"The Growth of the Anti-Communist Network"

from: Ellen Schrecker, THE AGE OF MCCARTHYISM: A BRIEF HISTORY WITH DOCUMENTS. (Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1994)

Back to contents of historical overview.
The Communists never lacked for enemies. Even before the Bolshevik Revolution gave birth to the American Communist party, many of the groups and individuals who were to become its main opponents had been actively fighting other radicals. Over the course of the twentieth century, they became increasingly concerned about Communists and by the late 1940s a wide-ranging anti-Communist network was in place whose members were to take the lead in the national crusade against domestic communism. What differentiated these people from their fellow Americans was not their anti-communism, which most Americans shared, but its intensity. Zealous partisans who often made the eradication of the so-called Communist menace a full-time career, in some respects they were the mirror image of the Communists they fought. They came into their own during the McCarthy period, staffing the main organizations in the field and imposing their agenda on the rest of the nation.

The anti-Communist network was not a monolith, but a coalition that gradually attracted groups and individuals. Each element in the network appealed to a different constituency and used its own tactics; the mixture of offensives became far more potent than any single campaign would have been. Yet for all its diversity, anticommunism was indisputably a movement of the political right. Though liberals and even socialists joined the network, they did not set its tone. Instead, they enlisted in an ongoing crusade whose parameters had long been established by conservatives and whose main effect was to bolster right-wing social and economic programs. Over time, even those men and women who had originally been leftists of one kind or another often ended up on the far right.

Historians have noted the roots of American anticommunism in what they refer to as the nation's countersubversive tradition: the irrational notion that outsiders (who could be political dissidents, foreigners, or members of racial and religious minorities) threatened the nation from within. Projecting their own fears and insecurities onto a demonized "Other," many Americans have found convenient scapegoats among the powerless minorities within their midst. Native Americans, blacks, Catholics, immigrants--all, at one time or another, embodied the threat of internal subversion. By the twentieth century, the American "Other" had become politicized and increasingly identified with communism, the party's Moscow connections tapping in conveniently with the traditional fear of foreigners.

While this countersubversive tradition cannot in itself explain why McCarthyism came to dominate American politics during the late 1940s and 1950s, it does help account for its emotional impact and for its characteristic paranoia. It is also possible that, at least in part, McCarthyism was the mid-twentieth-century manifestation of a continuing backlash against the modern, secular world. Accordingly, as some historians suggest, the political demonology embodied in cold war anticommunism may well reflect deep-seated anxieties about individual autonomy, gender identity, and the perceived loss of community. Such an interpretation, though still largely speculative, is compelling. Certainly, it is not hard to conceive of the existence of the countersubversive tradition as a subterranean source of popular irrationality and xenophobia that could be exploited by ambitious politicians or special-interest groups to direct hostility against the opponents of their choice.

By far the most important of these special interests were those segments of the business community who opposed organized labor. From the 1870s until the McCarthy period, these employers identified the labor movement with the Red menace of the moment--whether anarchists, socialists, Communists, or Wobblies, as members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World were called in the early twentieth century. This tactic of Red-baiting made it possible to confront unions without having to address economic issues. Businessmen and their allies in the press insisted that workers' demands were not based on legitimate grievances but were creations of outside agitators, usually foreign-born, bomb-wielding Reds. Such charges invariably surfaced during periods of labor unrest and accompanied almost every major strike wave of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Closely allied to the industrialists in the business of cracking down on labor militants and repressing leftists were the forces of law and order-- private detective companies, local and state police, and, later, federal agencies like the FBI and military intelligence. Many of these groups had been formed specifically to fight radicalism and crush labor unrest and it was not uncommon for them to be subsidized by local businesses. But they had their own interests as well. Because of the authoritarian mind-set that law enforcement work breeds among its practitioners, opposition to radicalism was widespread. Moreover, their own bureaucratic interests, including the desire to present themselves as protecting the community against the threat of internal subversion, inspired them to exaggerate the danger of radicalism.

The obsessive anticommunism of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover may well have been typical of the beliefs of the nation's law enforcement agents. Embracing the middle-class, small-town values of family, flag, and church, Hoover felt almost personally threatened by radical ideologies and individuals. His vision of the Communist menace extended far beyond the Communist party to almost any group that challenged the established social, economic, or racial order, and he was to dedicate his entire professional career to combating that menace. Even when ordered to curtail his political activities, Hoover evaded his superiors and continued to keep the party and other leftists under surveillance. Because of his enormous success in building up his own power and that of the FBI, Hoover was able to transmit his own heavily ideological brand of anticommunism to the rest of the country.

