In This Review

Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism
Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism
By Richard Gid Powers
The Free Press, 1995, 527 pp
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After the Second World War, there was belated acknowledgment in the United States of the role of "premature antifascists," those who had opposed fascism before it became acceptable to do so. Now that the Cold War is over and even Russian politicians and writers denounce communism, it is time, Richard Gid Powers proposes in Not Without Honor, to acknowledge those Americans whose unfashionable early opposition to communism has won them honor abroad even if, as he claims in the last sentence of his interesting book, "in their own country they are still without honor."

Anticommunism in America, Powers, a professor at the City University of New York, makes clear, was hardly a monolithic movement. Anticommunist sentiment drew from the left as well as the right, from trade union halls as well as corporate boardrooms, from the soapbox as well as the pulpit; its adherents included the labor leader Walter Reuther as well as Francis Cardinal Spellman, the socialist Norman Thomas as well as Senator Joseph McCarthy. But within this diversity Powers discerns two main tendencies. One consisted of those whom he calls, rather awkwardly, "countersubversive anticommunists," persons "obsessed with uncovering plots that were, for the most part, figments of their own imagination." The other consisted of "responsible Americans with an anticommunism rooted in a realistic and principled view of the world."

The conflict between these two forms of anticommunism provides the drama in Powers' narrative. The ironic point made in the first three-quarters of the book is that the disbelief generated by irresponsible anticommunism overwhelmed the reasoned arguments of responsible anticommunism and succeeded in discrediting the anticommunist cause. But in the last quarter Powers curiously shifts ground and seems to regard the demise of irresponsible anticommunism as a blow to the republic.

THE ANTICOMMUNIST DIVIDE

Powers begins in the 1920s, when, following the excesses of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and the Red Scare of 1919-20, the countersubversives, proclaiming that a revolutionary left organized by Moscow was on the verge of overthrowing the government, reduced anticommunism to a "travesty." In the 1930s publisher William Randolph Hearst's campaign to label the New Deal communist, and the addled demagoguery of Representative Martin Dies and the House Un-American Activities Committee, "hurt anticommunism more than it hurt communism." This was the time when the Great Depression seemed to verify Marxist prophecies about the collapse of capitalism and when the Soviet Union appeared to some as the only reliable foe of Hitler. On one side stood Hearst and Dies and on the other, high-minded idealists sympathetic to communism; as Arthur Koestler well said, it was a contest between those who were right for the wrong reasons and those who were wrong for the right reasons.

But responsible anticommunism found sustenance in the Moscow trials and the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, and it came into its own in the early years of the Cold War. By the end of the 1940s, Powers writes, Cold War liberalism "had laid the foundation for a worldwide military, political, and cultural bulwark against communism." Then came the Alger Hiss case, and "wild-eyed red web conspiracy theorists" soon were "recklessly tearing away at those achievements, until the movement was vulnerable to be captured by the first demagogues able to cloak paranoid red web conspiracy theories in the mantle of major party respectability."

The Hiss case, while a disaster for the Truman administration and those who had minimized the threat of domestic communism, was also a disaster for the anticommunist cause. "It shifted the balance of power in the movement from the responsible liberal anticommunists ... to some of the most bizarre and irresponsible figures in American politics." With the rise of McCarthy, the two forms of anticommunism came into bitter collision.

For the countersubversives, communism was an internal threat, burrowing into Hollywood, the universities, the churches, the press, even the army; McCarthy was a hero in his determination to root out spies and traitors, and McCarthyism was the salvation of the republic. As for liberal anticommunists who condemned McCarthy and his methods, they were almost as bad as the communists themselves.

For responsible anticommunists, how-ever, communism was a threat to America, not a threat in America. Domestic communism was a problem only insofar as it complicated the task of building support for the containment of Soviet expansion overseas. The way to handle American communists was discussion and debate, not loyalty oaths, blacklists, and persecution.

For a time, McCarthy worked his will. But eventually the Senate and the country had had enough. McCarthy had turned himself into the symbol of anticommunism, and "when McCarthy went down, so to a great extent did anticommunism." The backlash against McCarthyism, Powers mysteriously argues, "silenced anticommunism." President Eisenhower thereafter discouraged Americans from "expressing their anticommunism, for fear of reawakening McCarthyism.... With the President himself muting the urgency of the moral crusade against communism ... American foreign policy was at risk of losing its way" in a world in which communism's assault on freedom was still a fundamental fact of life. "When liberals dismissed McCarthyism ... they were dangerously close to denying the public the right to debate the great issues of the day, a debate that would inevitably lead to errors (like McCarthyism) as well as to insight."

