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Book Review 325: Reds

June 30, 2014 - Harry Eagar
REDS: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America, by Ted Morgan. 685 pages, illustrated. Random House

This long, strange book gets off to a good start by locating the beginning of McCarthyism in the ‘teens when Joe McCarthy was still in primary school. In fact, Joe doesn’t appear until page 325, and he does not start behaving like a McCarthyite until about page 350.

The first American Reds were what we would now call Blacks: anarchists, many from Italy or Central Europe and bringing their European resentments with them. With no program or organization, they were insignificant as a political force although dangerous in spots because of their violence (although they killed and wounded fewer than one-one hundredeth as many Americans as capitalist employers did. Americans were in more danger of death from the National Guard than from anarchist bombers.)

Morgan identifies “the first McCarthyite” as Edgar Sisson. He was, typically, a newspaperman, gullible or venal, or perhaps both; and, also typically, he operated on forgeries. He duped the gullible President Wilson into the first government anti-Red assault, a disastrous invasion of Murmansk, where, Wilson was assured, 100,000 local fascists (as they were not yet called) would be inspired to rise up in favor of the tsar.

As was to happen again and again, the anti-Reds were no-shows and young Americans were slaughtered. A Michigan National Guard regiment suffered casualties at a rate that would have made Pershing blanch on the Western Front.

Morgan then does another good turn by documenting the rise of the racist criminal Edgar Hoover and the inability -- not corrected to this day -- of American rightwingers to identify a Red.

But -- and we have still not met Joe -- Morgan goes off the rails. There was a lot of spying by Communists, both American and foreign, in the ‘30s and early ‘40s, which Morgan identifies as the period when Reds posed a “real threat” to America. He never says what this threat was.

It never existed.

By August 1939, the revolutionary program of Bolshevism was dead, and the change in strategy to the Popular Front was a complete failure. The Comintern never subverted a government anywhere, and no Communist Party was significant in any country. Most of the Communists outside Russia had been murdered by fascists, and many of the small residue were murdering each other.

Inside Russia, too, Communists were murdering each other. Russia itself was being invaded (by Japanese rightwingers) and had not one ally. Its military, which had been built up at ruinous cost too soon, was obsolescent; the officer corps was wrecked; the country’s agriculture was failing; the national minorities were restive; and Russia was in no position to invade anyone -- something that, in any case, it had shown no desire to do since the close of the civil war in 1921.

Rightwingers saved Bolshevism. By invading Russia, Germany gave the party a platform to rally the population and to create an army that could and did invade other countries. Also, the prestige earned by the Communists by defeating Hitler recruited nationalists in all the western European empires to resist colonialism under Red banners.

But spying for the Soviets in America was a bust. The information stolen was of no use and was sometimes laughable: Morgan reports solemnly that Communists stole “secret documents” concerning the P-39 fighter. These could not have been helpful, since Lend-Lease was supplying the USSR with thousands of P-39s, which the Red Air Force put to excellent use by destroying German tanks, which is more use than the Americans ever got out of their P-39s. (The USSR did receive some valuable secrets from Japan, Germany, Britain and Canada, but not from America.)

After this long, misguided section, Morgan gets back on the rails to make his second major point: That Truman and his loyalty program had dismantled the Communist Party by 1948 at the latest. This is a position adopted by every historian known to me, aside from the slavering rightwingers.

Thus, by the time McCarthy launched his campaign of lies, there were no spies left, and not much even of the underground party of the Reds. As is well known, except to rightwingers, McCarthy never identified a single spy. All he did was besmirch his country and enrich a pack of snitches who continue to con gullible 100% Americans to this day.

This is interesting, in the same sense that watching hyenas eat a zebra is interesting, but Morgan seriously underplays the baleful role of the Catholic church and perhaps overplays the role of Eisenhower in bringing McCarthy low, although I think Eisenhower’s role was more equivocal than Morgan makes it.

Morgan also revives for historical memory some of the junior McCarthys, like Jenner, who have dropped out of public memory because of McCarthy’s celebrity; and he is more forthright than most in recounting the Hitlerism of McCarthy and many of his strongest supporters. It was not strange when Ronald Reagan, who sat out the war against Hitler, went to Bitberg. Reagan was always a McCarthyite and he knew how to appeal to them.

Morgan does come up with the best definition of McCarthyism I know: “the use of false information in the irrational pursuit of a fictitious enemy.”

This comes very late in the book, though, in the longest Epilogue I have ever seen -- 50 pages devoted to recounting the persecution of Americans -- often our best citizens -- by McCarthyites after McCarthy died.

McCarthyism didn’t need McCarthy, and his miserable end as a despised and lonely drunk did nothing really to harm it. It thrives today

 
 

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