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The Liberal Dilemma

The Pragmatic Tradition in the Age of McCarthyism


Jonathan Michaels


Routledge Advances in American History Series

London: Routledge, 2020

Hardcover. ix+260 p. ISBN 978-0198843214. £120


Reviewed by Ian Scott

University of Manchester



The endorsement of the anti-communist crusade and, for a time at least, wholesale support of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s pursuit of communists within the United States government and society has rightly fascinated scholars for the last seventy years. How and why did such a reactionary sentiment, emerging right after one of the most significant conflagrations in human history, devour the attention of so many people from such a wide spectrum of American life? In his new book, The Liberal Tradition, Jonathan Michaels goes in search of answers to these questions. 

Michaels is concerned with why those on the left, who had trumpeted their support for New Deal liberalism in the 1930s and ‘40s, were especially susceptible to the accusatory atmosphere at large. On a general level, his initial conclusions in a fine introductory chapter are not surprising, nor are they entirely unfamiliar. Post-war liberals felt sharp pangs of patriotism and loyalty as the cold war took hold. They displayed that loyalty by hurling accusations of their own at perceived communists and, as Michaels demonstrates, introducing bills in congress that were far more stringent than many Republicans were urging at the time. They did this because conservatism was perceived to hold the reins of moral American authority and failure to tow the line and accept the implied criticism of liberalism and its un-American countenances, now threatened to have you thrown in jail.

What Michaels’ study is really interested in, however, is not the liberal ‘response’ to McCarthy and anti-communism, but why this assertion of patriotism and attack on suspected communists became so virulent on the progressive left and what it said, and says, about liberalism in America. In other words, Michaels is trying to understand how, in this crucial post-war decade of the late 1940s and early ‘50s, ordinary people reacted to the perceived differences between conservatism and liberalism. As one might guess, such an investigation of those times immediately throws up questions for our own era wondering about the breakdown in consensus then and now and the ways in which any bridge can be made between the red state MAGA-supporting Republican populace of today and the, perceived, east-coast, intellectual Democratic Party base.    

Back in the 1950s, Michaels goes looking for commentaries on the liberal / conservative disjuncture at the campuses of some of America’s most prominent universities. And it’s this case study direction – with four examples in particular that provides fascinating testimony of the on-the-ground debates going on at the time. Even if one might question the interiority of those debates within academia’s ‘ivory towers’, Michaels’ intentions are never less than laudable. He doesn’t simply want to revisit the cant spewed by politicians on the subject, and he isn’t interested either in a general populace passively taking in the rhetoric and propaganda. His examples might reveal a tangible elite still in focus here, and one that is only part willing to acknowledge the responsibilities and actions of those other parts of the population that were feeding off each other, accelerating and perpetuating the climate of fear, but he still makes the case for a sophisticated and very public dialogue over the pros and cons of liberalism and its discontents.  

Michaels is clear from the beginning that if anything aligned the past and present, it was in exchanges where “the participants were not attacking or defending ideas; they were attacking each other” [5]. Like today, what Michaels is drawn to in these campus debates – largely attacks on the left originated by the right, and the left’s defence in the face of such attack – is not the truth of the situation or claim, but the legitimacy of liberalism itself. The belief of some that the second half of the 20th century gave way to liberal hegemony is challenged in all of these exchanges by a constant reiteration of liberalism under attack, projected by a suspicion of its motivations and intentions that was to stretch out into the rest of the century.

The key for Michaels is that liberals understood that they were somehow being equated with communism, but, he crucially states, they appeared not to know why, especially when they themselves were anti-communist and quite happy to display their credentials on this issue. What he finds, and today’s Trumpian world would no doubt endorse heartily, is that pluralism and, in Daniel Bell’s words, the “end of ideology” has not materialised in America since McCarthyism. Even if there was a period when such a consensus prevailed, it was long ago superseded by the need to recapture political agitation and demonstrate difference. Politics, says Michaels, is for essentialists and is guided by traits on the left and right that, while they may have differences at the margins, are at heart ontological assertions of belief and identity.      

So Michaels moves from campus exchanges at the University of Connecticut and the presence or otherwise of communists at Virginia to op-ed pieces emerging out of the University of New Hampshire, and the changing shape of who and what liberalism stood for. From campus papers to town hall debates, Michaels’ research and access to a host of fascinating university archives provides an intriguing picture of a highly active – campus life and one that wasn’t bowed down by anti-communism either. Purely from a historical frame of recollection, any idea that McCarthyism shut down debate and engendered fear in every university quad just in case the campus had been infiltrated by the FBI is not borne out in the papers revealed. Open and articulate debate, though increasingly of an attack-minded and personal frame, is more the state of play.

Perhaps the most poignant example of the whole book occurs in the chapter on the debates swirling around the University of Virginia in 1951 as a result of the campus newspaper picking up on an editorial first printed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The newspaper had reproduced an article from the president of Yale, Whitney Griswold, in which he had proclaimed the need to reassert the independence and freedom of universities and not have them used as battlegrounds for the war on communism at large. The paper’s own commentary on Griswold’s comments reminded its audience that there were already universities allegedly tainted by ‘reds’ in their midst and this was to be cautioned against. A running commentary alongside the piece from Virginia’s own faculty member, Allen Moger of the History Department, also urged restraint and argued against labelling everyone or anyone red, pink or any other colour simply because they might have supported the New Deal.

