Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Professor Schrecker, thanks for coming on the show.
Ms. Ellen Schrecker: My pleasure.
Nico: I’m gonna start by asking you how you got interested in the Red Scare or the McCarthy Era.
Ms. Schrecker: Okay. It’s something I’ve been asked a lot. Disclaimer: I have not nor have I ever been a red diaper baby. In other words, I didn’t come from a household where McCarthyism ruined somebody’s life because they had been involved with the Communist movement.
My background is of a nice suburban girl from suburban Philadelphia no less who grew up in a liberal household. And I grew up in the McCarthy period. I graduated from college in 1960. So, I am a member of the “silent generation” and it really was silent which was because of McCarthyism. In fact, I went to college at Harvard and I didn’t even know there were left wing student groups. They were all secret. Otherwise I would’ve joined. The furthest left that one could get was the Democratic Party.
So, I was in the Young Democrats at Harvard in the late 50s. Met Jack Kennedy, our senator. But, I did know that McCarthyism was an important event or an important phenomenon during the 1950s when I was growing up. And later on, when I did get into working on it, I realized that my sixth-grade teacher had been fired during the McCarthy period for political reasons. And I checked and that in fact was the case. But at the time, I didn’t know that. I just knew that he was gone.
One of the things about McCarthyism was it was secret. That if somebody got fired for political reasons, the employer kept it secret and the person who was fired kept it secret in order to hopefully find another job.
So, anyhow I got into it as a scholar because I had gotten a PhD in a subject I was really bored by and I didn’t want to continue in that field. And I was teaching a course as an adjust in Freshman composition at Harvard and I could teach the course as a mini course, and I decided that I would teach it about the 1950s. And I discovered that there was no book about the 1950s. Nothing! Zip! So, being without an intellectual project, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it!” And luckily I got a grant and began working on it and very quickly discovered that to write a book about McCarthy is gonna be a lifetime commitment; it was just a huge subject.
So, I narrowed it down and wrote my first book on McCarthyism and the universities. Then when I finished that, I realized there was still no general book and that’s when I wrote my second book about, it’s called Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America.
And I seem to have – and I put that aside. And it has been resuscitated because for some reason – and I think we all know what that reason is – people are becoming very interested in McCarthyism. There’s somebody in the White House who makes people very nervous. So, I’m always being asked, “Are we seeing a recurrence of McCarthyism today?”
Nico: I wanna ask, before – and we’ll get to that topic of the end of the podcast, I’m presuming –
Ms. Schrecker: Yes.
Nico: But I wanna ask about your time at Harvard. You said that you didn’t really know all that was going on with the investigations at that time. Later, when you became a scholar of the period, did you look into and do research on some of the things that were happening at Harvard while you were a student there? And did you discover, for example, that any of your professors were wrapped up in this?
Ms. Schrecker: I did. I didn’t find any of my professors wrapped up in it. What was so interesting was to find how much they censored themselves, and I’ll just give you one example.
I was studying German history, and I had a class in 19th and 20th century German history. And the professor was talking about the German Revolution of 1848 and as Harvard professors did, they’d give you a list of all the possible causes and interpretations. And I recall, he gave us a list of about six things, and one was brilliant. One was absolutely brilliant. And it wasn’t until I was teaching much, much later at Princeton that I read Karl Marx’s little pamphlet on the revolutions of 1848. In other words, a Harvard professor did not give any credit to Karl Marx for analyzing the Revolution of 1848 even though it was, you know, 1958 that this was happening.
Nico: Was Harvard a hotbed for these sorts of investigations?
Ms. Schrecker: Not particularly. It certainly was investigated because you could get great headlines. McCarthy, for example, went straight to Harvard and held a bunch of hearings there. Nobody he called up was anybody I knew at the time although later I interviewed a number of people he had questioned.
And Harvard claimed that it had been very good during the McCarthy period because one of its senior professors, man with tenue, an eminent physicist named Wendell Furry, had been – taken the fifth amendment and I’ll discuss that in a minute. And many schools were firing people who did that but Harvard was “good” because they didn’t fire Furry although they made sure that anybody who didn’t have tenure did not remain around.
Nico: I wanna take a step back here. You mentioned the Red Scare. We’ve talked about the McCarthy Era which is hearkening to Joseph McCarthy, the Senator from Wisconsin who led the investigations in the Senate. But the Red Scare began before Joseph McCarthy if I’m understanding it correctly. When and why did it start?
