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The gray area of red hunting

Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America; Ted Morgan; Random House: 688 pp., $35

November 23, 2003|Sam Tanenhaus | Sam Tanenhaus, author of "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography," is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

Half a century after his rapid rise to power and even swifter fall from grace, Sen. Joseph McCarthy remains a towering figure in our politics, one of the few legislators of his day whose name still has meaning. Just what that meaning is, however, has grown more ambiguous with time. The Soviet Union's implosion and the subsequent release of documents long buried in archives in Moscow and Washington have caused many to rethink the various outbreaks of red hunting in American history. What was once deemed "hysteria" now seems to have been something different, an excess of zeal occasioned by actual subversions.

It is also the case that the peak years of McCarthy's crusade, 1950-54, were a period much like our own. Then too, America was waging a distant war (in Korea) in the context of a broader conflict (against global communism). The country had never been stronger yet had seldom felt itself so vulnerable to foreign threats. No wonder that since Sept. 11, the term "McCarthyism" has gained new currency, particularly in connection with the Bush administration's expansion of prosecutorial powers through the Patriot Act and the White House's embrace of secrecy. Of course, it is not only anti-Communists who operated in this way. Communism itself functioned as a conspiracy. The prime virtue of "Reds," Ted Morgan's new book, is his understanding that in all too many cases, Communists and their adversaries inhabited the same hothouse of ideological obsession.

The author of a sturdy biography of labor leader Jay Lovestone, who helped create the American Communist Party but then turned fiercely against it, Morgan has dealt before with the strange double helix of communism and anti-communism. The starting point of his sprawling new narrative is the Russian Revolution of 1917, an event initially greeted in the United States and Europe as a subplot in the grander drama of World War I. This perspective changed as Bolshevik fervor spread and Americans on the scene became giddy heralds of the new order. Morgan cites well-known examples, such as the swashbuckling journalist John Reed, author of "Ten Days That Shook the World," and his bohemian wife, Louise Bryant. But he also describes more obscure figures, such as the Red Cross officer Raymond Robins, who was dazzled by Lenin's statesmanlike qualities and thereafter "never wavered in his admiration for the Soviet regime."

In contrast was Edgar Sisson, a journalist who went to Russia after the revolution to do propaganda work for the U.S. government and was firmly convinced he was witnessing an incipient tyranny, as political opponents were jailed, the opposition press was silenced and courts gave way to bloodthirsty "people's tribunals." When a dissident produced documents all too neatly "proving" that Lenin and Trotsky were traitorous pawns controlled by "a secret office of the German General Staff in Petrograd," Sisson seized on them -- although others (Robins, for one) instantly surmised that the papers were forgeries. But Sisson couldn't be budged, and his superiors were taken in too. One of them, President Wilson, already loathed the Bolsheviks and felt further encouraged to send over American troops in what Morgan pointedly calls "the first American attempt at regime change."

Of these two careers, Morgan concludes: "Edgar Sisson could be said to be the first McCarthyite, just as Raymond Robins was the first fellow traveler." The clash of rival fanaticisms would be reenacted time and again, as the passions of pro-Sovietism met the counterforce of equally unrestrained anti-communism -- first in the 1920s, when outbreaks of violent anarchism prompted an orgy of mass arrests and deportations; next in the Roosevelt years, when Soviet agents infiltrated the State Department and the Manhattan Project even as congressional reactionaries denounced the New Deal as Bolshevism in disguise; and later still, in the Cold War, with the unmasking of Soviet spies like Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg and the growth of the "national security state," complete with loyalty oaths, paid informers and rampant FBI surveillance. These later episodes have been chronicled many times, and Morgan's rehashings supply more detail than we need, sometimes in overheated prose rife with borrowings from antique G-man melodramas. "Gumshoes" skulk through the narrative, carrying out "black bag jobs."

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