Anticommunism: Popular Opposition
American Anticommunism: Popular Opposition
This essay details the emergence of a powerful anticommunist movement in the post Second World War United States.
Opposition to communism brought with it considerable political influence, created opportunities for economic gain, and worked to unify American society, as mainstream Americans afforded greater tolerance to historically marginalized groups who also opposed communism. Some used anticommunist political influence to serve larger American national interests, some used anticommunism for solely partisan purposes, while others used anticommunism to secure raw political power or personal enrichment. The American anticommunist movement manifest itself as a diverse following. Both major political parties, labor unions, Roman Catholics, and socialists opposed the totalitarianism and expansionism of the U.S.S.R. Despite differences in ideology, most anticommunists viewed communism as a threat to traditional American value systems.
Richard Nixon, a freshman Congressman from California, gained considerable influence during the 1947 House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigation on alleged communist activity in Hollywood. HUAC hearings, which led to the perjury conviction of suspected communist Alger Hiss, greatly increased political prospects for Nixon. Nixon soon became a senator on a fiercely anticommunist platform. He went on to serve as Eisenhower's vice president.
Later as U.S. president, Nixon, an established anticommunist, was able to normalize U.S. relations with Maoist China. More precisely, Nixon's anticommunist credentials allowed him to approach China and exploit the rift that had been developing between China and the Soviet Union since the early 60's. In response to the 1974 U.S.-Sino rapprochement, the Soviet Union over extended itself in a decade-long military buildup directed against both countries. The buildup damaged the Soviet economy and contributed significantly to the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
Most American labor unions opposed communism and thereby increased in political influence. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) rallied against communist influence, pleading with members not to vote for Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party in 1948. A Republican Congress had passed the Taft-Harley Act in 1947. The law hurt labor unions by making "closed shops", or exclusively union dominated shops, illegal. Union leaders came to realize that the pro-labor, yet pro-communist, Progressive Party would only split the traditional union vote for the Democratic Party, and insure the victory of an anti-labor Republican president.
Union leaders understood most American workers advocated mere "wage consciousness". The doctrine of "wage consciousness" did not pressure for revolution, but sought only to work within the existing political system to gain higher wages for workers. Simple self-interest dictated that the Democratic Party, and not the politically intrusive Communist Party, best met the needs of labor. John Hayes notes: "Most AFL and CIO leaders insisted on union autonomy- that the labor unions entered the political arena for its own reasons and to serve its own interests. The idea that unions should accept direction from a political body outside of the union was anathema. It was this attitude that would bring about the destruction of the communist position in the labor movement." (Red Scare or Red Menace?, 112) Though the power allotted to labor in this case was indirect, it proved to be substantive. After Truman's victory, the president supported measures that helped benefit the American working class.
Anticommunism became a powerful partisan weapon. Mid-century politicians understood that Americans generally disliked extremism in either leftist or rightist forms. Some liberals in the Roosevelt "Popular Front" coalition exploited common fears of Nazism by claiming fascists worked in league with Republicans to overthrow the government. In particular, New Deal Democrat George Earl claimed (with no evidence) that the Black Legion, a U.S. fascist group, controlled Republican leadership. In reality, the charge was one of many political ploys to strengthen liberal influence in Congress. Hayes notes: "Antifascism also proved too powerful a weapon not to be used for partisan political purposes." (27)
However, political fortunes changed. By 1947, Hitler was gone and Stalin controlled much of Eastern Europe. The Cold War emerged and the expansion of communism became a threat. Republicans, now the majority in Congress, did not forget the earlier liberal insult, and returned the favor by proclaiming Democrats to be "soft on communism". Ralph B. Levering notes: "[Republicans] could run against the open influence of the Moscow controlled Communist Party (CPUSA) in labor unions and against its largely secret infiltration of other institutions, including the federal government. On foreign policy issues, the Republicans could denounce Truman's 'weakness' in dealing with Russia." (The Cold War, A Post Cold War History, 32) By 1949, Republicans accused Truman, with little justification, of "losing" China to the communists.
