s homes and offices, almost every criminal prosecution, congressional investigation, loyalty-security hearing, and political surveillance of the McCarthy era infringed on individual rights. Had the courts been more vigilant in protecting those rights, many of these repressive activities might not have occurred. As it turned out, when the judiciary finally began to recover its backbone in the mid-fifties, it came to insist on a modicum of due process and thus brought many of those activities to a halt. (9)

Although a victim of political repression, Lawrence Parker did not face a firing squad or go to jail. He lost his job. Economic sanctions allowed McCarthyism to stifle political opposition almost as effectively as more overt forms of coercion. That kind of coercion existed, to be sure. Criminal prosecutions sent a few hundred people to prison and two–Julius and Ethel Rosenberg–to the electric chair, while official proceedings like congressional hearings or IRS audits damaged left-wing unions and other organizations by harassing their leaders and diverting their resources to self-defense. But most of the men and women affected by the McCarthy era political repression were, like Lawrence Parker, ordinary workers who found themselves unemployed and often blacklisted because they had associated with the Communist party or the many so-called “front groups” within its penumbra. These sanctions–or more commonly the fear of them–were sufficient to keep people from joining the Left or advocating unpopular positions in public.

The imposition of the McCarthy-era economic sanctions was a collaborative process. The federal government led the way, with the Truman administration’s loyalty-security program creating a template that other governments and private employers were quick to copy. While such programs sometimes made it possible to fire people outright, most of the time these sanctions operated in accordance with a two-stage procedure. First, the alleged Communists were identified; then, they were fired. The first stage was usually handled by an official body like a congressional investigating committee or the FBI, while a public or private employer took care of the second. Because it was common to identify McCarthyism only with the first stage of the process, this procedure allowed the people who administered the second stage to distance themselves from their own participation in the Cold War red scare. Moderate and even liberal college presidents, for example, could deplore the antics of a Senator McCarthy and still insist on dismissing professors who took the Fifth Amendment before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). (10) Moreover, even if an institution retained the unfriendly witnesses in its employ, the very act of questioning their behavior legitimized what was going on. So, too, of course, did the highly politicized decisions of the Supreme Court, whose majority until the mid-1950s refused to put a stop to the anticommunist crusade’s violations of individual rights. When such powerful and respected institutions collaborated with the red scare by legitimizing its operations, it became all but unstoppable.

In retrospect, many of the men and women who took part in the Cold War red scare recognized that they had overreacted. They had done so–as had the participants in earlier waves of political repression–because they believed or claimed to believe that there was a serious threat to the nation’s security. As it had done only a few years before when it invoked the military emergency to justify interning Japanese-Americans, the Supreme Court repeatedly referred to the nation’s security as it condoned such violations of individual rights as the indefinite incarceration of deportable aliens without bail or the conviction of Communist leaders for “teaching and advocating” their revolutionary doctrines (Carlson v. Landon, 342 U.S. 524 [1952]; Dennis v. United States 341 U.S. 494 [1951]). For the justices, as for most other Americans, the allegedly desperate situation that the invocation of national security conjured up overrode any critical consideration of the nature of the threat or of the measures taken to deal with it. In most official and unofficial reckonings, national security invariably trumped individual rights–and that was that.

Of course, that wasn’t that. National security, it turned out, was a highly elastic concept that could be stretched to fit almost any situation. Companies used Cold War loyalty-security programs to smash unions (Fordham, 1998: 138, 171-2). Anticommunist unions used them to smash their left-wing rivals. (11) In one of the most transparent–and important–instances of implementing a security measure for other purposes, the Truman administration created its 1947 loyalty-security program to defend itself against the threat that a newly elected Republican Congress might impose a more repugnant one. Communist employees did not present a “substantive problem,” Clark Clifford, one of Truman’s key advisers, recalled.

It was a political problem. We did not believe there was a

real problem. A problem was being manufactured…. We

gave a good deal of thought to how to respond. We had

a presidential campaign ahead of us and here was a great

issue, a very damaging issue, so he set up this whole kind of

machinery (Bernstein, 1989: 198, 200).

A few years later, Joe McCarthy’s charges led to similarly self-protective responses on the part of federal officials; employees who had been repeatedly cleared by earlier loyalty-security panels were re-investigated and then suspended or fired (Kahn, 1975; Koen, 1960: 219-22; Reeves, 1982: 516-23). Private companies used loyalty programs for the same purpose. The CBS network, for example, sought to avoid right-wing charges that it was coddling subversives by instituting a loyalty oath. “It gave us some protection from the attack that was being leveled against us,” the network’s president, Frank Stanton, admitted, “but whether it was really effective as far as the individuals were concerned was not the purpose per se. But I do know … that it created a buffer zone between us and the people who were attacking us” (Cailteux, 1972: 164).

Even though it is easy to cite instances like these of clearly hypocritical invocations of national security, the notion that America’s safety required the firing of people identified as Communists would not have attained the power it did if it had not corresponded in some very important ways with the perceptions about the world that most American citizens, certainly most policymakers, held. That such perceptions may well have been shaped by the activities of professional anticommunists made them no less influential. People really believed that Communists endangered the United States and, in acting upon those beliefs, they helped–both actively and passively–to construct the system of McCarthyite political repression. Let us look at their beliefs.


The most important, by far, was the notion that the United States was facing a major crisis. “Grave threats to liberty,” Thurgood Marshall explained in 1989, “often come in times of urgency when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.” (12) Even the most cursory glance at American history reveals the aptness of that remark. Wars breed political repression–and did so during every major conflict in our past. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars produced the Mien and Sedition Acts; the Civil War led Lincoln to suspend the writ of habeas corpus; World War I unleashed a major red scare; and the Second World War brought on the internment of Japanese Americans. (13) It is no wonder, then, that the international crises of the early Cold War would result in yet another episode of political repression (or that 9/11 was followed by the USA Patriot Act). In some cases, like the 1917 Espionage and the 1918 Sedition Acts, that repression was specifically designed to eliminate opposition to a controversial war, while in others, like the Japanese relocation program, it may have resulted from a frustrated government’s desire to appear decisive at a moment when the military situation seemed out of control. But the Cold War was different from the earlier, hotter conflicts. It lasted longer and never degenerated into open warfare between the main antagonists; accordingly, the political repression that it spawned was also drawn out and relied primarily on indirect methods of coercion.

Yet despite the tenuous nature of the Cold War, American policymakers portrayed it in the most apocalyptic of terms. Any sampling of official-level rhetoric from the late 1940s and 1950s reveals a tendency not only to refer to the Cold War as, to use the language of NSC-68, “involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself,” but also to connect that critical issue to the domestic anticommunist campaign (cited in Winkler, 2000: 37). “The issue–Freedom versus Communism–is a life and death matter,” one of Eisenhower’s advisers wrote in December 1953. “To my mind it is the struggle of the ages. This fact arouses justifiable concern about Communism in our own Government.” (14)

Accompanying that concern was an acknowledgment that, because of the exigencies of the Cold War, dealing with domestic communism would require sacrificing some traditional American freedoms. A few examples give the flavor of the overblown nature of that rhetoric within official circles. From an eminent former civil servant who was about to join a panel to oversee the Truman administration’s loyalty-security program came the observation that “civil rights have to be subordinated to the right of the nation to defend itself against Russia, which is the enemy of all civil rights and all the freedoms.” (15) The nation’s judiciary shared the same troubled vision. “We cannot ignore the world situation in which not merely two ideologies but two potentially adverse forces presently exist,” a federal appeals court judge explained in upholding the use of secret informers in the Truman administration’s loyalty-security program, “and certainly we cannot require that the President and Congress ignore it. Infiltration of government service is now a recognized technique for the overthrow of government” (Judge Prettyman opinion, Bailey v. Richardson, 182 F. 2d 46 [D.C. Cir. 1950]: 64).

