Jewish Women In America; Ellen Schrecker Professor of American History, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University
This show was made possible by a grant from the Jewish Women's Foundation of New York. Welcome to Jewish Women in America, a television series that celebrates the contribution of Jewish Women to U.S. Society. I'm Blanche Wiesen Cook, and my guest today is Ellen Shrecker. Professor of History at Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University, and a leading scholar on American politics,
particularly the politics of the Cold War, McCarthyism, Welcome, Ellen Shrecker. Thank you. I'm so delighted that you are here at this moment of, I don't know what to call it, the continued repression of a legacy, a century from the pomerades to the McCarthy period. And your books have given us, I think, the most comprehensive and important sense of the costs, the domestic costs of the Cold War. The first book, no ivory tower, McCarthyism, and the universities, which is so applicable and useful today, and we've got to get it back into print. And then the age of McCarthyism, which we have here, a brief history with the documents, and many are the crimes, which is really a stunning book.
Many are the crimes, McCarthyism in America, you're working on a new book called Cold War Triumphalism, which, yeah, that'll be out in the spring. It's a collection of essays by a lot of people trying to assess the impact of the Cold War on the contemporary scene. Here we are in year, is it really year three, of this administration, and the USA Patriot Act, which cast such a poll on traditional civil liberties, trial by jury, trial by peers and jury, kind of a trial. And the Patriot Act has pulled big hunks of government action, federal action, out of the judicial system altogether. So what we're seeing is a more blatant form of political repression, I think, than anything, really since the pomerades, and certainly at a much broader scope than during that earlier period.
Let's pause on that. I mean, folks forget, and then there are folks who never knew, that during World War I, and after World War I, there was this assault on unionism, labor rights, the so-called, quote, red scare. Okay, and what were reds? Well, reds were unionist, socialist, communist, but it was a great variety of folks who were reds. And the same thing happened after World War II, and indeed, before World War II, from 1938 to 1944, there's the Dyes Committee, the House and American Activities Committee. And McCarthy, you know, it's called the Age of McCarthy, but McCarthy was just a part of this really very sinister effort, essentially to create a uni party, a party of just very limited vision. I think the main thing that McCarthy isn't, and I stress that, isn't, because I think it's much more than just, you know, one senator, although he certainly played a role here. But I think what it did was really narrow political dissent in this country, and I don't think we've ever recovered.
What it was doing was during the early years of the Cold War, essentially marginalizing all voices that were critical of the Cold War, all voices that wanted to expand the notion of civil rights, for example, beyond a kind of legal notion and bring in economic equality. But marginalized voices calling for an expansion of the welfare state. And so what we had was a very narrow political debate in this country that people from other cultures and Europeans, people from elsewhere, sort of look at the United States, and they sort of see it as a sort of pathetic political narrow and not very labor party. We don't have a legitimate left that considered legitimate, so that the range of debate is limited. Yes.
And that it remains to this day, so that as a result for that reason, people are really, I think, afraid to speak out. That's why the Patriot acts zips through Congress. Right. That's why the Iraq War is still a little slowly here, because this is Jewish women in America. If you look at the pomerades, and the victims of the pomerades, I mean, one thinks immediately of emigulable, and that great anarchist movement, you know, in the wobblies, and all of the Jewish and labor-born people that were rounded up, many of them deported. I mean, hundreds of people were deported. We go to McCarthyism, and again, you know, there really is a disproportionate, you know, this notion of reds and Jews and communists and Jews. I mean, the propaganda and the rhetoric of the propaganda was so anti-Semitic. And here we are today in this hideous moment where folks from all over the world, I mean, at the city university, we have students from 175 nations. And college presidents all over the country, John Hopkins has recently had in the John Hopkins magazine a statement about how hard it is for their students to get visas, how hard it is for their students who are their star pupils, many of them, to return when they go home for holiday.
And so we're seeing another level of outrage that is an across the board war against, quote, refugees or immigrants or folks without power. And it's just frightening. And in this case, unlike perhaps the pomerade when the ACLU was just starting, we have the ACLU, the CCR, the Center for Constitutional Rights, taking these cases on. But a lot of folks are saying this moment is the worst. Is it? In some respects, I think it is. It's not being focused on a, quote, unquote, Native American dissenters. It's not that. It's focusing on entire communities, which are being absolutely decimated in the aftermath of 9-11. There was a massive crackdown against Muslims, against people of South Asian and Middle Eastern.
