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Monica Crowley in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 15, 2016. (AP) Monica Crowley in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 15, 2016. (AP)

Monica Crowley in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 15, 2016. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson June 17, 2022

The Pants on Fire claim that communists have controlled U.S. institutions for decades

If Your Time is short

• The USSR, and to a lesser extent communist China, have sought to influence the U.S. over decades, including through spying and ideological persuasion. Some  Americans in entertainment, education, and the media were sympathetic to those ideas, primarily in the 1930s and 1940s.

• However, none of these pillars of U.S. society were ever directly controlled by overseas communists, much less all of them, experts say. 

• The real-life examples of communist influence in the U.S. are scattered and decades-old. In each of these sectors, active efforts by anti-communists purged those sympathetic to communism.

During a recent interview with Fox News, Monica Crowley, a conservative commentator and longtime foreign policy specialist, made a bold claim: Overseas communists have controlled key institutions of American life for decades.

Crowley, who served as assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department during the Trump administration, was interviewed on the June 12 edition of the weekly Fox News show "The Next Revolution With Steve Hilton." 

In the interview, she accused President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party of running the United States into the ground on purpose. She said such America-destroying efforts by liberals are part and parcel of a longstanding plan hatched by the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Crowley began by saying, "It’s tough for most Americans to understand that their president and a whole major political party in the U.S. is intentionally destroying and crippling the United States. But that’s exactly what is happening here. And unless and until we understand that, we’re not going to be able to counter it in an effective way."

Hilton expressed agreement with Crowley’s analysis, then asked her where Democrats’ desire to hurt the country has come from. Crowley responded:

"This has been a long-term project by the left. It actually began in the 1930s, and it came out of the KGB (the former Russian secret police agency). It was a KGB operation to destroy the country. And then after World War II, the Soviets actually changed their tactics. And what they decided to do, and it’s been very effective for many decades, is infiltrate and grab control of the major pillars of U.S. life. They grabbed control of the culture — so entertainment, movies, television, music. They grabbed control of academia, at the university level and now it’s all the way shot down through kindergarten and even younger. And they grabbed control of the news media. 

"With those pillars, they have been able to inflict tremendous damage over many decades. And now we are at a tipping point where the useful idiots on the left -- the Soviet Union collapsed, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) stepped in to take over this grand project to destroy the country from within -- that’s exactly what’s happening. And now when you have useful idiots in the highest levels of power, including in the White House, including in Congress, you’re seeing an acceleration of the tipping point, to the point where we’re almost at the point of no return."

We interviewed more than a dozen experts in the history of communist influence in the United States and they offered a unanimous answer: While the Soviet Union did seek to control major pillars of the United States, and while the USSR chalked up a few scattered successes decades ago in attracting support in the U.S., Crowley is flat-out wrong to say the USSR or China has ever controlled entertainment, education, or media, much less that they are doing so today.

Multiple experts told PolitiFact that Crowley is rehashing arguments spread since the 1950s by the John Birch Society and other groups. If anything, they said her exaggeration of widespread overseas communist control of U.S. institutions is more extreme and less accurate.

"The claim that Soviet and Chinese communists ever controlled or now control (such institutions) is nonsense," said Harvey Klehr, a retired Emory University historian whose books include "The Soviet World of American Communism" and "In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage." Klehr is an adviser to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Kevin Boyle, a Northwestern University historian and author of "The Shattering: America in the 1960s," agreed. "Soviet and Chinese communist governments – or any communist governments – never controlled American education, entertainment, or the media. To claim that was ever the case is not only false but absolutely ludicrous."

Asked about Crowley’s theory, Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University and author of "A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars," offered "a resounding no. It’s absurd and doesn’t really merit serious discussion."

Attempts to reach Crowley through social media and through the Richard Nixon Foundation, where she is on the board of directors, were unsuccessful.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, R-Wis., displays a file to reporters on July 25, 1950, after declaring on the Senate floor that an "important" State Department official is a communist. (AP)

What did communists attempt to do in the United States?

Experts were careful to distinguish between nefarious things that communists did accomplish in the U.S. and the notion that they ever controlled key American institutions.

For instance, both the USSR and communist China used spies against the United States. "Soviet spies did penetrate the atomic bomb project, and Alger Hiss (who was accused of spying for the Soviet Union) was at State Department," said William I. Hitchcock, a University of Virginia historian and author of "The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s."

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The USSR also exerted influence over the (relatively small) Communist Party of the USA, said Jon Shelton, a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay professor and author of "Teacher Strike!: Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order."

The highest-profile battles involved Hollywood. In the 1930s and 1940s, "there were Communist Party USA members and sympathizers who were writers, directors, and actors," said Victor Devinatz, a labor historian at Illinois State University. During World War II, some of these figures helped make films that were anti-fascist, at a time when the U.S. was allied with the Soviet Union, and films that had working-class themes, though the films did not explicitly advance communist politics. 

In the 1950s, Sen. Joe McCarthy and other sympathetic members of Congress used hearings to root out communists from public life. Some 300 Hollywood figures who refused to cooperate – whether or not they were actual communists – were blacklisted from 1950 to 1960.

