What Liberals Stood to Gain
Abstract POSTWAR LIBERALISM WHAT LIBERALS STOOD TO GAIN THE TRUMAN ADMINISTRATION UNION PURGES AND THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST CONCLUSION
It has often been assumed that conservatives had the greatest motivation for attacking Communists. Under the legitimating cloak of national security, conservatives deployed traditional red-scare tactics to paint anyone who fought for social justice or a stronger welfare state as a "commie." In this way, they were able to stop the expansion of the New Deal state and to mute liberal aspirations, while at the same time furthering their own political careers. Liberal anticommunism in this scenario was mainly reactive—a self-protective, even cowardly, response to the conservative version.16
This line of reasoning is not wholly wrong, but it has two shortcomings. First, it posits that the objective of anticommunism was to thwart liberals and progressives, not to get rid of Communists. In this explanation, anticommunism is merely a pretext for the real goal of subverting progressi
ve activity in general. But progressive activity survived (albeit in altered forms); Communist activity did not. Second, most of the major anticommunist cases involved real Communists, not wrongly accused noncommunists. Except for the Loyalty-Security Program, which ensnared fellow travelers as well as Communists, most of the repression was, by and large, limited to Communists and ex-Communists.17 The problem with post-World War II anticommunism for many, including Ellen Schrecker, was not that it swept up "innocent" noncommunists, but that it criminalized membership in and support for the Communist Party. It did—and that is my point: Cold War era anticommunism was more specific in its targets, unlike the amorphous sort that followed World War I, when thousands of immigrants were deported because of vaguely defined radical activity and an underlying xenophobia.18
Instead of assuming that conservatives fomented the Cold War red scare, let us reconsider who had the most to gain from the removal of Communists from American society. Conservatives gained nothing from the disappearance of Communists because getting rid of Communists did not end the progressive, liberal activism that threatened their conception of laissez-faire individualism, limited government, and free market capitalism. Conservatives hated communism, of course, but they also hated socialism, New Dealism, and other forms of progressive activity. Communism, socialism, liberalism—it was all the same to them. Thus, their efforts were unfocused and ineffective. Not so for the liberals. Liberals could only benefit from the disappearance of Communists, who disrupted their organizations, challenged their ideas, alienated potential allies, and invited conservative repression.
Liberal anticommunists were motivated primarily by a principled rejection of Communist ideas and doctrine, which, it had finally become clear, contradicted their belief in individual freedom and democratic self-rule. Much has been written about this "awakening"; there is no need to recount it here.19 Rather, I will focus on two more practical factors that animated—and hence explain—liberal anticommunism: liberals' past experiences with Communists and liberal political aspirations in postwar America. When combined, these pragmatic factors indicate that liberals had a stronger motivation for excising Communists from American life than did conservatives.
Liberals and Communists in the Interwar Years
Conservatives like J. Edgar Hoover had a conception of communism that came from their study of it; their anticommunism was one of principle. Many liberals came to oppose communism on principled grounds as well, but their impressions of communism also came from working with Communists in myriad movements for social change over the course of almost three decades. Revisionist historians have painted a heroic picture of American communism at the grassroots level. Robin D.G. Kelley has argued that black Communists in Alabama represented an indigenous American radicalism rooted in specific historical and regional experiences. Others have shown that Communist-led unions represented grassroots democracy, won the support of their rank-and-file members, and secured substantial gains for workers and other marginalized groups.20 Such claims may well be true; I will not dispute them here. But it is also true that Communists constantly alienated the people with whom they worked. Communists were quick to make enemies. This was due in large part to their participation in an international movement that was directed from Moscow.21
The Communist Party USA's (CPUSA) connections to an international Communist movement gave the party panache, discipline, and gravitas. The old dream of an international working-class movement, dashed during World War I, was revived under Communist Party auspices and was a major reason so many American radicals joined or defended the party. It was also, however, the source of much animosity toward party members, mainly because of the infamous "party line." The party line not only required Communists to embrace unpopular policies, such as the dual-union policy of the Third Period that called for Communists to organize competing unions separate from those being organized by other labor leaders, but it also suggested that American Communists were in thrall to a foreign power that put the interests of international communism and the Soviet Union before the particular needs of social justice in America. No change to the party line did more to discredit the Communist Party than the one following the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, which ended the party's Popular Front policy against fascism and directed party members to oppose Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Not only did this end what had been a popular, membership-building policy, it also represented such an abrupt about-face in policy—from antifascism to accommodation with the leading fascist power—that Communist motives would forever afterward be suspect. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the policy changed back again to one of cooperation with liberals and leftists. This sequence of events, more than anything else, convinced liberals and other leftists that Communists could not be trusted. They could be used, certainly, and tolerated, perhaps, but they could not be counted on for the long-term real work of social change.
