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Senator Joseph Mccarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy

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Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, whose name is still bandied about in contemporary references to "McCarthyism", had only a five year, albeit high profile, career. He was voted "the worst Senator" in the U.S. by Washington reporters in 1951, and retired from politics in 1954 after being condemned by the Senate "for conduct that 'tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute'." Within three years he was dead from alcohol-related disease.

He left behind a reputation as a Communist-baiting, witch-hunting, self-serving demagogue, and I believe that the attitudes that permitted McCarthyism could return, but with an ever-changing target that will likely not include Soviet Communists for the present. It doesn't take a McCarthy to produce a witch-hunt, it takes a people willing to not only tolerate, but to aid and abet one, by not speaking out against violations of civil rights and constitutional guarantees, by informing against their fellows, by cooperating with destructive efforts, and by tolerating excesses. McCarthyism in the 1950s took place within the context of social and political circumstances that favored it, but it was permitted to flourish for more than opportunistic reasons. There is a punitive, fearful, obedient American mindset that has recurred episodically throughout the nation's history, and that predominated when McCarthy began his Red Hunts.

It is my contention that McCarthy was merely a foot-soldier and opportunist who found a niche for a short period of time that permitted him to express a destructive nature in the guise of patriotism. He was an unknown Senator without any notable accomplishments until he marched into the limelight in Wheeling, West Virginia in February of 1950 after stating that he had a list of over 50 employees of the State Department who were Communists or Communist sympathizers. A Senate committee investigated the charges that McCarthy made, then dismissed them as a fraud and a hoax. McCarthy, however, repeated his claims on television and radio, and that began his rise to prominence.

Conditions that favored acceptance of McCarthyism that does not exist today were the following:

  1. A lack of a frame of reference, i.e. most Americans knew no Communist party members
  2. Most Americans accepted the FBI director and President's evaluations of the Communist threat.
  3. The lack of resources for independent investigation at the time made acceptance of government truth the default, and few people were highly educated and fewer traveled, all of which advantaged McCarthy or any demagogue who wishes for their activities and accusations to go unchallenged.
  4. The Internet has provided the means to obtain news and communications, and to make friends with people from many cultures and places in a way that wasn't dreamed of in the 1950s.
  5. Another factor that favored McCarthy's zealous persecutions - the fact that here was some truth in the portrayal of American Communism.

Well-organized cells existed in America, and Party membership had grown greatly during the violently suppressed labor union struggles of the 1920s and '30s. The American Communist Party did maintain ties to Soviets, and there were American Communists who admittedly did their best to infiltrate the media and society with Communist values, if not ideology. Unions were targeted particularly because they really were capable of creating great disruption through industrial sabotage, and leaders and some industries were mostly Communist. Although the Leather and Fur workers were unlikely to threaten national security, the maritime and electrical, radio and machine workers unions were in strategic positions, and had, under Communist leadership, previously struck for higher wages. In case of a conflict with the Soviets, it was worrisome to have Communist union leaders able to compromise or sabotage American security, hence unions were targeted by HUAC and McCarthy to answer questions about their loyalties and activities.

There were also real Communist spies in America. In 1948, before McCarthy took up his cause, State Department official Alger Hiss had been accused of espionage, and HUAC investigators had been led by an informant to hidden microfilms of secret State Department documents. Hiss was sentenced to prison as Americans had to absorb the idea that a Communist had infiltrated the State Department. Further anxiety about Communist infiltration had been created by the confession of Manhattan Project physicist Klaus Fuchs that he had passed atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets. The new threat that Americans felt from an armed Soviet Union translated into a fear of American Communists, who were viewed as traitors.

There is evidence from confessions that there were some American, British, and Canadian spies who were in or close to the Communist Party and who spied for the Soviets for political reasons. They were mostly active, however, during World War II, when the Soviets were American allies, and their spying was believed (by them) to help the Allied cause. The legitimacy of McCarthy's claims have been discussed for decades, and finally, in 2000, declassified CIA and KGB documents revealed that the government had indeed been infiltrated by Communists in some places, though McCarthy did not have or produce reliable or even any proof of it at the time of his accusations. Despite evidence that his instincts for identifying Communists were fairly accurate, it is also clear that his methods were illegal and reprehensible, and any revisionism that portrays McCarthy as a patriot ignores the suffocating, destructive, irrational and unconstitutional atmosphere of the hearings and the ruin that he brought to people.

