Tracing the rise of Joseph McCarthy and outbreaks of ideological terrorism
A Stunning Panorama of Evil
Tracing the rise of Joseph McCarthy and repeated outbreaks of “ideological terrorism”
BY ROBERT SHERRILL
Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America By Ted Morgan Simon & Schuster 704 pages, $35
ince the very word “Communist” is rarely heard these days in public discourse, Texas Observer readers who came of political age in the last 20 years may find it hard to believe that the bizarre anti-Communist hysteria that gripped the nation throughout the coldest of the Cold War (1945 until, say, 1980) was actually caused by the real fear that a horde of home-grown Reds, probably under orders from Moscow, were diligently seeking to overthrow our government by violence. Many readers will also be amazed to learn that the hysteria actually started just after World War I, and was capped by a wave of arrests and deportations, led by an attorney general who would make Mr. Ashcroft seem like a founding member of the ACLU.
Ted Morgan, a distinguished historian, in this hefty volume takes the reader through five decades of McCarthyism, but not all were of the same intensity because, as he says, “McCarthyism was not an epidemic, but a series of outbreaks.”
Morgan’s stunning panorama of evil has important material few books of this era cover, such as an account of the U.S. military and humanitarian invasions of Russia after World War I. But it also has two defects. Morgan gives too little space to the role of J. Edgar Hoover as the creator of McCarthy. Second, he over-emphasizes the danger from home-grown Communists and does not tell enough about the enormous damage the anti-Communist witch-hunt did to thousands of persons whose “crime” was being liberal/radical.
If memories of the Cold War are fading, so are, unfortunately, memories of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. He deserves to be remembered because he, not Richard Nixon, was the most debased Republican of national renown in the last half of the 20th century. His reign as the master of ideological terrorism was short—1950 to 1954—but oh how glorious! Cabell Philipps of The New York Times was correct when he wrote that “McCarthy dominated the political life of this country as no demagogue had done before him.”
President Eisenhower feared him so much that he remained silent as McCarthy raped the State Department—his favorite hunting ground. Indeed, McCarthy ruined the careers of so many Far East experts, with wild accusations of their collaboration in the Communist take-over of China, that for decades thereafter our government didn’t know what was going on in that part of the world.
Seeking to appease McCarthy, President Eisenhower began playing the numbers game with him, by announcing that 306 State Department officials had been released for security reasons. Later, Congress was quietly informed that only 11 had been dropped for “loyalty” reasons, and no active Communist was among them.
Not only did McCarthy terrorize the bureaucracy, he made cowards of all but a handful of his fellow senators. Most members trembled in fear that McCarthy might challenge their patriotism, and only a couple protested at all when he and his runaway committee ruined lives with totally false charges of “Communistic leanings.” Among the few exceptions was Senator William Benton of Connecticut, who told the Rules Committee in 1951 it should expel McCarthy because he was of “unsound mind.” Nothing came of it, of course.
The mostly servile press seldom challenged him. The New York Times openly stated that it would not try to weed out his lies; that, it said, was up to its readers to do. The giant right-wing propagandists—Hearst, McCormick, and Luce—not only published all of McCarthy’s grotesqueries, they sometimes let their reporters secretly help write his speeches.
Although the current President Bush seems likely to succeed him—and in many ways already resembles him—at the present time it is Joseph McCarthy who should be made the official patron saint of the GOP, because he so dramatically reflected the character of the Grand Old Party.
My reasons for saying that are obvious: McCarthy successfully constructed his entire career on endless lies. He was, as Ted Morgan says, “a liar of pathological proportions.” And he was essentially a neo-fascist, a “patriotic” bully who pandered to the most ignorant, superstitious, meanest segment of the population. cCarthy got a law degree from Marquette University in 1935. He was soundly whipped in his first race for circuit judge in 1937, running as a gung-ho liberal Democrat. So he moved to another district and ran for the same office, this time successfully shifting to a dirty tricks campaign. By 1940 he had joined the Republican party and, already laying plans to run for the U.S. Senate, started playing to the isolationist sentiments of Wisconsin’s sizeable German population by delivering tirades against the war in Europe.
