"The Politics of Scholarship: Liberals, Anti-Communism, and McCarthyism"

Athan Theoharis

During the 1950's American liberals, influenced both by their identification with the New Deal presidency and their acceptance of the anti-Communist politics of the cold war years, sought to explain McCarthyism in terms of a mass-based, essentially non- partisan and nonconservative threat to American institutions. According to such scholars as Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Richard Hofstadter, and the other contributors to The New American Right, McCarthyism was an irrational popular response to the rise of the modern secular state. Like Populism, McCarthyism was not only a dangerous popular movement, they argued; it was also rooted in resentments produced by status anxiety. This analysis of the McCarthy phenomenon reinforced the belief of these scholars in the irrationality of mass-based protest and encouraged them to place their confidence in interest-group politics, in public and private bureaucracies, and in the educated elite that governed both. In these institutions, they hoped to find a bulwark against the dangers of popular passion.

Articulating these concerns, Hofstadter lamented the lack in the "populistic culture" of the United States of a "responsible elite with political and moral autonomy." Similarly, Lipset attributed McCarthyism to "the lack of an integrated cultural and political control structure--of a distinct aristocratic elite to play an integrative and leadership function." Peter Viereck, another contributor to The New American Right, charged that "The McCarthyites threaten liberty precisely because they are so egalitarian, ruling foreign policy by mass telegrams to the Executive Branch and by radio speeches and Gallup Poll." Finally, Talcott Parsons argued that a political elite composed "of 'politicians' whose specialty consist in the management of public opinion, and of 'administrators' in both civil and military services, must be greatly strengthened. It is here," he concluded, "that the practical consequences of McCarthyism run most directly counter to the realistic needs of the time."

This interpretation has been subjected to a brilliantly persuasive critique by Michael Paul Rogin who argues, in The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter, that there was no continuity between Populism and McCarthyism and that, even more important, McCarthyism was not a mass movement of the "radical" right, but rather the product of routine conservative politics. McCarthyism did not split apart existing coalitions or create a new mass base; it was created by the actions and inactions of conservative and liberal elites--precisely those groups to whom the liberal pluralists would turn to in their quest for an orderly society.

This analysis, however insightful its critique of the deficiencies of pluralistic theory, fails to discuss certain basic assumptions of these liberal scholars, especially their identification of presidential leadership with the national interest and their uncritical acceptance of the containment/loyalty-security policies of the Truman Administration. This essay intends to extend Rogin's analysis and specifically to suggest that McCarthyism can best be understood as the product of the anti-Communist politics of the early cold-war years.


For American liberals, the experiences of the 1950's shaped their conception of the American past and contributed to the popularity of consensus historiography. Writing during these years, liberal scholars came to celebrate the American past and to extol the beneficence of American political and economic institutions. Historians and other social scientists were especially supportive of activist presidential leadership. Strongly influenced by their identification with the New Deal presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and convinced by the experiences of World War II and the early cold war that public opinion was a potentially dangerous impediment to the conduct of American diplomacy, many liberal scholars sought to reinterpret democratic principles to justify the need for dynamic, even manipulative, executive leadership. To them, the President was the "central instrument of democracy," the national teacher, the American public's "one authentic trumpet." Because the President alone represented all the people, and because he alone had command of the expertise necessary to make policy, he was therefore "the common reference point for social effort." Reformers were admonished to seek change through a vigorous executive rather than through Congress or through mass public pressure. Foreign policy, these scholars continued, was almost exclusively the preserve of the President. One noted authority, indeed, approvingly quoted Harry Truman's bluntly revealing remark to the Jewish War Veterans: "I make American foreign policy."

This exalted view of the presidency was given wide currency during the 1950's by Clinton Rossiter in The American Presidency. Written, as Rossiter himself noted, out of a "feeling of veneration, if not exactly reverence, for the authority and dignity of the presidency," The American Presidency extolled the strong-minded executive who bent Congress and the public to his will and who left as his legacy a strengthened executive office. The greatness of presidents, according to this calculus, lay in their success in leading a passive, if not recalcitrant, public into accepting new responsibilities.

