How to Spot a Communist by 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?

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared our site in 2013.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read the CIA’s Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al: A Time­less Guide to Sub­vert­ing Any Orga­ni­za­tion with “Pur­pose­ful Stu­pid­i­ty” (1944)

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

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War


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