Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Scare-Mongering and Witch Hunts in America

History Book Club
September 28, 2016
Scare-Mongering and
Witch Hunts in America

Charles River Editors, House Un-American Activities Committee: The History and Legacy of Congress’ Most Notorious Investigative Committee, Cambridge, MA: Charles River Editors, 2016.

Charles River Editors,  McCarthyism: The Controversial History of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the Red Scare during the Cold War, Cambridge, MA: Charles River Editors, 2016

            When we see how skillfully Donald Trump activates his audience, so that they follow his lead in denouncing all Muslims, we see a demagogue at work. 

            In the hands of an uncritical throng of believers, the demagogue can heat them up until they will follow his lead.  We saw how demagogues like Benjamin Tillman in the south used this technique to fire up white farmers, telling them that freed slaves were on the rampage, ready to rape their women and kill them.

            Adolf Hitler was a marvelous demagogue, turning Germans against Jews, and eventually causing the death of some six million Jews.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI)

            Senator Joe McCarthy found his target, rooting out communists that he claimed were hollowing out our federal government and shaping thought in our colleges and in our entertainment.  He saw communists everywhere.  The State Department was riddled with them.  Hollywood was full of actors ready to use communist skills to turn the whole country into a communist state.

Martin Dies, Jr.

            The House Un-American Activities Committee was formed in 1938, and Congressman Martin Dies (D. TX) served as its chairman until 1944.  Dies, a conservative southerner, had originally supported Franklin D. Roosevelt, but by 1936 he was taking another path.  The HUAC was originally intended to search out un-American activities from the right and the left, as Nazism was rapidly gathering steam.  HUAC looked at the Ku Klux Klan, and other pro-Hitler efforts, but soon concentrated upon the left wing. 

            The Committee brought in Hallie Flanagan for questioning in 1938.  She was head of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal initiative that was sponsoring amateur theatre all over the country, in social organizations, trade unions, religious organizations, industries, fraternal organizations and political groups.  Someone had suggested there was a communist flavor in all of this.

            In questioning before the committee, one member asked Ms. Flanagan about one Christopher Marlowe, whom she had quoted in her literature.  “Tell us who this Marlowe is, so we can get this in perspective. Was he a communist?” “put in the records that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare,” she replied. Further questioning implicated “Mr. Euripides” as a playwright who “was guilty of teaching class consciousness.”

            Dies apparently was hoping to smear and conquer the New Deal with all this, and he did manage to shut down the theatre program.

            Soon, communists, or people called that, were popping up everywhere.  Shirley Temple, then a Hollywood star at age 10 in 1938, was included in a list of Hollywood actors suspected of red ties, because she had written a letter to the Paris newspaper Ce Soir, which had a reputation of leftist tendencies.  

            Dies brought his committee to Los Angeles for this investigation, claiming that he had been given a list of about 42 prominent members of the film colony who were either full-fledged members of the Communist Party or active sympathizers and fellow travelers. Dies investigated Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Kathryn Hepburn and Fredric March, among others.       
            When Congress took up communism in 1938 Americans were conflicted, because we saw a right-wing fanatic in Germany threatening war in Europe; but we also saw danger from Stalin in Soviet Russia.  Some, including Dies, and Father Coughlin, a vocal Catholic priest then gaining a large audience in the U.S. thought that FDR and his New Deal were too cozy with the left.

            FDR and the New Deal prevailed, despite Dies’ and Coughlin’s best efforts. We went on to fight World War II with Russia as an ally.  We officially suspended our misgivings about communism for the duration of the war.  Membership in the Communist Party of the United States peaked during wartime, to about 50,000.

            As soon as World War II ended, Stalin immediately began to swallow up bits and pieces of Europe. France saw a huge increase in sympathy for communism, as did Italy. Communism, and the threat of Reds in America, even embedded in our government, arose again. 

            There was a time when it looked like communism would cover the earth.

            As Americans came home from World War II, and people at home began to live in peacetime, the House Un-American Activities Committee became increasingly active in hunting down communists.  Some real communists got caught up in this. 

