Rehabilitating mccarthyism Essay

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rehabilitating mccarthyism

Rehabilitating McCarthyism
FOR ALMOST fifty years, the words "McCarthy" and "McCarthyism" have stood for a shameful
period in American political history. During this period, thousands of people lost their
jobs and hundreds were sent to prison. The U.S. government executed Julius and Ethel
Rosenberg, two Communist Party (CP) members, as Russian spies. All of these people were
victims of McCarthyism, the witch-hunt during the 1940s and 1950s against Communists and
other leftists, trade unionists and civil rights activists, intellectuals and artists.
Named for the witch-hunt's most zealous prosecutor, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.),
McCarthyism was the most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in
American history. In order to eliminate the alleged threat of domestic Communism, a broad
coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, and other anticommunist activists hounded an entire
generation of radicals and their associates, destroying lives, careers, and all the
institutions that offered a left-wing alternative to mainstream politics and culture. That
anticommunist crusade...used all the power of the state to turn dissent into disloyalty
and, in the process, drastically narrowed the spectrum of acceptable political debate.[1]

Since the 1950s, most Americans have condemned the McCarthyite witch-hunts and show
trials. By large majorities, Americans oppose firing communists from their jobs or banning
communist speakers or books.[2] But over the past several years, increasing numbers of
historians, writers and intellectuals have sought to minimize, explain away and justify
McCarthyism. A spate of books and articles touting new historical evidence has tried to
demonstrate that communism posed a real danger to American society in the 1940s and 1950s.
They argue that even if some innocent people suffered and McCarthy was reckless, he was
responding to a real threat.[3] As a result, Joe McCarthy doesn't look so irresponsible in
hindsight.

The tendency to go soft on McCarthyism has been evident in popular culture as well. The
presentation of a special Lifetime Achievement Award to director Elia Kazan at the 1999
Oscar ceremony is the most flagrant and controversial example. Another example of the
current vogue for McCarthyite apologetics, William F. Buckley Jr.'s recent The Redhunter:
A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy, deserves special--and
contemptuous--notice. The novel is an open, unabashed effort to turn McCarthy into a
misunderstood, unappreciated hero.

It's not surprising that self-identified conservatives like Buckley would want to
rehabilitate one of their heroes. But what is most disturbing about the efforts to restore
McCarthy's good name has been the pathetic response of many on the left. Anti-McCarthy
historian Ellen Schrecker urged a cease-fire on criticism of Kazan's award on the grounds
that we should "separate Kazan the informer and Kazan the artist."[4] Even worse, Miriam
and Walter Schneir, who established a case for the Rosenbergs' innocence in Invitation to
an Inquest,[5] now say they were wrong. "Twenty years ago, I would have said that there
weren't a significant number of American Communists who spied," liberal historian Maurice
Isserman told the New York Times Magazine. "It's no longer possible to hold that view."[6]

In all of the charges and countercharges, it is easy to lose sight of what McCarthyism
meant to millions of ordinary Americans. Miriam Zahler, the daughter of Detroit
Communists, recalls:

My worst nightmare when I was seven or eight was that my mother would be taken away...as
the Rosenbergs had been from [their children]. Ethel and Julius were at the very center of
my terror...I asked my mother why the Rosenbergs were in jail. For passing out some
leaflets, she said; I concluded that if the Rosenbergs were in jail because they passed
out leaflets, my mother, who also passed out leaflets, might be arrested too...

I was overcome with fear that my mother would not return from the June 14 [1953]
demonstration [for the Rosenbergs]. I went into her bedroom closet and stood among her
clothes and cried...My father tried to persuade me to come out, but I stood in the closet
and wailed that I wanted my mother back--as if she had gone to meet the fate of the
Rosenbergs, who were, in fact, electrocuted within the week.[7]

The tendency to rehabilitate or excuse McCarthyism raises important questions that
socialists, and the left more generally, need to take up in a sharp and unequivocal way.
Whatever their stated motivations, today's apologists for McCarthyism are justifying the
political climate that terrorized millions like Zahler. It is crucial, therefore, for
socialists and others on the left to confront those who are trying to dig up the stinking
corpse of Joe McCarthy and breath new life into it.


