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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.2 (2001) 101-103

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Book Review

Many Are the Crimes:
McCarthyism in America

Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. 573 pp. $17.95 [paper].

Ellen Schrecker has produced a comprehensive survey of the public assault on Communism in America in the mid-twentieth century. Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University and the author of No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, knows her subject inside and out, having researched it from the most recently available documents and memoirs of those involved.

The main purpose of the book is to explain the common "mechanisms, assumptions, and institutions" of McCarthyism. That phenomenon began with the onset of World War II and lingered after Senator Joseph McCarthy's fall. It came in several varieties: right-wing, liberal, Republican, and even left-wing versions (the latter comprising anti-Stalinist radicals and apostates from the Communist Party). All anti-Communists shared a consensus about the nature of Communism and its potential threat to American life, and they cooperated with one another to combat that threat.

Many Are the Crimes shows how a relatively small number of anti-Communists became the vanguard of the movement. According to Schrecker, these writers, lawyers, and activists shared, to one degree or another, McCarthy's "dishonesty, opportunism, and disregard for civil liberties" (p. 265). She argues that, with the institutional support of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), they were able indirectly to guide the loyalty proceedings, blacklists, and other McCarthyist actions against suspected Communists in government, academia, the media, and the business world.

The concluding chapter of Many Are the Crimes assesses the effects of McCarthyism in four areas of American life: the budding civil rights movement, the federal government, organized labor, and the arts. Schrecker claims that the "body count" from McCarthyism totaled 10,000 to 12,000 persons. She acknowledges that only a handful actually lost their lives but contends that many lost their liberty, reputations, jobs, careers, or even spouses as a result of prosecution, blackballing, or stress. The "human wreckage" ranged from the Rosenbergs, executed for conspiracy to commit espionage, to Ellen Schrecker's sixth-grade teacher, who was eased out of his post for his leftist past.

According to Schrecker, the effects of McCarthyism have reached down through the decades by chilling debate and stifling change in all four areas of American life on which she concentrates. In each area, radicals have lost their nerve or their jobs. By intimidating [End Page 101] the left and foreclosing the political development of a generation of activists, she argues, McCarthyism contributed to a narrowing of the possibilities for a more democratic life in a modern capitalist state.

McCarthyism is a minefield for historians. Schrecker takes pains to pick her way through it, acknowledging the justice of arguments on both sides of some of the most bitter arguments in American history. The paperback edition of Many Are the Crimes includes a brief but significant new preface, in which she concedes to critics of the first edition that her thinking changed somewhat after reading the evidence on Soviet espionage in Allen Weinstein's and Alexander Vassiliev's recent book The Haunted Wood. Some of the famous old controversies can now be put to rest, she admits, since the evidence "corroborates too many other sources to leave anyone but a conspiracy junkie in doubt" (p. x).

On this and other points, the historiography of the McCarthy era seems to be nearing coherence, if not consensus. Conservatives, liberals, and progressives would all seem to agree with Schrecker that Senator McCarthy was indeed loathsome--but was so only because of his virulence, not because of his aims. Indeed, the Senator himself plays no more than a cameo role in Many Are the Crimes, appearing as the main subject of only one of its chapters.

This raises a question about the very term "McCarthyism." Schrecker seems a little unsatisfied with it at points. She argues that American Communists made themselves peculiarly vulnerable to attack...