H. Stuart Hughes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820

For [David Caute], the author of The Great Fear, Truman's executive order of March 1947 launching the loyalty program ranks as the single "most sinister and destructive departure in postwar domestic politics, one which was to ramify far beyond the federal service and poison wide areas of American working, educational and cultural life." The sentence is typical of Caute's downright style…. Caute's [book] lacks both grace and nuance. He belongs to the younger generation of Englishmen who have as much trouble with English prose as the Americans whom their elders used to mock. "Red-bait" appears again and again as a verb; the constitution is "concussed" in the courts; defiant witnesses face the "ruination" of their careers. Such stylistic strictures, however, should not be taken as in any way reflecting on the substance of Caute's work, which is of first-rate importance.

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A key to both the merit and the weakness of the book is its organization…. [Caute] organizes most of his findings in two categories: he examines first the "machinery of repression," whether administrative or congressional, federal or state, and then he deals with the victims according to their professions…. The result of this approach is to give us a meticulous account of what occurred in different segments of American society while leaving a number of vital matters unexplored. (p. 4)

Caute's failure to ask why so many intelligent and high-minded Americans vested their hopes in a blood-stained tyranny logically fits his assignment of blame for the indignities heaped upon them. Far more than the presidents of the era, his culprits are the "Cold War liberals," whose ideology he describes as "dominant … within government, the press and the world of learning." That such liberals did harm there is no doubt—and some of them (including Dean Acheson) subsequently expressed regret for their contribution to the purge mentality. That they were ever "dominant" is far from clear. Still more, a hatred of Stalinism did not invariably coexist with a strenuous advocacy of Pax Americana, as Caute would have us believe. Just as Stalinism itself was a more insidious temptation than Caute implies, so the ethical revulsion from it was frequently uncontaminated by concern for the imperial interests of the United States. One of the tragedies of the era was that it consigned men and women of comparable good will to opposite sides of an impassable ideological divide.

Despite Caute's simplistic and bludgeoning manner, his book … marks a real advance. He is right in sparing scarcely anyone who occupied a position of authority…. [The] victims themselves [also] receive a share of the blame: Caute scarcely conceals his distaste for those who "took the Fifth" when summoned for questioning. He contrasts their furtiveness with the pride of the young radicals of the 1960s who "scorned to conceal their commitments." And of the Communist Party itself he declares that it "suffered from its addiction to camouflage and its perverse decision to present Marxism as a kind of quick-tempered Fabianism, rather than to rely on the American revolutionary tradition."

Here I cannot refrain from interjecting that it was considerably more dangerous to avow revolutionary sympathies in the early 1950s than it became a decade later…. Caute's assessment of McCarthy's "objective role" is one of the most original features of his book. He downplays the horrendous inquisitor and refuses to follow the usual practice of calling the great fear by the senator's name. Instead Caute ascribes to McCarthy the "historically healthy" function of bringing the nation to its senses. "He dramatized intolerance, lent it crude, villainous features, personalized it, stole it away from the low profiled bureaucrats. Once he had turned their own weapon against themselves, writ large, the leadership cadres concluded that enough was enough, that liberty was, after all, not easily divisible." Or—to return to Caute's major culprits—McCarthy finally alerted the liberals to how far afield they had strayed.

A second original feature which deserves comment is Caute's emphasis on the punishment of little people who seldom if ever made the headlines—New York schoolteachers, for example, and more particularly trade unionists. (pp. 4-5)

[We] are left with a puzzle. Caute's case-by-case analysis of the victims' fates is exactly what historians and the public alike have long required in order to put the record in order. The zeal with which he has tracked down hundreds of personal histories deserves only commendation. Now at last we can see the purge in the full range of its moral obscenity. But when it comes to Caute's interpretation of what he has found, I for one am far from convinced. The era of the great fear was one in which it was harder to keep one's head and one's conscience clear than his account suggests. (p. 5)

H. Stuart Hughes, "The Bad Old Days," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXV, No. 6, April 20, 1978, pp. 3-6.∗

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