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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