Anticommunist hysteria in the 1940s and 1950s
In one sense, what we call "McCarthyism" represented the 1950s version of the antiradical
campaigns waged by the U.S. government since its founding. An earlier period of
anticommunist paranoia immediately followed the Russian Revolution. In 1919, President
Woodrow Wilson authorized his attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, and Palmer's young
assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, to conduct brutal raids on immigrant radicals and to jail and
deport hundreds of left-wing "subversives." In 1938, during the second term of President
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created to
investigate supposed threats posed by subversive political organizations. At this time,
the Communist Party in the U.S. (CPUSA) enjoyed high support in the newly formed Congress
of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and in other political movements. On the eve of U.S.
entry into the Second World War, the U.S. Congress passed the Alien Registration Act
(better known as the Smith Act), which made a federal crime of advocating or belonging to
an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The first
prosecutions carried out under the Smith Act, in 1941, were directed against 29 members of
the Socialist Workers Party. Some of the accused had played leading roles in the great
1934 "Teamster Rebellion" strike in Minneapolis.[8]

In another sense, McCarthyism marked a unique departure from earlier antiradical
campaigns. Unlike earlier "red hunts," McCarthyism went far beyond curtailing the
activities of radical political activists. It aimed to enforce an ideological conformity
throughout society in order to mobilize the U.S. population behind the U.S. side in the
Cold War with the USSR. In March 1947, Democratic President Harry Truman announced the
"Truman Doctrine," committing the U.S. to intervention against "communism" around the
world. To fight the Cold War, the U.S. had to maintain a huge military establishment on a
near-permanent war footing. Supporting that military establishment required the diversion
of billions of dollars from pressing domestic needs. To sell this kind of sacrifice to a
population that had just emerged from the Second World War, Truman would have to "scare
hell out of the country," said Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.).[9] Anticommunist hysteria
served Truman's purposes.

Ten days after declaring the "Truman Doctrine," Truman issued Executive Order 9835,
setting in motion a program to hunt down any "infiltration of disloyal persons" in the
federal government. Not long thereafter, Attorney General Tom Clark announced his list of
"subversive organizations," membership in which would brand anyone as disloyal. Historian
Howard Zinn writes,

Though Truman would later complain of the egreat wave of hysteria' sweeping the nation,
[he]...was in large measure responsible for creating that very hysteria. Between the
launching of his security program in March 1947 and December 1952, some 6.6 million
persons were investigated. Not a single case of espionage was uncovered, though about 500
persons were dismissed in dubious cases of equestionable loyalty.'[10]

Subsequent events--like the 1949 Russian atomic tests, the 1949 victory of Mao's
Communists in the Chinese Revolution and the 1950n53 Korean War--heightened the hysteria
against "communism."

In 1947, HUAC launched its notorious investigation of the entertainment industry, with a
particular focus on Hollywood. The appalling practice of blacklisting writers, directors
and actors suspected of having ties to the CP began in this year. A group of ten
screenwriters and directors who were summoned to testify before the committee (the
"Hollywood Ten") refused to answer questions about their own political allegiances and
those of their colleagues. "The Ten included some of the most talented writers in
Hollywood, and politically the most active," wrote Victor Navasky.[11] Because of their
unwillingness to cooperate with HUAC, the Hollywood Ten were charged with contempt of
court, fired by the studios they regularly worked for, and imprisoned. Their sentencing
led Hollywood bosses to conduct an anticommunist purge of their own. Actors and writers
were forced to declare in writing that they had never been members of the CP. In the years
that followed, many refused and had their careers destroyed. Others, like Elia Kazan,
became part of Hollywood's complicity with U.S. state repression.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 required all union officials to sign a non-Communist
affidavit affirming that they did not belong to or sympathize with any communist or
subversive organization. Unions whose officials refused to sign the affidavit were denied
any government protection through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Unions that
failed to sign the affidavits could not participate in NLRB elections or appeal to the
NLRB to hear their complaints of unfair labor practices. Section 9(h) of the Taft-Hartley
Act was especially damaging to left-led unions and eventually became a tool used by the
leadership of the CIO itself to expel its left-wing members.

HUAC began seriously targeting suspected Communists within the federal government in 1948.
Whittaker Chambers, a Time magazine editor and former CPUSA member, accused Alger Hiss,
then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State
Department official, of being a CPUSA member and spy. Newly elected Rep. Richard Nixon led
the attack on Hiss in HUAC. Hiss was indicted and, after two trials, was found guilty of
perjury and sent to prison in 1950. Hiss, who died in 1996, maintained his innocence until
his death.