One socially-based external factor that was critical to McCarthy's success was the widespread, voluntary (or coerced) cooperation with his agenda. In Hollywood in 1950, for example, self-interested film studios and television and radio industries voluntarily subscribed to a special 213 page list for Hollywood industry use, called Red Channels, that exposed the names of musicians, actors, writers and radio and TV entertainers who were suspected of Communism, or later, who were merely deemed suspicious. The list was used voluntarily by film studios and the broadcast industry to blacklist and fire people. Corporations, government agencies and foundations also subscribed to listings for their industries. The figure of only 150 or so people who went to prison as a result of McCarthy's investigations does not accurately reveal the extent to which his public hearings affected people. The "Hollywood 10", ten writers who refused to answer questions when they were called to the hearings, are well-known victims of McCarthy hearings, but there were at least 10,000 others (Schrecker, Blacklists) who lost their jobs for political reasons, and that figure does not count applicants who were black-listed, resigned under duress, or were given an ostensible, other reason for being fired. Suicides resulted from the pressure to either inform on long-time friends, called "naming names" or to be revealed and blacklisted.

This spirit of informing and self-interest is present today as the "Tip Line" that police use, as "America's Most Wanted" television and internet programs, as blatant rewards for turning in terrorists "dead or alive". Neighborhood Watch programs often report "undesirables" who have a legal right to use city streets, and the IRS relies on informants to locate tax evaders. We are becoming a more informant-accepting society, similar to states such as China that depend greatly upon neighbors informing on neighbors under the guise of patriotism.

This passivity or self-interest that kept Americans from protesting or stopping McCarthy immediately was arguable not due to hispersonalinfluence, it was a symptom of an American tendency at the time to accept government and FBI authority, to obey instructions, to "avoid trouble", as one studio executive explained. Again, McCarthy was relatively unimportant as a danger to American freedom, but the American tendency to witch-hunt and punish, coupled with a naive belief in government and politicians and a lack of true Constitutional patriotism deserves to be remembered as something to avoid. The extent to which the public, Congress, press, employers and government, including the executive branch and Supreme Court, cooperated with McCarthy and his findings and accusations is the real source of his influence. Without their support, McCarthy's investigations would have had no teeth.

Had he met with early widespread resistance, public outcry and demonstrations, published objections to his illegal and unconstitutional methods of obtaining evidence and a refusal to cooperate with any firing for political beliefs, in short, had there been a more concerted effort to stop the witch-hunt before it got wings, McCarthy would have likely remained a complete unknown. Even now, he has little importance as an historical figure aside from the fact that he was the man who, at the time, was eager and in a position to publicly express the suspicion, prejudice, hatred and fears of Americans about Communism, homosexuals, what he termed "eggheads", i.e. intellectuals, the foreign-born, liberals, pacifists, and others.

It was only when he attempted to humiliate and discredit one of Eisenhower's generals that he finally carried his inquisition too far and he met with real resistance. The televised session showed him to be a bullying, arrogant, crude man, who was finally bowed, for some reason, by the accusation that he had no decency left in him. Public support evaporated following the televised hearing, and Americans looked for other means of protecting themselves from Cold War Communists.

Whether the threat of Communist infiltration and spying was sufficient to justify the excesses of the McCarthy era is still being debated, but there is no evidence that anything that McCarthy did helped America to become a more secure, free or non-Communist nation. Ironically, McCarthy used information-gathering and social control methods that are very similar to those employed by Communist states. Perhaps the most lasting legacy from the end of the McCarthy era was the instillation in the next generation of a deep suspicion and cynicism toward politicians, the press, Constitutional protections, and the government and its tools of social control.

The McCarthy era is nervously mentioned now in relation to abrupt changes in civil liberties and privacy following the start of a war on terrorism, but it should not be thought of as a reminder to watch out for fanaticism, it should be a reminder to beware of excessive passivity and putting too much trust in government, politicians and martial forces, least we unnecessarily forfeit freedoms in our efforts to cope with fear.

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