“Shooting Rats in a Barrel”:
Did the Red-hunt Win?

Chandler Davis

(talk at AAAS, Atlanta, February 1995)

The title of this talk is, “Did the Red-hunt win?” The academic Red-hunt, that is. The subtitle is a quotation you may recognize from an eminent American: “Shooting rats in a barrel.” (Actually, on the program the subtitle is printed first, ahead of the title, but that’s just come-on packaging.)


The academic Red-hunt was an episode some of you are old enough to remember and may not have forgotten. Episode? Surely it wasn’t an isolated episode. There has been a systematic pressure against the academic Left, always present as long as there has been an academic Left. It intensified and took new forms during some episodes: the early 20s was one, the late 60s was one, but the one I am recalling was the major Red-hunt of 1947-1960.

I was young (I turned 21 in 1947), I was academic (a graduate student in mathematics), I was on the Left life-long, as were my parents, so you can be sure I followed most alertly the developments I’m about to summarize.

The opening gun was not directed at professors; it was the campaign to rid the federal service of Communists and other Soviet sympathizers. Soviet sympathizers included much more than just us Left-thinking intellectuals: it included, for example, hundreds of Tsarist emigrés who retained nationalistic loyalty to their homeland. Soviet sympathizers of whatever sort had happily supported the Allied war against the fascist Axis. The constant pressure to expel the Left did not vanish during the alliance, but it abated. Thus my father failed a loyalty check for the OSS (predecessor of the CIA), but many of his fellow left-wingers passed it, and retained positions of responsibility in sensitive government agencies right into the post-war period. The US government was then retargeting its efforts. A fellow US Naval officer (breaking secrecy regulations) told me in summer 1945 that his orders to the Pacific Theater were for the purpose of “beating the Russians to Port Arthur.” Winston Churchill announced in his Fulton MO speech in 1946 that the world was divided into two camps, Western and Soviet — a thesis which Stalin soon took up in even balder terms.

This realignment, dubbed the Cold War, was no doubt a disaster, and I am not defending it. I do say that, given the realignment, it was to be expected that many people welcomed by the government in the years 1942-45 would become unwelcome. The loyalty purge was unstoppable. It came in the form of President Truman’s Executive Order of 1947. The loyalty hearings that followed purged the government service not only of policy advisers who would harmonize badly with the new Cold War policy theme; in much greater numbers, the civil servants who were expelled were clerical or other employees who had or were thought to have left-wing tendencies in their off-job lives. A pattern was set which would be imitated.

Right-wing legislators joined in. Congressional Red-hunting, sometimes related to legislation flimsily or not at all, had erupted briefly before World War II and was vigorously revived in 1947. Public hearings were held for the announced purpose of proving that the Truman government was sheltering Communists instead of purging them; that Hollywood contained a powerful conspiracy to inculcate communist values in the movie-goer; and that left-wing scientists had leaked nuclear secrets to Soviet agents.

These years, 1947-1950, established the ground rules that remained in force for the decade that followed. Most institutions, from the government through the unions and universities to the American Civil Liberties Union (yes, I said the American Civil Liberties Union), declared Communists unwelcome. Among the means used to exclude them were loyalty oaths, often including the phrase “I am not a member of the Communist Party or any other organization which…” It became glaringly obvious, that employers, in particular universities, would shy away from hiring anyone who might be attacked as a Communist; a reputation as a student radical was thus enough to make one a bad bet for an academic job; so student radicals became (in a few short years) very scarce. University administrators would occasionally say, if asked, that there were no Communists on the staff; but they hoped they wouldn’t be asked. The FBI and the Red Squads of state and some local police forces kept files on thousands. They had a reputation for exceeding legal restraints in interrogation and for keeping very dubious material in their files; later research bears this out. They cooperated (when it suited their own agenda) with employers who were cleansing their staffs. This put them in an ambivalent relation to the federal government in particular. The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, while nominally responsible to the Attorney General, sometimes cooperated covertly with Congressional exposés of government agencies.

Most universities wouldn’t even let left-wingers speak on campus under auspices of a student group! Paul Robeson, Howard Fast, and Dirk J. Struik are among those banned by administrations in the early 50s. By the late 50s, the invitations had dried up.

