The act of waving lists to decry an injustice is as old as the Republic. But when Senator Joseph McCarthy waved his list, almost exactly 65 years ago, it became much more than the usual political gesture. On February 9, 1950, during a speech he gave in West Virginia, McCarthy waved a list of 205 names of men he alleged were “known Communists” — known as such by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. With this gesture, he worsened an already panicky situation, gave the angry public a ready-made explanation for why the country was losing the Cold War, helped foster class divisions in the country, and dealt anti-Communism a blow from which it did not recover for decades.
At the time McCarthy spoke to the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, W. Va., many Americans feared that the U.S. was losing the Cold War. By 1950, Stalin had invaded Czechoslovakia, controlled Eastern Europe, and, most chilling of all, had obtained the A-bomb. Citizens were at a loss as to how the most powerful country in the world could be losing the conflict.
A common public perception was that the American government was responsible for this troubling state of affairs. The Yalta accords, a wartime summit between Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, were already seen as controversial because of FDR’s apparent willingness to capitulate to Stalin. (Privately, FDR had said, “I think that if I give Stalin everything I possibly can and ask for nothing in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of peace and democracy.”) Anti-Communists blamed Roosevelt, who was, in the words of Senator Ralph Flanders, as “soft as taffy on Communism.” They also attributed FDR’s weakness to his illness (he would die two months later, in April 1945), which a robust Stalin used to his advantage.
The Alger Hiss case gave credence to both interpretations. Hiss, a rising State Department official and architect of the United Nations, was accused of Soviet espionage by his former courier Whittaker Chambers. Although Hiss for the rest of his life would deny these charges, Chambers brought forth damning documents he said Hiss had given him that were in Hiss’s handwriting and that summarized the contents of State Department cables. After experts confirmed that the handwriting was Hiss’s, Democrats, initially supportive of Hiss, began to accept Chambers’s charges. Throughout the case, Hiss didn’t do the Roosevelt administration any favors by wrapping himself in the New Deal flag.
Those who blamed Stalin for taking advantage of FDR’s health could now also blame Hiss, who, in one photograph, sat mere inches from the president at Yalta. (Later information would show that FDR and the new Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, often delegated authority to Hiss on policy questions.) Those who saw Democrats as soft on Communism could point to the fact that despite warnings about Hiss as early as 1939, the Roosevelt administration did nothing and continued to boost him up the career ladder. Those who suspected something more nefarious than mere naïveté about Communism now had a credible case that the Communists had burrowed into the New Deal bureaucracy and were the true shapers of events.
The perception among much of the public who watched Hiss prevaricate, dodge, weave, spin, and misdirect was that only vigorous and determined anti-Communism — as represented by the House Un-American Activities Committee, specifically by then-congressman Richard Nixon — could “out” any Communist spies. In the eyes of the nation, the Democrats had proven themselves unwilling to investigate their own.
The Left — then and now — argued that the Truman administration had unleashed “McCarthyism before McCarthy.” Truman’s loyalty investigations, formed in 1947 to root out Communist influence, and his attacks on Communism at home and abroad were part of the anti-Communist drive that helped usher Senator McCarthy into office. Hollywood Stalinist and blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. spent the rest of his life reminding audiences of Truman’s pioneering efforts.
During the 1946 Republican Senate primary in Wisconsin, McCarthy ran against incumbent senator Robert La Follette, heir to a political dynasty and one of the most esteemed politicians of his era. But La Follette had been one of the first to warn against Soviet expansionism, and he made anti-Communism the central issue of his campaign. Wisconsin progressives, such as those in the Communist-controlled United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers Union (UE), hated La Follette so much for his vocal anti-Communism that they supported McCarthy in the general election, despite the fact that McCarthy shared La Follette’s anti-Communism.
The UE union didn’t bother McCarthy once he was in office, even though he was very friendly to big business. He supported the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted the power of labor unions, and fought against wartime price controls on sugar. This latter stance, plus a $20,000 personal loan from a Pepsi bottling executive, earned him the nickname among the Senate press corps — who had already named him the “worst senator” — of “the Pepsi Cola kid.”
With another election coming up and very few accomplishments to campaign on, McCarthy questioned his staff and the press about what was the gravy-train issue that year. Told that Communism was the winning issue, McCarthy drafted the infamous speech in which he accused Acheson of harboring more than 200 members of the State Department who were known to be official members of the Communist party. Not content with this accusation of spying, McCarthy added the charge of elitism, portraying government spies as Ivy League graduates in high government posts who were betraying the nation that had given them so much.