But directives from Moscow only partly explain why Communists alienated large numbers of the progressives with whom they worked. After all, there is plenty of research indicating that Communist leaders, even though they followed the party line, were not merely puppets of the Soviet Union.22 Revisionists' work is premised on the idea that Moscow was less a factor in shaping American communism than had previously been supposed. I agree. American Communists did not need Moscow to alienate progressives and other activists. Their own ideological radicalism and fierce commitment to an international Communist ideal did that. Communists' overblown rhetoric and sloganeering could be obnoxious and was often out of step with the thinking and experiences of progressives and other noncommunist activists. Calling Franklin Roosevelt a "fascist" after 1939 or describing Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis, as a "man of Hitlerian psychology" in 1946 confirmed to many noncommunist progressives and liberals just how out of touch Communists and their allies were with what was happening in the world.23 Communists' disdain for middle-class progressivism and legislative reform was attractive to radicals and contrarians, but frustrating if one happened to be a middle-class progressive or labor leader who just wanted to improve conditions for the working class and other disfranchised groups.
Still, the sloganeering and the contempt many Communists felt toward their erstwhile allies were not enough to turn progressives and liberals against them, given the progressive community's natural opposition to red-baiting and political repression. Rather, what led so many liberal activists to ban Communists from their organizations, what turned them into anticommunists, was Communists' propensity to infiltrate and take over their organizations. Here is Wilson Record's description of how the Communists took over the National Negro Congress (NNC) at its third annual meeting in 1940.
Party strategists prepared the resolutions beforehand, forced them through committees, and supported them on the floor with speeches that bordered on hysteria. Opposition speakers were hooted down. [NNC president A. Philip] Randolph's efforts to provide non-Communists an opportunity to express their views were sabotaged by boos, catcalls, and other disturbances.24
After gaining control, they passed a series of resolutions upholding the party line positions on the European war and African American rights. Randolph resigned from the NNC as a result and the Communists prompt
ly condemned him as part of the "frightened Negro petty bourgeoisie." In response to this episode, Randolph explicitly excluded Communists from other organizations he founded, such as the March on Washington Movement, which fought for fair employment for blacks.
Liberal Minnesotans in the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) would never have dreamed of becoming anticommunists—until Communists actually took over their party and attacked Hubert Humphrey because of his ability to win over Republican voters and corporate leaders (in other words, because of his political popularity). Eugenie Anderson, then a housewife and later an ambassador to Denmark, recalled the takeover at the 1946 DFL convention: "The methods they used, the way they marched up and down the aisle, and kept their eye on everybody, and the way they vilified Humphrey's character, said the most outrageous things against him, against you [Arthur Naftalin], against me, against all of us. … It woke me up. It woke Humphrey up."25 After that, Anderson, Humphrey, Naftalin, and their allies began their campaign to purge the Communists from the DFL, a process that included helping to found the liberal anticommunist organization, Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).
Communists' habit of taking over leftist and liberal organizations did not necessarily arise from Moscow's directives but from a fundamental contradiction in their relationship to mass movements, a contradiction which was the basis of many sectarian arguments and rifts among Communists. Communists were supposed to represent the working-class masses, yet the working-class masses almost always formed alliances with discontented bourgeois and petit-bourgeois groups like farmers, skilled workers, reformers, and even, occasionally, small business owners. The political and organizational energy for challenging the capitalist structure resided in grassroots political movements and organizations such as farmer-labor parties, labor unions, or black civil rights groups. Communists usually entered into informal alliances or federations with the working-class elements of these mass movements or organizations, but there were occasions when political circumstances or party policy led Communists to try to gain control of certain movements, parties, or organizations. Sometimes these attempts were successful, as with the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party in 1938, the NNC in 1940, and the Minnesota DFL in 1946; often they merely resulted in a split organization, as with the Federated Farmer-Labor Party in 1924.26 Either way, Communists made lifelong enemies of the people they tried to help.
Even before Cold War tensions were felt in the political arena, then, progressive organizations had started to exclude Communists. Ellen Schrecker has conceded that Communists' behavior had made them enemies within the ranks of progressive organizations and labor, so that when Cold War tensions mounted and Communist spies were found in the government, few of their former allies stepped forward to defend them from persecution.27 Schrecker sees this as a real tragedy, which, depending on your perspective, it might have been. But it also suggests that liberals' antipathy to Communists was based not on fear or antiradicalism, but rather on a history of disruptive, unpleasant experiences with them.
