"Under God"--It Wasn't a Product of a Red Scare

Culture Watch

Ronald Radosh, professor emeritus of history at Queensborough Community College and CUNY Graduate Center, is author of Commies: A Journey through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left.

Supporters of taking out the phrase"under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance have come up with a new twist in their arsenal of arguments: It was part and parcel of the McCarthyite witch-hunt of the 1950s, when America faced a phony Red menace and the real dangers came from right-wing proponents of a new conformity.

Historian David Greenberg, for example, writes in the online magazine Slate of a time when"Billy Graham rose to fame as a Red-baiter," not as an evangelical Christian. The words added to the Pledge went"hand in hand with the Red Scare, to which it was inextricably linked." The campaign to add"under God," he states,"was part of this [Red Scare] movement."

In reality, the Communist insistence on"atheism" was part and parcel of their totalitarian ideology: Marxism-Leninism, itself a state religion, could not sanction a free society based on freedom of religion and tolerance for competing systems of faith or belief.

At home, moreover, there was a very real Communist threat, as scores of revelations from the Soviet archives since the collapse of the USSR have shown.

For decades, many people believed that anyone who was accused of being a spy for the Soviets in the '50s was in fact just another innocent victim of the McCarthyite smear machine. The claim is a staple of the writers at The Nation, the ultra-liberal journal of opinion.

Just last year, its publisher and editorial director, Victor Navasky, wrote a lengthy article on what he called"the Missing Red Menace," warning of a new attempt to resurrect McCarthyism, so that tactics"pioneered by the red-baiters of half a century ago" can be used today against opponents of the Bush administration.

Navasky and his political friends insist that a small group of right-wing historians are out to resurrect Joe McCarthy's reputation. In fact, a consensus exists that McCarthy was a demagogue who made reckless and irresponsible charges, and who did in fact slander innocent people.

But McCarthy's greatest crime was to give anti-Communism a bad name, so that persons who actually did betray America and aided Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union through espionage have been for years portrayed as heroic victims.

Among this group we now know to have been working for the KGB and its predecessors, and for the GRU - Soviet military intelligence - were prominent Americans who in the war years infiltrated every major agency of the U.S. government, from the State and Treasury Departments to the Manhattan Project.

The Venona project files - thousands of decrypted 1940s cables between the KGB in Moscow and its agents in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, only released to the public beginning in 1995 - makes the evidence overwhelming. Thanks to Venona, we have definitive proof of the guilt of Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg, as well as the most important American atomic spy, Theodore Hall.

But Venona also revealed that the KGB had among its agents such people as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White; the chief of the State Department's Division of American Republics, Laurence Duggan; the head of the State Department's Latin American Division, Maurice Halperin; and Lauchlin Currie, administrative aide and State Department liaison to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.

Venona in fact confirmed what anti-Communists had argued at the time, and which their detractors, the anti anti-Communists, had always denied: There was a successful and dangerous Soviet penetration of our government, as well as a network of spies working for the KGB.

It also has been established that many of them were recruited directly out of the ranks of the American Communist Party. Contrary to what the left of the time had maintained - that the Communists were small, insignificant and hardly a danger - there was in fact good reason to view them not simply as members of an unpopular but legal political party, but as potential spies in waiting. The CP-USA was, as scholars Harvey Klehr and John Haynes have written,"indeed a fifth column working inside and against the United States in the Cold War."

Indeed, new revelations about Communist intrigue seem to never stop appearing. In their new book"Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History," Jerrold and Leona Schecter reveal that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the legendary chief of the Manhattan Project, was himself a member of the Communist Party until 1942, at which time the KGB ordered him to suspend his membership.

Documents they have obtained show us for the first time that Oppenheimer was a major Soviet asset, and had agreed to hire Communist scientists for the project who would then ferret out secret data to the Soviets. From December 1941 through the early months of 1942, they write,"The American Communist Party underground and Soviet intelligence were enlisting Oppenheimer's cooperation to obtain atomic secrets." KGB chief Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's main henchman, called the scientist"a member of the apparatus of Comrade [Earl] Browder," the American CP's wartime leader.

Then, as now, America faced serious enemies. Then, as now, it made sense to allow the FBI to carefully watch and monitor these enemies of our nation's security and freedom.

When we look over the history of our recent past, it turns out that the red-baiters, and not the Reds, were right.

This piece was first published in the New York Post and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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More Comments:

alexander - 1/8/2004

wonderfully put, mr arteaga.

alexander - 1/8/2004

his introduction talks about under god as if
a. it has much relevance in his article.
b. it wasn't a product of the red scare.
c. the removal of under god would be bad (more implied than the others.)

none of these are true, or if they are (past my knowledge) he does a strangely poor job of showing it.

alexander - 1/8/2004


adam overland - 10/21/2003

Ronald Radosh is so clearly an idiot it pains me to point it out. Phds must have been on special at the local conveinant store, next to the communist gummi-bears. Wern't you in that movie 'conspiracy theory' Ronald? Oh yes, that's right, you were the guy that sucked.

Michael Mahadeo - 6/13/2003

Might I suggest that those interested in this topic have a look at a recently published collection of essays edited by D. Kirby called Religion and the Cold War, published by Palgrave Macmillan. Very interesting and shows that rel;igion was not just an issue in the USA.