The sense of crisis reached a crescendo with the outbreak of the Korean War in the summer of 1950. The sudden transformation of the Cold War into a hot war not only justified the fervid language and the repressive measures of the previous few years, but it also gave many politicians and bureaucrats an excuse to ramp up the anticommunist campaign at home. Though the Truman administration was able to foil J. Edgar Hoover’s plan to round up and detain 12,000 of the most dangerous men and women in his files, it could not (and perhaps did not want to) stop most of the other measures that the crisis precipitated. (16) “The tensions created by the Korean situation have greatly intensified the demands on the Hill for suppressive legislation to deal with Communist subversion in this country,” a White House aide observed. (17) Truman did, it is true, veto the Internal Security Act of 1950 (also known as the McCarran Act), which required, among its other provisions, the registration of the Communist party, its members, and the organizations associated with it. But Congress quickly overrode that veto. And the president put up little opposition to such other repressive measures as Public Law 733, which allowed for the summary dismissals of federal employees in politically sensitive agencies, or the Magnuson Act, which created the Port Security Program that had screened Lawrence Parker off his ship. (18) Nor did Truman try to keep members of his own administration from ratcheting up the severity of their own responses to the Korean conflict; on the contrary, in April 1951 he went along with a request by the Loyalty Review Board to make it easier to fire suspected Communists from the government. As one of the Board’s members noted “the times have changed so that possibly it’s of greater importance now to consider the safety of the Government than the safety and fairness to the individuals in all cases.” (19)

The genesis of the Magnuson Act reveals how easily special interest groups could take advantage of a moment of crisis to get the government to handle their dirty work for them. In this case the main beneficiaries were anticommunist maritime union leaders who had been trying for years to drive their left-wing rivals from the waterfront. The legislation emerged after a meeting of these conservative unionists together with representatives of the major shipping lines and the secretaries of labor and commerce a month after the outbreak of the Korean War. In presenting the measure to his colleagues, Washington Senator Warren Magnuson discussed the threat that disloyal sailors and longshoremen posed to the nation’s shipping and explained that

In my opinion, the bill will have the dual effect of helping

clear out whatever subversive influences may exist around

the waterfronts and of protecting the country from sneak

attacks…. Some of the last strongholds of the Communist

in this country exist in some of the waterfront unions,

despite the efforts of patriotic maritime labor leaders to

clean out some of those unions (Brown and Fassett, 1953:


Whether the Port Security Program that the Magnuson Act imposed on the nation’s waterfront actually protected American shipping is doubtful. Several maritime workers who had been screened off the waterfront were able to book passage on the ships they were barred from working on; and another worker who was at same time a petty officer in the Navy had, according to his lawyer, “full and complete access to the very bases from which, as a longshoreman, he was screened.” (20) But security may not have been the legislation’s real intent; it did, after all, cripple, if not destroy, most of the left-wing maritime unions.


By the time the Magnuson Act whisked through Capitol Hill, it had become commonly accepted that the small and increasingly beleaguered Communist party posed a mortal danger to the United States. Such a perception made it possible to construct and condone McCarthyism’s broad range of political repression. Communism had never been popular within the United States; even during the party’s supposed heyday in the 1930s, its members faced constant harassment–but more for their radicalism than their foreign connections. (21) Once the Cold War began, however, and the Soviet Union became America’s main enemy, the party was transformed from an unpopular political group into a threat to the nation’s security. As J. Edgar Hoover among others repeatedly stressed, its loyalty to Moscow turned its members into potential traitors, ready to engage in espionage, subversion, and sabotage whenever their Kremlin masters gave the word.

These threats, though exaggerated, were not entirely fictitious. Documents released since the collapse of the Soviet Union, like the intercepted KGB telegrams known as the Venona decrypts, have shown that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Communists spied for the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s and that the American Communist party, at the highest levels, was deeply involved in their recruitment (Weinstein and Vassiliev, 1999). But, as Allen Weinstein, perhaps the most levelheaded of the recent chroniclers of Soviet espionage, points out, by the height of the McCarthyist furor, the KGB’s Washington networks were out of business (Weinstein and Vassiliev: 299-300,334). In fact, even before the Truman administration’s loyalty-security program went into effect in March 1947, most of the suspected Soviet agents had been fired or forced to resign from their government posts. (22) Unless some even more startling revelations emerge from the archives, it is clear that Communist spies (except for Kim Philby and his Cambridge comrades) were not a problem in Cold War Washington–and neither Truman, nor, it should be noted, J. Edgar Hoover, thought they were (Benson and Warner, 1996).

Nor was there any danger that the Communist party would mount a successful revolution and overthrow the American government. However, because most of the statutes that could be used to prosecute Communists contained language about “force and violence,” federal officials often cited the threat of such subversion when describing the activities of the people they put on trial. They tended, therefore, to give a malevolent spin to the party’s standard opposition to the US government. Thus, for example, during the 1947 perjury trial of a former civil servant, the prosecutors cited the defendant’s desire to recruit party members within the military as a sign “that the Communist Party might gain control thereof and thus bring about a revolt against the Capitalist system.” (23) Criticism of the Cold War was equated with Lenin’s advocacy of “revolutionary defeatism”–the Bolshevik policy of urging World War I Russian soldiers to join the revolution by turning their guns against their officers (Dennis v. United States 341 U.S. 494 [1951]). But almost anything the party did could be seen through the lens of subversion. Its literature was, the FBI explained in 1946, “propaganda,” designed to create “internal discord and dissatisfaction in an effort to disrupt the operation of our established form of government.” (24)

Of particular concern was the possibility that the party might encourage revolutionary defeatism if the United States became embroiled in a war against the Soviet Union. This hypothetical situation cropped up in almost every loyalty-security investigation and personnel hearing during the late 1940s and 1950s. The question was ubiquitous: “Would you be willing to fight for the United States against Russia?” (25) Acting on the assumption that every Communist was a “potential traitor,” a Cincinnati judge refused bail to a second-tier union official in a 1955 perjury trial on the grounds that “There is no telling what he would have done if Russia had gone to war with the United States.” (26)

Conservatives took an even more expansive view of what constituted treacherous behavior, finding Communist fingerprints on any policy they disagreed with. Thus, for example, within certain military and political circles, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s opposition to developing the hydrogen bomb was a tell-tale indication of subversive intent, while Alger Hiss’s presence at the Yalta Conference supposedly allowed the Russians to take over Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe (Theoharis, 1970; Herken, 2002). Joseph McCarthy echoed those allegations as well as the equally preposterous ones that State Department Communists had sold China out to Mao Zedong. Such charges outlasted the Cold War. Even today, there are those who claim that left-leaning policymakers like former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White, who almost certainly gave information to the Soviet Union, pushed the United States into war with Japan on the orders of Stalin. (27) Although it is now easy to dismiss such allegations–Mao did not need American help to oust the tottering Kuomintang regime nor did minor State and Treasury officials turn Franklin Roosevelt against Tokyo or convince him to give Eastern Europe to Moscow–such basically partisan charges did considerable political damage at the time.

The one Communist threat that the Truman administration, as well as its Republican adversaries, did take seriously was sabotage. Ever since the 1930s, J. Edgar Hoover had been warning the White House about what Communists might do to “vital industries” and “public utilities such as water supplies, local power plants, transportation facilities, etc.” (28) Maritime workers, perhaps because of the Communist leaders within some of their unions, figured prominently in these communications. As the Coast Guard saw it, they were likely “especially if war should occur with certain foreign powers” to “engage in acts of sabotage such as sinking vessels in harbors or channels or at sea, causing fires, explosions or other damage to structures, implements, machinery and supplies, inducing unrest, strikes and work slow-downs, or to engage in acts of espionage in aid of sabotage or in aid of the enemy.” (29) The perceived threat escalated with the outbreak of the Korean War. As liberal New York Congressman Emmanuel Celler explained in urging the passage of the Magnuson Act, it was now necessary to permit “the President … particularly to guard against, shall we say, Trojan horse ships bringing in atomic bombs or facilities for bacteriological warfare” (cited in Report of the Commission on Government Security, 1957: 331).