The Liberal Political Agenda
Liberals succeeded in getting their ideas into government through their influence in the Democratic Party. The New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt had helped them gain a foothold there; the trick after the war was to hold and expand their control of the party. At first it seemed as though the Democratic Party without Roosevelt would simply disintegrate into its quarreling components: big city machines, unions, southern whites, northern blacks, and liberal New Dealers. But liberals took the lead in reuniting these components under a program of government-secured economic growth. Keynesian spending and military contracts won over big city mayors and white Southerners, as well as workers, blacks, and consumers.28 To be sure, liberals' focus on fair employment and desegregation alienated southern Democrats, but the Republican Party also promoted fair employment and, thus, as Harry Truman famously noted to Clark Clifford, southern Democrats had nowhere else to go.29 Similarly, Truman's Cold War foreign policy alienated the more progressive or left elements of the liberal community. But they, too, as the failed Wallace campaign would soon show, had nowhere else to go.
One of the most important elements of the liberal strategy to control political discourse and the Democratic Party was anticommunism, in both its domestic and foreign policy versions. Even though many liberals, like social democrats and other progressives, had come to oppose communism on principle, they were often reluctant to trumpet this anticommunism for fear of dividing their unions and political organizations. Unity was more important than criticizing Communists and no one wanted to be a red-baiter. Hubert Humphrey, for instance, repeatedly rejected advice to attack the Communists and their allies in the DFL during 1945–1946 in order to avoid factional warfare. Philip Murray, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), initially ignored warnings about the Communists in the CIO for the same reason.30 Responsible liberal leadership required neutral mediation between competing factions, not participation in the squabbling. But beginning in 1946, with Truman's hard-line policy toward the Soviet Union (which signified an end to whatever hopes had existed for a continuation of U.S.-Soviet cooperation), that sort of neutral aloofness became untenable. The foreign policy issue divided labor unions and political organizations, in large part because of the Communist presence in these organizations. There was no longer anything to be gained by "appeasing" (as longtime anticommunists saw it) Communists in the name of unity. There was no unity. In the ensuing struggles, Communists explicitly challenged liberals for control of local political parties (such as the DFL in Minnesota) and other progressive organizations (such as American Federation of Labor [AFL] and CIO locals across the nation). Liberals, in turn, were forced to articulate the danger of communism and the great promise of the liberal agenda.
Luckily for the liberals, the Communists and their allies supported Henry Wallace's third-party presidential campaign in 1948. Wallace's campaign opposed the militarism of the Cold War and also claimed to offer a more truly liberal program than Truman's, one that genuinely embraced civil rights for blacks. But it also had the potential to split the liberal/Democratic vote and deliver a victory to the Republicans. In Minnesota, the DFL's left-wing leadership not only attempted to align the DFL Party with Wallace's Progressive Party, thereby forcing Truman to run as an independent in Minnesota, it also sought to prevent the popular Humphrey from challenging incumbent Senator Joseph Ball, a Republican and coauthor of the antilabor Taft-Hartley Act. As the ADA explained, what was at stake in this election was the national political power of organized labor: if a Republican president were elected and Republicans retained control of Congress (secured in 1946), labor was sunk. Why would the Communists and their allies risk that outcome by supporting Wallace and refusing to support the one DFL-er who could beat Joe Ball? The absurdity of the Communist position, combined with the genuine fear that a split vote would kill what was left of the New Deal, energized the ADA in Minnesota, whose members set out to convince erstwhile Wallace supporters that Truman, the Democratic Party, and Humphrey could better represent their hopes and aspirations than Wallace and the left wing. They engaged in a ruthless, well-organized, county-by-county campaign to oust the Communists and their allies from the DFL, but they also
presented a positive program for labor, African Americans, and farmers, keeping the focus on Joe Ball and the Republicans.31 To those angry liberals who accused the ADA of red-baiting, Humphrey personally explained that this was a different kind of anticommunism, one that worked in favor of liberalism, not against it.32 In his victory over Joe Ball, Humphrey became one of eight new Democrats in the Senate, helping Democrats regain control of Congress in 1948.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., echoed the ADA's arguments about the political necessity of defeating Wallace and marginalizing Communists in The Vital Center (1949), a manifesto that gave philosophical justification and political purpose to liberals' on-the-ground struggles against Communists in unions and local political contests. Schlesinger identified the real threat Communists in the United States posed, which was not to the status quo or to conservatives, but to the left.33 Communists were dangerous to American democracy not because they could mount a revolution (Schlesinger laughed at the idea), but because they divided and neutralized the left, and thus threatened the New Deal. The New Deal offered the only viable way to expand democracy. Schlesinger's version of New Deal liberalism, represented by the ADA, was one that had, finally, shed its debilitating and naïve utopianism. It represented nothing less than a "revival of American radicalism," pragmatic, political, and savvy.34
