A Campus Dress Rehearsal for McCarthyism?

radosh article.jpgThe American Association of University Professors (AAUP) made its name as a respectable association dedicated to promoting the interests of the academy and protecting the academic freedom of professors. Now, judging from its regular publications, it has morphed into something quite different—an association dedicated to promoting the agenda of the academic left.

The July-August issue of  the AAUP’s regular publication, Academe, reads like a straightforward and one-sided primer for leftist activism. It includes an article on “How to Radicalize Students,” and another endorsing the recent protests in Madison, Wisconsin against Governor Scott Walker. But the most troubling article in the issue is “The Dress Rehearsal for McCarthyism” by one Carol Smith, identified only as a retired faculty member at The City College of New York-CUNY. The would-be dress rehearsal, Ms. Smith argues, took place in the mid-1930’s, and revolved around what Smith says was “a conservative backlash against the political gains of the New Deal and against labor unions,” carried out under the guise of an investigation of so-called “Communist subversion at the public colleges.”

Ms. Smith begins her article by noting that from 1932 on, City College students fought against “military training on campus” as well as the imposition of tuition. And of course, they “opposed war and Fascism abroad,” sponsoring demonstrations against politically motivated dismissals of left-wing faculty and students. She gives away her perspective when she writes, in a very off the cuff and dishonest manner, that “Some faculty members also joined the Communist Party, which they viewed as the most effective political vehicle to combat Fascism, unemployment, and social and racial injustice.”

By now, I would assume most readers of Academe know about or have seen Joe Dorman’s 1998 documentary film Arguing the World that drew a great deal of attention and covered the careers of Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer, the famous quartet of anti-Stalinist intellectuals who attended City College in the 1930’s. All of them were anti-fascist, and came together at the start as leftist radicals opposed to Stalinism. Ms. Smith makes no mention of them. Nor does she indicate that she is even aware that there were students who opposed Fascism, but who realized at the time that the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin was not any kind of alternative to it.

Instead, she concentrates on the Rapp-Coudert Hearings conducted by the New York State legislature in 1940, whose partial mandate, she writes, “was to examine the extent of ‘subversive activities’ in public schools and colleges in New York City.” Thus they handed out subpoenas to members of the Communist led New York Teachers Union, as well as to faculty members at CCNY whom informants told them were most likely CPUSA members.

Ms. Smith notes, without any explanation that would shed light on an important context for these hearings, that the investigation took place “during a period of heightened anti-Communism following the Hitler-Stalin Non-aggression Pact of 1939.”  The pact, more commonly known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, was a secret agreement by Hitler and Stalin to divide up Eastern Europe between the two dictatorships, as well as to provide Soviet help for the Nazis in regard to secret troop training and help for the Gestapo from NKVD agents. In the West, The Comintern ordered Communist Parties in Western nations to adopt an anti-war position. This meant treating Hitler as a benign leader who wanted peace, and attacking the West’s leaders, especially the “fascist” Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The spectacle of so many teachers, mostly Jewish and mostly secret CPUSA members, treating Hitler as anything but a lethal threat stunned the Jewish community, especially in New York City. The once anti-fascist Reds, suddenly committed to supporting Hitler, launched bitter attacks on Roosevelt, a man most New York Jews supported and loved. When the New York legislature began to investigate their activities, few observers thought Rapp-Coudert’s targets were worthy of support.

The Rapp-Coudert committee hearings led eventually to about fifty faculty and staff members at CCNY, almost all of them certainly secret Communist Party members, losing their jobs. “The purge ended,” she writes, “when the United States entered World War II as an ally of the Soviet Union in the fight against Fascism.” Once again, Ms. Smith does not bother to tell readers the sole reason the CP members suddenly became anti-Fascist again: on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany broke the Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Overnight, as before, CP members adopted the new line calling for a wartime alliance of the US and Britain against Germany, and the “fascist” FDR was instantly transformed into a heroic leader worthy of support.

What Ms. Smith is really concerned about is what she calls “the ideology of anti-Communism,” which she writes “resulted in a silencing of a progressive political culture and a weakening of the labor movement during the Cold War years and beyond.” She ties this in with her view that today, the same “neoliberal ideology” has led to cuts in social spending that is harming public education.

