“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
by Jake Hirsch-Allen
Introduction 1,2 This is the abbreviated story of how disparate communities – from civil rights activists to homosexuals – were grouped together in mid-century America, to form – along with those few remaining American Communists and even fewer Soviet spies – the red menace, a Fifth Column of individuals and organizations to be rooted out, ostracized and punished for their treachery. It is a story to remember whenever groups are targeted for being the primary cause of a nation’s collective problems. When the contradictions of a free, equal and democratic society, complete with loyalty boards,3 blacklists and show trials, are not self-evident, the tales of those who were irrationally scapegoated and collectively prosecuted may be enlightening. The light that escapes from this dark period also reveals many unfortunate truths about human nature, from our tendency to conformity, to our need to place blame and oversimplify. Finally, this is a story about the flaws of a collective memory that seems to be so brief as to allow for the endless repetition of a nation’s worst sins and hypocrisy mere decades after they were committed.
In and around the 1950s an atmosphere of conformity arose within this nation of individual freedoms. Echoing the first red-scare of the 1920s, American identity was re-defined. Now Communism, not Nazism or the Japanese empire, represented its “Other.” As the nation’s most wicked evil, any citizens associated with this “‘ism” were perceived to be subversive. The lavender scare – a purging of homosexuals from the federal government for being “security risks” – is demonstrative of this treatment. It serves as a case study for all those unjustly branded Red. Gays were perceived to be Un-American and so, like Communists, they were viruses, to be quarantined. Containment of Communism at home required enhanced protection for the national body from those most susceptible to its seductions, including homosexuals and blacks.4 Yet the evil was imaginary until the anti-Communists created and then destroyed it. While "Communism was a threat to the United States,” the literary critic Philip Rahv famously argued, “it was not a threat in the Unites States."5
Fifty years later, the historian Stephen Whitfield summarized America’s new perceived enemy:
The specter that, a century earlier, Marx and Engels had described as stalking the continent of Europe was extending itself to the United States, looming over a nation that had prided itself on its historical immunity to the apocalyptic tragedies of the either/or...By introducing ideological politics, Communism became more loathed than organized crime, exacerbating fears that were to distort and enfeeble American culture throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s."6
Communists were traitors, diseased, soft, elitist, gay, integrationist and Un-American. They had to be fought with a culture of containment. This culture, echoing previous American and more general historical trends, triumphed a strong, united and masculine American response to a foreign threat that was now characterized as being subversive and secretive. This is the story of those who were contained, and who, in some cases, have yet to escape. It is meant to be a montage of the contradictions that their stories reveal when juxtaposed against the principles upon which the United States was founded. It is a lesson in the individual and national crimes and mistakes that trapped the many Americans unjustly accused of Un-American activities.
The broader historical and political context for the red scare involved a political elite high off of the victories of the Second World War and wary of the consequences of the Depression.7 Democrats were reeling from right-wing attacks on FDR’s New Deal-ers, the State Department’s “loss” of China and the continuous extension of the Soviet menace. As conservatism mounted in the United States, its reactionary forces prodded Democratic and Republican administrations alike to act as catalysts for a nation-wide crackdown on Communism (or anything remotely associated with it). Congressmen Dies and Rankin, The House Committee on Un-American Activities8 and Hoover, Truman and McCarthy,9 produced an American elite that was explicitly anti-radical. Civil rights activists, left-wing intellectuals and those supporting equality of sexual orientation and gender were lumped together. They were weak links and outright wire cutters, endangering the anti-Communist chain protecting the United States of America. Gays in government, like blacks in the south, threatened to upset the American way of life and were perceived to be predisposed to subversion and manipulation by malicious forces. These usual suspects fell victim to a “containment culture,” the domestic American response to the Cold War.