Exactly. And what that means, of course, is that these people, especially those who are not citizens, are being effectively silenced. There are people who often have something to say have a great deal to tell us about what's going on in other parts of the world. And those are voices that are lost to the broader American dialogue. So I think we're really seeing, you know, not to mention a whole questions of safety and, quote, unquote, counter-terrorism, the fact that by alienating a community whose members, the government needs in order to do human intelligence, quote, unquote, is so counterproductive. But I think we're also seeing here a kind of almost jerk, knee-jerk reaction that when a crisis comes, and this has happened over and over in American history, I'm in the process of doing a more general book on political repression in the United States. We're going back to the Alien and Sedition Acts. And in every case, it's some kind of crisis, usually a war, in which the immediate reaction is crackdown, limit rights, shut up critics, particularly shut up critics.
Ellen, you teach at Stern College, Ishivi University, and I had the great privilege in my life to have Stern College, one of my first jobs before you. What's it like teaching at Stern College? What do you teach there? I teach American history, I teach every kind of American history because we have a very small department. So, for example, this semester, I'm teaching about Vietnam. I have a course of Vietnam, I have a course of an American foreign policy. And my students are wonderful. They are just so engaged and so willing to take risks in the classroom and ask questions and sort of deal with ideas that they're not completely comfortable with. They're interested. And so, I am just, you know, this is, I guess, my 16th year there. I also teach uptown at the men's college.
So, I have a kind of laboratory test for, you know, gender differences in higher education, which is fascinating because it turns out they, except for the handwriting, the differences, it'll actually aren't that great or almost negligible, but the guys really can't write. It's almost impossible to read their handwriting. It's not that they can't express themselves, but you can't read their handwriting. But that's the major gender difference I've found. That's really interesting. So, you've been there, when I first started to teach there, there were Cauchered. This is an orthodox college and the girls had a Cauchered brigade. They'd go around seeing what the faculty were eating, what they were eating in restaurants. No, that does not exist. That doesn't exist anymore. These things have modernized progress happened. The biggest, now is the dress code.
The dress code. Oh, yeah. There are some women at Stern who have been seen wearing pants. And that's still not allowed. Well, they're, they're softening a little. And certain, certain parts of certain buildings. That's great. So, Ellen, you have spent your life working on repression, working on McCarthyism, working on the limits of freedom. How did you get that way? Where did, where did this, you know, set passion, this great passion for justice come from? I guess it came from my mother. I had a, I guess you want my background like. I came from a German Jewish background. You know, my family, on both sides, had been in this country since the early 19th century. There were even some people who were here in the 18th century.
There were department stores. I mean, they, they were fairly, what you would call, hope bourgeois. And my mother, for some reason, had this thing for social justice. That I had always assumed maybe was because she was Jewish, I don't know. I mean, this was not a, my family was very conscious of being Jewish, but it was a very different kind of Judaism than people would, you wouldn't recognize it as such today. I mean, very secular, but still Jewish. I mean, we had Hanukkah, we had saters, although I once, one of my, one of my family saters, they serve roles. Not, not so. Not, not so role. So secular. We're talking about that. A simulated secular German tribe, right. Right. But my mother was always very into, like, the civil rights movement, very early. I mean, I can remember at one point when we were kids, there was a restaurant near us
that we used to go and have dinner at fairly regularly. And we discovered that they refused to serve black. So my mother refused to go there anymore. And later on, she was working in a freedom school. You know, she really threw herself into a lot. Where did you grow up? I grew up outside Philadelphia. So we're in Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia. So there's a freedom school in Philadelphia. She was going to be teaching there. So, you know, that was kind of in my background. And I always assumed this was what one did. And of course, I had been in school. I must have been in about six, seven grade during the McCarthy period. And so, it's old enough to know it was important. I might not have known exactly what was happening. Does your teachers get fired or disappeared? I was at, one of my teachers was fired. Again, it was so typical of McCarthy period. Nobody told us why. You know, everything was secret shoved under the rug.