The waterfront was especially vulnerable, but almost any industry would be endangered if party members worked there. The FBI was vigilant in alerting employers about the prospective saboteurs on their payrolls and was usually able to get them fired. “Mr. Bailey,” a former maritime activist was told as security guards escorted him from the Pacific Gas and Electric plant where he was working after having been screened from the sea, “we feel lucky to have been informed that you, as a leading West Coast Communist, were preparing to blow up this plant. Yes, we were lucky to discover this plot in time” (Bailey, 1993: 402). Communism, the FBI and many Americans assumed, automatically endowed someone with a propensity for destruction. Party members in pharmaceutical companies could adulterate the drugs they were manufacturing; Communist broadcasters could fill the airwaves with propaganda. (30) Even teachers were suspect. Their “daily contact” with their students, an internal FBI memorandum explained, “enables the teachers to effectively control the thinking of the pupils and thus insidiously instill into the minds of children the Communist Party line.” (31) As Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark stated in his dissent in the loyalty-security case of an inspector in the Food and Drug Administration, “One never knows just which job is sensitive. The janitor might prove to be in as important a spot security-wise as the top employee in the building” (Cole v. Young, 351 U.S. 536 [1956]). It was, in short, possible to construct a sabotage scenario for just about every type of job.

The most common threat, however, and the one that policymakers took most seriously, was that of a political strike. As Truman’s aide Clark Clifford warned in 1946, there was the frightening prospect that the Communist party could “capture the labor movement” and thus “cripple the industrial potential of the United States by calling strikes at those times and places that would be advantageous to the Soviet Union.” (32) Since the party had gained some influence within the left wing of the labor movement, the possibility that it might be able to shut down defense production had considerable plausibility. What made that scenario particularly convincing was the fact that there had actually been several controversial Communist-led work stoppages just before the United States entered World War II.

These strikes, at two California aviation companies and the large Allis-Chalmers machine tool factory outside Milwaukee, were ordinary labor-management conflicts, part of a nationwide strike wave that engulfed noncommunist as well as Communist unions. Nonetheless, because well-known Communists were involved, even liberals worried about the threat of political strikes (Lichtenstein, 1982: 203-32; Meyer, 1992). As a result, when the same Communist-led United Automobile Workers local struck Allis-Chalmers after the war–again, as many other unions did–the memory of that earlier work stoppage resonated. The company’s management red-baited ferociously and used the national forum of hearings before both HUAC and the House Committee on Education and Labor to amplify its charges. To bolster the contention that Communist labor leaders called strikes for political reasons, the committees heard Louis Budenz, the former managing editor of the Daily Worker, testify that the party had ordered the union local’s president, Harold Christoffel, to interfere with defense production by shutting Allis-Chalmers down (Budenz testimony in US Congress, 1947: 3612). Christoffel appeared as well. After he denied that he was a Communist, the committee, at the suggestion of the young Massachusetts congressman, John F. Kennedy, recommended that he be indicted for perjury. Christoffel’s dismissal, blacklisting, and prosecution as well as the recycling of Budenz’s probably fabricated story increased the credibility of the notion that Communist-led labor unions threatened America’s security–a notion that was to justify much of the repression unleashed against those unions and their most active members over the next few years, especially after the Supreme Court, obviously referring to Allis-Chalmers, allowed the government to bar Communists from union office (Schrecker, 1998: 186; American Communications Association v. Douds 339 U.S. 382 [1950]).


The Allis-Chalmers story contains many elements that can help us understand how the political repression of the McCarthy era operated. Ideologically, as we have seen, it fleshed out a scenario that reinforced the perception that Communist-led labor unions endangered the nation. Institutionally, the case is equally instructive. To begin with, it illustrates the collective nature of the McCarthy-era red scare. From the Allis-Chalmers corporation to the FBI, HUAC, and the local press, dozens of different public and private institutions and individuals collaborated in the attack on the striking local. That collaboration was crucial to the success of the process of identifying, publicizing, and punishing the supposedly subversive union and its leaders. It took a criminal prosecution and a media campaign, as well as several congressional investigations, to break the Allis-Chalmers union and send Harold Christoffel to prison.

When we think about the mechanisms of political repression during the 1940s and 1950s, we tend to focus on the era’s high-profile congressional investigations. But, as Christoffel’s travails reveal, criminal prosecutions and economic sanctions were just as important both in convincing the American people that Communists threatened the nation and in eliminating that alleged threat. They may, in fact, have been even more important than HUAC and Joe McCarthy, since they are mechanisms of political repression that, unlike the investigating committees of the early Cold War, are still in use today, as the harassment and incarceration of Muslims and people from the Middle East and South Asia all too deplorably reveal.

The criminal justice system performed several functions during the McCarthy era. Not only did the anticommunist prosecutions of the 1940s and 1950s punish people, but, like most criminal proceedings, they also operated as a deterrent–in this case, discouraging people from associating with communism. On another, perhaps more important level, these cases were part of an ongoing political education campaign designed as much to teach the rest of the nation about the evils of communism as to send people to jail. The criminal justice system is, after all, as Lawrence M. Friedman observes, “a kind of social drama, a living theater; all of us are the audience … the dramatic side, the teaching side, is not so concerned with guilt and innocence. Acts of injustice may send very powerful messages, too” (Friedman, 1993: 10). Those messages do not even require a conviction; an indictment will often suffice–as both the FBI and Justice Department knew (Kirchheimer, 1961: 115). Though federal prosecutors certainly wanted to win their cases, they were well aware of the publicity value of a political trial and of the damage that such publicity would inflict on the fortunes of American communism (Belknap, 1977: 174). The FBI, in particular, was committed to prosecuting high-level Communists to obtain “a judicial precedent … that the Communist Party as an organization is illegal.” This precedent would then enable the bureau to increase its surveillance of the party and mount even more cases against it. (33) By 1955, the government was more than satisfied with the results of this prosecutorial strategy. As Assistant Attorney General William F. Tompkins noted, “The activities of the FBI in forcing the Communist Party underground, in forcing expenditures in legal defense and in apprehending the most important leaders have succeeded in disrupting the programs of the Communist Party.” (34)

Criminal proceedings presented problems, however. Most Communists were as law-abiding as anyone else and, unless caught in the act of filching secrets, it was almost impossible to find usable evidence of their misdeeds. (Materials obtained from the FBI’s unauthorized wiretaps, break-ins, and other undercover operations could not, of course, be produced in court, nor, because they were so highly classified, could the government use the Venona telegrams that revealed the KGB’s American agents.) Moreover, by the late 1940s and 1950s, the statute of limitations for the illegal activities of someone like Alger Hiss had run out. Federal prosecutors, therefore, resorted to what Friedman terms “corollary crimes” and political theorist Otto Kirchheimer calls “offense artifacts”–charges such as perjury, contempt, and conspiracy that could be “manipulated in an effort to bring disrepute upon a political foe” (Friedman, 1993: 7; Kirchheimer, 1961: 52, 46).

The government, in other words, created situations that would force otherwise law-abiding men and women to break the law. As they did with Harold Christoffel, congressional committees and grand juries asked people questions that all but invited them to lie or refuse to answer. Even so, it was not always easy to provoke people into proscribed behavior and there were times when it could be something of a stretch to find an indictable offense–especially if someone had not broken the law. When the Justice Department indicted the Johns Hopkins University sinologist Owen Lattimore for perjury after he had appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Internal Security, it prosecuted him for denying that his writings followed the Soviet line. That charge was so fuzzy the trial judge threw it out, complaining that “the Government seeks to establish that at some time, in some way, in some places, in all his vast writings, over a fifteen-year period, Lattimore agreed with something it calls and personally defines as following the Communist line and promoting Communist interests” (Luther Youngdahl, cited in Newman, 1992: 484).