Ms. Schrecker: Well, you can have many different starting points. Go back to the beginning of American Communism in the, sort of, confused moments right after WWI, 1919. As soon as there was a Communist Party, there was anti-communist repression. But I think actually, you could make a direct connection to a, sort of, rehearsal for McCarthyism as it were.
In the late 1930s, when there was a lot of hostility not just to communists but to labor organizing during this period, especially on the right. There was a lot of concern, of course, about fascism, and the rise of the Nazis, and Stalin. I mean, it was a very confused period. And there were a number of investigating committees including the most important one: The House Un-American Activities Committee, which was formed in the late 1930s and began to question people, looking for hidden communists within the New Deal administration.
The main target of these investigations both before WWII and afterward during the early years of the Cold War was in fact the New Deal administration of Franklin Roosevelt.
So, the opponents of the New Deal reforms – such reforms as assisting the organization of labor unions in particular – tried to make connections between these reforms and these reformers and claimed that they were being inspired by communism.
Nico: You know, you don’t see these sorts of investigations happening into other political parties. What is it about Communism that is uniquely menacing to these investigators? Is it the fact that there have been revolutions in other countries? I understand that during WWII there was the discovery of some Soviet spies. What was it about them?
Ms. Schrecker: Well, it was a lot of things. In other words, when we talk about this right-wing political repression, it is coming from a number of different groups. For example, the Catholic Church is very anti-communist because Communists in places like Mexico and especially after WWII in Eastern Europe were anti-religious, against the Catholic Church. So, Catholics are very strongly anti-communists. Anti-labor business groups are very strongly anti-communist. Patriotic organizations like the American Legion had a lot of power during this period and they were strongly anti-communist.
But I think the most important group behind the anti-communist political repression actually was the Republican Party. Especially once the Cold War began, and this is crucial because American Communism had the Soviet franchise, if you wanna call it that. They were in fact the American branch of the international communist movement. And once the Cold War began, it was very easy to portray the American communist movement as a Soviet puppet that was somehow planning to undermine American security.
Nico: The American Communist Party, was this a Stalinist party, a Trotskyist party, like what branch – were they supportive of the Soviet Union, were they dissenters from the Soviet Union? How would you characterize them at this time?
Ms. Schrecker: Well, the American Communist Party was the American branch of the Russian Communist Party, as it were. They were – not all of the American communists joined the party because it was associated with Russia. They had other things they were concerned about, like organizing labor unions or fighting fascism.
But what happened over the history of the American Communist movement, from its formation in 1919 until it fell apart in the mid-1950s, was that it was always, sort of, sluffing off people. If you didn’t follow the appropriate line, you’d be expelled. And so, there were lots of little groups always forming from people who had become dissenters within the Communist Party: Trotskyist, various branches of Trotskyism, of course that also began to splinter. And so, these people to a certain extent also became part of the machinery, as it were, that operated the purchase of left wingers and communists during the post-WWII Red Scare.
Nico: And was the Soviet Union supportive of the American Communist Party? I can just imagine today, for example, if we found out that Russia was supportive of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party and there are conversations happening around that right now that there would be a lot of anxiety and fear about the influence and the power –
Ms. Schrecker: There was. You know, in all of my books what I found is that although the supposed threat of American Communism to the nation’s security was in fact way, way over exaggerated. There was really no threat once the Second World War ended. The “communists” in government were either evicted from the government or left themselves voluntarily. And there was no chance of any kind of communist revolution as you can imagine it was a very small and unpopular party. But it was plausible. There was – if you ask communists, “What’s the party stand for?” They say, “Well, we do believe in a communist revolution but way, way, way in the future. We’re nowhere near ready for it.”
And people who spy were able to justify it on the grounds that we were in a war against the Nazis against Hitler and we were allies with the Soviet Union and therefore anything that helped the Soviet Union to oppose the Third Reich was therefore really helping to win the war. That wasn’t exactly the case, especially with the atomic bomb. But nonetheless, it was plausible. And that, I think, is the important piece that people, especially people on the left, don’t appreciate: that it was plausible. But it wasn’t true.
Nico: So, I wanna talk a little bit about those war years. The House Un-American Activities Committee was formed, I believe, in 1938, correct me if I’m wrong.
Ms. Schrecker: Yes.
Nico: And then of course America enters the war a few years later, becomes allied with the Soviet Union. What was the Soviet Union’s perspective on these investigations? Were they saying anything publically about them? Were the investigations even happening during the war?
