The Red Scares of the immediate postwar era are notorious as twentieth-century witch hunts, and rightfully so. There were many reasons they ended up reviled, but mainly it was because they mimicked the methods of the very people they were out to get. When democracy looks like communism and attempts to pit neighbor against neighbor and rumor against rumor in the time-honored socialist way, something has gone very wrong somewhere.
Worse for McCarthy and his band, we now have hindsight to aid us. We know that, even dominating half the world as they did until 1990, communism just isn’t sustainable and eventually collapses under the weight of its own grey hopelessness. McCarthy didn’t have that advantage, or he would just have stayed home with a smug look on his face. Or maybe that kind of personality would have annoyed a different group.
For a modern audience, it’s hard to understand what the general public would have felt at the time, or to be objective. The weight of history (and of often left-leaning historians) has given its verdict and McCarthy has joined the ranks of the vilified.
But he had real support, from intelligent, thinking people. And if you read into the times, you’ll probably come to a different conclusion: that McCarthy was doing a necessary job, and his true crime was ignoring due process.
A good way to analyze this kind of thing is to read the popular fiction of the day (don’t waste your time with modern revisionist stuff as they have the same preconceptions you do).
My demolished paperback copy of Neither Five nor Three by Helen MacInnes was in the same batch of 1970s’ paperbacks I’ve been reading through lately. Nevertheless, it was written in 1951 (also, the paperback is from 1985). This means that we can have a taste of the 1950s with the unmistakable experience of the crumbling acidic paper of the eighties.
But it’s the 1950s insight that matters, and MacInnes is supremely qualified to give a more accurate picture than the one that has reached us. She was both an academic and an intelligence officer, and therefore very much attuned to the question of communism in both academic and other circles.
So even if her book offends our modern preconceptions, the smart money is on her being right and our preconceptions being wrong. That’s especially true if you feel very strongly about the subject one way or the other.
Basically MacInnes’ book postulates that the communist party in America was going to try to gain ascendancy by taking over editorial positions in American written media and, from those jobs, select the writers and viewpoints that would be printed therein. Our heroes, as befits a novel of the era, are out to stop them.
This is the part where the cries of McCarthyism come in, but again, I assume MacInnes was right and we are wrong. It certainly does seem plausible.
But more than plausible, it’s prescient. In our current world, political parties on both sides of the spectrum do exactly this. Impartial news is nearly impossible to find, and news outlets are no longer serious because… well, because exactly the scenario MacInnes was warning us about seventy years ago has come to pass. Try selling a story about the successful application of free market thinking to The New York Times. Or a heartwarming story about a commune giving out free milk to Fox News.
Of course, the left is much more likely to do this kind of thing (one of the tenets of communism was that everything was done for the state and for socialism, while democracy tends to focus on self-realization first), but everyone has learned the lessons.
I recommend this book as a must-read to anyone who wants to understand the current world. MacInnes’ heroes might have won in the book, but when you see that some people mistake The Huffington Post (or Fox News or… insert your own pet peeve here) for actual information, you realize that, in real life, the good guys lost.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His own take on how the world can go to hell in a digital hand basket… and of what happens after that, is called Outside. You can check it out here.