It was further established that one could be imprisoned for Communist Party activity itself, at least if one were a leader: the Supreme Court upheld in 1951 the conspiracy convictions against the CP officers under the Smith Act. The government maintained concentration camps in which it could incarcerate thousands of dangerous people if it declared a national emergency to exist, and everyone knew whom they considered dangerous. (These camps were invented by the “liberal” senators in 1952 in an attempt to show voters that they were just as security-conscious as the Right. But though they originated as a mere tactic, they were not merely on paper, they existed physically. I was told this in casual conversation in 1955 by an acquaintance who was employed at a federal prison — a prison, it happens, where I became an inmate five years later. The story would be better if the guard had looked me up and said hello to me then, but — sorry — we were no longer in touch.)

I ask you to pause for a moment and think how it felt to be a young instructor in 1952, listening to Richard Milhous Nixon on the radio, and hear him describe the hunt for Communists in the USA as shooting rats in a barrel. It was unpleasant enough, I hope, to the others in the room with me; the unpleasantness had an extra tang (guaranteeing me against forgetting the moment) for me, being one of those whose humanity was being denied by the words and the vicious tone.

Meanwhile, dozens of Congressional hearings and a few landmark court cases had set the cameras turning on a new scenario. A Congressional committee would call to the stand four to ten witnesses from a university. Among them might or might not be some “friendly” witnesses, who would answer questions, name themselves and numerous colleagues as Communists, and step down, blessed with the Committee’s thanks. Most or all of the witnesses were “unfriendly”: that is, they refused to answer, at least to name fellow radicals. If they refused to answer all related questions, on the stated basis that to do so might tend to incriminate them (“taking the Fifth”), they could not be charged with contempt of Congress; this was confirmed by the Supreme Court in the Watkins case in 1952. A steady trickle of unfriendly witnesses took other courses, either not invoking the clause on self-incrimination or applying it selectively, so as to talk about their own actions while refusing to name others. Many of these served prison terms, beginning with Leon Josephson and the Hollywood Ten.

Whether you exposed yourself to prosecution or not, non-cooperation with the investigating Committee made you a good bet to be fired and blacklisted from American universities. The nominal stance of the American Association of University Professors was that mere membership in anything could not properly be the reason for firing a professor. There was a tendency to hedge, and the AAUP suffered a near-total paralysis for most of the 1950s. The Association of American Universities, the administrations’ umbrella organization, on the other hand, said publicly in 1953 that Communists must be eliminated, and that anyone appearing as an unfriendly witness created a presumption of unfitness which required a local investigation. The hunt was on.

Beside hundreds who lost their jobs more quietly, by a damaging letter of recommendation or a tip from the FBI to a department chair or simply by appearing dangerous, there were hundreds of us who fell to the more public auto-da-fé I have described. I wrote an assessment of the damage which was published in 1960; the purge was still going on while I wrote it, and I didn’ t know I was taking stock at the end of a period, but (conveniently for this retrospective) I was. You know when I discovered the period was ending? In spring 1960, in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, where I was serving my sentence for non-cooperation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. My Saturday afternoon routine was to lie on my bunk and plug my earphones in to the prison’s line playing Pacifica Radio’s jazz program. That particular Saturday, Pacifica let the jazz be preempted to play their reporters’ tape of the mass demonstrations in San Francisco against the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. “They’ll never be the same again,” I said; and they never were. My 1960 article was a snapshot of where the Red-hunt had culminated.

That article will stand today; there are things I would correct now, but I still recommend it to people. The temptation for me is to use its view of the 1960 future as a check-list to answer the question of today’s title. That would be too mechanical. But I do feel that the 33-year-old who wrote that article and heard that broadcast is — if not looking through my eyes today, anyway looking over my shoulder and prompting me. Recalling us, maybe, to questions you would not otherwise have asked; leading, maybe, to answers you wouldn’t have thought of.


Did the Red-hunt win?

“You want the short answer?” my late friend Chaim used to say, and if the student said, “Yes,” Chaim said, “I don’t know.” Today’s question may not even have any short yes-or-no answer. Let’s work toward an answer; there will be surprises on the way.

We can start with a part of the question which does have a short answer. If the core of the Red-hunt was to drive us out of the universities, the short answer is…

Well, one commonly expressed view is that the Red-hunt fizzled out. It was an unfortunate incident, a ripple in the smooth current of academic freedom. Some of the Red-hunt’s leaders died in disgrace, and we — we won, or so this view would have it. We have been vindicated by history. Thank you, thank you.

We survivors contribute to this facile, shoddy thinking by being such poor object lessons. I accepted the invitation to speak here today, cheerfully, with the result that now you can see that I am alive and well, flourishing as a Canadian professor. Do I look like a victim? Not terribly. Do I go around constantly complaining that I have been mistreated? No. We won — all right. (I remember in 1971 a North Vietnamese saying to me, “We are winning the war, but only in the sense that a small child wins a fight against the schoolyard bully if he is still standing at the end.” We won the Red-hunt the same way: though we suffered casualties we were not wiped out.)