After the speech, the tsunami hit. Had he hewed to the number he gave originally — 205 suspected Communists — he might have disproven the critics who claimed he was more interested in headlines than in honest investigation. But within a few weeks, he changed the number numerous times — to 81, 57, and 10.
Conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr., even when defending McCarthy, saw his reckless theatricality deep-six provable cases. He called Far East expert Owen Lattimore “the top Russian spy in the country,” for instance. McCarthy should have stuck to describing Lattimore as a fellow traveler who helped shape State Department policy against Chiang Kai-shek, as the Tydings Committee (a group of partisan Democrats formed to discredit McCarthy) grudgingly did.
Not all conservatives supported McCarthy, however, even from the start. Whittaker Chambers, the chief witness against Alger Hiss and in many ways the mentor of Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley Jr., refused to back the senator, calling him “a raven of disaster.” Chambers even echoed the characterization lodged against McCarthy by the far Left: that he was a budding Hitler.
Buckley and Chambers disagreed over McCarthy, and Buckley defended the senator throughout most of his career. Buckley’s 1999 novel The Redhunter suggested that Buckley supported McCarthy’s investigations, and it provided one possible explanation for why they had been so ineffective. In one scene, J. Edgar Hoover summons McCarthy to his office and shows the senator top-secret documents proving McCarthy’s accusations correct. But because these documents were intercepted between Moscow and the U.S., the senator could not cite them without alerting the Russians that the Americans had broken their code. Such was his sincerity in the fight against Communism that, according to Buckley’s novel, McCarthy was willing to continue without the hard proof and patriotically fall on his face.
But in Buckley’s novel, this wasn’t what finally destroyed McCarthy. The seeds of destruction were planted when the senator hired legal wunderkind (and prosecutor of the Rosenbergs) Roy Cohn. Buckley portrayed Cohn as a rampant careerist, interested only in amassing power. Worse, Cohn used taxpayer money on nightclubs and expensive hotel stays with staffer G. David Schine, whom many believed to be Cohn’s homosexual lover.
Such was McCarthy’s loyalty to Cohn, that, against advice from staffers, he supported him even when Cohn was threatening the Army with punishment for not furloughing the newly drafted Schine. The sheer number of calls to the Army by Cohn — 47 in two days — led many on the staff to believe that Cohn was sexually obsessed with Schine. Buckley had his main character give McCarthy the ultimatum of either accepting his resignation or getting rid of Cohn. McCarthy stayed the course with Cohn, which led to the disastrous Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, in which the Army accused Cohn of coercing the military to give preferential treatment to Schine, and McCarthy countercharged that this accusation was retaliation for his investigation of suspected Communists within the Army’s ranks.
Buckley’s wasn’t the only attempt to explain the senator via fiction. So, too, did Richard Condon in his Cold War classic The Manchurian Candidate (1959). Condon took the oft-repeated phrase that liberal anti-Communists used against McCarthy — he did such damage to the cause of anti-Communism that “he may as well have been a KGB agent” — and fashioned it onto the wife of the McCarthy-esque senator. In this telling, the reckless self-destructiveness of McCarthy’s behavior was intentional and strategic; its purpose was to create a debilitating climate of fear at home and sever Cold War alliances abroad, ushering in a Soviet takeover of the United States. Thus, McCarthy’s rapidly changing numbers, from 205 to 81 to 10 and then back again, were a KGB plot to disorient the country.
Many factors contributed to the rise of McCarthy. As I suggested above, some have pointed to the frustration that citizens felt over the state of the world and the fear of an impending Soviet triumph. Others have blamed the self-serving tactics of Republicans eager to regain the White House after a 20-year absence. But rarely mentioned was the behavior of the Hollywood Ten (a group of screenwriters called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947) and Hiss. Neither the Hollywood Ten nor Hiss would ever clarify whether or not they were Communists. The Ten, in particular, appeared guilty of a conspiracy when they refused to answer questions directly. The public clearly believed that Hiss was such a liar that he would have continued to wreck policy had it not been for anti-Communists such as Richard Nixon.
However we understand the history of anti-Communism, it’s hard not to see that the Left was complicit in the rise of McCarthy. Some got him into office, while others in their prevaricating behavior kept him there.
— Ron Capshaw is a writer living in Midlothian, Va.