While historians continue to disagree on Truman’s intentions and role in the process, his administration would clearly define U.S. Cold War policy through NSC 68, the Marshal Plan, and the Truman Doctrine. It characterized Communism as the greatest menace to American security. Facing pressure to reform and reinforce his own government in order to confront this threat, Truman began a process that Eisenhower would continue in which a Cold War mentality coloured all of Washington’s policies. In the fall of 1946, Truman presciently wrote in his diary: “The Reds, phonies and the parlor pinks seem to be banded together and are becoming a national danger. I am afraid they are a sabotage front for Uncle Joe Stalin." From this, the historian Griffin Fariello concludes that "the red scare was Truman's Cold War come home to roost."10
A swirl of debate surrounds how widespread anti-Communism actually was in the 1950s – and how important it was. The ordinary mid-century American probably cared less about foreign policy than he or she does today. If the average household spent ten minutes a day reading the comics, they spent only four reading about foreign affairs or national politics. Fewer than one in five Americans thought Communism was the country’s “most important problem” and when asked “‘what is the main problem facing your section of the country?’ southerners named race; westerners named conservation; easterners and midwesterners named prices.”11 Communism would not have been middle-American dinner talk aside from exceptional circumstances. Similarly, it would be untrue to claim that Communists did not exist in substantial numbers in the United States. Some were undertaking seditious activities and the American Communist Party (CPUSA) did have significant political influence, particularly during and just after the depression.12 But Henry Wallace’s disaster of a third-party election run and revelations of Communists within his Progressive Party combined with growing disillusionment with Stalin’s “miracles,” Soviet oppression and the contradictions of CPUSA politics to reduce the actual Communist presence in the United States to negligible numbers.
At the same time, anti-Communist sentiments were not confined to the Cold War, let alone the decade after Truman’s presidency.13 The phobia of Communists in the 1950s was nevertheless unprecedented. Stretching far beyond the beltway, it overran the menace at its core. It would seem that Truman’s goal was never to create the climate that flowed from his decisions, yet with an estimated 13.5 million Americans forced to undergo some form of loyalty test or investigation, unquestioning fealty to American values – in terms of one’s beliefs, actions and attributes – decided one’s degree of freedom in the 1950s.14 Fariello describes how,
support for racial equality became evidence of subversive leanings [and] some communities even held book burnings...Neighbours informed on neighbours, students on their teachers...Seven war-era concentration camps were dusted off, and lists prepared of the radicals to fill them.15
Conscious and unintentional US identity formation after the Great Depression and World War Two, combined with political and personal fears and ambitions, and resulted in a conformist and anti-Communist culture in which repressive measures were accepted and in some cases acclaimed.16
Two characters, in particular, would become the primary symbols of the persecutions that, beginning on Pennsylvania Ave, would flood the nation. J. Edgar Hoover, the gang-busting, tommy gun totting, bully of an FBI director, was the driving force behind federal investigation and prosecution of Communists. From his files would flow the endless blacklists of security risks. Taking the Smith Act and running with it, individuals who had, at some time, been associated with an organization that could be, in any way, linked to Communism, were bugged, followed and forced out of mainstream society.17 Junius Scales, the only man ever to be imprisoned only for being a member of the Communist Party, explains how the FBI hounds changed his life:
Things got very tough. I was watched by the FBI twenty four hours a day. I remember in 1950 the FBI would follow me through Chapel Hill, two or three carloads of them. I'd walk across the campus and they'd go out like extended order drill in the Army. I'd have a dozen guys encircling me, moving as I moved, signaling to each other. It was a lot of malarkey, supposed to intimidate me. But it had a very practical effect. I couldn't go to a meeting and bring a traffic jam with me, or a crowd of FBI agents.18 From the dynamo behind America’s crime stopping machine, “Hoover transformed himself into [Communism’s] most obdurate enemy.”19 From his black bulletproof limo, he controlled thousands of FBI hounds, two Attorneys General and at least one President and with this great power he enforced the anti-Communist movement.20 Containment – of gays and blacks, Communists and fellow travelers – was conducted by J. Edgar Hoover.