Ms. Schrecker: No. HUAC sort of went into abeyance. Russia was America’s ally and you didn’t have a wide spread support for purges. There were worse issues, more important issues than that. So, yes there was – it was, I would say during the war the anti-communist political repression was on hold.
Nico: And then, when did it start after the war? Was it with Churchill’s speech over there, I think it was in Missouri?
Ms. Schrecker: In 1946? Well, the Cold War begins to heat up. Stalin makes sure that Russia, which had been invaded twice within several decades by Germany, would never be invaded again. So, he’s taking defensive movements, defensive steps, to prevent another invasion of Russia from the West. And what does the Soviet Union do? It had liberated all of Central Europe up into Germany. The Red Army had kicked the Germans out and it just never left.
And the Russians ensured that they would be protected by imposing communist puppet governments throughout Eastern Europe, all the way through Eastern Germany. And in a sense there was nothing the Americans could do. They certainly could not have invaded Central Europe and fought another war against the Russians in 1945, 46, 47. The American people wouldn’t have put up with it. And that wasn’t gonna happen. I think Roosevelt knew that. Truman knew that.
Nico: Yeah, there were suggestions that Roosevelt, kind of, gave Poland to Stalin during the war. This was even before the war ended and it aggravated Churchill of course because Poland was the reason they came into the war.
Ms. Schrecker: Again, this is plausible but nonetheless not true. Roosevelt and Stalin and Churchill met during the war, in the beginning of 1945 I think it was, at Yalta in Russia. And supposedly, that was where Roosevelt, it was a few months before he died, he was very sick, he had a heart condition. Nonetheless, he shows up there and the scenario goes that he has been hoodwinked into giving Eastern Europe to Stalin.
Now the reason and the way in which it ties into McCarthyism, this particular scenario, is that one of the State Department officials who was at Stalin – at Yalta, not in a policy making position, but in an administrative position, making sure that there were enough hot meals to go around or something, was a man by the name of Alger Hiss.
And in the summer of 1948, Hiss is accused during a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, of having been a member of a secret communist cell in Washington before World War II. And this particular fact, which I think is true, and then is brought out and emphasized, particularly by a young representative in his first term in Congress from California, a man by the name of Richard Nixon. I think you’ve probably heard of him.
Nico: I’ve heard of him.
Ms. Schrecker: Yes. And Nixon is getting information, secret information, from the FBI that enables him to make charges against Hiss that will eventually end up with Hiss being convicted of perjury for having lied before HUAC about knowing the main person who accused him of being a communist, a man by the name of Whittaker Chambers.
So, with this story, which is – takes facts and then makes a scenario that can implicate the entire Democratic administration of both Roosevelt and Truman for being soft on Communism, for selling out the American security to Stalin at Yalta, and thereafter gets a lot of plausibility and a lot of attention and of course makes the career of Richard Nixon.
Nico: And Joseph McCarthy, when does he enter the picture?
Ms. Schrecker: McCarthy is a very latecomer. He had entered Congress as a Senator at 1947 and had a very undistinguished career. Many people considered him the worst Senator in the Senate. He was looking for an issue and he gets information and support from a whole bunch of people who are very invested in another scenario because not only as they claim were people like Hiss betraying Central Europe to Stalin, but also betraying China.
And he picks up on this particular scenario, the “loss of China.” It happens during the administration of Harry Truman when the Chinese Communist Revolution takes place, and by 1949 China has fallen to the Communist Party under Mao Zedong. Now, again, this was not something that the Americans could have prevented. China was not America’s, the United States’ to lose.
Nico: Although it was our ally during World War II.
Ms. Schrecker: It was our ally. We were allied with Chiang Kai-shek who was the leader of the Republic of China, but he was corrupt and ineffectual, not a good leader. There were people in the State Department who wanted to get rid of him because he was, you know, America doesn’t always pick good dictators to support. What can I say? And he was one of them.
And the Americans are hoping, as they always do, and have certainly since World War II, that there’s some kind of third force that will create a liberal democratic government, but that doesn’t happen. And the Chinese communists who had been leaders in the fight against the Japanese occupation of China, and what you have to realize is during World War II, the Japanese were in control of most of China and much of the war in East Asia was taking place in China where the Communists under Mao Zedong were trying to push the Japanese out of their own country.
