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Cold War - McCarthyism

Joe McCarthy gave anti-Communism a bad name. The excesses of McCarthy's witch-hunts discredited the whole idea of a Communist menace. they were too easy to lampoon, and after a few years of over-estimating the Communist threat, America spent decades tending to under-estimate the Communist menace.

Not only did the Cold War shape U.S. foreign policy, it also had a profound effect on domestic affairs. Americans had long feared radical subversion. These fears could at times be overdrawn, and used to justify otherwise unacceptable political restrictions, but it also was true that individuals under Communist Party discipline and many "fellow traveler" hangers-on gave their political allegiance not to the United States, but to the international Communist movement, or, practically speaking, to Moscow.

During the Red Scare of 1919-1920, the government had attempted to remove perceived threats to American society. After World War II, it made strong efforts against Communism within the United States. Foreign events, espionage scandals, and politics created an anti-Communist hysteria.

When Republicans were victorious in the midterm congressional elections of 1946 and appeared ready to investigate subversive activity, President Truman established a Federal Employee Loyalty Program. It had little impact on the lives of most civil servants, but a few hundred were dismissed, some unfairly.

In 1947 the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated the motion-picture industry to determine whether Communist sentiments were being reflected in popular films. When some writers (who happened to be secret members of the Communist Party) refused to testify, they were cited for contempt and sent to prison. After that, the film companies refused to hire anyone with a marginally questionable past.

Americans in the late 1940s awoke to a rude shock when they learned that since the mid-1930s significant numbers of Soviet spies had been operating in the United States. There were several factors that made this particularly disturbing. For one, most of these spies were native-born Americans, apparently motivated by sympathy for communism. In addition, some of these agents had been able to penetrate several agencies of the federal government-especially the Departments of State and the Treasury, as well as the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency)-and in some cases at very high levels.

In 1948, Alger Hiss, who had been an assistant secretary of state and an adviser to Roosevelt at Yalta, was publicly accused of being a Communist spy by Whittaker Chambers, a former Soviet agent. Hiss denied the accusation, but in 1950 he was convicted of perjury. Subsequent evidence indicates that he was indeed guilty. In 1949 the Soviet Union shocked Americans by testing its own atomic bomb. In 1950, the government uncovered a British-American spy network that transferred to the Soviet Union materials about the development of the atomic bomb. Two of its operatives, Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel, were sentenced to death.

How could these setbacks be explained? The arrest and prosecution of a number of Soviet spies in the United States seemed to provide at least a partial answer. Perhaps it was the activity of disloyal Americans-in the Federal Government, in Hollywood, in the schools, etc.-that allowed China to "go communist," that handed Russia the bomb, and invited Stalin's puppets in North Korea to attack their neighbors to the South. But what constituted disloyalty? Was it only to be defined as outright spying or sabotage? Might someone who belonged to the Communist Party be considered disloyal, whether or not he had committed any overt act against the United States? And what about a screenwriter who interjected pro-Soviet themes into a Hollywood movie, or a songwriter who criticized some aspect of American society in one of his songs? Attorney General J. Howard McGrath declared there were many American Communists, each bearing "the germ of death for society."

The most vigorous anti-Communist warrior was Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin. He gained national attention in 1950 by claiming that he had a list of 205 known Communists in the State Department. Though McCarthy subsequently changed this figure several times and failed to substantiate any of his charges, he struck a responsive public chord. McCarthy gained power when the Republican Party won control of the Senate in 1952. As a committee chairman, he now had a forum for his crusade. Relying on extensive press and television coverage, he continued to search for treachery among second-level officials in the Eisenhower administration. Enjoying the role of a tough guy doing dirty but necessary work, he pursued presumed Communists with vigor.

On February 9, 1950, the little-known Republican senator from Wisconsin made a speech alleging that some large number of Communists infested the State Department. There is some dispute about the number of Communists McCarthy claimed to have known about. Though advance copies of this speech distributed to the press record the number as 205, McCarthy quickly revised this claim. Both in a letter he wrote to President Truman the next day and in an "official" transcript of the speech that McCarthy submitted to the Congressional Record ten days later he uses the number 57. Although McCarthy displayed this list of names both in Wheeling and then later on the Senate floor, he never made the list public.

