Many Are the Crimes

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Ellen Schrecker. Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998)

What was McCarthyism, and how did it happen?

To contemporary sensibilities, the term McCarthyism invokes repression of civil liberties, irrational witch-hunts, dishonesty, slander, and excessive exercise of political power. Early in Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, Ellen Schrecker concurs: “It was the most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history. In order to eliminate the alleged threat of domestic Communism…It used all the power of the state to turn dissent into disloyalty and, in the process, drastically narrowed the spectrum of acceptable political debate.” (xii) Her exposition clarifies that anti-communism had become a cultural phenomenon over time, stemming in part from American isolationism and fear and fed with ideological perceptions of the morality and superiority of the American way of life.

The anti-Communist movement pulled a spectrum of ideologies into its wake—and it was the diversity of the foes of Communism that, in part, fed the success of the McCarthy movement: extreme right-wingers arguing in the guise of patriotism; left-wingers viewing Stalin’s brand of communism as traitorous to the socialist ideal; and those with political ambitions including Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon who hopped on the anti-communism crusade as a vehicle to political prominence. And many among the political elites who opposed McCarthy’s methods were silent, fearful to oppose him in an election year, strongly anti-communist, and against the liberal drift of foreign and domestic policy introduced under Roosevelt.

Beyond conservative support for—and the failure of liberals to dissent with—the blatant chicanery of the McCarthy hearings, lay an American culture steeped in perceptions of communism that branded the movement at home and within the Soviet Union as godless brainwashing—an anti-family, anti-individual, anti-religious threat that endangered the very roots and values of America.

In American political culture, the battle against communist became a matter of national security. Communist infiltration of labor unions in particular, fed the perception of threat to the country’s defense, industrial, communications, and other vital national facilities. “Reality had little to do with the perception of this threat. Communists did not blowup factories, derail trains, or dynamite bridges. Nor did the FBI ever find credible evidence that the CP planned to attack the nation’s physical infrastructure.” (183-184)

Schrecker’s approach is even-handed, however; the communists, too, shared responsibility for the movement against them. The modus operandi of the American Communist Party fed the repression: “…the threat that domestic Communism allegedly posed, distorted and exaggerated though it was, also had a basis in what Communists (or at least some Communists) said and did.” (121). “…it shaped the repression that was directed against it.” (5) The party operated in secrecy, it maintained a rigid discipline and authoritarianism among its adherents that was antithetical to the culture of democracy,, and most deleteriously, the party maintained ties with the Soviet Union—a measure Schrecker identifies as its “fatal flaw.”

The party’s greatest visibility perhaps lay in its union activities. In their thrust toward the American worker, the leadership infiltrated blue collar and white collar labor including the CIO, the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, agricultural unions, and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America—perhaps the largest and most powerful of the communist-led unions. Its activities were both clandestine and overt and included political action on issues of race relations, elections, speeches against American foreign policy.

McCarthy’s assault on communism was not new, but grew from the impetus of the anti-communist crusade extant in America since the founding of the American Communist Party in 1919. It was a mass movement that pitted a broadly based and increasingly powerful conservative movement against the perceived radicalism of the communist and other leftists. In the conservative ideology, the anti-communist movement represented, in part, the struggle for social order and status quo against the disorder of an active thrust for social change giving greater power to workers, to minorities—especially African Americans—and to women.


In many respects, this is a synthesis work on the anti-communist movement in America in the twentieth century. McCarthy serves as its focal point, a virulent, dangerous, malevolent actor who followed upon the heels of and worked with the support of the perhaps more-dangerous J. Edgar Hoover. But in fact, the scope of Schrecker’s work indicates that McCarfthy was, in fact, an opportunist who leaped upon the anti-communism crusade that had been intrinsic to domestic politics, imbued in American culture, and both motivated and constrained the direction of American foreign and domestic policy.

Schrecker is identified with the revisionist school of Cold War history, an identification placing her among those holding diverse, yet somewhat sympathetic, views at least toward the social activism of American communism. Central to the revisionist school is the identification of communism with radicalism and the tendency to portray the party’s activism as a thrust toward political democracy, liberty, and pluralism. It’s not that facts demonstrating the extent of communist influence aren’t included in this book . They are. Schrecker is clear about the strength of the party’s ties with the Soviet Union, for example, but her evenhandedness is mitigated by interpretation as when she writes about spying, “Was the espionage, which unquestionably occurred, such a serious threat to the nation’s security that it required the development of a politically repressive internal security system?” (178-179) It is occasionally difficult to tell whether her work is intended to demonstrate the insidious effect of McCarthyism on America or to argue for a benign interpretation of the role of communism in America.