So, Mao has the, sort of, aura of being a liberator from the Japanese. And it certainly wasn’t something that the Americans could have controlled. But nonetheless there was plausibility. Again, there were people in the State Department who realized that Chiang Kai-shek was not doing a very good job. They hoped for some other kind of system, some other kind of regime, more democratic, more attuned to the needs of the Chinese people, would replace him. That didn’t work.
And so, you have, by 1949 when the Chinese Revolution succeeds, you have the “loss of Eastern Europe,” you have the loss of China, and one other thing that makes people really terrified was the Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb. The United States had lost its monopoly over nuclear weapons. Again, communist espionage was involved – and it was.
The Russians probably would have gotten the bomb; they definitely would have gotten the bomb. They had perfectly good Soviet physicists and all the scientists who were involved in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb during World War II knew that the Russians could make a bomb if they wanted to. They had the scientific knowledge to do that. And so, the espionage simply made it easier for them to do it. They did it probably a year or two before they would have otherwise.
But anyhow, that sense of the United States losing the Cold War is picked up by especially Republicans in Congress. And McCarthy comes on the scene in the beginning of 1950 waving this lists of what he claims are communists in the State Department who have given China and Eastern Europe to the Russians, why are we losing the Cold War?
Well, we weren’t losing the Cold War but he’s claiming we are. And it gets support. And this is terribly important. He gets support from the leaders of the mainstream Republican party. In other words, he’s a marginal guy and people know, people who are in the know, know that his charges are often totally looney.
He starts out saying there are 206 communists in the State Department, when he’s challenged he says, “Well, there are 81.” He’s then challenged to give the names and he can’t do that. And this goes on. He discovers that if you keep lying and keep lying and denying stuff that people eventually begin to take you seriously. I think we see something like that today. But anyhow, he does begin to make these attacks.
He particularly takes on a rather eminent China scholar named Owen Latimore who he claims was a secret communist giving – the No. 1 spy in America, Lattimore is a sort of feisty guy who’s teaching at Johns Hopkins fights back. There is a Congressional investigation. And as this Congressional investigation begins and we’re hearing charges of Communists in the State Department and denial and the Truman administration is being very defensive about this and McCarthy is attacking the Secretary of State Dean Atchison directly. And this is all happening and suddenly North Korea invades South Korea.
Nico: Yes, I was going to ask about that.
Ms. Schrecker: And that gives McCarthy’s charges an emotional boost. You know? “Oh my god. It’s the beginning of World War III.”
Nico: Well, the dominos start to fall. You heard the domino theory come a little bit later, especially in the context of Vietnam. I mean it obviously provided kindling for McCarthy but did it provide credence? Was there something to what he was saying? Even if his methods were tyrannical?
Ms. Schrecker: Right. No. Because what he was talking about was there are today – today 1950 – communists in the State Department who are responsible for all this. There were no communists in the State Department. People were running away – communists were leaving the party, if anything the party is under attack. What’s happening in 1950? The top leaders of the Communist Party are on trial for supposedly “teaching and advocating” to overthrow the American government by force and violence.
So, what you have to realize is this very condensed chronological moment of the Korean War, the trial of the top communists, the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. You name it! The Hollywood Ten, the loss of China, it was just one thing after another; bing, bing, bing, bing, bing. So, no wonder American politics were kind of chaotic, I think.
And that the Truman administration is really set back on its heels; it’s very defensive. After all, there really have been communists in the government. We know that. I mean, people have admitted that they were both in the government and communist. But they weren’t really hurting American security.
Nico: So, they weren’t spying or trying to overthrow the American government? They just happened to have communist sympathies? Because that’s my question. He waved those 200 names – or 80 names – were any of those names actually true or was it all BS on McCarthy’s part?
Ms. Schrecker: No, I think probably some of them were really communist but many of them were people who were involved in groups that also contained communism. That also were supported by the Communist Party in ways that looked conspiratorial because – and let me give you a little background here. The Communist Party was formed, it was a revolutionary party, it thought the American revolution was gonna follow because after all Russia had a revolution and there were revolutionary governments lasting a few weeks in places like Germany and Hungary, so why not the United States? Well, that was, to use a fine Yiddish word, meshuggener. Crazy.
But anyhow, what happened was there was a Red Scare right after the First World War and the Communist Party, this little, teeny party made up mainly of Russian speaking immigrants mainly in places like Chicago and New York, went underground. And it was an illegal party; its members were all secret. They were getting some money from the Russian government in Moscow but not a lot.