Why communist influence fell well short of ‘control’

One reason why Crowley is misguided, experts said, is that even the USSR’s limited successes in achieving American influence petered out decades ago. 

The Smith Act, passed in the 1940s, essentially outlawed membership in any organization that advocated the overthrow of the government, and leaders of the Communist Party of the USA were prosecuted under it after World War II, Shelton said. In addition, he said, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 forced any union that sought recognition by the National Labor Relations Board to ensure that its leaders signed affidavits that they had never been members of the Communist Party. "Most unions, including those in Hollywood, complied," Shelton said.

Communist Party USA leader Gus Hall in custody at La Guardia Airport in New York, with a deputy U.S. marshal on Nov. 2, 1951. (AP)

But the biggest factor was McCarthy and his allies. "Whatever influence (communists) had vanished in the 1940s," with the rise of McCarthy-style, anti-communist efforts, Klehr said.

Ironically, the USSR had already backed off most of its activities by the time McCarthy’s efforts were under way. 

After 1945, Soviet intelligence officials grew terrified that their entire network of Americans would be hauled before the FBI, Allen Weinstein, author of "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America," said in a 1999 interview. "So they literally stopped all work," Weinstein said. "Knowing this, it’s ironic to think that four to five years before Sen. Joe McCarthy began his escapades, the spies had stopped their work."

Despite this, in each of the sectors cited by Crowley, the anti-communist backlash was swift. "Virtually any time communists won any level of influence, they were dramatically repressed, by many layers of government and civil society," Shelton said.

In K-12 education, for instance, "hundreds of communist elementary and high school teachers were dismissed from their jobs" in the 1940s and 1950s, Devinatz said. And the communist-led Teachers Union in New York City was expelled from both the AFL and the CIO, the key labor umbrella groups. 

While communists did exist in colleges and universities, Klehr said, "they never constituted more than a small minority. Higher education today suffers from many ills, including a suffocating left-wing orthodoxy, but much of it is linked to identity politics and is not driven by communists."

And in the media, a few journalists also lost their jobs over Communist Party membership or alleged membership decades ago, Devinatz said. Today, the idea that communists "control the academy, or the news media, is off the wall," Klehr said.

Ultimately, even the limited success the USSR had in wooing Americans in key professions should not be confused for overseas communist "control" of these institutions, said Larry Tye, author of "Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy." The long history of purges of alleged communists is clear evidence that the individuals who led these institutions were anti-communist, not communist.

"Crowley would claim that anyone with left or liberal ideas is a communist puppet," said Jonathan P. Hunt, a professor of rhetoric and language at the University of San Francisco and author of "Communists in the Classroom: Radicals in U.S. Education,1930-1960." "So if I am in favor of racial equality, or workplace safety regulation, or a 40-hour work week, or any of a hundred other political or social positions, then I must be a communist."

Our ruling

Crowley said that Soviet and Chinese communists have "grabbed control" of U.S. entertainment, movies, television, music, academia, K-12 education and the news media. 

The USSR, and to a lesser extent communist China, have sought to influence the U.S. over decades, including through spying and ideological persuasion. Some individual Americans in entertainment, education, and the media were sympathetic to those ideas, primarily in the 1930s and 1940s.

But even these examples are a far cry from proving that each of these pillars of U.S. society were directly controlled by overseas communists. The real-life examples of communist influence are scattered and decades-old. And in each of the sectors Crowley cited, active efforts by anti-communists purged those sympathetic to communism. That couldn’t have happened if these institutions were actually controlled by communists. 

We rate the statement Pants on Fire.

Our Sources

Monica Crowley, interview on Fox News, June 12, 2022

Washington City Paper, "Spy Counter," Jan. 15, 1999

Email interview with Tim Havens, communications professor at the University of Iowa and author of "Understanding Media Industries," June 16, 2022

Email interview with John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, June 15, 2022

Email interview with Patrick Chura, English professor at the University of Akron, June 15, 2022

Email interview with Maurice Isserman, Hamilton College historian and author of "Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party During the Second World War," June 15, 2022

Email interview with Jeff Woods, professor of history at Arkansas Tech University and author of "Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948--1968," June 15, 2022

Email interview with Jonathan P. Hunt, professor of rhetoric and language at the University of San Francisco and author of "Communists in the Classroom: Radicals in U.S. Education,1930-1960," June 16, 2022

Email interview with Larry Tye, author of "Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy," June 15, 2022

Email interview with Victor Devinatz, labor historian at Illinois State University, June 15, 2022

Email interview with Jon Shelton, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay professor and author of "Teacher Strike!: Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order," June 16, 2022

Email interview with William I. Hitchcock, University of Virginia historian and author of "The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s," June 15, 2022

Email interview with Andrew Hartman, historian at Illinois State University and author of "A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars," June 16, 2022

Email interview with Kevin Boyle, Northwestern University historian and author of "The Shattering: America in the 1960s," June 15, 2022

Email interview with Harvey Klehr, retired Emory University historian whose books include "The Soviet World of American Communism" and "In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage," June 15, 2022

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The Pants on Fire claim that communists have controlled U.S. institutions for decades

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