, August 20, 2010
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The real blacklisting perpetrated by McCarthyism ignored (2.75*s)
This lengthy, very detailed (almost mind-numbingly so) book focuses on Senator Joe McCarthy’s fixation on eradicating Communists from the federal government during the period dating from early 1950 to the Senate’s censure of him in Dec, 1954, which essentially ended his meteoric and controversial rise as a Senate luminary. The author’s intent is to rehabilitate McCarthy’s reputation as a notorious witch hunter from the shores of infamy by clearly demonstrating that his relentless actions were justified. Using exhaustive records kept by the FBI from the early 1930s through the 50s on the movements, deeds, and words of radicals of all stripes (J. Edgar Hoover had an intense loathing of such individuals), the numerous records of various loyalty screening boards, and the more recent decodings of encrypted Soviet transmissions between agents and records from Soviet archives, the author attempts to show explicitly that literally hundreds of Communists/radicals in important government positions, if not engaged in outright espionage, made great efforts to operate in a manner favorable to the Soviet Union throughout the 1940s and later. McCarthy insisted, using this information, that suspect individuals be thoroughly investigated, even if cleared in previous hearings.
Much of what the author presents in McCarthy’s defense seems compelling – at first glance. But that was not the case in 1950. McCarthy’s alarmist calls were unwelcome and largely rejected by large swaths of the political establishment at that time. The author’s main contention, that it was all politics, does not hold water; it is not believable that the party in power, the Democrats, was willing to permit Soviet agents to take over the US government, even parts of it. A huge shortcoming of the book is the author’s failure to reconcile the presence of radicals with the social context of the 30s and 40s. Laissez-faire capitalism was in near total-failure mode in the 1930s. Conservatively, the unemployment rate was twenty-five percent with nearly double that number insufficiently employed, a level of economic devastation never since approached. Alternatives to capitalism, mostly versions of socialism, including communism, were widely discussed and advocated, in keeping with the debate that is essential to a thriving democracy. Around fifty thousand people joined the US Communist Party in the 30s and probably millions more leaned leftward, including many of the workers who thronged to the new CIO mass-production unions. The intelligentsia were particularly enthralled by the Soviet experiment, though, as it turned out, naively so given the later revealed brutalities of Stalinism. In other words, radical politics was not uncommon in the 1930s; to suggest, or worse use as a basis for actions, as McCarthy and others did, that belonging to Communist front groups was clear evidence of disloyalty, or even indicative of being a spy, is an exaggerated contention that McCarthy’s opponents did not accept.
The most egregious shortcoming of the book is the compete failure of the author to place McCarthy in the context of “McCarthyism,” or the hounding of people to the point of publicly smearing them and causing them to be fired from their jobs due to their leftist political activities. Especially, people in the entertainment industry, teachers and professors, and lawyers were subjected to review by loyalty boards, often due to anonymous tips about their “radical” activity, and by Congressional committees. Just the mere appearance before such bodies often irremediably ruined careers, not to mention in some cases resulted in prosecutions for perjury and contempt. It has been estimated that some ten to twelve thousand individuals were either fired or were pressured to resign due to their incorrect political views. This dragnet for subversives started well before McCarthy came on the scene, but he came to symbolize this capricious, pseudo-judicial process that bears little resemblance to American concepts of due process. The author leaves little doubt that bona-fide Soviet spies and spy rings were discovered in the mid- and late-40s, but never gives a sense as to whether McCarthy understood that this obsession with foreign agents was being widely misapplied to the American public with ruinous consequences.
To substantiate McCarthy’s allegations, the author necessarily directs his analysis of the possibilities of infiltration and espionage towards those areas that interested McCarthy. McCarthy made his first splash on the national scene by claiming in a speech in Wheeling, W.VA, in Feb, 1950, that 205 Communists currently worked in the State Department, a number he later denied using. That is the entry point for the author to examine repeatedly the backgrounds of about two hundred persons, mostly professionals with leftist political leanings, who mostly worked in the State Dept with connections to other departments and organizations. McCarthy and his cohorts could never accept that mainland China had gone to the Communists without extensive aid from pro-Communists factions in the US. They held that leftist and Communists moved back and forth from the Amerasia journal and the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR) to the State Dept for the purpose of orchestrating US policies to ensure Mao Tse-tung’s victory. The acquittal and dropping of charges of several persons at Amerasia on trial for the theft and leaking of OSS documents were particularly upsetting to them. In addition, many of those suspected of being Communists had been rather perfunctorily cleared by investigative bodies. McCarthy was unaccepting of those developments. The author covers in great detail the Senate hearings convened in early 1950 to supposedly investigate subversion in the State Dept. However, the antipathy held toward McCarthy in some quarters became quite evident when the committee head, Sen. Tydings, turned the hearings into a thoroughgoing rebuke of McCarthy. Unfortunately, the author does not provide much clarity on the exact nature of the antagonisms felt towards McCarthy other than a politics-as-usual explanation.
