Dubiously I investigate the McCarthy era. Rather than a distinctive system or political ideology, McCarthyism seems to be more of a label. Joe McCarthy, in comparison to Pat McCarran, Richard Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover, was least of all, but is the namesake of anti-communism. McCarthy generally made accusations,
“...simply echoing the conservative Republican position on the most sensitive issue(s)...”1
Certainly, there were outright misrepresentations of justice, there were many absurd cases, inspiring liberals to question constitutionality, but the threat was very real – in a strange, sort of Bradley Manning, type of way.
Some cases were thrown out, and others influenced politics on a global scale. Grassroots activists became blind scapegoats in a populous game of numbers, manipulated by strategists who knew the fundamentals of Propaganda, the American Press, its mission, Scapegoating and Revolution. Those were the standouts. Meanwhile, ideological issues drove scientists into espionage, and young Army personnel talked their siblings, and in-laws, into situations which would lead to their execution.2
In the Dennis case, judges used a 'clear-and-present danger' doctrine to show that the fading Communist party may not present a danger to the government but their conspiracies justified suppression, at the time of the Korean War,3 dividing the country into a communist North and democratic South, still staging itself as a starting line for Thermonuclear War, today.
Ellen Schrecker, scholar and professor of history at Yeshiva University in New York, details and divides the controversy which only became clearer in the post Watergate era, with a revised Freedom of Information Act, to show the boldness of our government to withstand the double sided blade that was McCarthyism.
The thesis of the book is presented in such a way that different people may vary in opinion but the facts are clear. Some might call it a witch hunt, or political repression but note that the Communist Party did have a candidate for president, William Z. Foster, in the 1932 Election.4
I saw similarity to the conservative political practices of today, the Kenneth Star(s), the conservative led – election 2012 – congressional hearings in regard to the 'fast and furious' arms scandal, and that was precisely it. Joe McCarthy fueled his platform with supposed anti-Communism, and his career ended with a unanimous censure based on his lack of respect for elected officials.5
The thesis, or main argument, seemed to be that the era defies an easy analysis, to understand the frenzy you must enter the universe, the people targeted weren't saints and they weren't entirely evil, or even just ordinary individuals (they were not really innocent victims) but the growth of the national security state, and collaborations of public agencies and private institutions, to combat domestic threats, was altogether new; the McCarthy era set precedence in our system that was an early contribution to many anti-democratic practices in the future.6
Ellen Schrecker takes the reader full-circle. The book begins with a reality check, as the book closes, you have seen that the anti-communist brigade was not always precise, it was spreading to state and municipal levels, going after professors, and activists in general.
The party is introduced, and we begin to see the “Menace.” Each chapter is referenced with primary source documents. Schrecker introduces the “Menace,” with reference to a J. Edgar Hoover transcript as he testifies to the potential threat of American Communism.7
Then the government strikes. A lot of major cases come out, including the Atomic Espionage case and the execution of the Rosenberg couple. You can smell the Simple Green floor cleaner, and hear shouts echo along solid concrete halls and chambers as you read the final letters they wrote to one another.8
The book continues through the network. The author takes you through the deconstruction of the political framework that the Communist Party had developed over the years. After the major cases, the government went after the unions, Foster, and other leaders of the party. They create the loyalty program so that people can be brought up on perjury, rather than prove they were revolutionaries. They infiltrate Hollywood, bleed into local levels, and uproot teaching professionals. Particular sympathy arose when, at a junior level, many University professors were run out of their profession. Some were able to find positions in southern schools for African-Americans.9
I wonder if the anti-communist fight, which emphasized the illegalities of calling for violent revolution, did not reinforce activism. Lessons here may have lead to a clearer presentation of peaceful protests. Would America have ever gotten down to the real issues of race, and gender, had we never gotten past the plight of eastern European socialists, who's simple aim is a larger piece of pie? The career of Joe himself was short lived, politically motivated, unoriginal. And the legacy would sum up the thesis, that our government is an evolving mechanism, that, events shape the government of the future, and these political practices compound themselves into scandal for decades to come.
College students, activists, anyone interested in politics, history buffs, would all benefit from reading The Age of McCarthyism. Primarily academia is the audience for the book. The general public may not be a target audience because the book is structured in a research oriented fashion. Someone outside of education might not understand the primary source documents in Part Two.
The author is excellent in proving the book's thesis. I found this book in a second hand bookstore one late afternoon, not sure what McCarthyism was. Looking for the authors position, I came to understand that the book is not in support of either side – it's a universal investigation. The Age of McCarthyism is a comprehensive analysis, complete with primary source documents which include articles, transcripts, letters – from each side – and legislation. Ellen Schrecker provides the facts which culminate in her sympathetic, yet, altogether rather neutral summation that the new associations of public agency and private institution were, at least, an important contribution to the “assault on Democracy.” Her presentation of this cold war saga does not lend much opinion, letting readers decide for themselves.
Ellen Schrecker's book is timely. When I was 21, terrorists crashed two commercial aircraft into each of the twin World Trade Center towers. My adult life has occurred in a what we consider post 9/11 America. The onset of heightened “Homeland Security,” like anti-communism, presents itself as, strictly, All-American patriotism. It would be next to impossible to reverse the investigation on members of this sector – as it was at the time of Joe McCarthy and the HUAC. I've observed that, during the recession, with sky-rocketing unemployment, a homeland security fund, and contingencies in business practices between private institutions and public agencies – which took hold in the McCarthy era – post 9/11 security measures seem to have been subverted to the daily activities of a mass, and yet, select group of private citizens who, at cost-plus pay, without regard to terrorism, are performing neighborhood watch, “competitive shopping,” and confidential informant duty on other private citizens. Whether this is true or not, like Joe McCarthy's charges, it becomes very difficult to accuse upstream.
I would recommend The Age of McCarthyism to anyone that is interested in United States History. The book is particularly suitable to people who are involved in Activism because the Smith Act is actually very relevant to their business. Occupy Wall Street spread throughout the country but, as cultural critic Slavoj Žižek says in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously:
“...it was the small crowd in Zucotti Park which really stood for the 99 percent, and was justified in its distrust of institutionalized democracy.”10
As the protests simmered to a close across the country, Occupy Oakland began to erupt into violence. Had it been discovered that Occupy Wall Street, as an organization, produced material which called for the implementation of violence, the persons involved could face prosecution. The events that unfolded in Oakland were somewhat spontaneous, and nonetheless independent of the actual movement.
The Age of McCarthyism is intense, and leaves you wanting to read on, investigating on your own. The book is layed out in two parts; Ellen Schrecker's essays in the front, and the primary source documents in the back. Each document is referenced, and introduced, so the reader is able to piece the artifacts right in as they read, or review them all when they finish with the book.
The book should be recommended to college students because the era is an important lesson in remote causes. Particularly enigmatic authors present material which often subtly reference an entire history of thought. When a student begins in the wrong place, in the history of a subject, they can be swept up into an ideology which the author may not have specifically advocated, or even meant. His works just might be, more or less, a critique.
1Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents, 2nd ed. (Boston: Bedford/ST. Martins, 2002), 75.
4James L. Roark, The American Promise: A History of the United States, 4th ed. (Boston: Bedford/ST. Martins, 2009), 868.
5Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents, 74.
6Ibid., 3-5, 106.
10Slavoj Žižek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (London: Verso, 2012), 89.
Roark, James L. The American Promise: A History of the United States. 4th ed, Boston: Bedford/ST. Martins, 2009.
Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. 2nd ed, Boston: Bedford/ST. Martins, 2002.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. London: Verso, 2012.