Ellen Schrecker says professors should be worried about a New McCarthyism

Historians in the News
tags: McCarthyism, Joe McCarthy

Ellen Schrecker is professor of history at Yeshiva University and the author of, among other books, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford University Press, 1986).

It’s hard to tell whether to fear or mock the recent call of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for a revival of the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, as it was commonly called. It’s unlikely that a new committee will storm through the nation’s campuses in quite the same way the original did. The end of the Cold War has obviously mitigated the fear of Communism that powered HUAC’s investigations. Still, the rhetoric of Gingrich and his fellow Islamophobes contains enough parallels to the witch hunts of the early Cold War to arouse concern about an intensification of similarly repressive activities. And this time around, the academy could well be the main victim.

Though he boasts a Ph.D. in the field, Gingrich has his history wrong. His brief remarks on Fox News, made in response to the shootings in Orlando, imply that HUAC flushed out Nazis and that President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed its work. That was not the case. Almost from its birth, in the late 1930s, the committee went after alleged Communists in the New Deal and the labor movement, not Nazis. FDR deplored HUAC’s activities but refused to spend his political capital in an open battle with the then-popular committee.

The advent of the Cold War empowered the witch hunters. Because of American Communists’ ideological connections to the Soviet regime, the committee and its allies could — and did — portray the small and always unpopular party as a danger to national security. Revolution was never on the table, but during World War II, when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were allied against Hitler, men and women within the party’s orbit had spied for the Kremlin. Still, once the war ended, whatever threat Communism posed to the United States had essentially been eradicated by the Truman administration’s internal purges — as even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover privately admitted.

But scaremongering has its rewards. By the late 1940s, hyping the Red menace allowed ambitious politicians and bureaucrats like Joe McCarthy, Hoover, and HUAC member Richard Nixon to advance their careers and ideological agendas. Their activities and those of their collaborators gave birth to a campaign of loyalty oaths, security programs, and investigations designed to expose and eject every organization, individual, and idea associated with Communism from every position of influence in American society.

Congressional hearings were central to that operation. As they scoured the nation in search of headlines, votes, and supposed subversives, committees like HUAC and its senatorial siblings did not call up people at random. They focused on those sectors of society where the Communist Party had been active — the academy among them. Before the witch hunts ended, the committees had grilled dozens of college professors about their past and present political activities and those of their friends and associates. Like the better-known witnesses within the entertainment industry and the federal government, most of the professors who refused to name names were, or had once been, Communists. But they had never abused their academic positions or engaged in illegal activities. Even so, the stigma of Communism was so toxic that more than 100 academics found themselves unemployed and blacklisted. ...

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