Her most controversial statements, however, come in her last chapter: (the following paragraph should appear as a blockquote)

If nothing else, McCarthyism destroyed the radical left. It wiped out the communist movement—the heart of the vibrant left-labor Popular Front that had stimulated so much social and political change in the 1930s and 1940s. Though the party itself survived, all the political organizations, labor unions, and cultural groups that constituted the main institutional and ideological infrastructure of the American left simply disappeared. An entire generation of political activists had been jerked off the stage of history. (369)

Yikes. And she proceeds throughout the final chapter to analyze the personal, psychological, organizational, and cultural damage she believes accrued to the nation as a result of McCarthyism, including the loss of effective counter-voices in labor, civil rights, women’s rights, social welfare, mass media, research laboratories and academic institutions, national politics, and foreign policy.

While acknowledging that radicalism had never become rooted in American culture, “The disappearance of the communist movement weakened American liberalism. Because its adherents were now on the left of the political spectrum, instead of at its center, they had less room within which to maneuver.” (412) Other authors have agreed with her analysis. Joanne Meyerowitz writes in [[Not June Cleaver]], “The Cold War and the attendant Red Scare severely damaged, women’s organizations, especially those associated in any way with the left.” (8), citing the Congress of American Women and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom as among those abolished in the fallout.

It seems to be consensus that McCarthyism stifled activism; however, it seems equally true that other factors influenced a lower level of activism, and it seems equally true that activism did, in fact, continue, just differently and through different channels such as at local levels and through local associations. However, Schrecker seems to put all the weight on McCarthy, ignoring viable antecedents including the global and domestic upheaval of the preceding twenty years--antecedents likely to create a society wishful for a little stability and status quo. She fails to take into account, as well, that factors other than McCarthyism also influenced growing conservatism during the 1950s, including economic issues and regionally burgeoning evangelical fundamentalist religious movement.

Furthermore, Schrecker maintains that the aura of McCarthyism permeated contemporary politics by validating repression as a methodology for silencing dissent. It seems undeniable that repression or abrogation of what we view as civil rights today is a thread throughout American history and that McCarthy acted, and was allowed to act, because precedent or history had validated repression as a tactic in a variety of cases and circumstances—including earlier anti-communist crusades.

So the broader discussion that Many Are the Crimes seems to open up is the discourse between conservatism and liberalism in America. On the historiographic continuum, her benign tone toward American communism also highlights the relationship between facts and interpretation—particularly in a field and time period such as the Cold War when new evidence continues to appear and the effects loudly reverberate in the present.

People who read this commentary also looked at this article through Project Muse: Haynes, John Earl. "The Cold War Debate Continues: A Traditionalist View of Historical Writing on Domestic Communism and Anti-Communism" Journal of Cold War Studies - Volume 2, Number 1, Winter 2000, pp. 76-115 (--Leeannghajar 22:08, 18 Feb 2006 (EST)leeannghajar, fall 2005))

KA Fall 2009

Schrecker's book read's easily and feels like an apt management of secondary sources. However, Many Are the Crimes is actually a well-researched volume masquerading as a synthetic history. There are some problems with this approach though. At times it is difficult to tease out her larger points, and one is left feeling that this is simply another general indictment of McCarthyism. While her goal seems to be to expose the the process by which it became possible for an alleged democratic society to so vastly impinge on the civil liberties of its citizenry, the structure of the book at times makes it hard to follow that line. If one is able to plow through, however, it does serve as a useful survey of anti-communism in the twentieth century through the Korean War.

Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America by Ellen Schrecker

From the Mason Historiographiki

Ellen Schrecker. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. 573 pp. ISBN 0691048703


In Many Are the Crimes Dr. Schrecker claims McCarthyism is the most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history. She makes the case that it was a mainstream movement as most people shared McCarthy’s beliefs. People condoned violations of civil liberties to eradicate the danger of communism. She claims the security threat did not require all that happened. There were several different degrees of the crusade. There were different parties with different interests. The people that were identified by McCarthyism were communists; the question for Dr. Schrecker is the level of the threat they represented. The stereotypes were not that divorced from reality, but McCarthyism lumped all communists to everything the Communist party or the Soviet Union had ever done.

