MANY ARE THE CRIMES
By Ellen Shrecker
353 pp., $29.95
Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin relished the air time and publicity that fueled his self-promotion. Were he alive today, he might have been disappointed to discover that his deeds only merit a small portion of "Many Are the Crimes," a definitive study of the "ism" named after him.
Then again, perhaps he would have been grateful, considering Ellen Shrecker's scorching account of his deceit and guile before concluding that "McCarthyism outlasted McCarthy just as it predated him."
The author toys with the idea that McCarthyism might have been more accurately named "Hooverism." The director of the FBI personally oversaw a zealous campaign of oppression, ordering unlawful entries, unauthorized wire-taps, perjurious witnesses, and the falsification of records.
Hoover and his G-men disingenuously hid behind a public veneer of clean-cut patriotism, even while they sought to maneuver the White House and Department of Justice into following their own agenda.
But what the author so effectively demonstrates is that anti-Communist suppression in America was composed not merely of a few outspoken public figures who came to symbolize the movement, but of a multiplicity of individuals and institutions who made up a loosely structured, over-arching network.
McCarthyism existed a good 30 years prior to the infamous congressional hearings. Shrecker reveals a shocking secret history of the "red-baiting" and red purges by these constituent elements since the 1920s.
When the cold war began, the network was already in place, and "by embedding their charges in a broader partisan political agenda, they drew widespread support from other conservatives and made it hard for moderates and liberals to defuse those charges without themselves being accused of a coverup."
The phenomenon was, Shrecker notes, a "top-down" one. But this sort of power can never be sustained without the implicit and tacit consent of the governed. McCarthyism was prefaced by a public fear of the Communist Party's secretive practices, their Kremlin-fed mantras, and intricate links with the trade unions that might weaken the country's defenses with crippling production strikes.
A report by the Department of Defense summarizes the consensus well: "No American welcomes the necessity for the non-disclosure of sources of information. But a necessity it is. The necessity is real because the conspiracy is real. The struggle is for survival of a whole nation."
What illumines this portrait of McCarthyism is the meticulous depth and breadth of Shrecker's 20 years of preparatory research - with valuable information from newly opened FBI and Kremlin files. The author presents a very human profile of the frailties and individual motivations of the innocent - and not-so-innocent - people involved on all sides.
Every page of "Many Are the Crimes" is enlivened with priceless anecdotes - often presented in a dry wit - that serve to highlight the absurdities, hypocrisies, ironies and, ultimately, the tragedy of the persecutions.
In her introduction, the author promises to conclude with an assessment of the damage that McCarthyism inflicted upon American society. Shrecker mourns the loss of the radical left and conjectures what its impact might have been in the areas of feminism, the labor and civil rights movement, the arts, and the federal government had it not been uprooted and scattered by McCarthyism. But for all of her valuable insights and piercing analysis, her sketches of what might have been make too many generous assumptions about the extent to which the marginal Communist movement might have influenced America. Americans were never sympathetic to radical movements such as Communism, even if, ironically, the culture had been drifting leftward after the New Deal.
Shrecker's exposition on how McCarthyism might have influenced the body politic is also too brief. But the author observes that McCarthyism set many precedents for future acts of injustice by the government, and, though she doesn't elaborate on this, one can't help but think of the recent incidents at Waco and Ruby Ridge or even the White House's recent acquisition of more than 1,000 FBI files on political opponents.
The lesson of this book, as Shrecker observes, is that a Bill of Rights and Constitution are not in and of themselves a sufficient guarantor of individual liberty. It can only be safeguarded by vigilance and awareness.
* Stephen Humphries is a freelance writer in London.