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Reviewed by:
  • Spider Web: The Birth of American Anticommunism by Nick Fischer
  • Jennifer Delton
Spider Web: The Birth of American Anticommunism by, Nick Fischer. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2016. xviii, 345 pp. $95.00 US (cloth), $32.00 US (paper), $28.80 US (e-book).

This book is a history of the interlocking networks of anti-subversive, anti-labour, anti-radical organizations in the United States since the end of the Civil War through the 1960s. It argues that anticommunism in the United States is best seen not as a response to Soviet communism in the twentieth century, but rather as a longstanding reactionary, paranoid, and organized opposition to progressive change that began with Reconstruction (1865–75), if not earlier. Riffing off of anticommunists' pictorial conception of the Left as an interconnected "spider web," Fischer imposes the same sort of schema on the Right, ferreting out the connections between the numerous state and private-sector organizations that formed an anti-labour, anti-immigrant, pro-Christian, pro-business, pro-American front against positive social change in the United States.

Those seeking a history of the American Right may be more interested in Allan Lichtman's White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement (New York, 2008), which covers the same territory but without the academic arguments about anticommunism that inform Spider Web. But for those who follow the surprisingly durable debates about American communism and anticommunism, this is the latest salvo on behalf of the idea that American anticommunism was a broad-based conservative force that had a pernicious effect on democratic institutions. This is not a new argument, but what Spider Web lacks in conceptual originality it makes up for in new details and research. [End Page 616]

The freshest part of the book are three chapters in the middle that examine the lesser known careers of John Bond Trevor, Jacob Spolansky, and the Better America Federation (baf), whose biographies reveal the deep organizational connections between government/military surveillance groups, lawmakers, and "big business" in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. The director of the New York City branch of the Army's Military Intelligence Division during the first Red Scare (1917–1920), Trevor surveilled New York's immigrant population, focusing especially on the subversive activities of Jewish immigrants, and worked closely with a New York state legislative committee (the Lusk Committee) to investigate seditious activities. Involved as well in several patriotic and eugenic organizations, Trevor helped coordinate the effort to pass immigration restriction, culminating with the Reed-Johnson Act of 1924. Jacob Spolanksy was a Jewish immigrant from near Kiev, who also became involved in Military Intelligence and the Bureau of Investigation around the same time as Trevor, before ending up as a labour spy in Detroit. The baf, like the better known National Association of Manufacturers and Citizens' Alliances, was an open-shop organization (meaning it opposed organized labour's attempt to win control of the workspace). Based in Los Angeles, it dominated anticommunist and anti-labour activities on the Pacific coast from the 1920s through the 1950s. Fischer's research in these chapters provides new and fascinating detail about America's reactionary networks from World War I into the Cold War era. This will be of interest to historians of labour, politics, and American conservatism.

The rest of this book is a synthesis, which attempts to connect the anti-radicalism of disparate historical eras under the analytical umbrella of anticommunism in much the same way it connects the various reactionary organizations and personalities under that same umbrella. I leave it to the reader to decide if this is a useful argument. Some may find that this stretches the definition of anticommunism too far, erasing its historical specificity, and making it interchangeable with antiradicalism and thus essentially meaningless. Others, however, may appreciate how the term anticommunism captures a peculiarly American kind of antiradicalism, which is directed toward preserving the hegemonic power of liberal individualism in American identity (and capitalism), and thus is in evidence before Soviet communism makes its appearance. [End Page 617]

Jennifer Delton
Skidmore College


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