Listening to the era’s namesake as he described Communism, one might imagine an evil of apocalyptic proportions:
The writs of Moscow run to…a good 40 percent of all men living…This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principles shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.21 This was “the paranoid world of Joe McCarthy.”22 While less influential than popular history has made him out to be, McCarthy was critical to definitions of the red menace.23 He and his Republican cronies used HUAC, other congressional inquiries and countless loyalty investigations to scare hundreds of “friendly” witnesses into revealing or creating the names of those who were persecuted by the federal government. Meanwhile, it and the nation, were trapped under the spell of McCarthy’s powerful words. The senator would use the climate of fear that had he created to revive and bolster a faltering political career. Originally a little known Wisconsin congressman, he used anti-Communism to briefly catapult himself to the centre of a national fixation. The terrifying still-life of Communism depicted by McCarthy and swallowed whole by the American people was painted in outrageous hues of red, pink, lavender and black. Nevertheless, for a few important years, the Senator managed to persuade the nation that this grossly distorted portrayal was accurate. As the kingpin of anti-Communist fabricators, McCarthy would paint many of the groups targeted for subversive tendencies red. “He scraped the raw nerve of the nation’s anxiety and turned it into a neurosis,” wrote journalist Cabell Phillips. “He spit in the eye of constituted authority, undermined public confidence in the government and its leaders and tore at the nation’s foreign policy with the indiscriminate ferocity of a bulldozer.”24
More important than Truman, Hoover or even McCarthy, however, was the general societal acceptance of the evils of Communism.25 All things associated with this ideology became taboo for a nation founded upon political and individual liberties. Communism was the opposite of capitalism economically. Its Soviet totalitarian form resembled the enemy the United States had just defeated.26 Depicted accurately abroad – though not at home – as being subversive and maniacal, Communism was portrayed as a virus to which some were more susceptible than others.
Most American’s lives were not changed greatly by Communism itself but the fear of being associated with this insidious disease traumatized the country. Various powerful institutions, usually, though not exclusively, conservative, “coalesced in an anti-Communist consensus” which included the Catholic Church, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Texas oilmen, segments of the labour movement, and many leading Congressmen.27 Whitfield explains how, “unable to strike directly at the Russians, the most vigilant patriots went after the scalps of their countrymen instead. Since Stalin and his successor were out of reach, making life difficult for Americans who admired them was more practicable.”28 The catalyst for McCarthy’s domestic paranoia of a fifth column was fear of the Soviet “Other” made more extreme by new technologies with enough destructive power to end all human existence. No recipe for fear could be more perfect.
Scapegoating, Snowballing, Fabricating and Broken Telephone
Why did this collective fear arise and why was it reinforced so potently and frequently? Why did the United States yet again pick a single enemy, a catch-all scapegoat, to focus and subsume the many manifestations of its darker side? Why was the nation so complicit in the oppression, so accepting of the political and personal limitations and why did its people as a whole succumb to scapegoating and Groupthink?
The answers to all of these questions are not only historical but also sociological and psychological. A cursory analysis of their applicability to the mid-century red scare is telling. While conducting this analysis it is essential to remember that, though their names and subjects have changed, none of the personal and societal phenomena exemplified by the red scare were new. Similarly and as noted above, the essence of America, as a country, did not change during the Cold War, let alone during the 1950s. Most contemporary writing suggests that McCarthy and Hoover’s persecution was different in terms of its extent but not its quality.29
That similar kinds of repression and scapegoating (the demonizing of the “Other”) continue to recur is one of the most important lessons from the period. The widespread harassment of homosexuals and disadvantaging of blacks in America, for example, has not disappeared. An oft repeated and usually carefully hedged comparison between totalitarianism and anti-Communism is useful in demonstrating the lesson: During the 1950s, “anti-Communism assumed some of the same guises as its target,” becoming “a species of ‘political demonology.’” The [Communist] threat was exaggerated, intensified, and de-humanized.30 To this day and a thousand years before it, those who were Un-American or heretic, lighter skinned or barbarian, were victimized.31