The response from a professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Foreign Affairs in particular, Homer Richey, lit the blue touch paper on a debate that then raged for weeks. Richey, also an occasional commentator on a conservative radio talk show, labelled not only staff members but anybody with a grain of liberalism in them ‘fellow travellers’, and provoked a wave of responses. Richey’s letter, the exchange of correspondence which followed and quickly became personal, produced threats of libel and charted a pattern of longer and more controversial behaviour that engulfed the campus and the paper.      

Michaels’s unravelling of the Homer Richey case at Virginia is intriguing, unnerving and deeply symptomatic of the tensions at the time. The escalating war that Richey engaged in with staff, students and notably his head of the Wilson School, John Gange, is a cast-iron example of the way animosities and professional standing got caught up in the politics of the day. Richey pressed the proverbial nuclear button on a raft of accusations and conspiracies that, as Michaels acknowledges, was perhaps less designed to secure him the permanent position he felt he deserved but had been rejected for, than it was to enact revenge on individuals and establish him as some sort of martyr for the anticommunist cause. The sorry tale offers testament of an academic community on edge, of arguments reworked for almost any situation, and of lies and fabrications standing in as facts; an object lesson on the hysteria unfolding in the U.S. and a scenario that is not unfamiliar in our own febrile times.

Michaels’ point is that for all Richey’s outrangeous shift towards baseless accusation as the tawdry story unfolds, the progressive individualism at the heart of being ‘white’ – as opposed to ‘pink’ or, heaven-forbid, ‘red’ – leaves Richey occupying the political high ground by defending property and individualism as American values that refute collectivity at every turn. Liberals, in other words, were always on the defensive in this era.

It is this defensiveness that gives good reason for Michaels’s final example to be devoted to mapping out the liberal mind in the 1950s. Here he uses the articles of Paul Sullivan, a student at the University of New Hampshire who wrote regularly for the campus paper. Michaels pulls together 28 pieces over a 16-month period up to mid-1955 that lay out the thinking behind a classic liberal’s position. He posits a fine and indeed complex attribution of values and beliefs to Sullivan’s clearly thoughtful and insightful recitations. But it’s also plain to see, however much that Michaels couches these readings in theoretical terms, that here is a young man with the same hopes and fears of many starting out in life. Materialism is but a means to an end as the young often profess; that the “lived life” is the thing, the youthful desire for ‘experiences’ shines through, and that changing society are what contributions are made for, and what satisfaction can be derived from.

Michaels rather neglects this personal profile though and opts for something much more philosophically political. In conclusion his argument is wrapped in a debate about nomenclature (what ‘white’ ‘red’ and ‘pink’ might be alluding to as derogatory allegations) that reverts to political science critiques about freedom and private property, conservative bulwarks against state-run societies that liberals are accused of desiring and/or conspiring towards. There is nothing wrong with Michaels’s theory here, but the history of his protagonists is so rich that it is easy to forget the human story. Clashes of philosophy become personal accounts of wrongdoing and lack of moral fibre carelessly tossed at otherwise dedicated professionals, and suddenly the society at large – or in this case the academic rigour that a university might apply to its sense of mission in an era of graceless gainsaying – is lost amidst a howl of name-calling.

In summary Michaels takes up the cause of the recently departed president, Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal, the author argues, was a beacon for the left that merged the needs of liberal individualism with the protection of the broader community. The American population or ‘family’, he argues, is the one that provides for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as Roosevelt argued, but which cannot do those things without economic guarantees, the least of which is the ability of the individual to have the means to strive for those values, from whatever position they may be in society. Without the underwritten guarantee of those inalienable rights being available to members of a family, it has no basis on which to protect and look after its own, and that kind of individual society surely leads to only one place.

Michaels, through these case studies, throws up all manner of intellectual, social, cultural and personal angles and attributes that are often fascinating, and that take us from Dewey to Durkheim, Schlesinger to Adam Smith, while offering a window into a threatened and threatening past. Today, the United States faces much of the same inertia and intransigence, with possibly far less rhetorical dexterity than that offered by the people within his pages. He is terrific at explicating the modes of liberal thought and possibilities for the future that such political wrangling suggest, but there is also a wealth of history in this research that might just dwell on the American psyche for a moment longer.

In the 1980s, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was a kind of outlier of Michaels’ investigation. Bloom’s book was often criticised for laying into the pluralism and anti-prejudice of American youth, whose parents were those enduring the ruptures in Michaels’ book thirty years before. But both works offer something of a delineation about America more generally too. Atomised, factional, eager to conform and rebel at the same time, open to new ideas and yet closed to forces that seemingly threaten the equilibrium of American life, The Liberal Dilemma at its best tests some of the same contradictions as Bloom, even if Michaels doesn’t always follow through on conclusions in quite the same way.

The author’s closing sentiments are a case in point. A positive assessment of the liberal American future, Michaels senses the left has plenty to look forward to if it can reconcile neo-liberal capitalism with being saviour of the welfare net protectionism that keeps Americans in hock to the fabled ‘dream’. But how might that work now, in the age of Trump? How are his notes from the McCarthy period not simply history repeating itself? If such questions are not as vigorously tackled as one might hope, that’s not to denigrate the fascinating impulses at work in this book and the potential for future investigations of liberalism. For that prospect alone, this examination comes well recommended as an entry point into the reevaluation of the left and its place in American life, a place the left itself is desperate to fathom.          



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