Notes & Comments September 2000
We Now Know
Some myths die hard. One of the most recalcitrant in recent times has been the myth of McCarthyism—the myth that America in the late 1940s and early 1950s was in the grip of a fearsome, paranoid “witch-hunt” against supposed Communists and other alleged traitors. According to this myth, the assault was fearsome because it blighted thousands of careers and lives, and it was paranoid because it was essentially groundless. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee ranted on about Communist spies, but really, the myth of McCarthyism maintains, there were no spies to speak of, only liberals like … well, like Alger Hiss.
You might think that by now liberals would have given up on this one. After all, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent opening of many Soviet archives, there is indisputable evidence—a mountain of it—for what had long been alleged by cold warriors. The liberal line had always been that the American Communist Party was basically an expression of home-grown radical sentiment; in fact, it had from the beginning been a tool of Moscow; moreover, many of the radical “martyrs” of the period were hard-core Stalinists and KGB operatives. This is not speculation: it is hard and fast historical fact. As the historian John Gaddis put it in the title of his 1997 history of the Cold War: We Now Know.
Or so we would have thought. But what is evidence in the face of self-righteous political animus? Not much, if Arthur Miller’s breathtaking expostulation about the origins of his play The Crucible is any guide. Entitled “Are You Now or Were You Ever … ?,” Mr. Miller’s latest exercise in self-congratulation appeared in—it is almost too good to be true, but is is true—The Guardian, the most predictable left-wing “quality” paper in London. There had, of course, long been speculation that the activities of Sen. McCarthy and HUAC had been the chief inspiration for The Crucible; no one, we think, will accuse Mr. Miller of having been overly subtle in his deployment of symbolism. But he has now for the first time cleared up any remaining doubts: “It would probably never have occurred to me to write a play about the Salem witch trials of 1692 had I not seen some astonishing correspondences with that calamity in the America of the late 40s and early 50s. … I refer to the anti-communist rage that threatened to reach hysterical proportions and sometimes did.”
Mr. Miller has always been a reliable source of radical-chic clichés and he does not disappoint in this new recollection. We can well believe him when he remarks that “Practically everyone I knew stood within the conventions of the political left of centre; one or two were Communist party members, some were fellow-travellers, and most had had a brush with Marxist ideas or organisations.” But is it naïveté or something else when he goes on to declare that “I have never been able to believe in the reality of these people being actual or putative traitors any more than I could be, yet others like them were being fired from teaching or jobs in government or large corporations.” Mr. Miller is especially incredulous that any of his fellow artists could have engaged in traitorous activities: “The unwelcome truth denied by the right was that the Hollywood writers accused of subversion were not a menace to the country, or even bearers of meaningful change. They wrote not propaganda but entertainment, some of it of a mildly liberal cast, but most of it mindless, or when it was political, as with Preston Sturges or Frank Capra, entirely and exuberantly un-Marxist.”
Really? Mr. Miller concludes his piece by speaking of the black singer Paul Robeson, whose “declaration of faith in socialism as a cure for racism,” he says, “was a rocket that lit up the sky.” Robeson is widely considered a martyr of HUAC. In fact, he was a doctrinaire Stalinist who believed that only in the Soviet Union were blacks really free. At the World Peace Congress in 1949, Robeson publicly declared that American blacks would not fight for the American flag, least of all against Moscow: “It is unthinkable,” he said, that his race “would go to war on behalf of those who oppressed us for generations.” Russia he described as “a country which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.” In the same year, like many other artists under Stalinist “discipline,” he voluntarily gave up acting and singing, explaining that “I have no time in the political struggle of today to entertain people.” Robeson received the Stalin Prize in 1953, the year of the dictator’s death, and he signed a eulogy that contained the benediction “Glory to Stalin. Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands.”
The most devastating anatomy that we have seen of Mr. Miller’s latest paean to “ideals of socialism” is Ronald Radosh’s on-line column in Frontpage Magazine ( www.frontpagemag.com). Mr. Radosh begins by noting that, contrary to Mr. Miller’s assertions,
scores of anti-Communist liberals and defenders of civil liberties rallied around the right of Communists and Socialists to be heard, although they despised their propaganda. Without “McCarthyism,” the left-wing would actually have had less of a shield to hide behind: the attacks on their links to the Soviet Union allowed them to claim that anyone accused—such as Alger Hiss—was completely innocent, even when in fact they were guilty.
