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Slayton: McCarthy Era In Vermont

Senator Ralph Flanders confronts Senator Joseph McCarthy and his aide Roy Cohn in a vintage photograph from the Associated Press.

We like to think of Vermont as an honest, open-hearted place. Would national politics ever cloud or distort that? Perish the thought!

But despite our preconceptions, Vermont has no exclusive corner on virtue, civic or otherwise. And our experience as a state during the McCarthy Era in the late 40s and early 50s demonstrates that fact - in clear and depressing detail.


A new book, Red Scare in the Green Mountains, by Rick Winston of Calais, shows that Vermont escaped the worst extremes of McCarthyism — but at times, just barely. 


Consider, for example, that Vermont’s US congressman at the time, Charles Plumley, consistently charged that his opponents were closet Communists or chummy with Communists. Without a shred of evidence he also called for firing schoolteachers who had leftist sympathies, and consistently criticized organized labor, associating it with Communism at every opportunity.


There’s more. The Burlington Free Press and the Burlington Daily News called for the firing of Luther McNair, vice-principal at Lyndon State Teachers’ College, after McNair dared to suggest that American foreign policy was less than enlightened because it did not support “people struggling for freedom.” And University of Vermont Professor Alex Novikoff was fired by the university’s board of trustees because he had taken the 5th Amendment during a Congressional hearing.  


Joe McCarthy himself claimed that Vermont was “infested” with Communists and then-Vermont Governor Harold J. Arthur promised to “purge” the state of Communists, calling for a full-scale investigation.


Fortunately, these disturbing trends were opposed by Robert Mitchell at The Rutland Herald and John Drysdale at The White River Valley Herald, who pointed out that most of the charges were baseless, and that the Red Scare was often the creation of local gossips - pumped up by opportunistic politicians. 


And it was Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders, a Republican, who led the Senate in finally censuring McCarthy.


Nevertheless, the era’s history is a sobering reminder that we’re no more immune today than we were 70 years ago to the politics of fear-mongering, rumor and untruths that can do so much damage to both private lives and civic institutions - not even here in Vermont.


Rick Winston’s new book, “Red Scare in the Green Mountains,” is well written, deeply researched and important, both as history, and as a cautionary tale for today.