Not only did Rossiter and other liberal scholars commend activist presidents; they particularly supported the substantive policy decisions of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. For Rossiter, Roosevelt's greatness lay in the leadership he provided during depression and war, and Truman's in his responses to the international crisis of the cold war. "Not one of [Truman's] grave steps in foreign and military affairs has yet been proven wrong, stupid, or contrary to the best judgment and interests of the American people," Rossiter contended. When Truman left office in January 1953, "we stood before the world a free, liberty-loving people with no more wounds and neuroses than we probably deserved."

Rossiter's judgments, delivered in 1956, reflected the dominant concerns of the "new liberalism" that emerged during the cold-war years. Unlike their predecessors in the thirties, the new liberals did not consider themselves a part of the left but rather what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has called the "vital center". As such, they rejected the crusading rhetoric of the thirties with its blunt appeals to class interests and its demands for redistributive social change. Moreover, the new liberals had discovered in the "mixed" economy of the postwar years an alternative both to unregulated capitalism and to socialism. This economy--for them, an interest-group "democracy" presided over by "progressive" businessmen, trade unionists, and pragmatic politicians--had the dual advantage of ensuring prosperity and of providing the means to avoid class conflict. Reform, the new liberals thus argued, could be achieved without conflict through economic growth.

Again unlike the liberals of the thirties, the new liberals were also militantly anti-Communist. An excerpt from the organizational statement of principle and purpose of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the chief vehicle for the new liberalism, captures this concern: "Because the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere, America must furnish political and economic support to democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over." This language--indistinguishable from the later-announced Truman Doctrine's emphases on freedom and globalism--served to set the ADA apart from the postwar American left. Inevitably, then, with the intensification of the cold war, the ADA emerged as one of the principal and frequently uncritical defenders of the foreign and internal security policies of the Truman Administration.

During the late 1940's specifically, the ADA endorsed the Truman Administration's crusading anti-Communism, its loyalty program, and attacked Henry Wallace and other cold-war critics as naive and sentimental dupes of the Communists. Their criticisms even of the blatantly partisan and reactionary House Committee on Un-American Activities centered on that Committee's methods not objectives--in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the committee's "promiscuous and unprincipled attack on radicalism." Writing in 1949, Schlesinger further extolled the need for a federal loyalty program, objecting only to certain procedural aspects of the recently established presidential program. Even then, Schlesinger muted his criticisms--one might have concluded that Schlesinger's objections were not to specific provisions of Truman's loyalty program (which they were) but to possible future abuses. And, when Schlesinger detailed examples of the precipitous and unfair dismissal of certain federal employees under the program, he lamely maintained that the executive branch only acted thusly because it had been "stampeded" by pressure from "witch-hunters in the Eightieth Congress."

Similarly, in the years after 1947 and as the result of internal decisions, the ADA came to subordinate liberal principles con- cerning the right to dissent and respect for individual liberties to the attainment of an effective anti-communist program. Dissent, for many ADAers, became a burdensome luxury to be exercised with cautious restraint, if at all. Thus, one ADAer, when recommending a strategy intended to undercut liberal support for Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential bid, lamented

"Every time a non-Wallace liberal pours forth a volley of criticism of our foreign policy (frequently well deserved) without making clear in the same breath where he stands and what his positive proposals are, he is clasped to the bosom of the Wallace people and drives another herd of bewildered innocents in that direction."

A more dramatic index of this shift is contained in the ADA's disparate responses in 1947 and then in 1950-51 to the loyalty procedures instituted by Truman and to internal security legislation then under congressional consideration. In 1947 the ADA publicly condemned what it considered the repressive and unfair procedures of Truman's loyalty program. At the same time, the ADA forthrightly opposed congressional enactment of internal security legislation, arguing that the measures then under consideration by the Congress were unnecessary and unconstitutional. In contrast, by 1950 the ADA would support an internal security bill drafted by the Administration--a bill that contained provisions the ADA had condemned in 1947.

