‘Blacklist’ Details Red Scare Precursor

Posted November 17, 2008 at 5:04pm

For critics of the Bush administration’s far- reaching policies on terrorism, the leap from the Red Scare to the world of post-9/11 may not seem so great.

So understanding the beginnings of the Red Scare, says professor Robert Justin Goldstein, might prove helpful in understanding our current attitudes toward terrorism.

Most Americans mistakenly think blacklisting and the Red Scare began with the McCarthy era of the 1950s — but they’re wrong, says Goldstein, who has just published a new book titled “American Blacklist: The Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations.”

Blacklisting stretches back to the beginning of the 20th century, with the first incarnation of the far-reaching and politically damaging Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations.

In “American Blacklist,” Goldstein sets out to prove the significant and largely uncovered role in American history of the attorney general’s list and to prevent something like the Red Scare from happening again.

Goldstein relies heavily on documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, much of which throws the original uses of the attorney general’s list into a jarring light.

The list first became known to the public in conjunction with President Harry Truman’s 1947 loyalty program, but originated in 1903, as a reaction to the “anarchist scare” that had been set off two years earlier, according to Goldstein.

The list was used frequently as a catalyst for deportation of individuals thought to be sympathetic to anarchist or Communist causes.

Of particular concern to the government was membership in the Communist or Communist Labor parties. Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) and Immigration Bureau agents were told that grounds for deportation would be based solely upon membership in the Communist or Communist Labor parties, Goldstein wrote, not on any particular activities.

Particularly alarming to Goldstein was the government’s sweeping power to choose which groups it would list.

“The government [listed] them without any hearing, without any evidence and without any dates as to when they became subversive and dangerous,” he said in an interview.

Goldstein criticized the media for not being more critical of the attorney general’s list, accepting the government’s designations without much pushing back.

Though the list had been an intimidating force in its earlier decades, Goldstein also chronicles its downfall, as backlash over the list’s infringement of civil rights grew more prominent. The list was officially abolished in 1974.

“American Blacklist” is densely written, with the larger themes at times overwhelmed by acronyms and facts.

Focusing on a compelling figure in the attorney general’s list, or a more in-depth look at the government figures involved in putting together the list, would have made the book a more fluent read.

Although “American Blacklist” offers little in the way of engaging prose, a narrative does seem to fill itself in if the reader takes a step back from the meticulously recorded facts and considers some of the main points Goldstein stresses.

His documentation of the government’s shifting positions on how much harm the Communist and Communist Labor parties actually posed to the nation is among the more fascinating early points of the book. But the back and forth between numbers and documented examples can make those passages frustrating to work through.

The book picks up momentum, however, as the future of the list becomes less certain, being revived and ultimately abolished by President Richard Nixon.

Goldstein, a professor emeritus of political science at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., describes the attorney general’s list as “a sort of looming Sphinx,” and as something “more important than McCarthy.”

Although the list was abolished more than 30 years ago, Goldstein notes that during the Clinton administration, a list of terrorist organizations was established and continues to be used. The new list does include some Congressional involvement and is focused more on foreign groups than domestic ones.

But there is a danger, he said, if its use becomes widespread or leads to intimidation.