Anticommunism and McCarthyism,
In the decade following the end of World War II, Commager was best known by the public as a vocal opponent of McCarthyism, and his struggle against McCarthyism as a civic intellectual helps illuminate some of the political and philosophical divisions in American liberalism at midcentury. It became particularly apparent, for example, that he held a more optimistic political view than many others in the liberal community and was more satisfied to talk about issues of freedom of speech rather than to discuss the benefits of various ideas and policies. As he demonstrated repeatedly during this period, he valued freedom for intellectual dissent more than national power and security derived from political toughness.
Yet why did an academic figure such as Commager, a member of that curiously detached profession of history, become so embroiled in political issues that he found himself the object of suspicion and criticism from friends and foes, publishers, writers, and colleagues? Why is it that one whose responsibility was to understand the remote past instead fought contemporary battles as a kind of unofficial leader against McCarthyism? Part of the answer, at least, resides in Commager's view of the relationship between the practice of history and American civic life. As a Jeffersonian liberal committed to civil liberties, the integrity of honest political dissent, intellectual freedom, and the benefits of an uncensored marketplace of ideas, Commager had a history of vigilance on issues of free speech before such became fashionable.