The government had no such need to stretch the law or scrounge for evidence in charging someone with contempt. After all, contempt was an offense that an individual could easily avoid by simply cooperating with an official investigation. In reality, however, it resulted from demands that witnesses inform on others. Conspiracy was another charge that the Justice Department relied on, since it freed the prosecution from having to bring evidence of actual wrongdoing into court. It could win a conviction merely by tying the defendants to each other (Mitford, 1970, 1969: 66). Yet despite this kind of prosecutorial expediency, the problem of finding a law under which alleged Communists could be tried was so daunting that at one point Senator McCarthy and his chief aide, Roy Cohn, were seriously thinking about proposing legislation that would create a new crime of “policy treason” that could be used to prosecute the likes of Owen Lattimore and the State Department officials who had supposedly lost China (Newman, 1992: 444). A similar process is taking place today as the Bush administration, lacking evidence of terrorism, relies on the selective enforcement of immigration regulations or else seeks to detain people as “material witnesses.” (35)


Neither Lattimore nor the China hands whom McCarthy targeted ever went to prison. But they were punished just the same. Lattimore, it is true, did not lose his job. But he lost his students and his status as the nation’s leading East Asian expert. In addition, Johns Hopkins eliminated the international studies program that he headed, making his tenure so uncomfortable that he ultimately moved to England. The foreign service officers involved did lose their jobs–and suffered accordingly. (36) Unemployment was by far the most widely used sanction of the McCarthy era. Whether imposed by a formal procedure or a covert blacklist, it tossed its victims into a world of economic insecurity and psychological pain. The stigma attached to losing one’s job because of a Communist-related loyalty-security proceeding was severe indeed. As Justice Tom Clark noted,

There can be no dispute about the consequences visited

upon a person excluded from public employment on

disloyalty grounds. In the view of the community, the stain

is a deep one; indeed it has become a badge of infamy.

Especially is this so in time of cold war and hot emotions

(Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183 [1952]: 190-91).

Other observers concurred: “the actual penalty in a case of this character–a record which follows the employee wherever he goes–is so severe,” an official of a regional loyalty review board explained, “that in many respects it is tantamount to a sanction applicable in a criminal proceeding.” (37) At the very least, as the future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas noted with regard to a client who was fired even before Truman’s loyalty-security program went into effect, his dismissal “will ruin his career in other fields” (Arnold, 1965: 205). Even innocence was no protection. “A performer who has even been unfairly charged with communism … is like a bruised apple,” a television producer explained. “You understand don’t you?–The brown spot remains” (Cogley, 1956: 31).

Some fields were more affected than others. Federal employees and the men and women who worked for defense industries were perhaps the most vulnerable, but the political tests for employment that were legitimized by the Truman administration’s loyalty-security program in 1947 spread throughout the entire economy. Local governments and private corporations rushed to adopt similar screening procedures, especially if they faced political pressures or operated in fields where left-wing unions or individuals were active. While some communities, like Los Angeles, instituted loyalty programs that were as comprehensive and detailed as the federal government’s, many simply imposed loyalty oaths on their employees (Emerson, Haber, and Dorsen, 1967: I, 329). Easier to administer, such oaths could be and were applied to workers in a wide range of occupations. Some, like the one required for professional wrestlers in Indiana, could get pretty silly. But, even if they could not have rooted out genuine subversives, these measures nonetheless indicated that something was being done. Teachers, a particularly vulnerable group, were the most common targets. Entertainers were hit as well. CBS, which, as we have seen, was attacked as soft on communism, imposed an oath on all its employees, as did the Screen Directors Guild (Cogley, 1956: 122-4; Ceplair and Englund, 1979: 368-9). Consolidated Edison wrote such an oath into its union contract; the Carpenters Union of Northern California required its members to sign a noncommunist affidavit. (38) And these were only a few of the dozens of companies and unions that adopted anticommunist measures of one kind or another. (39) Like criminal prosecutions, these political tests for employment had an educational as well as punitive function, keeping the fear of communism alive among the millions of ordinary citizens who had to take them.

As that fear increased, especially after the outbreak of the Korean War, the political tests for employment did too. Not only did such tests come to be applied to more and more workplaces, but their application became increasingly more stringent. Within the federal government, for example, the bureaucrats who administered the loyalty-security program tightened it up significantly in response to the intertwined international and political crises of 1950 and 1951 (Rackow, 1961: 701-725). First, they changed the criteria for eliminating subversive civil servants from “reasonable grounds” for believing that someone is disloyal to “reasonable doubt,” then they began reinvestigating the men and women they had previously cleared (Bontecou, 1953: 280-82). By 1954, for example, former Communists, who had once been able to pass the loyalty test if they could show sufficient contrition, were now automatically disqualified. That past association, Attorney General Herbert Brownell reasoned, rendered them vulnerable to blackmail (even though it was mainly the prospect of unemployment that made blackmail a viable threat). (40)

Even without a wartime crisis, a government obviously has the right to impose reasonable security measures on its employees. What turned the loyalty-security program of the 1940s and 1950s into an instrument of political repression, however, was its political agenda and lack of due process. We have already seen the ways in which professional anticommunists, opportunistic politicians, and other interested groups took advantage of the heightened crisis that accompanied the early Cold War to exaggerate the threat of communism and justify the various measures they designed to deal with it. It is unlikely that the authors of those measures consciously planned to suppress dissent or impose an ideological straitjacket on the rest of the country. Nor did they deliberately create a system of inequitable procedures that made it difficult for the men and women who were affected by it to clear themselves. But because the program rested on flawed assumptions about the nature of communism and relied too heavily upon the customary practices of the FBI agents and other bureaucrats who ran it, unfairness permeated it from the start.

At the core of every Cold War loyalty program was the conviction that all Communists were potential Soviet agents and should, therefore, be barred from positions where they could damage the nation’s security. Over time, however, the definitions of what constituted a Communist and of the threat that such an individual could pose expanded–especially under pressure from conservative politicians and organizations. To a certain extent, the Communist party was responsible for this dilemma. It required its members to keep their affiliation secret. (41) As a result, problems of evidence plagued anticommunist employment programs just as they had anticommunist criminal cases. Because it was so hard to verify someone’s party membership, the nation’s witch hunters had enormous leeway to target all manner of activists and dissenters. Congressional investigators, at least by the 1950s, helped to solve the identification problem by provoking people into taking the Fifth Amendment and thus providing a kind of evidence that could become grounds for dismissal. Many employers, including the federal government, adopted policies that automatically fired someone who invoked the privilege against self-incrimination with regard to membership in the Communist party; and many others, like colleges and universities, regarded unfriendly witnesses with suspicion and compelled them to prove that they were not politically unreliable.

The federal government’s program, which was to become a model for the rest of the nation, sought to identify Communists by relying on what came to be known as “guilt by association.” In what was colloquially referred to as the duck test (if someone looked like a duck, quacked like a duck, and waddled like a duck, then …), Communist waterfowl, it was widely believed, could be distinguished by the organizations they belonged to, the people they associated with, and the causes they supported. Such criteria were not entirely off the mark. The Communist party did, after all, encourage its members to participate in a wide range of political activities and to become involved with the work of what came to be known as “front groups,” single-issue organizations that often operated under the party’s aegis. Executive Order 9835, which inaugurated the Truman administration’s loyalty-security program in 1947, was quite specific here. The standards it listed for disqualifying people from federal jobs, besides such obvious transgressions as espionage, sabotage, and treason, included “Membership in, affiliation with or sympathetic association with any foreign or domestic organization, association, movement group or combination of persons, designated by the Attorney General as totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive [italics added]” (text of executive order cited in Bontecou, 1953: 280].