Anyhow, but they’re sort of small, they’re furtive, and they don’t really – the Communist Party is revitalized during the 1930s. Clearly, the depression shows there is something wrong with Capitalism. At that time people weren’t really well informed on what was really happening in Russia and they assumed that, “Oh, look! There’s no depression in the Soviet Union. People aren’t out of work selling apples,” you know, whatever.
And so, Communism especially began to appeal to a whole generation of idealistic individuals who wanted a better world, who wanted to have a more humanitarian society. They were particularly concerned about organizing labor unions. They were working with unemployed people trying to get better services for them. They were also becoming concerned about the rise of Hitler – more so probably than any other group in the United States at that time.
They were also very concerned about racial equality, and this is something people don’t often know. That in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s even, the Communist Party was the only organized group outside of groups that were concerned specifically with civil rights that was actually working for racial equality. And so, it attracted a lot of idealistic people who were concerned about peace, about social justice, about racial equality.
And a whole generation of people went into the party, not necessarily because they thought the Soviet Union was wonderful. They swallowed it, I mean the party was very much a supporter of the Soviet Union. They never really criticized – which was a big mistake. The party, as an American organization, they made serious mistakes.
One was following the Soviet line, which it did. And the other was it remained secret. It essentially expected its members not to admit they belonged to the party. Which was a serious mistake for a number of reasons. One was that the party then couldn’t take credit for the more positive things its members did like organizing very effective, democratically controlled labor unions.
But all of these communists who were leading the labor unions couldn’t say, “Yeah, I’m a communist! And one of the things I because I’m a communist or one of the things why I became a communist is because the communists are so interested in organizing labor unions and trying to get more economic equality in the United States and that’s a good thing and I want to be part of that movement.” But these people had to deny it. Which they did.
And then when it was revealed that they were in the party, they looked like they lied, which they had. And you get people giving the aura of conspiracy to this party, which was really not a conspiracy, except in the sense that it was trying to defend its members by keeping its activities secret. And that was a serious mistake because when the post-war Red Scare occurred, all that the witch hunters at the time had to do was expose someone as a communist and then that person would be fired.
Nico: So, there are various things going on here and I want to separate some of them. And you can correct me if I’m wrong but there are the purges from voluntary associations or private associations I should say, private universities such as Harvard or the other ivy leagues, the private associations associated with Hollywood for example –
Ms. Schrecker: Exactly.
Nico: – I don’t know whether it’s the Screen Actors Guild, but then there’s also these separate investigations through HUAC, through Joseph McCarthy, into people at the State Department. And in those prior associations – not to justify them – but they have the right to purge people if they want, not that should.
I’m wondering through HUAC and through the McCarthy investigations, what justification did they have going after people partaking in private political associations outside of work? Like, are they arguing that it’s treason? Are they arguing that there’s foreign support? That they’re spies? What are the charges there, because as a first amendment person myself we have the right to freely associate around political beliefs so I’m trying to understand, what did they do wrong? What justified compelling them to come before Congress and testify about their internal beliefs?
Ms. Schrecker: They didn’t do anything wrong except belong to this party that looked like it was a criminal conspiracy. And what HUAC did, and what the FBI in particular did, was try to ensure that communism in and of itself would be seen as an illegitimate activity. There was no law making the Communist Party illegal. There were attempts in fact to do that but that never really caught on. But if you could create what were called offense artifacts, for example, let’s look at the Hollywood Ten. This was one of the most important early set of congressional investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.
Nico: And they can call people in front of these committees without accusing them of a crime? They can call them before the committees for whatever reason they want?
Ms. Schrecker: For whatever reason they want. And they can so, you know, as they tried to, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” And you and I being called up today by that kind of a committee, being first amendment groupies, would say, “None of your business.” I assume we would say that.
Nico: Yes, of course.
Ms. Schrecker: And we would be supported. But because of the creation of this National Security Justification for eliminating communists from positions where they might endanger the United States, and I’ll get into that in a minute, it looked scary. It looked terrible. And people – employers, the studio heads, the university presidents – felt that it was bad public relations to have a Communist Party member on their payroll. And so, they simply got rid of them.
What J. Edgar Hoover had done, and Hoover is so much more responsible for McCarthyism. If we had known then what we know now, we would have called it Hooverism. He was a committed anti-communist and had been that way since World War I and he’d been working in the Justice Department and had been following this “revolutionary party” since it was organized and was responsible for creating this scenario and providing evidence that seemed plausible.
And he would, the way that made it particularly plausible and reinforced it was to convict people associated with communism of some kind of criminal thing, some kind of criminal charge.