The original creation and characterization of this “Other” described in Social Identity Theory as the distinguishing of the ingroup from the outgroup (we/ they, American/Soviet, capitalist / Communist, heterosexual/ homosexual) was, and is, a necessary part of identity formation.32 On one hand, our instinctual reaction to trouble, blaming the “Other,” is natural. On the other hand, the near permanent attribution of extreme and negative characteristics to this “Other” and the formation of patterned derogatory reactions to it are not innate behaviours.33
McCarthy’s intentional projection of American society’s problems onto specific groups epitomized this type of scapegoating. The manufactured cause of the problem eventually became a part of the identity of the “Other” as Communists (and therefore homosexuals and integrationists) became viewed as intrinsically subversive and destructive. One theorist’s explanation of scapegoating shows why anti-Communism was so effective:
By scapegoating our fabricated enemy ‘Other’ we…define and enhance group cohesion, the identity of the ‘us.’ In times when the core identity of a society is imperiled – when we have trouble figuring out who ‘we’ are – the demand for enemy scapegoats is increased.34 A common foe brings us together just as fear encourages us to put our faith in a leader, in a nation, in a cause. McCarthy, Truman, Eisenhower and many others used anti-Communism and the inherent fear of Communists to bolster their own causes. As Communists became textbook cases for lessons on scapegoating, gays and blacks were easily – and for homophobes and segregationists conveniently – lumped together with them.
The phenomenon called Groupthink also closely fits current descriptions of the societal conformity and acquiescence prevalent in the 1950s. The binary and absolutist creation of the “Other” tends to suppress all internal voices of discontent resulting in Groupthink - the predisposition to value the unity and stability of our group above what we believe to be rational or realistic.35 As the anti-Communists “contained” Un-American individuals (read: homosexuals) and Un-American activities (read: integration) through exclusion and demonization, few Americans felt free enough to question their authority.36
Two other phenomena were essential to the degree of fear and extent of persecution that existed in mid-century America. Fabrication, of enemies and of evils, was commonplace in McCarthy’s era. Examples abound, including “friendly” witnesses – from the infamous Elizabeth Bentley to the little known Barbara Hartle;37 and enterprising politicians – from Representative Martin Dies (D-Texas) to McCarthy himself. For instance, the usual logic for firing gays from the federal government suggested that they were security risks due to their susceptibility to blackmail. Yet no such cases had ever been documented in America.
The linking of loyalty to fabrication resulted in one of many contradictions to beset the American nation during McCarthy’s reign: “In a truly Orwellian inversion, the “true” test of loyalty became betrayal. Unless someone was willing to betray friends, no oath was credible.”38 National loyalty was equated with personal disloyalty and the result was devastating.
Though her historical accuracy is lacking, the playwright Lillian Hellman characterized the link between Groupthink, betrayal and fabrication eloquently:
We, as a people, agreed in the Fifties to swallow any nonsense that was repeated often enough, without examination of its meaning or investigation into its roots.
It is no wonder then that many “Respectable,” meaning friendly, witnesses were often bewildered by what was wanted of them, and that many, who were convinced by the surrounding hysterical pressures that they had something to hide, moved in a dream pavanne trying to guess what the committees wanted them to admit. They scratched around hard for dramatic revelations, inventing sins for the Inquisitor priests.39 Finally, the snowball effect combined with what will be called the broken telephone effect to augment the intentional or coerced misinformation that was already flooding the FBI and Congressional investigations. Both phenomena are relatively self explanatory: as information is passed from individual to individual, from investigator to congressman and congressman to the media, its content tends to be exaggerated and warped with each exchange.40 These simple mistakes, some malicious and some unintentional, became so common as to allow for a national paranoia that fed a culture of fear abetted by government propaganda and secrecy: “Government agencies in those wild days probably had even more misinformation than they have now, although that can always be remedied any time invention is needed again.” 41
American Identity and Disease
One of the most important reasons for McCarthyism and the inclusion of groups like homosexuals in its terror was American identity formation at the individual and national level. Less than two centuries old, consisting of recent and diverse immigrants, and expansive and varied geography, the United States’ was an adolescent nation whose people and history were still malleable.42 Historical inconstancies combined with those of the 1950s to enhance this national complex produced by youth and diversity. American politicians frequently neglect the inherent contradictions of a nation founded on democracy – the collective will of the people – and individual freedoms. Patriotism has frequently been used as a veneer to cover and smother those elements of the melting pot deemed imperfect by the United States’ body politic.