Unfortunately, Executive Order 9835 did not specify exactly how the attorney general would go about designating such entities as undesirable. No doubt the Justice Department officials who were putting together the attorney general’s list in 1947 must have relied on earlier lists compiled by the FBI, but they were adamant in insisting that the criteria for listing the groups be kept secret. (42) Accordingly, there were no provisions that allowed the listed organizations to contest their designation, an omission that the Supreme Court, in a 5-3 1951 decision, ordered the Justice Department to rectify. In his opinion in that case, Justice William O. Douglas not only concurred in the majority’s demand that the organizations be granted a hearing, but also deplored the program’s more general lack of due process. “A disloyalty trial is the most crucial event in the life of a public servant,” Douglas explained. “If condemned, he is branded for life as a person unworthy of trust or confidence. To make that condemnation without meticulous regard for the decencies of a fair trial is abhorrent to fundamental justice” (Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee v. McGrath, 341, U.S. 123 [1951]: 180).

Although the loyalty-security program contained detailed provisions for hearings and appeals, its administration revealed that the arbitrary construction of the attorney general’s list was no aberration. The entire program was shot through with the procedural defects that stemmed from the politicized nature of its mission. Rather than seeking to ensure security by protecting crucial sites and secrets, it subjected millions of workers to political tests that, because of the lack of a clear-cut empirical standard, turned out to be both capricious and biased. The worst abuses came from the vagueness of the charges leveled against the employees and from the secrecy that made it impossible for those employees to rebut those charges. We have already seen how frustrated Lawrence Parker and his attorney were with the vague charges the West Coast waiter had to confront. The following excerpt from a similar Port Security hearing in 1951 shows just how Kafkaesque those proceedings could be. The Coast Guard examiner who was holding the hearing declared that Royal L. Lundgren, the maritime worker involved, “is supposed to be presently a member of the Communist Party and has been for some time and is believed to be sympathetic with the Communist Party.” When Lundgren’s attorney asked for “a statement of the evidence upon which the charge is based,” the Coast Guard examiner replied, “I have just given you as much information as I am allowed to do…. I am not permitted to divulge the source of the information or the persons who furnished it…. The Coast Guard does not present any case. The presumption of innocence does not apply to these proceedings.” (43) But how could someone rebut such allegations? Or answer the charge that “In 1949 and 1950 he maintained a close association with Jennie, Sidney, Milton, Shirley, Frank, Hattie, Allie, John, John and Betty.” (44)

Even at the time, observers recognized how unfair such vaguely worded charges were; contemporary accounts of the loyalty-security program are replete with examples of accusations that would have been laughable had they not wreaked so much damage. (45) If the individuals involved could have discovered the source of those allegations and been able to place them in context, the injustices would not have been so egregious. But, because the FBI wanted to protect the identity of its informants, workers who faced dismissal on loyalty grounds could not confront their accusers. National security was, of course, the justification for such a restriction. “No American welcomes the necessity for the non-disclosure of sources of information,” a 1956 Defense Department report dramatically insisted. “But a necessity it is. The necessity is real because the conspiracy is real. The struggle is for survival of a whole nation. Without the confidential informant that struggle could not be successful.” (Department of Defense, 1956: 6-7). As the chair of the Loyalty Review Board saw it in 1947, if the government’s informants were forced to testify in public, the FBI would have to go out of business: “practically none of the evidential sources available will continue to be available to the Bureau if proper secrecy and confidence cannot at all times be maintained with respect to the original source of information.” (46) We now know, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, that the FBI’s demand for secrecy was motivated as much by a desire to conceal its own illegal activities as it was the desire to protect the nation’s security. (47)

In many cases, the officials who served on the loyalty panels were just as clueless about the source of the charges as the people they were judging. When Dorothy Bailey, whose dismissal from the Labor Department in 1948 became the main test case of the loyalty-security program, appealed to the Loyalty Review Board, it turned out that its members had no idea what specific activities she was supposed to have engaged in or who had made the charges against her or even whether the people who had made those charges had done so under oath. All that the Loyalty Board members were told was that the FBI said they were “reliable” (Arnold, 1965: 206-7). Because the personnel records of ordinary loyalty proceedings are still nearly impossible for historians to access, we know little about the kind of evidence that produced the charges against people. There are a few, perhaps atypical, cases in which the employee was able to find out who had made the charges and was able to rebut them. In one such case, the employee cleared himself once he learned the identity of his accuser and convinced the loyalty board that the charges were the aftermath of a messy divorce. (48) In another case, where the board was able to cross-examine the protagonists, a board member recalled, “it was interesting to see how the case against the employee pretty well evaporated as we went along, notwithstanding the fact that we had witnesses strongly against him.” The FBI had apparently made unsubstantiated generalizations after claiming that a witness had seen the employee reading the Daily Worker when, in fact, the witness had mentioned an entirely different paper altogether. “I am at a loss to see how the employee in this case could have defended himself if we had not opened up the evidence and afforded him a chance to confront the witnesses.” (49)

Bereft of specifics, the government’s loyalty panels resorted to asking people questions about their political beliefs and activities as a way of developing evidence of their “sympathetic association” with communism. That the questions tended to be insensitive or worse should come as no surprise given the assumptions about communism upon which the loyalty program was based and the conservative worldview of the people who staffed the panels. Since Truman had inaugurated the loyalty-security program in order to protect his administration from his political opponents, most of his appointees to the national Loyalty Review Board were Republicans who rarely questioned the program’s design or implementation. (50) A similarly conservative outlook permeated the lower levels, where security officers tended to be “lily white,” in the words of one scholar, and neither particularly well trained nor well paid. There was no requirement that they be attorneys and the lack of sophistication that they displayed could sometimes be quite astonishing. (51) When Senator McCarthy attacked the Army Signal Corps laboratory at Fort Monmouth, the military suspended the scientists and engineers McCarthy had fingered and subjected them to an intensive investigation. Not recognizing that the international circulation of unpublished papers was standard practice within the scientific community, the Army’s security officers accused the suspended employees of endangering national security (Scientists’ Committee, 1955: 150).

The prejudices and political biases of these security officials were even more striking than their ignorance. Though the program’s political function ensured that loyalty boards would ask questions about someone’s politics, the illiberal nature of those questions drew criticism even at the time. The boards regularly grilled people about current affairs and their attitudes toward the Soviet Union, invariably asking them what they thought about the Marshall Plan and whether they would fight for the United States against the Russians (Bontecou, 1953: 136-37). Some of the questions dealt with lifestyle issues: Did they go to church? What did they think about sex before marriage? Did they collect Paul Robeson records? (Bontecou, 1953: 141) Other questions dealt with trade union matters, reflecting what was probably an anti-labor bias on the part of the examiners as well as their, not entirely incorrect, suspicion that activists in the left-wing unions in the electrical industry, on the waterfront, and within the federal workforce may have had some connection to communism. Most of the questions that her loyalty panel asked Dorothy Bailey had to do with her union work (Bernstein, 1989: 253).

