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Enforcing the Red Scare—From the FBI to the VA

Watching a government punish those who disagree with it is usually painful to observe. Experiencing it on any level is even worse. Being subjected to virtually everything short of imprisonment or death in a government’s attempts to silence you is like being in a labyrinth to which there is no exit, no thread of Ariadne, only endless passages that always end up in dead ends. In the US of A, that labyrinth most often takes the shape of a legal battle; a battle where the tremendous resources of the state (which of course writes and interprets its laws) are brought against an individual often without resources or connections and armed only with a belief in their right to hold the opinions they are being punished for.

This describes the plight World War Two veteran James Kutcher found himself in when he was summarily dismissed from his clerk job with the US Veterans Administration in 1948. It had taken Kutcher a few years to find any kind of work after both his legs were destroyed during a battle in Italy and subsequently amputated. However, due to his perseverance and a desire to work and support his parents, Kutcher was able to land the position in 1946. Then came an intensification of the so-called Red Scare. In its search for an enemy to replace the defeated Third Reich and the Japanese emperor, the US military-industrial complex turned towards its true enemy, the Soviet Union. Despite the fact of Moscow’s defining participation on the side of the west in the battle against Nazism, most of capitalist America had always considered the Soviet Union and the political philosophy it claimed to subscribe to—communism—to be the real threat to their way of life.

James Kutcher was a socialist. However, his party the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) did not consider the Soviet Union to be socialist or communist, but a failed workers’ state. Furthermore, at the time of Kutcher’s membership, many in the SWP actually saw the Soviet Union as a bigger enemy than the monopoly capitalist USA. Nonetheless, several leaders of the SWP were in prison after being convicted of advocating the illegal overthrow of the US government in 1941. So, when Harry Truman gave his attorney general the power to expand a list of organizations considered subversive, the SWP was on the list. The list, called the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations (AGLOSO), grew from eleven organizations to more than fifty. In addition, a Loyalty Review Board was established. The organizations on the list had very little recourse to appeal their inclusion, since FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and others argued that allowing reviews would delay the list’s enactment.

James Kutcher was dismissed from his Veterans Administration (VA) job in October 1948 because he was a member of the SWP. Both distraught and angry, he contacted some party members who counseled that he had a couple possible choices. Essentially, this meant he could either renounce his political views and party membership or he could fight for his job and against the AGLOSO with hunt. Kutcher chose the latter course. No one—not Kutcher, his persecutors, his legal team or the SWP—could have known the manifestations of that decision. Kutcher’s travels through the justice system are reminiscent of those faced by the Franz Kafka’s protagonist Josef K. in his novel, The Trial.

Recently, the University of Kansas Press published a book about Kutcher’s case. Although Kutcher had written an autobiography in the early 1950s that was republished by SWP’s Pathfinder Press in 1973, his story was largely forgotten. The new book, titled Discrediting the Red Scare: The Cold War Trials of James Kutcher, “The Legless Veteran” and written by Robert Justin Goldstein, revives Kutcher’s story at a time when government prosecution of thought is experiencing a comeback.

The story Goldstein relates is one of legal entanglements and legal battles. It is also one where the prosecution held most the cards, changing the rules at will and when it suited them. On the other hand, Kutcher and his supporters showed a determination and will that the US government and its agencies certainly did not expect, especially from a disabled veteran. For this reviewer, the ultimate illustration of the government’s ideologically driven heartlessness took place when the VA attempted to take away Kutcher’s disability checks. After drafting him into a war that permanently disabled him, taking away his job and trying to take away his home, the US government had the gall to try and take away the only income he had. Fortunately, they failed.

Discrediting the Red Scare is a detailed examination of how political witch hunts can affect the individual citizen. Set in the context of the Red Scare of the late 1940s and the 1950s, it is also the story of a courageous fight waged by an ordinary man and an organization against such witch hunts. As any observer of today’s world is aware, America’s long running persecution of those with contrary beliefs has not ended; neither has the fight against that persecution. Goldstein’s study serves as both a textbook case and an inspiration.