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Little ‘Red Scares’

Anti-Communism and Political Repression in the United States, 1921-1946


Edited by Robert Justin Goldstein


Farnham (Surrey, England): Ashgate, 2014

Hardcover. xxiii + 356 pp. ISBN 978-1409410911. £75.00


Reviewed by Eric J. Morgan

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay



When reflecting on anti-communist hysteria in the United States, popular memory usually focuses on two notorious periods. The first (and often least understood) period is the Red Scare that directly followed the end of the First World War, highlighted by the series of forays made by the Department of Justice—named the Palmer Raids after the leadership of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer—to arrest and deport anarchists and radical leftists. The second period, of course, is the longer and more infamous era best known as McCarthyism that spanned the late 1940s through the 1950s. Yet as Robert Justin Goldstein, editor of Little ‘Red Scares’ notes, the history of anti-communism in the decades between these two periods has ‘left behind a dearth of scholarly traces, perhaps because much of the material deals with events scattered in time and space which never reached the intensity of the two great red scares’ [xiii-xiv]. Assembling a veritable all-star lineup of historians—the assembled authors boast over fifty scholarly book titles between them—this collection seeks to fill a cavernous hole in the historiography of anti-communism in the United States, reclaiming the history of this phenomenon between the First Red Scare and McCarthy eras.

Several overarching themes stretch throughout the collected essays. As they lay out their fascinating individual storylines and analyses, the combined essays clearly show that the idea of two distinct and separate anti-communist periods in the post-First World War era is a misnomer, as communists were consistently challenged in the United States, even from 1921 to 1946. Second, anti-communism was deeply embedded within American society, which meant that when such sentiments were riled, opposition was relatively easy to pull together to confront supposed sedition. Finally, these essays illustrate that, while anti-communist hysteria never diminished in this forgotten era, its intensity varied greatly. This collection argues convincingly that while anti-communism in the United States was not always consistent as its influence ebbed and flowed over time, it was omnipresent from the time of the First World War onward. The more prominent period of McCarthyism should not be viewed as a separate and more important experience, rather the culmination of decades of fears and confrontations of communists.

While the entire collection is excellent, several chapters stand out as superb contributions. In ‘Little Red Schoolhouses,’ Timothy Kain explores the frightening story of anti-communist hysteria within the realm of American education. Kain highlights the persecution of teachers, student groups, curriculum, teacher unions, and independent schools.  Eric Smith’s chapter on the Spanish Civil War and the intelligence-gathering of citizens against Spanish loyalists is excellent, as is Robbie Lieberman’s essay on African-Americans who were ‘special targets’ of anti-communist wrath. Other topics include: an examination of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1930s; a reflection on the Fish Committee, which served as a less effective precursor to the House Committee on Un-American Activities; the female consumer as a target of anti-communist angst; and the rise of conservative Southern Democrats and their attacks on President Franklin Roosevelt. The collection ends with a reflection on the Smith and Hatch Acts, which laid the groundwork for various anti-communist campaigns in the U.S. Congress, from HUAC to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s antics. After reading this collection the reader will come to the conclusion that McCarthy was indeed a latecomer to the anti-communist campaign in the United States and is far from deserving of having had an entire era (however ignominious) named after him.

This otherwise excellent collection is marred by consistent typographical errors that unfortunately were not corrected during the production process. A concluding essay offering a more thorough assessment of anti-communism’s legacies and a better tying together of the disparate essays would have been helpful as well. Overall, though, this collection is a substantial contribution to the field and will serve as a particularly useful introduction for graduate students of American political or radical history. These essays serve to remind us that historical eras are often poorly constructed and understood in popular memory, and also that such polarizing ideas as anti-communism (as other ideas remain today) were far more pervasive and influential for a significantly longer period than usually imagined.


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