I came to political awareness in the height of the anti-Communist movement in 1956.
I was brought into the conservative movement at a lecture by the Australian anti-Communist physician Fred Schwarz. I have told my story in a collection of reminiscences by 82 libertarians, I Chose Liberty. You can read it here (pages 239ff.).
Historians usually date the rise of the conservative political movement in the United States with the 1948 hearings that were triggered by Whittaker Chambers' accusation that former State Department official Alger Hiss was not only Communist, but a spy for the Soviet Union. At the time, Hiss was the head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I find that ironic. So did a lot of other anti-Communists at the time.
This issue divided the nation. The Left and intellectuals generally sided with Hiss. Millions of common people sided with Chambers. Richard Nixon, a first-term congressman, sided with Chambers. That made Richard Nixon's career when Hiss was sentenced to prison for perjury on January 1950. He was elected to the U.S. Senate the following November.
Then came McCarthy's accusations, beginning in 1950 and continuing through 1954. He created a sensation, or really a series of sensations, regarding his accusations of communist infiltration in the federal government. My friend M. Stanton Evans' book on McCarthy, Blacklisted by History, indicates that a lot of these accusations were correct. Evans was a first-rate journalist, a first-rate historian, and one of the best writers in the conservative movement. It has been systematically forgotten that William F. Buckley and his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, co-authored a book in 1955 defending McCarthy: McCarthy and His Enemies.
I also grew up in an era in which there were accusations about Communist infiltration of Hollywood. Well, there really was Communist infiltration of Hollywood. The Left-wing President of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, carried a pistol in a shoulder holster because of his anti-Communist statements, which had generated death threats against him. There was a series of congressional hearings on Communist infiltration in Hollywood that got a lot of attention. There was a blacklist of Communist writers, including Dalton Trumbo. They could not get jobs. This made the Left angry, because they think they are the only ones who are allowed to conduct boycotts against ideological enemies. It still angers them that, this one and only time, the Right stuck it to a tiny handful of limousine Communists. The Left really does believe that advocating violent revolution is neither here or there, and nobody should suffer a paycheck cut because of it.
It is almost impossible to find any trace of Communism in any movie that anybody still watches. That was true at the time. There are Left-wing causes in movies. In Hollywood, these been common since the 1930's. But the great change in Hollywood came in 1960, with the release of Inherit the Wind and Elmer Gantry. These were not political movies. They were social movies. They were opposed to Protestant fundamentalism. They represented the great reversal of the enormous success of Ben Hur in 1959. That was when the second-generation of humanist activists in Hollywood took over. The founders of Hollywood's movie empire were non-Orthodox Jews, but most of them were socially conservative in public and pro-American. Beginning in 1960, this began to change. The best book on this was written by an Orthodox Jew, Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America.
In retrospect, it is difficult to believe that Congress bothered to come to Hollywood to investigate Communist infiltration, other than for publicity. The movies that Hollywood cranked out from 1934 to 1959 were patriotic. They were socially conservative to a fault: twin beds for married couples. They were politically non-controversial. I think of Yankee Doodle Dandy. This was the era of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and Grandpa Ike. The fact that Hollywood made The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 is hardly surprising. It had been a best-selling novel. Hollywood makes movies about best-selling novels.
It was in 1940 that Franklin Roosevelt made a self-conscious switch from what he called Dr. New Deal to Dr. Win the War. He ran in 1940 against Wendell Willkie, a renegade Democrat who somehow got the nomination of the Republican Party, on the issue of internationalism. Both of them were internationalists. Both of them were interventionists. The only question was how fast were we going to get involved in the war in Europe.
There was not much trace of Communism, one way or the other, in the movies of the 1940's. You have to be an extreme movie buff even to think of scenes in which Communist propaganda was being promoted. The movie probably was probably obscure.
There was even an anti-Communist movie. I saw it at the time. I have never seen it again. It really went down the memory hole: My Son John (1952). It started Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, and Robert Walker. Given the quality of its cast, it's pretty clear that this was a case of a memory hole filing cabinet.
