I did a review of Phillip Deery’s new book “Red Apple” for the Australasian Journal of American Studies.
Red Apple. By Phillip Deery, Fordham University Press, New York, 2014, pp. xi + 252.
Few areas of historical scholarship are as contentious as that of American Communist history, for the questions that it seeks to answer are still politically charged. How much of a threat was Communism to American society, and what kind of response was justified as a result? Scholars run the risk of being seen as apologists for Stalinism on the one hand, or for McCarthyism on the other. The great contribution of Red Apple is to show the value of going small to address these big problems: in five tight and partially self-contained chapters, it uses intimate portraits of individuals to give some texture to the period of the early Cold War. The result is a careful and balanced history that shows us how lives were shaped by the politics of the era.
Each of the five chapters in Red Apple stands on its own, but there are some unifying themes. Each takes place in the city of New York at the dawn of Cold War repression, from 1945 through to the early 1950s. The introduction states that the book is about ‘the effects of McCarthyism,’ although this is truer of some chapters than others.  The first three chapters are effective, though not necessarily unsurprising, accounts of anti-Communist repression. The first chapter deals with the case of Edward Barsky, a surgeon at Beth Israel Hospital and member of the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, a body created in 1942 to aid Spanish Republican refugees then in France. The JAFRC came to be seen by the FBI and other agencies of the U.S. government as a Communist ‘front,’ and members of its executive committee, including Barsky, were held in contempt of Congress for refusing to disclose their donor lists. Barsky served his prison term, only to find on release that his medical license was not renewed. The second chapter concerns the well-known Communist writer, Howard Fast, who was also jailed as a member of the board of the JAFRC and similarly found opportunities closed to him after his release. The third chapter deals with the less known cases of two professors at New York University, Lyman Bradley and Edwin Burgum, who were fired from NYU after invoking their Fifth Amendment rights before Congress. Of this group, Fast and Burgum were members of the Communist Party, but Bradley and Barsky were not. Yet they were all criminals in the eyes of the government, and, in a climate of McCarthyism, their troubles extended to their relationships with private institutions. These three chapters nicely illustrate the manner in which different government and private agencies worked “together,” even without coordination, to punish those who were perceived as a threat to national security because of their political commitments.
The final two portraits, of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the lawyer O. John Rogge, are somewhat different in tone and composition. (They are based on excellent articles that have appeared in American Communist History and Cold War History, respectively.) These are not straightforward cases of McCarthyist repression, but instead chronicle the difficulties that the Cold War climate created for independent thinkers. As a Russian, Shostakovich would seem an outlier among the book’s major figures, but he appeared in New York as part of the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace, better known as the ‘Waldorf Conference’ of 1949, at the behest of Stalin. (‘Peace’ became a major theme of Soviet propaganda during the early Cold War, though Deery argues that the Waldorf Conference was only partially organized by Communists.) There, Shostakovich had to engage in humiliating self-criticism he did not believe in order to safeguard his own life and that of his family. O. John Rogge, meanwhile, was the JAFRC’s lawyer, concerned in the late 1940s with what he saw as creeping fascism in the United States, and also a frequent guest at the Soviet-aligned Peace events. Yet he was also an independent thinker, and generally the only delegate at ‘Peace’ events who would criticize both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (instead of only the former) for their belligerence. In 1950, Rogge made an open break with the Soviet peace groups and formed his own Independent Americans for Peace. He was seen as a traitor by the Communists but not fully trusted by the professional anti-Communists, and he met with little success. In addition to advancing what little is known about the Soviet-aligned Peace movement, these two chapters show thoughtful individuals trying to engage with the ethical dilemmas of the early Cold War, and will be of particular interest to historians of the period. They should also be useful in the classroom, where they will give students much material to use and think about.
The virtues of the book’s rather narrow focus do also entail some limits. The research is thorough and comprehensive but perhaps not expansive, drawing extensively from New York University’s Tamiment Archives and from FBI files that the author obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The sources are perfectly appropriate for a study of post-war repression, but they can’t contain any great revelations of Soviet thinking or action. And though the book does not aim to be a comprehensive look at the phenomenon of McCarthyism, all of the major characters are white, male professionals.
Yet taken together, the multiple biographies of Red Apple make an important argument. There really were Communist ‘front’ organizations, but, as Deery puts its, the idea of the Communist ‘front’ is ‘problematic, not axiomatic.’ Some were more tightly controlled than others, and organizations like the JAFRC were ‘consistent with, but not rigidly determined by the doctrines of party leaders in New York and Moscow.’  Deery’s is not an argument for the equivalence of Stalinism and McCarthyism: he makes plain that, of all the characters, only Shostakovich’s life was in danger. Dissent in the United States did not mean death. Yet these well-drawn portraits serve as a kind of existence proof: these lives were damaged by McCarthyist anti-Communism, and no one was made safer for it. That in itself is an important result.
University of California, Berkeley