In 1950, Congress passed the Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act,
establishing a Subversive Activities Control Board to monitor and track down left-wing
radicals. It required registration of all "Communist organizations," strengthened existing
espionage laws, amended immigration and naturalization laws to restrict the entry into the
U.S. of presumed subversives, and made it possible for the government to detain
"suspected" spies and saboteurs in times of emergency. Truman signed the McCarran Act into
law in 1952.

The repressive apparatus that grew from these laws spread throughout all levels of
government and all major institutions. State governments, colleges and universities, trade
unions and civic organizations purged workers and members who refused to sign loyalty
oaths. The repression reached absurd levels. People applying for licenses to fish in New
York reservoirs had to sign loyalty oaths. Physics students at the University of Chicago
feared that signing a petition calling for the installation of a Coke machine in the
laboratories would signal their "disloyalty."

Liberal organizations offered little resistance--or joined wholeheartedly with the
witch-hunters. United Auto Workers (UAW) President Walter Reuther, a former member of the
Socialist Party of America, launched an extended campaign to oust Communists and their
allies from his union. Morris Ernst, New York co-counsel for the American Civil Liberties
Union and a founder of the National Lawyers Guild, helped J. Edgar Hoover and the
Roosevelt administration with their surveillance of communists. "His reputation as a civil
libertarian made him particularly useful to Hoover, who often turned to him for help in
dealing with the liberal community," Schrecker writes.[12] In 1948, liberal icon Thurgood
Marshall, the leading lawyer for the NAACP and later the first Black Supreme Court
justice, expelled W. E. B. Du Bois and other less famous members of the NAACP because they
were Communists.[13] Marshall fingered many suspected radicals in the NAACP to the FBI.

McCarthy began his first term in the Senate in 1947, the year of the Hollywood Ten
tragedy. On February 9, 1950, he entered the national limelight with a speech before a
group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, in which he proclaimed: "I have here
in my hand a list of 205--a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State
as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping
policy in the State Department." Reelected in the Eisenhower-Republican landslide of 1952,
McCarthy became chair of the Government Operations Committee and launched his
anti-Communist crusade in earnest, holding widely publicized hearings and calling a wide
range of suspected "enemies of the American way" before his committee.

But McCarthy's crazed rise to power quickly got the better of his political opportunism.
In April 1954 he accused none other than Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens of
concealing evidence of espionage activity allegedly uncovered at Fort Monmouth, New
Jersey. The army and its key government supporters struck back, formally accusing McCarthy
of improper use of his investigative powers. McCarthy was technically cleared of these
charges in August 1954, but in December of that year the Senate voted to condemn him for
contempt of an elections subcommittee investigating his behavior in office. For a while an
effective attack dog in the government's campaign to crush radical left politics, McCarthy
had shown himself to be an uncontrollable and embarrassing extremist who had to be taken
down. When the Democrats regained control of Congress in the 1954 midterm elections, his
power and influence diminished still further. He died in 1957, debt-ridden and disgraced
in the eyes of most Americans.

This short history of McCarthyism suggests some general points. First, "McCarthyism" is
not simply a synonym for "intolerance." That's why it's nonsense when conservatives label
feminists and antiracists as "McCarthyites" because they supposedly uphold "politically
correct" (PC) orthodoxies--like intolerance for racism or sexism. McCarthyism stands for
the entire apparatus of repression set up in the 1940s and 1950s. The real McCarthyites
had the full weight and power of the government behind them. Yet the "PC"
bashers--themselves supporters of Cold War conservatism and defenders of real
McCarthyism--argue that those who challenge conservative ideas are guilty of McCarthyism.

Second, while McCarthy himself was a Republican, and while right-wing Republicans used
McCarthyite tactics to discredit Democratic Party liberals, the Democrats supported the
witch-hunts just as much. HUAC and the Smith Act were both products of the Roosevelt
years. As early as 1936, near the beginning of his second term, Roosevelt authorized J.
Edgar Hoover and the FBI to renew the hunt for leftist subversives. Both major parties in
the U.S. were committed to defending the system that gave them their power, and both
prosecuted the Cold War. Both were willing to exploit anticommunist paranoia to their own
political advantage. As David Caute puts it, Truman's administration "manured the soil
from which the prickly cactus called McCarthy suddenly and awkwardly shot up."[14]
McCarthyism was not some bizarre, extremist aberration. The highest levels of the U.S.
government and the employers supported it.

