Many Are The Crimes

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Ellen Schrecker. Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1998 (hardcover): ISBN 0-316-77470-7.

Summary

In Many are the Crimes, Ellen Schrecker describes McCarthyism as something much broader than the movement associated with the career of the now-notorious Senator from Wisconsin. In Schrecker’s definition, McCarthyism started earlier, lasted longer, and had much further-reaching effects (ix-xviii). The book is organized into eleven chapters that are generally chronological, each one examining a different aspect of the post-WWII Red Scare period that set the stage for the Cold War. The first chapter lays the foundation for the study by describing the communist and other left-wing organizations that became the “target” of the McCarthyism. Before the war this movement, while never in the mainstream of American politics, was a vibrant part of the American political spectrum whose impact was particularly felt in labor.

Chapter 2 describes the beginnings of what became a network of former party members turned informants and politicians who made their political marks by demonization of the perceived threat. This chapter also discusses the role of non-government organizations such as the American Legion and the Catholic Church, who incorporated the banner of anti-communism into their own doctrines. Chapter 3 examines how the Roosevelt administration dealt with communists during the thirties and forties. FDR, described by Schrecker as less ideological than pragmatic (87), had to deal with the waxing and waning of the Soviet image in American eyes based on the course of world events. This chapter also recounts the formation of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) through the efforts of the reactionary Texas congressman Martin Dies. Dies, who based his political career on demonizing threats outside of his own constituency (he was a loud proponent of Japanese American internment), is shown as pre-McCarthy McCarthyism (110).

Chapter 4 documents the imagined threat – those individuals and organizations targeted by the McCarthyist movements. Some of these were genuine threats to national security, but others were much less so. Schrecker documents that the communist threat was generally portrayed as a nameless, faceless but pervasive monolith, at the center of a worldwide conspiracy. This paranoid stance of the late 40s and 50s gives ammunition to historians who still follow the Hofstadter theory of the paranoid, fear-infested style of American politics (360). It is appropriate that Hofstadter wrote the Age of Reform in 1955.

Chapter 5 covers the real and not-so-real cases of the Rosenbergs, Robert Oppenheimer, and Rudolf Hess, and their historical backdrop of the Yalta Conference and the fall of Nationalist China. But the primary example given is the Dennis case, which paved the way for association with one political party to be considered tantamount to a criminal act, or at least an act that could result in legal retribution (207). The Dennis case segues into Chapter 6, which documents the anti-communism tactics of J. Edgar Hoover and his clear political agenda (218). Schrecker’s portrait of Hoover is a disquieting one to modern readers, who know much more about Hoover’s discrediting in the 70s and 80s than they do about the immense influence he wielded throughout the Cold War years.

Chapter 7 details the brief era of the man who gave the movement its name. This chapter is largely a narrative, beginning with McCarthy’s infamous Wheeling speech and ending with Joseph Welch’s verbal smackdown. Given that the entire book is about a broader movement that in which McCarthy was simply the most recognizable personality, this chapter – the shortest in the book -- is rather perfunctory. Chapters 8 and 9 detail the continuing persecutions of leftists through blacklisting. The most sobering aspect of this chapter is the story of the high court’s defense of the use of anonymous charges, and what Schrecker calls the bar’s timidity in defending blacklisted clients (303). The Chapter 9 story of Clinton Jencks, the leftist organizer of the Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter workers, is a case study the relationship between the anticommunist movement, organized labor and the entertainment industry. The latter two connected through the movie Salt of the Earth. With its litany of paid informants, public pressure and “classified” evidence, this chapter fuses most of the elements of the previous eight. Ironically, Schrecker devotes more space to Jencks than she does to McCarthy.

The concluding chapter contains Schrecker’s rather sweeping conclusion that “McCarthyism” irreparably damaged postwar efforts for peace, disarmament, labor, anti-colonialism, internationalism, outreach, gender roles, political choices, health care reform, and reform efforts in general (369). Her assertion regarding labor is probably the most intriguing, in that she claims that the movement lost its own muscle during the Red Scare, and in the sixties became dependant on the federal government to affect conditions in the workplace. “Out of shape” and unable to stand on its own, it labor lost its only advocate with the ascendency of the Reagan presidency in 1980 and has not recovered (382).

John Lillard, Spring 2010

Within the pages of this book, “McCarthy” stands for dishonesty, opportunism, and reckless disregard for civil liberties (265). At the end of Chapter 8, Schrecker recognizes the risks of labeling this book with the name of the most visible criminal, even with her emphatic re-definition of McCarthyism. But it is difficult to find a better term for the “disturbing and nasty” part of the American soul that is being analyzed (46). This book correlates well with Anderson’s Politics of Rage, in that it exposes a part of the American social landscape that is at odds with the image we like to project to outsiders.

The concluding chapter contains Schrecker’s rather sweeping conclusion that “McCarthyism” irreparably damaged postwar efforts for peace, disarmament, labor, anti-colonialism, internationalism, outreach, gender roles, political choices, health care reform, and reform efforts in general (369). Her assertion regarding labor is probably the most intriguing, in that she claims that the movement lost its own muscle during the Red Scare, and in the sixties became dependant on the federal government to affect conditions in the workplace. “Out of shape” and unable to stand on its own, it labor lost its only advocate with the ascendency of the Reagan presidency in 1980 and has not recovered (382).

I couldn’t help but wonder about Schrecker’s choice for the book cover picture. What is shown is an all-white, all-male audience at some event. It appears to be an outdoor, warm-weather event, as the men are in shirt sleeves and hats. One member of the crowd is young, but the rest appear to be middle-aged or older. I don’t know why, but they give the impression of being a southern crowd. They could be at a baseball game, a rally (though they don’t look very enthusiastic) or a lecture. They are certainly attentive. Who are they? Are they criminals, victims, or observers? Three appear to have their faces deliberately obscured by the title. Who do they represent? What message was Schrecker trying to convey by pasting her title over these earnest faces?

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