So, when HUAC decides in the Fall of 1947 that it’s gonna go after Hollywood, and its decision makes sense because you go to Hollywood and you’re gonna have celebrities, you’re gonna make it into the front pages. If you go after an autoworkers’ union in Buffalo, NY you’re not gonna get the same kind of publicity. You’d get as many communists maybe but you wouldn’t get the publicity that you do for Hollywood.
So, they bring all these Hollywood people to Washington and they say, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” And these people, all of whom either were or had been in the Communist Party, HUAC usually was a lot more accurate that McCarthy. They had better information and they knew who was communist and who wasn’t.
Nico: They probably weren’t drinking as much.
Ms. Schrecker: Exactly. And, anyhow, the Hollywood Ten, as they were called, refused to answer their questions and claimed they were protected by the first amendment. But because of this notion that somehow communists threatened national security, even the Supreme Court was willing to sacrifice the first amendment to national security.
And that’s what happened. In other words, the Supreme Court is collaborating with McCarthyism or with these purges in the late 1940s up until really about the mid-1950s. They do not protect people who are communists from criminal charges or from being fired or whatever.
Nico: Do they compel testimony? Are these people not allowed to take the fifth?
Ms. Schrecker: No. They do not compel testimony directly, but actually indirectly, they do. Because what they do is they say, “Okay. You can take the fifth amendment. You can’t take the first amendment because in these times of national insecurity when there is a dangerous international threat, we understand that some things override freedom of speech.” That’s what they – those were the big decisions of the late 40s and early 50s. So, for example, when the leaders of the Communist Party are convicted for “teaching and advocating,” those are speech crimes.
Ms. Schrecker: But that’s what it was. The Supreme Court said – clearly it was not a unanimous decision; there were two dissenters. But the Supreme Court said, “These are dangerous times. The Communist Party we know is just a pathetic little party but you can never tell and in these times you can’t take a chance.” That’s what they said! And so, there goes the first amendment.
But, they did preserve the fifth. But the fifth is the one that says you can’t be a witness against yourself. In other words, when they ask, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” People say, “I refuse to answer that question on the grounds of the fifth amendment.” Well, what does it look like? It looks like they’re hiding something. And they are, of course. They’re hiding their membership or past membership in the American Communist Party.
But why are they hiding it? Why are they taking the fifth? And it’s for a very simple reason. Because if somebody said, “Yes, I joined the Communist Party in 1938 at the University of Wisconsin because I was so worried about the rise of Hitler and this was the only group on campus that was opposing Hitler” – you know, you or I might have joined. Anyhow, the next question that HUAC then asked, “And who else was in this group with you?”
Nico: They asked them to name names.
Ms. Schrecker: Exactly. And that people were unwilling to do. And you have somebody like Lillian Hellman, the playwright called up by HUAC in 1951 saying, “I will not cut my conscience to fit this season’s style.” I think is the way she put it. “I will not become an informer. You can’t make me do it.” Although she said, “If you didn’t ask me to be an informer I would tell you all about my politics.”
And what happened was that the Supreme Court again had ruled that if somebody takes the fifth amendment to – if somebody does not want to become an informer, the only way you can refuse to become an informer is to take the fifth amendment. Otherwise you are in contempt of Congress.
And if you don’t want to be an informer and you don’t want to go to jail, you have to take the fifth amendment when a congressional investigator or any investigator which has that power of contempt asks you, “Are you now or have you ever been in the Communist Party?” Because if you say, “Yes, I was in the party in 1938 but I left in 1948,” then will then ask you to name names. And you can’t at that point say, “I refuse to answer on the grounds of self-incrimination,” because you’re not talking about yourself anymore.
And the Supreme Court in one of its terrible McCarthy Era decisions essentially said, “Once you admit you were once a communist, you can’t then not be an informer.” In other words, you have waived your fifth amendment right against being a witness against yourself if in fact you say you had been in the party. And so, what it looked like was these people were hiding some terrible secret where as many of them, probably the vast majority of these “unfriendly witnesses” were people who had been in the party, maybe still were in the party, would have been willing to talk about it, willing to talk about what they had done, willing to admit that they were wrong about Stalin.
They could have educated the entire country to the nature of communism, its problems, and also some of the good things it had done. But they were unable to. Thank you, Supreme Court.
And we were seeing during the highlight of this post-war Red Scare, which is really from 1947 to 1954, 55, 56, was a complete collapse of the political mainstream. From the Republican Party’s establishment, for example the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio – actually I’ve seen it in the original document – actually wrote a note to McCarthy when he was first waiving around many of his lists, essentially saying, “Well, if one of the people you accused isn’t correct, just keep going. Find another one.” Just encouraging him.
Nico: Were there other people outside the political mainstream outside the Republican Party, because I remember reading somewhere that even Robert F. Kennedy was wrapped up in this.
Ms. Schrecker: Not just Robert, so was John. Yes. Everybody –
Nico: It was probably politically unpopular to oppose it.
Ms. Schrecker: Exactly. Exactly. And the democrats were terrified. This stuff was really hurting them. And there was nobody with the guts, as it were, to get up and say, “No. This isn’t right. There is no danger.” Why? People just go with what the conventional wisdom is. You had – there were a few people, for example, by the early 50s when it was clear that if you took the fifth amendment before a committee because you didn’t want to name names, and it was pretty clear that a lot of people were doing that, people began to stop taking the fifth amendment. They would just say, “No. I’m not going to answer your question.” Hoping that if they didn’t take the fifth amendment they would be able to save their jobs.
That didn’t work, so any lack of cooperation, it wasn’t whether you took the fifth, or the first, or nothing, usually resulted in the loss of your job. The main sanctions of McCarthyism were economic.
Nico: Did these investigations filter down to the local level? Were their local, petty tyrants that were going after the head of the PTA, for example?
Ms. Schrecker: Yes. There were local governments, teachers were very vulnerable, after all they were public employees. And the scenario was they were going to poison the minds of the youth. Well, those of us who have been teachers know perfectly well we have no influence over our students. But anyhow, that was the scenario. “We’ve got to get rid of these people. They’re going to” – so what was happening was communism, or association with communism, belonging to an organization that had communist leaders, for example. You could make up a scenario that was plausible, even if untrue, then you could invoke sanctions against individuals.
And this was done; the sanctions were primarily economic. Political repression in the United States did not look like political repression under authoritarian governments. People weren’t killed. People weren’t thrown in jail. There were probably several hundred people who served prison sentences for something related to communism whether it was contempt of Congress, like the Hollywood Ten, or whether it was perjury like Alger Hiss, but most of the people who were convicted under some kind of criminal process were open leaders of the Communist Party.
It was an attempt, in other words, to criminalize communism. And there were a few people who actually went to prison for membership in the Communist Party. There were two, I think and Kennedy finally pardoned one of them.
Nico: I wanna close up here because we only have about five minutes. I wanna get down to how this ended. Was it Walter Cronkite? Was it the army? How did this all end? Because the Soviet Union didn’t end in the late 1950s – it kept going.
Ms. Schrecker: It kept going but you know what? The witch hunters ran out of witches. People were leaving the Communist Party in droves by 1956 and it was getting clearer and clearer, especially to people who are becoming aware of just how over exaggerated all of this was. People were – especially within the Democratic Party – are beginning to get a little backbone because McCarthy is such a, you know, out of control individual that he becomes vulnerable. You have Edward R. Murrow beginning to unravel some of these accusations –
Nico: It was Edward R. Murrow not Walter Cronkite who said, “Have you no shame?” Right? Yeah. Okay. I got that wrong.
Ms. Schrecker: No, that was not even Edward R. Murrow. That was the Army. That was what brought McCarthy himself down was that President Eisenhower didn’t have the courage to attach McCarthy. And Eisenhower deserved both condemnation for not taking McCarthy on and credit for finally taking him on, which he did after McCarthy starts attacking the Army. Well, what was Eisenhower’s background? He was a general! His entire career was in the Army and McCarthy had directly attacked a general named Ralph Zwicker, who was one of Eisenhower’s protégés.
So, he finally, as it were, goes for McCarthy and the rest as we call it is history. The man who said, “Have you no decency, sir? No sense of decency?” was the chief lawyer for the Army and McCarthy had just finished attacking one of the younger members of this guy’s law firm after he had promised not to. Everybody knew this young man was somehow vulnerable; he belonged to a group that was under supposedly communist control.
So, the Army’s lawyer Joseph Welsh says, you know, basically, “Have you no decency? You’ve ruined this young man’s life!” Well, they hadn’t ruined the young man’s life but nonetheless it was a very important moment – public moment – in the unraveling of McCarthyism. But it was happening. Liberals were beginning to stand up for things rather than panic at the thought that they might be accused of being communist.
And also, there were other issues. You’ve heard about something called Brown v. Board of Education, probably?
Well, I think that the Supreme Court in part had been waiting, sort of, was planning to eliminate legal segregation and it was willing to sacrifice, and I hate to say this, they were willing to sacrifice the Reds for the Blacks. They knew that in certain circles both were very unpopular.
So, the Supreme Court got a bit of backbone as well and began to, for example, when somebody is convicted of contempt before a congressional committee, not taking the fifth, the Supreme Court would think of a technical reason why they could overturn that person’s convicting on the grounds that the committee wasn’t asking relevant questions. The questions had to be related to a legislative goal and asking someone, “Are you now or have you ever been?” is not a legislative goal.
Nico: Were there outside groups that helped – the ACLU, were they defending some of these people who were brought in front of these committees? I remember reading an Aryeh Neier’s book, Defending My Enemy, there was a period where the ACLU itself tried to expel a member for being a communist.
Ms. Schrecker: It did! It expelled a woman named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn who was a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, the ruling group of the American Communist Party. And she had been a labor organizer and was on the board before World War II and was kicked out. And during the height of McCarthyism, the ACLU refused to defend anybody who was a communist.
Nico: Well, that says a lot. It really was a silent generation even when you don’t have your premier civil liberties organization willing to step up to defend civil liberties, free association.
Ms. Schrecker: And there was a left-wing civil liberties group, it was called the Emergency Committee for Civil Liberties, which included a whole bunch of left-wing civil libertarians, and I think the ACLU today recognizes, as Aryeh Neier put it, that it had done something not great during the McCarthy period. Same thing, for example, within the academic community. The AAUP was completely quiet for about six years during the height of the McCarthy period.
Nico: And to wrap up here, to put a bow on it, HUAC didn’t end in 1956, it kept going. Were there still investigations? When did it finally close its doors?
Ms. Schrecker: It petered out slowly. Largely because there were other issues. Eisenhower, after all, was trying to at least make some arrangements with the Soviet Union over nuclear weapons. There was the beginning of arms limitation talks, at least.
So, the terror of the early Cold War was abating and the civil rights movement was heating up. So, there were other issues. All of the sudden it wasn’t so important to get rid of non-existent communists who were posing non-existing threats to American security. And –
Nico: And Joseph McCarthy dies.
Ms. Schrecker: And Joseph McCarthy, after the Army McCarthy hearings, he is censured by the Senate for attacking his general and for behaving – I forget what the language is – but in ways that were disrespectful. And he essentially drinks himself to death. It takes him two years and he dies in 1957. And the Supreme Court begins rolling things back.
By the 1960s HUAC is attacking peace groups and there’s a wonderful moment when they attack an organization, a feminist organization, we’re gonna see a women’s movement as well as a movement for African-American rights, they’re attacking this group called Women Strike for Peace. And the women who are going to be questioned, “Are you now or have you ever been,” are thrilled. They’re gonna be able to talk about their organization. They dress up in gorgeous clothes, and their supporters, as they go up to the witness stand, hand them bouquets of flowers. They’re making fun of the committee and that just, sort of, deflates it.
Nico: Well, I think we have to leave it there. And what was the name of that feminist group again?
Ms. Schrecker: A group called Women Strike for Peace.
Nico: Very good. Well, I’ll put them in the show notes. Are there any last words, anything that you think’s really important for our listeners to understand about this period that we haven’t covered yet?
Ms. Schrecker: Yes! The main thing is that the attack on individuals, though terrible for the individuals, was not as bad as the political impact of McCarthyism. And I think it’s the elimination of so many political possibilities that McCarthyism achieved and that was the real damage that it was done.
Nico: Very good! I think we have to leave it there. We got a lot for our listeners to chew on and I kept you longer than I said I would keep you so I apologize –
Ms. Schrecker: No, I kept you longer.
Nico: No, it’s all very good and I hope to have you on again sometime in the future because you discuss academic freedom outside of the McCarthy Era. It’s part of your work. You wrote a book about it.
Ms. Schrecker: Yeah. I’m writing a book now about academic freedom in the 60s.
Nico: Oh, very good. Well, we’ll have to have you back on the show when that comes out. You’re also working with the American Association of University Professors, running their blog for a number of years. So, I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to get to that on this show but it just gives us another opportunity to talk in the future.
Ms. Schrecker: Okay. Thanks a lot and it was a pleasure talking with you.
Nico: A pleasure talking with you as well.
Ms. Schrecker: Okay.