Although the ADA opposed the Communist registration bill urged by Richard Nixon and Pat McCarran, they did not condemn the drastic preventive detention bill which several liberal Democrats offered as an alternative. Indeed Hubert Humphrey, an ADA founder, was one of the bill's sponsors, while ADA executive secretary James Loeb, Jr., defended the measure as one which was "justified both by realistic justice and by political expediency." Both the registration bill and the preventive detention plan were included in the McCarran Internal Security Act, which finally passed Congress in 1950. (See SISS at work in hounding those named in anticommunist testimony, and scrutinizing the writings of scientists with doubts about atomic warfare.) Following the bill's passage, the national leadership of the ADA concluded that effective purpose would be served by continued public opposition to the act on the part of the ADA or a liberal-labor coalition alone. And in 1951 the ADA did not publicly condemn Truman's executive order amending the dismissal standard of the loyalty program. Rather, the ADA leadership sought a private meeting with the President to express ADA concern "with many of the injustices of the present program."

The new liberals, moreover, were poorly equipped to resist the conservative reaction that set in during the late forties. Fearful of being labeled radical, they would further mute their demands for social change. Increasingly, they stressed their belligerent anti-Communism, became even more fearful of public debate and an aroused citizenry, and drew closer still to established institutions. These factors, in turn, deeply influenced their perception of the emergent McCarthyism of the early 1950's.


Because liberals had come to identify the national interest with executive recommendations, to doubt the rationality of the American public, and to accept uncritically the necessity and sensibility of the anti-Communist politics of the Truman Administration, they were ill-prepared to understand the McCarthy phenomenon. This was true of the "new" liberals in general, and of the contributors to The New American Right in particular.

Because they identified with "responsible" conservatives instead of "sentimental" liberals, the contributors to The New American Right tended, in the first place, to minimize the continuity between McCarthyism and traditional conservative politics. Instead, they stressed the upper-class background of many of McCarthy's victims. Thus, Richard Hofstadter argued that the McCarthyites were "much happier to have as their objects of hatred the Anglo-Saxon, eastern, Ivy League intellectual gentlemen than they are with such bedraggled souls as, say, the Rosenbergs." Similarly, Seymour Martin Lipset held that "The image of the Communist which emerges time and again in [McCarthy's] speeches is one of an easterner, usually of Anglo-Saxon Episcopalian origins, who has been educated in schools such as Groton and Harvard." In national politics, Lipset continued, "McCarthy's attacks are probably much more important in terms of their appeal to status frustration than to resentful isolationism. In the identification of traditional symbols of status with pro-Communism, the McCarthy followers, of non-Anglo-Saxon extraction, can gain a feeling of superiority over the traditionally privileged groups."

Moreover, Hofstadter denied that McCarthyism was conservative politics; rather it was "pseudo-conservative." "... its exponents," Hofstadter contended, "although they believe themselves to be conservative and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions, and institutions."

Nowhere, however, do Hofstadter, Lipset, or any of the other contributors to The New American Right provide empirical evidence to support these sweeping judgments about the motivations behind popular support for McCarthyism--either by documenting what was "in the minds" of the McCarthy supporters or by establishing that the McCarthyites were "happier" attacking eastern patricians than Jewish scientists. These impressionistic judgments derived substance, and for the time appeared convincing, because they captured the tone and focus of many of Senator McCarthy's speeches.

The denial that McCarthyism was a form of conservative politics, and the disjunction that Hofstadter posited between "real" and "pseudo" conservatism, moreover, constituted an idealization of postwar American conservatism and a serious misreading of McCarthyism. To begin with, such an analysis ignored the fact that the established conservative political leaders, and most notably Senator Robert Taft (Republican-Ohio), did not repudiate McCarthy; in fact, they actively supported him. Conservatives, in addition, did not differ from McCarthy in their conception of the nature of the internal security problem confronting the nation or how to rectify it. In fact, a politics of anti-Communism was central to conservative strategy and deeply influenced the reactions of many conservatives to the Truman Administration's foreign and internal security policies.