Bailey was also asked about a wartime letter she had written to the Red Cross protesting the segregation of white and African-American blood (Bontecou, 1953: 138-40). Because the Communist party had been strongly committed to racial equality, many loyalty investigators believed that party members could be identified by their support for civil rights and participation in interracial activities. (52) Thus, it was not uncommon for loyalty-security investigators to ask African Americans, “Have you ever had dinner with a mixed group?” “Have you ever danced with a white girl?” (53) That such questions also revealed these investigators’ underlying racism is painfully obvious. As he was grilling an ex-Communist sailor about his party connections, a Coast Guard interrogator insisted,

Now, Owen, you have to tell us more than that. You are not

one of these Niggers that come up here from the Marine

Cooks & Stewards who have signed petitions, written

letters, and even joined the Party in order to get a little job

security and in order to be able to go up in the union hall

and strut around in a cocky manner. (54)

The loyalty-security program’s statistics reveal these biases. The federal department with the highest percentage by far of dismissals on loyalty grounds was the postal service (Schrecker, 1998: 282,285). It was also the department that employed the largest number of blacks. In fact, there were so many dismissals of African-American postal workers that even the normally cautious NAACP was moved to complain. (55) Black workers in other areas suffered disproportionately as well. One scholar estimates that somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the people screened off the waterfront by the Port Security Program were African Americans. (56)


The myriad abuses–procedural as well as political–that deformed the loyalty-security program drew criticism from the start. Liberals were particularly outspoken; even Truman was upset and wanted to stop the “un-American activities” of the various review boards (Harper, 1969: 223). And yet, until the mid-1950s it proved impossible to rein in their abuses or end the other politically repressive measures that were being undertaken in the name of anticommunism. Though deploring the alleged “excesses” of McCarthyism, most moderates and liberals collaborated with its routine applications. They applied the second stage in the two-step process of political repression that characterized the McCarthy era. They fired employees who took the Fifth Amendment and observed the blacklists that kept such people in limbo for years. In addition, institutions that liberals and moderates dominated, like the judicial system and the nation’s colleges and universities, legitimized the process. Time and again, a crucial Supreme Court ruling–the 1949 Bailey decision allowing the government to fire people on the word of unnamed informers, the 1950 Douds case upholding the anticommunist affidavits of the Taft-Hartley law, the 1951 Dennis decision essentially criminalizing the Communist party–let the inquisition roll on without any legal barriers. As late as 1961, the Supreme Court (albeit in a 5-4 decision) acquiesced in the Smith Act conviction of a North Carolina man for simply belonging to the Communist party (Scales v. United States, 367 U.S. 203 [1961]). More than anything else, the continuing collaboration of such mainstream institutions as the Supreme Court accounts for the McCarthy era’s remarkable duration as well as its expansion into so much of American society.

The belief that domestic communism threatened American security had a long shelf life. When Felix Frankfurter’s law clerk questioned his decision in 1961 to uphold the 1950 Internal Security Act’s clearly repressive requirement that the Communist party register with the government, Frankfurter insisted that the nation’s security required it. (57) But by 1961, the American Communist party had shriveled into a tiny sect, kept afloat with subventions from Moscow and dues payments from FBI informants. What the cautious Frankfurter probably feared was the damage to the Court and the executive branch that the political backlash against a seemingly procommunist decision might create. (58) Such fears induced most mainstream liberals and moderates to collaborate–both actively and passively–in a right-wing campaign against a left with which they had little sympathy.

But what were they afraid of? In some cases, it is true, employers were under direct pressure to fire the political undesirables on their payroll. The Air Force actually threatened to withdraw a contract from the Westinghouse Airbrake company if it did not dismiss two employees who had taken the Fifth Amendment (Stein, 1963: 106). Most of the time, however, such prompting was unnecessary. The prospect of the unfavorable publicity that retaining an unfriendly witness might provoke sufficed. (59) Not only were companies quite open about their concerns in that area, but there was a consensus that such concerns were completely legitimate. Thus, for example, when the Los Angeles Daily News fired two men who had been named before HUAC, the labor arbitrator handling their case explained that “the company was entitled to protection from adverse criticism and attack that threatened to diminish its circulation and weaken its chances for economic survival” (Stein, 1963: 105). Employers in equally sensitive areas, like the film industry and the system of higher education, also worried about their public image. The nation’s college presidents and film moguls did not think that Communist professors and screenwriters posed any threat to the nation’s security, but they did worry that retaining such people might draw the wrath of the right. Anticipating a spate of congressional investigations early in 1953, an organization representing the presidents of the 37 leading North American universities warned faculty members that they had an “obligation to maintain [their university’s] reputation” (Association of American Universities, 1953).

In every sector of American society, liberal institutions and individuals surrendered people’s rights. It is unclear what accounted for this retreat. They were not facing hordes of outraged citizens demanding they turn over alleged Communists, but rather a few noisy, though strategically situated, interest groups and individuals. In the few cases in which a company or institution stood its ground, Armageddon rarely ensued (though if the witch hunters had specifically targeted that entity, the pressure could be increased enough through a congressional investigation or similar proceeding to force compliance). (60) Politicians, as one might expect, caved. As Congress debated the McCarran Act in the summer of 1950, the president complained “that a lot of people on the Hill should know better, but had been stampeded into running with their tails between their legs.” (61) Instead of fighting the measure as an affront to the Bill of Rights, liberal Democrats added provisions for incarcerating Communists. (62) Later, some of them repented, admitting that they were ashamed of their timorous behavior. “I must say,” William Benton confessed, “that my vote for the McCarran bill troubled me more than any vote I made during my entire period in the Senate” (Tanner and Griffith, 1974: 186).

Liberals within the private sector evinced little more courage. Unions refused to handle the grievances of suspected Communists who took the Fifth Amendment (Mayer, 1955-6: 128). The Americans for Democratic Action, the quintessential liberal organization of the time, feared that it was so vulnerable to right-wing attacks that it did not take a public stand against the red scare. Several leading members wanted to release a statement deploring the Supreme Court’s Dennis decision, but as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. admitted, it “would kill us” politically. No statement went out (Gillon, 1987:, 75, 81). The American Civil Liberties Union abandoned the field as well. Whether from fear of right-wing attacks or because of the strong anticommunist sentiments of some of its leaders or more probably both, the ACLU did not take on any Communist cases during the height of the McCarthy era. It tarried for so long about whether to assist Owen Lattimore that Lattimore’s lawyer, Abe Fortas (who like many attorneys refused to handle Communists), withdrew his request for help in disgust (McAuliffe, 1978; Walker, 1990; Auerbach, 1976: 248-9). Peace groups also sought a low profile with regard to the red scare, their members frightened of the consequences of seeming to associate with suspected Communists. “I can’t afford to stay in,” a Denver woman explained as she resigned from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “I have my job to consider–and my place in the community life” (Alonso, 1993: 174). The civil rights movement was equally skittish. Red-baiting was a common tactic among segregationists and the NAACP tried to protect itself by conducting its own internal purges and sloughing off its connection with any causes, like anticolonialism, that might seem uncomfortably pink (Anderson, 2003; Horne, 1986: 21-22, 57-73; Plummer, 1996).

It is hard to understand exactly why so many liberals consciously abandoned their political principles during the McCarthy era. To a certain extent, their own anticommunism enabled them to buy into the demonized portrayal of the Communist party that made it possible to conceive of the party as a threat to national security. There was the sense, as well, that seeming to side with Communists, even if in defense of civil liberties, would somehow endanger their respectability (Gillon, 1987: 75). At a time when guilt by association determined the criteria for political correctness, the marginalization of demonized groups and individuals could easily rub off–or so it was feared. For traditional American liberals, who have always been eager for acceptance within the political establishment, opposing the anticommunist crusade simply brought too many risks. These liberals were also afraid of being seen as soft–not just “soft on communism,” but soft in a more generic, even gendered, sense. Cultural historians are only just beginning to probe this aspect of the Cold War, but it is not too hard to find indications that liberals worried about maintaining their masculinity in the face of attacks by Joe McCarthy and others (Friedman, 2003: 213-239). Look, for example, at the language in Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center, the quintessential liberal manifesto of the early Cold War, as he talks of seeking a “new virility … a virility compact of humanity and not of ruthlessness” (Schlesinger, 1949: 147). But, as Schlesinger’s own record reveals, these newly virile liberals shrank in the face of an all too ruthless right. A similar timidity stalks the nation today. Several well-known commentators have admitted that they have been censoring themselves in accordance with the dictates of what Michael Kinsley referred to as his “inner Ashcroft.”


