How the private sphere coalesced with the public sector to destroy lives with the anti-communist blacklist
I excerpted a piece of the Pete Seeger testimony before the HUAC yesterday and sarcastically commented that we can feel confident this could never happen again because well ... humans are different now. Especially Americans. We're good, they're evil yadda, yadda, yadda.
Corey Robin gives this subject a proper historical treatment and it's vitally important to understand the real dynamics at work:
While Seeger’s HUAC appearance, and its legal aftermath, is making the rounds of his eulogists, it’s important to remember that HUAC was probably not the most difficult of his tribulations during the McCarthy era. Far more toxic for most leftists was the blacklist itself. From the early 1950s to the mid-1960s (the dates are fuzzy, and it depends on which particular medium we’re talking about), Seeger was prevented from performing on a great many stages and venues. First with The Weavers, and then on his own.
He goes on to explain, in rather chilling detail, how the private sphere and the public sphere came together around the blacklist, crossing all of the normal ideological barriers and cultural boundaries. I certainly feel reverberations of that dynamic in our current discussions about the surveillance state.
The blacklist did not work independently of the state. It was the transmission belt of the state, both a feeder to, and an enforcement mechanism of, the government. Men and women who didn’t cooperate with the government were subject to the blacklist, so it was a useful means of securing cooperation and providing information. The secret enforcers of the blacklist were often ex-FBI men or ex-HUAC staffers, and the FBI and HUAC supplied critical information to industry executives and their underlings. Who then used it for either political or narrower self-interested purposes.
That said, the blacklist, and the more general specter of private penalties, touched more people than did HUAC or the state. For most men and women during the McCarthy years, the immediate point of contact with political repression and coercion was their employer, their teacher, their therapist, their lawyer, their supervisor, their co-worker.
And that raises a larger question. It is easy today to look back on that time, to read the transcripts and case histories, and tut-tut at all the nastiness or laugh at all the foolishness of the blacklist. With everyone from President Obama to the New York Times delivering warm encomia for Seeger, we forget that the blacklist only worked because so many people like President Obama, like the editors of the New York Times—who refused during the McCarthy years to hire anyone who was a member of the Communist Party—worked together to make it work.
To be sure, there were many hard-right ideologues behind the blacklist: the writers at Red Channels, an anticommunist handbook that named names in the entertainment industry, were conservative propagandists of the first order, anatomized to brilliant effect by a young researcher by the name of Michael Harrington.
But the blacklist would never have had the reach it did—not merely in Hollywood or the academy, but throughout virtually every industry in the United States—had it not attracted a wide range of men and women to its cause. The blacklist was also the work of liberal pamphleteers, executives in the culture industries, influential politicians in and around the Democratic Party, and most prominent of all, J. Edgar Hoover, about whom Arthur Schlesinger wrote:
All Americans must bear in mind J. Edgar Hoover’s warning that counter-espionage is no field for amateurs. We need the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security.
Far from being the object of liberal derision that he is today, Hoover was, in his time, thought to be the consummate rational bureaucrat, a professional of the first order who needed, said the liberals, more money, more resources, more power, not less. As Hubert Humphrey declared:
If the FBI does not have enough trained manpower to do this job, then, for goodness sake, let us give the FBI the necessary funds for recruiting the manpower it needs….This is a job that must be done by experts.
For liberals, Hoover, the ultimate impresario of the blacklist, was someone to collaborate with, not contend against.
I urge you to read the whole thing.