Throughout the cold-war years conservatives in Congress sought to Red-bait the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. Even before McCarthy captured the "Communists-in-Government" issue, conservatives had relied upon a politics of anti-Communism in their effort to discredit the New Deal. In this effort, they had utilized the investigative hearing process to expose the "disloyal" beliefs and associations of New Deal personnel. In addition, in their public position on foreign policy questions, as early as 1945, but increasingly after 1948, conservatives had pointedly attributed Soviet expansion to "Communist influence" within the federal government. Following McCarthy's dramatic impact on national politics, these same conservatives rallied to the senator's banner. A serious internal security problem existed, they charged; only an independent, and necessarily Republican, Congress could resolve it.

Hofstadter's distinction between real and pseudo conservatism is further belied by the responses of Herbert Hoover (a "real" conservative if Hofstadter's distinction has any meaning) to an invitation from President Truman. In a letter dated November 25, 1950, Truman asked the former Republican President to accept the chairmanship of a proposed presidential commission on internal security and individual rights.

The idea of establishing such a commission had been seriously discussed within the White House since June 1950. Truman, however, did not act upon this suggestion of his White House staff until after the November 1950 congressional elections, the results of which seemed to demonstrate both McCarthy's appeal and public doubts about the adequacy of the Administration's loyalty program. Having decided to establish the commission, the President and his aides carefully considered whom to appoint. They sought to ensure a blue-ribbon panel balanced to include respected political, religious, and business leaders; more importantly, Truman pressed Hoover to head the study.

Hoover's presence, as chairman of the proposed presidential commission investigating federal loyalty procedures, could have disarmed possible McCarthyite charges of "whitewash" (earlier raised in response to the Tydings committee report). Insofar as this study might have defused an effective Republican campaign issue, Hoover could not but have been somewhat discomforted. Yet, in 1947 the former Republican President had agreed to accept Truman's offer of the chairmanship of a commission investigating the efficiency of the federal bureaucracy (for Hoover, the New Deal). In this action, Hoover's chairmanship had indirectly served to defuse those Republican criticisms of the New Deal that had emphasized waste and inefficiency.

At the same time, should Hoover have accepted the chairmanship of this proposed internal security commission, he would have commanded considerable leverage vis-a-vis the President in the area of internal security improvements. Given the politics of 1950, it would have been politically inexpedient for Truman to have opposed any recommendations Hoover might make concerning additional internal security legislation or tightened procedures in the federal loyalty program.

Significantly, when declining Truman's offer, Hoover affirmed

"the current lack of confidence arises from the belief that there are men in Government (not Communists) whose attitudes are such that they have disastrously advised on policies in relation to Communist Russia. The suspicion is abroad that they continue in Government.

...Without a wide-spread inquiry into the past and present of such men and the facts, the answer to this problem could not be determined. It would require the authority to examine on oath,...and to include access to all files....Such powers could come jointly from yourself and a Congressional Act. The personnel of such a Commission would need be approved by the leaders of both parties in that body ....

...I suggest that a statement might be issued by you that you would be glad if the Congress would either create such a Commission or would itself make an inquiry on the broadest basis,...."

In May 1952, moreover, a disparate group of conservatives (including, among others, Fulton Lewis, Jr., Roscoe Pound, Clarence Manion, Felix Morley, Norman Vincent Peale--prominent conservative thinkers who were not directly involved in partisan politics) endorsed a ten-page pamphlet entitled "Senator McCarthy" and published by Freedom Clubs, Inc. The pamphlet conceded that McCarthy's earlier attacks on the State Department had been "rude and crude." It rationalized this crudeness as the natural reaction to the "pugnacious refusal of the Truman Administration to assist Congressional investigations of the loyalty of Federal employees." The recent investigations conducted by the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the pamphlet concluded, had "already substantiated a large part of the charges of Senator McCarthy, and well may lead to proof of all of these charges."


Because they were enamored with the office of the presidency, and because they feared and distrusted the people, the new liberals failed to understand how the manipulative and elitist conduct of the presidency under Roosevelt and Truman had provided conservative partisans with an important and popular issue. In their attacks on the Truman Administration's conduct of foreign and internal security affairs, conservatives were not responding simply to the personnel in the White House and State Department, but to the crucial administrative changes that had been instituted during the preceding decade. Since 1939 President Roosevelt had increasingly relied upon secret diplomacy to effect policy and had often intentionally bypassed the Congress in resorting to executive agreements and by invoking his powers as commander-in-chief. Under Truman, executive authority not only had increased but had become institutionalized and made more immune to congressional surveillance. The National Security Act of 1947 had created a National Security Council, responsible only to the President, and had thus strengthened executive control over foreign policy and reduced congressional influence. Similarly, Truman's 1947 executive order creating the Federal Employee Loyalty Program had established exclusive presidential control over federal loyalty procedures; and Truman's 1948 directive extending classification restrictions to employee loyalty records had denied congressional access to information essential to an independent surveillance function.

