We tend to think of the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1940s and '50s the same way most of us think of the "war on terror": as something that happened to other people. We remember McCarthy tormenting a handful of government officials, or Congressional show trials for show-business celebrities.
But as John Hoerr's book Harry, Tom, and Father Rice suggests, McCarthyism was both bigger and smaller than that. It insinuated itself into factories and families -- including Hoerr's. And the cost of these everyday tragedies was massive. Anti-communist hysteria destroyed one of the most important and progressive unions in Pittsburgh and the country as a whole: the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Shop Workers of America, commonly known as the UE. And as Hoerr documents, before the end, it inflicted a festering wound upon organized labor itself.
"Harry" is Hoerr's uncle, a one-term Congressman named Harry Davenport who was elected from eastern Pittsburgh in 1948. One of his backers was Tom Quinn, a UE activist who worked within Westinghouse's once-sprawling Turtle Creek valley empire. But their friendship, like so many others, would be swept away by the Red Scare -- thanks partly to a jihad waged by Monsignor Charles Owen Rice.
Rice is known as Pittsburgh's "labor priest," a champion of the unions and, in later years, of racial equality. But during the postwar years, he sought to protect the organized labor movement from charges of communism ... by rooting out the commies himself.
Such were the mixed motives at the time. Hoerr lucidly explains how McCarthyism created some unholy alliances: Pro-labor priests found themselves aligned with union-busting CEOs, who saw anti-communist crusades as a perfect opportunity to weaken labor. Other alliances, meanwhile, were broken apart, and we know the cost from the outset: Hoerr begins his story by trying to discover the circumstances of his uncle's death in a Millvale flophouse.
A former business reporter and native son of McKeesport, Hoerr grounds his story with family reminiscences and an intimate rendering of postwar Pittsburgh. Throughout, we are drawn toward Davenport's climactic betrayal, which comes moments before Quinn faces the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Quinn, who is no communist, appears in Davenport's office, pleading for his congressman's help denying accusations trumped up by Rice and others. But while Davenport owes his job to progressives like Quinn, he fears defending them will get him tagged as a commie sympathizer. Hoerr renders his uncle's betrayal in trenchant, minimalist detail:
"Harry listened [to Quinn's plea] without comment. And then a bell rang for a House vote. He got up from his desk, took his Panama hat from a rack, and started out the door. He stopped and said, 'You fellows have to clear yourselves.'"
With that, Quinn is left to fend for himself. The rest of the book details the way these men's lives -- and the labor movement as a whole -- diverged and fractured.
Hoerr's narrative can be choppy. As the author acknowledged in an interview, "One of the hardest things was organizing the book so that I could move between the three main characters." There are redundancies when Hoerr backs up and starts retelling history from different points of view. And while Hoerr displays some of his detective work, the prose falls a bit short of Raymond Chandler.
Still, Hoerr does dig up fresh dirt, proving there were communists in the UE, despite denials by some. (He takes pains, however, to note there is no evidence of them engaging in subversive activity.)
Hoerr is understandably ambivalent about his uncle's legacy. On one hand, Davenport's first act as a congressman was to try to abolish the HUAC. The book notes approvingly that he "was among the most active of all first-year representatives," a pro-labor progressive who "attacked bigotry and discrimination." But as Hoerr says today, "Betrayal is one of the most odious behaviors." And Davenport didn't leave much of a legacy other than his speeches, whose sentiments he later betrayed.
Davenport lost his 1950 re-election bid anyway, and never recovered. Hoerr coolly charts his uncle's long spiral into alcoholism and isolation, documenting how this promising politician, and politics itself, failed us all. Tom Quinn's first utterance in the book -- "He was very progressive, and we had high hopes for him" -- could be the last word on Davenport's career.
Quinn, in fact, is the book's hero. While no ideologue (if someone's a good union man, he says, "I don't give a shit whether they are Communists or not") he never backs down. Threatened with contempt of Congress by the HUAC, Quinn retorts "I don't have contempt for Congress, just contempt of this committee."
Monsignor Rice, meanwhile, remains a cipher. Due to Rice's failing memory (the priest is in his 90s), Hoerr relies mostly on earlier interviews and Rice's published writings to explain the priest's actions. It's a testament to Rice that the record makes this easy: In later years, Rice publicly admitted misgivings about the witch hunts.
Hoerr is best known as the author of And the Wolf Finally Came, the definitive account of the steel industry's collapse. Some seeds of that collapse, he says today, might have been planted by anti-communist hysteria. Some of the union's best activists were ousted by McCarthyite purges, depleting labor's ranks while adding to its distrust of management. And had unions not turned on each other in the Red Scare, says Hoerr, labor "might have gotten to a point where it didn't just negotiate for better wages and benefits. It might have looked outward, to the health of the whole community." Such a perspective might have helped the union see, and act upon, the larger picture when the industry faltered.
Over the long term, in other words, anti-communism might have done precisely what it feared the communists wanted to do: weaken Pittsburgh's "crucible of democracy" from within.