Third, McCarthyism had a far greater impact on ordinary Americans than it did on prominent
and famous people. McCarthyism is often remembered as an attack on the creativity and free
speech rights of academics, writers and intellectuals like the Hollywood Ten. While it was
certainly that, it was much more. Thousands lost their jobs and saw their families' lives
ruined. Organized labor was "the most important institutional victim of the Cold War red
scare," in part because some labor leaders, with their ties to ruling-class politicians,
"collaborated with the witch-hunt," according to Schrecker.[ ]"McCarthyism weakened the
entire labor movement, damaging Communists and anti-Communists alike."[15] But by the end
of the 1950s, Communists and other leftists had been driven out of or marginalized in most
unions. As a result, McCarthyism boosted the control of conservative business unionists in
the labor movement. It constricted labor's organizing agenda and weakened its confidence
to take on the bosses. Labor's long decline in American life began with the triumph of
McCarthyism. We are still paying the price today.


PostnCold War historians: Justifying the anticommunist cause
A major source of the current tendency to soften and qualify condemnation of McCarthyism
is the work of academic historians. Some of these historians are outright reactionaries.
Others are former Cold War "Sovietologists" and "Russian specialists" who have responded
to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 by burying themselves in the past and
insisting that the old "Communist threat" was even more severe than we realized.
Conditions following the breakup of the Soviet Union have resulted in "a flood of
scholarship" and "a replay of old battles."[16]

Serious recent attention to McCarthyism dates from Richard Gid Powers' 1995
"neoconservative" Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism.[17] Powers'
book has been widely influential and needs a close critical look. But to take in the full
political spectrum of the new scholarship on McCarthyism, we must begin by looking even
further to the right, at Arthur Herman's Joseph McCarthy: Reexaming the Life and Legacy of
America's Most Hated Senator.

Herman, a professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia and the coordinator
of the Western Civilization program at the Smithsonian Institution, has written the
academic equivalent of Buckley's novel The Redhunter. His book is an unabashed 400-page
effort at rehabilitation. For Herman, McCarthy may have occasionally exaggerated and even
lied in hounding down suspected Communists, but he was fundamentally "more right than
wrong in terms of the larger picture."[18] Herman wears his right-wing political bias on
his sleeve. McCarthy, he says, "is part and parcel of what modern conservatism is all
about"; he "fed the rebirth of American conservatism" at a crucial moment in its effort to
challenge New Deal liberalism.[19]

Herman's exuberant enthusiasm for McCarthy stands in apparent contrast to Powers'
perspective in Not Without Honor. McCarthy was an ignorant and irresponsible fanatic, says
Powers. McCarthyism disgraced and "irrevocably split the anticommunist movement." Powers
contends that

McCarthyism, red-baiting, and blacklisting were only one aspect of [the anticommunist]
struggle and that the movement was in fact composed of a wide range of Americans--Jews,
Protestants, blacks, Catholics, Socialists, union leaders, businessmen, and
conservatives--whose ideas and political initiatives were rooted not in ignorance and fear
but in knowledge of and experience with the Communist system.[20]

Powers' argument is important precisely because it condemns McCarthy. The strategy goes
like this: With the shameful and disgusting record of McCarthy acknowledged and out of the
way, anticommunism can be cleansed and celebrated as the noble cause it truly is. To
sophisticated anticommunists like Powers, the anticommunist cause must be rescued not only
from McCarthy, but also from his most fanatical 1950s supporters--anti-Semites, racists
and bigots. So Powers merely repackages the standard argument of liberal
anticommunists--the Hubert Humphreys and Harry Trumans--of the 1950s. "A persistent
complaint of liberals was that Joe McCarthy, by his inaccuracies, damaged the legitimate
cause of anti-Communism. The legitimate cause expressed itself by sending old ladies to
jail on the solemn finding that they were a clear and present danger," noted a well-known
liberal journalist of the time.[21] That the 1950s liberal argument can become the 1990s
neoconservative argument shows just how little different was the attitude of liberals and
conservatives to anticommunism.

Given the right-wing bias of so much of the recent historical scholarship on McCarthyism,
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