He did it as well. You know, because he wanted to, he retired teacher. The fire teacher did because he wanted to get hired somewhere else. So you don't make a case, you know. And that's one of the problems with the McCarthy period. As it is with most political oppression, the people tend to keep it as quiet as they can. We both saw it. That's a little bit different than the USA Patriot Act, where folks are disappearing. We have now created our own vid disappeared as if we're Argentina. Exactly. And folks are told, well, we can't tell you whose house is going to be broken into whose computer is going to be disembodied. Right. It's right there in the past. It disappeared. You know, the secrecy now actually is much worse. Yeah. Let's come back to that. I didn't mean to interrupt your girlhood in Philadelphia. You know, so anyhow, I was growing up at a time where I was very conscious of McCarthyism, even if my family was not affected. I mean, my mother was a kind of good ADA liberal.
You know, they were ADA liberals. That's the Americans for Democratic Action. Cold War. Right. And when Roosevelt and others found it, the ADA. And so they may have known people who had had some communist connection, but they themselves had to come. No, they just weren't. They were anti-McCarthy, certainly. And so I got into writing about McCarthyism when I was teaching freshman composition at Harvard in the mid 1970s. And in those days, you could teach like a little mini course. So you went from Philadelphia to where did you go? I went to Radcliffe and then I just stayed on for graduate school. And I got my PhD and didn't know what I wanted to do. So I was teaching in the freshman composition program. And you could teach something in your specialty. So I decided I'd teach a course on the 50s, because I'd grown up there and I thought it would be kind of fun. And so I'm teaching about the 50s
and I'm looking for a book about McCarthyism. And I can't find it. You had to write it. Nothing. Exactly. And I talk about it with my students and they say, well, why do we have to know this? I'd say, shut up. It's important. I'm not a very good pedagogy either. And so finally, after about two years of this, I was looking for a project anyhow. And I decided, OK, I'll do it. And I was very fortunate. I got a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute. And that sort of validated the whole project. And I was able to get a publisher. And originally, I was going to write the book on McCarthyism. And everybody was saying to me, too big. Narrow it down. Do something else. So I did. And the first book I did was on the universities in McCarthyism, this sort of academic blacklisting that went on. And then I finished that. And there still wasn't the book that I was looking for.
So then I decided I'd write it. And did many other crimes, which I had hoped was the last book I would ever write on McCarthyism. And then along comes Ashcroft. And what happened, which was interesting, was about three years ago, all of a sudden, get calls from journalists, calls to talk on this show and that show. And clearly, and beyond panels for CUNY and whatever, whatever, whatever. It was still relevant. And so I was going to do a sort of small, book on Ashcroft and McCarthyism. And then I realized what I really wanted to do was something a little broader. And so I'm working with a, I have a collaborator who is a political scientist at Brooklyn College, named Corey Robin. And he and I are doing a book on sort of general overview of political oppression in the United States
and how it operates. And what do you, and it's going to be from 17, 89, from 17,000. Yeah, to the present. It's not going to be a history. It's going to be much more theoretical. Mainly because there is nothing that talks about how does political repression operate in a modern so-called democratic society. There is no such book. Let's sort of just focus a little bit. I mean, one of the, I think, in my opinion, as I always like to say, because my students used to wear guns to class at John James. Oh, sure. I got into the habit of saying in my opinion. One of the most dastardly realities that you evoke so vividly and no ivory towers is the silence. Is the silence about what was happening when faculty was fired and the kind of quote, which hunts against faculty. And the attempt, which I think is a failed attempt
to silence faculty now. But what is not a failed attempt is the debate on the general media has become silent. So I think that the universities are still fighting the good fight, you know, not to be silenced, to make sure that we don't lose our civil liberties, to make sure that we are the, you know, watch tower. Well, I think that self-censorship is clearly an issue. It's clearly an issue. I would say among Jews with regard to Israel, for example, I would say it's an issue. Many often because people want to be respectable. They want to stay within the limits of some kind of mainstream. They don't want to be marginalized. And you get, you know, at the time of 9-11
and the buildup to the Iraq war, you did have people in the mainstream media later saying, I held back. You know, I censored myself. Dan Rather said that. Christiana Amumpur said that. It was, you know, and that's really very scary. Right. Fear is very scary. It is. You know, and in my volume two of Eleanor Roosevelt have a chapter called The Silence Beyond Repair, which is about the silence in the 30s about what was happening, you know, to European Jews, about which the US essentially knew everything. And now there's a kind of Shah policy. Don't speak of it. And this, and the very first thing, you know, Lynn Cheney, who tried to silence the AHA when I think we were both on the accounts of the AHA at the time, you know, we should not have a full debate.
