More than half a century after Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings, Americans continue to paint frightening portraits of these “red witchhunts”—often without regard for the facts of the time.
As M. Stanton Evans writes in Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies, “So deeply etched is the malign image of McCarthy that the ‘ism’ linked to his name is now a standard feature of the language, defined in all the dictionaries as a great evil and routinely used this way by people accusing others of low-down tactics.”
Contradicting the critics, Evans argues, “There was in fact an immense conspiracy afoot, there were secret Communists burrowing in the woodwork, and these Communists were, in case after case, devoted agents of the Soviet Union.”
The academic antipathy toward McCarthy was in full swing at this year’s Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention where Professor Sharynn Owens Etheridge, speaking at a Langston Hughes Society panel, called the McCarthy era “one of the darkest chapters in American history.”
(Langston Hughes was a strong Communist sympathizer in the 1930s).
Another panelist, Kara Fontenot, argued that “Despite Communism’s initial appeal for some, by the end of the 1940’s most black Americans, including Hughes, had distanced themselves from Communist affiliations…However, soon conservative forces began to view the American communist party as the domestic extension of the Soviet threat, choosing either ignorantly or willfully to ignore the inconvenient fact that most American communists and fellow travelers were not spies or traitors but instead citizens with visions of radical political, economic, and social change” (emphasis added).
“Attempts by American citizens and the U.S. government to eradicate American communism resulted in some of the worst breaches of civil liberties in American history, including background checks, loyalty oaths, the U.S. Attorney General’s list of subversive individuals and organizations, blacklists, public interrogations before the infamous House of UnAmerican Activities Committee and the infamous Senate permanent Subcommittee on Investigations,” the University of Maryland at College Park graduate student argued.
As Evans argues in Blacklisted by History, “Far from being mere indigenous radicals working for peace and social justice…the [Communist Party USA] and its members were subservient tools of Moscow—and those who weren’t subservient didn’t stay very long as members.” CPUSA-Soviet connections were extensive, including
• Gerhart Eisler, who the FBI listed as a liaison between CPUSA and the Comintern, an international communist organization run through Moscow.• Otto Katz, another Comintern agent. William J. Bennett’s America: The Best Last Hope characterizes Katz as “the Communist Party’s chief Hollywood recruit.” “With ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin as a wartime ally of America and Britain, recruitment for the [CPUSA] in Tinsel Town was not difficult,” wrote Bennett.
• Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. “The origin of the Hiss case dates to February 1925, when Whittaker Chambers joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA),” wrote John Ehrman for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “In 1932, soon after taking over New Masses [“the Party’s literary magazine”], Chambers was instructed to go ‘underground,’ that is, to become part of the Soviet intelligence network in the United States,” he later added.
Evans’ research surveyed over 100,000 pages of recently-declassified Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files, which he argued “are a treasure house of information on Communist penetration of American life and institutions, suspects tracked down by the Bureau, countermeasures taken, and related topics. To its credit, the FBI was watching these matters pretty closely while others allegedly standing guard were dozing, or in the throes of deep denial.”
But if two MLA scholars, speaking at a panel entitled “The FBI Files on Modernism” are to be believed, the FBI was unnecessarily persecuting artists and homosexuals, limiting free speech because of Communist paranoia. City College New York Professor Andrea Weiss recounted how the FBI “relentlessly” investigated Klaus Mann and his sister Erika based on “unsubstantiated” charges. She said,
“From an anonymous, undated letter in Klaus Manns’ FBI file: ‘I would draw your attention to the activities in the United States of Klaus Mann and his sister Erika Mann. They are the son and daughter of the well-known author Thomas Mann. Klaus and Erika Mann are very active agents of the Comintern. They were very active in Berlin before Hitler seized power and Klaus Mann was an active agent of Stalin in Paris for many years. We hear that he is now editing an English publication, Decision, in the United States.’ And with these unsubstantiated charges, the FBI embarked on a relentless investigation of Klaus and Erika Mann which did not let up until Klaus committed suicide in 1949 and Erica collapsed under the pressure and left the United States for good in 1951.”
Some reasons the FBI might have been suspicious of the pair, either not mentioned or downplayed by Weiss, include
1. Erika’s husband of convenience (also gay), W. H. Auden, was a Marxist and had traveled to Spain during the Spanish Civil War.2. Erika and Klaus also traveled to Spain to report on the events of the Spanish Civil War, where the Soviet-backed Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought General Francisco Franco’s forces. (The U.S. government sided with Franco).
3. Klaus was a socialist and Marxist himself. As Christopher Lorey and John L. Plews hint in Queering the Canon, “as a member of the socialist camp, he endorsed the Marxist analysis that capitalism was the underlying breeding ground for fascism…Furthermore, Mann believed that a ‘humanist socialism’ was the only alternative to fascism.”
Professor Andrew Strombeck of Wright State University explored “how government repression serves to limit the artistic literary production,” particularly in the case of “perhaps one of the three most prominent African-American communists of his generation,” Richard Wright. “The most prominent reason for the FBI’s interest in Wright lay with Wright’s tense decade-long association with [the] Communist Party…And unlike other writers of the left…Wright actually joined the Communist Party,” he said.
“As the FBI’s [and] CIA’s early 20th century activities repeatedly reveal, as new instruments of surveillance are created such as the Patriot Act, Wright’s response to his own surveillance continues to be important because, as Savage Holiday demonstrates, the problems of Hoover didn’t disappear when he died…Hoover pathology would live on [in] the institutional methods created,” asserted Strombeck.
Perhaps scholars should spend more time studying the repression, citizen surveillance, and human rights abuses under Joseph Stalin and other Communist regimes.
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.