How to Spot a Communist Using Literary Criticism: A 1955 Manual from the U.S. Military

In 1955, the United States was entering the final stages of McCarthyism or the Second Red Scare. During this low point in American history, the US government looked high and low for Communist spies. Entertainers, educators, government employees and union members were often viewed with suspicion, and many careers and lives were destroyed by the flimsiest of allegations. Congress, the FBI, and the US military, they all fueled the 20th century version of the Salem Witch trials, partly by encouraging Americans to look for Communists in unsuspecting places.

In the short Armed Forces Information Film above, you can see the dynamic at work. Some Communists were out in the open; however, others “worked more silently.” So how to find those hidden communists? Not to worry, the US military had that covered. In 1955, the U.S. First Army Headquarters prepared a manual called How to Spot a Communist. Later published in popular American magazines, the propaganda piece warned readers, “there is no fool-proof system in spotting a Communist.” “U.S. Communists come from all walks of life, profess all faiths, and exercise all trades and professions. In addition, the Communist Party, USA, has made concerted efforts to go underground for the purpose of infiltration.” And yet the pamphlet adds, letting readers breathe a sigh of relief, “there are, fortunately, indications that may give him away. These indications are often subtle but always present, for the Communist, by reason of his “faith” must act and talk along certain lines.” In short, you’ll know a Communist not by how he walks, but how he talks. Asking citizens to become literary critics for the sake of national security, the publication told readers to watch out for the following:

While a preference for long sentences is common to most Communist writing, a distinct vocabulary provides the more easily recognized feature of the “Communist Language.” Even a superficial reading of an article written by a Communist or a conversation with one will probably reveal the use of some of the following expressions: integrative thinking, vanguard, comrade, hootenanny, chauvinism, book-burning, syncretistic faith, bourgeois-nationalism, jingoism, colonialism, hooliganism, ruling class, progressive, demagogy, dialectical, witch-hunt, reactionary, exploitation, oppressive, materialist.

This list, selected at random, could be extended almost indefinitely. While all of the above expressions are part of the English language, their use by Communists is infinitely more frequent than by the general public…

Rather chillingly, the pamphlet also warned that Communists revealed themselves if and when they talked about “McCarthyism,” “violation of civil rights,” “racial or religious discrimination” or “peace.” In other words, they were guilty if they suggested that the government was overstepping its bounds.

According to Corliss Lamont’s book, Freedom Is As Freedom Does, the First Army withdrew the pamphlet after Murray Kempton slammed it in The New York Post and The New York Times wrote its own scathing op-ed. In 1955, the press could take those risks. The year before, Joseph Welch had faced up to Joe McCarthy, asking with his immortal words, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

Related Content:

Bertolt Brecht Testifies Before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1947)

How the CIA Secretly Funded Abstract Expressionism During the Cold War

Donald Duck’s Bad Nazi Dream and Four Other Disney Propaganda Cartoons from World War II

 



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  1. Greg says . . . | July 2, 2013 / 10:30 am

    As funny and ridiculous as this looks, our great-grandchildren will be saying the same thing about the propaganda of today (CNN, MSNBC, etc (I’m not even going to say Fox considering it is already brutally obvious in todays society). Don’t watch TV for 5 years and then turn it on and take in all the BS your heart desires. Watching it day after day easily “rots your mind” as your grandparents told you it would

  2. Gary says . . . | July 2, 2013 / 10:47 am

    “This list, selected at random, could be extended almost indefinitely.”

    I’m just going to leave this here, as I don’t think I need to point out what’s wrong with this statement.

  3. Andy says . . . | July 2, 2013 / 11:00 am

    Gary’s remark reminds me of an old joke from Cold War era told in the USSR:

    Q: Why do police in the Soviet Union travel in threes?

    A: The first does the reading, the second does the writing, and the third keeps an eye on the two intellectuals.

  4. Fred says . . . | July 2, 2013 / 11:37 am

    Silly really; nowadays is much easier to spot a Communist! Just turn on any main stream media news channel.

  5. Hanoch says . . . | July 2, 2013 / 11:48 am

    The analogy between the Salem witch trials and the threat from communist aggression is off the mark. In Salem, there were no witches. By contrast, Communists had infiltrated high level positions in western governments, including in the US, and caused significant harm.

  6. Bob says . . . | July 2, 2013 / 2:19 pm

    Now I know where Jeff Foxworthy got his shtick from

  7. Dan Colman says . . . | July 2, 2013 / 5:50 pm

    Hanoch,

    You might want to take it up with Arthur Miller. I wish I could be a fly on the wall for that one.

    Dan

  8. Tad Richards says . . . | July 3, 2013 / 1:27 am

    Shouldn’t that be Corliss Lamont?

  9. Hanoch says . . . | July 3, 2013 / 11:30 am

    Dan:

    Where he is now, I trust that things have been made very clear Art.

  10. Glenn Billings says . . . | July 4, 2013 / 1:52 am

    I wonder why you are showing this video. Yes it’s funny in its approach. Of course it was an overreaction fear of Soviet penetration into the US government. But just because you are paranoid does not mean the threat was not real. McCarthy was right all along as born out from the release of the classified Soviet documents and the Venona documents. These same critics of McCarthy have also been the critics of the prosecutions of the Rosenbergs, saying they had nothing to do with espionage. But again they were proven wrong. There were a vast number of dubes in the communist party working for the Soviets. You can’t rewrite history much like you would wish.

  11. DeeDee Halleck says . . . | July 4, 2013 / 9:08 pm

    See excerpts from a 1988 conference on The History and Consequences of Anti-Communism in the US at
    http://www.historyandconsequences.blogspot.com

    In the first post Howard Zinn reads from the pamphlet that is mentioned above. Also hear Jessica Mitford discuss how she was rad-baited and lost a job….and many others.

  12. Julius Caesar says . . . | July 8, 2013 / 4:02 am

    Reading some of previous comments, it is pretty clear that such propaganda that targets not very intelligent people —euphemism– works pretty well.

    On the other hand that video seems to be a cut for a bigger documentary, does someone knows its title? Thanks in advance.

  13. MindTheRant says . . . | September 26, 2013 / 2:46 pm

    Unfortunately, whether the Red Menace was real or not doesn’t change the willingness of McCarthy, Hoover, or, in this case, the U.S. First Army Headquarters to stoke that paranoia by portraying Communist thinking with such ridiculously broad-brush strokes that anyone who didn’t adopt a fevered “my country right or wrong” approach was invariably suspect. As even the “How to Spot a Communist” document linked to in this story admits, “The principle difficulty involved is the distinction between the person who merely dissents in the good old American tradition and the one who condemns for the purpose of abolishing that tradition.” In reality those who declared their anti-Communism most publicly never bothered making this distinction when they went looking for Reds. If you dissented at all, for whatever reason, you were most likely a Communist.

  14. Andy says . . . | November 12, 2013 / 7:00 am

    I have little doubt this is going on today – except that the main targets are Muslims, and the state will be using computer algorithms to identify dissident speech.

  15. zero says . . . | December 1, 2013 / 9:20 am

    Hootenanny?

  16. SayingLikeItIs says . . . | December 1, 2013 / 12:18 pm

    So you deny the existence of witches? Obviously witches had infiltrated high level positions Salem and caused significant harm.

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