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McCarthyism, Then and Now

While the Cold War was going on, many intellectuals saw the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as the embodiment of a utopian future and the champion of worldwide liberation.  But today Russia represents “the wrong side of history.”

Chief Senate Counsel representing the United States Army and partner at Hale and Dorr, Joseph Welch (left), with United States Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin (right), at the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations' McCarthy-Army hearings, June 9, 1954. [Wikipedia]

Before calling the reader’s attention to a year-old Claremont Review of Books article which compares Donald Trump to Joseph McCarthy, I should first make clear that I do not regard this comparison to be such an unambiguous condemnation of the president as those steeped in liberal mythology might think. Admittedly, Senator McCarthy had some negative traits now frequently associated with President Trump: an opportunistic streak, a predisposition to make reckless allegations, a willingness to further his political career by exploiting prevailing anxieties. Yet while Hollywood may teach the public that the most important Cold War story is that of celebrities persecuted under McCarthyism, the historical record suggests otherwise. So too do documents pointing to the active collaboration of liberal intellectuals in a Communist project based upon forced labor camps, torture, and mass-murder. McCarthy’s claim was that the American elite of his day was riddled with Marxists and Marxist sympathizers bent upon overturning America’s moral, cultural, and constitutional order. However flawed the senator may have been personally, who would now say that his grasp of the situation was entirely wrong?

In his Claremont Review article, William Voegeli notes of McCarthy that

the full measure of the senator’s historical defeat is revealed in the received wisdom about his fundamental transgression: not falsely accusing many non-Communists, but presuming to attack Communists at all. McCarthyism, in other words, has come to be understood as much worse than recklessness. It was, rather, the adamant refusal to accept that Communism was a manageable global problem and, at home, harmless, essentially benign, and perhaps even idealistic and kind of noble.

As historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr argue in books like In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage, the generally-accepted myth of innocent people wrongly persecuted by McCarthyite anti-communists is at best a grotesque oversimplification. Undisputed investigations have shown, for instance, that Franklin Roosevelt’s Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White was indeed a Soviet agent – a revelation of no small significance, given White’s pivotal role in crafting the Bretton Woods financial model adopted throughout the West following World War II. And as it turns out Alger Hiss – another famous and key player in the Roosevelt administration – also worked for the Soviets. Meanwhile, in the world of letters, we find publication of the wayward socialist George Orwell’s Animal Farm delayed by Jonathan Cape, a British literary agent … and Soviet operative.

It is also worth pointing out that The New York Times has not always been so vigilant about Russian penetration into America – or, for that matter, into its own offices. As an AP article blandly relates years after the fact, there is evidence that the Stalin-friendly, Pulitzer Prize-winning Times journalist Walter Duranty “deliberately ignored in [his] coverage the forced famine in the Ukraine that killed millions of people.” In extreme cases, Soviet influence upon American life was even out in the open. Upon Stalin’s demise in 1953, the now-iconic author W.E.B. Dubois composed an obituary containing the following remarks:

Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity […] He was attacked and slandered as few men of power have been; yet he seldom lost his courtesy and balance […] His judgment of men was profound […] Such was the man who lies dead, still the butt of noisy jackals and of the ill-bred men of some parts of the distempered West.

It is interesting to imagine the effect upon any contemporary public figure’s reputation, were he to go around heaping such extravagant praise upon Russia’s current leader, or to characterize critics of Russia’s current government as “noisy jackals.”

All this highlights the extraordinary irony of these past few months. Wild speculation about Russians “hacking” the election has become so frenzied as to make McCarthy look temperate in comparison. Indeed, from the 1950’s to today, the Western elite class’s attitude toward Russia has undergone a total inversion. Around the time when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were actually passing on information about US nuclear weapons to the Soviet vice consul in New York City, talk of infiltration by the Reds was typically mocked in the best circles as mere right-wing conspiracy theory. Now, unsubstantiated stories like the one about the alleged Russian cyberattack against Vermont’s electric grid are uncritically and breathlessly circulated by major news networks. Neither the possibility of war between superpowers nor the debunking of the Vermont hack-that-wasn’t seems to have made anyone have second thoughts about inflammatory anti-Russian rhetoric.

Not long ago, for example, when Rand Paul opposed a move to expand NATO, his fellow senator John McCain declared that “the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.” It should be noted that this startlingly uncollegial remark comes from a supposedly “moderate” Republican, one who nearly got elected president himself. Likewise, continual vague insinuations about Trump’s staff and Wikileaks should be set alongside the fact that the widely-revered FDR, whose New Deal normalized the welfare state, had a team of advisors infested with spies. And just to be clear, spies does not here mean people who have been to Russia on business, or who might like to see America and Russia cooperate in fighting ISIS. It means people who served as active agents of Soviet intelligence, and whose first loyalty was to the Communist Party.

From the perspective of political theory, the Western establishment’s shift from an apologetic, pro-Russian stance to a fervently Russophobic one makes a certain kind of sense. While the Cold War was going on, many intellectuals saw the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as the embodiment of a utopian future and the champion of worldwide liberation. From the liberal viewpoint the USSR warranted a sympathetic eye, for espionage or no, its heart was in the right place. Today Russia represents “the wrong side of history.” Whatever its occupants’ true sentiments may be, the Kremlin is widely perceived as standing for everything the intelligentsia hates, from national sovereignty to religious presence in the public square. When DuBois supported a mass-murderer and the Rosenbergs handed over atomic secrets to a foreign power, so the implicit reasoning goes, at least they were motivated by a commendable allegiance to the revolutionary left. We cannot expect academics and journalists to so easily absolve right-wing villains like McCarthy or Trump of their respective sins – real or imaginary.