His first opportunity came during the Red Scare of 1919-20 when, as a young official in the Department of Justice, Hoover helped plan a massive roundup of foreign-born radicals. The Palmer Raids, as the roundup was known, were the culmination of almost a year of near-hysteria on the part of politicians, journalists, and businesspeople who claimed that the left-wing agitation and labor unrest that had followed World War I threatened to plunge the nation into the revolutionary chaos that they claimed was sweeping Europe. The traditional targets--foreigners, radicals, and striking workers--were beaten and arrested, and many of the noncitizens among them were deported.

Though the furor soon abated, the Red Scare left an important legacy. Not only did it give J. Edgar Hoover his lifelong mission, it also fostered the development of an anti-Communist community, with an institutional base in the nation's most important patriotic organizations and small business groups. Like Hoover, the true believers within such groups as the American Legion, a veterans' organization founded in 1919, and the Chamber of Commerce, a national association of local business leaders, subscribed to an anticommunism with targets encompassing far more than the Communist party. They saw little difference between "parlor pinks" and "flaming Bolsheviks" and considered nonconformity to be as dangerous as communism. They also adhered to a dualistic view of the world in which anyone who disagreed with them was an enemy. As a result, they were often more hostile to their non-Communist critics like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) than to the Communist party itself. Keepers of the ideological flame, these professional patriots and their associates seemed marginal during periods when the nation was concerned with other issues. But when the political atmosphere changed, as it did during the late 1930s and again during the cold war, their views entered the mainstream.

The anti-Communist network that these people nourished expanded during the labor struggles of the 1930s. Conservatives within the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had long struggled against radicalism within the labor movement. The presence of Communists in the CIO allowed its enemies, within both the business community and the AFL, to charge that the new unions were run by Reds. Moreover, because of the Roosevelt administration's sympathy for the CIO, anticommunism became a partisan issue. The American Legionnaires, right-wing politicians, and other spokespersons for the anti-Communist network charged that Communists had infiltrated the New Deal and were using federal agencies to further Moscow's schemes.

They received support from Congress. For years the American Legion and its allies had been demanding that the nation's lawmakers investigate communism and do something to curb it. Their efforts resulted in a few hearings with no lasting impact. But by the end of the 1930s, as conservative lawmakers in both major parties began to turn against the New Deal, the professional patriots found a receptive audience. The result was the creation in 1938 of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was to become, along with the FBI, one of the main institutional centers of McCarthyism. For the small-town politicians in the right wing of the Republican party and their conservative southern Democratic colleagues, HUAC's anti-Communist investigations offered a more effective way to fight the New Deal than opposing its economic and social reforms. The committee also appealed to those politicians who, like its first chair, the xenophobic Texas Democrat Martin Dies, subscribed to the ideology of countersubversion.

From the start, HUAC was to focus on the alleged Communist influence in the labor movement and New Deal agencies. It took testimony from ex-Communists, American Legion officials, and other representatives of the anti-Communist right, as well as from the CIO's labor opponents. It eagerly pursued evidence that Communists had infiltrated the government. Committee staff members joined local Red squads in illegal raids on local Communist party headquarters and the offices of front groups in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. These raids produced membership lists that HUAC used to embarrass the Roosevelt administration by drawing attention to the hundreds of federal employees allegedly on them.

By the late 1930s the anti-Communist coalition had expanded far beyond the traditional right. Many of its new recruits, among them conservative trade union leaders and Socialists, came from groups that had themselves once been under attack. The Catholic Church was one such group. The church had long been antagonistic to "atheistic" communism; the Spanish Civil War accentuated that hostility, for the Catholic hierarchy was as fiercely committed to Franco as the Communist party was to the Loyalist regime. The Soviet takeover of the traditionally Catholic countries of Eastern Europe after World War II and the subsequent persecution of the church there intensified Catholic anticommunism, especially within the Polish-American and other Eastern European ethnic groups.

Within the United States, Catholic anti-Communists concentrated their activities on the labor movement. The American working class was largely Catholic and, in order to maintain the church's influence over its flock and especially over its dwindling male membership, some Catholic activists undertook to drive the Communist party out of the labor movement. In the late 1930s, a handful of enterprising priests and laypeople began to organize anti-Communist nuclei within a few left-led unions. Though ineffectual at first, these efforts were to provide the organizational structure for later, more successful campaigns to eliminate the party's influence in the labor movement.