McCarthy wired President Truman to do something about the situation in the State Department and the press began to pay attention. Joseph McCarthy was becoming a national figure. The Senate also paid attention. The McCarthy allegations needed investigating, and a subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee, under respected conservative Democratic Senator Millard Tydings, was formed to look into the allegations. The committee found no basis for McCarthy's charges, but McCarthy was not cowed. He counterattacked. He named a certain Owen Lattimore as "the top Russian agent" in the United States and alleged that he had been one of the top State Department advisors on Far Eastern policy. Nothing came of the charge, but the country began to listen. McCarthy had struck a responsive chord, and with this came an increase in power. Some powerful conservative Republican senators backed him, and Herbert Block, acid-penned cartoonist of the Washington Post, coined the word "McCarthyism." An era of U.S. history had been given a name.

Three days after Maryland senator Millard Tydings publicly rejected McCarthy's accusations Julius Rosenberg was arrested for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The issue of Soviet penetration of the U.S. government seemed shockingly real. As for Tydings, when he stood for reelection later that year McCarthy and his allies accused him of being "soft on communism." Marylanders took the charge seriously-Tydings, who had been in the Senate since 1927, was defeated. The message sent by the Tydings defeat was clear-it was dangerous to stand in the way of Joe McCarthy.

As his support increased, McCarthy's accusations became ever broader and wilder, going so far as to charge in June 1951 that General George C. Marshall was part of "a conspiracy so immense, an infamy so black, as to dwarf any in the history of man." And with the increase in recklessness came ever wider acceptance. A furor gripped the Nation. The frustration in 1949 of the concession of China to the Communists, the Soviet atom bomb, and the Alger Hiss case, expressed itself in a sweeping tide of anti-communism. Liberties that had been taken for granted were in danger of being lost. Loyalty investigations in the Government increased in intensity. The names of innocent men were being tainted and the services of "invaluable specialists" were being lost to the Government.

In 1952, aided in part by McCarthy's accusations (but probably more so by the stalemated war in Korea), the Republican Party won control of both houses of Congress, while GOP candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president in a landslide. After the 1952 elections, McCarthy became even stronger. He was given chairmanship of the powerful Committee on Government Operations, as well as of the permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The Eisenhower administration did little or nothing to counteract him, for the president believed strongly in the separation of powers, and McCarthy's rampage continued. Two of McCarthy's staff members, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine, went on a quick tour of State Department installations in Europe and ostensibly found an "appalling infiltration," whereupon the department banned from its information activities all "books, music, paintings, and the like. . . of any Communists, fellow travelers, et cetera ." Books were removed from library shelves. Some were stored; some were burned.

At long last, things began to change. When President Dwight Eisenhower, at an extemporaneous speech at commencement exercises at Dartmouth University, decried the book ban, a loud cheer went up from the population. Many citizens by now were getting fed up with McCarthyism. But throughout his political career, Dwight Eisenhower refused to take a public stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy's aggressive anti-communist campaign. Eisenhower even struck from a 1952 campaign speech in Wisconsin a defense of his mentor, George C. Marshall, a McCarthy target.

In early 1954 when McCarthy began an investigation of the U.S. Army, his end was near although he did not know it. His investigation led to an army dentist alleged to be a Communist sympathizer. The army counterattacked with the accusation that McCarthy, Cohn, and Francis Carr, the subcommittee staff director, had all conspired to obtain favorable treatment for Schine, who had been inducted into the army. McCarthy countered with his own charges that the army had tried to halt the exposure of alleged Communists at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. The Subcommittee on Investigations ordered an investigation, but this time McCarthy was not in charge; his charges were being investigated. Even more important, he met his match in the chief army counsel, Boston lawyer Joseph Welch.

Television brought the hearings into millions of homes. For thirty-six days the televised hearings went on with the Nation in rapt attention. The deft and skillful Welch showed McCarthy for what he was: an overbearing bully. At the climax of a highly emotional exchange, in which McCarthy attacked as a Communist sympathizer a young associate of Welch who was not even involved in the hearings, Welch asked of McCarthy, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" McCarthy, finally silenced, did not really understand what had happened. After a few seconds the hearing room - including the members of the press - burst into loud applause. Many Americans saw McCarthy's savage tactics for the first time, and public support began to wane. The Republican Party, which had found McCarthy useful in challenging a Democratic administration when Truman was president, began to see him as an embarrassment. McCarthy was finished as a political force. That the Senate went on to censure him was almost redundant; the public had had enough.

