Power attracts attention. This is nowhere so evident as in our modern media, which mobilize and focus vast amounts of attention on those who are powerful, without regard to how temporary or illusory that power may be. Of course, it is understandable that journalists and the general public should be fascinated with the glamour and excitement surrounding those obviously capable of influencing events. No one expects the everyday observer to seek an understanding of more subtle social forces—even if these are, in the long run, more powerful in their effects. The detection of these quieter trends we leave to historians and social scientists. But scholars too are very often mesmerized by the appearance of power. The most telling argument of those who debunk history as mere storytelling is the tendency of many historians to focus on the most trivial details concerning national leaders while entirely neglecting the nation itself. There are dozens of books about Adolf Hitler for every study of the roots of Nazism. Many famous historians have based their careers on Presidential “portraits” and biographies; but who can name an authority on the American Congress? Probably more has been written about the personal peculiarities of Franklin Roosevelt’s advisers than about the complete transformation of American labor during the New Deal. This bias towards the charismatic or spectacular may not only disguise the past but also distort it.
Joseph McCarthy provides a perfect example. So much has been said and recorded of the man that we tend to forget the movement. The very name “McCarthyism” reveals how the general fear and hatred of Communism in the decade after World War II has been absorbed and identified, in our minds today, with the personality of the Senator from Wisconsin. McCarthy was actually only influential for a few years during the height of the Cold War, from 1950 to 1954. His influence was due to the fact that he voiced the deepest fears of the average American conservative—suggesting that the entire American government was riddled with Communists. Many influential anti-Communists recognized that McCarthy’s charges had no substance and that the man was a walking time-bomb: impressive but ultimately self-destructive. After McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954, and the fear of domestic Communism began to recede, both liberals and conservatives tended to blame the Red Scare on his excesses; they either forgot or excused their own.
Crisis on the Left is a book about McCarthyism that barely mentions McCarthy; in avoiding the temptation of the glamorous, author Mary McAuliffe has produced a perceptive and innovative book. Rather than looking to the seats of power on the conservative right, she seeks an explanation of anti-Communism from the liberal and radical left—groups for whom the postwar decade was one of frustration and impotence. Her investigation is based on the belief that the Red Scare was “a far more pervasive and subtle mood than the McCarthy image allowed for.” Through a careful examination of ideas and movements on the opposite end of the ideological balance, she has argued convincingly that leftist conflict powerfully shaped postwar anti-Communism.
Liberal politics in the United States has almost always been unusual in two respects. First, it has drawn much of its inspiration from radical parties or governments in Europe—thus going against the grain of an America suspicious of foreigners. From the end of the eighteenth century, when Jefferson’s party was attacked for supporting the French Revolution, radical groups of all kinds carried with them a vaguely treasonous, foreign air about them. Also, leftists in the United States have often been united into a sort of “popular front.” Instead of breaking into a number of splinter parties, as has generally occurred in Europe, American leftists have often united behind candidates: Andrew Jackson in the 1830’s, William Jennings Bryan in the 1890’s, Robert LaFollette in the 1920’s, and Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930’s.
These two factors contributed to the nature of New Deal liberalism. The Depression created a need for innovative thought, and the Roosevelt Administration was openly experimental. New activity on the political left quickly blossomed in response. Traditional progressives, liberals, socialists, and Communists appeared, offered ideas, and worked in the government. Those on the extreme left, though never in the seats of power, were entirely acceptable as political participants. This new tolerance of Communism extended overseas, and Roosevelt extended American recognition to the Soviet Union. The mood on the left was cooperative and optimistic.
This “popular front” alliance was somewhat shaken in 1939, when Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia joined in pillaging Poland. The Soviet...
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