JOHN W. BUGLER - 4/7/2003





michael wreszin - 7/15/2002

This is the Historian's Newletter. Surely Mr. Safranski is not an American historian. Even Radosh does not believe that the Rosenberg's put an atomic bomb in the hands of Stalin. His hysterical remarks only support what I saidz - excepot that the hysteria is eanduring. In anye veant we have had other spies and so didz the British and the Canadians and they did not execute them Ronald Radosh wrote that the 4execution of Ethylkl was murder andz he has never made a big case that the execution was justified. As for the argumenbts about their guilt. I found Radosh and Miller"s book persuasive (she was of course the writer) on the role of Julius Rosenberg. That is that he was in contact with the Soviet apparatus and that he gave them information. That he gave them the atomic bomb is rediculous. In any event my note was not about that at all, not even relevant. What we were talking about was the hysterical climate of the McCarthy period that led to stupidities and the blasphemy of genuine religion by sticking "under god" in to the pledge...But Safransky doesn't read either.

Rogelio F. Arteaga - 7/12/2002

Wait a minute, Mr. Safranski -- the hysteria of the McCarthy era DID play a part in the execution. Compare their swift introduction to justice with that of those who spied for Russia after the age of McCarthy.

As to "progressive deeds" -- I've been reading The Nation for quite a few years, and I have never run across anything in it that approved of putting the bomb in Stalin's hands or labeled it a "progressive deed". Perhaps I missed it? If so, please advise us as to who said it and when.

Where is the crime in bringing up the execution of the Rosenbergs? Is it now off limits to discuss it simply because of the Venona papers? Or, are you implying that it has been alleged in this space that the Rosenbergs are innocent?

To point out that the hysteria of the times played a part in sending the Rosenbergs to their death is not the same thing as saying that they were innocent (if some continue to believe that they are, they have yet to voice their opinion here). Mr. wReszin's comments address the temper of the times and Mr. Radosh's failure to address the issue under discussion. (I feel that the point of his essay was to prove that it was not a "red scare" that prompted initiatives such as the insertion of the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, but rather, a genuine threat to our country. Even if I am correct, Mr. Radosh's point still seems a poor argument, given the topic under debate.)

To sum up, what Mr. wReszin said is not a rehashing, but a fairly accurate description of the emotions of that time and a criticism of Radosh's essay with which I and others, whose comments can be read here, agree. Perhaps you might want to fine-tune your mindset?

Stewart Riley - 7/11/2002

Dr. Radosh's article, while it certainly points out some valid evidence of Soviet spying within the United States
(in the 1940's, not the 1950's, by the way) is little more than a red herring, a strawman argument designed to
cover for the simple fact that Dr. Radosh cannot refute; the pledge was modified specifically in order to include
a religious (and Christian) content as a result of anti-communist fears. These fears were not based on the
evidence that Dr Radosh cites, since it was (quite understandably) unavailable at the time. The changing of
the pledge was a product of fear and a willingness to ignore the basic constitutional structure of our nation for
short term political gain. It implies that those who are not Christian are not loyal citizens, a contention that is
both offensive and incorrect. My father, like myself, was an atheist, one who served his nation with distinction
in World War II. He was also a staunch opponent of both Soviet totalitarianism and home-grown right-wing
red-baiters. Dr. Radosh would equate all on the American Left with Soviet spies or their apologists, when it has
often been men like my father who have been the principle defenders of American liberty and rights. The history
of the pledge and its unconstitutional alteration is clear, and it is Dr. Radosh who is being un-American to deny
and obscure it.

mark safranski - 7/11/2002

The Rosenbergs were not executed due to " hysteria " or even because they members of the slavishly Stalinist CPUSA but because they spied for the Soviet Union. That the Rosenbergs put an atomic bomb in the hands of a man who murdered at least 30 million of his own countrymen and that this is still considered a " progressive " deed in some quarters ( like the Nation magazine ) speaks to the mindset of the Left.

The fact that even today, after Venona, Khrushchev's memoirs and the opening of Soviet archives that Leftists even bother to raise the issue of the Rosenberg's execution shows that radicalism is more like a religious faith than a political position.

bjd - 7/11/2002

The title of this article is "Under God - It wasn't a Product of a Red Scare."
However the entire content of the article argues that the Red Scare was justified. Whatever truth there may be to this assertion, the fact remains that "under God" was added to the pledge as part of a movement in the 1950's to agressively insert God into many aspects of official American life. This fact is amply documented by David Greenberg in his astute article.

Paul Le Blanc - 7/11/2002

What Ronald Radosh writes about the red scare/red menace of the late 1940s and 1950s is interesting. As with his book COMMIES, there seems to me to be much emotionalism and some distortion, but it can't be totally shrugged off. What is disconcerting is that it seems to have nothing to do with the question of putting the words "under God" into the pledge of allegiance. Unless his point is that those who are critical of the Cold War insertion of those words should be linked somehow with treason to the U.S. I don't think that is consistent with the true nature of our country or the true nature of God.

mICHAEL wRESZIN - 7/10/2002

wHY does Ronald Radosh conatinually repeat the same things over and over. The notion that the country was under grave threat of internal subversion during the early years of the cold war seem overstated to me. But what has all that got to do with the pledge. It is obvious to anyone that the pledge was initiated to separate the United States as a "god-fearing " nation from the "atheisitic " Communists. Of course that was a part of the general hysteria and oppressive chauvinism of the time i.e the "McCarthy Era." . At the time Radosh detested it. It was a part of the kind of atmosphere that led to the execution of the Rosenbergs, which Radosh didn't support and doesn't support. So why is he going on and on about the red-baiters being right. After all weren't the British as subjected to Communist subversion and they did not go through a period of hysteria and execute their spies. I suspect that Radosh is working out his own personal problems with his own personal history. It is becoming terribly tedious.

Douglas Bissell - 7/10/2002

I'm not sure how this argument ties in with "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Mr. Radosh appears to be saying that "under God" was added not because of a fictional scare but because of a real threat. I don't see this as a logical justification for its addition, however. Do we need to keep "under God" in the Pledge just because there was a real Communist threat in the 1950s?