What can we learn about the political uses and abuses of fear from the McCarthy era? Several points are clear. Perhaps the most important is to recognize the patterns of repression that accompany moments of high anxiety. Those patterns recur with depressing frequency throughout American history. All too often we respond to crises and perceived threats from within by ratcheting up repression and clamping down on dissent, only to realize that we overreacted, that the response damaged the nation’s core values (not to mention the individuals involved) and was also totally out of proportion to the threat involved. We are, in short, always having to say we’re sorry.

One reason why it seems so hard to avoid these outbursts of repression is that we tend to treat them as aberrations, instead of as the normal workings of everyday American politics. In almost every crisis, the United States did not construct special machinery to deal with the situation, but counted on the regular institutions of government and civil society to collaborate in handling its repressive chores. Moreover, red-baiting and xenophobia seem to be built-in components of American politics. As Joan Mahoney noted 15 years ago, one reason Great Britain never experienced a McCarthy-era red scare, despite an equal commitment to the Cold War and an active supply of Soviet spies, was that it offered no political advantage to British politicians (Mahoney, 1989: 53-100). Here, however, opportunism, as well as a need to appear effective in the face of a crisis situation, has often encouraged politicians to stomp on civil liberties.

Such seems to be the case today. The panicky adoption of the USA Patriot Act in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 resonates with Congress’s similarly opportunistic passage of the McCarran Act in 1950, just as the government’s heightened attention to Islamic institutions in this country calls to mind the guilt by association that damaged so many lives and careers during the McCarthy era. Obviously, we are not seeing a replay of the Cold War witch hunt. The targets of today’s repression are mainly religious and ethnic, rather than political, minorities, evoking memories of the first, not the second, American red scare. Moreover, the economic sanctions that were so central to the anticommunist furor of the early Cold War have yet to reappear. Even so, the secrecy, selective prosecutions, and blatant disregard of due process that characterize the current crackdown are all too reminiscent of McCarthyism.

So, too, is the counterproductive nature of that crackdown. Repression rarely works. During the Cold War, it constituted a symbolic response to a symbolic problem. Except for some of the very earliest attempts to force Communists out of the government, the repressive measures that were designed to eliminate communism from American life had little or no impact on the conduct of the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. In fact, it could be argued, they were self-defeating. Joe McCarthy’s rampage through the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth completely disrupted its work on radar and missile guidance systems. At a time when the installation was already having trouble hiring scientists and engineers, 25 percent of one unit’s top scientists and engineers were sidelined by suspensions and the withdrawal of security clearances, resulting in what a group of outside scientists called the “loss of genuine national security” (Scientists’ Committee, 1955: 148-50). Even the FBI complained about the overwork that its anticommunist operations entailed. Listing people on the basis of “nonspecific and vague allegations,” an internal bureau memo noted, “increases the case load in your office and is unwarranted. It results in a waste of manpower.” (63)

As many critics of the current crackdown have observed, overloading the nation’s internal security apparatus does not necessarily make anyone safer (Cole, 2003: 7, 9, 55, 183-200). “The moment,” an eminent physicist remarked at the height of the McCarthy era, “we start guarding our toothbrushes and our diamond rings with equal zeal, we usually lose fewer toothbrushes but more diamond rings” (Van Vleck quoted in Report of the Special Committee, 1956: 148). Today, as well, the Bush administration’s increased surveillance of private individuals may bury the diamond rings under an even higher mountain of toothbrushes. Moreover, just as the government’s loyalty-security procedures discouraged scientists from seeking jobs in the Signal Corps Laboratory, so, too, the current regime’s heavy-handed treatment of the nation’s Muslim communities will hinder its recruitment of the Arabic-speakers needed to interpret the mountains of material the security apparatus is collecting. It is hard to believe that we are any safer as a result.

Nor, of course, to paraphrase the ACLU’s current slogan, are we freer. Fear and repression are deeply damaging to this nation’s democratic institutions and traditions. If nothing else, the experience of McCarthyism shows us just how fragile those institutions and traditions are and how easily the normal processes of American politics can accommodate themselves to some very undemocratic practices. We cannot afford to repeat the experience.


(1.) Transcript of Security Appeal Hearing, Lawrence E. Parker, Mar. 30, 1951. Box 30/2030.74-1b-a. Gladstein Papers.

(2.) Transcript of Security Appeal Hearing. Gladstein Papers.

(3.) Report of the Commission on Government Security (1957: 333); Case No. [missing], draft from Adam Yarmolinsky, Box 29/2030.74. Gladstein Papers.

(4.) J. Keene, “The Story of Screening,” pamphlet, n.d. MC & S, Box 29; memo, L.M. to R.G., nd, Box 30/2030.74-I; memo, handwritten, n.d. (probably early 1951), Box 30/2030.74-I; William Glazier, memo to Hugh Bryson and Richard Gladstein, Feb. 21, 1951, Box 29/2030.74. Gladstein Papers.

(5.) Victor Rabinowitz to Norman Leonard, April 10, 1957, Dec. 19, 1957, March 12, 1958, Leonard to Rabinowitz, Jan. 17, 1958, Box 31/2030.74.2 (1957). Gladstein Papers.

(6.) For liberal anticommunism, see McAuliffe (1978); on the anti-Stalinist left, see Bloom (1986) and Wald (1987).

(7.) The most sophisticated treatment of McCarthyism at the state and local level is Heale (1998). See also Gellhorn (1952); Selcraig (1982); Carleton (1985); Barrett (1951); Chamberlain (1951); and Countryman (1951).

(8.) For a more extensive discussion of these networks, see Schrecker (1998, chap. 2). See also Powers (1995).

(9.) In response to the court’s demand for more due process, the FBI inaugurated its COINTELPRO program and engaged in more illegal covert activities.

(10.) For a fuller treatment of the operation of this two-stage process within the academic community, see Schrecker (1986).

(11.) Transcript of Meeting of Joint Labor-Management Group on the Maritime Industry, Washington, D.C., Jan. 16, 1951, Box 31/2030.74.2 misc. Gladstein Papers.

(12.) Thurgood Marshall in Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives (1989), quoted in Linfield, 1990: 1).

(13.) For information on those earlier crackdowns, see Smith (1956); Neely (1991); Preston (1963); Irons (1983).

(14.) Shanley Diaries, Dec. 2, 1953, Box 2, VVI The White House Years (2). Dwight David Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas.

(15.) R. C. Leffingwell to John A. Danaher, Mar. 6, 1951, Records of the President’s Commission on Internal Security and Individual Rights, Box 3, Legal Counsel Lists. Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.

(16.) Attorney General Howard McGrath to Director, FBI, Aug. 22, 1950, FBI 100-3-74-6164. Smith Act Trial file, FBI Headquarters. Washington, D.C.

(17.) Stephen Spingarn memo, July 21, 1950, cited in Tanner (1970: 380-478).

(18.) Hiram Bingham to John A. Danaher, Feb. 19, with enclosure, Records of the Presidential Commission on Internal Security and Individual Rights, Box 2, Danaher, Sen. John A. Truman Library.

(19.) Transcript of Proceedings, Fourteenth Meeting of the Loyalty Review Board, Feb. 13-14, 1951, HST OF, 2-E Loyalty Folder 2, Box 14. Truman Library.

(20.) George R. Andersen to Ralph S. Brown, Jr., Aug. 22, 1952, Box 30/2030.74-I. Gladstein Papers.

(21.) Space limitations do not permit a fuller discussion of the American Communist party, its history, and its activities. Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes (1998, chap. 1) contains a recent overview. See also Klehr (1984); Ottanelli (1991); Kelley (1990); Isserman (1982); Starobin (1972); Barrett (1999); Johanningsmeier (1994); and Ryan (1997).