Quoting from an article by the espionage expert Thomas Powers that appeared in The New York Review of Books last May, Mr. Radosh proceeds to shred Mr. Miller’s entire account of the relation between the Soviet-controlled Communist threat and the anti-Communist crusade. Soviet spies, Powers wrote in his article,
were of the left generally, they supported liberal causes, they defended the Soviet Union in all circumstances, they were often secret members of the Communist Party, they were uniformly suspicious of American initiatives throughout the world, they could be contemptuous of American democracy, society and culture, and above all, their offenses were often minimized or explained away by apologists who felt that no man should be called traitor who did what he did for the cause of humanity.
If even The New York Review has faced up to the historical evidence about the threat of Communist propaganda and espionage in the late 1940s and 1950s, where does that leave Mr. Miller? As Mr. Radosh observes, “The importance of Powers’ essay is that it reveals the truths which generations of liberals have refused to acknowledge; that the crisis which propelled Miller to write The Crucible was caused ‘not only by the discovery of spies but by the denial of spies.’ The Soviet Union was in fact running major spy networks, infiltrating the United States government, and the implications of this operation were not faced squarely by the United States until late in the game.” To deal with the era as a “witch-hunt,” as Mr. Miller does, is to ignore a crucial fact. “One cannot,” Mr. Radosh concludes, “write about McCarthyism without first admitting that there were spies; the spies claimed idealism as a defense.”
Mr. Miller refers to “Harry Bridges, the idol of west coast longshoremen” as an “unadmitted communist” who he claims was unfairly persecuted. But recent research has shown that Bridges was in fact not only a member of the Communist Party but also “secretly a member of its Central Committee.” Mr. Miller writes that “it is impossible to convey properly the fears that marked that period. Nobody was shot, to be sure, although some were going to jail, where at least one, William Remington, was murdered by an inmate hoping to shorten his sentence by having killed a communist.” It is true that Remington was murderd in jail. But, Mr. Radosh points out, Remington was a spy who met secretly with Communist operatives and “willingly handed over classified War Production Board material pertaining to aircraft production.”
Mr. Miller writes that “The heart of the darkness was the belief that a massive, profoundly organised conspiracy was in place and carried forward mainly by a concealed phalanx of intellectuals, including labour activists, teachers, professionals, sworn to undermine the American government.” But what he describes as a paranoid fantasy we now know to be the historical truth.
The real witch hunt
Speaking of witch-hunts, we cannot forebear to share with our readers a document sent to us by a friend from Naperville, Illinois, a suburb west of Chicago. Entitled “Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Childrens Books for Racism and Sexism,” this preposterous little guide, originally devised by the Illinois School Library Media Conference in 1997, was distributed for the guidance of teachers in Naperville as part of their new “Diversity Plan.” Among other things, “Ten Quick Ways” advises readers to “Check the Illustrations” of children’s books for stereotypes and tokenism, to “Check the Story Line”: “Is ‘making it’ in the dominant white society projected as the only ideal? The standard for success?” (As opposed to what, becoming a welfare mother or crack addict?) “Are the achievements of girls and women based on their own initiative and intelligence? Could the story be told if the sex roles were reversed?” Hmm, could it? What if Briseis were pouting in her tent because Andromache took Achilles for herself? Readers are further admonished to “Watch for Loaded Words”—for example, “savage,” “primitive,” “lazy,” and “backward.” Finally, we are told to “Look for the copyright date” because “Nonsexist books, with rare exceptions, were not published before 1973.”
So, farewell to Aesop’s fables (how unfair to suggest that the grasshopper might have been lazy!), farewell to Huckleberry Finn, to Othello (talk about “tokenism”!), to Robinson Crusoe (my man Friday, indeed), farewell to Grimm’s fairy tales, to Peter Pan, to Pride and Prejudice, to the stories of Rudyard Kipling. Farewell, in short, to imaginative literature from the world over and hello to the PC police who speak everywhere about “diversity” but whose actions assure the promulgation of a stultifying intellectual conformity. Here is a real witch-hunt in progress. A pity, isn’t it, that left-wing crusaders like Arthur Miller will not be picking up their pens to expose it?
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 1, on page 1
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