The distinguished historian John Earl Haynes recently joined VOC’s National Advisory Council. I had the opportunity to interview him by email, and here is Part I of our exchange. In Part II, he discusses Joseph McCarthy, the importance of educating Americans about communism, and his books, including a Calvin Coolidge outlier.
DT: What is the most helpful starting point for considering Joseph McCarthy in the context of American communism and anticommunism?
JEH: The first thing people need to get straight is chronology. Senator McCarthy had nothing of interest to say about anticommunism until his Wheeling, West Virginia speech in February of 1950. Despite the high profile he has in many people’s mind with the popular anticommunism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he was a latecomer to the issue.
President Truman issued an executive order establishing a sweeping loyalty-security program for federal employees in March 1947. McCarthy had nothing to do with it. The Truman Administration indicted the leadership of the CPUSA under the Smith Act in 1948. McCarthy had nothing to do with it. The Truman Administration indicted Alger Hiss in 1949 (he was convicted in 1950). McCarthy had nothing to do with it. The Truman Administration indicted and convicted several Soviet spies in the period from 1948 to 1952 including, most famously, the Rosenbergs. McCarthy had nothing to do with any of those cases. A number of former communists had testified to Congress, notably Louis Budenz, Whittaker Chambers, and Elizabeth Bentley, and described in detail the nature of the CPUSA and its relationship to Soviet espionage. Their testimony received massive media coverage. McCarthy had nothing to do with this.
What McCarthy did in 1950 was to make anticommunism into a partisan issue. His target was not the CPUSA or the KGB, it was the Truman Administration. Partisan use of a popular issue is not unusual, and not necessarily damaging if its use is responsible. But McCarthy was not. Notably, his chief targets were George Marshall (Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense), and Dean Acheson (Secretary of State) whom he depicted as the leaders of a “great conspiracy” to bring about communist victory in the Cold War.
The charge was absurd. Marshall (of the Marshall Plan) and Acheson (designer of the Truman Doctrine and NATO) were key to America’s largely successful Cold War strategy in that period. Of the hundreds McCarthy charged with being communists or spies, a few were spies, but most were not. And those few where he was right were minor figures, and he gave them little attention because they were not prominent in the Truman Administration and were of little use for his partisan purposes. In the end, McCarthy did immense damage to the cause of anticommunism by his recklessness, indifference to the truth, and partisan exploitation of the issue.
DT: Why is it important to educate Americans about communism?
JEH: Totalitarianism in its communist form was the greatest threat to an open and free society that emerged in the 20th century, even greater than the threat of its fraternal totalitarianisms, national socialism and fascism. The long Cold War of 1917 to 1991 was an extraordinary conflict that consumed massive treasure and resources as well as taking the lives of scores of millions and taking the freedom of hundreds of millions others.
Yet the history of communism is increasingly misunderstood because it is so poorly taught in American high schools and colleges. This is unfortunate because while communism in its classic Marxist-Leninist form is restricted to a few enclaves and has lost its dynamism, various forms of totalitarianism remain a strong temptation in the Western mind as well as many other parts of world.
An understanding of the history and nature of communism will reduce the attraction of this insidious totalitarian temptation in whatever form it next threatens the free and open societies.
DT: Of the books you’ve written, which is most important or your favorite?
JEH: In terms of the most important, I would make that a tie between The Secret World of American Communism and Spies: the Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. Secret World was important and received a great deal of attention because it was the first book on the CPUSA published after the collapse of the USSR and the opening of the Communist International and CPUSA archives in Moscow. Spies was important because Klehr and I were able to combine what we had gleaned from the Communist International and CPUSA archives, the Venona decryptions, and Vassiliev’s KGB archival notebooks to present the most thorough documented account of Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s that had appeared up to that time.
The most emotionally satisfying was In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage in which Harvey Klehr and I made clear that too many historians who wrote about American communism and anticommunism fell far short of scholarly standards of accuracy.
I’ve authored or coauthored twelve books. All have focused on some aspect of communism, anticommunism, or Soviet espionage with one exception. I edited for the Library of Congress Calvin Coolidge and the Coolidge Era: Essays on the History of the 1920s. This book derived from a Library of Congress symposium on Coolidge and the Coolidge Era that I helped organize. I hope the symposium and the book caused some historians to reconsider the contemptuous caricature of Coolidge and the under appreciation of economic advancement in the 1920s that predominates in mainstream historical writing.