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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Comments (23)
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  • Greg says:

    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

  • Gary says:

    “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.

  • Andy says:

    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.

  • Fred says:

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

  • Hanoch says:

    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.

    • SayingLikeItIs says:

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

  • Tad Richards says:

    Should­n’t that be Corliss Lam­ont?

  • Hanoch says:


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

  • Glenn Billings says:

    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.

    • MindTheRant says:

      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.

  • DeeDee Halleck says:

    See excerpts from a 1988 con­fer­ence on The His­to­ry and Con­se­quences of Anti-Com­mu­nism in the US at

    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.

  • Julius Caesar says:

    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.

  • zero says:


  • Blue Panther says:

    All those who con­tin­u­al­ly bring up the anti-Com­mu­nist “para­noia” of the 1950s con­ve­nient­ly omit the fact that thou­sands of Amer­i­can and allied sol­diers were killed or wound­ed by Com­mu­nist forces in the Kore­an War in the ear­ly 1950s. You would think that might have affect­ed Amer­i­can social and polit­i­cal atti­tudes but left­ist apol­o­gists focus on the “hys­te­ria” and ignore the con­se­quences of that war. McCarthy was dam­ag­ing but Sovi­et espi­onage and sub­ver­sion were real.

  • Greg says:

    Well done! Pref­er­ence for long sen­tences is either a sign of unclear mind or of inten­tion­al bull­shit­ting. In this case it’s both. As to vocab­u­lary used, it needs to be revised from time to time. The sets of “ideas” tend to oscil­late, and the “belief’s” names change accord­ing­ly. While the evil’s nature remains the same, as well as the vile symp­toms of it. Sik­ness, lies, ugli­ness, and stu­pid­i­ty evi­dent in the pat­terns of lan­guage and speech.

  • Vinod Moonesinghe says:

    I espe­cial­ly like the com­ments of those peo­ple who men­tion that there were com­mu­nists in high places in gov­ern­ment, or that thou­sands of Amer­i­can troops were killed or wound­ed in the Kore­an War.
    So they believe that peo­ple should have the free­dom to believe what they wish, as long as they don’t dis­agree with the oli­garchs who run Amer­i­ca. By the same mea­sure, those who thought Viet­nam should be inde­pen­dent, or those who thought US Oil Com­pa­nies should­n’t be run­ning Iraq, or who want an Afghanistan with­out a US-owned gas pipeline, should all be hunt­ed down, chased out of their jobs and, when pos­si­ble, killed.

  • Nick the californian says:

    Hanoch, I agree com­plete­ly with you that the Sovi­et Union had infil­trat­ed our gov­ern­ment, as long ago as when we first rec­og­nized their gov­ern­ment and exchanged ambas­sadors. Maybe they sent over a thou­sand agents or even ten thou­sand agents. But the hys­te­ria back then was so awful (and I ought to know, my aunt was quite active in the John Birch Soci­ety) that we were accus­ing all Amer­i­cans to be a bunch of dupes. I remem­ber a teacher who hat­ed U.S. his­to­ry even though he had been hired to teach it, because ‘lib­er­als wrote all the books, and so noth­ing could be believed.’ Instead he gave lec­tures on the glo­ries of ruth­less dog-eat-dog cap­i­tal­ism, the phi­los­o­phy of Ayn Rand and why the South was right. He also passed around copies of The Naked Com­mu­nist by Cleon Skousen, and told us that would be our his­to­ry book. For­tu­nate­ly, this “his­to­ry teacher” got canned, but every­one was accus­ing me of being a com­mu­nist because my par­ents par­tic­i­pat­ed in the move to get rid of him.

  • Dan Gellert says:

    Of course! Ain’t nobody red­der than a god­damn folk singer!

  • Commie blaster says:

    You’re damned right! Not only are folk singers com­mies, they’re also hor­ri­ble. Bob dylan sounds eeri­ly familiar…to a cer­tain frog puppet.….coincidence?

  • James says:

    hoo­te­nany? laugh­able now.

  • R. says:

    What do you guys mean ‘low point’?

    Fuck­ing com­mu­nism means Czech Repub­lic is 30 years in devel­op­ment behind Aus­tria. And some thou­sand dead peo­ple, lots of oth­ers warped for life through per­se­cu­tion and tyran­ny.

    The video is a bit cheesy but per­fect­ly rea­son­able and log­i­cal.

    In the end, com­mu­nism won.

    How do I know this? Because my grand­fa­ther was a hard-core stal­in­ist. And he has always been say­ing almost exact­ly the same things on white priv­i­lege and exploita­tion as you can now get from US main­stream ‘intel­lec­tu­als’. Same bull­shit about racists whites prof­it­ing from exploit­ing the black man, same facile non­sense about police racism in the US, same insis­tence that the West got rich off the backs of brown peo­ple.

    Amer­i­ca simul­ta­ne­ous­ly won, and lost the Cold war.

    A tragedy.

  • Wizard says:

    Do you real­ly believe that? Are you too stu­pid to see that your grand­fa­ther was react­ing to inequal­i­ty? Or to real­ize com­mu­nism is an anachro­nism as is Marx­ism and social­ism (inter­na­tion­al­ism cre­ates an insur­mount­able para­dox). Cap­i­tal­ism is an eco­nom­ic sys­tem not an ide­ol­o­gy.
    I won’t go fur­ther as I doubt you’d even be open to under­stand­ing.
    And no, I’m not a com­mu­nist!

  • Wizard says:

    And how on earth do you get good old fash­ioned racist prej­u­dice con­fused with a polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy any­way?

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