White Collar Radicals: TVA's Knoxville Fifteen, The New Deal, and the McCarthy Era (review)
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White Collar Radicals: TVA's Knoxville Fifteen, The New Deal, and the McCarthy Era. By Aaron D. Purcell. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009. Pp. xviii, 258. $39.95 cloth)

This elegant study tells the story of the second Red Scare from the bottom up. Relying on rarely used sources, including diaries, Federal Bureau of Investigation files, and a wide range of archival and manuscript collections, Aaron Purcell uses the lives of fifteen entry-level Tennessee Valley Authority employees to open a broader discussion of the fate of domestic radicalism during the Cold War. [End Page 134] "This small group of largely harmless 'New Dealers,'" Purcell argues, "attracted the attention of anti-Communist investigators even before World War II, and the relentless campaign to connect Reds in the TVA's mailroom with Reds in the TVA's boardroom continued into the mid 1950s" (p. xxv). With this work, Purcell captures the national security state at its creation, tracing the impact that government-run loyalty investigations had on the lives of his subjects through the 1940s and 1950s.

In part one of his study, "Visions," Purcell provides brief portraits of his cast of characters. Drawn by the promise of economic and social transformation that the TVA held for the Tennessee Valley region, Purcell's fifteen employees shared a desire "to organize workers into unions, end segregation, and expand educational opportunities for all laborers" (p. 11). Purcell overreaches somewhat when he states that "Young idealistic Americans found the promises of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the New Deal irresistible," but he is correct in observing that the TVA (along with other New Deal agencies) "attracted fresh talent with similar minds, hoping to create a better economic and social system" (pp. 36-37). Purcell's cohort, which he terms the "Knoxville Fifteen," had backgrounds in union-organizing (several of them had training at the Highlander Folk School), but before joining the TVA only one had formally become a member of the Communist Party. Although the Knoxville Fifteen held only "minor positions of short duration" in the TVA, their sympathy for Communist Party positions on labor and civil rights issues became the justification for federal investigations of their loyalties (p. 73).

In part two, "Realities," Purcell explores these investigations, carried out by the FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, and other federal bodies during World War II and the early Cold War. Conservative anticommunists in Congress, such as Senator Kenneth McKellar, unsuccessfully sought to use the issue of communists in the TVA to thwart the appointment of former TVA head David Lilienthal to run the Atomic Energy Commission. The federal government loyalty program initiated by President Harry Truman proved [End Page 135] particularly problematic for some members of the Knoxville Fifteen. In 1953, economist William Remington was convicted of perjury for lying about membership in the Communist Party and found guilty of lying about transmitting secret documents. Sentenced to three years in federal prison, Remington was murdered by three other inmates. Throughout his study, Purcell carefully balances the larger political stakes that the Cold War raised for radical Americans with attention to the lived experience of the fifteen TVA employees. Scholars interested in the domestic politics of anticommunism and the history of American radicals will profit from reading this serious and engaged monograph.

Jason Scott Smith

Jason Scott Smith is associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956 (2006), and is presently finishing a brief narrative history of the New Deal and Great Depression.

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