As the Wallace campaign indicated, Truman's Cold War foreign policy divided the liberal community. Wallace had tapped into a genuine feeling of disappointment among many liberals that Truman had abandoned Roosevelt's policy of cooperation with the Soviet Union and, worse, was militarizing the country, maintaining the draft, exaggerating the Communist threat, and branding as Communist anyone who spoke for peace.35 There were, however, also many liberals who were sorely disenchanted by the Soviet Union's actions in Eastern Europe during 1947–1948 and who not only supported a strong anticommunist foreign policy, but also helped to formulate and enact it. Such architects of the Cold War as Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Averill Harriman, and George Marshall were all liberals in their outlook, and willing to use the power of the state to stop Soviet expansion. By 1950, they would disagree with each other about the nature of Communist expansion and over containment strategies, but initially they agreed that a hard-line, realist foreign policy with regard to the Soviet Union was necessary if some semblance of free market internationalism were to survive.36
In fighting Wallace's bid for the presidency, liberals who supported Truman's foreign policy emphasized how Soviet totalitarianism subverted liberal ideals and aims. That is, they justified the Cold War largely on ideological grounds. As it turned out, however, the Cold War—its infrastructure, military contracts, and commitment to internationalism—would prove crucial to the fulfillment of the liberal domestic agenda in the 1950s and 1960s. As historian H.W. Brands has argued, the Cold War justified the increased power of the federal government, allowing the state to enact sweeping economic and social regulations in the name of national security.37 The Cold War justified a wide assortment of federal policies and programs during the 1950s, including income tax rates over 90 percent, interstate highways, farm subsidies, space programs, education, foreign aid, and even desegregation. Defense spending, which would constitute 70 percent of President Eisenhower's budgets in the 1950s, not only created union jobs, but also allowed the government to regulate contractors. Defense monies had strings attached and helped create an explicitly interdependent relationship between the government and industry—one that Eisenhower worried about, but that comported well with postwar liberal ideas about government-industry cooperation. Among the liberal regulations implemented, for instance, was one requiring contractors to practice fair employment (secured in part through the efforts of Randolph's March on Washington Movement).38
Cold War competition with the Soviet Union also spurred the United States to take steps to fulfill its promise of democracy and freedom for all people. As fair employment advocate John A. Davis told the readers of Fortune in 1952: "In a world that is about 65 percent nonwhite the Communist charge of racial exploitation in America reverberates with a crashing emphasis."39 While domestic anticommunism may have hindered grassroots civil rights activism in the South, the Cold War drew attention to America's racial hypocrisy and thus was tremendously helpful to civil rights activists who sought to persuade white people in power that racial inequality damaged American credibility in the international arena.40
It is unlikely that liberals understood the extent to which the Cold War would help them enact their program, but it is clear that they knew that Communists' continued presence in American life threatened their political viability. Communists in the government potentially threatened U.S. security and thus also the Truman administration's political viability if it did not take steps to purge them. Communist control of those organizations vital to liberal political success—unions, civil rights groups, political parties—impeded liberals' ability to win elections. If a union was divided over the Marshall Plan, or if its leaders were badmouthing the liberal candidate in a state election, or if its members were alienated by factional fighting, then its potential for unified political action on behalf of liberal candidates was diminished. If the leadership of a union or civil rights group opposed the Marshall Plan it could polarize the group, sowing division and inviting attacks from anticommunists.41 The disadvantages Communists brought to an organization—their secretiveness, their allegiance to Stalin, their unreliability, their capacity to divide, their criticism of the Truman administration, their susceptibility to attacks—combined with their diminished ability to organize made them not just unappealing but also detrimental to effective liberal organizations. They had often been more trouble than they were worth; now, in the context of the Cold War, they were poisonous. Liberals had to expunge Communists in order to save and expand their program. They were methodical in doing so and without their leadership and cooperation, HUAC and Hoover's FBI would not have had the power they did.
It is true that many liberals at the time decried anticommunism and viewed the Truman administration's measures as repressive red-baiting. They were alarmed by the ritualized renunciations that those with past connections to Communists were forced to perform before HUAC. They were horrified at the purges and the destruction of once effective unions. To show how liberalism benefited from anticommunism is not the same as showing that liberals intentionally instigated it. And yet, if we look more closely at the most significant cases of Cold War era anticommunism, those that most successfully removed Communists from political life, we will see that liberals were indeed in charge and in control.
