Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1043
David Caute's The Great Fear is a massive volume that has the appearance of a scholarly work that has been meticulously researched with more than a hundred pages of notes, references and bibliographical items. The appearance is deceptive. It is an impassioned political attack by a British author against the policy of the United States at the end of the Second World War when with the resumption of Communist aggression against the West and the revelations of the pervasive nature of Soviet espionage, a loyalty and security programme was introduced by the government. The period covered includes the Hiss, Rosenberg, and Coplon trials, and the conviction of the leaders of the Communist Party under the Smith Act, as well as the Korean War, McCarthy's demagogic crusade and the entire era of "the Cold War." The villains are not the Communists, all of whom were staunch Stalinists who supported without qualification every infamy of the Kremlin. They are gently chided by Caute for not standing up on occasion more firmly for their principles. Nor is it Joseph McCarthy and his disciples whose role, for all its irresponsible demagogy, Caute regards as "historically healthy" because its very extremism shocked the public into awareness that liberty was "not easily divisible." The real villains were the "Cold War liberals" or "liberal anti-Communists" who detested both the Communists and McCarthy's methods of combating them. Caute's moral indignation is directed mainly against them. Because as liberals they believed in principled opposition to Communism as well as to Fascism, they prepared the way, according to Caute, for reactionaries who, like McCarthy, found difficulty in distinguishing between socialists and Communists, between heretics and conspirators. From Caute's position, Harry Truman is more to blame than Joe McCarthy, and those who defended "the vital centre" against totalitarianism of every cut and colour were a greater threat to genuine freedom and democracy than the Communists.
Throughout the volume, Caute seeks to establish an equation between the American security programme under Truman and the Stalinist terror regime while admitting that the first resulted in tears, the second in rivers of blood. He sees what happened in America as the logical consequence of a struggle to impose the Pax Americana on the world in the struggle against the Pax Sovietica…. Caute doesn't bother to explain what American actions in Europe in 1948 corresponded to the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, the merciless Soviet repressions in the Baltic countries, and the seizure of power in Poland and other Eastern European nations. Nor does he point to any Soviet analogue of the Marshall Plan and of the American willingness to surrender its monopoly of atomic weapons (the Baruch-Lilienthal proposals) to an international authority. And as for the American desire to impose "absolute conformity" on its citizens, it is a pity that he does not cite the decrees of the US Cabinet or Congress laying down the proper American party line in all fields from art and astronomy to zoology which presumably parallel the decrees of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party in these areas, violations of which often resulted in imprisonment and sometimes death.
That Caute can bring himself to write this way is some indication of how far his obsessions can take him. They soon show themselves to be beyond any rational control.
The result of Caute's survey of the period is a fantasy picture of a nation swept by hysterias of fear synthetically contrived by its political leaders. A reader unfamiliar with the political climate of these years would never guess from Caute's account that there was an objective danger of...
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war with the Soviet Union and that from June 1950 on the United States was actually involved in an undeclared war with Communist North Korea, and shortly later with Communist China, that threatened to burst into a world conflagration…. Caute echoes the declaration of a Communist fellow-travelling organisation that the measures taken to prevent Communist infiltration into government and to expose Communist activities in American cultural life constituted "the most serious threat to civil liberties in our [US] history." Even granting the absurdity of some of these measures, the judgment is clear evidence not only of historical ignorance but of political animus.
The gravest intellectual deficiency in Caute's work is its failure to state fairly and come to grips with the arguments and evidence of those whom he denounces. He doesn't argue—he merely jeers. The books and speeches of the leading cold war liberals and socialists who waged energetic campaigns against both Communism and McCarthyism—of Norman Thomas, Elmer Davis, Walter Lippmann, David Dubinsky, Walter Reuther, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Hubert H. Humphrey, to name only a few—are practically ignored. The result is that Caute fails to make certain elementary distinctions which must be recognised by anyone familiar with the theory and practice of Communism, and endowed with a modicum of common sense. He does not distinguish between the necessity of a security programme and the mistakes or excesses of its application, seemingly convinced that the occasional existence of the latter totally invalidates the former…. And despite the record, he seems convinced that Communists are not more harmful than witches. Indeed just as the fear of witches constitutes a greater danger than witches, so to him the fear of Communism is a greater danger to democracy than the Communist movement. (pp. 56-7)
In perspective, perhaps the greatest harm from McCarthyism to the USA and to the struggle for freedom was the distorted impression it produced on European public opinion concerning the nature and consequences of Congressional investigations. They were compared with the aid of a largely hostile European press to the terroristic practices of the Gestapo and the NKVD. Incredible as it may seem, during and long after McCarthy's years, I found many influential European intellectuals more concerned, certainly more vocal, about McCarthyism than about the Gulag Archipelago. Some of them actually compared the political situation in the United States in 1953 to that of the Weimar Republic in late 1932 when Hitler was in the wings ready to take over. Caute's book, despite his occasional disavowals of intent, tends to perpetuate these delirious political judgments. (p. 64)
Sidney Hook, "David Caute's Fable of 'Fear & Terror'," in Encounter (© 1979 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LII, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 56-64.