Joseph McCarthy gave anti-Communism a bad name. His subsequent exile from politics coincided with a conversion of his name into a modern English noun "McCarthyism," or adjective, "McCarthy tactics," when describing similar witch hunts in recent American history. Crtoonist Herb Block coined the phrase "McCarthyism" in his cartoon for March 29, 1950, just weeks after Senator McCarthy's spectacular pronouncement that he had in his hand a list of communists in the State Department. The American Heritage Dictionary gives the definition of McCarthyism as: 1. The political practice of publicizing accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence; and 2. The use of methods of investigation and accusation regarded as unfair, in order to suppress opposition.] McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate on December 2, 1954 and died May 2, 1957.

McCarthy had attacked people who were not communists at all. So, on the basis of that and McCarthy's record in which he was attacking as Communists people who were liberals, who were actually anti-Communists, he was thus providing cover for the real Communists. The great challenge in those cases was to find out just what the evidence was on the basis of which a person was accused.

The hysteria that would ultimately flow from the espionage scare of the late 1940s would lead many to believe that even the original threat had been overblown, and that at least some of those who had been convicted, like Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were victims of a witch hunt. Recent research, however, has shown that this is likely not the case. The opening in the 1990s of the archives of the former Soviet Union showed that the penetration of American institutions was, indeed, significant, and was being directed locally by the Communist Party of the United States. Moreover, the 1990s also saw the declassification of the transcripts from the Venona Project. Under Venona, thousands of communications between Moscow and its agents in the United States during the 1940s had been intercepted and decoded, giving critical insights into the Soviet espionage network and, in many cases, revealing the identities of the spies themselves. However, because the FBI was unwilling to release this information at the time (it seems as though not even President Truman was aware of it), it was never used to prosecute the individuals involved. Whatever one might think of the tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s, or those of Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, there is little doubt today that the Soviet spy network in America existed, and that it was extensive.

Senator Joseph McCarthy's claim that spies riddled the American government was not without foundation. There were communists in the government working against American concepts of democracy. The FBI worked closely with Senator Joseph McCarthy until Hoover severed its relationship with McCarthy in 1953. Before Stalin's paranoia, purges, and murderous campaigns against the Russian people were documented in the West, before Communist theories were publicly discredited by decades of failure and opportunism, it was possible for idealistic Americans in the grip of "romantic anti-fascism" to see the USSR as the world's best remaining hope. Wartime cooperation between the United States and Soviet Union allowed Soviet intelligence to dig into the burgeoning bureaucracy in Washington, where its recruits swelled from dozens in the late 1930s to several hundred during the war. According to transcripts of Soviet wartime cables deciphered by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the Venona project, codenames of some 350 cooperating Americans appear in Soviet wartime cable traffic.

Even before the demise of McCarthy as a power in the Senate, international communism had turned a somewhat more benign visage toward the world. On March 3, 1953, less than two months after the Eisenhower administration took office, Joseph Stalin died and things changed. Georgi M. Malenkov, speaking for the triumvirate of himself, Vyacheslav M. Molotov, and Nikita S. Khruschev, offered that international conflicts could be "settled peacefully by mutual agreements of the interested parties." In a few short months, in July 1953, the Korean War ended. Despite some early truculence by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the use of Soviet armor to put down uprisings in East Germany, and Khruschev replacing the triumvirate, tensions between East and West did ease.

McCarthy in many ways represented the worst domestic excesses of the Cold War. As Americans repudiated him, it became natural for many to assume that the Communist threat at home and abroad had been grossly overblown. As the country moved into the 1960s, anti-Communism became increasingly suspect, especially among intellectuals and opinion-shapers. Whereas the Communist Menace had strongly influenced public opinion during the Korean War, the political impact of this threat was a spent force during the Vietnam War. Die-hard anti-Communists remained concerned, but McCarthy had convinced most Americans the Communist Menace was fake news.

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Page last modified: 19-09-2017 12:02:44 ZULU