There was no Communism in high school civics and history textbooks. Textbook-screening committees saw to that. I never saw any Communist propaganda in college-level textbooks in the early 1960's. I was alert to such ideas. I was probably more alert to such ideas than almost any college student in the West Coast. Textbooks are screened by Ph.D.-holding bureaucrats. Publishers want to sell lots of books. They don't want controversy. They want income. They make certain that the books don't make waves large enough to threaten book sales.
There were virtually no openly Marxist professors of economics until the late 1960's. Even these people were pretty soft-core. They created the Union of Radical Political Economists, with the unfortunate acronym of "Urpee." Any group trying to promote itself by means of word "urpee" was going to have serious marketing problems. I did an Alexa.com search to see how high its website, URPE.org, is ranked. The lower the number, the higher the ranking. Urpe.org is ranked 4,256,502. That is to say, it is invisible. Urpe has been invisible for at least four decades.
The major academic Communist was Herbert Aptheker, but his daughter Bettina became far more famous as a result of the Berkeley student protests in 1964. Late in her academic career, she admitted that he had molested her sexually when she was a child. He was not a major academic figure. Rarely are any of his books footnoted in a conventional monograph. He edited the papers of black Leftist W. E. B. DuBois, and for that he was recognized. Other than this, he had no academic influence.
My father was in the FBI. He spent his career investigating Communist Party activities and the activities of tiny Marxist splinter groups, such as the Socialist Workers Party. He called them "the swoopers." I don't think he took them seriously. At some point, he had gotten a baseball style from a local Sherwin-Williams Paint store. It had SWP on it. He would occasionally wear it around the house on weekends.
He once told me that he would occasionally have to go out to tail the head of the local Communist Party, Dorothy Healey. He said that after one meeting, when she walked out, she looked back at his car, waved her arm as if to say "you might as well follow me," got into her car, and drove away. My dad of course followed her.
Healey was representative of a generation of dedicated American Communists. She was challenged in 1956 by Khrushchev's speech on the crimes of Stalin, his famous cult of personality speech. But she stayed in the party, trying to reform it from within. Then, in 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. She could no longer live in intellectual schizophrenia. She resigned. She got involved in a lot of obscure leftist causes over the next decade, but it was all pretty much futile. Here's what she said: "My hatred of capitalism, which degrades and debases humans, is as intense now as it was when I joined the Young Communist League in 1928. I remain a communist, as I have been all my life, albeit without a party." But without the Communist Party, she was just a little old lady in tennis shoes, just like all the Right-wing little old ladies in tennis shoes in Southern California who were on the other side of the political divide. She went to meetings. The back pages of some obscure newspaper would mention this. There would be some little old lady on the other side of the ideological battlefield clipping the article and using scotch tape to put it into one of her filing cabinets or scrapbooks.
Nobody today remembers any of this. I do, because I was recruited by one of those little old ladies. Actually, she wasn't that old. I remember a few of my father's stories. He did not tell many of them. He did his job, collecting material to be put in official FBI files. The files were dutifully filed, and I am sure never used again. The Communist Party was in favor of the violent overthrow of the government, and therefore it had to be listed as a subversive group by the Attorney General's office. So, that meant that the FBI had to collect files. But nothing was ever done with most of these files. Hardly any Communists were ever sent to prison. As far as I know, there was no great conspiracy that ever amounted to much of anything. Maybe I'm just forgetful at this stage.
There were investigations of antiwar protesting groups in the late 1960's. That is not what I'm talking about. I am talking about the anti-Communist movement from 1948 until the middle of the 1960's.
I'm also not talking about espionage. In any case, espionage was not what the anti-Communist movement was all about. The anti-Communist movement was about domestic Communists who worked in the government or Hollywood to undermine the government through organizing revolutionary action.