The 1950s were particularly problematic as the nation reeled from its newly acquired power, international involvement and enemy. Dichotomies were created, between American capitalism and democracy, and Soviet totalitarian Communism, most obviously, but also between the weak and insidious soviet culture and the American national body that it was infecting. The United States’ very survival would depend on protecting itself by containing the internal and external Communist threat in all of its many forms.
We create the “Other” because we need to create our own, distinct identity and we fight and denigrate Them, because its easier to be at war with Them than ourselves. America, however, was still figuring out what exactly “ourselves” meant and McCarthyism was only complicating matters: “When it became necessary to explain to the Russians what made American society so praiseworthy,” Whitfield points out, “even rabid anti-Communists were compelled to highlight the civil liberties that they themselves had sought to curtail.”43 This paradox brings us back to loose analogies between totalitarianism and anti-Communism: “Insisting on the rigid distinction between “Americanism” and Communism, some ardent patriots risked paying the sincerest form of flattery.”44
Contradictions aside, American’s were worried about being contaminated by Soviet or sexual perversions. “Containment loyalists, like many people throughout history, saw the human body as a metaphor for the national body.”45 J. Howard McGrath, Attorney General under Harry Truman, explained that Communists in America, like homosexuals, “are everywhere - in factories, offices, butcher stores, on street corners, in private businesses. And each carries in himself the germ of death for society."46 Peter Filene puts it even more poignantly: “The Red menace had crossed the shoreline. Like polio, it was an invisible, capricious virus that could paralyze the body politic without warning and without cure. A district judge refused bail to five aliens while authorities decided whether to deport them. “I am not going to turn these people loose if they are Communists, “the judge explained, “any more than I would turn loose a deadly germ in this community.”47 Containing such a germ, however, required prophylactics the likes of which America had never seen. In the 1950s Communism, whether black, pink or lavender, was seen as America’s arch-rival and while the nation was fighting a more important battle abroad, its populace was focused on the germs at home.
Red Fairies and Lavender Security Risks
During this dark era, mere association with a person or organization affiliated with the Communist Party became sufficient evidence of contagion to be blacklisted for decades. More importantly, many with no association whatsoever were targeted as susceptible to infection for other reasons. These individuals lie at the heart of this essay, for it is their stories that are the most bizarre and reprehensible. Among the groups persecuted for subversive activities related to Communism were teachers, blacks and Jews. Yet no group was as universally associated with danger as homosexuals. For this reason, their story will be used to represent the fates of all those persecuted during America’s anti-Communist crusade.
When McCarthy asserted that homosexuality “was the psychological maladjustment that led people toward Communism,” the red scare was tinged with lavender.48 While his anti-gay tirade has often been overlooked by red scare historians, sorting through McCarthy’s mail demonstrates this to be a significant oversight. Of all the letters received after his statements on Communists in the State Department, “only a quarter of the twenty-five thousand writers expressed concern about ‘red infiltration.’” A newspaper clarified that, “the other three-quarters, are expressing their shocked indignation at the evidence of sex depravity.”49 Yet again, McCarthy was only echoing and exaggerating sentiments shared by much of the American population.
In his book, The Lavender Scare, David Johnson outlines the removal of gays from government during the 1950s and links it incontrovertibly to the red scare. “By looking beyond McCarthy and behind the ambiguous term ‘security risk,’” Johnson explains, his study, “reveals that a lavender scare - a fear that homosexuals posed a threat to national security and needed to be systematically removed from the federal government – permeated 1950s political culture.”50 Homosexuals are an ideal example because their discrimination included many, if not all, of the social and psychological phenomena usually associated with persecution of the “Other,” from scapegoating to fabrication. Their story is particularly clear because the lavender scare, and the purges that followed, were concentrated within the federal government and Washington, D.C. where investigations and firings could be traced. The usual suspects, including Hoover and McCarthy, played a prominent role in the lavender scare and a more general atmosphere of fear, as demonstrated by the thousands of letters sent to congressmen, surrounded gays like Communists.
