The McCarthy Period

Alger Hiss‘s 1980 reflections on the McCarthy period of the 1950s, written for Barrister magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association. After examining the roots of witch hunting, Hiss raises the question, “Could it happen again?”

For more than 20 years I have lectured and taken part in seminars at a number of high schools, colleges and universities. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was a good deal of student interest in having me talk to them about the Great Depression and the New Deal. Then, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the trauma of the Vietnam War caused students to ask me to lecture on the beginning of the Cold War, itself no minor factor in the virulent anti-communism of the McCarthy period. Almost uniformly in the last four or five years, I have been asked to cover the McCarthy era in my lectures and classroom seminars.

So far as I can tell, the student interest is independent of – and little influenced by – the books and films and articles prepared for an older audience. My discussions with students have convinced me that their concern with McCarthyism is personal and emotional, not a matter of intellectual, historical inquiry, and certainly not the following of a current sophisticated fashion in popular culture. Their concern was sparked by the continuing campus reverberations of the sharp shocks of Vietnam and Watergate. Many were too young to have experienced directly the anxieties of the antiwar generation or even the public anger at the arrogant deceptions and illegalities disclosed by the Watergate constitutional crisis. But the echoes of those convulsions, and of the 1960s civil rights and student movements, brought to thoughtful students a disquieting feeling that those violent and disturbing events might have antecedents equally inconsistent with the American Dream. And as they learned of the indecencies of the McCarthy era, they were led to ask whether such events could occur again.

As they had no personal knowledge of the period, their stirrings of anxiety prompted a desire to learn about the origins of the whole postwar preoccupation with anti-communism of which McCarthyism was both a part and a cause. For some of them, there was a fascination with the discovery that Joe McCarthy was a Johnny-come-lately, that his predecessor in exploiting public fears of the bugaboo of domestic communism had been Richard Nixon. Technically, the decade of hysterical red-baiting that began soon after the end of the war could more appropriately be called the “Nixon era.” Nixon, already well known to them as having been a threat to constitutional government and having cynically continued and expanded the Vietnam War, thus provided a link with another earlier, shameful period of our recent history.

Joe McCarthy – the opportunist voted the worst U.S. Senator by the Washington press corps – had sought a campaign issue for reelection. Another opportunist – Nixon – and HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Commission] had already demonstrated the vote-catching possibilities of red-hunting, in a real but horrifying sense; as the late Professor H. H. Wilson of Princeton put it, anti-communism became American anti-Semitism.

…did these periods of shameful hysteria bespeak a national vulnerability to the virus of scapegoating in times of stress?

Not only did the period of apocalyptic rhetoric and vicious attacks begin before McCarthy’s participation, it lasted after he had been personally discredited and censured by the Senate in the mid-1950s, and continued even after his death in 1957. Remnants, as students readily see, are evident even today. It took until 1975 for Congress to terminate HUAC’s existence. In the same year, legal action instituted earlier by the American Civil Liberties Union finally accomplished the elimination of loyalty oaths for federal employees. Americans are still reluctant to sign petitions to enable unpopular or radical candidates to win a place on the ballot.

As recently as February of 1980, an official of the Department of Justice investigating Nazi war criminals who had fled to this country explained, in terms that caused no expression of surprise, why his office had lacked diligence in pursuing these Nazis:

Back in the early ’50s and mid-’50s when this work really should have been done, rather than in 1980, McCarthyism was at its height, anti-communism was at its height, and most of these people were anti-communists. There was a tendency to measure their worth as citizens on the basis of their anti-communism rather than on what they had done during the Holocaust. (The New York Times, February 6, 1980).

But whether the term “McCarthy era” is technically accurate, it is nevertheless appropriate to name this ugly time in our recent history after the unprincipled demagogue who for a brief few years personified its worst aspects. Dean Acheson properly called him “a cheap, low scoundrel,” and added, “to denigrate him is to praise him.”

