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Ron Radosh

A New View of the McCarthy Era Could Shake up the Academy

April 22nd, 2010 - 8:09 am

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.

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