Schrecker, Ellen: Many Are the Crimes. McCarthyism in America. Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1998.
I remember the 1950s like white bread: bland, not nourishing, and an important part of every meal. Books, movies, and all things cultural talked about “the American way” as if it were the best of all worlds and the best ever created or imagined. Socialism was never mentioned, except in a pejorative way in movies like “I Married a Communist” or “I Was a Communist for the FBI!” We did not smoke dope in Muscogee, or anywhere else as far as I knew. We kept our hair short and our minds shorter.
It has taken many years for me to realize that the wasteland of the 1950s was created deliberately. Too bad I didn’t have Ellen Schrecker’s book in 1953! It would have saved me a lot of personal anguish.
Schrecker details important aspects of the anti-communist crusade from World War I to modern times. Except for a brief period during World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union were wary allies, the crusade was relentless.
Schrecker is an academic, so don’t expect her to take sides. She’s just reporting what happened. Academics are afraid to take sides. However, the sheer immensity of the government-run effort to destroy civil rights, civil liberties, and any kind of resistance speaks for itself.
The author reminds us often that she doesn’t sympathize with the communists. She stands on the high ground of impartiality, and, in a way, that makes the facts about the FBI and the other zealots even stronger.
Schrecker doesn’t shrink from pointing out that a great many of the tactics implemented by the FBI and taken up by other government entities were illegal. A great deal of the testimony against communists and liberal thinkers consisted of FBI-solicited lies. J. Edgar Hoover is hardly the only guilty party. Schrecker doesn’t spare the intellectuals and liberals who all-too-easily jumped on the anti-communist bandwagon. She also doesn’t spare the right-wing union officials who cashed in when, with government help, they drove the militants out of the American union movement.
I’m particularly interested in what happened to the American unions after 1947, when the anti-communist and anti-union Taft-Hartley law was passed. Unions resisted it at first, but here’s what Schrecker says on page 380: “…by the early 1950s, most of the nation’s unions had adjusted to the law and abandoned their struggle against it. It was a serious mistake. Taft-Hartley created an unfavorable legal environment that forced the entire labor movement onto the defensive. Unable to employ the aggressive organizing tactics that had been successful in the 1930s, unions found it difficult to expand. As a result, by the 1970s, when the postwar boom began to falter and the well-paid blue-collar jobs of the members began to disappear, labor was unable to mobilize either the political or the economic clout to protect its earlier gains. It’s numbers dropped… Instead of reaching beyond its traditional white male constituency in the heavy industry and skilled trades of the Northeast, Midwest, and West, the labor movement turned inward and raided its own left wing.”
On page 382: “Its rupture with the left hastened its transformation from a movement to a bureaucracy…. Once the left-wingers were gone, organized labor lost its dynamism….”
The saddest of the tragedies throughout this long, detailed book comes on the last page when the author considers “Can it happen again?” “…the process through which McCarthyism came to dominate American politics is infinitely replicable.” In less academic language: Yes, it can happen again.