American inquisition part 1: The origins of the Cold War and McCarthyism

Photo: Sen. Joseph McCarthy (center) during a House Un-American Activities Committee questioning. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The ghost of “Tail-Gunner Joe” McCarthy is haunting the U.S. Congress. Republicans, in particular, during their various TikTok hearings, have resurrected some of his hallmarks in their questioning of various officials and CEOs over social media and Israel. Sometimes this even involves variations on the famous question “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of…” this or that demonized group. Democrats have also joined in with their often evidence-free accusations of “misinformation and disinformation” spread by “revisionist” nations.

The repeat performances are no real surprise, since, now, like then, they are tied to a broad based effort to prepare the country for nuclear conflict, creating a boogeyman to make it easier to mobilize resources and people for a range of unnecessary less-than-nuclear conflicts. The post-World War II order shaped by the first Cold War is now collapsing. U.S. hegemony is being challenged by rising powers who want more influence in global affairs. Like the 1950s, domestic opponents of Corporate America’s worldview represent an impediment to the ruling class. 

The real history of this “American inquisition” is crucially important to grasp for anyone seeking to build a better world. McCarthyism took its principal aim at the organizations dedicated to that purpose. The most militant civil rights organizations — the unions who fought the bosses the hardest and opposed racism the most; the cooperative organizations helping workers achieve a higher living standard; the newspapers, think tanks and record labels building an educational and cultural world that encompassed these struggles — all were sent six feet deep by the Red Scare. 

Even worse, the victims of this very American “purge” have been slandered for a second time in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. Dubious “scholarship” produced mainly by anti-communist partisans has “justified” McCarthyism in a large part of the popular discourse through multiple books that have purportedly “proved” that the Soviet Union operated a massive spy ring that was a major threat to the United States. 

Similarly today, the attempt to enforce conformity with the Cold War against Russia and China and the genocide being perpetrated in Gaza are aiming their weapons in the same direction. They see what we see: the Sanders electoral insurgency, the 2020 uprisings, the mass protests for Gaza, the strike waves, the growing popularity of unions and socialism. And this makes the ruling elites very worried. 

If we want to avoid a similar fate, understanding the real history of the purges of the late 1940s and 1950s deserves revisiting. 

The world after the war

By 1943, debates over what the world would look like after the war started to come into sharper focus. The allied coalition had created a unique relationship of forces, disparate interests drawn together solely by their belief that fascism was the greatest danger. British imperialists, Soviet communists and American industrialists were all in one boat. Even more, in order to prosecute the war, various concessions had been made to anti-colonial and anti-racist forces that, while ad-hoc, murky and inadequate, portended the possible end to the status quo on these issues. 

One broad camp in the U.S. felt that, in general, the wartime alliance was a good outline for relations between nations, and that the New Deal was a good framework for how relations between classes and class strata could work domestically. This was the general framework that won the 1944 presidential elections for FDR. 

The other camp was seeing dollar signs. Understanding that “Old Europe” was going to be crippled and exhausted, they saw an opportunity for the U.S. to make the rest of the 20th century the “American Century.” They saw their opportunity to displace France, England and Germany as the world’s leading power and, in the words of news magnate Henry Luce, “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit.”1

For both sides, this created thorny issues, but particularly for those in the second camp. Hopes had been raised that the end to the war would mean a transition away from colonialism, Jim Crow and Great Power conflict. This would not do, for the business class looking to “exert … the full impact” of their influence. Internationally, the wealth of the Global North was dependent on a continuation of colonial exploitation. So while promoting formal independence was beneficial to U.S. capital because it had the effect of breaking up the exclusive economic zones of the old imperial system, too much independence was dangerous because it might result in too many anti-exploitative, and thus profit-reducing, practices. 

As Leo Welch, treasurer of Standard Oil, put it: “Our foreign policy will be more concerned with the safety and stability of our foreign investments than ever before,” adding that “proper respect” for U.S. “capital abroad” was a crucial goal, adding further that the U.S. must take on the role of “the majority stockholder in this corporation known as the world … nor is this for a given term of office. This is a permanent obligation.”2

Domestically, the issue was similar. Unions were far too strong. The year 1946, in particular, had seen a huge wave of strikes demanding better wages and working conditions. That same year, the National Association of Manufacturers — one of the top lobbyists for big business — released a book, “The American Individual Enterprise System, which, among other things, laid out a blueprint for a new labor law to kneecap unions that would later be adopted.3 At one secret meeting of top capitalists a few years later that included Charles E. Wilson, head of General Electric, attendees found “unanimous agreement” on the need to “offset the growing power of labor.”4

Even more, Black workers were particularly restless. The war had created leverage that had been used against Jim Crow. The Supreme Court had struck down the white primary, and some Southern states were modifying the poll tax, creating the first real political openings for Blacks in the South since Reconstruction. The civil rights-labor coalition had grown powerful in states like New York during the Depression and the war, and an increasing number of Congressmen from those states were becoming more vocal on fighting discrimination. In a sign of the times, Mississippi’s fascist senator Theodore Bilbo was essentially ejected from Congress for his extreme racism and corruption, avoiding official censure only because he died of cancer. 

