A historical account of the effects of McCarthyism in the state of Vermont.
According to conventional wisdom, Vermont’s libertarian tendencies insulated it from the worst excesses of the Red Scare during the late 1940s and ’50s. However, debut author and longtime Vermonter Winston (Film/Community Coll. of Vermont) argues that the state suffered more than its fair share of hyperbolic McCarthyism. In journalistically meticulous prose, he provides a series of revealing historical vignettes that document episodes of fearful extremism. For example, he notes that Charles Plumley served as the state’s Republican congressman for nearly two decades despite his ferocious anti-Communist rhetoric and his unyielding opposition to the labor movement. Also, in 1953, Alex Novikoff, a talented University of Vermont professor, was ousted from his position because of suspicions he was a Communist sympathizer; in fact, although he’d once harbored such sentiments, he’d since grown thoroughly disillusioned by the Soviet Union. In 1948, two years before U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hearings garnered national attention, Henry Wallace ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket. Despite a sterling reputation—he’s served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president from 1941 to ’45—the Vermont press savagely condemned him for his ties to the Communist Party and his criticisms of United States foreign policy. Winston discusses his own parents’ encounters with ideological extremism, as well—both were New York City teachers and members of the Communist Party, and both were scrutinized for their affiliations. The author’s prose is not only clear and elegant, but also impressively objective in tone; he relates the stories in great detail and then permits the reader to largely draw his or her own conclusions. The stories themselves are powerful examples of how anxiety can lead to the curtailment of intellectual freedom—a predicament that the author detects in the American political atmosphere of today. There’s also a prefatory historical overview by the late Vermont College history professor Richard O. Hathaway, originally delivered at a conference in 1988, “Vermont in the McCarthy Era.” (Winston was among the conference’s organizers.) Photos and newspaper clippings are included, as well.
A compelling case study on the political effects of collective closed-mindedness.