In couching their protest in terms of the public's "right to know," McCarthy and other conservatives during the 1950's were raising the important issue of accountability, one that was popular among a people increasingly suspicious of secretive government and among legislators increasingly concerned over executive usurpation of congressional prerogatives. Such a protest, whatever its partisan motivation, cannot be dismissed out of hand as irrational and irresponsible. All the more so since this effort by McCarthy and his conservative supporters was consistent with the major priority of American politicians (administration liberals and congressional conservatives) during the cold war years: the need to protect the nation from a serious internal security threat. McCarthy and other conservative Republicans were thus raising an issue incapable of compromise: Congress's responsibility to investigate the federal bureaucracy to insure a more effective and adequate internal security program. In this sense, McCarthyism cannot simply be ascribed, as Daniel Bell suggested in his introductory essay to The New American Right, as the product of the tendency of interest groups to assume a large identity through sweeping rhetorical appeals and thereby moving the "political debate...from specific interest clashes, in which issues can be identified and possibly compromised, to ideologically tinged conflicts which polarize the groups and divide the society."


More importantly, the new liberals failed to discern the continuity between the anti-Communist politics of Joe McCarthy and anti-Communist politics of the Truman Administration, or to understand how the rhetoric and leadership of the Truman Administration, alarmist in tone and manipulative in form, helped to create the climate that eventually led to McCarthyism.

Instead, the new liberals argued that the anti-Communism of the Truman Administration was realistic and reasonable, while that of the Administration's McCarthyite critics was irrational and dangerous. The McCarthyite, wrote Richard Hofstadter, "sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may experience in getting its way in the world ...cannot possibly be due to its limitations but must be attributed to its having been betrayed.... While he naturally does not like Soviet Communism, what distinguishes him from the rest of us who also dislike it is that he shows little interest in, is often bitterly hostile to such realistic measures as might actually strengthen the United States vis-a-vis Russia." The "self-styled conservatives," agreed David Riesman and Nathan Glazer, were "isolationists with overtones of manifest-destiny jingoism" who were ill-prepared to consider complex foreign policy issues. "Asians and Europeans ought never to confuse genuine American anti-Communism, a necessary shield for peace and freedom against aggression, with pseudo-anti-Communism of the demagogues, which is not anti-Communism at all but a racket," concluded Peter Viereck.

When the Truman Administration acted unwisely, these scholars attributed these actions to McCarthyite pressures. Thus, Riesman and Glazer contended that "In the last years of Truman's term,...many demagogic anti-Communist steps were taken by a reluctant Administration." Similarly, Seymour Martin Lipset argued that the restrictions on civil liberties instituted during the cold-war years "were initiated in response to radical right activity."

But this disjunction between the anti-Communism of the right and that of the center, together with the depiction of the Truman Administration as the hapless victim of McCarthyism, obscures the complex reality of cold-war politics. Since 1947 the Truman Administration had increasingly resorted to a rhetoric of crusading anti-Communism in order to arouse public support for its policy of containment. In speech after speech, the President and other Administration spokesmen stressed American omnipotence and innocence, Soviet depravity, and the subversive nature of the Soviet threat. Thus, in a March 17, 1948, nationwide radio broadcast, Truman described the international situation as a morally dichotomous struggle between good and evil. "We must not be confused about the issue which confronts the world today," he declared. "...It is tyranny against freedom." "...even worse," he continued, "Communism denies the very existence of God." Or again, as in a May 11, 1950, address at Gonzaga University, Truman charged that "The greatest obstacle to peace is a modern tyranny led by a small group who have abandoned their faith in God." Stressing American righteousness and omnipotence, he concluded that "Our effort to resist and overcome this tyranny is essentially a moral effort.... In everything we do, at home and abroad, we must demonstrate our clear purpose, and our firm will, to build a world order in which men everywhere can walk upright and unafraid, and do the work of God."