McCarthy was not cowed by the scathing report produced by theTydings committee; he continued with his agenda to uproot Communism wherever it was found. He became obsessed with the IPR, in particular professor, intellectual, and writer Owen Lattimore, and its influence on the loss of China - but to no avail. He turned his eyes on the biases of Voice of America and the rampant stocking of US embassies overseas with pro-Communist literature, leading to charges that he favored book-burning. But it was McCarthy’s focus on disloyalty in and around the military that really energized his opponents. His lengthy Senate speech on the incompetency and alleged weakness towards Communism on the parts of Gen. George Marshall and Sec. of State Dean Acheson in their Asian dealings left many seething at McCarthy; even the author finds that speech to be an error in judgment. His bringing to public attention of some apparently very serious breaches in security at the Forth Monmouth, NJ scientific research complex, run under the auspices of the Army, did not endear him to the highest layers of government.
In fact, in early 1954 a bizarre situation ensued whereby the Army attempted to pressure McCarthy to drop his pursuit of Monmouth by drafting one of his committee staffers; the recriminations of arm twisting flew so heavily that the entire matter was referred to McCarthy’s own subcommittee, the Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations (PSI), with him temporarily replaced as chairman, which became the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings. McCarthy’s strong reaction to the Eisenhower administration’s order, claiming executive privilege, to forbid the release of internal conversations, meetings, or documents, specifically including the record of phone conversations that more or less confirmed McCarthy’s version of who pressured whom, finally unleashed forces in the Senate that had been building for four years. Some forty-six charges were brought against McCarthy, most of them of a “flimsy” nature, to be considered by a special Senate committee headed by Utah Senator Arthur Watkins and filled with other Senate moderates – hardly propitious for McCarthy. As the author demonstrates, the politics of the proceedings overrode any legal considerations or the fact that McCarthy’s actions were not particularly unusual for the Senate. Strangely enough, McCarthy was censured on only one charge: his alleged obduracy towards the Gillette committee in 1951-52 that had exceeded a mandate by roaming through the financial affairs of McCarthy and his relatives dating to 1935. The author contends, “Finally, they got him.” He passed away less than three years later, the physical and psychological toll from his campaign against undoubtedly being immense.
In the author’s eyes, McCarthy may have been loathed, but in actuality forced two presidencies and numerous departments in government to take security seriously. The question is at what costs; many contend that numerous victims of McCarthy’s alleged excesses were left in his wake. After nearly sixty years it is nearly impossible to definitely say whether McCarthy was right or wrong in most of his specific cases. The author’s nonstop focus on minutia almost obscures a broader understanding. Whether he rescues McCarthy is debatable; however, much has been given to think about.
Regardless of how to understand the McCarthy controversy, the book is replete with a myriad of facts and details from McCarthy’s time in the Senate, many of them quite interesting – the conduct of Congressional hearings, the “who, where, and when” of governmental positions, and the various interactions. Such historical detail may be a reason to read the book with the caveat that the selection of “facts” are narrowly selected to shed positive light on McCarthy’s agenda and are quite tedious to slog through. However, the emphasis on facts seems to supercede analysis and context. For example, cataloging numerous radicals in a department should lead to a realistic assessment of actual spying, information being divulged, and their ramifications. At times, the information conflicts. There is the McCarthy portrayed as a kindly, deferring, reasonable, and open-minded committee head. But there is no doubt that his personality, behavior, and stances greatly annoyed many of his contemporaries – to say the least. Because of those antagonisms, McCarthy’s legitimate allegations were often brushed aside, as in the Annie Lee Moss case where her claim of mistaken identity was known to be false by McCarthy’s opponents. It is just such incompleteness, contradictions, and controversies that impinge on the book, in addition to aforementioned shortcomings.
McCarthy was not that out of tune with the climate of the 1950s, but his fervor made him stand out and become a convenient target. As the author suggests, he is the fall-guy for an unprecedented era of extremism. However, any historical blacklisting that he suffers pales in comparison to the actual blacklisting that occurred to many people during the era of “McCarthyism” due only to their exercise of political freedoms. Those interested in far more complete explanations of the entire era of McCarthyism could look to Ellen Schrecker’s Many Are the Crimes or Richard M. Fried’s Nightmare in Red.