He had the bad luck of making some of these speeches on the very eve of our entry into World War II, so, of course, he swore he had been misquoted. Realizing that a hitch in the armed services would underpin his political ambitions, he took a leave of absence from his judgeship and joined the Marine Corps. On June 12, 1943, crews from his bomber squadron were shipped to Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. En route, while engaging in horseplay with his shipmates, McCarthy fell and broke a couple of bones in his foot; and when the cast was removed with acetic acid, some of it burned his leg and left a scar. It was not a serious injury by any means.
On Guadalcanal, he made six uneventful flights as a tail gunner and then settled down as an “intelligence officer,” a duty that gave him plenty of time for playing poker.
If you appreciate black humor, you will enjoy Morgan’s account of how McCarthy persuaded the military hierarchy that his foot injury was received in combat and that, instead of sitting around the air base playing cards, he had actually flown on a truly astonishing number of missions (32), some of them under heavy fire from Japanese fighter pilots.
All of this was totally false, but he conned the military brass into awarding him the Distinguished Flying Cross for “daring bomb attacks on enemy installations” and an Air Medal and four gold stars for “heroism and extraordinary achievement” in other missions.
He came home with the rank of captain and in time to make a race for the U.S. Senate. But 1946 was a banner year for the nation—that being the year the Senate welcomed two freshmen of destiny: Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon.
McCarthy’s first years in the Senate were marked by blatant pandering to special interests. He came to be known as “the Senator from Pepsi Cola,” because of the shameless help he gave to that company in obtaining sugar, and he called all public housing “a breeding place for communism”—until a prefab housing company pressed enough money on him to change his tune.
But McCarthy’s shabbiest effort (and we should be especially grateful to Morgan for his account of this, which I have seen in no other McCarthy biography) was an attempt to make the Pentagon overturn a U.S. military court’s sentences of death or life imprisonment for 73 German SS soldiers for their part in the “Malmedy Massacre”—that is, their robbing and shooting 72 U.S. prisoners of war, then moving through the bodies strewn around a field and finishing off the wounded at point-blank range. (Thirty U.S. soldiers escaped. Fifty were never found.) “It was,” writes Morgan, “the worst massacre of Americans in the European war.”
All of the German soldiers’ death sentences were later commuted to life in prison. But that wasn’t good enough for McCarthy. Using a Senate investigation into the massacre and its aftermath for a pulpit, he launched a crusade to shame the Army. He argued that even bringing the Nazi SS murderers to trial was “acting with utmost malice,” as bad as anything done in Hitler’s courts. Clearly, McCarthy was trying to win the continued financial support of Walter Harnischfeger, an important pro-Nazi Milwaukee industrialist who had been McCarthy’s patron for some time. oving toward the end of his first term with that kind of miserable record, McCarthy was sharp enough to know he was in trouble. “As he rose in politics,” writes Morgan, “he abandoned whatever scruples he might have had and gave in to expediency… Once elected to the Senate, the impulse for power and gain took over. He used his office to collect money in underhanded ways. By failing to abide by the Senate’s code of conduct, he alienated influential senators. His first three years in the Senate were undistinguished, and in 1950 he was a man in need of an issue, with a problematic election coming up in 1952.”
He needed something explosively “patriotic” to get favorable attention. That’s when he became an anti-Communist crusader, in spades. The launching occasion was his notorious speech of February 9, 1950. Apparently assuming that a junior senator and third-string speaker like McCarthy could do little damage in the boondocks, the Republican National Committee sent him on a speaking tour, including a Lincoln Day address to the Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Apparently McCarthy also must have felt they didn’t deserve much of a speech, for the one he gave was patched together, word for word, from portions of a speech Nixon had given previously, plus some very stale material from an old Senate investigation, plus a few wild accusations of his own.
Unfortunately, an Associated Press reporter was in the crowd and he passed along to the nation this portion of McCarthy’s immortal fairy tale:
“While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who are part of a Communist spy ring working there with the knowledge of the Secretary of State, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 names…”
Spies? And he had their names? Wow! At every stop thereafter on his speaking tour, he was met by a horde of reporters demanding more information. Having none to begin with, he of course was flummoxed. He began changing the number. At Salt Lake City he said 81. At Reno it dropped to 57. Then he said he lost the list. Of course there was no list. He had made it up. But his charges were stirring such headlines across the nation that he knew he was ruined unless he could come up with something to make it seem he knew what he was talking about.