(22.) Testimony of J. Anthony Panuch, May 13, 1947, U.S. v. Carl Aldo Marzani, District Court of United States for District of Columbia, transcript of the trial, reel 39 (microfilm ed., Fund for the Republic, Inc., New York), 271-82 (hereafter, Marzani transcript); D. Milton Ladd to Director, memo, Nov. 12, 1953, Harry Dexter White file #59. In possession of Joan Pinkham. (Note: this file is also available at the FBI Headquarters and many other depositories.)

(23.) Marzani transcript, p. 77.

(24.) Report, name deleted, Chicago, Dec. 5, 1946, Smith Act file, #377. FBI Headquarters. Washington, D.C.

(25.) Transcript, In the matter of Gunnar Benonys et al. v. Allen Johnson, Aug. 8, 14, Sept. 4,1951, Trial Committee, Bay Counties District Council of Carpenters. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

(26.) Report, Nov. 30, 1955, name deleted, Cincinnati, Everest Melvin Hupman file, #30. In possession of the late Marshall Perlin.

(27.) For the recent allegations about White’s impact on US policy, see Schecter and Schecter (2002: 3-44). For a more authoritative discussion of the White case, see Craig (2004). For a contemporary treatment of the China hands, which emphasizes espionage rather than policy, see Klehr and Radosh (1996). More traditional views of the China issue are in Newman (1992); Kahn (1975); and May (1979).

(28.) SAC Letter No. 19, Feb. 17, 1951, Responsibilities Program, no serial #; JEH to SAC, Chicago, Apr. 5, 1951, Responsibilities Program, no serial #; both in O’Reilly (1989).

(29.) Merlin O’Neill, Commandant of U.S. Coast Guard, affidavit, filed May 16, 1951, Box 70/3026.2. Gladstein Papers.

(30.) NAM amicus brief in Cutter case, Fred Cutter to Cutter Employees, June 14, 1956, enclosure in Cutter to Benjamin Mandel, Oct. 5, 1956, Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, Box 135, ILWU, Record Group 46. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

(31.) Memo, Executives Conference to Director, Apr. 30, 1951, Responsibilities file, #204, in O’Reilly (1989).

(32.) Clark Clifford, “American Relations with the Soviet Union (Sept. 1946),” Box 63, George M. Elsey papers. Truman Library.

(33.) US Congress (1976: 439); Director, memorandum to Tamm, Ladd, and Tolson, 1947: Smith Act file, #1123. FBI Headquarters. Washington, D.C.

(34.) Assistant Attorney General William F. Tompkins, statement to the Subcommittee on Reorganization of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, March. 8, 1955, in Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., papers, Box 35. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

(35.) For a useful survey of the government’s current reliance on selective prosecutions, see Cole (2003).

(36) For a more detailed discussion of what these people experienced, see Newman (1992); Kahn (1975); and May (1979).

(37.) Norman A. Stoll to Mastin G. White, Feb. 28, 1950, Spingarn Papers, Box 35, Internal Security File/Loyalty Program (2 of 4). Truman Library.

(38.) Collective Bargaining Contract between Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. and the Utility Workers’ Union of America-CIO, March 2, 1949, Box 36, General Correspondence 1949, vol. 20; A. F. Eberhardt to Roger Baldwin, Aug. 24, 1948, Box 19, General Correspondence, 1948, vol. 19. Both in American Civil Liberties Union Papers, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey.

(39.) The most useful survey of the scope of the anticommunist employment sanctions is Caute (1978).

(40.) Herbert Brownell, Jr., memo, March 22, 1954, DDE (Ann Whitman) Administration File, Box 8, Brownell, Herbert Jr., 1952-54 (3). Eisenhower Library.

(41.) The openness of the Communist parties in France and Great Britain may explain why these Western democracies did not experience a McCarthyist inquisition.

(42.) Memo, David N. Edelstein and Joseph C. Duggan to Douglas W. McGregor, July 24, 1947, Papers of A. Devitt Vanech, Box 1. Truman Library.

(43.) Transcript of Security Appeal, Hearing of Royal L. Lundgren, March 30, 1951, Box 69/3023-11-1. Gladstein Papers.

(44.) Sixteen-page memo, n.d., about cases of 13 servicemen, Box 233 OF 50 (5). Eisenhower Library.

(45.) Bontecou (1953) remains the best single study of the loyalty program. For material on individual cases, see Yarmolinsky (1955).

(46.) Seth Richardson, statement, mimeo, Dec. 23, 1947, in Box 84, Frances Perkins Papers.

(47.) On the FBI’s desire to conceal its illegal activities, see Theoharis and Cox (1988); Powers (1987); O’Reilly (1983); Gentry (1991); and Theoharis (1982).

(48.) Transcript of Proceedings, Fourteenth Meeting of the Loyalty Review Board, Feb. 13-14, 1951, HST OF, 2-E Loyalty Folder 2, Box 14. Truman Library.

(49.) Norman A. Stoll to Mastin G. White, Feb. 28, 1950, Spingarn Papers, Box 35, Internal Security File/Loyalty Program (2 of 4). Truman Library.

(50.) Rackow (1961: 711); Frances Perkins to Robert Sproul, May 23, 1951, Box 84. Perkins Papers; Harper (1969: 48).

(51.) Brown (1958: 28); Harry Cain to Sherman Adams, May 9, 1955, DDE OF 50-SACB (2), Box 233. Eisenhower Library; Report of the Commission on Government Security, 1957: 298).

(52.) Marian Wynn Perry to Ewart Guinier, Sept. 15, 1947, Part 13, Series C, reel 5. NAACP Papers.

(53.) J. Keene, “The Story of Screening, pamphlet, n.d. MC & S, Box 29. Gladstein Papers.

(54.) Memo, L. M. to R. G., n.d., Box 30/2030.74-I. Gladstein Papers.

(55.) Snow Grigsby to Walter White, Jan. 6, 1948, White to Harry S. Truman, Nov. 26, 1948, Part 13, Series C, Reel 5. NAACP Papers.

(56.) Abram Flaxer to Harry S. Truman, Nov. 24, 1948, HST OF 252K (1948), Box 872. Truman Library; Kimeldorf(1988: 150).

(57.) Handwritten memo, n.d., [Anthony Amsterdam (?)] to Felix Frankfurter. Microform, Part 2, Reel 56. The Felix Frankfurter Papers.

(58.) Frankfurter’s fears were probably fueled by the right-wing assault on the Supreme Court after the 1954 Brown decision. Segregationists and anticommunists joined forces in an unsuccessful attempt to curb the court’s jurisdiction in the late 1950s. See Murphy (1962) and Pritchett (1961).

(59.) Sometimes there were a few independent souls who did not buy into the notion that a company’s reputation depended on ousting its tainted employees. For such a case, see Joseph D. McGoldrick, “In the Matter of the Arbitration between United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America (U.E.) Local Union No. 259 and Worthington Corporation on Behalf of the Holyoke Works,” Feb. 4, 1955. Thomas Quin Papers FF3, University of Pittsburgh Library, Pittsburgh, Pa.

(60.) For a case study on how the witch hunters worked together on a single institution, see Reeves (1969).

(61.) Spingarn memo, July 22, 1950, in Spingarn papers, Box 31, folder Internal Security File, National Defense, S2311. Truman Library.

(62.) Spingarn, memo, July 12, 1950, Harley M. Kilgore to HST, Sept. 14, 1950, both in Spingarn papers, Box, 28, folder, Asst to the President, White House Desk Manual, Internal Security. Truman Library.

(63.) SAC Letter, No. 27, Series 1952, Jan. 29, 1952 in Confidential Plant Informants file. Sigmund Diamond collection of FBI files, manuscript collections, Columbia Law School Library.


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