The link between Communism and homosexuality was made for many reasons but popular politics were uppermost. The reporter Elmer Davis announced that “it looks as if the enemies of the State Department, and of the administration generally, have gotten hold of a more profitable issue than Communism.” Three of Truman’s advisors sent him a memorandum warning that “the country is more concerned about the charges of homosexuals in the Government than about Communists.”51
The connection between political and sexual perversion was just too easy for those who, like McCarthy, were already weaving vast webs of mistruths to further their careers.52 Johnson explains how “McCarthy had an inspiration: sex was the answer to all his problems. Not plain, old-fashioned sex, of course, but homosexuality. If the facts about Communists were missing, why not substitute fairy tales.”53 Fabrication was McCarthy’s forté and the firings and resignations that followed his “fairy tales” were more widespread than those for Communist ties. Almost six hundred federal civil servants lost their jobs to this “purge of the perverts” as security officials in the State Department boasted that they were firing a homosexual a day, more than double the rate for those suspected of political disloyalty.54 During the early 1950s, an average of sixty homosexuals a month were fired from federal jobs for being security risks.55
Snowballing again combined with the manufacturing of facts to produce massive misinformation. John Stewart Service, a diplomat fired in 1950, explained how, “once you get enough publicity, there are crackpots who come to the FBI with all sorts of allegations – that I had a policy record in New York for homosexuality and all sorts of nutstuff.”56 With incessant news of another lavender security scare in Washington, “…Americans began to conflate homosexuals and Communists. The constant pairing of “Communists and queers” led many to see them as indistinguishable threats.”57 Yet this lavender scare was even more transparently a case of scapegoating than the red scare. “No gay American was ever blackmailed into revealing state secrets”58but hundreds, if not thousands, were treated as the most dangerous threats to national security. A Congressional investigation, finding no hard evidence of queer subversion, nevertheless declared that “one homosexual can pollute a Government office.”59
Whitfield explains how this too “was a form of scapegoating…fueled by men’s need to define their sexual identity in opposition to the other.’”60 The need to defend the country against this sexual menace was used as an excuse to project American fears that the nation was becoming too feminine on its gay population. In 1950s America, “to be a man was to be not feminine. Hard, not soft. Hard-headed, hard-nosed, hard-assed.”61 The influential author Elaine Tyler May argued that
…the rigid heterosexuality and strict adherence to traditional gender roles promoted during the Cold War years…constituted a domestic version of containment…No mere exercise in nostalgia, domestic containment was part of a new Cold War consensus about the meaning of America.”62
To contain domestic homosexuality was to defend the nation against Communism and necessitated a strong, masculine government. “If Cold Warriors were manly, their opponents must be effeminate. McCarthy sneered at the “striped pants boys in the State Department,” while Everett Dirkesen promised to fire those “lavender lads.” In case anyone missed the point, their fellow senator from Nebraska explained: “You can’t…separate homosexual from subversive.”63 The United States government became thoroughly indoctrinated with Cold War political and cultural ideology. Masculine gender norms were projected abroad, and were enforced at home.