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About Jerry Salyer 59 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.


  1. Richard Nixon bolted upwards politically from an obscure attorney to President with his prosecution of Alger Hiss. Much if not all of Hiss’ communist ties were past. Later it was Nixon who would effect rapprochement with Mao and China. Political convenience. The same rule holds today. The why of the rabid pursuit of Trump and co for any attempt at improving relations with Russia. For many Russia remains the USSR. Particularly for heroic John McCain hung for days by his arms at the Hanoi Hilton until today both arms are deformed. The hatred toward anything communist is understandable but overplayed. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union we had a wonderful opportunity to remake our relations with a now ‘reactionary’ [to Stalinist communism] Russia and Gorbachev and then Yeltsin. Unfortunately Bush 43 destroyed that possibility by first being smitten looking into Putin’s eyes then promoting expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. Even attempting to establish NATO in Ukraine and Georgia. Needless to say nationalist former KGB operative Putin would react. Trump and advisers at least seem to recognize that. Unfortunately neo McCarthyism is in vogue with both parties. The chances of gaining a powerful ally against Radical Islam and in word affairs seems nil. Russia now basically Christian and moving toward democracy however slowly seems lost. The result for Trump is suspicion investigation with an obvious push toward impeachment.

  2. The conservative movement has never recovered from the damage that Joseph McCarthy did to the cause of intelligent anti-communism.

    That does not mean that communism is not an ever-present danger even today.

    • Agreed Terence. The West’s danger from communism is not from without, say Russia no longer stridently Marxist, or China now more concerned with economics and regional hegemony. It is from within. Called by some cultural Marxism. We see it in the Dem Party and radical egalitarianism. Also sadly the Catholic Church. In Am we had Saul Alinsky a Marxist socialist who spearheaded a social equality, soc justice movement within Catholicism that left lasting effect on Church policy. For example priority for Green issues, equal pay scale, global warming, immigration policy and much less on personal moral issues abortion, homosexual behavior, pornography, contraception and apparent linked divorce rates that are attacking the family. Presently Vatican Hierarchy including the Pontiff are increasingly involved on a global level more in line with secular humanism than Catholic orthodoxy. Indication of this is Papal policy regarding the CDF and the Pontifical Academy for Life.

      • It is good to have your perspective. That the Lord is our guide and counsellor is beyond all.

        Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

        1 John 2:15-16 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.

        Titus 2:11-12 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,

        Colossians 3:2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.

        Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.


  3. Just as, in the book “Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Are They Saying It?”, the authors make the valid point that it is important for those who write about the Holocaust, whether broadly or about specific aspects, to get all of the facts correct (for instance, not mixing those camps which were originally “labor camps” with those 6 camps in Poland created specifically for extermination), so as not to give Holocaust deniers ammunition for their false charges and phony “facts” and “research,” so it is important for those who write about the investigations of Communism in the United States to get their facts straight, too.

    For instance, it should be noted that the House Committee on Un-American Activities was created in 1936/7 to investigate the inroads of ALL “Un-American” foreign activities, including Fascism and National Socialism as well as Communism. And so it did, at least through U.S. entry into World War II, though it chose to focus its greatest attention on the area which would give the committee the most publicity – namely, Communism in the entertainment industry, first in movies, and later in radio and television as well. And, in between HCUAA’s investigations of Communism in the entertainment industries, it was, indeed, that committee which investigated the “Pumpkin Papers” affair, which resulted in the conviction of Alger Hiss because of his perjured testimony.

    The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations focused most of its attention and energy in the investigation of Communists on those in government jobs – primarily those in the Federal government. Said committee had done so before U.S. entry into the Korean War in 1950, but the spotlight shone brightest after that – until the same-sex attraction the chief counsel of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, a man named Roy Cohn, for G. David Schine led to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings debacle, which led to the downfall of Sen. McCarthy.

    (And it should be noted that, later in the 1950s, the same Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, now helmed by Sen. John McClellan (D-Alabama), conducted a far-ranging investigation into labor-management relations which resulted in the spotlight being shone quite brightly on Outfit influence and presence in many legitimate businesses as well as quite a number of labor unions (particularly the International Brotherhood of Teamsters). The committee’s then-Chief Counsel, Robert F. Kennedy, wrote an excellent book about the investigation: THE ENEMY WITHIN.)

    It is also important to remember, as the author points out, that there WERE Communists in government and in the entertainment industries and in literature and in journalism in the U.S. back in the day, often strategically placed (in such organizations as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, for example, as well as the Screen Writers Guild and the Screen Directors Guild and the Congress of Studio Unions) – and that their influence WAS pernicious, and that they DID dodge and weave and sometimes even lie in their defense of the indefensible.

  4. Russia or the USSR is the red herring of the day. Today’s rabid anti-Trump forces are not interested in Russia any more than they are interested in Finland. They just needed an excuse. They hate Trump, they hate patriotism and they want continue the push for one world government.

  5. I do hope some of you gentlemen have read the excellent biography of Joe McCarthy which first came out in ’86 and again in ’92 by Thomas C. Reeves(eminent biographer of NYTimes’Best Seller on JFK.) Tom was one of the few, and often the only historian who met and interviewed his relatives, his widow, numerous friends and acquaintances now gone from us. It’s well written and brings many insights into Joe no one else was able to provide.

  6. McCarthy was a clown, he was a drunk, he was a bully, and he did more damage to the legitimate cause of intelligent anti-communism than anyone could ever imagine.

    To the left he remains the gift that keeps on giving – 65 years after his demise.

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