Ellen Schrecker, Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Ideology, Politics, McCarthyism, Communism.

Colorful and controversial, Ellen Schrecker's Many are the Crimes offers a series of historical vignettes about the rise and spread of McCarthyism in the middle decades of the twentieth century. According to Schrecker, McCarthyism (mislabeled because it both predated Senator McCarthy and extended far more broadly throughout the population) was a product of several historical trends and accidents: the ideological flip-flops and institutional secrecy of the American Communist Party, the evolution of a small but elite network of rabid anti-communists with contacts throughout the highest levels of government, the voracious empire building of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, and the partisan stratagems of anti-New Deal Republicans to tar FDR's administration with the brush of Communism.

In Schrecker's work, fear of Communists pervaded every sector of society, as evidenced not only by propaganda films like I was a Communist for the FBI but also by science-fiction classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Much as with the Japanese in John Dower's War Without Mercy, Communists were portrayed as both subhuman and superhuman foreign hordes - Sometimes they were servile dupes of Moscow, at other times they were brainy deceivers of the common American. As the Cold War intensified, so too did anti-Communist sentiment across the nation, allowing for more punitive measures such as the McCarran Act (see below), for union-busting efforts under the guise of anti-Communism (such as at Allis-Chalmers), and for the rise of the notorious Joseph McCarthy, now discredited to all but Ann Coulter.

Schrecker closes by surveying the considerable wreckage wrought by McCarthyism - a crippled and gun-shy left wing in politics and social criticism, a State Department bereft of knowledgable Asia hands like John Stewart Service and John Paton Davies (hence, Vietnam), a labor movement stripped of its most aggressive organizers (particularly after the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which passed more easily thanks to anti-Communist resolve and labor bickering over the Communist issue), a culture made tamer, more conservative, and less self-critical, and a plethora of human suffering for those caught in McCarthyism's wake.

Though Schrecker's book has taken a great deal of fire from the right (what, really, can you expect? The right wing has been bashing the Left with "soft on Communism" rhetoric ever since the onset of the Cold War, and I'm sure many conservatives didn't relish any historian pulling back the curtain on the manufacture of irrational hatreds), particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union made records accessible which more fully implicated Communists of the time in Moscow's business, I found Many Are the Crimes to be an insightful and in-depth study of the collective paranoia that swept the nation in the '40's and '50's. And, particularly with the challenges facing America in this pregnant historical moment after 9/11, it behooves us to take a careful look at the ideological and structural engine that drove McCarthyism only a half-century ago. As Schrecker warns us, "though the specific historical circumstances of the early Cold War produced both its content and its institutional structure, the process through which McCarthyism came to dominate American politics is infinitely replicable."

Acts to Remember:

The Hatch Act: Passed in 1939 (in part to prevent Roosevelt administration officials from campaigning in 1940), the Hatch Act also declared that any government employee belonging to a "political party or organization which advocates the overthrow of our constitutional form of government in the United States" could and would be fired forthwith.

The Smith Act: Passed in 1940, the Smith Act (named after its powerful sponsor, Howard Smith of VA) was the first peacetime sedition act in American history. It declared that advocating the overthrow of government "by force and violence" now constituted a federal crime, regardless if the person in question had any designs on following through with their comments. The Smith Act was invoked in 1949 successfully to indict and try eleven Communist leaders for subversion, a trial Schrecker deems "one of the longest and noisiest in American history."

The McCarran Act: Also known as the Internal Security Act of 1950, the McCarran Act called for official registration of all members of the Communist Party and/or any of its front groups. It also allowed for deportation of CP members and placed upon them several other onerous restrictions. President Truman vetoed the Act, calling it a threat to both the Bill of Rights and internal security, but Congress overrode his veto with ease.

Back to the 20th Century List.

Main Page/Family/Links/Gallery/Biography/Soapbox/Writings/Weblog