At the same time, the Truman Administration sought to brand critics of its policies, both those on the left and the right, as irrational or even disloyal. In September 1946 Truman privately denounced Henry Wallace as a dreamer who "wants us to disband our armed forces, give Russia our atomic secrets, and trust a bunch of adventurers in the Kremlin Politburo.... The Reds, phonies, and the 'parlor pinks' seem to be banded together and are becoming a national danger." During the 1948 campaign, the Administration sought, in the words of Clark Clifford, "to identify [Wallace] and isolate him in the public mind with the Communists." As then Democratic National Chairman J. Howard McGrath bluntly put it, "a vote for Wallace...is a vote for the things for which Stalin, Molotov, and Vishinsky stand." Truman would later publicly attack McCarthy as "the greatest asset that the Kremlin has" and denounce Republican "isolationism" as an attempt to "sabotage the foreign policy of the United States [which] is just as bad in the cold war as it would be to shoot our soldiers in the back in a hot war."

At home, Administration spokesmen stressed the gravity of the threat of Communist subversion and called for measures that would insure absolute security. When speaking around the country in 1949 and 1950, Truman's Attorney General, J. Howard McGrath, sought to arouse the public to recognize the all-pervasive menace of Communism. He urged those who believed "in God's law and the dignity of human personality" to take up the "modern struggle against pagan Communist philosophies that seek to enslave mankind." Warning against the subtle subversion of students' minds by their teachers, he emphasized the need to invite anti- Communist speakers onto the college campuses and to ensure that anti-Communist books were promoted in local bookstores. Communists, the Attorney General warned, were "everywhere--in factories, offices, butcher shops, on street corners, in private businesses--and each carries in himself the germs of death for society." They were "busy at work," he pointed out, "undermining your government, plotting to destroy the liberties of every citizen, and feverishly trying, in whatever they can, to aid the Soviet Union."

In a similar fashion in 1947 the Truman Administration had legitimized Red-baiting at home through its loyalty program (which applied sweeping standards to all federal employees, not just those in sensitive positions), its compilation and public release of the so-called Attorney General's list (which, based on the concept of guilt by association, became the most widely used litmus for confirming "subversive tendencies"), and through its public quest for total internal security (which raised an impos- sible standard by which the Administration itself would subse- quently be judged and found wanting).

V With spokesmen for the Truman Administration calling for a holy war against Communism, it is hardly surprising that McCarthyism flourished during the early 1950's, or that McCarthyite congressmen effectively attacked the Administration for failing to act in accordance with its own alarmist and conspiratorial rhetoric. Given the rhetoric of the Truman Administration, the McCarthyite attack was neither irrational nor abberrational so much as the logical extension of Administration policies and assumptions. On February 9, 1950, at Wheeling, West Virginia, the crows simply began coming home to roost.

By 1950 the rhetoric and policies of the Truman Administration had created a political climate conducive to McCarthy-style politics. Ironically, perhaps, given the solid anti-Communist credentials of the President, Joe McCarthy and the conservative Republicans who supported him were in many ways more faithful to the assumptions and logic of the Administration's public pronouncements than the specific policy actions of Truman himself.

The liberal scholars who contributed to The New American Right were unable, however, to discern the continuities between Trumanism and McCarthyism, or to understand how competing conservative and liberal elites contributed to the politics of anti-Communist hysteria. Their identification with presidential leadership and with the anti-Communist politics of the cold war instead led them to represent McCarthyism only in terms of status anxieties, mass hysteria, and social irresponsibility.

If The New American Right, and the scholarship that gave rise to and sustained this interpretation, offer any lessons to historians of McCarthyism, however, it is the need for analyses centering on American politics not American culture, and on partisan tactics and strategy not status anxieties. Further, it requires that future students of the cold-war political debate appreciate that those who made anti-executive and subversion charges were raising political issues as rational and non-status- in-motivation as those who commended the foreign and internal security policy decisions of the Truman Administration.


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