If cold war foreign policy manifested itself in mutual hostility between East and West, the nuclear arms race, and a commitment to methods of covert subversion, its prosecution at home was based on the premise of aggressive anticommunism. Although not a new phenomenon, the identification and systematic elimination of the U.S. Left reached its peak of judicial action and social acceptance during the 1940s and 1950s.
The rise to prominence of several key figures, including Senator Joseph McCarthy and President Harry Truman, future President Richard Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover, coincided with a postwar political and social climate in which extreme forms of radicalism—preeminently left-wing radicalism—were deemed unacceptable. More than that, as a series of high-profile legal proceedings made clear, the combined forces of domestic leftism were widely alleged to be antithetical to, if not in league against, the American way of life.
After the peak of anticommunist militancy in the mid-1950s, there followed a period when the campaign was forced to move underground and to deploy covert strategies of subversion that ironically paralleled the conspiratorial tactics of the Communists whose destruction they sought.
From “Red Scare” to the “Red Decade”
If the threat of communism was greatly exaggerated by its adversaries, it was certainly not wholly falsified. In large part, the problem derived from the Communist Party (CPUSA)’s characteristically conspiratorial methods of organization and operation, and its apparent total reliance on the Soviet Union in matters of policy and practice. The movement was explicitly structured according to Lenin’s valued principles of hierarchy, secrecy, and total commitment to the cause.
Communist initiates or “cadres,” many of them drawn from the immigrant working class, were expected to spend long hours studying the central texts of Marxism and organizing profile- and fund-raising activities for the party. Moreover, as recent revelations from the Soviet archives and files of the top-secret Venona Project have confirmed, the CPUSA was, from its inception, led by a top echelon of men and women who pledged allegiance to the leadership of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
Many of these figures sought in Soviet communism a model of discipline and radicalism with which to energize and coordinate the diverse struggles of labor unions and organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) against the dominant power of U.S. capitalism.
When the CPUSA finally emerged out of bitter factional conflict in 1919, it was with both the political and financial backing of the Kremlin. With this support, however, came the understanding that, regardless of more pressing local concerns, the party would unwaveringly toe the line arrived at by the Soviet-led Communist International (Comintern).
It was also this traditional connection to the Soviet Union that would place the party in the greatest danger during periods of fervent anticommunism. In the early 1920s, for instance, with most of Europe still reeling from World War I, and with Bolshevik anticapitalist rhetoric and labor unrest at their most incendiary, membership of the CPUSA was considered by many in the U.S. legal and political establishment to be in itself an act of sedition.
Capitalizing on their tendency toward conservatism and countersubversion, J. Edgar Hoover, then an aspiring Justice Department official, found powerful allies in the industrial, commercial, and law-enforcement communities with whom he launched a vicious counterattack against the radicals and striking workers.
One long-term result of the so-called red scare was the creation of a network of prominent anticommunists whose experience and expertise would prove vital during the much broader assault on the U.S. Left during the postwar years.
Before these powers could prevail, however, there followed a period of relative success for the domestic Communist movement. As the nucleus of a huge “popular front” against European fascism throughout the 1930s, the CPUSA presided over a period that soon came to be known as the “red decade.”
From the Depression years until the era of social restitution brought about by President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, the Communist-led U.S. Left defined the political agenda, campaigning for everything from workers’ rights to the protection of young blacks against the scourge of lynching in the South.
Crucially important was the Soviet Union’s resistance to the forces of fascism personified in the figures of Hitler, Mussolini, and General Franco in Spain, and the international antifascist coalition coordinated by the Comintern. Involvement in the Spanish Civil War provided many U.S. leftists with the life-changing experience of radicalization. It should be stressed, though, that support for traditionally leftist causes was not limited to membership of the Communist Party in this period.
With a proactive, liberally inclined president in the White House, the Left’s popular agenda was matched by an administration firmly committed to social equality and labor reform, in stark contrast to the laissez-faire monopoly capitalism favored by successive governments during the 1920s.
While very far from a leftist himself, President Roosevelt surrounded himself with an extensive and powerful fraternity of liberal and left-inclined advisors, bureaucrats, and legislators—some of them “fellow-travelers” at the fringe of the Communist Party’s orbit—who manned the many administrative committees and working groups that epitomized the New Deal era. Throughout this period, for obvious reasons, the conservative, anticommunist community remained largely in the background of policy-formation.
The Conspiracy of Communism
If the anticommunist network was notable by its absence during the prewar years, its roots had been struck deep. In-fighting on the Left between supporters of Stalin and exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, together with the nonaggression pact between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in 1939, provided the perfect alibi for conservatives at home to sign into law the Smith Act of 1940.
