The Great Fear
Americans worried about many things in the 1950’s: the high unemployment rate, increasing racial tension, and the invincibility of the Yankees. They even worried about a ridiculously low level in inflation. But the main concern of the United States during this period was Communism. The anxiety of the arms race, the secrecy of the Soviet state, and the strange responsibility of being the world’s dominant power—all of these led to a remarkable preoccupation with the Communist issue. Government and public reaction to this issue was suffused with that vague fear which led to security programs, persecution of domestic radicals, and a remarkable concentration of power in the hands of a demagogic Senator named Joseph McCarthy. In the late 1970’s, the American view of Communism is far more sophisticated. We concede that China, Yugoslavia, and Russia are not part of a monolithic whole, but are very different societies; that the Russian military can be as bungling as the Pentagon; and that many Russians are not only good people, but fairly content with their lives and even with their government. The older, one-dimensional division of the world into good and evil, free and Communist, seems hopelessly simplistic by comparison. Why the older view held such a powerful grip on America is a fascinating and complex question, and one which few historians have tried to answer.
The Great Fear does try, but fails to add much to our understanding of McCarthyism. It is a disappointing book chiefly because it could have been so good. In recent years, a wealth of new information has become available as government documents have been declassified and old radicals have concluded that the national mood is safe enough for the revelation of their secrets. This material is largely unworked, touched only by journalists and a few specialist students. David Caute, brings to his book an established reputation for research and an understanding of the political left. A long and well researched book, The Great Fear is nonetheless inconclusive and riddled with defects.
The basic problem with the book is Caute’s utter lack of objectivity. Rather than conforming to the standards of fairness historians expect in the 1970’s, Caute falls instead into the shrill tone of J. Edgar Hoover in the 1950’s—the only difference being that he is denouncing not the Communists, but the anti-Communists. Each chapter is a compilation of case studies exposing the slim pretexts and weak reasoning which led to the firing, silencing, or imprisonment of hundreds of people during and after the Red Scare. Many of these people were entirely innocent of any Communist connection; virtually everyone was innocent of “treason” as we now conceive of it. This is interesting material. The problem is that Caute cannot help imbuing the persecuted leftists with all the attributes of Christian martyrs—determination, virtue, idealism, intelligence—while their persecutors are cast either as Gestapo-like inquisitors or hopeless buffoons. As a result, the book sounds like the work of a muckraker writing in 1953, trying to awaken the world to the dangers of McCarthyism. Unfortunately, Caute is writing more than two decades after McCarthy was censured for the very practices condemned in the book. There are few things more tedious than an exposé of what has already been exposed.
Caute’s biases seep into the book through an uneasy mixture of sarcasm and self-righteousness. On the one hand, he views Communism with mock indignation, pretends to take seriously the most outlandish conspiracy theories, and parodies the statements and intentions of any and all investigators. On the other, he seems to be sometimes overcome with anger at his subject, and venom spills onto the pages. He calls Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s special assistant, a “spoiled child”; says that Congressional committee members “hounded” innocents; and so on. At times the anger in the writing almost obscures the meaning of the...
(The entire section is 1,889 words.)