Teaching in the universities about the so-called McCarthy era has become an area most susceptible to politically correct and one-sided views of what the period was all about. One historian who strenuously objects to the accepted left-wing interpretation that prevails in the academy is Jennifer Delton, Chairman of the Department of History at Skidmore College.
In the March issue of The Journal of the Historical Society Delton writes:
However fiercely historians disagree about the merits of American Communism, they almost universally agree that the post-World War II Red scare signified a rightward turn in American politics. The consensus is that an exaggerated, irrational fear of communism, bolstered by a few spectacular spy cases, created an atmosphere of persecution and hysteria that was exploited and fanned by conservative opportunists such as Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy. This hysteria suppressed rival ideologies and curtailed the New Deal, leading to a resurgence of conservative ideas and corporate influence in government. We may add detail and nuance to this story, but this, basically, is what we tell our students and ourselves about post-World War II anti-Communism, also known as McCarthyism. It is fundamentally
the same story that liberals have told since Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of being a Communist spy in 1948.
This conventional narrative of the left has been told over and over for so many years that it has all but become the established truth to most Americans. It was exemplified in a best-selling book of the late 1970’s, David Caute’s The Great Fear, and from the most quoted one from the recent past, Ellen Schrecker’s Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. My favorite title is one written by the late Cedric Belfrage, The American Inquisition 1945-1960: A Profile of the “McCarthy Era.” In his book, Belfrage told the story of how he, an independent journalist who founded the fellow-traveling weekly The National Guardian, was hounded by the authorities and finally deported home to Britain. American concerns about Soviet espionage, he argued, were simply paranoia.
The problem with Belfrage’s account was that once the Venona files began to be released in 1995–the once top secret Soviet decrypts of communications between Moscow Center and its US agents—they revealed that Belfrage was a paid KGB operative, just as the anti-Communist liberal Sidney Hook had openly charged decades ago, and as turned KGB spy Elizabeth Bentley had privately informed the FBI in 1945. The Venona cables revealed that Belfrage had given the KGB an OSS report received by British intelligence concerning the anti-Communist Yugoslav resistance in the 1940’s as well as documents about the British government’s position during the war on opening a second front in Europe. It showed that Belfrage had offered the Soviets to establish secret contact with them if he was stationed in London.
Facts like these did not bother or budge the academic establishment. Most famously, Ellen Schrecker wrote in her book that although it is now clear many Communists in America had spied for the Soviets, they did not do any real harm to the country, and also most importantly, their motives were decent. She wrote, “As Communists, these people did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism; they were internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national boundaries. They thought they were ‘building…a better world for the masses,’ not betraying their country.”
Schrecker’s views were endorsed by former Nation publisher and editor Victor Navasky, who regularly in different articles argues that the Venona decrypts are either gossip or forgeries, irrelevant, or do not change his favored narrative that in the United States– only McCarthyism was a threat. As Navasky wrote, Venona was simply an attempt “to enlarge post-cold war intelligence gathering capability at the expense of civil liberty.” If spying indeed took place, it was “a lot of exchanges of information among people of good will, many of whom were Marxists, some of whom were Communists… and most of whom were patriots.” As for those who argue against his view, they were trying to “argue that, in effect, McCarthy and Co. were right all along.”
The lens through which McCarthyism has been seen, therefore, is one seen exclusively through the left-wing prism, which regards defense of one’s own democratic nation against a foreign foe as evil, and sees only testimony against America’s enemies as McCarthyite. What is therefore necessary is to look anew at the McCarthy era, not in the terms set by its Communist opponents, but from the perspective of examining dispassionately the nature of the entire epoch. Those who have chosen to do this, however, have been met with great opposition. A few years ago, the editors of The New York Times claimed that a new group of scholars “would like to rewrite the historical verdict on Senator McCarthy and McCarthyism.” Fearing such a development, the newspaper warned that it had to be acknowledged that it was McCarthyism more than Soviet espionage or Communist infiltration that was “a lethal threat to American democracy.”
If one disagreed with that assessment, the Times‘ editors implied that such scholars were themselves closet McCarthyites. This became a common tactic. Most recently, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev published their definitive volume on the KGB in America, Spies:The Rise and Fall of the KGB In America. They made it quite clear in their book that McCarthy’s “charges were… wildly off the mark. Very few of the people he accused appeared in KGB documents (or the Venona decryptions), and by the time he made his charges, almost all Soviet agents had been forced out of the government and Soviet intelligence networks were largely defunct.” That disavowal did not help them. In the major review of their book that appeared in TLS, Amy Knight refers in passing to “the McCarthyite style of Haynes and Klehr.” Evidently, any argument that American Communists who spied for the Soviets did some real damage and were not victims of repression, is enough to brand the authors as “McCarthyite.”