By making illegal any group that advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government, this legal instrument effectively outlawed the CPUSA and many of its affiliates. Meanwhile, the international Left movement suffered a series of external shocks that would render it increasingly vulnerable to further assault. Perhaps most important were revelations from inside the Soviet Union of Stalin’s brutal purges both of the Soviet high command and of millions of ordinary Russians.
The horror of such stories, too shocking and numerous to ignore, combined with the dramatic volte-face of the Nazi-Soviet pact, led many Communists to desert the party in the United States and worldwide. Thus, as Maurice Isserman argues in Which Side Were You On? (1982), the prewar Popular Front coalition was already fragmenting and the CPUSA was already a much-weakened force by the end of World War II.
Central to the growth of anticommunism in the 1940s and 1950s were the changed realities signaled by the onset of the cold war. In these first few years after the cessation of hostilities, many of the constituent elements that would come to define the cold war era were established, both at home and abroad.
The keynote of the period was struck in 1946 by Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in which the British wartime leader delineated a world divided between the democratic West and the communist countries dominated by Stalin’s autocratic rule. From this point forward, it was clear that the Western powers’ new enemies would be the Soviet states to the east, and that communism would now replace fascism as the principal ideological adversary of the United States.
Taking their cue from the mutual hostility and brinkmanship that prevailed on the international front, the newly resurgent anticommunist contingent set about eliminating the domestic Left movement. The campaign was prosecuted with a violence and fervor that has led commentators such as playwright Arthur Miller to liken the era to that of the witch-hunts in Salem, Massachusetts, during the late seventeenth century.
Much of the hysteria surrounding the persecution of U.S. Communists may be attributed to the terms of engagement established early on in a series of pivotal legal trials. Throughout the late 1940s, many members of the preexisting anticommunist network testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—itself created in 1938 to counter the threat of espionage during wartime—and other similar organs, to the seditious antiAmericanism of the CPUSA and to the treachery of its members and affiliates.
A list of the principal actors in this drama, which captivated the public imagination, reads like a “who’s who” of the heroes and villains of the early cold war years: HUAC members and prosecutors such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, his chief counsel Roy Cohn, future President Richard Nixon, Senator Patrick McCarran, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, together with prominent former Communists and “friendly witnesses” like Elizabeth Bentley, Louis Budenz, Whittaker Chambers, Benjamin Mandel, and J. B. Matthews.
With the aim of “reveal[ing] the diabolic machinations of sinister figures engaged in un-American activities” (Hoover, HUAC Testimony, 1947; in Schrecker 1994), these men and women dominated both the political agenda and the popular headlines of the era.
Their ascendancy, supported by many sympathetic figures in the administrations of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower (not least of all Truman himself), did more than simply destroy the U.S. Left movement. Their accusations of widespread Soviet penetration also had the effect of eroding support for, and breaking the hegemony of, Roosevelt’s New Deal establishment.
The success of the anticommunist campaign on a political and legal level was underscored by an equally critical effort among conservative, liberal, and reformed leftist academics, journalists, and social scientists to provide the intellectual justification for the persecution of U.S. communists.
To use the title of a study by one such theorist, there was a great desire in these years to identify and comprehend the “Appeals of Communism” so that selfappointed social engineers might then be able to eliminate them from U.S. society (Almond el al.).
At the opposite extreme to these “scientific” or psychological interpretations were the writings of former party members like Whittaker Chambers and Louis Budenz for whom communism was nothing less than a secular faith locked in fatal struggle with the forces of Western democracy and religion. For both groups, however, the desired result tended to be the same: the isolation of the Communist “virus” from daily life and the immunization of society against its future threat.
This rhetoric of infection was widely reflected in the popular culture of the day, from the sensationalist tabloid and television reporting of infamous trials like the Hiss-Chambers case and the Rosenberg spy scandal, to the proliferation of movies like I Married a Communist (dir. Jack Gross 1949) and I Was a Communist for the FBI (dir. Gordon Douglass 1951), or science fictions such as Invaders from Mars (dir. William Menzies 1953) and Night of the Living Dead (dir. Don Siegel 1955), which dealt metaphorically with the paranoia and hysteria of the witch-hunts. As one historian has recently written, most of the entertainment that reached the nation’s living rooms during the 1950s supported the status quo.