Dr. Schrecker claims McCarthyism was not a grass roots movement even though many people supported it. It was rather a concerted campaign by a loosely structured network of political activists. It was a top-down movement. McCarthyism was generally from 1946 to 1956, but its genesis lay in the 1930s. The Cold War was a catalyst and by 1949 many people saw it as necessary for the survival of the United States. Only two people were ever killed by the movement, and they were guilty of espionage. A few hundred went to prison or were deported, but 10,000 lost their jobs, albeit not at the hands of McCarthy or the activists, but at the hands of regular citizens.

The first chapter examines the American communist party. It was both a Soviet puppet and a progressive organization. Their Leninist approach did not appeal to American workers who believed in the idea of upward mobility. Americans were also Christian, while the communists were not. The party finally grew a little during the Depression as an anti-fascist movement, growing to 80,000 people. Once people found out the truth about Stalin, the party collapsed. It had 3,000 members in 1958. Their attention to Russia made them an easy target for repression under McCarthyism. She then looks at anti-communist experts. She examines many former communists that were utilized for their expertise. She claims McCarthyism demonized communists to make them seem subhuman, thereby legitimizing the crimes against them. She claims this is a historic dark and nasty part of the human soul, demonizing the ‘other’. She claims this type of demonizing began in the 1870s, continued in World War I, against unions and immigrants, resulting in the Red Scare of the 1920s. The mass deportations of this time were the beginnings of McCarthyism. She then examines the Roosevelt administration. The Roosevelt years were a rehearsal for McCarthyism. Government action in the thirties and forties against communism legitimized the anti-communist attitude. The right was always after Roosevelt and the New Deal so some of it stemmed from that. The Soviet threat made anti-communism a part of national security. The federal government and state governments started prosecuting communist party leaders for whatever crime they could find. The Smith Act made it against the law to advocate violent overthrow of the government. There was also the Alien Registration Act. Communists caused a bunch of strikes, so the Roosevelt administration had to crack down. The FBI went on a crusade to stop communism without regard to civil liberties. Dr. Schrecker claims that there was a certain process that led people to decide communism was a serious threat to America. Famous legal trials were a concrete step that pushed people in that direction. Images were everywhere. Communism was seen as monolithic Russian conspiracy. People believed communists to be perverted, and crazy.

Dr. Schrecker looks at the actual threat that she believed communism represented. McCarthyism was the home front of the Cold War. America decided on containment. Although many were spies, Dr. Schrecker feels they were not a grave threat to American security. The Dennis trial of 1949 convicted communist party board members of violations of the Smith Act. The Supreme Court agreed, citing a ‘clear and present danger’ justified the Act. Communists were seen as criminals. She cites the FBI’s massive publicity campaign about communism. J. Edgar Hoover thus got all of the funding he needed. He wanted to stamp out communism. The FBI was the single biggest mover and shaker that led to McCarthyism. The last three chapters look at McCarthy himself, the results of McCarthyism and its legacy. McCarthy was finally brought down in the Army-McCarthy hearings. McCarthyism outlasted McCarthy, however, just as it was around before him. She looks at the Mill-Milne union’s defeat and other groups who suffered under McCarthyism. She then has a last chapter of political musings about how good liberals were silenced by McCarthyism and communism and socialism, all good ideas according to Schrecker, were wiped out in America.


Chuck Crum, Fall 2009

Dr. Schrecker has written a well-researched and exhaustive work. She openly admits her political leanings, but clearly lets such leaning get in the way. Her statements such as “political malefactors like Ollie North”, “the demonization of poor women as welfare mothers”, “they bought into the idea of upward mobility”, “they were internationalists so they weren’t betraying their country”, “the assault on political correctness is brought by many of the same people”, betray the fact that politics enters every aspect of this work. Her claim that there is a historic dark and nasty part of the human soul utilized in demonizing ‘others’ and was done so here, is without proof. The political diatribe here prevents Dr. Schrecker from some objective observations she might otherwise have made. She consistently speaks of demonization of communists without looking at what communists said about those who disagreed with them. Her psychological theory of the dark part of the human soul for those who disagree with her does not bear close examination. It is perhaps a shame that people in the 1950s and 1960s did not go the same movies or watch the same TV shows she feels they should have, but to blame McCarthyism for this may be too much. She glosses over spying, bombings and sabotage to concentrate on police beatings. Unfortunately, writing this work from the assumption that the left was correct takes a little away from the conclusions this well-researched book could have delivered.

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