The Purge

Davis, Chandler
Year Published:  1988
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX17498

Between 1947 and 1960 it was even harder than usual for left-wingers in the United States to get by. If you were active on the left, or were thought to be, there were more ways then than now that you could be arrested or threatened with arrest, or have civil rights such as the right to travel abroad withdrawn.



There was a tendency to lie low politically, as you can imagine. Some of us kept stubbornly casting about for some way of keeping resistance alive. Not just defense against the Red-hunt. Organization against the Korean War, against legal lynchings of Willie McGee and other black defendants in the South, against the arms race.... In 1951 our memory was very fresh of a time when civilian (international!) control of atomic energy was an objective we felt we had a chance of winning. If you had told me the arms race then beginning could continue even half as long as it has, even to one-tenth the level of firepower it did, without world war, I would have scoffed. It seemed like the last minute for disarmament already in 1951. One of the things I resented about the Red-hunt was the large share of our organizing energies it diverted away from the issues of war and racism. Not to mention socialism. When was progress to find a place on the agenda alongside avoidance of disaster?

Both the quiet leftists and the agitators like me knew that the "investigators" might presently knock on our door. Though of course all varieties of radical were in danger, those who were or had recently been Communist Party members were especially vulnerable. The FBI had reports from many spies in the Party and allied open organizations, and made fairly ample portions of this information (true and otherwise) available to employers and to Congressional Red-hunters. The Congressional committees pressured ex-leftists into public recantations, and the repentant witness was obliged to accompany the mea culpa with naming names of fellow culprits. Thus they generated their own information (again, both true and otherwise) about what we were up to.

We couldn’t know what the FBI had in their files.... We could see from repeated cases that there was a great deal of evidence the authorities might have which would be held against us, and that they might use it either by denouncing us to our employers or by a public attack.

We didn't know how far the Red-hunt would go, remember. The example of Hitler was then recent; and we knew that after passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952 with both right-wing and "liberal" support, the US government was keeping concentration camps on hold to incarcerate subversives in case of (Administration-perceived) emergency. We had no way of telling whether it would come to that.

It took us a while to understand that they didn't need to rely on extirpating all of us. They might be happy to try, but they didn’t need to. Firing a lot of us and jailing a few would be enough to pretty well silence the left as a coherent force. We knew they were likely to keep after us, but it was impossible to guess which of us.

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