American liberals approached the end of World War II with high hopes that the postwar era would bring a new flowering of liberal reform. In many ways, conditions appeared ripe for liberal success. Many of the ideologies of the extreme right wing—white supremacy foremost among them—had been adopted by the Nazis, and were thus seriously discredited. Meanwhile, the unusual demands of wartime production had wrought dramatic socio-economic changes within the United States. Women and racial minorities had crossed traditional boundaries by entering the industrial workforce in unprecedented numbers. Labor unions had enlisted within their ranks a greater proportion of the country's workers than ever before or since. The high wages paid by wartime industries had combined with the rationing of consumer goods to dramatically, if temporarily, reduce disparities in wealth between the rich, middle class, and poor. Most Americans supported heavy government intervention in the economy to help prevent a new Depression as the nation converted its industrial production from wartime to peacetime uses.
Franklin Roosevelt's heir as president, Harry S. Truman, declared even before the war ended that "We want to see the time come when we can do the things in peace that we have been able to do in war. If we can put this tremendous machine of ours... to work for peace, we can look forward to the greatest age in the history of mankind."7 Within weeks of the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Truman proposed to Congress an expansive 21-point agenda that included a higher minimum wage, expanded Social Security system, new public works programs, full-employment guarantees, and universal national health insurance. Truman's proposals, if enacted, would have pushed far beyond the limits of the New Deal to begin to create something like social democracy in the United States.
We now know, however, that the end of the Second World War brought not a new age of social reform but rather one of grave international peril—the Cold War. The fallout from the atomic bombs that ended World War II had barely settled before Americans came to fear that a new mortal enemy—Josef Stalin's Soviet Union—had become as great a threat as Hitler or Mussolini had ever been.
The Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union raised an especially awkward problem for American liberals committed to domestic reform—the Communist Problem.
Communists had always been a tiny, despised minority within the American population; the Communist Party USA's membership peaked during World War II at far less than 100,000 members nationwide. Still, Communists took on a more prominent role in American society in the late 1930s and early 1940s than ever before or since. During the Great Depression, Communism and other radical alternatives to capitalism gained at least a small measure of legitimacy through the seeming collapse of the nation's economic system; Communist organizers commonly recruited among the unemployed and on federal work-relief projects. During World War II, when the Soviet Union became our ally in the battle against fascism, Communists were among the most enthusiastic supporters of the American war effort.
Throughout the Roosevelt era, Communists—small in number as they were—became active supporters and participants in many liberal causes. Anyone in the 1930s or 1940s who joined a labor union, or a civil rights organization, or a civil liberties defense group, or a liberal political club was quite likely to have worked alongside Communist activists (although possibly without knowing it, for Communists often kept their Party membership secret).
Up until 1945, the Communists' minority presence within many New Deal-era reform groups was usually an issue that could simply be overlooked. With the dawn of the Cold War, however, everything changed. Suddenly, as the Soviets quickly transformed from uneasy allies to menacing enemies, the presence of Communists within American society became much more problematic, especially for liberals. The Communist Party USA was explicitly committed to worldwide revolution and took its party line from Moscow. In the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, which side would American Communists be on? What would prevent Communists from subverting American institutions to serve the interests of the Kremlin? Should liberals accept Communist support of liberal programs and policies? What would protect American liberals from charges that their tolerance of Communist participation within their organizations undermined national security? Since so many American liberals had—whether inadvertently or not—worked alongside Communists, how could they deflect allegations that they had collaborated with the new enemy?
The Communist problem split America's liberal community, opened the door for rollback of parts of the New Deal, and derailed Truman's hopes for expansive new reform initiatives in the postwar era.
A large majority of American liberals—including, most importantly, President Truman—eventually chose to address their Communist problem through a politics of repudiation: They denounced Communism, renounced any support Communists might attempt to give to their ventures, and launched aggressive efforts to purge Communists from their midst. But this brand of anticommunist, Cold War liberalism had its costs. There were both direct costs—purging talented Communist organizers deprived the labor and civil rights movements of many committed activists—and indirect costs—liberal efforts to weed out Communists fueled a national hysteria over Communist subversion that eventually led to the decidedly illiberal extremes of McCarthyism.