The Truman Administration
Abstract POSTWAR LIBERALISM WHAT LIBERALS STOOD TO GAIN THE TRUMAN ADMINISTRATION UNION PURGES AND THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST CONCLUSION
In March 1947, President Truman issued Executive Order 9835, which instituted the Loyalty-Security Program. He was seeking to address the growing public and congressional concern over Communist spies in the U.S. government that had been generated by the claims of Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers, and other Communist apostates. The program disqualified from employment in the federal government any person who belonged to the Communist Party or an organization deemed subversive by the attorney general, or any person who had a "sympat
hetic association" with such organizations. The Civil Service Commission was entrusted to carry out investigations of suspicious government employees but the FBI was heavily involved since it already had in place an investigative apparatus for identifying Communists. Ellen Schrecker estimates that between 1947 and 1956, 2,700 federal employees were dismissed as a result of this program. Historians—and many liberals—have focused on the injustices that occurred because of the loose definition of "sympathetic association," the FBI's involvement, and the widespread imitation of the program by other government agencies and employers.42 Indeed, the Loyalty-Security Program is usually "exhibit A" in the revisionist view of the Truman administration's unwarranted repression of communism, which is still widely held and taught despite evidence from the Venona transcripts and the Soviet archives that suggests we need to revise it.
In 1995, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr published The Secret World of American Communism, based on documents from the Comintern archives in Moscow. The book documented the existence of an underground arm of the CPUSA that had cooperated with Soviet intelligence agencies. That same year, the U.S. government announced the existence of Venona, a top-secret U.S. project that had captured and deciphered messages from Soviet agents in the United States to the Soviet Union beginning in 1943. Venona corroborated Haynes and Klehr's research in the Soviet archives. In 1999, they published Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, which confirmed not only that Julius Rosenberg had headed a Soviet spy ring, but also that many high-level officials in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, including Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss, Lauchlin Currie, and Laurence Duggan, had in fact passed sensitive information to the Soviet Union just as they had been accused of doing by Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers. The Venona transcripts corroborated testimony provided to HUAC and the FBI by people widely denigrated as opportunistic informers.
Haynes and Klehr's work has been controversial. Many find their tone belligerent and "McCarthyite." Many question their reliance (in their latest book) on former KGB officer Alexander Vassiliev's notes, which cannot be verified against the original sources. Many question their ability to correctly identify codenames. Many have found discrepancies in their claims.43 The Nation's Victor Navasky has portrayed those historians who, like Haynes and Klehr, have been trying to verify the guilt of accused spies as reborn "red-hunters," every bit as hysterical as the ones from the 1940s and 1950s.44 These challenges are useful reminders of how tricky historical documentation can be, and how difficult it is to find airtight, conclusive evidence for controversial historical claims. At the same time, however, the evidence that Haynes and Klehr have found indicates, at the very least, the existence of Soviet agents in the U.S. government and research facilities, as well as confirmation that the Communist Party USA was involved in recruiting spies. Claims of Soviet espionage and the Communist Party's role in it are confirmed in less controversial works, such as David Holloway's Stalin and the Bomb (1994) and Kathryn S. Olmsted's Red Spy Queen (2002).45
Despite the ongoing disagreement about specific cases, then, materials from the Soviet archives and Venona indicate not only that Soviet espionage was far more prevalent in the United States than historians had commonly assumed, but also that hundreds of American Communists had made this espionage possible. While those spies who were clearly identified by the decryptions had been removed from their government positions by 1950, there remained several hundred unidentified individuals who were agents at large in the government. In light of this evidence, the Truman administration's response to the genuine national security threat posed by American Communists seems mild, even meek, hardly aggressive, and certainly not irrational.
Much of this information had actually been kept from Truman. In an effort to protect sources and maintain secrecy, the National Security Agency never disclosed that it had broken the code and gained access to Soviet cables coming into and out of the United States. According to Haynes and Klehr, senior Army officers in consultation with the FBI and the newly created CIA decided to keep the existence of Venona top secret, excluding even the president.46 Truman and other government officials were made aware of the content of the deciphered messages, but not of its source. The downside of this decision was that it created the appearance that the FBI was perhaps exaggerating the extent of Soviet espionage in the United States, since most of the known evidence came from ex-Communist informers and J. Edgar Hoover, neither of whom Truman trusted. Top officials in the Truman administration were skeptical—indeed, disbelieving—of Whittaker Chambers' testimony against Alger Hiss. Had Truman and Dean Acheson known that Chambers' testimony was corroborated by intercepted Soviet cables, they might not have defended Hiss and thus would not have appeared to conservatives to be "soft" on communism.47
Still, even if some sort of security measures were necessary, it can be argued that the Loyalty-Security Program was an ineffective way to address the problem. After all, those Communists most likely to be involved in espionage—the ostensible targets of the program—were neither open party members nor likely to be involved in front organizations. The only people hurt were those Communists, Communist sympathizers, and activists not likely to be involved in espionage.