Some anticommunists increased in political influence, only to abuse their power. Congressman John Rankin, member of the HUAC, was an avowed anticommunist who intimidated witnesses with great theatrical flair. From 1950 to 1953, Joseph McCarthy, senator from Wisconsin, used similar senatorial hearings to go on a witch-hunt after suspected communists in the State Department. The more McCarthy made accusations regarding the identity of suspected communists, the greater his political influence became. Hundreds of innocent Americans lost their jobs and were "blacklisted" from various industries because of McCarthy. Many could not find work for years. Only after McCarthy accused the U.S. Army of being infiltrated by communists, did his influence wane.
Anticommunism created opportunities for economic gain. In some cases, economic gain served larger American interests. In 1947, Truman's Secretary of State, John Marshall, argued for economic aid to Europe, as a means to counter communist expansion. He hoped for "the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist." (Levering, 34) However, under the Marshall Plan, the American economy was to benefit from massive investments in the post-war European Reconstruction. Levering notes: "Not entirely altruistic, the Marshall Plan led to large orders for goods in the United States and to greatly increase American trade and investment in Europe." (34)
Pragmatism is never to be despised, for this critique of the Marshall Plan is, in reality, the very basis for its justification as good policy: The Marshall Plan served American interests, but it also served the interests of Western Europe. As stated, the plan did strengthen the American economy. Regardless, the resulting economic stability in Western Europe did minimize the risk of communist expansion in the region. Aside from addressing immediate security concerns, the plan also offered war-torn Europeans desperately needed material goods as well. In this case, American opposition to communism helped promote a greater common good.
Though others used the anticommunist agenda, unfortunately, for personal enrichment. Agencies emerged to do
background checks on potential communists. The Loyalty Board did background
checks on perspective state employees. Sometimes individuals
from the Loyalty Board, or private institutions, offered their services at a fee, to "clear" those on the blacklists. Some television sponsors also pursued economic opportunism. Unscrupulous suppliers could suggest that their competitors were pro-communist in order to ruin their reputation and thus force them out of the market. In one case,
a 1950s toothpaste manufacturer did just that, and assured himself great profits.
Anticommunism worked to unify aspects of American society. Because of the HUAC Hollywood investigations of 1947, many major film studios, in hopes of appeasing HUAC members, and possibly avoid future investigations, sought to make films that glorified traditional American values and presented communists in the most stereotypical of ways. "Iron Curtain" (1948), "Red Menace" (1949), and "Red Danube" (1949), were produced to further the agenda of the HUAC. "My Son John" (1952), directed by Leo McCarey, tells of a mother's tormented discovery that her son is a communist. The movie glorifies traditional American values and climaxes with the mother confronting the true identity of her son as she clutches a rosary, signifying the power of organized religion over godless communism. Although it is unfortunate that film producers were pressured to make these films, the very presentation of traditional values in such overt ways did, in effect, reiterate standards for "acceptable" and "unacceptable" belief systems to American film viewers. It is no coincidence, that during this period, Congress began to print, "In God We Trust" on American currency, to contrast the American system with atheistic communism.
Anticommunism also tended to legitimize diverse groups that were marginalized earlier in American history. The Catholic Church had, historically, been an outsider in the dominantly Protestant United States. Catholicism's opposition to communism helped anticommunist Protestants identify with Catholics and thus afford the Church more tolerance. Similarly, the old Socialist Party of America (SPA) had not had any significant following in the United States since the early 1900s. During the Cold War, the SPA's anticommunist line gave the party greater popular acceptance. American society tolerated the economic critique of socialists while concurrently rejecting the verbiage of Marxist revolutionaries.
Anticommunism proved to be powerful because the movement rallied against a value system feared by American society. Communism remains an antithesis of traditional American values. Many anticommunists gained political influence to serve larger American interests. Regrettably, others came to understand that American fears of communism could also be used to secure raw political power or personal enrichment. Though, the influence of anticommunism did prove powerful enough to reinforce traditional values and help create a more unified, if selectively tolerant, American society.
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