No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities
Ellen Schrecker
Oxford University Press $19.95 (cloth)

“PRESENT-mindedness,” the interpretation of the past according to the political climate of the present, is an old problem in the historiography of the United States. Most historians now agree that the early 1950s was a time of considerable antiradical repression, reaching its apogee in the sensational charges of Joseph McCarthy, the Republican Senator from Wisconsin, that various U.S. government agencies were infiltrated by Communists. Yet the causes, scope, significance, and effects of that repression are still under dispute in ways that are a commentary on our own times as much as on the events ofthree decades ago.

Among scholars, shifting attitudes toward the meaning of McCarthyism have produced a considerable body of controversy-for instance, the famous debate between Richard Hofstadter and Michael Rogin as to whether McCarthyism was a populist phenomenon. In the mid-1970s, an array of films and books-Woody Allen’s The Frontand Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time are the best known- registered the view that the witch hunt was brutal and unconscionable, and its victims – especially those who resisted – admirable defenders of democracy.

Ironically, just as many of these films and books were being released, the mood of the country was moving toward the right. This shift was reflected in Hilton Kramer’s 1976 New York Times essay, “The Black List and the Cold War,” which argued that, despite regrettable excesses, the Communist threat to U.S. security had been a real one, and the victims were by and large authentic Communists who lied about their beliefs and associations. Moreover, these Communists had persecuted others wherever they had power, not only in the USSR, but also in cultural circles in the United States: “Unmentioned [in these books and films] .. .are the vicious attacks that anti-Communist liberals and radicals were obliged to endure whenever they attempted to reveal the bloody truth about what Miss Hellman delicately describes now as the ‘sins’ of the Stalinist regime.”

When David Caute’s encyclopedic The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower appeared in 1978, Sidney Hook, a leading philosopher with firsthand experience in the political controversies of the 1950s, wrote a sharp rebuttal in Encounter which challenged every aspect of Caute’s highly critical view of American society during the witch hunt. “Even at the height of Senator McCarthy’s power,” wrote Hook, “the leading newspapers were criticizing, indeed denouncing, him. His methods, tactics, and words were under impassioned attack in almost every large educational center of the nation.”


ELLEN Schrecker’s new book provides strong evidence that Caute was justified in calling the witch-hunt phenomenon “The Great Fear.” It demonstrates that there was a blacklist in academia as comprehensive as the more famous one in the entertainment industry. And it strengthens Caute’s charge that there was complicity on the part of Cold War liberals with the witch hunt -the one assertion most angering Kramer and Hook, who defend and wish to revive that Cold War liberal tradition.

For it was possible to enforce the antiradical campaign even if one dissociated oneself from the more discreditable statements and actions of McCarthy himself. Indeed, using American colleges and universities as a case study, Schrecker convincingly shows that anything short of militant rejection of the witch hunt only served as grist for the rationalization-proalucing mills that enabled administrators to persecute faculty for their views in the name of “academic freedom.” At each step most universities slavishly followed the national trends, quickly and shamelessly abandoning any legitimate claim to being havens for dissent.

Central to her argument is the claim that the ideology and even certain features of the apparatus of the future witch hunt in academia were already in place long before McCarthy launched his campaign, and before university trustees and administrators felt forced to capitulate to outside pressure. The most significant academic precursor was the 1940 investigation of Communist college teachers in New York City by he Rapp-Coudert Committee, a special state legislative body which “pioneered he techniques  that later state and congressional investigating committees would employ. It developed evidence, elaborated arguments, and even trained personnel that its successor committees would appropriate, unchanged.” Some of the accused New York teachers were not Party members, but most were and lied  in a futile attempt to save their jobs. The one teacher who pled the Fifth Amendment was fired instantly.

In the Board of Higher Education hearings that followed, the precedent was established that the actual classroom conduct and scholarly activities of the faculty were irrelevant to the judgment passed. Conduct “unbecoming” a professor was defined simply as membership in the Communist Party. As Schrecker demonstrates, by the 1950s unbecoming conduct was expanded to include any refusal to cooperate in the witch hunt by informing on suspected Communists.

Despite her recording of such events, Shrecker’s study is by no means a sensational revelation of witch-hunt scandals. Indeed, many of the episodes she recounts will be familiar to those acquainted with the literature on the subject. The strength of the book lies, rather, in her careful dissection of the stages of the witch hunt, and in her sensitive portrayal of the victims’ initial engagement with  Communism, their response to the trauma of the academic purge, and their efforts to survive in subsequent years.


THE witch hunt evolved through two stages. First the state, acting through the agency of investigating committees and the FBI, identified “political undesirables” on campus. Then the universities themselves took over, finding ways to “get rid of the targeted individuals.” Again and again, Schrecker shows, persistence on the part of trustees and administrators broke the will of even those university faculties in which sentiment against the purges was strong at the outset. In the University of California system,  for example, fifty per cent of the faculty refused to sign the loyalty oath when it was adopted in 1949, even though noncompliance meant not receiving a letter of formal appointment for 1949-50. Leading scholars on the campus rallied to the principle that the state Regents did not have the right to interfere with tenure and faculty self-determination. Yet, at the end of a long series of compromises, hearings,  and modifications in the oath, divisions had developed among the nonsigners to the extent that those resisting were reduced to a helpless handful.

