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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 120-122

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Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History With Documents, 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 308 pp. $35.00.

Ellen Schrecker has updated her useful reader on anti-Communism in the United States, mainly in the decade after 1945. The documents are well chosen, the commentary is usually helpful, and the book should appeal to students. As a textbook it is wellconceived, and the material lends itself nicely to being spread out over class sessions through a typical semester. Particularly valuable are the detailed materials on causes célèbres like the Hiss-Chambers case, the Rosenberg affair, and the Smith Act trials, allof which give students a good feel for the problems involved in handling parti pris documents. Despite these strong points, the book is radically mistitled, in such a way that indicates a curious and partisan approach to this era of American history.

Schrecker offers a collection of some forty documents with a scope that goes far beyond what any normal historian would characterize as "McCarthyism," namely the turbulent era of anti-Communist demagoguery that raged from 1950 to 1954. She includes texts on the appeal of the Communist Party, the Communist view of the world, and the growing official intolerance of Communist Party activities from the mid-1940s onward. Her view is very much that of the left-liberal critic of the anti-Communist movement, and she ends by quoting Justice William O. Douglas's condemnation of the "witch-hunt." As any responsible scholar would, she takes account of recent findings that probably caused her some pain on their initial discovery, especially the Venona records. Based on these decrypts of Soviet intelligence cables, she concedes it is "likely" that Alger Hiss was the Soviet agent Ales, and she has no alternative but to accept the federal case against Julius Rosenberg (though not the draconian sentence). Yet her book has a painfully split personality: although she knows [End Page 120] and often cites the evidence of a genuine Communist menace, she can never bring herself to internalize the fact, and she recites ancient leftist pieties about "the alleged threat of domestic Communism" (p.106).

Why does "McCarthyism" feature in the title of a book that has remarkably little to do with McCarthy? (And why, on the same theme, is the Senator pictured on the cover?) Schrecker's argument is that the term has basically come to be synonymous with anti-Communism. She may be right about popular usage, but the equation of the two terms does a grave disservice to historical realities. From the mid-1930s through the late 1950s, many sane and nonfanatical Americans were powerfully opposed to Communism because they feared its influence in the labor movement and in ethnic communities, and they worried that the Communist Party might become a subversive fifth column in time of war. None of those fears was irrational, nor was the sense that something had to be done to curb Communist influence. The more we know about Communist espionage activities in this era, the more realistic the anti-Communists appear. From 1945 to 1949 the Truman administration and the Democratic Party launched a highly effective and widely popular campaign to remove Communists from positions of influence.

Schrecker's selection of documents is unfair in its almost exclusive emphasis on the work of official and administrative agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to the virtual exclusion of the many public organizations and labor groups that enthusiastically wanted to see Communists kicked out of public life. Her selection gives the impression that anti-Communist activism was purely a top-down ploy by federal law enforcement and political adventurers, presumably inflicted on a passive or terrified public. The events are presented as a "purge," a mirror image of the Stalinist repression of 1937-1938. Contrary to what Schrecker claims, however, it was not just "the nation's political and social elites" (p.2) that had a soundly based dread of Communists domestic and foreign. By...