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THE SECOND RED SCARE AND THE UNMAKING OF THE NEW DEAL LEFT
by Landon R.Y. Storrs  Princeton University Press. 422 pages. £27.95. ISBN 978-0-691-15396-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

 

The Red Scare that hit the United States in the 1940s and 1950s has been written about extensively. The Hollywood community, for example, has been the subject of numerous books and articles. But one aspect that hasn't been explored in great detail is the way in which certain government employees were singled out as alleged "subversives," and if not members of the Communist Party then likely to have sympathised with at least some of its aims and ideas. And there appears to be evidence to support a claim that, in terms of the effects on how American society developed in the post-1945 period, the purging of civil servants and others may have had an influential role when social policies were being shaped. As Landon Storrs says: "In addition to its well-known violation of civil liberties and destruction of careers, the Second Red Square curbed the social democratic potential of the New Deal through its impact on policymakers who sought to mitigate the antidemocratic tendencies of unregulated capitalism."

It needs to be noted that women were often prime targets when right-wing politicians, business interests, and professional red-baiters set out to harass people they looked on as troublemakers, liberals, and left-leaning administrators. With this in mind, it's useful to look at the reasons for some women being in responsible positions in government departments. It was a fact that, in the 1930s, women were often denied job opportunities in the academic and business worlds. Several of the women that Storrs looks at were qualified lawyers, but their chances of obtaining posts with established legal firms were slim. The Civil Service, on the other hand, was more enlightened, especially after Roosevelt was elected and the New Deal got underway. Women took on significant roles in relation to social security, union rights, and similar matters. Not every one was happy with this situation, and Storrs suggests that conservatives played on "popular hostility to powerful women," and questioned their loyalty by constant references to early episodes when someone may have belonged to an organisation said to be a "Communist front," or had signed a petition, or perhaps just been seen with people who were known to be communists. Most of the damage done by anti-communist committees and the like may have occurred in the post-1945 period, but material to substantiate allegations of a lack of loyalty had been carefully collected by the FBI and private agencies since the 1930s.

The young idealists attracted to government work after 1933 were not always convinced that much of a truly radical nature could be achieved. But once in post they often realised that some useful changes might be made: "Young leftists joined the Roosevelt administration because it was the best employment available to them, not because they had much faith in its potential to fulfil their social justice ideals. Once on the job, their scepticism softened." And Storrs mentions Arthur Goldschmidt who "helped conceive and administer the Civil Works Administration, which created several million jobs during the harsh winter of 1933/34." His wife, Elizabeth Wickenden, "found herself in charge, at age twenty-five, of a pioneering federal relief programme affecting about 350,000 people around the country."

Looking at the backgrounds of some of the young men and women who entered government service, Storrs notes that many of them shared some common experiences. They had come of age in the 1920s, "when the pre-World War One sexual radicalism of the Greenwich Village bohemians spread more widely through the urban middle-class, albeit with some blunting of its feminist edge." And they often had parents who, in one way or another, had involvements with earlier radical groups. The college experiences of some women opened their eyes to the drawbacks of uncontrolled capitalism. But life wasn't always easy for women students who took courses dominated by men. Storrs mentions some negative experiences (male students stamping their feet when a woman in the class tried to speak), which when placed alongside the problems finding a job once a woman had graduated, indicate, how it was difficult for a woman to succeed.

Some women were active in organisations like the League of Women Shoppers and the Consumers' Union, though that could lead to being attacked by conservatives. Business people were not inclined to look kindly on anyone advocating a redistribution of economic and political power, nor did they want anyone probing into their pricing policies. A right-wing paper, the Chicago Tribune, described the leading lights of the League of Women Shoppers as "fellow-travellers" of the Communist Party. Storrs thinks that not enough attention has been paid to consumer movements and says that "the burgeoning labour and consumer movements were allied aspects of the left-liberal coalition of of the New Deal era, but far more attention has been paid to the labour aspect."

Other women lawyers joined the National Labour Relations Board and were attacked by politicians who claimed that "none of them has had any judicial or industrial experience to qualify her for the job they are trying to do." The Dies Committee, a forerunner of Senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious activities, published a list of 500 government employees who were said to belong to an anti-fascist group, the American League for Peace and Democracy, an alleged communist front. Members of it worked for the National Labour Relations Board, including a "high proportion" of women. It was Diesí belief that women were irrational and gullible, and therefore susceptible to communist propaganda. Generalisations like that, and investigations into the lives of individuals, continued throughout the late-1930s and into the war years.

The onset of the Cold War brought a new round of allegations and investigations which were to become more serious and damaging. The deep suspicion of communist intentions which had always been present during the Second World War, despite Russia and America being allies, was given new impetus as the Soviets occupied much of Eastern Europe, the Berlin Air Lift got under way, Russia produced an atomic bomb, spies like the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss were identified, and the United States was involved in the Korean War. President Truman was forced to establish a loyalty test for Federal employees. Storrs says: "Many of the people most prominent in the consumer movement of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as others who had only minor associations with it, would be investigated under the auspices of the federal employee loyalty programme." This didn't only affect those who were in government employment: "As word of the investigations spread, others who had been affiliated with "subversive" consumer groups may not have bothered to apply for government jobs."

I haven't the space to refer to the mass of material that Storrs has used to track the careers of most of the people she mentions, including a large number of women, though she hastens to add that "many left-liberal men were accused as well." But she has a point when she calculates that, in relation to their numbers among federal employees, women were often more likely to be singled out for questioning about their past links to supposedly "subversive groups." Women made up only about 3 percent of high-level employees but seem to have "comprised about 18 percent of high-level cases." Was there a simple explanation for this? It may have been that anticommunists thought that because the Communist Party "theoretically supported women's equality, investigators reasoned that feminists might well be communists." Storrs quotes from a 1947 best-seller, Modern Women: The Lost Sex, which asserted that "agents of the Kremlin abroad continue to beat the feminist drum in full awareness of its disruptive influence" on countries like America.