It is true that the Loyalty-Security Program was fraught with inefficiencies and injustice, which have been cataloged in great depth by others.48 But that does not make it irrational or conservative. From the standpoint of liberal political viability and U.S. security, this program not only made sense but was also, on balance, a good thing. The Loyalty-Security Program succeeded in making the Communist Party and its front organizations unattractive choices for progressive political activism and expression. Whereas once progressives and activists had been attracted to the Communist Party's organizing skills and its ability to act, not just talk, the Loyalty-Security Program crippled the party, making it ineffective as a political vehicle and creating disincentives for people to join it or even sympathize with it. The Loyalty-Security Program effectively isolated the party and its front organizations and thus decreased the number of people who would be potential recruits for Soviet espionage. We might wish for a more precise strategy, one which would not have caused so much collateral damage, but given Communists' propensity for secrecy it is difficult to see what—short of doing nothing—that could have been.
The Smith Act trials of 1949, which prosecuted Communist Party leaders for advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, were similarly designed to isolate and destroy the Communist Party. The government had difficulty proving that Communist Party leaders had done anything illegal, even under the vaguely defined Smith Act (which prohibited teaching, abetting, or advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government). The Communist Party did advocate the overthrow of bourgeois capitalist democracy and the establishment of communism, and certainly the most dedicated members of the party—that is, its leaders—understood this. The timing of the overthrow, however, and the exact mechanisms of its achievement were ever changing, depending on Moscow's political aims at any given time. Given the conciliatory party line during the Popular Front era and the war, and given the postwar subterfuges designed to protect the party from persecution, it was difficult for the government to prove that the
particular leaders who stood trial were guilty of plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. Still, the Communist Party was directed and funded by a hostile foreign power and as such it represented a fifth column. The government was within its rights—some would argue it had an obligation—to seek the destruction of such a party, even if it could not prove that the eleven leaders on trial had advocated the violent overthrow of the government. Rather than helping readers understand the government's quandary, historians have instead been quick to mock the government's case.49 The trial of the eleven Communist Party leaders may well have been a miscarriage of justice; the government did not actually prove the defendants' violation of the Smith Act. Moreover, the case set a precedent that spawned similarly flawed cases across the nation. At the same time, however, it was not unreasonable or hysterical for the federal government to have sought ways to marginalize and damage the Communist Party, a party controlled by a foreign enemy, a party that was known to recruit spies.
It is important to remember that government officials in the late 1940s had only just uncovered the existence of the spy rings, had only just learned that the party was a recruitment pool for spies, and had only just begun to understand the extent to which Communists had infiltrated not just the government, but also U.S. research facilities. Government officials knew there were spies in the country but they did not know how to identify them. Historians who argue that the Communist Party by the late 1940s was so weak, so beleaguered, that the government's persecution of it was unnecessary and out of proportion to the actual threat it posed tend to overlook this. Under these circumstances, it is remarkable that the Truman administration was as cognizant of the law as it was. Looking back, one is struck by how often legal strictures limited state efforts to prosecute known spies. Alger Hiss was convicted only of perjury, for instance, since the statute of limitations on espionage had run out. The government was often stymied by its lack of non-Venona corroborating evidence, and the best it could do was ease people out of sensitive positions.50
Most historians now acknowledge the existence of Soviet agents in the government, and even the role of the Communist Party in recruiting such agents, but they have not accordingly revised their understanding of the Truman administration's response to the situation. They still overemphasize the betrayal of democratic principles rather than helping students understand the need for and rationality of the government's repression of the Communist Party. In the revised edition of The Age of McCarthyism, for instance, Ellen Schrecker manages to acknowledge that "documents released from the Russian and American archives reveal that as many as two to three hundred men and women in or near the Communist Party did transmit information to Moscow" without actually changing her narrative. She continues to refer to "the alleged threat of internal communism" as an impetus for the Loyalty-Security Program, as if the existence of 200 to 300 Soviet agents in the government were not a serious threat.51 Acknowledging the evidence against Hiss, she still insists that the significant point to be taken from the case is that it—the trial, the guilty verdict, Nixon, the trip to the pumpkin patch—"gave credibility to the issue of Communists-in-government."52 What gave credibility to the idea that there were Communist spies in the government was the fact that there were Communist spies in the government. Liberals might not have believed Bentley's and Chambers' claims but there were people who did, and it turns out they were correct to have done so. Had the story turned out differently, had we learned from Soviet archives that Republicans had concocted the whole issue, then we could continue to tell the same story. But the Republicans were right on this one. Susan Jacoby asks why the confirmed existence of spies should change anything. The attack on Hiss was still an attack on the New Deal, she says.53 But if the Republicans did not make it up, if Hiss and the others really were spies, then the accusations against them were correct and the blame for the entire fiasco lies with the spies and their defenders. The Republicans merely exploited liberal missteps; that was no crime. Any party would have done the same.
