Politics & Policy

Only 5,000 Communists?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is taken from WFB’s 2000 speech collection Let Us Talk of Many Things.

Speech at a Rally Sponsored by Aware

New York, N.Y., May 7, 1958

The chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities was again in New York City in pursuit of the Committee’s business, and again a rally of welcome was organized. As the speaker, I defended the work of that Committee and of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, argued with the proposition that the word “un-American” was indecipherable, and took on several of the Committee’s critics, notably Professor Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the noted historian, and James Wechsler, then the editor of the New York Post. In that period the Post, under Wechsler and owner-publisher Dorothy Schiff, was the flywheel of the liberal Left.

Halfway through the second term of Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal braintrusters began to worry about mounting popular concern over the national debt. In those days the size of the national debt was on everyone’s mind. Indeed, Franklin Roosevelt had talked himself into office, in 1932, in part by promising to hack away at a debt which, even under the frugal Mr. Hoover, the people tended to think of as grown to menacing size. Mr. Roosevelt’s wisemen worried deeply about the mounting tension . . . And then, suddenly, the academic community came to the rescue. Economists across the length and breadth of the land were electrified by a theory of debt introduced in England by John Maynard Keynes. The politicians wrung their hands in gratitude. Depicting the intoxicating political consequences of Lord Keynes’s discovery, the wry cartoonist of the Washington Times Herald drew a memorable picture. In the center, sitting on a throne in front of a maypole, was a jubilant FDR, cigarette tilted up almost vertically, a grin on his face that stretched from ear to ear. Dancing about him in a circle, hands clasped together, their faces glowing with ecstasy, the braintrusters, vested in academic robes, sang the magical incantation, the great discovery of Lord Keynes: “WE OWE IT TO OURSELVES.”

With five talismanic words, the planners had disposed of the problem of deficit spending. Anyone thenceforward who worried about an increase in the national debt was just plain ignorant of the central insight of modern economics: What do we care how much we–the government–owe so long as we owe it to ourselves? On with the spending. Tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect . . .

Why do we need the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in the year of our Lord 1958? Imagine the reaction of New York Post editor James Wechsler when he read, a few months ago, that enrollment in the Communist Party was down to five thousand members! Joy floods down upon him. Not because he learns that there are fewer Communists–he doesn’t attach much importance to that: there never were enough Communists in America either to please or to bother James Wechsler: not enough to please him when he was engaged in recruiting members to the Communist Party, which he did with the same zeal with which he nowadays recruits anti-anti-Communists; nor enough to bother him when he broke with the Party, even though there were enough to control, among other enterprises, the newspaper for which James Wechsler went to work. No, the joy that came to the House of Wechsler lay in the potential of this magic incantation. There are only five thousand registered Communists in America! What do we need congressional investigating committees for? What do we need the anti-subversive division of the FBI for? Why the Smith Act? The McCarran Act? The loyalty oaths? Where is the clear and present danger?

Ladies and gentlemen, that is the new look, in the struggle to rid America of anti-Communism. Liberals have fallen in love with numbers–provided they are not used to describe victims of Soviet concentration camps. Quantitative analysis, you beautiful doll! Accordingly, we are destined to become as familiar with the intoxicating datum attesting to the negligibility of Communist strength as we are with the fact that, if the news is fit to print, the New York Times will print it. The opinion makers will not only emphasize the sheer numerical weakness of five thousand people (there are twice as many anti-vivisectionists, you know); before long, we will be left with the distinct impression that those five thousand are every one of them arthritic; so that even on the wild hypothesis that they chose to plant bombs all over the Capitol, probably among them they couldn’t muster the physical strength to throw the switch.

Internally, however, the argument of numbers does not really satisfy the Wechslers or the Joseph L. Rauhs or the Arthur Schlesingers. When there were twenty times as many members of the Communist Party as there are today, they were not stressing the importance to the nation of a House Committee on Un-American Activities. Their basic quarrel has very little to do with the size or strength of the enemy. It has to do with the idea that anybody has the right to decide what is “un-American.”

What is un-American about Communism?

Well yes, violent overthrow of the government is un-American, all right; but we have laws against that, so why do we need House Committees, and additional laws? And if the Communists, when they talk about the necessity for violent overthrow of the government, are talking only in a fanciful sort of way–in the way, for example, that Dante talks about the physical dimensions of Hell–then can you, in a democratic society, punish them for what amounts to nothing more than the exercise of free speech?

What are these terms? What is to be “subversive”? “Subversive” of what? What is “treason,” or “treasonable”? What, when you come down to it, is un-American? Lots of people think Franklin Roosevelt was un-American. Should he have been investigated by the Committee on Un-American Activities? Isn’t it a law of life that what is considered un-American today is due to become established national doctrine tomorrow? Doesn’t a congressional committee on so-called un-American activities in effect ask a society to stop in its tracks, blocking to an anxious people access to security in the womb of the Brave New World?

The liberals, ladies and gentlemen, are, and let us never forget it, in control of events; so that–like bears on Wall Street–they have the raw power to justify their own predictions and their own analyses. They appear to have done so in this case; what a great many people would have deemed un-American ten years ago–standing up for the Soviet national anthem, for example–now happens at the Metropolitan Opera House every night, before the Moiseyev Ballet.

The vision of our thought-leaders is not of an America of unchanging basic attributes, the kind of America that we dreamed about one hundred eighty years ago when words like inalienable and immutable and indefeasible were so freely used. Their dream is a shifting dream. Our dream is of an America whose essential characteristics must never change, however violently time and tide pound upon our shores. Our vision is not that of the Open Society of an Oliver Wendell Holmes or an Alan Barth or a Henry Steele Commager, but of an America of fixed landmarks. Their America prepares for a measured surrender to socialist ideology. Our America is evoked by the great theorists and poets of our past, who used a language which moves us even now and permits us, even now, to know what is subversive, and un-American; that what was subversive of the American dream yesterday will be subversive tomorrow; what was beautiful then will be beautiful tomorrow, if it survives the ministrations of the Deweys and the Holmeses.

I do not believe there was ever a time when there was more for a congressional Committee on Un-American Activities to do. The challenge is not so much, at this moment, to rescue America from five thousand Communists, as to rescue America from the national delirium that gives to five thousand Communists the power of five million. We are in danger of going mad, and I take the liberty of declaring madness to be un-American. We are becoming not a peaceful but a pacifist people–and to go from peacefulness to pacifism is like going from thrift to miserliness. Many of our opinion leaders clamor for retreat, at every level. The lighthouses of anti-Communist resistance are, by the enveloping darkness, being blotted out from sight.

All this a congressional committee, with its unique facilities, might successfully dramatize. A big job for so small a committee, to be sure. But the few have saved the many before. For a few exhilarating moments, Mr. Eugene Lyons wrote after the Hungarian uprising, it almost looked as if Hungary would liberate the United States. The Committee must never lose sight of the fact that it is our leaders, above all, who need to be educated. By his own admission, the President of the United States does not know how to argue the superiority of the West against a champion of Communism. Assuming Radio Free Europe were an effective propagandist for the truth, I would recommend that it beam its message not at the Iron Curtain but at America, directing its strongest impulses towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Perhaps it is romantic to assume that the House Committee on Un-American Activities can adhere to a position so very much different from that of the President of the United States, and the majority of the Congress. But I do not think so. It was done before–by this same Committee, bucking very strong tides, in the late Thirties and early Forties. It must be done again, and fast. There may be only five thousand Communists left in America. But they threaten to outnumber the anti-Communists.


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