Two people who Storrs looks at in detail are Mary and Leon Keyserling. Mary Dublin Keyserling was head of the National Consumers' League, as well as an officer in the New York branch of the League of Women Shoppers. Leon Keyserling was legislative aide to Senator Robert Wagner, and had drafted the National Labour Relations Act in 1935 and the U.S. Housing Act in 1937. Both Acts were progressive in their aims, and as such were disliked by conservative politicians and businessmen. Among other things, both Keyserlings believed in raising mass purchasing power as a means of boosting the economy. Later, Mary became an economist in the Department of Commerce, while Leon continued to further his career when he was appointed chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers

The Keyserlings had attracted attention from right-wing critics as far back as 1940, and as they were in favour of rent and price controls, and more public housing, they came into conflict with vested interests who were opposed to anything interfering with the operation of a free market. Storrs documents how they were subjected to "protracted loyalty investigations," and how their views changed over the years. There is no doubt that Mary, in her younger days, had known communists, and that she had visited Russia, though she always denied that she had ever been enthusiastic about its social and political systems. In the 1930s she had mixed with a wide range of liberal and left-wing activists, though as Storrs says, she was "not living two lives, one in a left-wing underworld and the other in the New Deal mainstream. Rather, before and after she entered government service in 1940, she belonged to a dynamic network of women and men in voluntary associations, academia, labour unions, and government who, notwithstanding ideological variations, agreed on the need for state policies to improve the living standards and political participation of poor and working-class Americans."

Leon Keyserling was less openly involved with radical groups. He had been in government employment from 1933, and this probably caused him to limit his comments on matters of public interest and hold back from being identified with groups which had social and political agendas. But in private letters he claimed to be a socialist. Stoors quotes from letters he wrote to his father in the 1930s, but which did not come to light until many years later. As she says, he was lucky that they weren't available to the FBI when Leon was under investigation in the early-1950s. He refers to the possibility of revolution, wonders whether he should vote for William Z. Foster, the Communist Party candidate in the 1932 election, and generally seems to take a left-wing approach to re-structuring American society. One wonders what the FBI would have made of the following: "I am very much afraid that the country is recovering too rapidly. A few more years of depression would have promoted violence, and without violence fundamental reform is unlikely." Did he really believe what he was saying in his letters, or was he just being extreme to provoke the person he was writing to? Leon Keyserling was, according to Storrs, always career-minded, and it's doubtful that he would have ever done anything to affect his position in government.

Where the story becomes even more interesting is when the Keyserlings found themselves under attack as the Cold War developed. Joseph McCarthy and other anticommunists made sweeping claims about communists in federal employment, and some actual cases of spying for Russia surfaced. Both Keyserlings played down their earlier affiliations, and they took trouble to sever relationships with friends and acquaintances who might have radical reputations. Leon, in particular, became noticeably conservative in his views. Storrs says: "In 1949 Keyserling's pro-growth orientation began to include support for increasing the military budget," and she adds that his "newly vocal support for increased military spending probably reflected his desire to bolster his anticommunist credentials in the wake of the investigations." As the 1950s got under way "both Keyserlings emerged as Democratic loyalists who called for strengthening the nation against the communist threat." Storrs relates how, when they began to organise their papers for the archives, they left out documents and other material relating to their 1930s involvements and the investigations they underwent as a result' of them. It was as if they were concerned to not only avoid further investigations but also to re-write history. They carefully constructed a picture of themselves as "lifelong middle-of-the-roaders."

The Keyserlings weren't the only ones to experience the effects of being investigated which, as Stoors notes, could lead to problems with "economic security, mental and physical health, personal relationships, and civic participation." Like the Keyserlings, many people later preferred to remain silent about what happened to them rather than talk openly or attempt to explain how and why they had been idealistic when they were young. It's easy to understand why when people had families and didn't want to lose jobs or come under suspicion.

In another case, that of Jacob Fisher, a social security analyst at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Storrs shows how disastrous coming under suspicion could be: "Private employers were reluctant to hire someone who had just resigned or been dismissed by the government. Furthermore, the stigma spread easily to family members and friends. Fisher's co-workers began avoiding him. Even after he resigned and his family moved to a new town, they lived in fear that word of his resignation would leak out and jeopardise his wife's job as a social worker in the public schools." Sad to say, a defence tactic for those under investigation was to stress their "conventionality." Storrs quotes a lawyer who specialised in loyalty cases saying that a defendant's "tastes in books, theatre, music, clothing, and art" could come under examination. One person being questioned" assured the loyalty board that she disliked modern art and music and that her children attended traditional schools"  It's little wonder that Alfred Bernstein, a United Public Workers of America official who acted for members of his union appearing before loyalty boards, considered that the real function of the loyalty programme was "thought control."

Landon Storrs is right to suggest that the atmosphere generated by anticommunism, with its loyalty boards, security hearings, and similar matters, could often be a cover for conservatives rolling back advantages gained under the New Deal. And that a long-term effect was to allow a more-rampant form of capitalism to thrive under the guise that constant growth, with its presumed trickle-down process, was always preferable to redistribution of wealth organised by the state. Privatisation, deregulation, and tax cuts for the wealthy, were said to be the right way to go.

The First Red Scare in the United States, which occurred just after the First World War, had an impact in terms of radicals being harassed and arrested, deportations, and a short-lived hysteria about anarchists and communists supposedly plotting revolution. But the Second Red Scare, as Landon Storrs describes in her well-documented and tidily written book, had a much wider and long-lasting effect.