Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855

In ["The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower"] Mr. Caute, the English novelist and historian, examines the ravages of the great fear a quarter of a century ago in the United States. It is a story too many Americans have comfortably forgotten. Here it is recorded in pitiless detail—the madness of the times, the fright in Congress, state legislatures and the press, the purges in Government, the professions, the arts, the unions, the reaction in the courts, the awful human price in wrecked careers and blasted lives. It is a shameful story. I trust it will remind us in bad times to come that the Constitution remains a sounder guide than patriotic paranoia. No single work contains so much of the record of a season of national hysteria. We must be grateful to Mr. Caute for putting it all together.

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At the same time, one must regret that he did not do a better job of it…. It is not the serious historical study the subject demands. It is mostly written out of secondary works, supplemented by interviews, and these almost exclusively with casualties of the panic and their lawyers. Mr. Caute writes about the excesses of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the Senate Internal Security Committee and the McCarthy committee; but he would have written more cogently if he had looked, as he apparently neglected to do, at the committee hearings. If he had read the reports of the recent Church committee, he could have enormously strengthened his indictment of the F.B.I. His research, in short, is inadequate for a serious study.

He gets too many facts wrong. (pp. 1, 44)

And Mr. Caute writes deplorably whenever he starts to strive for effect: "It was the Truman administration that manured the soil from which the prickly cactus called McCarthy suddenly and awkwardly shot up." Quite apart from the fact that the credit might more accurately have gone to the Stalin administration, it is an unlovely simile. But Mr. Caute cherishes it: Soon we read that the House Un-American Activities Committee's "droppings were always manure for the Justice Department."…

This penchant for bad rhetoric does his book a disservice. His preface draws a lurid picture of the United States "sweat-drenched with fear," civil servants hoping "that the letter from the loyalty board would never come" some hastening "to save their own skin by denouncing a colleague," F.B.I. agents "oozing from the Bureau into the bloodstream of the nation's working life," and so on…. Overkill only confuses the issue.

Things were bad in those days, but not that bad…. I really don't recognize the America of that period in Mr. Caute's feverish account. His unadorned recital of facts is far more damning than his penny-dreadful prose.

The book's essential deficiencies, however, are analytical. Mr. Caute does not seem to have thought through what he is trying to say. A serious historian would have contemplated the question of how a democratic society ought to have dealt with Stalinists (or Nazis or whatever) in government, trade unions and other positions of influence. The fact that the American reaction in these years was largely hysterical and contemptible does not mean the problem was nonexistent….

He does not confront, as a serious historian would, the problem that faced liberals in the 1940's: Did we really have anything in common with Stalinists with regard either to means or to ends? And, if not, what were we supposed to do about it? (p. 44)

[In the end, Mr. Caute's] argument does not follow where his logic leads. His book somehow suggests that, in America at the time, it was a wicked thing to call a Stalinist a Stalinist or a fellow traveler a fellow traveler, even though in other books he had done both himself….

David Caute comes perilously close, in short, to accepting the fallacy that has disabled many latter-day commentators on that unhappy time: that there was no tenable middle ground; that to oppose Stalinism made McCarthyism inevitable. In fact, the real liberals of the day, from Eleanor Roosevelt and Reinhold Niebuhr down, were both anti-Stalin and anti-McCarthy. Mr. Caute's own book—replete as it is with citations of anti-McCarthy deeds by anti-Stalinist liberals, Elmer Davis, Joseph Rauh, James Wechsler, W. Averell Harriman, Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Edward Shils, Americans for Democratic Action, even the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, even Harry Truman—refutes his unavowed but unmistakable premise.

Even with benefit of hindsight, is there any position one would wish to have taken other than that of opposing both Stalinism and McCarthyism? To deny the legitimacy of that position is to misunderstand the history of the times—and the character of liberalism. So, in my judgment, this is a considerably flawed work. Still, with its flaws, it is important for the American people to be reminded that we have not always been, as our leader inanely keeps assuring us, "decent and compassionate and filled with love." (p. 45)

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "A Shameful Story," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 19, 1978, pp. 1, 44-5.

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