"The State Steps In: Setting the Anti-Communist Agenda"

from: Ellen Schrecker, THE AGE OF MCCARTHYISM: A BRIEF HISTORY WITH DOCUMENTS (Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1994)

What transformed the Communist threat into a national obsession was not its plausibility, but the involvement of the federal government. After all, Communist parties were far more powerful in European countries, which never experienced a similar outburst of accusation and repression. McCarthyism was not a private venture. Ardent anti-Communists were found throughout American society, but the nation as a whole would not have made eliminating Communist influence such a high priority had Washington not led the way.

An important element of the power of the modern state is its ability to set the political agenda and to define the crucial issues of the moment, through its actions as well as its words. During the early years of the cold war, the actions of the federal government helped to forge and legitimize the anti-Communist consensus that enabled most Americans to condone or participate in the serious violations of civil liberties that characterized the McCarthy era. The media was the government's partner, largely because it amplified messages that came from Washington. After all, much of the news that went on the radio or onto the front pages simply reported the government's doings. Presidential orders, congressional hearings, criminal prosecutions all told stories that, at least during the early cold war, helped construct the ideological scaffolding for McCarthyism. When in the late 1940s, for example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began to round up foreign-born Communists and labor leaders for deportation and then detain them without bail, it was sending a very strong signal about the alien nature of communism and its dangers.

The government did not speak with a single voice. It was an amalgam of separate and often competing institutions, bureaucracies, and political parties. During the late 1940s and 1950s, almost every agency became involved in the anti-Communist crusade. From the State Department and Congress to the Post Office and the Supreme Court, federal bureaucrats, politicians, and judges struggled with the issues of domestic communism as they debated and implemented policies to deal with it. On occasion, those policies came into conflict; yet--and this is crucial--they were always invested with the power of the state. Not only did this make it possible, for example, for HUAC to send recalcitrant witnesses to prison for contempt of Congress, but it also gave a legitimacy and resonance to even the wildest pronouncements of its members that the statements of private citizens did not possess.

Although the phenomenon got its name from a member of the Senate, it was the executive branch of the government that wielded the most influence over the development of McCarthyism. It stimulated concern about national security and established the main mechanisms through which the anti-Communist campaign was to operate. Much of this was the by-product of the administration's drive to enlist popular support for the cold war and obtain bipartisan backing for its foreign policy. The American people had just emerged from over a decade and a half of depression and war and the Truman administration worried that they might not be willing to sustain the effort that was deemed necessary to contain Soviet expansion.

In particular, Truman and his aides feared that the economy-minded Republican Congress that had been elected in 1946 might not allocate enough money for the struggle. As a result, the administration oversold the Soviet threat. On March 12, 1947, the president went before a special session of Congress and, using the opportunity provided by a request for aid to Greece and Turkey, formulated the Truman Doctrine, an unlimited commitment by the United States "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." A year later, Truman and his advisers were to take advantage of another crisis, the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, to obtain passage of the Marshall Plan, their program for the economic rehabilitation of Western Europe.

Ironically, although the administration won bipartisan congressional support for its foreign policy, the atmosphere of crisis that it created backfired against it. This was especially the case after Truman's surprise victory in the 1948 election revealed the unpopularity of the Republican party's traditional economic programs. Since it endorsed the administration's anti-Communist stance abroad, the GOP sought to recoup its fortunes and embarrass the White House by focusing on communism at home. For the next four years, the Republican charge that the Democrats were "soft" on communism dominated American politics. Truman, of course, was no such thing, but to a certain extent his administration had contributed to its own difficulties by its overemphasis on the Communist threat.

The executive branch did more than provide the psychic setting for McCarthyism. The specific steps it took to combat the alleged threat of internal communism were to intensify the national preoccupation with the issue. These actions--most important the inauguration of an anti-Communist loyalty-security program for government employees in March 1947 and the initiation of criminal prosecutions against individual Communists--not only provided specific models for the rest of the nation but also enabled the government to disseminate its version of the Communist threat. With the FBI at the heart of the federal government's internal security apparatus, the anti-Communist agenda that emerged from Washington was to be powerfully influenced by the ideologically conservative conception of anticommunism so central to the bureau's mission.

Perhaps no single weapon in the federal arsenal was as powerful in the government's construction of the anti-Communist consensus as the criminal justice system. By putting Communists on trial, the Truman administration shaped the American public's view of domestic communism. It transformed party members from political dissidents into criminals--with all the implications that such associations inspired in a nation of law-abiding citizens.

As an educational venture, the criminalization of communism was a great success. The major trials of the period got enormous publicity and gave credibility to the notion that Communists threatened the nation's security. Prosecuting alleged espionage agents like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs reinforced the image of Communists as Russian spies. Putting Communist labor leaders on trial allowed the government to raise the issue of industrial sabotage. And initiating deportation proceedings against foreign-born Communists emphasized the alien nature of the party and its ties to the Soviet Union. In the most important of the anti-Communist cases, the Smith Act trial of the top leaders of the American Communist party in 1949, the government brought all these themes together to bolster its contention that the party was an illegal conspiracy under Soviet control.

The government rarely lost a case at the trial stage. Treating Communists as criminals made them seem dangerous; and that perception increased the willingness of judges and juries to convict them. Communist defendants were arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted, and often brought to their trials under guard if they were being held in jail for contempt or deportation. Moreover, because of the political nature of these trials, much of the evidence that the government produced had no relation to the case at hand but was designed to reinforce the negative image of the defendants and bolster the prosecutors' insistence on the significance of actions that might, in another context, have been considered harmless.

