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Ellen Schrecker McCarthyism: Political Repression and the Fear of Communism THE 28-YEAR-OLD SEAM AN WAS PUZZLED. LAW RENCE PARKER HAD BEEN forced off his job as a waiter on the S.S. President Cleveland in February 1951 as a “poor security risk,” but had not been told why This was not the first time he had been barred from the waterfront under the federal government’s Port Security Program. But with the help of his union, he had appealed his earlier removal and was reinstated. “I just can’t under­ stand it at all,” Parker told the Coast Guard official who was conducting his hearing. “I would like to have some reason or something definite___ I would like to know whether I will be able to work.” Unfortunately, as his attorney explained, Parker could not clear his record because “there are no facts which have been alleged anywhere . . . to give him any knowledge of the charges on which the conclusion of a poor security risk is based. Therefore, it is impossible for him to respond adequately to the charges.”1Unemployable since being identified as a security risk, Parker was desperate to clear up his case and go back to sea, but as long as his status was unresolved, he could not even draw unemployment.2 Parker’s encounters with the Alice in Wonderland world of the West Coast Port Security Program were not unique. Nearly 3,800 seamen and dockworkers lost their jobs under this little-known program that had been established in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War (Report of the Commission on Government Security, 1957: 333). Parker suspected that his vocal support for the left-wing Maritime Cooks and social research Vol 71 : No 4 : W inter 2 004 1041 Stewards Union may have triggered his removal, but the vagueness of the charges and the refusal o f the authorities to give him any specific information about who had launched them made it impossible for him to rebut them.3Parker’s attorney handled dozens of similar cases: union activists in a number of occupations, many of them African Americans like Parker, deprived of their livelihoods on the basis of secret charges by unknown informers.4 Ultimately, these screened maritime work­ ers were reinstated when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1955 in Parker’s favor on the grounds that he should be allowed to see the evidence against him and confront his accusers (Parker v. Lester 227 F.2d 708). It was a paper victoiy, however, for the fiercely anticommu­ nist maritime unions that were by then handling most waterfront jobs refused to let the previously screened seamen ship out.5 The story of Lawrence Parker shows us how the anticommunist political repression that we now call McCarthyism operated. Today, as we confront the post-9/11 assault on individual rights, it is clear that what happened in the 1940s and 1950s was no aberration but the all too common reaction of a nation that seeks to protect itself by turning against its supposed enemies at home. Obviously, the current crack­ down is not a replay of the McCarthy era. Nonetheless, an examination of that earlier moment should help us understand how political repres­ sion and the fear that makes it work can take hold within a modern democratic polity like the United States. Significantly, that repression requires no violence, nor—even though it usually suppresses political dissidents—is it always handled by the state. In fact, as we shall see, it is the collaboration of public and private actors that makes American political repression so effective. MCCARTHYISM: AN OVER VIEW It is by now a truism to note that McCarthyism encompasses much more than the antics of a single senator. Joe McCarthy’s contributions to the political witch hunt were far from trivial, but by the tim e he joined the anticommunist crusade early in 1950, the movement to which he gave his name had been going strong for several years and 1042 social research would continue for several more even after he left the political scene. Nor, despite his notoriety, was he the most influential of the nation’s Cold War...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1041-1086
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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