A friend whose own experience in the 1950s was far from Left circles complimented me not long ago, “You don’t seem at all bitter.” Right.

This is partly something true about my feelings: I am not bitter in my heart. Then too, it is partly a convention, that people like me shall avoid disturbing the even tenor of their colleagues’ days: for those who would not ostracize us as heretics would maybe still ostracize us as embarrassing kvetches. The convention permits us to recall the Red-hunt in nostalgia sessions once every few years, no big deal, that was the way we were. It’s easy for me (not feeling bitter) to go along.

Not today. As an expedient, I appeal first to your human courtesy. It is discourteous to tell us that not much happened, when we are the ones who got the ax! But I am not asking for an apology. I am asking you never to forget again that something happened to academic freedom in the 1950s. I am asking you to think about it in a way that will stay with you in future thinking about the 1990s. I am violating the convention today. This is not a confession that we were really bitter underneath all the while. Maybe, if you like, I just want to remind you how much we have to not be bitter about.

Make no mistake. Though you see the remnants of the former academic Left still, though some of us were never fired (like my friend Steve Smale) , though I return to the US from my exile frequently — we are gone. We did not survive as we were. Some of us saved our skins without betraying others or ourselves. But let me remind you — Almost all of the targets either did crumple or were fired and blacklisted. David Bohm and Moses Finley and Jules Dassin and many less celebrated people were forced into exile; most of the rest had to leave the academic world. A few suffered suicide or other premature death. There weren’t the sort of wholesale casualties you saw in Argentina or El Salvador, but the Red-hunt did succeed in axing a lot of those it went after, and cowing most of the rest. We were out, and we were kept out.

Let me emphasize a distinction. I despise the Nixons and Parnell Thomases who mounted this campaign against the Left. Wouldn’t I be justified in resenting also the mathematicians who failed to offer me jobs in the US for the last forty years? (Not including those who did try to get me jobs, but they were few.) Any one of them might have valid reasons to prefer somebody else to me, fine, but a blacklist consists of everybody not making an offer, and that’s what happened. Those who don’t make an offer are the blacklist. Now I have often been in good-sized mathematicians’ parties in which most of the mathematicians present were people who had failed to give me a job. “We’re hiring the best young PhD’s we can get,” one of them told me years ago — period. These are not my enemies. This is my community, and I don’t have any trouble living in it. It is the great academic center, it is not the Nixons and Parnell Thomases. I’m glad I get along with those who implemented the blacklist, but — it is not required that I, or you, pretend that they did not.

There is a certain cautious willingness nowadays to recognize the existence of our pariah group. It’s really quite gracious that a university which fired Lee Lorch invited him back for an honorary degree; the administration recognized somehow that he deserves it, and that they were an appropriate body to bestow it on him. Not to gainsay that, I record for proper perspective that the encomium did not say they were sorry they had let him go. It’s also quite gratifying that the Academic Senate of the University of Michigan, which more than acquiesced in my firing in 1954, unanimously asked the Board of Regents in 1989 to do something to atone. Not to deny my good feelings about that, I record for proper perspective that the Board of Regents didn’t.

There was amusing discussion at the University of Michigan about what would constitute appropriate compensation. At least it amused me. What might they give, back pay? What would that mean?

I had another life, yielding me satisfactions and enough salary to pay the bills. In 1954, I was a scientist four years past my PhD, and the Regents’ decision was to extinguish (it seemed) my professional future. What could they do now to restore to me 35 years of that life? If it could be done, I would refuse. The life I had is my life. (Some of you know the great poem by Anna Akhmatova, “Menya kak reku.” I can say it in the original, or in my translation, but I’m not so good at saying it without weeping, so I’m just making this point in my own words.) It’s not that I’m all that pleased with what I’ve made of my life, yet I sincerely rejoice that I lived it, that I don’t have to be Professor X who rode out the 1950s and 60s safe in his academic tenure and his virtuously anti-Communist centrism. (I guess I won’t substitute a name for X.)

This is a deeper, less placid sense in which I am not bitter.


Whatever compensation any of us got for the injustice (and a few did get a lot of back pay) , it would be only a gesture, because the main damage was not to us. We survived, more or less, most of us. What became of you? “You,” here, means those who hung on and constituted the American universities and reproduced your kind for the following academic generations.

