Dec/Jan 2013

Seeing Red

A history of the New Deal posits that Red-baiting turned many leftists rightward

Rick Perlstein


Why is there no socialism in the United States? Why, when the industrialization of every other Western nation was accompanied by the evolution of institutions to insure the population ever more generously against economic risk, did the mightiest industrial nation of all go the other way? (Pace the paranoid fantasies of the Tea Party Right.)

The most famous answer came from the German sociologist Werner Sombart, who blamed material abundance, arguing in 1906 that “on rafts of beef and apple pie, socialist utopias of every description go down to destruction.” But what about the Great Depression, when those rafts ingloriously sank? At that time, a lot of what other countries called socialism did come to the United States, in the form of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—and socialism seemed subsequently only to expand. “I see no obstacle,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1948 in a quote recycled for generations by right-wingers eager to prove so-called liberal centrists were really revolutionary subversives, “to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals.” Soon enough, though, such obstacles popped up aplenty—such that by the mid-1970s American policy making started moving right in almost exact proportion to the declining fortunes of the working class. Which brings us back—right here in 2012, when the poverty rate is higher than it has been in nineteen years—to the very same question: Why is there no socialism in the United States?

In this book, University of Iowa history professor Landon R. Y. Storrs proposes a new answer: Much more than previously supposed, left-leaning policy makers were targeted by government “loyalty” investigations and intimidated into adopting conservative ideas. In making the argument, Storrs does a lot of spectacular things. But her ultimate case never gets proved.

There are really two books here, though the first and best escapes mention in the title. I refer to her fresh new study of the sociology of the left wing of the New Deal—an account of what 1930s bureaucrats were like when they were young. And my, oh, my, don’t let stereotypes about “government bureaucrats” prejudice you: This was a sexy, raucous bunch. If you were a young radical coming to work in Washington in the early months of the Depression, you were likely to be well practiced in the kind of campus-based hell-raising people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin thought they invented. At Columbia University, for example, future New Dealer Arthur “Tex” Goldschmidt was pummeled by fraternity brothers while symbolically gagging Columbia’s Alma Mater statue, in defense of a student newspaper editor expelled for supporting a coal strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. You might have been one of the students who traveled to Kentucky to support that strike, chased out of town at gunpoint. And, during one or another of these adventures, you might have had an unapologetically torrid affair with one of your comrades. As Goldschmidt wrote to his dad in 1929, “The almost intrinsic value heretofore placed upon virginity crashed as fast as the market,” a development he found to be “the only true, good, healthy, normal and decent position possible.” Elizabeth Wickenden, another future New Dealer, protested the “man-made conception that the unmarried woman must remain inviolate as a nun.” She married Goldschmidt in 1933, speaking vows identical to her groom’s, omitting all references to God.

Storrs argues that such feminism wasn’t incidental to the New Deal; it made a real impression on how policy got made. Just working in government as a two-income couple was a radical act: Laws and policies frequently outlawed the practice, under the patriarchal presumption that a working married woman was usurping a breadwinning male. Its quiet feminism was one of the things that made the New Deal such a leap forward to democracy. And feminism was also, Storrs demonstrates, a source for the ferocity of the backlash against the New Deal.

Consider the Depression-era consumer movement, which Storrs shows was much more central to the New Deal than has previously been supposed. One of the things it meant to be on the left in economics, then as now, is a heightened emphasis on the “demand” side of the economy over the “supply” side. Unions helped safeguard that economic model by fighting for higher wages to increase the purchasing power of workers. And grassroots housewife groups such as the League of Women Shoppers did it, as one of their statements put it, by organizing women to “use their buying power for social justice, so that the fair price which they pay as consumers will also include an American standard of living for those who make and market the goods they buy.”

Few of us have heard of the LWS—though at the time, the Right was plenty afraid of them, because, well, they were composed of women, women who were acting like they deserved political power. Red hunters believed a crucial part of their mission was enforcing gender norms. As one Red-baiting congressman said, the National Labor Relations Board, whose personnel was closely interlocked with the consumer movement, was so damned un-American not just for its preponderance of female attorneys, but because “chances are 99 out of 100 that none of them ever changed a diaper, hung a washing, or baked a loaf of bread.”