            In 1948 Whitaker Chambers, a known communist, appeared before the HUAC. He implicated several in government.  In particular he named a bright young attorney named Alger Hiss. His, born in Baltimore, graduated from Johns Hopkins University and then Harvard. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and then went to work in a prominent Boston law firm.  He soon found a job in the Roosevelt administration, as counsel defending the Agricultural Adjustment Administration against conservative congressmen seeking to disband it.  Then he went to work in the State Department, first as assistant to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, and then in the Office of Far Eastern Affairs.

            In 1944 Hiss became Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs, an office  working to plan the postwar world, including creating the United Nations. This took him to the Yalta Conference where FDR met with Churchill and Stalin to plan for the world after Hitler was defeated.  After the war, Hiss became President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Alger Hiss, 1950
            Even though he had been named by Chambers, Hiss might have been lost in the shuffle, but an aspiring young communist fighter named Richard Nixon took up the cause, claiming that he alone was responsible for nailing Hiss, because the Justice Department would not prosecute, and J. Edgar Hoover didn’t cooperate.  Nixon leaked Hiss’ name in the papers, and eventually brought him in.  “I had Hiss convicted before he ever got to the grand jury”, Nixon bragged.

            On January 20, 1950 Hiss was convicted of espionage and sentenced to five years in prison.

            After the Hiss conviction, HUAC was flushed with success, and again went on a hunt for communists in Hollywood.  This began an era of accusations, blacklists, people reporting on each other.  Even when there was no proof, people’s names were brought up, their reputations ruined, as the threat of “Red scare” ran rampant.  Even President Truman, who criticized HUAC as being itself “un-American”, found he was powerless to shut it down. It was a bad time for American justice.

            In February 1950 a little-known senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, spoke to a Republican women’s club in Wheeling, WV, claiming that he had a list of known communists in the State Department. He began to build a reputation as the most prominent communist hunter in government. When pressed for details, he refused to give any. When people questioned his evidence he’d accuse them of being communists themselves. 
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

            Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were brought to trial for espionage, in particular for stealing the secret of the American atomic bomb and passing it to the USSR, this gave McCarthy more assurance. They were convicted in March, 1951 and executed in June 1953.

            The climate in America was ripe for hunting communists in the early 1950s.  The USSR had exploded its first atomic bomb in August 1949. America, just five years after World War II ended, was fighting the Communist North Koreans. Red China had consolidated its rule over China, pushing the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-Shek off the mainland and onto the island of Taiwan.

            Today, young people might have a hard time taking Communism seriously, because the Soviet Union has collapsed, East Germany is no more, and democratic governments have taken over in Bulgaria, Rumania; Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have split apart. Unless young people read history, they cannot know how, after we had thrown off the threat of the whole world being conquered by Germany and Japan, communism began to cover the earth, in China, maybe Greece, maybe Iran, maybe India, maybe Egypt, Syria, Africa, certainly in Cuba and maybe elsewhere in Latin America.

            McCarthy fought to gain traction in this environment by playing on the fears of Americans. Just like Martin Dies had fought against Roosevelt’s New Deal, now McCarthy tried to show that Truman’s Democratic administration was soft on Reds.

            Today we are seeing the same sort of fear-mongering, as a presidential candidate seeks to sow seeds of distrust and play to the fears of Americans by urging the exclusion of all Muslims, and expulsion of some 11 million illegal immigrants.

            Gradually, McCarthy’s campaign to hunt down communists began to create the climate of fear and distrust he sought.  People were reporting on their neighbors.   It seemed as if communists were everywhere. Truman never fell under his spell, nor did many other leaders in Congress, but Congress willingly voted for funds to continue the investigations. McCarthy particularly went after General George C. Marshall, five-star hero in World War II and, later, as Secretary of State, creator of the Marshall Plan to save Europe after the war.  McCarthy claimed that Marshall was leading America toward disaster against the USSR.