If the epithet “McCarthyism” has commonly been used to characterize the era, then this is undoubtedly because the Wisconsin senator was the single most infamous and influential anticommunist crusader. For a brief period between 1950 and 1954, McCarthy’s dogged investigation of leftist infiltration within the government, labor unions, entertainment industry, and military seemed to epitomize both the specificity—it was McCarthy who first popularized the wholesale naming of names and the use of “blacklists”—and the ruthlessness of the campaign.
On the other hand, it is true that, by the spring of 1954, with the nation under the new government of President Eisenhower, the mood had changed to such an extent that McCarthy’s own methods came under the spotlight of a Senate investigation.
Nevertheless, in method and outlook, McCarthy most closely resembled the witch-hunters of an earlier age and so represented the clearest symptom of that “psychosocial” disorder that important contemporary commentators like Daniel Bell, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Hofstadter identified as instrumental to the prosecution of the campaign.
For these critics, the rise of McCarthy and his fellow zealots was, like earlier populist movements of both right and left, sustained by the strong reactionary tendency among the “unenlightened” moral majority in U.S. society. It is now clear, however, that the campaign was more widespread than the epithet of “McCarthyism” implies. Certainly, many more individuals were involved, and in a more partisan way than was thought at the time, as recent studies of figures like Hoover, Nixon, and McCarran have proved.
In effect, the early 1950s saw the reappearance of an already-strong, conservative anticommunist fraternity whose influence extended through all areas of U.S. life, but which had been held in check during Roosevelt’s New Deal. No less important was the reformulation and retrenchment of liberalism after World War II.
In the works of prominent philosophers and political theorists like Schlesinger, J. K. Galbraith, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eleanor Roosevelt, and in the outlook and membership of powerful organizations and lobbying groups like the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the outlines of a new concept of “consensus politics” began to emerge.
By its very nature, this form of cold war liberalism tended to place extremism of both left and right outside its purview and thereby to stigmatize both as equal threats to the status quo. Instead, the proponents of consensus politics insisted on shared assumptions of the ultimate wisdom of Western capitalism and the importance of “custom and community sentiment” (Hyman).
Anticommunism after the 1950s
Toward the end of the 1950s, the anticommunist coalition, like the Popular Front before it, began to fragment. This was undoubtedly due in part to McCarthy’s ignominious fall from grace, but also to the détente of the early Kennedy years, and the emergence of a “new left” whose ideological trajectory was beginning to depart from the Marxism of the Communist “Old Left.” Again, like the movement it aimed to destroy, militant anticommunism did not disappear, however. Instead, it changed form, sought new targets, and went underground.
As the New Left began to galvanize around emotive causes like civil rights, solidarity with Castro’s Cuba, and, in due course, opposition to the war in Vietnam, so the forces of the Right developed new methods of opposing their enemies. In the climate of superficial openness and accountability fostered by the new, young Kennedy administration, these methods were necessarily secret.
The techniques of covert surveillance and subversion became the chosen modus operandi of newly empowered strata within the existing anticommunist network. Hoover’s FBI and the CIA were more powerful than ever, especially after Nixon’s election to the presidency.
Indeed, the period from 1968 to 1974 saw an unprecedented growth in covert countersubversion operations by groups linked with one or other of the two agencies that controlled intelligence, the vast majority of them targeted at leftist groups at home and abroad whose very presence allegedly posed a threat to the stability of U.S. society.
Such groups included the governments of sovereign nations like Castro’s Cuba, New Left organizations like the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and off-shoots of the civil rights movement like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party (BPP), and the Weather Underground, many of which suffered not only the routine humiliation of McCarthyite court hearings, but also the intervention of new branches of the anticommunist network like the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
As certain conspiracy theorists such as Peter Dale Scott argued at the time, the dramatic Watergate scandal of 1974 showed just how far the personnel and assumptions of the intelligence community, most of them derived from the early cold war years, had penetrated the Nixon White House.
Thereafter, the strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act and the work of investigative journalists and historians allowed for a critical reappraisal of the earlier period and of the conspiratorial actions of central figures like Hoover, Nixon, and McCarthy.
Nevertheless, this process of reassessment could not prevent a return to the dark days of the “high cold war” during the 1980s when President Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy and sanction of covert operations in Latin America and elsewhere provided a sharp reminder that many of the causes of anticommunist paranoia remained active.
Not since the immediate postwar period, however, has domestic anticommunism dominated the political and cultural agenda to the exclusion of all else. As Richard Powers’s biography of J. Edgar Hoover confirmed, the characteristic approaches of many anticommunists in those crucial early years were often indistinguishable from those of the Communist “conspiracy” they sought to eliminate from U.S. life.