Most historians readily acknowledge that political circumstances—namely, his own and fellow Democrats' reelection—do much to explain why Truman took the actions he did. This often comes off as an accusation, however, as if Truman improperly gave in to mob fear, as if he should have resisted the anticommunist tide, as if he betrayed New Deal principles.54 In retrospect, it seems clear that Truman's actions were indeed political—aimed at correcting the damage Communists had done, turning back the conservative tide, and preserving liberals' political viability in the postwar world. Truman had to show that liberals could stand tough against the Soviets. He had to show that liberals took the existence of Soviet spies in the U.S. government seriously. The measures he took to marginalize the Communist Party, then, were rational (as opposed to hysterical) on two counts. They aimed to protect the country, thereby fulfilling his presidential obligations. And they ensured his reelection, which preserved and deepened the core principles of the New Deal in the Cold War era.
Union Purges and the Hollywood Blacklist
Abstract POSTWAR LIBERALISM WHAT LIBERALS STOOD TO GAIN THE TRUMAN ADMINISTRATION UNION PURGES AND THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST CONCLUSION
The Truman administration's elimination of Communists from the government and its marginalization of the Communist Party were appropriate responses on the part of the state to a national security threat. Citizens have a right to expect that their government will take steps to protect itself from foreign infiltration. What happened in the unions and in Hollywood was different. In neither case was there a real national security threat. HUAC argued that Communist-dominated unions might stage a strike in one of the defense plants, thereby crippling U.S. defense efforts. There is, however, no evidence that the Communist Party condoned this in the postwar period or that Communist union leaders could have compelled their unions to strike in such a way. Similarly, there were concerns that Communist writers were putting subversive messages in films. In actuality, their scripts were only mildly progressive.55
In keeping with the absence of a national security threat, the state was less involved in these purges, which were led by private citizens—union leaders and Hollywood executives, who used HUAC and the FBI to accomplish the task and to provide cover for themselves. In a famous 1950 essay, philosopher Sidney Hook attempted to reconcile liberalism's belief in political freedom with anticommunist repression by distinguishing political heresy (which liberalism must tolerate) from conspiracy (which liberalism must resist). Because all Communists, whether they were really conspirators or merely heretics, defended the Communist Party, they aided and abetted conspiracy and thus were justly repressed. As a liberal, however, Hook was rightfully wary of state repression. In a liberal democracy, he argued, anticommunist repression is best left to private citizens. Let labor clean its own house, he wrote. Let teachers enforce their own standards: "This is a matter of ethical hygiene, not of politics or persecution."56 It is an argument that seems to endorse a decidedly antiliberal vigilante mentality. That aside, it helped justify liberals' attempts to purge Communists from their organizations and reminds us that the purges were in the end a primarily liberal phenomenon. Conservatives, after all, had no Communists in their organizations.
The purging of the labor unions was relatively straightforward, if painful. Nowhere did Communists have more influence than in the labor movement, particularly in the CIO. Over the course of the war, Communists had solidified their dominance in the United Electrical Workers (UE), the United Farm Equipment Workers, the National Maritime Union, the CIO-PAC, and various governing committees of the CIO.57 None of this had been done without making enemies, and in many respects the purges can be seen as another chapter in the labor movement's long history of factional divisions and power struggles. Indeed, it can be argued that United Auto Workers (UAW) president Walter Reuther used anticommunism to consolidate his faction's own power in the CIO.58 Nonetheless, most historians agree that it is impossible to separate union politics between 1947 and 1952 from the struggle to shape postwar liberalism. Labor's agenda was the liberal agenda. While Reuther always hoped that postwar liberals would be more leftist, more democratic, more progressive than they ended up being, he understood that labor needed liberals to represent its interests in Washington. Liberals, for their part, knew their political strength depended on unions.
Revisionists and labor historians like to dwell on the aroused radicalism of American workers right after the war as represented by the postwar strike wave and the noncommunist elements of the left-led unions. They posit that there was a distinct class-based vision of liberalism, a path not taken, a radical alternative embodied in the left-led unions and suppressed by anticommunism and postwar liberals' lukewarm, corporate-friendly "consensus."59 While there is evidence of radicalism, there is little to suggest that it could have become the dominant tendency. Rather than speculate about untaken paths, we need instead to pay attention to the path that was in fact taken. By 1948, Cold War priorities and rampant anticommunism (both within and outside the labor movement) made once effective Communist union leaders ineffective and Communist-led unions vulnerable to attack. The best way for the labor movement to respond to this situation was to remove the source of the problem: the Communists. From a liberal perspective, the Communists and their defenders had become a source of division and chaos that crippled the consolidation of labor as a reliable and powerful part of the Democratic Party.
