- White Collar Radicals: TVA’s Knoxville Fifteen, the New Deal, and the McCarthy Era
During the mid-1930s, fifteen young, well-educated men and women took entry level jobs with the Tennessee Valley Authority. During their brief time with the TVA, each also maintained some relationship with the Communist Party. In White Collar Radicals, Aaron Purcell studies the lives of the “Knoxville fifteen,” and demonstrates that each faced years of persecution as a result of their employment, Communist associations, and the emergent red scare of the late-1940s. From that study, he contends that their lives and persecution demonstrate the “folly of government excess,” that many “forgotten Americans” were crushed under the wheels of McCarthyism, and that “Communists did exist, but were hardly an organized domestic threat to democracy” (xxvi–xxvii).
Purcell uses an impressive array of archival material, oral interviews, and government documents to introduce the fifteen and piece together their lives and the events that led them to the TVA and their radical associations. This opening section, which serves as an extended introduction, is well told and coherent despite his need to address the lives of fifteen unique individuals. Purcell next moves to the real focus of his work, 1940 and beyond. In 1940 the Dies Committee investigated the fifteen, amongst others, amidst allegations of Communist infiltration of the TVA. The investigation determined that, while a small number of workers had been party members, they had long since left the authority and never posed a threat to it or the nation. Despite that finding, in 1947 the government renewed its investigation of the fifteen as various senators, most notably Kenneth McKellar (D-TN), used them and the emerging red scare to vilify political opponents that they deemed soft on Communism. These efforts failed, but were renewed in 1950 when William Remington, one of the fifteen, was appointed director of the Office of International Trade in the Commerce Department’s Export Program. The promotion required a loyalty investigation, which led to yet another examination of the fifteen and a perjury charge and prison time for Remington. Although none suffered as had Remington, Purcell contends that all fifteen faced some level of personal trauma as a result of these ongoing investigations. That trauma, he concludes, was an unnecessary consequence of the red scare and a government run amok.
White Collar Radicals is an interesting, if not groundbreaking, study. Purcell demonstrates clearly that Communism existed in Tennessee and [End Page 117] within the TVA during the 1930s. He also exposes the excesses of the McCarthy era and how those excesses affected “forgotten Americans.” While numerous studies have addressed similar themes, including works by Richard Fried, Robert Korstad, James Lorence, and Ellen Schrecker, this is a nice addition to the collection.
The only major concern with Purcell’s work is his contention that the experiences of the fifteen prove that Communists posed little threat to American democracy. None of the figures served the Communist Party in a leadership capacity, several had only the most tangential association, and none held positions in the TVA from which they might have done the nation damage. To argue from this limited perspective that Communists in general posed no threat to the nation is questionable. Despite this concern, White Collar Radicals is an interesting work and one well worth reading for those studying the TVA, the McCarthy era, and radicalism in the American South.