Actually, recent historians, such as K.A. Cuordileone in the article, “The Torment of Secrecy: Reckoning with American Communism and Anticommunism after Venona” (Diplomatic History,  July 2011) writes that “all those who remained committed to the cause after 1939 faced the painful task of reconciling the anti-fascism that first brought them into the movement with the Nazi-Soviet pact on top of the purge terror [in the Soviet Union.]” The Rapp-Coudert victims whom Smith writes about were among the few who avoided the painful task by swallowing Stalin’s orders without a moment’s public hesitation.  Cuordileone also points out what the evidence now makes quite clear:

The mid-century hunt for subversives did have a basis in fact, rooted in a vast Soviet espionage apparatus in the U.S. first revealed to American counterintelligence by the three major communist defectors of the era (Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, and Igor Gouzenko), and then by the Venona cables.

It is this factual basis that Ms. Smith completely overlooks. Either she is not acquainted with them, or more likely, chooses to ignore them, just as the Communists she extols overlooked the reality of Stalin’s phony anti-fascism in the 1930’s. Cuordileone also writes:

Certainly the gravity of the damage done by the anti-communist crusade of the 1940s and 1950s, which swept up so many innocents in its web, remains undeniable. That red hunters trampled recklessly on constitutional liberties remains undeniable. But now also undeniable is the espionage which set it all in motion, turning a long extant fear and loathing of communism into a full-blown institutional crusade to root out subversives from American life. If the clandestine acts and espionage activities of hundreds of Americans can no longer be regarded as wild fantasy, or written off as the aberrant acts of a few communist rogues, what does this mean for our conception of the Red Scare? Sorting out the implications of this new research is not a project that historians of the Red Scare have been especially eager to undertake.

Of course the teachers interrogated by the New York State legislative committee were not spies. Like those brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, they were asked about their political views and associations. But the investigations took place in the context of a very real and rational concern about Communist activity, and it did not help that those subpoenaed dissembled about their associations and ideas, often lying and pretending to be simply liberals, and denying their Communist beliefs.

Compounding  the intellectual dishonesty of Smith’s article is the exhibit she curated, displayed earlier at CUNY, and now evidently traveling to other universities around the country. Ms. Smith’s essay, tendentiously titled “The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY, 1931-1942, puts all protest on an equal footing—socialist anti-Communist student groups are written up alongside Communist ones, as if they all had the same approach of fighting “Fascism and war.”

Ironically, one of the sections of the exhibit contains material pertaining to the firing of Dr. Max Yergan, an African-American professor who taught one of the first courses on Negro History at CCNY, and who was dismissed for his pro-Communist views after the Rapp-Coudert hearings. What it fails to mention was that later in life, Dr. Yergan became one of the first major black anti-Communists, who openly repudiated his past views and became a staunch advocate of opposing Communism in the early years of the Cold War.

Those who go through all the sections of the exhibit will readily see that it is entirely based on the old Communist Party view of the American past, and extols the Communists as the most important and best fighters for a better future for workers and students. Ms. Smith has a right to hold these views. What is sad, however, is that such a one-sided exhibit by someone who clearly adheres to now discredited analysis of the past is published by the AAUP, and that the same person is chosen to curate and write the text for a CUNY-approved exhibit that others are bringing to their own campuses.


  • Ron Radosh

    Ronald Radosh is author or co-author of more than 16 books, including The Rosenberg File, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, and A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel. He is Adjunct Fellow at The Hudson Institute and a columnist for PJ Media.

5 thoughts on “A Campus Dress Rehearsal for McCarthyism?

  1. I’m reminded of the old chewing-gum ad: “Stop -you’re both right.” It’s true that Smith’s article sidesteps the seamy side of American communism, but equally true that Radosh exaggerates the peril posed by the great majority of its followers, who were not spies, who did valuable, pioneering work on civil rights and other progressive issues, and whose worst sin was blindness to the evils of Stalinism. That the CP-USA became dominant in the 1930s was a tragedy for the American left precisely because of the courage and idealism of those who joined up, and who were so brutally ostracized and blacklisted in the 1950s for reasons that often had less to do with fear of subversion than with a desire to repress the civil rights movement and other social reforms.

