From David Hawkes’s TLS review of Landon Storrs’s The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left , Storrs strikes a rare balance on the contested history of McCarthy and the HUAC.

On the one hand, Storrs argues that the targets were often social democrats rather than communists or Russian spies, drawn to Washington by the radical reforms that FDR initiated. On the other hand, a small group of these intended to take the opportunity to initiate a “total transformation of the capitalist system.” Storrs concludes that these “leftists were closer to power in New Deal-era Washington than anyone not on the far right has realized.”

On the one hand, McCarthy and his allies had reason for suspicion about some of those who were investigated. Hawkes’ summarizes the story of Leon and Mary Keyserling, as told by Storrs, who had access to the private correspondence the Keyserlings thought was destroyed:

“This new evidence resoundingly corroborates many of the investigators’ charges. Writing to her parents in 1932 as a visiting student at the London School of Economics, Mary breezily described her plans to adopt the classical tactics of communist entryism: ‘many of us have come round to an acceptance of the major elements of Communism - altho I think we or I shall work thru the Socialist Party for a while.’ She described herself as ‘sympathetic’ to Communism ‘not only as a Russian idea but as a feasible program when altered for many other countries.’ . . . Leon told his father that, although the Democrats’ electoral success was to be welcomed, ‘without a revolution which transfers power to the workers and sets up a socialized state, little will be gained.’ In 1934, the man charged with drafting Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act privately complained that ‘the country is recovering too rapidly. A few more years of depression would have promoted violence, and without violence fundamental reform is unlikely.’ He baldly espoused the Leninist doctrine of the proletarian vanguard: ‘there is no chance for lasting gains to either farmer or laborer save by revolution, and the only materials for revolt are the industrial workers.’”

Under pressure of the investigation, the Keyserlings converted into committed anti-communists, and revised their life story to correspond to their new convictions. And this, Storrs claims, is the most lasting effect of HUAC on American politics: The investigations “made any critique of capitalism, however constructive or mild, both difficult and dangerous. This imposed unduly restrictive limits on public debate, preventing any discussion of financial ethics, and promoting lax financial regulation.” In effect, they created an atmosphere that identified “loyalty to America with loyalty to capitalism.”

And, Storrs thinks, it chilled political activism, making joining and civic engagement of any sort slightly suspicious: “In 1950 a Washington Post column predicted that, as a result of the Senate hearings, Americans will ‘play it safe . . . . They will belong to nothing, contribute to nothing. They will say nothing, do nothing, even think nothing that might conceivably put them in the way of an ideological mudslinger.’”

Faced with the evidence they had, the House had to act. But the result was to narrow the spectrum of political options, leaving American politics far less varied than Europe’s and reinforcing America’s long-standing penchant for majoritarian conformism.

More on: History, Politics

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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