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Deadly Farce: Harvey Matusow and the Informer System in the McCarthy Era

Overview

No issue so possessed the nation in the first half of the 1950s as alleged Communist subversion in the United States. Deadly Farce presents Harvey Matusow, a young Bronx "wise guy" who became a Communist Party member, an undercover FBI informer inside the Party, and then a leading witness for the government during the McCarthy era--until he recanted his testimony. His story illuminates a disturbing time in American history, one with renewed relevance today.

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Overview

No issue so possessed the nation in the first half of the 1950s as alleged Communist subversion in the United States. Deadly Farce presents Harvey Matusow, a young Bronx "wise guy" who became a Communist Party member, an undercover FBI informer inside the Party, and then a leading witness for the government during the McCarthy era--until he recanted his testimony. His story illuminates a disturbing time in American history, one with renewed relevance today.

Matusow was easily the most flamboyant of the "professional" ex-Communists, a celebrity informer who considered himself "booked" by Congressional committees not just to testify, but to entertain. He testified that Communists fostered loose sex, taught politicized Mother Goose rhymes to small children, and tried to infiltrate the Boy Scouts. He also named more than 200 people as Communists and was a prosecution witness in major criminal cases.

Robert M. Lichtman and Ronald D. Cohen draw on FBI records, court transcripts, personal interviews, private papers, and other primary sources, most never before utilized, to describe the unusual role of ex-Communist informer-witnesses during the McCarthy era. The Justice Department kept several dozen political informers on the government's payroll to testify in hundreds of deportation, sedition, and contempt of Congress cases. Some informers achieved celebrity as the result of high-profile appearances at criminal trials and before Congressional committees. But as the era continued, instances of perjury began to appear.

Harvey Matusow's sensational recantation in 1955 gave him his biggest audience yet. It led to the dissolution of the Justice Department's informer stable and ended the public's infatuation with the group.

Matusow's unrepentant and at times vaudevillian appearances before the Senate red-hunting committee investigating his recantation, followed by his prosecution for perjury--for the recantation, not his original testimony--and prison sentence, mark the climax of Deadly Farce.

Matusow's career, during which he came to know Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Pat McCarran, and Elizabeth Bentley, among many others, offers an inside, entertaining, and closely documented view of a largely untold part of McCarthy-era history. The columnist Murray Kempton described Matusow as a "truly remarkable witness in the opera bouffe sense demanded by inquisitions of the 1950s."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Harvey Matusow's life story is strange, even bizarre.  Lichtman and Cohen have presented it with all its contridictions and inconsistencies."--Jewish Journal

"An eye-opening biographical account of one man's role in McCarthy-era history, and his legacy concerning how government informers are treated and regulated to this day."--Bookwatch

"Lichtman and Cohen's devastating documentation of the activities of government officials and prominent anticommunitsts refocuses our understanding of the McCarthy era as a period where the principal concern was not to advance legitimate national security concerns, but to promote a political climate hostile to radicalism, labor activism, and dissent."--Journal of American History

"This is a brilliantly told story of a most unique informer, the figure with the conscience to repudiate his own charges, face down the institutional inquisition now directed toward himself, and try to make up for sins during the rest of his life. . . . The larger scope of this story is the institutional operation of the domestic Cold War, something with more relevance today than at any time during the last 30 years or so . . . . The authors make the point that the Justice Department was behind it all, more sinister than J. Edgar Hoover's operation because its officials made the key decisions to indict and imprison."--Paul Buhle, Left History

"The job of telling [this story] was rendered unusually difficult by Matusow's penchant for lying continuously about practically everything (especially himself), and for repeatedly changing his version of events. Lichtman and Cohen have handled a tough task quite skillfully. Their book is extremely well researched . . . . To be sure, readers will not gain from it a complete understanding of Matusow. No book could provide that. This enigmatic and self-contradictory figure probably did not fully understand himself. Lichtman and Cohen have done as much as mere scholars could, however, to make the twists and turns of Matusow's convoluted life comprehensible. This is a valuable book that makes a small but extremely important contribution to our understanding of the national nightmare painfully remembered as McCarthyism."--American Historical Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252075162
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 3/18/2008
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author


Robert M. Lichtman, a Washington lawyer for nearly thirty years, has practiced in San Francisco since 1986. Ronald D. Cohen is a professor emeritus of history at Indiana University Northwest and is a past president of the Historians of American Communism.
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