But using the criminal justice system to reinforce the government's contention that communism was outside the law had its drawbacks. There were few laws under which the offenders could be tried, since being a Communist was not a crime, and the statute of limitations precluded most espionage prosecutions. As a result, the charges that the cold war defendants faced--usually perjury or contempt--often bore little relation to the presumed offense for which they were on trial. In addition, it was hard to obtain the evidence necessary for a conviction. FBI surveillance techniques did not always fall within the law, and the bureau was reluctant to reveal the identities of its informants. Confessions, the mainstay of ordinary criminal proceedings, were hard to come by in political cases. Accordingly, prosecutors relied on the testimony of professional ex-Communists and undercover agents. Many of these people lied. Over the years, the unreliability of the government's witnesses was to invalidate many convictions, as appellate judges increasingly began to raise questions about the veracity of the professional informers.

Within the government these problems were to generate some friction as J. Edgar Hoover and his agents were often more eager to prosecute than their ostensible superiors in the Justice Department. This controversy reflected the FBI chief's growing dissatisfaction with what he believed was the Truman administration's lax attitude toward internal security. Hoover was careful to conceal his antagonism, but because of the FBI's central role in devising and implementing the federal government's internal security policies, his estrangement from the administration was to have enormous consequences.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI in creating and disseminating the anti-Communist consensus. Because of the bureau's strategic position within the government, it took control of the administration's anti-Communist effort and managed to infuse its own right-wing concerns into what otherwise might have been a rather narrow program of internal security.

There were several reasons why the FBI came to dominate policymaking in the field of internal security. To begin with, this was the FBI's traditional area of specialization. Hoover was a brilliant bureaucratic politician who had spent a lifetime amassing power. He had been particularly assiduous in building up his agency's image as a highly professional and impartial outfit and had actually convinced most liberals that the bureau guarded people's rights. He was to be equally energetic in publicizing the dangers of the Communist party. In 1946, motivated by his own obsession with the Red menace as well as the need to find a major postwar mission for the FBI, Hoover ordered the bureau to mount an intensive public relations campaign to alert the American people to the internal threat of communism--and to the FBIs indispensability in combating it. By the time the rest of the Truman administration felt compelled to act against the Communist threat. Hoover had made the bureau indispensable. Moreover, having the FBI, with its vaunted reputation for expertise, handle internal security offered the hard-pressed White House a convenient way to deflect its critics' charge that it was "coddling" Communists.

But by turning the official campaign against communism over to J. Edgar Hoover and his agents, the administration was giving a blank check to an organization whose conception of the Communist danger was that of the far right wing of the anti-Communist network. The bureau subscribed to and pushed the oversimplified notion that all American Communists were Soviet puppets. It also tended to assume that there was little difference between party members, fellow travelers, and left-wing liberals. The FBI tended to lump together as Communists all the people who associated with the party and its many causes and to treat them all as if they endangered American security. Hoover's influential 1947 testimony before HUAC showed how broadly his agency viewed the threat of communism. Bureau files reveal an underlying assumption that dissent equaled disloyalty; FBI agents apparently viewed anyone who participated in left-wing political activities as an object of suspicion and hostility.

Nor was the bureau scrupulous about protecting the rights of people under investigation. Its main priority was to protect its informants, insisting that preserving confidentiality was essential to national security. In fact, much of the bureau's passion for secrecy came from its desire to conceal its own lawbreaking. For years Hoover had been defying his superiors in the Justice Department and had secretly put people under surveillance without authorization from above. His agents also resorted to illegal wiretaps and break-ins and leaked material from the FBI's allegedly confidential files to sympathetic journalists and politicians. Beginning in 1956, when the Supreme Court started to make anti-Communist prosecutions more difficult, the bureau embarked on COINTELPRO, a secret program of political sabotage, unauthorized surveillance, and disinformation designed to cripple the Communist party and, later, other radical groups as well.

But the FBI's illegal activities and ideological proclivities were not widely known until the 1970s. Hoover and his aides successfully concealed their dirty tricks and right-wing agenda for years even as they were proclaiming their professionalism and political neutrality. President Truman was one of the few people in power at the time to question the bureau's activities; as one of his aides noted, he wanted "to hold [the] F.B.I. down, afraid," that it would turn into a "Gestapo." But his apprehension, while sincere, did not outweigh the risk to his administration of the brutal bureaucratic struggle that reining in the FBI would have entailed. In a battle between Truman and Hoover, there is no evidence that the President would have won. The bureau had enormous popular and congressional support; and the administration, under growing Republican pressure to prove that it could handle communism, would not have taken action that might have exposed it to further attack.

Since the administration had itself subscribed to and popularized the notion that Communists threatened national security, it was in a bind. Its own activities legitimized those of its right-wing opponents. It could not deny the issue's importance without puncturing its own anti-Communist credentials. But it could not concur with the conservative view that the New Deal had been honeycombed with Communists. It took a while for this dilemma to manifest itself and as the conflict between the Truman administration and its Republican opponents escalated in the late 1940s, the anti-Communist crusade did too. For all their differences, both sides believed that communism threatened the nation. By fighting about how to handle that threat, they merely emphasized its importance and helped disseminate anti-communism throughout society.

  • Back to contents page for historical overview.


    Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/state-agenda.html
    Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:40 EDT