Ultimately, the whole idea of a Communist revolution in the West was preposterous. It had always been preposterous. Western working-class people just wanted a larger share of the pie. They were not about to go to the barricades in the name of Marxist revolution. This was recognized clearly in the 1920's and 1930's by the Italian Communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci. He spent his later years in a fascist prison. In some of his famous prison letters, he made it clear that he did not think that Communist revolution could ever come in the West based on the capitalist mode of production. In other words, he completely abandoned Marxist theory. He said that there would have to be an erosion of the moral foundations of the West, meaning ethical and religious foundations. Only after this took place, he said, could there be a successful Communist revolution. But Marx had always said that religion and ethics are simply part of the superstructure of the mode of production. The substructure is what matters: the mode of production.
Gramsci created what is known as cultural Marxism, which is not Marxism. It is anti-Marxism. It is pop-Hegelianism. It is what Marx was opposed to. It says that ideas have consequences, especially religious ideas. Marx dismissed this idea with his famous phrase that religion is the opium of the people. That was always Marx's problem. He kept trying to dream up better ideas to show that ideas don't have consequences. He kept trying to influence the thinking of bourgeois intellectuals, and he never bothered to write for working-class people. He wrote in German. He was not understandable in German. He was not understandable in translation, either. Engels wrote most of what is clear in the writings of Karl Marx. He was a ghost writer, and he was a pretty good one.
When we look back at the hard-core Stalinists prior to his death in 1953, when the anti-Communist movement began in America, we can find almost no trace of any Communists. That was a complaint of anti-anti-Communists at the time. It was a legitimate complaint.
The conservative who saw this most clearly was Robert Welch of the John Birch Society. He founded the organization in 1958 is an anti-Communist organization. In 1964, overnight, he switched it to an anti-establishment, anti-conspiratorial organization. He did it with one book: More Stately Mansions. The vast majority of his followers never missed a beat. They stopped talking about Communism, because he stopped talking about Communism. Well, that's not quite correct. He stopped talking about Communism as a separate movement based in the Soviet Union which was trying to take over the world unilaterally. He started talking about the alliance between the Soviet Communists and the American establishment. The Birch society started focusing on the establishment. It started talking about the Council on Foreign Relations, not the Communist Party. In short, it started to get relevant.
The closest that the conservative movement got to the truth in the heyday of anti-Communism was in 1954. In that year, Congressman Carroll Reece of East Tennessee began investigating the large nonprofit foundations, not yet called think tanks, especially in New York City. Reece was allied to Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio. He hired an investigator named Norman Dodd. Dodd began to get into the files of the Ford Foundation and other major concentrations of nonprofit propaganda. There, he was astounded to find the extent of the promotion of one-world government. These organizations were systematic in their pursuit of the unification of the Soviet Union in the United States. They believed that there would be a common socialist society of the future that would incorporate the best of both societies.
These ideas began coming out at the hearings of the committee. Very few conservatives knew about these hearings. Very few reporters knew about the hearings. Because of the Web, it is now possible to access these hearings and download them. They are posted here. These are basically untouched historical resources. They deserve several books, but these books probably will not be written. This is old news. The internationalist mindset of the nonprofit foundations is still dominant, but the Soviet Union is long gone. The foundations bet on the wrong pony, just as the anti-Communists did. That pony dropped dead coming around the second turn. It faltered in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping liberalized the Chinese economy. It dropped dead on December 25, 1991, when Gorbachev announced its unexpected demise.
I would love to see somebody on Saturday Night Live do a dead pony skit. Maybe Larry David could switch from his Bernie Sanders imitation and play another socialist.
In retrospect, the obvious question is this: "What was all the fuss about?" That applies to both sides of the great confrontation, which never amounted to much of anything other than rhetoric.
Alger Hiss at Yalta was important. That was a matter of espionage. The Left has never admitted that he was a spy, and the Left has always tried to cover up his importance at Yalta. Whittaker Chambers was right in blowing the whistle. But if we're talking about homegrown domestic Communism, the true believers who were committed to it wasted their lives, and the dedicated anti-Communists who tried to expose them wasted a lot of time and scotch tape.
It was good training for me. My concern was international Communism, not domestic Communism. I figured my father would take care of any domestic Communism. I didn't have to. It was a working division of labor.
I wish he had kept his SWP cap. It would be my most treasured possession that he left me.
For "Lost Causes on the Left," click here: https://www.garynorth.com/public/17077.cfm