In my discussions with students, whether in the formal patterns of classroom and lecture hall or in quite informal small groups, I have found that one particularly disturbing question recurs: How could it have happened? In turn, this question was but a subsidiary issue to the still larger concern: Could it happen again?

Their questioning of what went wrong was based upon the fear that the protective devices of press, law and tradition, which guard against mass irrationality and mob hysteria, could again prove insufficient. In particular, having taken at face value the complacent self-congratulation of our press for the accomplishment of investigative journalists during Watergate, students ask: What happened to the press? The exploits of Bernstein and Woodward, enshrined by Hollywood and so well described in their own accounts, have led to marked increases in applications to journalism schools by talented and idealistic young people. Where, students naturally wonder, were the counterparts of today’s investigative journalist in the 1950s?

“It was clear within a week or a month,” Alfred Friendly has told us, “to the overwhelming majority of reporters covering him” that McCarthy “was using fraudulent material to regurgitate a succession of malicious, useless and transparent lies uttered for self-aggrandizing purposes….” (The Washington Post, February 13, 1977). Yet the press had printed his every word, and with inflammatory headlines. How could this have happened? Could it happen again?

Questions of this kind led to others. Why had the Senate, to whom the fraudulence of McCarthy’s charges must have been equally apparent, permitted such conduct on the part of a member – conduct which could only reflect on the integrity of the Senate as a whole? Why had Truman, known for his political courage and short temper, responded to the similar demagoguery of McCarthy’s immediate predecessors by establishing a program to investigate the loyalty of all federal officials? Did Truman really think the loyalty of his officials questionable? Didn’t he realize that this was playing into the hands of demagogues? Why didn’t sober citizens put a stop to the witch-hunts?

In these student discussions, an examination into the origins of McCarthyism, and into the factors in our society which let it continue, led to a reexamination of other scapegoating periods in our history. The Salem witch-hunts; the Alien and Sedition Acts (while the Founding Fathers were still in charge of our destinies); the Know-Nothing Movement of the mid-19th century (hostility to Roman Catholic immigrants); the Palmer Red-Raids at the end of World War I (when J. Edgar Hoover began his trade as supersleuth and paramount red-hunter); the rounding up of Japanese, both alien and American citizens, in the months following Pearl Harbor – did these periods of shameful hysteria bespeak a national vulnerability to the virus of scapegoating in times of stress? And if so, would the undeniable stresses following upon military defeat in Vietnam and the discovery of arrogant disregard of the Constitution by Nixon bring about a new attack of the American disease?

It is difficult but necessary for young people, not only students, but most Americans under 40, to grasp the extent and fury of the hysteria that gripped the country from the late ’40s until the mid-’50s. All over the country, thousands of Americans entered into a nightmare world of inquisition – by Congressional and state legislative committees, FBI agents, and local vigilantes, all of whom publicly sought to point the finger at “subversives.”

Many thousands of teachers, office workers, seamen, union members, government employees, editors, social workers, actors, lawyers, accountants, radio and TV entertainers, writers – people in every walk of life, the obscure and the prominent – were publicly attacked, driven from their jobs, and ostracized by neighbors and fair-weather friends. As David Caute pointed out, these victims of the McCarthyite purges were guilty of “no crime worse than the opinions they held, or had once held” (the New Statesman, December 16, 1977). The extent of human injury was, of course, not limited to those pilloried or purged; their wives, husbands, children, other relatives and close associates add additional thousands to the list.

More importantly, the nation was deprived for years to come of the independent thought and initiative of many citizens who were either cowed by the fates of the victims or simply wanted “to avoid trouble.” Caute summarized some of the lasting results for the land of the free:

…. The long shadow of the security officer fell across factories, dockyards, ships, offices. A generation of workers learned to conform or to move on…. But in the process careers were ruined beyond retrieve, marriages broke up, children were alienated and abused, fathers sat for hours stunned, staring blankly at the wall.

