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? A question someone will eventually dare to ask again.

Note: An earlier version of this post first appeared on our site in March, 2013.

Related Content:

How the CIA Secretly Funded Abstract Expressionism During the Cold War

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

How the CIA Funded & Supported Literary Magazines Worldwide While Waging Cultural War Against Communism

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  • tom says:

    The U.S. Military and 1950s America was right. Communists murdered 80 to 100 million people worldwide, in the last century. Those seemingly friendly individuals dispersing communist materials have the identical political philosophy as the Communists who engaged in this large-scale slaughter of innocent people. The teachers teaching this murderous philosophy in our schools are churning out tens of millions of students steeped in this same murderous political philosophy. That’s much scarier than our U.S. Military trying to protect us from these pyschopaths. Incidentally, my wife’s family had the misfortune to own land in communist China. Many of them were murdered because of this.

  • DennisDee says:

    The Venona Papers released by CIA in 1995 proved McCarthy was closer to being right than wrong. And we still have many communists here

  • gwr says:

    These days, to spot Russian agents, all half the federal government needs is a mirror.


    This kind fascistic material is still being employed today but with much more sophistication and with the cooperation of mainstream media !!!

  • Darren says:

    In attempting to find the answer to my question: “Is Donald J. Trump a Communist?”
    a checklist such as this can prove helpful, although in itself it cannot provide the answer:
    Does the individual use unusual language? (“Communist Language”) Examples, like did he said or do any on the following list here, 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.
    Does he stubbornly cling to Marxist ideals without being willing to question them?
    Does he condemn our American institutions and praise those of Communist countries?
    Does he pick on any event, even the most insignificant occurrences in this country for his
    Is he secretive about certain of his contacts? Why so secretive every time you’re talking to Putin, Trump?
    Does he belong to groups exploiting controversial subjects?

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