Book Review: “The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left” by Landon R. Y. Storrs – posted 3/31/2013
I came across this book when it was mentioned by Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker piece about the the New Deal. Being both a federal government employee and a long-time progressive, I was curious about the history.
There are significant gaps in American history as conventionally taught. Unfortunately, what is generally remembered about our collective past leaves much out. Even books that aspire to fill in gaps or present alternative pictures leave out much. Storrs, a University of Iowa history professor, takes up the worthy goal of describing the years around the New Deal and after. I must say I was shocked by how little I knew of the events described including the activists, the organizations and the inquisition which ultimately decimated the New Deal Left.
The role of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his witchhunt have received attention. However, the loyalty investigations into federal employees has a murkier, less illuminated history. Storrs went to great lengths to unearth some of this buried history and she does a good job of showing the devastation that ensued.
In a more general way, Professor Storrs adds to our knowledge of the progressive and feminist aspects of the New Deal which have been insufficiently appreciated.She shows that there was quite an active leftist and feminist presence in both the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The FDR administration attracted many young radicals of both sexes to Washington DC. Storrs says initially they came for government jobs – not because of any confidence in the progressive possibilities of the New Deal which many derided.
She mentions Arthur “Tex” Goldschmidt, Elizabeth Wickendem, Felix Cohen, Wilbur Cohen, Thomas Emerson, Pauli Murray, Mary Dublin, Catherine Bauer, and Leon Keyserling, to name some of the activists. Each of these individuals (along with others I am not naming) had compelling personal stories in their own right and Storrs does a fine job of presenting the personalities and their respective roles.
Storrs shows they were a very lively, creative, and idealistic crowd who added enormously to the social and intellectual life of Washington DC. They reflected a wide range of left perspectives but all were committed to raising the living standards of poor and working class Americans. As Storrs writes:
“They advocated raising wages through unionization and wage-hour laws, combating unemployment through planning, public works, and generous relief and social insurance policies and further protecting purchasing power with national health insurance, public housing and consumer rights.”
The great majority of these progressives were outside the orbit of the Communist Party (CPUSA). An irony of the witchhunt is that so many leftists who were critical of the CPUSA were caught up in the relentless machinery of the loyalty investigations. It appears that many independent leftists had a more fluid identity and were not that engaged in ideological self-definition. For a period, social democrats, Socialists, and Communists all tried, with some degree of success, to push the New Deal to the left. Left-leaning New Dealers argued for the importance of mass purchasing power for working people. One wonders why that focus is not resurrected today when politics are so stuck on austerity and deficit-cutting.
I must say I was completely unaware of consumer groups like the League of Women Shoppers (LWS). Storrs shows the effective advocacy of the consumer movement. She said the LWS had 14 chapters across the country with 25,000 members. The LWS described their agenda this way:
“We work for high wages, low prices, fair profits, progressive taxation, adequate health protection and housing for all and the ending of racial, religious and sex discrimination in employment.”
I did not appreciate how many progressives of all stripes were working in the federal government in the 30’s and 40’s. Part of the conceit of the New Left has been its self-perception of reinventing politics. There was a lack of awareness of left movements that preceded it. One tragedy of the left is the history of discontinuity where every new generation of leftists seems to start over without learning from the past. I do think this is an example of what Gore Vidal called the United States of Amnesia. The left, to the extent there is any left currently remaining, is still plagued by this.
The strength of the New Deal Left does help to put into perspective the ruthless response from the Right. Stepping back, the loyalty investigations are almost a paradigm for how to destroy a social movement. Using the fear of communists in the federal government, a fear that was vastly overplayed, the Right demagogically and strategically attacked people on the left. Anyone in the federal government who was perceived as powerful or close to power attracted special interest. Loyalty investigations were a great way to bring down your political enemies. I was struck by the sheer volume of loyalty investigations. When leftists were preoccupied with proving their loyalty, their ideas became suspect. Instead of a focus on public policy, leftists were put on the defensive, always having to explain how they were not disloyal. It was a good way to get people off their game.
Storrs shows how long-running, persistent and demoralizing the loyalty investigations were to New Deal leftists. There always seemed to be more congressional committees investigating and once a target was in the crosshairs, the witchhunt did not give up easily. Storrs shows how the process forced compromise. While there were a wide range of responses to the loyalty investigations, some leftists denied their pasts and misrepresented their history politically to try and get the investigators off their backs. For many, there were serious issues of economic survival because the blacklist severely narrowed employment opportunities. The witchhunters tried to ruin people financially as well as in other ways. The FBI often urged the Justice Department to prosecute loyalty defendants on perjury charges. Storrs shows the other tools used: deportation for foreign-born civil servants; passport restrictions; loss of government research grants for academics; and loss of federal retirement benefits if there was evidence of perjury. Loyalty defendants were subject to surveillance and they widely believed they were wiretapped.
I thought Storrs’ observations about the antifeminism of the Old Right were quite interesting. She showed the multiple, contradictory stereotypes at play around women, gays and Jews. Right wing fears did not stop with fear of communism. Storrs says that right wingers associated communism with men’s loss of control over wives and daughters, effeminate men, and homosexuality. Homophobia took the form of assuming that gay people were automatically security risks because of their presumed susceptibilty to blackmail. Loyalty defendants had to show they were “normal”.
Storrs also shows how the right wing media of the day, the Hearst and McCormick papers, worked closely with the Dies Committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and Senator McCarthy’s subcommittee. A slew of conservative columnists and congressional committee members worked collaboratively to promote the witchhunt. Their allegations had wide circulation. Just the charges, regardless of truth, had devastating consequences.
While the decline of communism has taken the wind out of the sails of current day witchhunters, we still have examples of people like Senator Ted Cruz and former Representative Allen West saying that they have a list of communists in government. While such accusations seem unhinged, I think it would be a mistake to ignore them. The harm such irresponsible accusations caused to the New Deal generation of leftists was crushing, traumatic and long-lasting.
Contemporary allegations of this nature must get a very forceful response. Given the Right’s overall lack of repentance for this sordid episode, I would worry about a new incarnation of these type attacks in the future. Professor Storrs’ book is a cautionary, educational tale. She deserves credit for going into this black hole and finding very important stories that really have never been told widely before.