It is easy to brush the lavender scare off as a side show, irrelevant to the larger cause of anti-Communism, particularly in light of most literature on the subject. To do so, however, would be to ignore the realities of the time. From the first ninety-one individuals purged from the State Department to the full-out Congressional investigation into homosexuality in the federal government, the lavender scare shook Washington and the nation. Arch-conservative and powerful Senators like Kenneth Wherry argued that “homosexuals posed a threat to national security.” Echoing statements about Communism, he “portrayed them as a small, secretive, underground menace concentrated in Washington, D.C.”64 in opposition to Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s findings that “4 percent of the white adult males in the United States were “exclusively homosexual” and that “37 percent of adult men had at least one homosexual experience.”65 Reverend Billy Graham lauded Capitol Hill inquisitors “who, in the face of public denouncement and ridicule, go loyally on in their work of exposing the pinks, the lavenders and the reds who have sought refuge beneath the wings of the American eagle.”66 The scandals and terrors of “fairies and Fair dealers,” the “rich, red, or queer” of Georgetown, became the mainstays of bestselling books and tabloids.67
The ultimate 1950s euphemism for gays in the government was “security risk.” It trumped, “moral weaklings,” “sexual misfits,” “moral risks,” “undesirables,” and “persons with unusual morals.” Among those described as unintentional security risks in his presidential memoirs, Eisenhower included Americans who have succumbed to “instability, alcoholism, homosexuality, or previous tendencies to associate with Communist-front groups.” The great majority of such “risks,” however, were individuals oriented towards the same sex.68 Here again, the Cold War mixed with domestic politics. The logic seemed sound: “sexual ‘deviants’” were “so readily equated with security risks because they were so readily susceptible to seduction and then subject to blackmail, or – since they were so bereft of will power or moral control anyway – they were easily drawn to subversive organization on their own.”69 Yet “after months of investigation,” no examples of “homosexual American citizens who had been blackmailed into revealing state secrets” had been found.70 Senator Kenneth Wherry (R- Nebraska) asked “Can [you] think of a person who could be more dangerous to the United States of America than a pervert?”71 America answered “No,” and, pandering to the common American, the government rid itself as quickly as possible of these second-order Communists. Homosexuals were guilty-by-association, a scapegoat of convenience of national proportions.
Red and Black-Baiting and all the Rest
Among the others painted red were liberals, blacks and Jews. Those persecuted in the State Department were representative of the first category as the purges went far beyond homosexuality. “Of all the government agencies affected by the loyalty and security program, none was so battered as the State Department. Reactionary elements of Congress who despised the New Deal and the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union tarred State as a coterie of Communists, fellow travelers, homosexuals, Ivy League intellectuals, and traitors.”72 Theodore White called it “a Foreign Service of eunuchs” and it became known as “a graveyard of careers.” 73
As detrimental as anti-Communism was to State – and with its China policy in mind, the effects were none-too-dear – the Department was only the tip of an iceberg consisting of many of the most left-wing thinkers in and outside of American politics who were blacklisted or prosecuted during the scare. “The mechanical rejection of any notion that smacks of "socialism"; and the straitjacket of "responsible opinion," Fariello explains, narrowed “public discourse to the breadth of a child's hand.” The mid-century red scare’s effects on its political spectrum may be the era’s most enduring legacy as the contradiction between freedom of political choice and necessary support for a strictly Democratic or Republican nation disappeared.74
Perhaps the closest parallel to the lavender scare was the black-baiting of the 1950s. A New York Times editorial spoke for much of the white south in proclaiming that “Bolshevist agitation has been extended among the Negroes.”75 In his book on segregation and anti-Communism, Black Struggle, Red Scare, Jeff Woods explains that, “the long-held racist assumption that African Americans were easily duped into supporting Un-American causes served as a linchpin for [the segregationists’] argument. Reacting to the changing social and political conditions of the early cold war, they counted black and red cooperation among the greatest threats to domestic tranquility.”76 Combining anti-Communism and segregation was “an easy, culturally conditioned [and] overwhelmingly supported” step in the south.77 The southern red scare’s ‘proponents’ achieved their main goal in “[discrediting] the civil rights movement by associating it with the nation’s greatest enemy, Communism.” 78
After McCarthy, Representative John Rankin (R-Mississippi) might be the Congressman who caused the most damage during the 1950s. As the “spiritual leader” of HUAC, his “claim to Americanism was his hatred of Negroes, aliens, liberals and Jews.” He combined southern Jew- and black-bashing with a potent mechanism for prosecuting his victims. Asserting that “racial disturbances…in the south have been inspired by the tentacles of this great octopus, Communism, which is out to destroy everything,”79 Rankin also believed that calling “a Jew a Communist was a tautology.”80 This senator personified the irrational hatred that drove the red, lavender and black scares of the 1950s. His branding of so many American minorities as Un-American, diseased and dangerous was typical of an era when fear overwhelmed rationality.