Perhaps the most important recruits to the anti-Communist cause during this period were former fellow travelers and ex-Communists. Some had been fairly high-ranking party leaders who were expelled from the party during the sectarian warfare of the 1920s and early 1930s. Others abandoned communism for their own ideological or personal reasons. They quickly became important members of the anti-Communist coalition, for unlike the Legionnaires, antilabor businessmen, and right-wing politicians, they actually knew something about the party, their alleged expertise gaining greater respectability for what had been until then a rather haphazard cause. They also embarked on the task of educating the rest of the nation about the evils of communism. In the process, they made careers for themselves as witnesses, publicists, and staff members for the various organizations that made up the anti-Communist world. By the 1940s, they had become ubiquitous figures at trials, deportation proceedings, and congressional committee hearings. It is hard to conceive of McCarthyism without the former Communists; the support they gave the rest of the network was indispensable.

The career of Benjamin Mandel was typical. A former New York City high school teacher who became a full-time party activist in the 1920s, he was forced out of the party in 1929 when Stalin removed his faction from the party's leadership. After toying with a few left-wing sects during the 1930s Mandel found a home in Congress. First with HUAC and then as the long-term research director of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), he was to orchestrate many of the investigations and purges of the McCarthy period. The career of J. B. Matthews, Mandel's colleague on HUAC, followed a similar trajectory. A minister who had been a leading fellow traveler during the 1930s, Matthews broke with communism and began to work for HUAC. During the 1940s and 1950s, he became the eminence grise of the anti-Communist network, supplying the Hearst Corporation and his other corporate and political clients with names and information from his famous collection of party literature and front group letterheads and other memorabilia.

By the 1940s, the professional anti-Communists had coalesced into an informal network. They shared a worldview that they assiduously sought to disseminate through whatever means they could. As journalists, consultants, and committee staffers, they worked closely together, sharing information and helping each other find jobs and publishers. They socialized frequently, conscious that they had become, as one of them jokingly suggested, "Red-Baiters Incorporated." The interconnections within the network were striking. Some of Hoover's top aides became key officials within the American Legion. Former FBI agents worked for HUAC. Father John Cronin, the Catholic Church's leading anti-Communist, wrote an influential pamphlet for the Chamber of Commerce in 1946 and then served as the liaison between the FBI and HUAC member Richard Nixon. These professionals, because they were organized, committed, and strategically placed, were to have a disproportionate influence over the ideological and institutional development of McCarthyism.

Chronologically, the last group to join the anti-Communist coalition was the liberals. When the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939 transformed American Communists from dedicated antifascists to critics of the U.S. government, the Communist party lost many of its political allies. Most of the non-Communists who had tolerated the party because of its dedication to the antifascist cause turned against it. No longer would these liberals and moderates serve as a buffer for the party against its traditional enemies on the right. Instead, they joined them.

Despite intense opposition from isolationists who wanted the United States to stay out of the war in Europe, the American government committed itself to the support of Great Britain. Eager to squelch criticism from both the left and the right of its increasingly interventionist foreign policy, the Roosevelt administration began to treat the Communist party as a threat to the nation's security. It imprisoned the party's leader, Earl Browder, for a passport violation and tried to deport leading foreign-born Communists. Roosevelt expanded Hoover's authority to put the party under surveillance. At the same time, Congress passed several laws clearly directed against the party. The 1939 Hatch Act barred Communists, Nazis, and other totalitarians from government employment. The 1940 Voorhis Act, which stipulated that groups with foreign affiliations register with the government, was designed to force the American Communist party to sever its ties to Moscow. And the 1940 Smith Act, the first peacetime sedition act in American history, authorized the government to crack down on speech as well as action by making it illegal to "teach or advocate" the overthrow of the government or to join any organization that did.

Private organizations also turned against the party during the Nazi-Soviet Pact period. Some labor unions threw party members out of leadership positions and others passed resolutions condemning Nazism, fascism, and communism. These "Communazi" resolutions popularized the concept of totalitarianism, which treated communism and fascism as but variants of the same repressive, authoritarian creed. The purges spread to the academic community where several colleges and universities, most notably the City College of New York, dismissed Communist professors. Even the American Civil Liberties Union turned anti-Communist and expelled a leading party figure from its board of directors.

For almost two years, until Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 returned the Communist party to the Allied camp, American Communists were confronted with the same kind of political repression that they were to face a decade later during the McCarthy period. Abortive though that earlier campaign was, it did display all the elements of the later anti-Communist crusade. Washington's imprimatur was crucial; not only did the federal government itself crack down on the party, but in doing so it gave the stamp of approval to the previously more marginal activities of the traditional anti-Communists. In addition, the anti-Communist campaign of the Nazi-Soviet Pact period perfected many of the techniques and developed many of the institutional structures that would become crucial during the McCarthy years.


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/anticom-network.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:49 EDT