Taken as a whole, this created serious issues for big business. If labor could aggressively challenge efforts to prevent workers getting wages and benefits and if it insisted on addressing racial inequalities in the labor market — and, on top of all that, also challenge the central pillar of capital: the fascist Jim Crow political machines — then the “American Century” would not be all that its advocates hoped for. 

Best laid plans

The ruling elites, however, had a plan that still echoes today: promote mass hysteria about potential war with Russia. Whether at home or abroad, the principle challengers to American capitalism’s attempts to deepen the exploitation of workers, peasants and oppressed nationalities were communists. Move them out of the picture, and busting unions, lowering wages, protecting segregation and continuing old empires under new ownership would be dramatically easier. 

They also knew that this provided a push for a permanent war economy that could be tremendously profitable. During World War II, profits had exploded as business and the government fused, jumping to two-times the pre-war average, and four-and-a-half times by the end of the Korean War.5 Even more, government funds were underwriting a number of innovations just handed over to corporations and helping big business to shift their production more into non-union areas. This “military-industrial complex” not only offered big profits, but it could also help generate enough economic activity to convince enough of the working class that the system was working. 

As the business paper the Journal of Commerce put it at the time, “The assurance of continued high level of defense expenditures under present conditions cannot be underestimated because the whole economy pivots around it.”6

The relationship between all these issues is easily comprehended when one looks at the overall situation 1947. In that year, the U.S. government established the Defense Department, created the CIA and established the National Security Council to coordinate the relationship between military, diplomatic and domestic affairs. Further, President Harry Truman had announced the Truman Doctrine, which pledged the U.S. would support any movement or government it deemed to be anti-communist with essentially unlimited funds and weapons. Also in 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which kneecapped trade unions and had been written by corporate lobbyists. Finally, President Truman also initiated the “loyalty program” designed to persecute anyone in government service who may disagree with Cold War policies. Notably, such a loyalty program had been high on the agenda of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

Was there a Soviet threat?

U.S. historiography — conservative and liberal, then and now — has maintained that whatever excesses existed, the Cold War was inevitable and that there was a “Soviet threat.” The problem was, there wasn’t one. The Soviets had lost 27 million people in World War II. They weren’t too far removed from losing millions during the first World War and millions more fighting Tsarist remnants in a civil war. Not to mention, the USSR has paid a heavy price between the wars in the march towards becoming the second-place industrial powerhouse in the world. 

In 1946, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal noted in his diary that the Soviets “would not move” towards war “at any time.”7 Writing about a month later, Secretary Forrestal noted the U.S. military governor of Germany told him that “the Russians did not want war.” A month after that, General Eisenhower told the Secretary that “the Russians would not take steps leading to immediate war.” Even a couple years later, in 1948, when the Cold War was already heating up, one of America’s top generals told Forrestal that he “is confident that they do not want a war.”8

In 1950 George Kennan, the intellectual architect of much Cold War policy and then-Ambassador to Moscow, was quoted in the very anti-communist Readers Digest as saying that it was “hardly likely” that the Soviets were “charting a course for an early military onslaught on the Western World.” In 1952, when the Red Scare was in full-swing, General Alfred Gruenther, Eisenhower’s chief-of-staff, made his view clear in the press that “in my mind, there isn’t going to be any war.” Herbert Hoover, who was militantly anti-Soviet as president, angrily told the New York Times that the militarism emanating out of Washington was nothing more than a “war psychosis.”9

What was really happening?

The real issue between the two powers was not war, but the balance of power. U.S. global supremacy depended on Washington being able to manage the changes in Europe. Germany was at the center of this process. For the Soviets, the memory was strong regarding the way England and France — and to some degree the U.S. — had colluded with the Nazis to try to prompt them to invade the USSR and dethrone Bolshevism. The Soviet government wanted Germany to be totally demilitarized with limits on its economic production. For the U.S. ruling class, this was ultimately an obstacle. 

A unified, demilitarized Germany would almost certainly be politically “pluralist,” that is containing communists, capitalists and everything in between. It would be likely to lean on natural economic ties to form a close alliance with the USSR. Politically and economically this threatened to reorient Europe, especially Western Europe, away from a U.S.-dominated “Atlantic alliance.” 

Politically, France and Italy were already trending in a “pluralist” direction. In Yugoslavia and Greece, the Nazis had been defeated by communist guerrillas who were taking power in both places. Seeking security from invasion, the Soviets had installed anti-fascist, often communist, governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. Economically, control of German coal was key to the revival of Western European economies. 