The anticommunist faction started consolidating its power in 1946, when the executive board of the CIO passed a resolution prohibiting the Communist Party or any other political party from interfering with the CIO. CIO president Philip Murray supported the resolution, as did the Communists on the executive board, who were under party orders to cooperate with the organization. By the end of 1947, anticommunists had won control of the National Miners' Union and Mine Mill, and, in a hard-fought victory, Reuther had defeated the UAW's left-wing faction.60 Despite Reuther's victory, which was a victory for the anticommunist faction, there were unions that retained their Communist leadership, the largest of which was the UE, the third largest union in the CIO. The CIO expelled these left-led unions in 1949 and spent the following years raiding them and harassing their leaders.
The destruction of the UE, a once thriving and effective union, is a sad story. For our purposes, what is most important about it is that it shows how the anticommunist faction used the FBI and HUAC to interrogate, harass, and expose UE officials who were Communists. As historian Bert Cochran writes, "Government officials … intervened on behalf of the CIO against the UE in what was probably the most sustained barrage against a labor organization since the Wilson administration's attack on the IWW."61 The key words here are "on behalf of the CIO." These were not attacks on unionism per se but rather on Communists in unions, and the government here reached out to help Reuther, a former socialist, whom an auto industry representative had recently called the "most dangerous man in Detroit." The FBI and HUAC were able to harass such radical UE leaders as James Matles, Julius Emspak, and others to the extent they did because both Reuther and Truman administration officials, who might have thwarted it, allowed and welcomed it.
Labor historian and Reuther biographer Nelson Lichtenstein presents a different view of Reuther's relationship to HUAC. Lichtenstein describes HUAC's 1952 hearings on Communist infiltration of the labor unions as a "moment of near panic for Reuther," who denounced HUAC but at the same time launched an anticommunist attack on one of HUAC's targets, UAW local 600, a left-led union with strong African American leadership.62 Lichtenstein's point is that Reuther's attack on Local 600 backfired and was one of several factors that forced Reuther to realize that anticommunism was no longer a sound strategy. In 1954, Reuther (and the UAW) criticized HUAC's visit to Flint. By 1955, Reuther was reaching out to what remained of the left and had called off the campaign against the Communist-led unions. Bound by the UAW clause banning Communists from holding office, Reuther nonetheless promised to defend UAW members from having to "name names" before HUAC.63 Reuther's reversal on HUAC, which safely occurred after Communist influence in the CIO was destroyed, merely shows that he could have intervened in similar ways earlier and did not. My aim is not to criticize Reuther, but rather to point out his role in excising Communists from the labor movement.
The purges affected all union members, not just Communists and their defenders. Noncommunist union members were compelled to testify and inform on other union members, forced, in other words, to "cooperate" with the attempts to expel Communists. Many did so willingly, but others were reluctant. As unionists, the reluctant ones did not want to "rat" on their brothers and certainly did not want to help the FBI. They resented the misuse of state power and the violation of civil liberties: one's past political affiliations were none of the state's business. In the polarized atmosphere created by the purges, however, informing was very much about choosing sides. You were either defending Communists, in which case you could be fired, expelled, or held in contempt, or you were turning them in and repudiating your past, which ritualistically proved your anticommunism. There was no middle ground. This was an unpleasant episode in labor history. But it is important to remember that it was created in large part by the Communists, who claimed to be victims even as they fanned the conflict for their own benefit.
The purges in Hollywood had much in common with the purges in the labor movement. First, Hollywood Communists were part of the labor movement, involved during the 1930s with the Screen Actors Guild and later with the Conference of Studio Unions. What happened in Hollywood mirrored the factional struggles in the rest of the labor movement.64 Second, the purgers were private citizens, in this case liberal Hollywood executives, who cooperated and worked with HUAC. Third, like union members, many of those called upon to testify had to repudiate their pasts, inform on their friends, and name names in order to remain viable members of the community. But unlike the union purges, which were confined to the labor movement, the Hollywood purges involved producers and executives, that is, management. Also, while most historians generally regard the union purges as regrettable, they at least take them seriously as shaping the political battles of the early Cold War years. The Hollywood purges, on the other hand, are often held up as the most absurd instances of irrational hysteria.65 The weird, ritualized recantation of one's past, the industry that sprang up to
"There is great chaos under heaven; the situation is excellent."