Harvey Klehr, Emory’s Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history, discussed communism in America and the changing connotation of McCarthyism at the 17th Distinguished Faculty Lecture titled “Communism in America” on Monday.
Klehr was chosen to give the 2012 Distinguished Faculty Lecture as part of Founder’s Week. Klehr specializes in the study of communism in America and researches McCarthyism, a term of anti-Communist sentiment named after Joseph McCarthy, a staunch anti-Communist senator who served during the Second Red Scare.
The Second Red Scare during the Cold War was a period of time where Americans were anxious about the prospect of Communist infiltration.
Klehr discussed his personal research experiences after the influx of record information became available when the Soviet archives opened during the 1980s.
As one of the first Americans with access to espionage records, Klehr said his findings indicated that the Communist Party in Russia controlled essentially every move of the American Communists, including dictating their policies, nominating their leaders, providing their funding and even suggesting slogan ideas.
“While the Communist Party in America experienced the most success they ever would during the early 1930s, it died of a self-inflicted failure: overdependence on the USSR,” he said.
Although the Communist Party was essentially controlled by forces in the USSR, American Communists still had a profound effect on society’s perception of Communism in America, Klehr said.
He explained the true extent of the American Communists during the Cold War, emphasizing that the Communist movement within America contained very few people but evoked a primarily negative reaction from average citizens, scholars and academics, as well as former communists.
In addition, Klehr also expounded upon a changing academic view of McCarthyism during the 1970s: suddenly, scholars revisited the Second Red Scare with new sympathy for American Communists claiming communists were citizens merely committed to equal civil rights and were falsely “demonized and persecuted by the American Inquisition,” he said.
According to Klehr, these “revisionists” cited President Richard Nixon, Senator Joseph McCarthy and Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover as the perpetrators of destructive anti-Communism.
Destructive anti-Communism, they claimed, was responsible for most of the ills of American society, including a weakened labor movement, a lack of national health insurance and shaky diplomacy, he said.
He spoke at length about the extent of Soviet espionage in America during the Cold War, sharing that his findings including evidence that Soviet spies had infiltrated nearly every federal agency in the United States, ranging from the Office of Strategic Services to the Justice and State Departments.
But Klehr’s findings led to hostile reactions to his books, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America and In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage, where some critics accused him of resurrecting McCarthy’s staunch anti-Communist views.
Revisionists claimed that he, as well as his co-author John Haynes were “rechannelling Joseph McCarthy,” “too zealous in setting the record straight” and making judgments based on thin, inconclusive evidence, he explained.
Klehr defended his claims, stating that he in no way supported McCarthy, deeming him as a “demagogue” with “deplorable tactics” and “accusations that were off mark” but affirming that while McCarthy was objectionable, “he got some things right.”
“McCarthy actually made the fight against Communism harder by making the anti-Communist movement seem like baseless paranoia,” he said.
Bev Stern, a local resident who attended the lecture, said she found parallels between Klehr’s views and the view of her father, a former U.S. spy.
“Using communism as a rallying cry to connect the country is painting with a brush that is far too broad,” she said. “Perception of all Communists as spies should definitely be trimmed down.”
Author and poet Diana Anhalt said that she found similarities between the techniques of American Communists and civil rights leaders, like the use of petitions and emphasis on grassroots movements.
“The American Communists were tremendous idealists, who thought the Communist Party was the party with all the answers to social problems,” she said.
— Contact Anusha Ravi