There were other and more powerful forces which made possible the vigor of the McCarthy Red Scare and which for many months inhibited effective efforts to end it. Roosevelt’s and Truman’s tenure of 20 years in office naturally left the Republicans frustrated and hungry for political office. The weapon of the Red Scare used by HUAC, McCarthy, and their supporters was directed at the Democratic administration. Opposition politicians cannot be expected to rush to put out fires in the incumbents’ political mansions. In fact, many honorable Republicans (with regret, one hopes) accepted McCarthy’s aid.

President Eisenhower, campaigning for election, allowed McCarthy to board his whistle-stop train as it crossed Wisconsin and was photographed with him in a pose that clearly bespoke mutual support. This was the same McCarthy who had called Eisenhower’s mentor and long-time friend, General George Marshall, a “traitor.” Senator Robert Taft, known as “Mr. Republican,” also did not avoid McCarthy’s company. And, of course, other less principled politicians made common cause with McCarthy even more vigorously.

The support given to McCarthy by the Republican Party, though not the sole cause of McCarthyism, was a crucial factor in its growth. Roosevelt’s popularity had been so enormous that many Republicans feared a direct attack on him could well arouse public opposition. But they encouraged or permitted unjustified attacks upon FDR’s lieutenants as a method of indirect attack upon the revered leader who had held the country together during the Great Depression and had led it to victory in the greatest war the world had ever seen.

These attacks were an oblique attack on the Roosevelt domestic and foreign policies, popular with large numbers of the people, but opposed by powerful groups, some of whom considered the New Deal socialistic, if not a bright shade of red. Other groups misguidedly regarded the United Nations as an alien international threat to U.S. sovereignty, and still others had been led to believe that the Yalta Agreement was a sellout of American interests.

In addition, the immediate postwar political temper in America was unstable and highly vulnerable to rabble-rousing and scapegoating. World War II, unprecedented in scope and savagery, brought tears, sorrow and stress into most American homes. Added to these sources of tension were the disruptions of peacetime social and economic patterns, as the civilian population strained to accomplish the nation’s enormous productive goals. Public tension, far from being eased by the joys of victory, was continued, anticlimactically, by the Cold War that followed close on the heels of the hot one. Popular morale and national unity that had been so essential to the fulfilling of the vast demands of war were soon impaired by bitter domestic partisan political hostilities.

When, within a few years, Russia exploded the atomic bomb and China became communist, public confusion and anxiety increased to the point that irrationality was endemic. Professor James Compton says that Europe thought “America had gone quite mad” (Anticommunism in American Life Since the Second World War, Forum Press).

McCarthy had a knack for manipulating the press – but, to put it mildly, the press willingly took part in the process. They exploited the anxieties and fears of the public, by then easy prey for McCarthy’s lurid hobgoblin horror tales.

But our dark hour was a national illness. The fires that fed the hysteria of McCarthyism were not fanned solely by the press, nor were they – even initially – lighted only by Republicans. A domestic concomitant of the Cold War, McCarthyism enfolded within its noxious embrace many powerful business interests and ethnic groups, as well as countless mindless, frightened little people. Militant trade unions were destroyed; progressive politics was eliminated from the political scene; liberal publications and publishers, together with independent publicists and spokesmen of dissent, were discredited or silenced; Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies were frozen and stripped of their vigor.

The indecencies of McCarthyism were the poisonous froth on the surface of American politics that obscured major shifts of power among domestic forces. Most important of all, in Carey McWilliams’ words, McCarthy “succeeded in welding a massive bipartisan consensus which made it possible to wage Cold War with little criticism or restraint….” (The Education of Carey McWilliams, 1979).

Today, young people are faced with a revived Cold War. Registration revives memories of the draft in the days of the Vietnam War; super-patriots harass Iranian students once warmly invited to come to our shores. Events such as these make an understanding of McCarthyism essential. Under whatever name it attempts to return, its true nature must be recognized and its terrible effects prevented.