I argued in 1960 that you could not afford to keep out those that had been expelled, that you had to make the effort to take us back. To let the anathema against us stand, I argued, would be an announcement to all comers that dissent was not protected in the universities; and the essence of the university, the confrontation of ideas, would be undermined. Well, you didn’t take us back, and most of you didn’t try. Has my baleful warning been justified by events? Did you suffer the consequences?

At first sight, definitely not. The campus Left, nearly extirpated by 1955, rose from the ashes by 1961. Protests against the Committee on Un-American Activities (already mentioned); the Fair Play for Cuba Committee; direct action against segregation, marches against nuclear weapons. The next few years saw the Port Huron Statement and militant action against the war in Viet Nam. Not only did challenge return to the campuses without us, it came before we had even caught our breath! To be sure, the ideological catch-words were not always ours, and the style was often not; but that may have been an improvement.

Here’s another way the 1960s utterly confounded my 1960 foresight. With many Left intellectuals having been expelled from faculties, before or during the 50s, and with many of those who remained adopting such good disguises as conservatives that there was no difference — I expected that, unless the expulsions were revoked, the next generation of intellectuals would be very conformist indeed. Instead, by 1970 there were dozens of young academic leftists making their way into the universities, some forbidden lines of analysis had been revived, and controversy flourished.

I no more predicted the New Left than Richard Nixon did.

To be sure, some of the Old Left were active, even central, in the New Left, both in the political organizing and in the intellectual revival. (My friend Carl Braden, who bridged the gap, used to say, “There’s no Old and New Left, there’s only the Left.”) I said the Red-hunters hadn’t caught us all. Some of us whom they did catch and expel were still able to lend a hand from Canada.

Still and all, the movement of the 1960s was mainly the work of a corps of newly arrived leftists, from Bettina Aptheker to Martin Luther King Jr to Carl Oglesby to Angela Davis to Noam Chomsky to Mary Gray… I’m happy to be proved dispensable in this way. We had been defeated, but the spirit of dissent was not stamped out. New dissenters appeared. What lasting difference did our defeat make?

The most obvious thing is that certain words were not said any more in polite company. I deliberately included two Communists among the new leaders I named just now, and I could have included others, but let’s face it — the Port Huron Statement dissociated itself from the Marxist parties (even the Socialist Party which was its grandfather), and the pacifist-anarchist-voluntarist strain in the movement ran strong. It was attractive partly for its strengths, which were real, but partly because it was so distinct from the philosophy of the Communist Party. Communism remained part of the discourse of the 60s Left partly because of the impulse to rebel: A young radical might say “I am a Communist” in the same spirit as he would burn the flag, or fly the flag of the Vietnamese NLF. (Especially likely if the young radical was an agent provocateur.) The words that had been excluded from polite conversation reappeared as cries of rage. Again, that’s not all bad: they should be.

On the whole, though, when the Red-hunters disposed of us they nearly silenced advocacy of socialism as we understood it. We had been circumspect about advocating socialism during the World War II coalition period too, and didn’t rev up our publicity for it properly in the lull after the War because the focus was on the new UN and hopes for nuclear disarmament. During the Red-hunt the subject became almost taboo.

With “socialism” and “communism” established as outlaw terms, the Right has proceeded to try to make “liberal” and “secular” and “pluralist” outlaw terms too (for some jobs even today, you may flunk your job interview if you say “he or she”).

I’m approaching the final point, maybe the most difficult point, of this talk, and I want to be sure to state things carefully. I will argue that something has been lost, but I have stipulated that openness to innovative thinking about society was not. Already in my 1960 essay, I said that repression does not target original thought, it targets already established heretical movements, which are not experimental but codified. If it succeeds very well in punishing heresies, it may in a next stage punish originality. And in the population, fear of uttering such a taboo word as “communism” may become general paralysis of social thought. This stage was not fully attained. I have also stipulated that what was done to the Left ideas was not to drive them completely underground. Marxist scholars still hold conferences publicly, and if they are professors (many of them are not, please note) they may even include their Marxist works on their resumés seeking promotion or fellowships.

What has happened is that the center of intellectual discourse has shifted, so that some opinions generally regarded as possible in the 1930s are forgotten as possibilities. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I think I see this effect, I think it is a loss, and I think the Red-hunt contributed greatly to it.

It’s not just a matter of stale ideas losing appeal. That happens from one generation to the next, inevitably and not always predictably, even without help from any repression. To explain what I mean by the shifting of the center, let me digress to an example where the center of discourse has shifted in the other direction: racism. Racist theory, in the contention of ideas. What do I mean when I say the center has shifted, for the better?