  2. To claim the post-war Red Scare had “a basis in fact” as it was sparked by the discovery of “a vast Soviet espionage apparatus in the U.S.” is not unlike singing the praises of the proverbial broken clock because it is correct twice a day.
    “Vast” in comparison to what? One could fit all those named in the VENONA decrypts (spies and everyone else) in a smallish movie theater and still have the house more than half-empty. What was truly vast was the number of Americans investigated, interrogated, spied upon, jailed, hounded from their jobs and neighborhoods for no decent reason at all, much less the slightest allegation of espionage.
    Bentley did not hit the headlines until July of ’48, Chambers’ allegations not until August of ’48, Gouzenko’s revelations of an espionage ring in Canada hit the press in February of 1946.
    Yet HUAC (in business since 1938) first became a standing committee in January of 1945 (eight months before the war ended), the only permanent investigating committee in the House, and granted unique subpoena powers, authorized by Public Law 601 not to investigate allegations of espionage but to investigate “subversive and unAmerican propaganda,” which became the loudest keynote of the entire miserable era. Among the first targets were the TVA and the Fair Employment Practices Commission, both Communist plots according to House reactionaries.
    Truman launched his Loyalty Program with its Loyalty Boards in early 1947, which up to 1953 alone investigated more than 26,000 Federal employees not for espionage but for such petty signs of “disloyalty” as subscribing to “The Nation,” supporting civil rights or a 4th term for FDR. This year also saw the codification of the AG’s list of subversive organizations, which rapidly expanded and became in essence a government approved blacklist, which among hundreds of organizations also listed the Consumer’s Union for undermining faith in American business.
    The first HUAC Hollywood hearing occurred in May of 1947. Loyalty oaths quickly became the rule of the day, among the many required to sign were school teachers, strippers in Las Vegas, students wishing college loans, kids in NY wishing to graduate high school and others wanting a fishing license, and if you lived in gov’t housing you had to sign one every time you paid the rent. Taft-Hartley with its pernicious section 9(h) also became law in 1947. This was used in conjunction with traveling HUAC subcommittees to break labor unions and send their leadership to prison on trumped up perjury charges. Former members of the Communist Party made a tidy living traveling as anti-Communist witnesses on a nation-wide circuit of gov’t hearings and public appearances. They even formed their own association – the Federation of Former Communists – to press for higher fees and, according to Harvey Matusow, one of the better known professional witnesses, to plan counterattacks against their critics and pool spurious information.
    The overwhelming majority of government investigations and anti-Communist ballyhoo on the federal, state and local levels during the Red Scare period had absolutely nothing to do with espionage. Taken in its totality, measured by the reams of idiotic propaganda on how to spot a communist, Moscow-inspired sex education and movies, etc., the targets of countless investigations, and the more than 300 hastily passed federal, state, and local laws passed prohibiting “subversive activities,” (In Texas CP membership was good for 20 years in prison; “Writing or speaking subversive words” was life in prison in Michigan; Tennessee promised the death penalty for “unlawful advocacy”) the period was almost entirely concerned with vague and spurious notions of subversion, disloyalty, and unAmerican activities.
    Hollywood, Broadway, television, radio, publishing, teachers in k-12 and universities and colleges, federal workers, the civil rights movement, and above all labor unions, to name just a few of the major targets, were all investigated and purged of those who did not fit the newly narrowed confines of “Americanism.”- all with absolutely no mention of espionage.
    Sans the charges and revelations of Bentley, Chambers, and Gouzenko the period would have run much the same miserable course. For it was not about espionage, anymore than the extremists of today’s Tea-Party inspired GOP are about Death Panels, the national debt crisis, or the purported socialism of Obama. In fact, it was same struggle then as it is now.

  3. Ronald Radosh is correct that Max Yergan became a staunch anti-communist, but at what moral cost? Radosh sidesteps Yergan’s active cooperation with J. Edgar Hoover when he was a “friendly witness” before congressional investigatory committees. Radosh also “fails to mention that later in life” Yergan became a prominent apologist for apartheid.

  4. When I went to my faculty orientation here they tried to trick me into joining the faculty union, claiming I would have to pay the same dues either way. Not quite! I never joined the union, objected to the agency fees, and I get about $200 of my dues refunded every year.

  5. She talks about being anti-Fascist and it is worth remembering Orwell’s remark about people who wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian. Carol Smith apparently is among them.
    In any case, she repeats the tired and false claim that if you wanted to be anti-Fascist, against unemployment, for racial equality, and so forth you had to be a communist. The Socialist Party of Norman Thomas (which drew five times the CP vote in 1932 and thus was a better base for a mass party) was in favor of all those things. But it didn’t require political rigidity or doctrinaire responses to everything and hence wasn’t attractive to the people who found the CP more compatible.

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