Alex Goodall is a lecturer in modern history at the University of York, where he specializes in the history of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary politics in the Americas. He answered some questions about his new book Loyalty and Liberty: American Countersubversion from World War I to the McCarthy Era.
Q: Your book examines events in countersuberversion leading up to the McCarthy Era. Was there a turning point event (or two) that led up to the full blown “red scare?”
Alex Goodall: The growth of political policing was something that took place in fits and starts. Most historians have focused primarily on the “Great Red Scare,” which took place just after World War One and saw widespread political repression of union activists, left-wingers, Jews and African Americans, among others. But between 1920 and the 1950s, things did not go entirely quiet. Nor did the history develop in a linear way. Indeed, much of my book is about showing how support for federal political policing declined in the 1920s and by the Great Depression was in a kind of crisis. It was really only with the New Deal, and Franklin Roosevelt’s willingness to use the federal state much more actively than in the past, that the state’s capacity for this kind of repression began to grow again. It was under FDR that the Federal Bureau of Investigation began a new phase of growth, for instance. It’s very ironic, then, that the New Deal became one of the primary targets for anticommunist red-baiting in the late 1930s and 1940s, since they had arguable done more than any others to make federal countersubversion a practical possibility.
Q: What do you mean by the terms “loyalty” and “liberty” and how did their conflict shape the politics of countersubversion?
Goodall: I use the concepts of “loyalty” and “liberty” to frame the broader debate Americans had—and continue to have—over the limits and responsibilities of the state to police the political conduct of the people. On the one hand, there was and is a widespread belief that for a nation to hold together it is important that its citizens agree on some core principles, such as a basic commitment to the democratic political order. On the other, many people argued that tolerance of political disagreements was one of the most fundamental things that made the U.S. political system worth defending in the first place. This contradiction between a perceived need for “loyalty” and a deep commitment to “liberty,” meant that it was very hard to find a clear position on what exactly the state could and couldn’t do to its people. As a result, throughout history Americans have argued, and reargued, the issues according to changing historical circumstances. My goal in this book was to explore the ways in which this debate unfolded in the early part of the twentieth century, and to see some of the different ways in which people took ideas of loyalty and liberty and applied them to their contemporary concerns.
Q: Who were some groups at the forefront of the antisubversive movement?
Goodall: As this summary suggests, I’m really interested in the way in which many, diverse groups involved themselves in this bigger debate over countersubversion. What was surprising and interesting to me when I began conducting my research was to find how many different people got involved in the discussion over subversion, how diverse their arguments and reasoning were, and how often people took positions that were quite different to what we’d expect today. Big business, for instance, was often quick to use countersubversive rhetoric to attack unions at home, but was often one of the first to call for more positive relations with the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Similarly, many traditional right-wingers were strongly anticommunist, but were also suspicious of “big government” and Washington, and so were not keen to see the federal state take on additional powers over the public. Indeed, countersubversion was arguably as often promoted by liberals and reformers as by reactionaries and right-wingers. Hopefully readers of the book will discover political alliances and connections that are often counter-intuitive and sometimes surprising – such as the strange affinities that developed between the arch-capitalist and anti-Semite Henry Ford, and the Mexican revolutionary muralist, Diego Rivera, in the midst of the depression!
Q: What subversive groups or liberal politics were they responding to?
Goodall: At one level, countersubversives were worried about the presence of groups in the United States who were directly or indirectly linked to foreign powers and were believed to be promoting their interests – either covertly, through espionage and conspiracy, or by influencing public debate in ways that benefited foreign powers. In particular, countersubversive complaints focused on the American Communist Party (CPUSA), the Russian trading bureau, Amtorg, and various groups in the 1930s and 1940s who were loosely affiliated with international fascism. However, this is not the whole story. The idea of “subversion” is inherently—some would say intentionally—a vague one, and many people used the language of countersubversion to obscure differences between these groups and larger communities of political activists who perhaps shared some of these groups’ goals, but were not even loosely part of an international conspiracy, such as union organisers, advocates of racial or gender equality, or – in the case of antifascism – opponents of U.S. intervention in World War Two.
Q: What is an example of one of the extrajudicial actions taken as a result of countersubversion politics?
Goodall: Most of this book is about the political debate over subversion, and the arguments over the law and powers of the federal state to investigate and prosecute people, and so at a lot of attention is centered on Washington. But often these arguments did spill out into confrontations on the streets. Perhaps one of the most unpleasant periods was during World War I. At this stage the federal government didn’t really have the kind of powers that it does today to intervene in the localities to hunt down presumed subversives, and so they relied heavily on voluntary support from individual citizens and patriotic groups. Many of these began taking the law into their own hands, even to the point of tarring and feathering left-wingers, German Americans, and others who didn’t support the war.
Q: How are countersubversion politics at work in the nation today?
Goodall: These debates—and the question over how to balance Americans’ commitments to loyalty and liberty—are as central to American political life today as they were earlier in the century. In the arguments over the NSA surveillance of American citizens, the growth of massive new counter-terrorist bureaucracies and new, post 9/11 laws to address the dangers posed by radical groups from around the world, we see a continuation of the arguments prior generations of Americans had about Communists and Fascists in their midst. Indeed, the one thing that seems certain is that Americans will continue to argue over the relationship between political policing, the state and the freedom of citizens for a long time to come!