MISPLACED REGRET

Here Powers seems to turn against his own earlier analysis. One does not recall the rejection of anticommunism as a feature of the Eisenhower administration or its successors. Why was the downfall of McCarthy not a salutary defeat for the paranoid countersubversives and a victory of responsible over irresponsible anticommunism? Having excoriated McCarthyism, Powers in the last quarter of his book seems almost to regret its defeat.

"Anticommunism had become so disreputable by the early sixties," Powers writes sadly, that President Kennedy defined his new administration "by crusading against it at home (calling it `extremism') and by rejecting it as a guide for foreign policy (calling it `moralism')." The reconceptualizaton of the Cold War as a power struggle rather than as a holy war exasperates Powers, but was that not always one of the distinctions between his two forms of anticommunism? And would not the republic have been better off with more Hans Morgenthaus and fewer Joe McCarthys?

The Vietnam War accelerated the decline of anticommunism, in Powers' view, until it was seen as "the American original sin." When all seemed lost for anticommunism, however, suddenly there appeared "the first faint stirring of new life, of rebirth.... One man summoned the will, the strength, the imagination to commence the giant task of rebuilding the anticommunist coalition." This Lochinvar turns out to be Norman Podhoretz, the angry neoconservative editor of Commentary. His allies in the great resurrection were the members of the Committee on the Present Danger, formed to oppose détente.

Powers seems to take seriously the committee's extravagant and now abundantly disproven claims that the Soviet Union was overtaking the United States in the arms race. He gives the committee, along with Podhoretz and Ronald Reagan, the credit for winning the Cold War. Counterpoised as villain against these heroes is, of all people, the father of containment, George Kennan.

That communism as a moral, economic, cultural, and ecological disaster might have contributed to its own collapse does not get much play. And while the attempt to keep up with America in the arms race may have wrecked the Soviet economy, Reagan's military spending nearly wrecked the American economy too, as it combined with ill-judged tax reductions to quadruple the national debt in a dozen years and create the deficits that tie down the American government so wretchedly today.

Powers' statement that, by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, "real anticommunism had nearly faded from the American consciousness" hardly fits with his eulogies of Reagan and Podhoretz. It is true enough that Podhoretz and his fellow neoconservatives differed from McCarthy in not accusing individuals who disagreed with them of disloyalty to the republic, and that is a substantial difference. But their rigid, NSC-68-like theory of Soviet communism as something unchanging and unchangeable ignored the rise of polycentrism in the communist world and the spread of disillusion, cynicism, and corruption in the Soviet Union itself. Obsessive anticommunism, like most obsessions, distorts judgment and demeans character.

Responsible anticommunism, far from disappearing as Powers would have it, took into account the changes in the Soviet empire since the death of Stalin. As an old-time redbaiter--and Powers is generous in his comments on my 1949 book, The Vital Center, and Cold War liberalism--I remain, like most liberals, an unrepentant and unreconstructed anticommunist. As a historian, I have tried to recognize that communism too underwent changes and that Americans could not forever act as if Stalin were still in the Kremlin orchestrating a monolithic global communist movement. But that hardly makes someone like me less of an anticommunist than Joe McCarthy or Norman Podhoretz.

The first 300 pages of Not Without Honor can be highly recommended as an intelligent, well researched, and workmanlike account of anticommunism in America. One might wish for more recognition of the impact of European books, especially Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and Richard Crossman's The God that Failed, on the shaping of American anticommunism. There are a few trivial errors: the confusion of Robert A. Lovett, the public servant, with Robert Morss Lovett, the professor of English, as a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union; the misspelling of William Henry Chamberlin, J. Parnell Thomas, Clarence Manion, and Harlow Shapley; the misattribution of The Cold War and its Origins to Donald rather than Denna F. Fleming.

But the first three-quarters of Not Without Honor is well worth reading. Then Powers goes off the rails and, by discarding the fruitful distinction with which his analysis began, ends in a morass of self-contradiction.

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  • Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., is Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at the Graduate School and University Center, the City University of New York.
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