Contradictions to Remember
The red scare was the product of American history and human nature. In the 1950s, political opportunists co-opted the psychological and sociological imperfections of the American people and played off their fear and confusion – in an unfortunate Hobbesian twist – to prevent them from learning from their past. In many ways, anti-Communism turned the founding principles of the United States upside down as freedoms of speech, association and assembly were trampled by Congressmen, policemen and civilians in one of the more shocking examples of the violation of civil liberties in American history. The shortsighted nature of the United States’ national memory was astounding. Lives had been lost only a few years earlier to guarantee the same liberties for European Jews, gays and blacks:
It is remarkable how thoroughly the United States had repudiated the values underlying the liberal construction of World War II as the democratic war against racism, fascism, and colonialism. In fact between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, those who still stubbornly clung to such “subversive” values risked being ostracized or more seriously persecuted.”81
At the same time, the period was symptomatic of underlying imperfections in the American body politic that have existed since the nation was founded and which have run contrary to these principles from their proclamation. Equality could not truly exist while blacks, or women, gays or natives, were sub-citizens. As long as the United States defined and defended itself in a rigid and exclusive manner, “freedom” that catchall term of American patriotism, would not truly exist.
The red and lavender scares demonstrate clearly the inconsistencies of 1950s America, many of which continue to exist today. As the pendulum of American politics swings between radicalism and ultraconservativism and between the protection of the state and individuals’ freedoms, one repeatedly sees America’s identity defined in extreme opposition to ideologies and ways of life that exist within its borders. During the 1950s, to be American one had to be capitalist, democratic, outwardly and explicitly heterosexual and, in the south, segregationist. The freedom to choose one’s beliefs, one’s politics, one’s economics and one’s sexuality was not part of the “freedom” of American patriotism. The result was a situation in which necessary defenses, against Soviet Union espionage and CPUSA subversion, spiraled out of control.
“Transposing the genuine evil that emanated from abroad to domestic politics, influential voices then magnified the danger that American Communism represented and made democratic norms seem like luxuries that the crisis could not permit.”82
Canny politicians exploited the dormant bigotry of the masses, employing fear fanned by postwar international betrayal and a few domestic spy cases, to release a national hysteria that took the lives of a few, the employment of few thousand and the freedoms of a few million Americans.
The United States succumbed to the complexes and pitfalls of instinctual fear. Demonizing its collective “Other,” it created rationales to persecute it. As the storied-tapestries were woven, tying gays to Communism in order to scapegoat the lot of them together, truths and fabrications blended. Gays were more susceptible to blackmail because society had made their actions and their attraction evidence of disease. But this potential for blackmail never constituted a “security risk.” More basically, the potential would not have existed in the first place had homosexuality been accepted as normal, healthy and American. Black integrationist organizations were supported by and, in some cases, populated with, Communists and they did intend to change the way southerners were governed. Yet they were not attempting to overthrow the federal government. For blacks and gays, truths were warped, fears exaggerated and a nation whipped into an anti-Communist frenzy that resulted in an indefinitely narrower political discourse and chronic scars on large sections of its population. America remains divided: red, black and lavender. It should be united: red, white and blue.
Works Cited Brinkley, Alan. “The Illusion of Unity in Cold War Culture” in Rethinking Cold War Culture, eds. Peter J. Kuznick and James Gilbert (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).
Colman, Arthur D. Up From Scapegoating: Awakening Consciousness in Groups (Wilmette: Chiron, 1995).
Connolly, William E. Identity\Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001).
Filene, Peter. “Cold War: Doesn’t Say It All” in Rethinking Cold War Culture. eds. Peter J. Kuznick and James Gilbert (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).
Fried, Richard. Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990).
Girard, René. The Scapegoat (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986) paraphrased in “Scapegoating,” The Public Eye.org, 6 Dec 2004, Political Research Associates,