            In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower took office. Although a Republican like McCarthy, “Ike” did not fall under McCarthy’s spell either.  McCarthy, who had been a junior officer in World War II (he ran for election  as “Tail Gunner Joe”) was not afraid of Ike, who had earned five stars as the general in World War II who commanded all allied forces in Europe. In 1951 he became the first commander of NATO, and later the president of Columbia University. He was in that position when he was elected President in 1952.

            McCarthy rolled on with his campaign to root out communists. He published books, and issued congressional pamphlets telling how to spot communists in our midst. He was quick with accusations, and careless with justification.  He was gradually building up opposition. At this time, he had a very smart, aggressive assistant named Roy Cohn, and Roy used his position on McCarthy’s Senate investigative staff to engineer the commissioning of a former staff member, recently drafted David Shine.  The Army found him unqualified for a commission and refused. Cohn swore to get rid of Army Secretary Robert Stevens.

            McCarthy sought to go after supposed communists in the Army.  It turns out that this was going too far for the American people. In June, 1954, before a national television audience, McCarthy tried his usual bullying tactics against the Army. Army Chief Counsel Joseph N. Welch turned the tables on McCarthy, and this marked the beginning of the end.

            This bullying blowhard was shown as the cowardly demagogue he had become, and soon he was brought before the whole Senate for censure.

            McCarthy kept his seat, but disappeared from the national media, began drinking heavily, and died in 1957. He was 48 years old.

            HUAC continued to operate, but finally was disbanded in 1975.

Sen. McCarthy questions Joseph N. Welch, Chief Counsel for the
U.S. Army, during investigation into communist activities, June 9, 1954



Wednesday, September 28, 2016: Scaremongering and Witch Hunts in America. Salem Witch Trials, House Un-American Activities Committee; McCarthy Investigations; more.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016:  Political Parties in America. Whigs, Know-Nothings, Federalists, Copperheads; Communists, Socialists, Republicans, Democrats, more.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016: Colonization in America. Jamestown, Plymouth, Gloucester, St. Augustine, Junipero Serra, Roger Williams, Quebec, Nieuw Amsterdam, more.

December:  No Meeting

Wednesday, January 18 (vice 25), 2017: History of Cape Ann

Wednesday, February 22, 2017:

Wednesday, March 29, 2017:

Wednesday, April 26, 2017:

Wednesday, May 31, 2017:


Thursday, September 1, 2016

Germs and Plagues

History Book Club
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Germs and Plagues

William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, New York: Anchor Books, 1976, 1998

            How did the Spanish Conquistadores, with a few hundred men, conquer the Aztecs and Incas—developed civilizations numbering in the millions? How did Cortez overcome Montezuma and the Aztecs in Mexico? How did Pizarro conquer the Incas of Peru?
            How did the religions of the Indians of South America disappear so rapidly, and why did millions accept Christianity?

            The lopsided impact of infectious diseases upon the Indians of South America offered a key to the military and cultural conquest, and that is the key that McNeill uses to examine the whole course of human history. This is the story of what happens when people who have grown immune to a disease contact a population that has never been exposed to that disease.  The consequences can be disastrous.

            This book aims to bring the history of exposure to infectious disease into the realm of historical explanation by showing how patterns of disease have affected human affairs.

             McNeill begins with a few key concepts, and the first is disease and parasites.  We are parasites, and host for parasites.

            We host microparasites—viruses, bacteria and multi-celled creatures. Some make us sick and can kill us; some are combatted and consumed by our white blood cells; and others just hang around in our bodies, not causing much or any trouble, but perhaps waiting for the opportunity to jump to another organism where their effect can be much more dangerous.

            We are also subject to macroparasites.  Once we might have had to worry about being eaten by wolves or lions, and later, the conqueror would allow us to live and produce food, and we’d be allowed to keep enough to sustain ourselves, but he would get the rest. You can see we still have macroparasites.

            In England in the 18th century many cattle and sheep had been fenced into separate fields, so that there was much less exchange of diseases with other herds.  Not only did this produce healthier livestock, but it greatly reduced diseases transmitted from livestock to humans.  At this time farmers were learning of more productive farming techniques, including growing alfalfa for livestock.  This resulted in greatly improved food production, and humans were eating more protein, which led to production of more protein antibodies to fight disease more effectively.

