By Steve Batterson

Monthly Review Press. 232 pages. £18.99. ISBN 978-1-68500-035-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns


The early years of the 1950s were not a good time for communists in the United States. Following the end of the Second World War, and the onset of the Cold War, the hunt to identify those who had joined the American Communist Party, and anyone who had been a fellow-traveller (a non-member but sympathetic towards its ideas and policies), quickened. There may have been some relaxation of the opposition to communism during the period, 1941-45, when Russia joined with America and Britain to fight Germany, but it didn’t take long for the old suspicions to resurface. Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech set the tone as communism took over in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other countries in Eastern Europe. Additional factors – the Berlin Air Lift, the communist victory in China, Russian development of the Atom Bomb, the Korean War, the trials of communist spies like Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs – heightened the tension and added to the fear, stoked by people like Senator Joseph McCarthy, that  communists were everywhere and constituted a grave threat to national security.

There had been something of a mini-purge of communists in Hollywood in 1947 when a number were summoned to Washington to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). There had been some support shown for freedom of political belief and expression at first, but it soon dissipated as a combination of adverse commentary, and the confrontational behaviour of those who became known as The Hollywood Ten, turned people against them. This is not the place to go into the rights and wrongs of blacklisting and how it affected the film industry. There were even more investigations into supposed infiltration of the studios by communists when HUAC came to the film capital in 1953.

Numerous histories, memoirs, films, novels and plays have covered this ground, perhaps inevitably because many of the people concerned were writers. Not too much has been written about the painters, electricians, plumbers and others in Hollywood who lost their jobs because of their political affiliations or simply because they were active union members. There are a couple of books I can think of which are relevant.  Hollywood’s Other Blacklist: Union Struggles in the Studio System by Mike Nielsen and Gene Mailes (British Film Institute, London, 1995) and Gerald Horne’s Class Struggles in Hollywood 1930-1950 : Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, Trade Unionists (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2001)  have much to say about what happened to people who helped to make films but were never in the limelight. Their stories were rarely told, nor were those of factory workers, civil servants, seamen and many more who were blacklisted.

The same might be true of those at various levels in the education system who suddenly had to face up to being interrogated by hostile HUAC members, smeared in the press, and losing their jobs. Again, I’m turning to my own bookshelves to select a few books that might provide a picture of anti-communist activities beyond Hollywood. Ellen W. Schrecker’s No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986) is a key work on its subject, while David R. Holmes’s Stalking the Academic Communist : Intellectual Freedom and the Firing of Alex Novikoff (University Press of New England, Hanover, 1989) and Charles H. McCormick’s This Nest  of Vipers:  McCarthyism and Higher Education in the Mundel Affair,1951-52 (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1989) look at individual cases. 

All of which brings me to Steve Batterson’s book about the trials and tribulations of Chandler Davis when his past caught up with him in November 1953. Davis, then “an instructor in the mathematics department at the University of Michigan, received a visit in his office from Donald Appell, an investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee”. Appell asked questions about Davis’s involvement with the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) but he refused to answer and was served with a subpoena to appear before HUAC early in 1954. It was to be the start of a long process, involving much legal arguing, both at the university and in the courts, which dragged on through the 1950s. It should be noted that by 1953 Davis had many doubts about what had happened in Russia and had virtually severed his links to the Communist Party. HUAC, however, insisted on knowing about his past.

Davis, born in 1926, was what was known as a “red diaper baby” due to his parents being active communists. He absorbed a “sizable dose of CPUSA culture” while growing up and, having been a “member of the CPUSA-related Young-Pioneers” he joined the CPUSA itself in 1943. It was, he later said, “just what I had been expecting to do all my life”. Davis was a student at Harvard at the time. It is worth mentioning that his father had a somewhat up-and down career in higher education and was dismissed from “a tenured position as assistant professor of economics at the University of Kansas City”. He had refused to answer questions when called before “HUAC’s cousin, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee”. After being fired from another academic post because of his political opinions and activities he became the Director of Research for the United Shoe Workers, a left-wing union whose first president was the Harvard-educated socialist, Powers Hapgood.

 Chandler Davis wasn’t the only one-time communist at Michigan University to be questioned by HUAC. Among them was Clement Markert, a biologist who in the 1930s was committed enough to travel to Spain to fight with the American contingent of the International Brigades. Batterson summarises his story and notes that, like many others, he used the defence of the Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution (the right not to self-incriminate) “as the only course that permitted them to avoid both naming names and going to prison”. I don’t intend to go into detail about Markert’s experiences. Suffice to say that, despite his refusal to co-operate with HUAC; and the university’s review procedures operating to determine whether or not he should be dismissed, he did retain his post and went on to a distinguished career in his chosen field.

What separated Davis from Markert is that he decided to use the First Amendment, which covers freedom of speech and opinions, as his defence. He maintained that neither the university, nor HUAC, had the right to “inquire and pass judgement on his political views.” This immediately put him on a collision course with them and, as noted earlier, resulted in a series of hearings and court cases that culminated in 1956 with Davis being sentenced to six months in prison, along with a fine of 250 dollars. Chandler appealed and more court appearances followed, ending in 1959 when The Supreme Court ruled against him and he went to prison.  I should point out that Battterson gives a lot of detailed information relating to how the university’s disciplinary system functioned and the workings of the American legal system.

What happened to Davis after he was fired by the University of Michigan? With a wife and children to support it was essential that he find some sort of employment. His wife, Natalie Zemon Davis, was later to become a well-known historian, but in 1953 she was still a doctoral student. Briefly, Davis worked in market research in New York, taught maths in the Columbia University night-school programme, and during the academic year 1957/58 he was ”successful in the keen competition for a National Science Foundation Post Doctoral Fellowship”. In 1960 he was employed as a member of the editorial staff of Mathematical Reviews, “a periodical of the American Mathematical Society”. He also became editor-in-chief of The Mathematical Intelligencer, “which covered the history and culture of mathematics”. But the key opportunity to change his career, and the course of his life, came in 1962 when he was offered a post at the University of Toronto in Canada.  His wife in the meantime had obtained her PhD in history from the University of Michigan and taken a faculty position at Brown University.

The Davis family relocated to Canada and Davis was appointed a tenured associate professor. Batterson says that he “became a major figure in the fields of linear algebra and operator theory”. Natalie Zemon Davis “earned acclaim as one of the foremost historians of her generation…..she’s best known for her book The Return of Martin Guerre and her role as historical consultant behind the French film of the same name”.

Steve Batterson’s book will be of value to those who find the history of the anti-communist hysteria that swept the United States in the late-1940s and 1950s of continuing interest. A great deal has been written about it but there are always things that can be added to the overall account. And it may be that some of the lessons to be learned from those days are still relevant. Universities and schools increasingly find themselves under attack from a variety of organisations with an axe to grind. Free speech on campus is always threatened from one direction or another, and sometimes it seems that the authorities are far too quick to back down in the face of demonstrations and protests by relatively small groups. Chandler Davis was courageous enough to stand up for what he believed was his right to his opinions and to suffer for it. That he, supported by his wife, held out and eventually triumphed against the odds stacked against him, is a tribute to them both.

The book has a short but useful bibliography and extensive notes.