About

National Endowment for the Humanities Logo


A National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar
for K-12 Teachers and Selected Graduate Students

June 25- July 20, 2018 (4 Weeks)

Aerial Shot of Emory University towards the West with Downtown in background.

Thank you for your interest in my summer seminar on "Communism and American Life", sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The seminar will be offered from June 25- July 20, 2018 on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. I hope it will include teachers with a wide range of interests and backgrounds, from the sciences and humanities, as well as history and the social sciences.

Communism may be dead and discredited except for a handful of countries- but no one interested in 20th century history can ignore its influence and importance. Even in the United States, where communism never became a mass movement, it still had a profound impact on national life and culture. In the 1920s and 1930s a small but significant number of Americans were attracted to its doctrines and in the latter decade played an important role in the labor and student movements. But its afterlife has been even more consequential.

Beginning in the late 1940s anti-communism became one of the most powerful forces in American life. Joseph McCarthy gave his name to an era marked by explosive charges of subversion, dramatic trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss, and accusations of violations of civil liberties. And while the Communist issue has long since receded, in the last decade there have been periodic reminders that it still has the power to excite emotions. When the Motion Picture Academy decided to honor director Elia Kazan, there were angry protests because he had been an informer before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Recent revelations about Soviet espionage in America have prompted fierce arguments about such iconic figures as I.F. Stone, Ernest Hemingway, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Recently, an Oliver Stone series for Showtime that glorified the Communist-backed candidate for President in 1948, Henry Wallace, ignited more controversy.

Why has the debate about American Communism been so intense and lengthy? Why does it still resonate in American life? What kinds of dilemmas did and does the communist issue pose for democratic societies? What does recent scholarship suggest about such major symbolic issues as the Hiss and Rosenberg cases? These are the kinds of questions that I am interested in exploring in this seminar on Communism and American Life.

In an attempt to answer such questions, I have focused my own scholarship on American radicalism and communism, writing several books on the American Communist Party and espionage, including The Heyday of American Communism (Basic Books, 1984), The Secret World of American Communism (Yale, 1995), The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism (North Carolina, 1996), Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (Yale, 1999), and Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale, 2009). Much of my recent scholarship has been based on documents from Russian archives and decrypted World War II cables released by American intelligence agencies after the end of the Cold War. The opportunity to explore these fascinating issues at this time with thoughtful colleagues in a relaxed seminar is exciting and exhilarating. We will have an opportunity to come away with an appreciation for one of the great controversies of twentieth-century history and for the dilemmas that the communist issue posed for democratic societies.

Although not all of the texts for the seminar were written in the 1930s, the political experiences of that decade- the depression, the rise of fascism and the purges in the Soviet Union- structured the response of many Americans to communism for the next generation. The horrible economic depression that afflicted Western capitalist societies and the rise of fascism propelled many people to the political left. The brutal purges in the Soviet Union starkly raised the relationship between means and ends and the value of individual rights. And, the so-called "red decade" sparked a virulent anti-communism that flourished in the post World War II era.

The seminar will begin with some brief historical readings to give participants a basic background in American communism and familiarity with some of the controversies over its historiography. We will also view the movie, "Reds", based on the life of John Reed, one of the founders of American Communism and a documentary, "Seeing Red", on the history of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Members of the seminar will do a dramatic reading of Clifford Odets' short agitprop drama, Waiting For Lefty, and listen to a variety of folk songs, written and sung by such Party members as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, that emerged from the Communist movement and that convey a sense of the appeal of communism.

Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger Image

The first book we will read is John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, an account of the efforts of a group of Communists to organize a strike among migratory workers in California in the 1930s.

Strikers in Trucks

Next, we will read Richard Wright's autobiographical American Hunger. Author of Native Son, one of the great American novels, Wright was a Party member in the 1930s and remained a fellow traveler into the 1940s.

Cover of Richard Wright's American Hunger.

The third major book for the seminar is Whittaker Chambers' powerful Witness, perhaps the classic work of anti-communist autobiography by the man who accused Alger Hiss of being a Soviet spy and helped launch Richard Nixon's national political career.

Alger Hiss testifying Whittaker Chambers

We will follow that with Lillian Hellman's best-selling autobiography, Scoundrel Time, a defense of "progressives" and a fierce denunciation of anti-communism by one of America's best-known playwrights. We will also discuss the relationship between Jews and American communism, using the controversy over the Rosenberg spy case as a springboard.

Photo of Lilliam Hellman

The final section of the seminar will emphasize the theme of informing. We will read Arthur Miller's The Crucible, widely acknowledged as a classic of American theater, written after he had refused to "name names" before a congressional committee.Photo of a production of

On the Waterfront movie poster.

Along with The Crucible, we will see and discuss On the Waterfront, an Academy-award winning drama about informing starring Marlon Brando, that was written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. Both Kazan and Schulberg had "named names" before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Three visiting faculty will enrich the seminar. Maurice Isserman of Hamilton College, whose analysis of the Communist movement differs from my own, will be here during the first week to present his interpretation. Lauren Weiner, who has written on the Communist role in folk music, will sing a number of songs that defined the era. Robert Gabrick, a participant in one of my earlier seminars, with whom I wrote a curriculum guide for school teachers, will be available to assist teachers interested in integrating some of this material into their own courses.

There will be a film series to enable everyone to see some old classics about communism (My Son John, The Front, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I Was A Communist for the FBI) and several recent documentaries about Soviet espionage.

My Son John movie poster. The Front, movie poster. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, movie poster. I was a Communist for the FBI, movie poster.

I have taught this NEH seminar or a variant of it on several occasions and each time it has been a terrific occasion both for the participants and myself. I expect all participants to be fully engaged in the work of the seminar. For my part, in forty years of teaching, no other experience has proven as stimulating or provocative.