The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower

great fearThis book by David Caute is extremely long (697 pages including the appendices) and tedious (I skimmed much of it). I disagreed with most of what I read. The dustcover includes the statements that the book is about “…perhaps the greatest crisis that America has ever suffered in terms of her liberal and democratic values. Here is the first comprehensive history of the fearsome anti-Communist purges that affected almost every area of American life in the age of Truman and Eisenhower.” The author expresses skepticism or outright disbelief about numerous cases where people were accused and tried on charges they had spied for the Soviets. The book was written in 1978 before the Venona Project and the information in the Soviet archives became available and proved the extent of the Soviet espionage networks.

I won’t disagree that the lives of many innocent people were impacted. The book begins “…in the high summer of the great fear, (when) the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee warned that ‘the threat to civil liberties in the United States today is the most serious in the history of our country’. Federal, state, and municipal employees were worried that some youthful participation in a now-forbidden organization would come to the attention of the loyalty boards that had been formed because of the fear of communism. The fear reached to people in the military, civil servants, film stars, industrial workers, lawyers, teachers, writers, trade unions, and people serving in or running for public office.” The author admits that what he called “…the purge of the Truman-Eisenhower era…” never “…reached the frontiers of fascism.”

Perhaps the most ill-informed and startling part of the book is in the first page of chapter 3. “There is no documentation in the public record of a direct connection between the American Communist Party and espionage during the entire postwar period…”   

The book then contradicts that statement by detailing incidents of Soviet spies who came forward. Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers, two American Communist agents who turned and reported the extensive Soviet spy networks they had supported, are discussed in some detail. The author casts doubt on the truthfulness of Bentley and Chambers. However, they were both proven to have provided accurate accounts. The book also mentions the massive spy networks in Canada and the United States revealed by defection of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko. Gouzenko was not an American communist, so I guess his case doesn’t count?

The author expresses skepticism about the conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and he weaves a detailed case that their trial did not meet judicial standards. He then mentions the cases of Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, and David Greenglass. Historical evidence leaves no doubt about the guilt of any with the exception of perhaps Ethel Rosenberg.

This will be one of my shortest reviews. I suggest reading the book only if you want to learn in great detail how much of the liberal establishment failed to understand the magnitude of the Soviet spying during and after World War II and the damage that did to the country.

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