In Our Time

An excellent and clearly stated 55 minute account of the Salem Witch Hunts (.mp3 link, extended version), by the long-running BBC Radio In Our Time series. It’s optimistic in the sense that it’s a very timely and clear media intervention in the public debate, and as such it shows the way in which lessons from the past can be brought forward in a way that may avert present tragedies.

The programme’s only mis-step was at the end. When one of the guests, Simon Middleton, very casually drew a passing parallel with the 1950s anti-communist hunts in America. He seemed to imply that American anti-communists of the 1950s were also battling a total phantasm, in the same way as the people at Salem where. Rather than communism being a very real death-cult that had — by the early 1950s — killed about 20 million people, recently stolen America’s nuclear technology, and which was then in the process of starting to kill another 60 million in China and elsewhere. There is now good historical evidence of large and high-level infiltrations of communist agents into America and Europe from the 1930s-1960s. And we have as yet barely seen the bulk of the Russian files — there was a brief period where some Soviet archives were open to the west, but apparently we only saw papers discussing Soviet relations with the formally arranged overseas communist parties. (These papers, among other things, confirmed the persistent ‘Moscow gold’ accusations of the 1970s and 80s, showing that significant parts of the far-left in the UK were indeed bankrolled from Moscow). Even more damning in recent years was the release in the USA of what are known as the ‘Verona’ documents (decrypted Soviet cablegrams). Sadly the more sober of the ex-KGB types in Russia have probably had time, by now, to purge their archives — but there may yet be more revelations to come from there (if Putin ever goes and a more liberal regime comes to power).

One glib notion often heard of 1950s anti-communism is that: “well, the Communist Party had very few members in America at that time, so how could they be a threat?” This ignores the very well-known fact that the Party in the U.S. preferred to keep both its fellow travellers and (of course) espionage agents at a distance. It didn’t want either to actually join the Party. This helped to maintain the Party’s internal ideological ‘purity’, and kept the shade of suspicion away from their active supporters (thus making them more useful). It is ridiculous to assume that a local branch of the Communist Party would have directly controlled high-level undercover agents — such as those spying at the heart of the Manhattan Project or working as ‘the right-hand man’ of the German chancellor. That many American anti-communists were often paranoid and mis-directed is now obvious, but the threat they were facing was not a phantasm.