Not that racism has no advocates. It has a few, and they get cushy grants from the Olin Foundation and a notably good press. But some of the things that one might say as a matter of course a hundred years ago would now sound disreputable. Talk of “lesser breeds,” say (just think that Rudyard Kipling used that phrase in an anti-imperialist poem). They don’t have reputable replacements, either: it’s not merely the terminology that has changed but the conceptual starting point.

This parallel I’m drawing won’t help my argument unless I show you that changing the center changes results. It does. Here’s a startling but typical example. Sir William Herschel, praising the mathematical tradition in Sanskrit, described it as closer to European mentality than to the cannibals of West India. This, remember, is an unusually sympathetic and cultured observer speaking, who has studied the early Hindu manuscripts, understood them, and respected them. Yet his conclusion was an anthropological absurdity: mathematics has no negative correlation with cannibalism, indeed when we survey practitioners of human sacrifice, the all-time champions may have been the priests of Meso-america, who were the mathematicians of their time. How was such a fine observer as Herschel led to nonsense? By the practice of rating all cultures on a scale of closeness (in his eyes) to his own: by Eurocentrism. He had nothing to say about cannibalism, he was only using it as a tag for distance from — distance below — Europe. Just having the wrong center caused him to say nonsense. A century of anti-racist scholarship since then has not ended the dialogue, but has moved its center to where such a person would not make such a blunder.

In the same way, feminist criticism has moved the center of discourse forward.

In political economy, I’m afraid motion has been (by my standards) negative — so much so that ideas which were on the agenda a hundred years ago and sixty years ago have dropped out of memory because they are too far from the new center of discourse. In the old days, in any debate on taxation, everyone was implicitly aware (even those on the other side of the debate) that sales taxes are “regressive” in the sense of taking most heavily from the poor; that it may be more just to take more from the rich so as to reduce inequality; and that such “progressive” taxation may stimulate the economy because the very poor can’t buy goods and the very rich don’t use much of their wealth to buy goods. This philosophy was not refuted in the 1950s, it was not nominally the target of the purge of the 1950s. But as the agenda was cleansed of “our” issues — economic justice, and people’s control over the economy — the center shifted so far in the capitalist direction that certain ideas became almost unthinkable. They remain rather more comprehensible, even to the lay electorate, in Canada, a country which, nota bene, refrained from having a Red scare in the 1950s.

Another example is state religion. The state religion of the USA if there had been one was Christianity. It was understood (from 1787 to 1950) that the decision had been made not to have one, and why. Americans who wanted to have things like prayer in the public schools continued to want them, but discourse presumed the secular philosophy. How different since the Eisenhower years! The established religion is Judeo-Christianity (or church-of-your-choicism) — progress, no doubt, but still excluding Islam and Buddhism; and it is established. Much discourse obliterates all memory of the concept of disestablishing religion. We freethinkers are treated as merely a minor sect (and a rather malodorous one).

By now, some of you may reasonably have begun to find me too peevish. Am I saying my ideas have lost out only because they were maligned and repressed? Didn’t they lose out because we, and especially the Soviets, made such an unpersuasive case for them? Aren’t I being an awfully poor loser? Can’t I see myself that some of my ideas have been disproved by events since 1945?

Of course the world is wide and deep; to find all the causes of conservative gains we would look beyond the intimidation of the 1950s. I won’t try, I won’t start to, not in this talk. Of course I’m not saying that I and all the others who were fired were right all the time. We were partly right but not perfect, as were many others you can think of. What I am saying is that our questions were ruled off the agenda or ghettoized, and the irrational Red-hunt largely did it.

Yes, I’ve reconsidered my credo, yes, I’ve repented my errors. Listen — I’ve repented dozens of errors you don’t even know about, errors that Richard Nixon and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr would never have thought to accuse us of. (List on request.) Being a butt of diatribes prods one to reconsider one’s credo more than the “safe and sane” do. But why only me? The establishment was doing terrible things, bombing Japan, raping Viet Nam — why don’t the smug centrists try some self-questioning too? They can see differences within the consensus; a viewpoint outside the consensus they can’t fathom.

I ask you to listen to us. Don’t accept us back into the fold on the assumption that we’ve seen we were wrong to stray. If you score our reasonableness by our closeness to the present bipartisan center of discourse (and by the way, we may not score very high) , you’ll be making a mistake parallel to scoring a culture by how close it is to the European! (Euro-centrism… centro-centrism?) Don’t do it.

Not only were a number of us driven out of the American academic scene, some of our questions were driven out. Don’t deprive the next political generation of our questions.