When he got back to Washington, he wisely went to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, confessed his lie, and pleaded to be rescued. William Sullivan, a former assistant FBI director, says Hoover ordered his staff to “review the files and get anything you can for him. Actually we didn’t have enough evidence to show that there was a single Communist in the State Department, let alone fifty-seven cases.” But agents spent hundreds of hours combing FBI files for enough rumors and innuendoes to get McCarthy off the hook.
That was just the beginning of Hoover’s help. Sensing correctly that McCarthy was an unruly Irishman who would be hard to control, Hoover set about remaking the senator’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He channeled useful witnesses to the committee and coached McCarthy on what to expect from them; helped staff the subcommittee with ex-FBI agents; had FBI clerks write speeches for him, and advised him on how to maneuver the press.
Only McCarthy could supply the snarling bluster, but most of the other raw material came from Hoover. “We were the ones who made the McCarthy hearings possible,” says Sullivan. “We fed McCarthy all the material he was using.”
But after a very few years of harmonious teamwork in smearing political targets, J. Edgar Frankenstein grew cautious, finding he could no longer control his monster. Everything had been just dandy so long as McCarthy said nasty things about Democrats. But when he began attacking some of President Eisenhower’s Republican appointees as ideological deviants, Hoover called it quits.
McCarthy was cut off, totally and permanently—just when leaks and guidance from the FBI might have helped him survive the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings. The public is slow to catch on, but on April 22, 1954 the Caucus Room of the Senate Office Building was transformed into a television studio, and for the next 36 days a TV-addicted nation—in this instance, an estimated 20 million viewers—watched the once-powerful witch-hunter turn into a bullying windbag—jeering, scowling, endlessly interrupting witnesses, their attorneys, and members of the committee—as he clumsily tried to prove that the Secretary of the Army and some high military officers were “soft” on communism.
It proved to be the end of McCarthy. ow should history, how should we, rate McCarthy as a villain? Maybe he rates three stars, but he was certainly too crude, too heavy-handed to rate four. True, he was a master at spreading suspicion and he did help ruin many careers. But the substance of his manic crusade was, in the long run, perhaps as negligible as John Henry Faulk, one of those whose career was ruined by McCarthyism, argues:
In spite of the great hue and cry about traitors and a Communist conspiracy raised by Senator McCarthy and his imitators during the Red Scares, they never produced a single Communist spy whose guilt was proved in court. Nor was a single person ever indicted for treason, let alone tried for the crime. In other words, the whole Red Scare business, from beginning to end, stands condemned by history as a colossal fraud on the American public.
In a way, yes, it was a fraud; but in a way it was very real, exceedingly damaging, and lasting.
Anyway, before “history” got around to calling McCarthy a fraud, the Senate did. On December 2, 1954, it voted 67 to 22 (the dissenters were numerous enough to show the Senate was still in bad shape) to condemn McCarthy for bringing shame on the upper chamber. Senator Stennis went further, saying McCarthy had spread “slush and slime” on his colleagues.
Only the fourth in history to receive that punishment from the Senate, McCarthy became an outcast. Many members stopped talking to him. Reporters who once soaked up his blather now avoided him. For one thing, he was often drunk and smelled of vomit.
Once upon a time everything he said and did was big news. After his condemnation, his name never again appeared on the front pages of a major newspaper until May 2, 1957, when the nation was informed that he had died of acute alcoholism and that henceforth it would no longer have his help in counting Communists.
It wasn’t much of an achievement, but at least he became an eponym in Webster’s International Dictionary, where “McCarthyism” is defined as the “use o
ten unfounded, accusations, sensationalism, inquisitorial investigative methods, etc., ostensibly in the suppression of Communism.” Contributing writer Robert Sherrill is currently working on a book entitled The First Amendment and the Communist Witch Hunt.