Class and gender ideologies intertwined to make both the New Deal and the backlash against it: That’s argument one, and it soars. Argument two, however, is that you can draw a direct line between the Red Scare persecution of many of these figures through the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and the way these government policy makers shifted their ideology to the right. And this argument ultimately crashes.

To even venture it takes a tricky bit of historiographical footwork. Storrs’s central case study here is Leon and Mary Dublin Keyserling. Mary, a brilliant economist from New York, was by 1940 heading up one of those women-centered consumer groups, the National Consumers League. Leon was an attorney who wrote the National Labor Relations Act. In 1950, he became the most powerful of all the former New Dealers when he was appointed chairman of Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers. Once upon a time they had been socialists. Mary wrote jocularly of one radical-Left party she attended in 1929: “Of course we sang the Internationale and sent all the bourgeoisie of the various countries to their respective Hells.” In a more serious register, Leon instructed his father in 1932, “Without revolution which transfers power to the workers and sets up a socialized state, little will be gained.” That they once held such ideas wasn’t technically supposed to matter in a country with a First Amendment; what was supposed to matter was loyalty to a power sworn to overthrow the United States government, the Soviet Union—and neither had any truck with that. But that didn’t matter to the witch-hunting bodies in Congress.

The Keyserlings’ “loyalty” cases were vicious, extended, and Kafkaesque. And key to the way such persecution affected them and other victims of Red hunting was that it produced a genuine American memory hole. Congressional investigators never discovered the letters quoted above—they were flushed out by Storrs’s own indefatigable research. Mary, who told investigators she had been “very conservative at college,” kept appointment books from her entire life in a metal box by her side in her final years; fortunately, she hadn’t shredded them yet—in line with the sad McCarthy-induced compulsion she developed in her dotage—when her family handed them over to archivists. They offer, Storrs points out, “a tantalizing glimpse into the world of a dedicated young left feminist,” but “the record is incomplete because, for some of the years that became most sensitive in her investigation, books are missing or sections have been torn out.”

That is why historians who’ve written about the couple only ever saw the tip of the iceberg of the monumental witch hunts against them. And so it is, Storrs argues, historians haven’t been able to consider something of which she is utterly convinced, but cannot prove: that, silently, and without speaking of it once (for to speak of it would redouble the risk), both moved rightward in the policy arena out of intimidation. For example, in the 1950s Leon stopped advocating price controls—a favorite left-wing idea of the time that gave government bureaucracies the authority to regulate what private companies could charge, and that he had urged on Truman during the agricultural price inflation of 1948. Out of the same fear of Red-baiting, Storrs says, former radicals like Keyserling advocated massive defense spending against alleged Soviet expansionism.

The problem with attributing these shifts to the Red Scare, however, is just the memory hole the Red Scare produced: Storrs is forced to make her argument that an entire generation of policy makers was scared out of its radicalism as little more than an educated guess. But there’s a giant problem just with the hypothesis: A lot of these figures’ youthful ideas were bad ones. Price controls, for example: not a single reputable left-wing economist advocates them any longer, not least because when that socialist Richard Nixon tried them, they just led to massive inflation later down the road. In fact, the ideology of Leon Keyserling’s mature years, which Storrs suggests could not have come from organic, good-faith reflection, was to pursue expansionary fiscal policy over direct income distribution. But it also ended up producing as much actual income redistribution as any socialist of the 1930s dared dream, with negligible inflation, midwifing the first mass middle class in the history of the earth in the bargain. It was the right policy—whether Joe McCarthy was breathing down your neck or not.

As for the former left-wing idealists’ embrace of Cold War militarism, you didn’t need to be running from a Red hunter to come to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was an expansionist tyranny. You just had to record the evidence of your senses. And though that conviction tragically ended up giving us the Vietnam War (which Leon Keyserling unapologetically advocated), that wasn’t necessarily driven by McCarthyism, either. Consider the case of Tex Goldschmidt, that crusader against Victorian chastity, who later became one of the architects of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He and his wife were victims of an awful Red hunt, too. And he was also an unsung architect of the Vietnam War. That happened when he convinced his fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson that the Mekong River valley would make a splendid site for an idealistic gift to the suffering poor of Asia: a TVA for South Vietnam—if only America could wrest it from Communist subversion.

The vision came not out of eagerness to placate the Right, but out of a genuine left-wing idealism. History is tragic like that.

Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner, 2008), is at work on a book about the 1970s and the rise of Ronald Reagan.

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