As in the case of the Hollywood purges, the object was not to gain information-the FBI already knew more than the subpoenaed faculty could remember-but to break the will of faculty rebels by forcing them to name names. Thus, when three faculty members were dismissed from Jefferson Medical College in 1953, they were told by the dean and a trustee that admitting their own past membership in the Party was insufficient: “We would like to have evidence that you have broken, other than to say that you have, and the best evidence you can possibly give is to become an informer.”

Often, the victims themselves inadvertently assisted in their own victimization. Some resigned quietly when they came under attack, in the hope that a lack of publicity would enable them to find future employment. Others, recognizing that open acknowledgement of a Party association would result in a loss of their jobs, lied or at least were evasive about their political associations – and were later dismissed for perjury or noncooperation (grounds the administrations preferred to dismissal for the holding of political views alone). To be sure, the blacklist that followed the purges was an informal procedure. But, operating as it did through letters of recommendation (to which the job-seeker did not have access), it worked so successfully that “almost every academic who lost a job as a result of a congressional investigation had trouble finding a new one.”


THROUGH an extraordinary number of personal interviews and a thorough examination of papers in scores of archives and personal collections, Schrecker has broken through the barriers of silence imposed by McCarthyism as has no previous historian. She can talk confidently about who was and wasn’t an authentic Party member, and about the motives for resistance or cooperation in each case. Moreover, she takes her story back to the 1930s to show the conversion experience of an important  part of a generation of young scholars to communism, and re-creates in some detail their political lives on campuses and in Party units.

What emerges is not a portrait of foreign agents or aliens—although, as she frankly acknowledges, a disproportionate number of Communist intellectuals were of Jewish background—but of radical scholars all too human. They were naive about the Soviet Union and the nature of the Communist Party in the United States, and they committed a number of blunders that may have helped in their own undoing. Most of all, they were preoccupied by fear of losing their jobs—not only because of income, but also because they dreaded having to work in a field where they could not pursue their scholarly and scientific interests. In the 1930s, this insecurity urged them to maintain secrecy, to disobey Party norms of behavior, and to refrain from classroom propaganda or even from close association with  students—even though, ironically, they would later be purged in part because of their alleged devotion to subverting the young.

How well does Schrecker respond to those who now defend the behavior of the 1950s Cold War liberals? In my judgment, she is devastating in her claim that one could participate in the witch hunt—as did the liberal Cold Warriors of the Sidney Hook variety—even as one insisted that one was “standing up to McCarthyism and defending free speech and academic freedom”; the real test was in actions, not words.

She also demonstrates convincingly that the purpose of the witch hunt was not to ferret out unknown Communist agents who were abusing their academic positions, but to induce the universities to enforce the general political climate needed to assure acquiescence in the Cold War. Her empirical data confirms the argument of Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman in The Uses of Anti-Communism that anti-communist ideology functions in the West as a means of discrediting all movements for social  change by tainting them with the crimes of Stalinism.

Finally, she renders entirely explicable the deceitful behavior of the Communists and ex-Communists when they were under attack (even though another approach might arguably have worked, such as the forthright affirmation of the right to Marxist beliefs made by the Trotskyist James Kutcher). Based on what they had seen before, it seemed reasonable to them that, if they wanted to keep their jobs but not name names, they had no choice but to plead the Fifth Amendment or in some other way evade specific statements about their viewsand affiliations. Without the widespread prejudice against  Communist political affiliation (a prejudice based as much on ignorance as on an authentic understanding of Stalinism), most professors would probably have acknowledged their past and present affiliations quite openly.


WHERE Schrecker is a bit weaker in answering the new defenders of the witch hunt is in regard to its  ultimate justification; that is, if the Soviet Union had been, as the Cold War Liberals saw it, a form of  “Red Fascism” expanding throughout the world, and members or affiliates nothing less than brownshirts in academic garb, would an investigation and purge of academia still have been unjustified? Does “academic freedom” mean freedom to work to destroy the freedom of the majority?

Schrecker is unambiguous about her lack of sympathy for either the Communist Party or the Soviet Union, although the reasons are not entirely clear. Stalinism to her is objectionable as sectarian,  authoritarian, and subservient to Moscow. Yet her book shows no real evidence of disgust at the real horror of the Stalin era—the millions imprisoned and murdered during the Purge Trials; the anti-Semitic  persecutions; the repeated sacrifice of the lives of even the most loyal Communists for opportunistic reasons; the betrayal of revolutionary movements in Greece and elsewhere.

Of course, a study such as this one does not need to pillory the Soviet Union. But it does seem important to offer a perspective on the social, political, and moral nature of the regime that so deceived the Communists and fellow travelers. One might then argue that what befuddled many U.S. Communist professors was, in Miliband and Liebman’s words, the “two-sided nature of Soviet-type regimes,” in which advance and progress are accompanied by dictatorship and repression. They thus were blinded to the Soviet Union’s totalitarian political order by their passionate support for what they believed to be its social and economic achievements.