Did U.S. communists really want the U.S. government to be violently overthown, or were they merely attracted to a political theory and wanted to work within the system to change it? Were worker strikes largely violent or non-violent? If it was violent, was the violence initiated from the workers or the business leaders?
Basically, I’m trying to figure out if the red scare/cold war was a product of government/businesses who were afraid that they would no longer enjoy their positions of privilege, or if it was a product of a legitimate fear for public safety and welfare.
A mix, actually. American Communists’ positions on working within the system depended on the opinion of Moscow at any given time. Most strikes were non-violent, the ones that were violent were sometimes caused by business and sometimes by labor. As for the “Red Scare”, there was a legitimate panic about Communism, especially 1) after China was taken over by Communists, and 2) it became obvious that American secrets had been sold to the Soviet Union. The fear was misused in some people’s hands, but it was legitimate.
The American Communist party never achieved the influence that communist parties in other countries did. Mainly they were active in virtually all left-wing movements as often unwanted extremists, and they tried incessently to co-opt those causes. They also were shamelessly adherent to the “party line” handed down from Moscow until the late fifties. Even in the depths of the Great Depression however, most Americans still believed in reform rather than revolution. The ACP was too busy trying to organize and expand it’s influence to plan actual armed revolt.
However that didn’t stop the government and big business from denouncing virtually every progressive or liberal movement as a “Bolshevik” conspiracy. Until the mid-Thirties when significant reforms were passed, labor unions and strikers had little legal support. They were considered radical revolutionaries for daring to question the supreme right of businessmen to hire or fire as they chose. Or else they were regarded as little more than racketeers conspiring to commit extortion. The big business leaders and the police and politicians they supported often used brutal tactics against strikes. To be fair the strikers were often less than angels; trespassing, committing sabotage, and assaulting replacement workers.
By the end of the Thirties organized labor had won recognition as a legitimate voice of the workers within the conventional free-market system. This took much of the wind out of the sails of the Communists, and their leadership was decimated by Federal prosecutions during the 50s, where they were convicted mainly of supporting a hostile foreign power.
The final straw was Kruschev’s (sp) denouncement of Stalin’s excesses, which flatly contradicted the party line the ACP had held to for decades. By the 60s the ACP was no longer a significant force in American politics, even among the radical left of the newer generation.
I have a rather extensive collection of anti-communist propaganda from the 30s up to the 70s. The communists of the time were projected as being barely human, as their crimes were terrible. The McCarthy era was only worse.
In reality very few of the claims of the pamphlets I have were actually true.
There were, of course, some isolated communist extremist groups who were whole heartedly working to bring down the govt, but most were harmless, some were spies in the later years (and we shouldn’t cry foul, we did the same).
Here is a follow up question: What drove the foreign policy decisions of that era? Clearly the U.S. decided to be anti-communist at all costs, including supporting opressive regimes. Was there any justification for such policies, or was it a product of propeganda gone wild?
Clearly, lots of blood was spilled when countries moved to communism. I think it was approipriate for the U.S. government to want to avoid such bloody revolts. However, we clearly didn’t care about foreign blood. Just look at some of the regimes we supported. So the only thing the U.S. cared about was preventing a U.S. revolution.
If the ACP had no power or influence, and most of its membership didn’t want a bloody revolution (It is hard for me to believe that members of the screen actors’ guild really wanted armed revolt), then what were we afraid of? Why support the regimes we did? Was it just a bad idea all around? So what if the Domino theory proved to be correct? So what if country after country became communist? Why would the U.S. government have any reason to believe the U.S. would become more susceptible to revolt if other countries became communist? Why devote such massive resources to the containment of communism?
What era? Your OP glides from the 1930’s to the Red Scare/Cold War. The McCarthyist “Red Scare” lasted from 1950 until about 1954. The Cold War lasted from 1945 until 1990. Which era are you talking about?
The United States did support many undemocratic right-wing regimes during the Cold War. A full discussion of the pros and cons of this would be better held in GD. On the positive side, right-wing regimes allowing free-market economies allowed their citizens a better life, and more easily evolved into democracies, than did Communist regimes. On the negative side, support for repressive dictators such as the Shah of Iran earned the United States enmity which has persisted to this day.
In the USA, they not only had to contend with “anticommunism”, but the largest native US socialist party, the Socialist Party-USA (“Wobblies”–Eugene Debs’s party) was always extremely anti-communist, primarily because the communists were revolutionary while the SP-USA has always been very democratic-socialist and populist, although they have abandoned populism in favor of intellectual elitism in recent decades.
If you are interested in an insiders perspective on 1930’s American Communism, check out the second half of Black Boy by Richard Wright. He was a poor black kid from the Deep South who moved to Chicago and became a true believer. IHHO (in his humble opinion) the American Communist Revolution never came to pass because the party members were too busy playing Politburo and stabbing each others’ backs to get anything worthwhile done.
It is said that generals always plan to fight the previous war. It might equally be said that politicians learn the wrong lessons from the previous war. In the case of the US and WWII, the lesson was “because we were isolationists and appeasers, we allowed a totalitarian regime to attempt to conquer the world.” So of course this time around things would be different.
The US presumed that the Soviets were motivated by a fanatical idealogical commitment to spreading Communism, and that Moscow wanted nothing less than to conquer the planet. Without whitewashing just how bad Stalin’s regime was however, it is now believed that the USSR in the postwar years was motivated primarily by national self-interest. Certainly whenever Moscow had a choice between advancing Communism in another country and improving the Soviet Union’s position, it always chose the latter. But observers in the West tended to take the USSR’s idealistic propaganda about “world communism” more seriously then the Kremlin itself did.
Also after WWII, the USSR went from being an isolated country involved with it’s own internal struggles to a world power in direct confrontation with the US. In the postwar years the USSR occupied eastern Europe and imposed pro-Moscow governments there, rattled sabers with the US over Germany, and eventually discovered that subsidizing Marxist revolutions in the Third World was an effective way of increasing the USSR’s global position and weakening that of the US. The US was concerned that if the USSR didn’t overrun and conquer Europe or the Mideast outright, that Marxist movements in the Third world would eventually bring the majority of the planet into a pro-Soviet sphere hostile to the West. The Worst Case Scenerio was of a world in which the US and Canada, Western Europe, and a few fringe areas like Australia and Japan where the last democracies on Earth; and that the rest of the planet- Asia, the Mideast, Africa and even Latin America would all be anti-American Communist countries of one stripe or another. The real “wake up call” was the Communist victory in China, which badly alarmed the leaders in Washington. That began the US’s “Cold War” foreign policy of opposing communism anywhere in the world.
Domestically, by the 1950s the US government had little reason to worry that Communism would have any broad appeal with the American working class, thanks to the labor movement chucking it’s socialist/communist fringe and going mainstream. The focus of the Red Scare was the (not entirely unfounded) fear that an fringe of pro-Communist leftist intellectuals was either serving as outright spies for the Soviet Union, or was engaged in a secret campaign of “subversion” in the media and academia to subordinate American businesses and institutions to a pro-Soviet party line. The excesses of McCarthyism meant however that for every “card-carrying Communist” that was exposed, probably ten or twenty people who were nothing more than liberal progressives were hounded and disgraced.