She attempts to take a balanced, historical view and place both the hysteria and the views of the movement in an appropriate historical context.
Then, no one knew that the Soviet Union would eventually be defeated, as we do today -- but nor did leftists realize the full extent of Stalin's purges, and what would transpire after the Yalta Conference of 1945 in Eastern Europe. There was some vague plausibility to the idea of communists as spies intent upon creating a new form of government in the United States, just as there was the possibility in the mind of some leftists that the American media, after praising Russia when the U.S.S.R.'s help was necessary to defeat Hitler, was exaggerating the evils of Stalin in the eyes of many communists. Schrecker attempts to put the reader into the mindset of both communists and anti-communists of the period.
Anti-communism was not simply a product of mass, cultural hysteria. It also provided a practical foundation for many politicians' emerging careers. For example, as early as the smaller 'Red Scare' of 1919-20, J. Edgar Hoover made his name and solidified his institutional base within the Department of Justice by rounding up suspected foreign communists. Later, these ideologues and Hoover loyalists within the F.B.I would allow Hoover to conduct illegal wiretaps, and commit other civil liberties violations, with the power of the F.B.I. Richard Nixon first came to national prominence during the Alger Hiss trials. And McCarthy himself was a relatively obscure senator, until he began to wave his famous lists in the air. President Truman, despite the fact he held the highest office in the land, may have oversold the communist threat, to gain the necessary funds from the Republican-dominated congress for his postwar agenda and to prove himself worthy of the legacy of F.D.R.
The fear of seeming to ignore the communist threat created a kind of conspiracy of silence amongst civil libertarians, such as they existed, in American government. "An important element of the power of the modern state is its ability to set the political agenda and to define the crucial issues of the moment, through its actions as well as its words. During the early years of the cold war, the actions of the federal government helped to forge and legitimize the anti-Communist consensus that enabled most Americans to condone or participate in the serious violations of civil liberties that characterized the McCarthy era" (Chapter 4, p.20). Being a communist was never a crime in America, but the implicit charge of espionage was in the atmosphere, every time communism was mentioned.
Schrecker suggests that anti-communism is not merely a shameful era of American history, it also explains much of the social conformity of the 1950s. For example, "in the late 1950s a group of graduate students at the University of Chicago wanted to have a coffee vending machine installed outside the Physics Department for the convenience of people who worked there late at night. They started to circulate a petition to the Buildings and Grounds Department, but their colleagues refused to sign. They did not want to be associated with the allegedly radical students whose names were already on the document" (Chapter 16, p.92). This association may seem absurd. But the idea that political activities of any kind were suspect and potentially communist had kind of a paralyzing, stultifying effect upon American culture.
Schrecker also mourns how Truman abandoned FDR's New Deal, for fear of seeming to instate a socialist government in the United States. Unlike the other nations of Europe, such as Britain, hardly a bulwark of radicalism, America never created a national healthcare system, for fear of seeming communistic. Thus, in many ways, the effects of McCarthyism are still being felt today. The book ends with documents of the period that corroborate the author's characterization of the period as a sad time in American history. In the name of freedom, America encroached upon the civil liberties of its own populace. Moreover, by connecting McCarthyism to earlier purges of foreign influence on American soil, Schrecker gives the uncomfortable suggestion that the ideal of the melting pot and freedom exists in a kind of uncomfortable tension with xenophobia and intolerance, within the American psyche.
Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism. Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1994.