            Because French farmers had not yet learned to fence off herds, these results did not appear there until the 19th century.

            McNeill shows us how, as men were able to move more swiftly across the globe, how easy it was to spread germs.  Marching armies were especially effective at spreading disease.  So were the millions making the annual hajj pilgrimage from all over the Moslem world to Mecca, and back again.

            Disease often killed many thousands of an invading army.  When Alexander the Great’s army reached India it was disease, not opposing troops, who stopped his world conquest.

Bubonic Plague symptoms

            Bubonic plague has been a killer over many centuries, but it was not until 1894 when doctors discovered the connection between burrowing rodents, fleas and humans, transmitting Pasturella pestis, that eradication could become effective. The disease spread time and again by Mongol horsemen raiding in China and Europe, carrying a few infected rats in their saddlebags.

            Chinese records show several times in the middle ages when 90% of a province would be wiped out by the plague. At some periods in history there were centuries without outbreaks of the disease, as it traveled within colonies of burrowing rodents—squirrels, rats, marmots and the like.

            Napoleon sent troops to suppress an uprising in Santo Domingo in 1802, but yellow fever and other tropical diseases destroyed a force of 33,000 men, and led him to give up his visions of empire in America and sell the Louisiana Purchase to America.

            Until the 19th century, McNeill writes, cities were too polluted to sustain themselves.   As city-dwellers died, they were replaced by healthy people from the countryside. Only in the 1800s did the balance shift, so that city-dwellers, who had become immune to diseases, made the populations of cities self-sustaining.

            Cholera is an interesting story.  This disease is spread by people drinking the same water that others have used for their sewage, and as cities began to build sewers that transported wastewater to areas where it would not affect the drinking water supply, cholera began to become less of a threat. 
            Note that many huge cities in Africa and South America today lack sanitary facilities for millions who live in shantytowns around the central city, and cholera is only one of the diseases always threatening them.

            McNeill’s description of efforts to control smallpox leaves one’s head spinning, because it starts in the middle and works forward and then backward.

            To simplify, a wandering wise man from India taught the Chinese a method for inoculation against smallpox in the 11th century.  Inoculation began in England in 1721, and the royal family were inoculated the next year.  This involved inserting a small bit of the disease under the skin, and usually created a slight dose of the disease, but then immunized the patient.

            In 1798 an alert English country doctor, Edward Jenner, noticed that milkmaids, who worked around cattle and were exposed to cowpox, attained immunity to smallpox.  Cowpox, much less harmful to humans, was provided as an inoculation, and this began the virtual elimination of the disease.

            This book, initially published in 1976, includes a new, 1998 forward which discusses the then newest epidemic, that of AIDS.

            McNeill’s view of the human situation isn’t all that encouraging. We face microparasites within and macroparasites above, around and beyond.  As soon as we become immune to smallpox or clean up our lives to protect against cholera, along comes AIDS, Ebola, or Zika; or a new macroparasite like a new tax, or a higher rent, or some other problem. 


Wednesday, August, 31, 2016: Germs and Plagues: A history of epidemics in the world. Plague of Athens (429 BC), Plague of Justinian (541 AD), “Black Death” in 1346, Cocoliztli Epidemic in Mexico (1528), Wampanoag Smallpox in 1616, 1918 Flu Pandemic, more.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016: Scaremongering and Witch Hunts in America. Salem Witch Trials, House Un-American Activities Committee; McCarthy Investigations; more.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016:  Political Parties in America. Whigs, Know-Nothings, Federalists, Copperheads; Communists, Socialists, Republicans, Democrats, more.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016: Colonization in America. Jamestown, Plymouth, Gloucester, St. Augustine, Junipero Serra, Roger Williams, Quebec, Nieuw Amsterdam, more.

December:  No Meeting

Wednesday, January 18 (vice 25), 2017: History of Cape Ann
Wednesday, February 22, 2017:
Wednesday, March 29, 2017:
Wednesday, April 26, 2017:
Wednesday, May 31, 2017: