The Liberal Dilemma: University Students Confront McCarthyism, 1947--1954

Date of Completion

January 2011


American Studies|History, United States|Journalism|History, Modern|Political Science, General|Education, Higher




Through an examination of letters to-the-editor and opinion pieces in college student newspapers in the period 1947 – 1954, this dissertation analyzes the response of college liberals to the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It establishes that the liberal response to rightwing attacks was defensive, aimed at warding off efforts to conflate liberalism with communism, but not at striking back at the opposing ideology of conservative itself. The dissertation then goes on to examine the language used in the interchanges between rightwing anticommunists and moderate liberals, finding that those interchanges did not constitute an effort to persuade but rather an effort to discredit, destroy, with the goal of establishing ideological hegemony, an ideological monopoly, so to speak. The evidence shows that the battle was waged over conflicting versions of freedom and constituted an attempt by each side to lay exclusive claim to that word. The connection between freedom, individualism, Americanism, and the institution of private property are explored, and the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim is employed to demonstrate that rightwing anticommunists and moderate liberals actually subscribed to two different and mutually incompatible patterns of sociation, making the conflict much more profound and less open to reconciliation than a simple difference of opinion would have been. In an effort to understand the liberal response, the dissertation continues on to examine liberal ideology, finding the combination of the liberal adherence to both pragmatism and political pluralism to have been responsible for the weakness of this response. ^