Deadly Farce

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Robert M Lichtman & Ronald D Cohen. Deadly Farce: Harvey Matusow and the Informer System in the McCarthy Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. pp. 227. Cloth: ISBN 0252028864


In Deadly Farce: Harvey Matusow and the Informer System in the McCarthy Era, Robert M. Lichtman and Ronald D. Cohen use one of the more colorful characters of the McCarthy Era to examine its more dire consequences. The authors trace the arc of Harvey Matusow from Communist Party member to celebrated anti-Communist informer to a man shamed and imprisoned for admitting his testimonies had been false. They present Matusow as a man who feels destined for greater things and who readily turned informer at the prospect of prominence and perhaps even fame. He was a man who truly craved attention on a national scale. As the authors relay, when he had recanted his testimony and his use as an informant came to an end, whereas "Another individual in his situation might have elected to write off the political scene and to look for a nine-to-five job; Matusow elected to write his book and face the consequences."(111) Even with the prospect of prison looming, Matusow sought the camera.

While the authors focus on on Matusow, what his story truly exposes is the great length the federal government, especially the FBI and Justice Department, would go to in order to protect the credibility of the anti-Communist hearings. Not only has Matusow lied under oath regarding the Communist activities of others; he was just one of many informants whose credibility was instantly suspect. As the truth came out regarding the FBI's maintenance of a multitude of paid informants, Americans began to question the validity of the anti-Communtist movement. As the authors write, "In response to the Matusow case, the Justice department dismantled its stable of informers. Because, moreover, informers had been used in so wide a variety of cases, Matusow's recantation served to discredit the government's entire antisubversive program."(15) This further underscores the idea that these investigations and hearings ultimately did not concern national security in any way, but rather were efforts at recalibrating American politics.


KA Fall 2009

Deadly Farce is an extremely useful book in understanding the climate and machinations of anti-Communism in the early 1950s. Lichtman and Cohen have put together an entertaining and effective book. Their close examination of Matusow readily exposes the hysterical and tenacious repression imposed by the anti-Communists in the 1950s. They also effectively illustrate how quickly the apparatus of the federal government can spin out of control, and how slow the recovery from such a calamity can be. At times, the authors are unduly close and sympathetic to Matusow. And interviews with Matusow, at times performed by the authors, are cited frequently-an interesting research tactic given the circumstances of Matusow's general credibility. But Lichtman and Cohen are able to offset this with enough evidence from other sources, such as FBI files, to bring the full picture into focus and highlight the wanton disregard anti-Communists had for civil liberties or the truth in their quest to discredit and criminalize Communism.

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