Cold War scholar Kai Bird once stated that the ultimate sin of McCarthyism was that it did not take into account context. By this he meant that Joe McCarthy was ignoring the defensible, if wrong-headed reasons people became communists in the Great Depression. After all, capitalism seemed to be failing, the Russian 5 year plan seemed to be an economic success, and fascism, seemingly opposed solely by the Soviet Union, was on the rise. For concerned citizens, it appeared that only the Communists were doing anything to fight Adolf Hitler and the Great Depression.
But this plea for context has its limits; particularly when the topic is the domestic Cold War of the early 1950s. For the left today, the second Red Scare was either the result of either or both: America plunging into fascism, or a desire to keep the full employment war economy of World War II going. No matter which argument was adopted — and usually they are conjoined — a conspiracy of right-wing extremists populated by the Military-Industrial Complex orchestrated this plunge.
An example of these beliefs is the Supreme Court, 56 years ago this month, upholding in a 6-3 decision concerning a New York state law that prohibited communists from teaching in public schools. For the left, this was simply America going crazy and the Constitution becoming an etch-a-sketch.
But without defending the decision, context should be taken into account. Consider how buffeted the citizenry felt in 1952. The Soviets had acquired the A-Bomb, — and this has been validated in recent years — courtesy of Soviet agent Julius Rosenberg, who never admitted espionage but instead portrayed himself as a victim of American anti-Semitism. China fell to the Communists, and with the exposure of State Department employee Alger Hiss, the perception was that Soviet moles had brought this about.
Understandably the populace wanted robust measures to out such agents who masqueraded as liberals. Hence, when McCarthy came on the scene promising a bare-knuckled attack on such entities, the public supported him. But there was also a perception that education had a hand in recruiting said agents. Some believed Hiss had been recruited at Harvard, while Rosenberg at City College. In the case of Hiss, biographers have traced his turn to communism after he graduated; while Rosenberg may well indeed have been swayed in college. The very distance that separated these institutions — WASP on one side, tuition-free predominantly Jewish inner city school on the other — revealed the scope of communist influence in academia.
Hence, when the New York state statute, entitled the Feinberg Law and that denied any teacher employment if they called for the overthrow of the government, made its way to the Supreme Court, there were understandable reasons for it being upheld. For them, young minds were at stake. But the country did not know how good they had it. Today, academia has veered left. A chair in History is named after Alger Hiss. Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo has a free speech fountain named after him at the University of Colorado. Moreover the content of college courses contains defenses of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. While I myself was a graduate student in History — ironically, at City College — I heard a professor praise Stalin and “what he was trying to do.”
The Feinberg Law may have won out in 1952, but it was only a battle, not a victory. The left was aimed at ultimately winning the war.