Nightmare in Red

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Nightmare in Red

Richard M. Fried. Nightmare in Red: The World of Joe McCarthy. New York: The Free Press, 1990. pp. 243. Paper: ISBN 0195043618


Nightmare in Red seeks to discover the roots of McCarthyism. In the first few pages, Richard Fried clearly states that “This book adheres to the thesis that the origins of McCarthyism lay largely among the grievances and ambitions of conservative politicians (mostly but not solely of the Republican Party).” (9) These grievances stem from the New Deal and Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Conservative politicians fed up with being out of power and fearful of the direction the country was going, turned on the legacy of the New Deal. What was once patriotic was now considered subversive.

Even though McCarthyism was a reaction to the New Deal, its origins can be traced back to the 1930s—long before Senator Joe McCarthy found the winning combination of patriotism and capitalism. The Communist Party in the early 1930s was “of a revolving door variety; many who entered stayed only briefly.”(12) The USSR’s decision in 1935 that communists should join forces with New Dealers and socialists to form a popular front against fascism further muddled the issue of who was and who was not a Communist. The non-aggression pact signed between the Soviets and Nazi Germany in 1939 split the movement but there still remained a four year period of cooperation that would haunt many New Dealers in the years to come. By 1940, popular opinion had drastically turned against Soviet Russia. Though there would be a slight rebound during the war (when the Soviets and Americans were allies) the seeds of suspicion had been planted.

Anticommunism began to take hold of the country during FDR’s time in office. In 1934 the House of Representatives launched a series of probes against New Dealers. The McCormack-Dickstein panel never amounted to much but it did serve as an early prototype to the infamous Special House Committee on Un-American Activities. By 1938, with FDR’s failed court-packing scheme and a recession setting in, Congress swung to the Right and for all essential purposes the New Deal ended. FDR was also guilty of obtaining information from J. Edgar Hoover about possible Communist (and Democratic opponents). As Fried puts it, “Clearly FDR was no fanatic civil libertarian.”(52)

The Smith Act, part nativist and part anticommunist, was also signed into law by FDR. It required all resident aliens to register with the government and outlawed teaching or advocating the “duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence.” (53) Though the Act would never really be used to its fullest extent, it served warning to American Communists.

Anticommunism continued unabated during the Truman administration. Domestic spying that was justified as a wartime measure was continued. “Truman did not invent so much as codify, institutionalize, broaden, and tighten FDR’s jury-rigged wartime program.”(67) Truman’s 1946 Executive Order 9835, which established the federal loyalty program, is an example of the country’s growing hysteria. At times Truman comes across as an instigator of red-baiting and at others the great protector of civil liberties. It appears that Truman was able and willing to accept a certain amount of anticommunism as a political necessity but that he became disillusioned with the course of events.

According to Fried it was the trial and conviction of Alger Hiss that officially marked on the onset of the attack on the New Deal. An employee with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and later an assistant in the State Department, Hiss was accused of collecting dues for the Communist Party and passing secrets to Soviet spies. Fried avoids claiming Hiss was actually guilty or innocent, claiming only that his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, was not the most reliable witness. Nonetheless, Hiss’ 1948 conviction was celebrated by the Right. “Convicted with Hiss were an era, a party, and a political style.” (21)

By 1950, the country was in the grips of the Red Scare. The Russians exploded a nuclear device in September 1949—evidence that someone in the United States must have leaked information (it was argued that the Russians could not have possibly developed the bomb on their own). The CIO, a long time harbor for communists and Communist sympathizers, expelled a number of pro-Communist Unions. Everything from Modern Art to Hollywood was assailed as being pro-Soviet. Universities fired professors accused of being pro-Russia. From the local to the National, governments stepped up their attacks on supposed Communists.

It is not until half-way through the book that Fried introduces Joe McCarthy. McCarthyism was the name of an era that encompassed much more the junior Senator from Wisconsin. Like many other politicians, McCarthy found in the anticommunist issue a goldmine. He went from being a no-name Senator to the most well-known politician behind the President in a matter of years. McCarthy was a “media demagogue” who loved to grab headlines.(124) With the election of Eisenhower to the White House, McCarthy and his fellow Red-baiters kicked their efforts into high gear. This proved to be a fateful decision. By 1953 Joe McCarthy began to overreach. He had a long list of enemies and his decision to attack the Army as being a bastion of Reds proved suicidal. After a humiliating series of events, McCarthy was scorned by Washington and censured by the Senate.

The fall of Senator McCarthy did not, however, mark the end of the Red-scare. The trials continued. Civil Rights activists were conveniently labeled as being pro-communist, sparking the South’s interest in the issue. Witnesses who had taken the 5th on the stand were nonetheless subject to public ridicule. Indeed, it appeared to be the goal of much of the hearings to embarrass rather than prove guilt. The blacklisted artists and entertainers suffered for years.

It would take the appointment of Chief Justice Earl Warren to the Supreme Court to put an end to the hysteria. In a series of rulings in the late 1950s, the Warren Court began to take a strong stance on civil liberties. The legacy of McCarthyism reverberated throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It no longer held the same bite that it had but politicians continued to assail critics as being pro-communist or anti-American.


David Houpt, Fall 2008

In the wake of 9/11 the lessons of the 1950s have new meaning. Paralyzed by fear of an invisible enemy, Americans once more saw civil liberties trampled under the banner of patriotism. Warrant-less wiretapping—a favorite of J. Edgar Hoover—found a new life. As was the case in 1950 to disagree was to risk political and social stigmatism. Meanwhile, politicians have eagerly jumped on the anti-terrorist board, arguing about who is doing more to keep America safe. Those of different races or religions were targeted as being potentially subversive. One wonders whether certain politicians consciously built their careers on the example set by the fear-mongers of the Red-scare. To anyone who questions whether this time period has had a great impact on the present, I point to the fact that just last week (September 2008) the Rosenberg trial is still making headlines.

Richard M. Fried’s take on the current state of the country remains an unknown. His study of McCarthyism, however, is refreshingly even-handed and insightful. He does not shy away from placing the blame of the 1950s hysteria on politicians from both parties. Though Fried clearly identifies McCarthyism as a direct reaction to the New Deal reforms, he points out that FDR himself was not above spying on political enemies and using fear as a campaign tactic. Truman, almost as much as Joe McCarthy, appears to bear the much of the blame for what happened. Eisenhower personally despised McCarthy and certainly did his fare share of red-baiting but his Supreme Court appointees certainly make up for this. (Eisenhower would later say that appointing Warren Chief Justice was one of his greatest mistakes).

The fact that the Right was so successful in linking the New Deal with the issue of Communism is indeed striking. There were certainly Communist Party members who worked in the New Deal agencies but the public’s willingness to accept that there was hardly any difference between supporting the New Deal and supporting the USSR is shocking. Clearly many Americans, stuck in the Great Depression, drifted towards communism as a possible solution. After all, Stalin’s atrocities were not well known and the USSR had much higher levels of employment.

Fried does a great job at covering a variety of different aspects of the Red Scare. He spends almost a quarter of the book discussing how the Red Scare impacted artists and actors. He points out that the Scare can be found in local as well as national governments—going state by state discussing the different measures passed. There are also great segments discussing how McCarthyism effected the nascent Civil Rights and Feminist Movements.

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