It has become a point of consensus in American historical understanding that the efforts of conservatives to rid the country of communists in the early Cold War were part of an irrational crusade against an imagined enemy. “Reds under the bed” are jovially referred to. The chief protagonist and poster child is of course Joseph McCarthy, the Senator from Wisconsin, who is depicted as a delusional and vicious drunkard. Artistic depictions of the era have been influential, most notably Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Miller’s dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials has been so pervasive that the conservatives’ search for communists is now most commonly referred to as ‘a witch hunt’. The underlying assumption here is that the danger posed by communism was about as real as that posed by imaginary black magic. Though Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953, this interpretation gained strength in light of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Fukuyamas of the world concluded that the end of history had arrived and that capitalism had triumphed; given that socialism now appeared to be a system that was ultimately unsustainable, what were they really worrying about?
This historical interpretation was propagated by liberals for two purposes. Firstly, it was a means with which to critique their political opponents. In part it borrowed from the ideas of historian Richard Hofstadter, author of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” an essay that essentially concluded that to be a conservative was nothing short of a psychologically diagnosable condition rooted, of course, in paranoia. Secondly, while maligning the Republicans for purging communists — or those “good Americans” who were not “guilty” of being communists — it dismissed socialist thinking in the same breath, treating it as a theory that should be taken about as seriously as nudism, veganism, or scientology.
All of this fails to fully grasp the realities of the early Cold War. By 1950 vast swathes of the more developed parts of the world had socialist governments. No country that had successfully overthrown capitalism had ever reverted back, and the idea that this would occur did not seem very plausible. At the same time most accounts of developments in the Soviet Union that had appeared in English since the 1930s were very impressive. First hand witnesses such as Walter Reuther, later the head of the United Auto Workers, told of a country that was transforming from a backwater into an industrial behemoth at a pace simply never seen before. All information from the Soviet Union told of a rival economic system that consistently outperformed the capitalist economies.
By the post-war era there were signs that the USSR was at least technologically equal, if not superior, to the United States. After the United States bombed Hiroshima in 1945 it only took four years for the Soviets to successfully test their own nuclear device. By the early 1960s the contrast was even starker. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter into outer space. The US responded not with a capitalist solution — space exploration could never be justified on grounds of profit — but by following the Soviet model of mass-government investment into the aerospace program.
While images of breakdowns in the American social system were being transmitted to news stations across the globe, of black civil rights protesters being chased by dogs and blasted to the ground with fire hoses, the USSR appeared to be the foremost producer and a state that that distributed the rewards of development evenly and not according to class. In April 1961, the month of Gagarin’s successful mission, 7% of Americans were unemployed. Nobody in the Soviet Union found themselves looking for work. Full employment had been achieved.
There were, at the same time, many active communists in the United States. Not imagined communists. Real communists. Many laborers were members of communist-controlled unions in key areas of the economy: the Pacific Coast dockworkers, the electrical, radio and machine workers, and the manufacturers of farm equipment. While many were forced out by the CIO in the wake of the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, they did not simply disappear. Studies of the CIA since the Cold War have demonstrated the success of the Soviet Union in infiltrating the intelligence services, and not only leaking reams of confidential information, but also sabotaging countless operations. The CIA, over the course of its entire history, was utterly ineffective in its efforts to cultivate sources within the KGB. The standard historical narrative has treated Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for leaking information to the Soviet Union, as an anomaly, an odd couple who were not representative of a larger hidden agenda. The only thing that was anomalous about them was that they were caught.
In the light of this information it is preposterous to suggest that socialism held an appeal equal to black magic or, as was suggested in recent years by George Clooney in his film Good Night and Good Luck, Islamic Jihadism. While the odd troubled teenager may find witchcraft a source of fascination, and the occasional immigrant may take Islam a step too far, socialism offered a competing and compelling vision of society. The conservatives were acting wholly rationally in seeking to stigmatize socialism and criminalize socialists. They were acting out of a sense of self-protection based on an understanding of who it was that threatened them most. Among McCarthy’s alleged crimes was his charge that an investigation should be held to reveal the presence of communists within the departments of State and Defense. Why would we presume that there were not communists working within both departments when they had successfully infiltrated every other institution within the United States?