We should not discuss. And what are the limits of history as they would be imposed from on high? And we resisted that. And you were part of a case. In fact, it was called the Shrekker case to get, you know, tell us about the Shrekker case. Well, this is another form of silencing, which is keeping things secret. And my case was a Freedom of Information Act case. I had, when I was first working on many other crimes, I had requested two FBI files sent in my FOI. A request, nothing happened, nothing, nothing, nothing. Years passed, nothing. Finally, I get a lawyer, and then I begin to get the files, which tells us a great deal about how these things operate. We found it something called the Fund for Open Information and Accountability, FOI, Inc. With a battery of lawyers, and in the 60s, I'm sorry, in 78, we won this huge case, the American Friends Service Committee versus Webster.
And we got the Cointell profiles, the Peace Files, the Civil Rights Files, Martin Luther King files, all of that, women's internationally with Peace and Freedom. And then we created at the OAH a committee, called the Freedom of Information and Access Committee. And the OAH took on your case as a continuation of what we had started to do, really very early in the 70s, with the first Sunshine Law, Bella Absig's Law, and the Freedom of Information Act. What happened to you? Well, what my case was was I got the files, but they were heavily redacted, you know, full of everything being blacked out. And what we wanted to find out was who, mainly who the informers were, who were what kinds of people are being charged. And these were files from the 1940s and early 50s, which meant that probably these people were dead.
And what the government said was even 50-year-old files, we're not going to release any names unless you can prove that these people are dead. Well, how can you prove that somebody's dead, if you don't know who the people are? And the court went along with the government, you know, showed no common sense about the fact that probably these people were dead, and refused to allow the opening of files even though they're 50-years-old. The good news is that both the AHA, the American Historical Association and the OAH are fighting for the Freedom of Information Act. They are fighting for the Presidential Papers Act, which by executive order, President Bush, just canceled. And they are fighting for access to our documents, many of which have been reclassified.
I mean, in the 70s and the Housey and years of Nixon-Fort and Carter, they were declassified. Now, many of them are being reclassified. So, you know, in terms of secrecy and information, there's a war on. And the good news is that you're in the forefront, and the historians are in the forefront of fighting for that. But it's very hard because, you know, what we've got is a judiciary that is not being very helpful either. Well, I think what folks need to do is read your books, particularly we're going to get back into print, every tower, and I think that the age of McCarthyism is in print. It's still in print, and many are the crimes, which is so spectacular and important. And the new book that's coming out in the spring, it's called Cold War Triumphalism, exposing the misuse of history after the full of communism. And what's in it? We've got essays by a number of Cold War historians, Commerce Johnson, Maryland Young, Bruce Cummings,
Nelson Lichtenstein, Michael Bernstein. It's a rusty Eisenberg. It's a pretty broad range of people in a wide range of fields. American historians in diplomatic history, economic history, a lot of intellectual history, labor history, and we're all trying to sort of puzzle out what the Cold War means. That's great. And who's publishing it? It's being published by the new press. Oh, super. Yeah. And it's called Cold War Triumphalism. Yes. And we've got the great cover with Ronald Reagan on horseback. Oh, spectacular. We have very little time what should folks who care about justice and who care about civil liberties at this moment be doing besides if they haven't read your books, read your books? I think you've got to keep the pressure on the pressure on Congress, the pressure at every level. We've got to repeal the Patriot Act. There's a lot of work to do out there.
And on that note, I am very sorry to say Ellen Shreker, we are out of time. Thank you for talking with us. Thank you. Your work is inspiring. Their gifts forever. And we have a lot of work to do. And we'll do it more informed by your books. Thanks a lot. Thanks a lot. I'm Blanche Wiesen Cook for Jewish Women in America. Thank you for coming. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
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- Ellen Schrecker a historian at the Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University, talks about her area of scholarship, the McCarthy period in American history. Hosted by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Original tape date: February 18, 2004.
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- APA: Jewish Women In America; Ellen Schrecker Professor of American History, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University . Boston, MA: CUNY TV, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-522-h707w6874s