Authors, Publishers, and the McCarthy Era: A Hidden History

By Theoharis, Athan G. | USA TODAY, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Authors, Publishers, and the McCarthy Era: A Hidden History


Theoharis, Athan G., USA TODAY


We are just learning how many manuscripts were rejected for fear that they were too controversial and might provoke Congressional or FBI scrutiny.

Herblock's famous cartoon depicting Sen. Joseph McCarthy emerging from a Washington, D.C., sewer carrying a bucket of tar and a broad brush introduced a new term into America's political vocabulary - McCarthyism. Yet, the resulting focus on McCarthy has served to confine understanding of the repressive politics of the 1950s to the tactics and charges of the junior senator from Wisconsin. In point of fact, as recently released FBI files reveal, a more serious threat to political liberties - and to the freedom of authors to publish "dangerous" thoughts - stemmed from the often covert, behind-the-scenes efforts of conservative academics, members of Congress, and FBI and Justice Department officials.

This point is particularly highlighted by hearings, initiated in 1951-52 by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), on the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR). The IPR's - and, more notably, Johns Hopkins University professor Owen Lattimore's - "subversive" influence in shaping the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations' China policy, SISS concluded, had brought about the "loss" of China and the "betrayal" of the Chinese Nationalist government. As documentation of this subversive influence, SISS interrogated IPR officials and Lattimore (basing their questions on seized IPR documents and the FBI's covert assistance) and further invited the expert testimony of such self-styled patriotic academicians as Northwestern University's Kenneth Colegrove and William McGovern; Yale University's David Rowe; and Karl Wittfogel, George Taylor, and Nicholas Poppe of the University of Washington.

Admitting ignorance of whether Lattimore ever had been a member of the Communist Party, these conservative intellectuals nonetheless dissected his writings and IPR activities as procommunist, pro-Soviet, or Stalinist and testified to his "deceit" and subtlety as a conspirator. Lattimore's style, Wittfogel proclaimed, "proceed[ed] in a pro-communist way without |exposing [him]self'"; his writings, McGovern asserted, "always" followed the Stalinist line; and his influence in shaping U.S. policy toward and public understanding of China, Rowe contended, made him "probably the principal agent of Stalinism."

While not central to SISS's inquiry, the professors' testimony did add respectability to the Subcommittee's equation of certain interpretations with disloyalty, and abetted SISS chairman Pat McCarran's subsequent efforts to pressure the Justice Department to convict Lattimore of perjury (for denying during his SISS testimony that he was "a sympathizer or any other kind of promoter of communism or communist interests"). Federal judge Luther Youngdahl subsequently dismissed the resulting seven-count indictment.

Yet, although Lattimore escaped conviction, his indictment and SISS's highly publicized hearings impugning his and the IPR's loyalty shaped subsequent popular analyses of Far Eastern history. This point is illustrated by the change in the reviewing policy of the New York Times Book Review. After 1951 and until the 1960s, its editors did not commission any specialist connected with IPR to review books concerning China despite having commissioned IPR specialists to review 22 of the 30 books on China reviewed by the Times during 1945-50.

Covert cooperation

SISS's public hearings had sent a powerful message to authors and book review editors. Yet, a covert initiative between SISS and the FBI, first proposed in 1953 and eventually implemented in 1955, posed a far more serious threat to writers, and their publishers, who had the temerity to challenge the reigning anti-communist orthodoxy.

In February, 1951, the two groups instituted a covert liaison program wherein the Bureau serviced SISS requests for assistance (ranging from background information on "subversives" the Subcommittee planned to subpoena during future hearings to counsel on proposed investigations and strategy). …

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