Academic journal article The Historian

Falsely Accused: Cold War Liberalism Reassessed

Academic journal article The Historian

Falsely Accused: Cold War Liberalism Reassessed

Article excerpt

   During the crucial years of the Great Fear the most influential
   ... faction of the American intelligentsia ... abandoned the
   critical function that all intellectuals in all countries ought
   to sustain toward government agencies and government actions....
   [T]heir malaise ... insensitivity ... [and] willingness to defend
   democracy by means of anti-democratic methods ... manured the soil
   from which the prickly cactus called McCarthy suddenly
   and awkwardly shot up. (1)

   --David Caute, historian and author of The Great Fear

IN THE FALL OF 1946, newly appointed University of Illinois President George D. Stoddard, a "Cold War liberal," approved the formation of an on-campus Security Office, which numbered among its many charter duties the task of keeping all students and staff under constant surveillance for any signs of "subversiveness." Though Stoddard continued to publicly profess his abhorrence of red-baiting and witch-hunting, he used the office's reports as justification for firing professors on more than one occasion during his seven-year tenure.

Shorn of context, President Stoddard's actions would seem to substantiate David Caute's claim that United States liberals failed in their role as the guardians of civil liberties during the infamous McCarthy era. By instituting a department designed in part to root out persons with Communist sympathies and leanings, the University of Illinois president can easily be seen as having sacrificed his liberalism for anticommunism. Such supposed hypocrisy has been argued more than once as being an all too common occurrence during the Red Scare, particularly in academia. Summing up the sentiments of many, Ellen Schrecker, a highly respected scholar in the field, proposes that "When given the opportunity to transform ... [their] opposition into something more concrete than words, almost all of these essentially liberal academics faltered, [displaying] ... a collective failure of nerve." (2) Stoddard's behavior looks to place him even further down the path to damnation: not only did he double back on his liberalism by failing to protect those being unjustly persecuted because of their beliefs, he was also at times the persecutor himself. Stoddard would seem, therefore, to represent a cut and dry case of a Cold War liberal cowardly buckling before the hysteria of the time, falling meekly in line with McCarthy, and even doing the notorious senator's work for him. Such a judgment would, at least, be in keeping with the analyses of much of the period's traditional historiography.

Often overlooked, however, is the fact that persons possessed of Stoddard's political ideology could be both actively anticommunist and actively anti-McCarthy at the same time; one cause was by no means exclusive of the other. But while disdain for both Communists and McCarthyites was far from uncommon, having the courage to take action against both was. The prevailing consensus has always been that Cold War liberals lacked such resolve. Stoddard's case instead indicates that such a harsh judgment may be a bit unfounded: though he did establish a Security Office and dismiss employees on the basis of its findings, he also repeatedly defended those faculty members and students he thought unduly red-baited, a pattern of resistance that ultimately contributed to his own firing in the summer of 1953. As this seeming contradiction suggests, Stoddard's presidency at the University of Illinois offers an excellent opportunity for reevaluating the role played by liberal academics during the McCarthy era. In spite of intense criticism and vehement disparagement, Stoddard and Cold War liberals like him managed to not only hold on to their convictions, but also to fight passionately for them. In writing off the entire group as a pack of morally bankrupt traitors without taking their more courageous moments into consideration, many historians blind themselves to these individuals' better sides. …

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