If they accepted the failure of their old narrative that Delton summarizes so well, it would interfere with their cherished and still held view that all anti-Communism, as Schrecker wrote, “was misguided or worse,” that the anti-Communist or Cold War liberals were just as bad as the McCarthyites of the Right, and in fact served them intelligence agents who identified Reds, and who “tapped into something dark and nasty in the human soul.” If any harm took place “from Soviet-sponsored spies,” she wrote, it was “dwarfed by McCarthy’s wave of terror.”
That is precisely why the new article by Jennifer Delton is of such importance. For the first time, a young historian at a major liberal arts institution has dared to challenge the consensus view, and to declare that it is time for mainstream historians to acknowledge that their old framework of studying the “McCarthy era” was both misleading and incorrect. As she says near the beginning of her article, “New evidence confirming the widespread existence of Soviet agents in the U.S. government makes the Truman administration’s attempts to purge Communists from government agencies seem rational and appropriate—even too modest, given what we now know.” (my emphasis)
That remark alone is quite different from the conventional analysis offered by historians of the period: that it should not be called the McCarthy Era, but the Truman era of repression, since it was Truman who paved the way for McCarthy’s rise to power, by acting as if there was an actual Communist threat. Moreover, Delton continues to argue that even if the Communists were not among those who became actual KGB agents, whether in unions or political groups or in Hollywood, “there were still good reasons for liberals to expel Communists.” Rather than accept the framework of the Popular Front so beloved by the Left and by left-wing historians, who continue to think workers and Americans could not make real progress unless liberals and Communists cooperated in the post-war era, Delton notes that the Communists “were divisive and disruptive,” could cripple the groups they entered, and harm their very ability to attain their desired ends.
What Delton argues is that expulsion of the Communists actually enabled liberals to prosper politically and to have a political effect. She does not endorse all that went on, particularly the much documented violations of basic civil liberties. Rather, she writes “to challenge the entrenched and misleading characterization of post-World War II anti-Communism as hysterical and conservative.” To do so, she writes, is to “ignore the real threat Communism represented…to the ascendant liberal political agenda.”
Second, Delton takes on another mainstream argument of the left, displayed in a quote from historian Robert Griffith, who wrote “the left was in virtual eclipse and the distinction between liberals and conservatives became one of method and technique, not fundamental principle.” To the contrary, Delton argues that the Left historians have distorted the period, by confusing their own failure to chart a radical path with one that actually triumphed, that of postwar liberalism. Liberal anti-Communism was not, she argues, a “self-protective, even cowardly response to the conservative version” of anti-Communism, but a necessary position for attaining liberal goals- that were quite different from the pro-Soviet agenda favored by the radicals.
Delton writes: “Liberals could only benefit from the disappearance of Communists, who disrupted their organizations, challenged their ideas, alienated potential allies, and invited conservative repression.” This, precisely, is what a liberal leader of the Hollywood trade unions, Ronald Reagan, understood so well. Reagan came out of his stint in the armed services joining a fellow-travelers group, and quickly saw what the secret Communists had in mind for the union movement. Breaking ranks with them, he was among the first to challenge their hold in the actors and writers colony in Hollywood, which then had a strong activist Communist base. When he later testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the Hollywood investigation by the committee, Reagan stressed that he did not believe the Communists should be politically suppressed, because he understood the need for free speech. What he did oppose was their machinations that led to control of the various Hollywood guilds, and the tactics they used to keep control and to push out anti-Communists.
What Delton knew is what Reagan claimed at the time; that the Communists alienated those with whom they worked, made enemies easily, a development that “was due in large part to their participation in an international movement that was directed from Moscow.” Just because Reagan said it then, or J. Edgar Hoover argued it too, does not mean that it was not in fact the absolute truth. The Communists worked, as Delton puts it, “to infiltrate and take over [liberal] organizations,” so that they could then pass “resolutions upholding the party line positions.” To put it more bluntly, in a phrase I’m certain Delton might shy away from, “The Red-baiters were right!”
Delton has written a lengthy and essential article that is a breakthrough in academia, especially in the history profession. She goes on to discuss the impact of the 1948 campaign of Henry Wallace for President, reveals the self-defeating tactics of the Communists that would have hurt their supposed union allies had they been adopted; the necessary fight of the liberals against “Soviet totalitarianism” which she correctly notes “subverted liberal ideals and aims;” and concludes that while the Communists were once only bothersome, by the dawn of Cold War they had become “poisonous.”
