Leading the hunt for red America

McCarthy's Americans

June 18, 1999

Michael Heale is not only one of the most original and talented historians of the United States writing outside the US, but is also an authority on British historical literature about the United States. In his monograph on the subject in 1985, he noted the Whiggish inclinations of post-second world war British writers on US history and their sympathy for American liberalism. Thus, "McCarthyism was an embarrassment to British Americanists anxious to establish that the US was worthy of attention."

Himself a liberal historian, Heale has set himself the task of understanding McCarthyism, and in McCarthy's Americans has succeeded in shedding additional light on a subject that has already attracted a great deal of attention. Eschewing the much-travelled road of national politics, he examines the local roots of American anti-communism. He offers both a nationwide survey of anti-communism in state politics - redhunting committees, loyalty oaths, communist-control laws - and three, more deeply explored case studies.

The reader is not enlightened as to the reasons why Michigan, Massachusetts and Georgia were singled out for special attention - did they typify regional or national tendencies, were they especially powerful or influential, or was the choice dictated by the happenstance of scholarly itinerary?

The argument arising from the local focus nevertheless commands serious attention. Heale argues that McCarthyism was not really McCarthyist. McCarthy, in his view, was a latecomer to anti-communism. So was the federal government with its repressive laws: the Smith Act (1940), McCarran Internal Security Act (1950) and Communist Control Act (1954). The real origins of the phenomenon later dubbed McCarthyism lay in the complexities of state politics.

In one way, this argument is unconvincing. Heale's de-emphasis of the antecedents of federal anti-leftism is rather sweeping: quite apart from provisions such as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the anti-anarchist Immigration Act of 1903, there were the anti-radical activities of federal agencies like the Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Military Intelligence Division.

But, from within the bowels of his local methodology, Heale does offer a fresh approach. Tentatively, he offers up some local heroes for the American liberal pantheon. Governors Earl Warren and Mennen Williams of California and Michigan, respectively, wanted no truck with the crude red-baiting of some of their fellow citizens. They nevertheless went along with some moderate anti-left measures, in an attempt to pre-empt more drastic curtailments of American civil liberties. The "persisting dilemma for moderate or liberal politicians throughout the Cold War era (was that) as they struggled to find 'safe' ways of containing the Communist issue (they) succeeded only in legitimising and enhancing it". Still, Heale suggests, there may have been a "triumph of liberalism" of sorts, even if only with a question mark.

This tale of local origins will awaken renewed interest among those familiar with the notion, notably promulgated by the historian Richard Freeland in 1972, that President Truman tried to pre-empt anti-communism by ventilating an anti-leftism of his own. Ellen Schrecker's recent revelation may also need to be reviewed in the light of Heale's analysis: in her book Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998), she indicates that President Roosevelt secretly relaunched the FBI against the Communist Party in 1936. Did the supreme liberal pragmatist set the pattern for later state-level politics - or was he following local example?

Although Heale does not dwell at any great length on California, his de-emphasising of McCarthy succeeds in explaining some of the continuities in American right-wing politics, continuities that in due course threw up the Californian presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. McCarthy's Americans is also a corrective to recent right-wing revisionism, which holds that McCarthyism discredited a more responsible anti-communism that had little to do with political opportunism and was fully justified by circumstances. The instinctively moderate Michael Heale may not like the idea, but, in rebutting such ideas, he comes close to being a new left-wing revisionist, and a brilliant one, at that.

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is professor of American history, University of Edinburgh.

McCarthy's Americans: Red Scare Politics in State and Nation, 1935-1965

Author - M. J. Heale
ISBN - 0 333 69833 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 370

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