On both counts, then, a unified Germany would make it more difficult to profit from European reconstruction, and potentially create a Eurasian alliance that could challenge the U.S. desire to “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit.” As one key U.S. policy-maker said in 1947: “the difficulty under which we labor is that in spite of our announced position we really do not intend to accept German reunification.”10 

At the same time, in Asia, the ground was also rapidly shifting. Chiang Kai-Shek’s bankrupt Chinese government was being steamrolled by the communist forces who had the sympathy of the majority of Chinese. The Chinese people saw their program — that promised to put an end to the ruinous feudalism of the countryside, pursue worker-led industrialization in the cities, and banish imperial concessions forever — with great hope. Chiang’s forces, on the other hand, represented the brutal landlord class and the gangster-connected corporate bosses that had presided over famine and poverty in league with their Western “friends” for over a century. 

In Korea too, the anti-fascist, communist-led forces were the most popular, having been the tip of the spear of the most recent manifestation of resistance to many decades of Japanese colonialism. In Vietnam, the same was true, not to mention the communists had been the primary opponents of the French colonial forces that came before the war and wished to return now that it was over. 

From India to Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, left-leaning forces that had been leading national liberation movements were also in the lead position politically. This would ultimately prompt the U.S. to draw “North Korea” into a conflict to, at the very least, bleed China and Russia and weaken the anti-colonial tide in Asia, if not outright invade China and overthrow the communists. This is despite the fact that in all these places the new leading parties were hoping to establish a working relationship with the U.S. that, in many cases, was like what was happening in Europe, building on the existing wartime alliances against fascism. 

Enter the Red Scare

The lack of any real war threat made the need for a mass panic even more critical. Further, it couldn’t seem too remote, but a present danger. Unable to really conjure the image of an aggressive USSR, the stenographers for capital had to make peace overtures from communists worldwide seem sinister, just smokescreens to hide war preparations. To make U.S. citizens believe this, they had to “expose” that the communists were “all around us,” from the smallest community group to the highest councils of government. Since this was all a “hidden plot,” one could not simply look for the self-declared “card-carrying communists,” but also any camouflaged Reds and any “sympathizers” that might aid them. This meant identifying anyone who had ever shown any sympathy to “communist front organizations.” 

This made sense for the redbaiters because it gave them millions of Americans who they could pick and choose to scapegoat. From the Depression on through the war, millions of people had signed petitions against racism and lynching and demanding freedom for victims of the legal lynch mob. Many had also actively engaged in opposing the fascist invasion of Ethiopia and the fascist insurgency in Spain. They had joined and advocated for unions, electrified by the fight back against brutal capitalist policies represented by the CIO. Some of them were Hollywood stars who sought to use their fame to build support for these causes. Some of them had joined the New Deal, hoping to use their skills to help farmers in the dust bowl or putting people back to work at the WPA. 

And, yes, a relatively small percentage of these millions, never more than 100,000, were official members of the Communist Party. Of course, none of this was illegal, and most of it, in fact, was quite positive. To solve that problem, the vast majority of those who had signed a petition, joined a demonstration, joined a union and even taken out Communist Party membership were classed as “dupes,” supposedly providing a respectable cover for the evil purposes of the various “Soviet agents” that were “using” these movements to sow division and recruit spies within the government. 

To figure out who was who, it was crucial to force as many people as possible to “name names” of those who were a part of the communist conspiracy. In addition to the “Loyalty Program” which expelled anyone who wouldn’t take an anti-communist oath from the government, the Taft-Hartley Act established an “anti-communist oath” for all union officials as well. Private businesses followed suit, but there was also public opprobrium. 

The FBI and others quickly assembled a coterie of former communists with an ax to grind and were willing to spin lurid and ludicrous tales. Elizabeth Bentley, for instance, publicly stated a Soviet spy would sit behind a black curtain during Central Committee meetings to hide his identity while he dispensed guidance from Stalin. Often the information they were peddling was clearly false. Manning Johnson, a frequent anti-communist witness at government hearings, when confronted with his own multiple perjured statements, told a federal panel he would “lie 1,000 times if the interests of my government are at stake.” Paul Crouch, star witness for the witch hunters who was deployed against Robert Oppenheimer, Charlie Chaplin and dozens of others high and low, was by 1955 exposed as a fabulist and his various testimonies widely discredited. 

Nonetheless, inconsistencies and obvious falsehoods were brushed aside by hearings, trials and most media accounts and the idea of a great communist conspiracy was widely embraced in the popular consciousness. The “memoirs” of the star witnesses became bestsellers, with movie and TV adaptations. The end result was the destruction of the most forward-looking elements of the country — and the rise of a much more conservative outlook that energized Jim Crow and kneecapped militant unionism, lowering the horizons for everyone who wasn’t ultra-wealthy and/or white in accessing the potential promise of the post-war world.

  1. ↩︎
  2.  Carl Marzani, We Can Be Friends (1952) p. 107 ↩︎
  3. Jennifer Delton, The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism (Princeton UP, 2020). P.140 ↩︎
  4.  Marzani. p.72 ↩︎
  5.  Marzani, p.68 ↩︎
  6.  Marzani, p. 64 ↩︎
  7.  Marzani, p. 23 ↩︎
  8.  Ibid. p. 23 ↩︎
  9.  Ibid. pp. 20-27 ↩︎
  10.  Christopher Layne, The Peace of Illusions : American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Cornell, 2006) p.67 ↩︎
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