Delton also praises the institution by the Truman administration in 1947 of the Loyalty-Security Program, which has become the number one example offered by leftist academics of Truman’s supposed “McCarthyism.” The Boards that were established kept from employment in the federal government any person who was a member of the Communist Party or its various front groups. When most academics teach about this, they damn them as a purge of citizens for their constitutionally protected civil liberties, “on the injustices that occurred” to people who lost their jobs or who were forced to resign, and as a major example of “unwarranted repression.” Delton, to the contrary, says that one has to evaluate the program in light of what we now know to be true—“the existence of an underground arm of the CPUSA that had cooperated with Soviet intelligence agencies.”
In other words, the Boards and the program Truman instituted were vital and necessary, even though in some cases- as with any program- abuses took place and some may have lost their jobs for scant reason. Her point that recent evidence- especially that established by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, has proved that “the Communist Party USA was involved in recruiting spies.” This means that the conclusion reached by David Caute in his best-seller, that “there is no documentation of a direct connection between the American Communist Party and espionage during the entire postwar period” has to be thoroughly discarded. It should come as no surprise, however, that to many students being taught the era in their classes, the old discredited view is still being taught.
There are of course, problems that arise from Delton’s analysis. What, for example, was the real contribution of conservative anti-Communists in the period? Did they all follow the foolish path of Joe McCarthy? We know that this is not true, and that Whitaker Chambers, for one, warned William F. Buckley Jr. in a well known letter that the conservative movement would be ill-advised to support and welcome the antics of the junior Senator from Wisconsin. Moreover, if liberalism gained in America as a result of the liberal success in purging the Communists from unions and the civil rights movement, does that mean that conservative programs might have stemmed the tide of liberalism in the post-war era had the Communists maintained the policy of a Popular Front?
Delton also raises the question of whether or not government programs against the Communists went far enough? After all, as she writes, the Communist Party may have been politically weak, but it still managed to infiltrate the highest ranks of government without being detected, and many who were actually spies, like the major atomic spy Ted Hall, were not arrested and indicted, and were able to remain free, even though the FBI knew of his and others’ probable guilt from the secret Venona decrypts. Delton stresses that most historians “overemphasize the betrayal of democratic principles [in fighting the Communists] rather than helping students understand the need for and rationality of the government’s repression of the Communist Party.” This means, in effect, that left-wing historians in the academy teach in essence what the Communist position was in America of the 1950’s—which is that they were no threat, and that those who claimed they had to be suppressed were “fascist” Red-baiters who sought to make America a proto-fascist state.
Thus in her revised introduction to the paperback edition of her book, Ellen Schrecker actually writes that even if Hiss was guilty–a judgment she now accepts -the really bad thing was that his guilt “gave credibility to the issue of Communists-in-government,” as if there was no reason for that having credibility. As Delton firmly acknowledges, “the Republicans were right.” Hiss was guilty; the blame for the fiasco lies with those who defended him, and if the Republicans exploited the foibles of liberals, she points out that “any party would have done the same.” To attack Hiss’ apologists, in other words, was hardly something that should have shocked anyone.
After a lengthy discussion of the union movement and Communism in Hollywood, Delton ends with these words: It is required “that we reevaluate our understanding of Cold War-era anti-Communism.” As for the attitude of conservatives, she argues that it should be acknowledged that their anti-Communism was not born “out of fear or anxiety, but rather conviction about the wrongness of Communism based on principle and experience.” Even conservative anti-Communists, then, were not all demagogues like Joe McCarthy. As she puts it. The achievements of liberal anticommunism need to “be recognized and perhaps even celebrated, not hidden, regretted, or equated with McCarthyism.”
Her important article, then, is hopefully a bellwether for what hopefully may be a strong new wave of young scholars- -honest liberal historians as well as conservative historians- -who will begin to teach the truth about the anti-Communist period that took place in the early Cold War era. One must note, however, that her article appears in the journal of The Historical Society, a relatively young group created a decade or so back by Eugene D. Genovese, its founder, as an antidote to the staid and left-wing major historical societies.
I wonder what would have happened if Delton had submitted this paper to The Journal of American History, the publication of the Organization of American Historians, the main professional group that represents historians of the United States. That organization, and its journal, leans heavily towards what is politically correct—manuscripts loyal to the race, class and gender paradigm–and toward accepted leftist positions on issues like American anti-Communism. It would have been a major shift for them to have published anything comparable to Delton’s manuscript. After all, this is the organization that ran uncritical and laudatory accolades to the late Communist Party historian Herbert Aptheker after his death, without publishing serious criticisms of his very biased and obsolete Stalinist methodology and assumptions.
At any rate, Delton deserves a major award for daring to break through the academic wall of blue that exists when the issue of postwar communism comes up in the classroom. I hope she is ready for the many nasty e-mails I suspect she will shortly receive.
Ronald Radosh, Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute, has written widely on Communism and anti-Communism. He is co-author of Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left and The Rosenberg File.