In the early 1950s, a senator from the state of Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy took it upon himself to expose the truth about communist infiltration of the United States government. Over a four-year period, Sen. McCarthy relentlessly sought to uncover the truth about why men and women who had been investigated and identified as security risks were allowed to continue in the employ of various bodies and agencies of the federal government, even after their possible connections to international communism had been revealed to their superiors.
Given how pervasive Cold War tensions were at that time, one would expect that Sen. McCarthy’s campaign to discover the truth about communist influence in the U.S. government would have drawn praise and appreciation from all quarters. But such was not the case. On the contrary, right from the beginning, McCarthy was vigorously attacked by the mainstream press who called him crazy, ignorant, boorish, crude, venal, rambling, bullying, opportunistic, obnoxious, dishonest, stupid, obscene, rude, unpleasant, ugly, asinine, ruthless, fascist, and contemptible—and the more attention McCarthy gained, the more vicious his critics in the Fourth Estate became. The American people took his charges seriously and supported his determined attempts to get at the truth, but the media and his political opponents—whose ranks included establishment Republicans as well as Democrats—never let up on McCarthy, and they were not satisfied until they had publicly disgraced him and hounded him into an early grave. In the decades that have passed since Joe McCarthy’s shooting star briefly blazed across the political horizon, the sullying of his reputation has continued unabated, and in the contemporary public imagination McCarthy’s name has come to be synonymous with abuse of power and the persecution of the innocent.
Joseph McCarthy has become arguably the most reviled figure in American history. But the profoundly negative interpretation of his life and his work that has been entered into the official historical record is based on distortions, misconceptions, and misinterpretations that have completely obscured the truth. In fact, the network of communist spies, subversives, and sources of information inside the U.S. government that McCarthy tried so hard to expose really did exist, and its activities were far more extensive and potentially dangerous to the security of the United States than McCarthy’s critics both then and now have ever been willing to admit. The image of Joseph McCarthy that is being passed down from generation to generation is a caricature that bears only a slight resemblance to the real man, and the creation of this caricature provides us with a classic example of how the myth-making machine of academia and the mainstream media continually obscures the truth about important people, events, and episodes in our history.
The Real History Of ‘McCarthyism’
Joseph McCarthy was a decorated World War II veteran, an accomplished lawyer, and a circuit court judge whose sterling reputation as a patriot and able public servant drew the attention of important political figures in his home state of Wisconsin. The son of a dirt-poor Irish-Catholic farmer, McCarthy was really the quintessential American success story, and in 1946 he stunned everyone by winning election to the United States senate at the tender age of thirty-eight. During his first three years in Washington, McCarthy the Republican populist outsider struggled to find his way, but in 1950 things began to change dramatically following a speech he gave before a Republican women’s club in Wheeling, West Virginia. McCarthy stunned his audience by announcing he had in his possession of a long list of people currently employed in the Truman Administration’s State Department who had been classified as security risks by government investigators. Later, McCarthy repeated these charges on the floor of the Senate, but with Democrats in control of that body, his chances of getting his fellow senators to conduct a fair and unbiased investigation into communist infiltration of the State Department were basically non-existent. Under the leadership of Sen. Millard Tydings (D-MD), a panel called the Tydings Committee was formed to study the question, but it was clear from the beginning that the Democrats on this panel did not take the issue seriously and were determined to whitewash the whole affair.
Despite a campaign of attack launched against McCarthy by his political enemies in Congress and in the establishment media, over the next two years he persisted in his efforts to unmask the truth about communist penetration of the United States government. When the elections of 1952 gave the Republicans a majority in the Senate, McCarthy ascended to the chairmanship of the Government Operations Committee, and under the authority of the GOC’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he instigated a series of hearings designed to uncover the truth about the communist menace on American soil. Specifically, McCarthy wanted to find out if people with connections to the American Communist Party or sympathetic to the goals of international communism in general were occupying sensitive positions inside the federal government, and among the organizations he targeted for investigation were the State Department, the CIA, the U.S. Information Agency, and the U.S. Army.
While the public was generally supportive and appreciative of these efforts, McCarthy efforts made people in the Eisenhower Administration and on both sides of the aisle in Congress extremely uncomfortable, and when McCarthy went after the Army in 1954, Eisenhower himself decided that enough was enough. The President worked behind the scenes to convince Republican senators to support their Democratic colleagues in a coordinated effort to slander and destroy McCarthy, and in 1954, the Senate voted 67-22 to censure the junior senator from Wisconsin and shut down his investigations. McCarthy spent the remainder of his years in office tirelessly speaking out about the conspiracy by international communism to steal America’s most vital secrets, but the coordinated attacks against him by powerful government and media elites had done significant damage to his reputation. By the time of his tragic death from alcoholism in 1957 at the age of only forty-nine, McCarthy had become a completely marginalized figure.
But his exit from this mortal coil brought no cease to the campaign to discredit Joe McCarthy. In fact, after his death McCarthy was subjected to a campaign of relentless vilification so intense that it is probably unparalleled in American history. Mention the name McCarthy today, and the picture it will elicit in the minds of most will be of a raving lunatic and sniveling, snarling pathological liar who drooled and slathered all over the Constitution as he gleefully ruined the lives of thousands of poor innocent souls who said their prayers and drank their milk and were good to their mothers and had never done a single thing wrong in their entire lives. The label “McCarthyism” was invented to describe the madness of an era where fear and paranoia completely obliterated moderation, reason, and common sense, and Joseph McCarthy has been cast in the role of a modern-day Robespierre who brought America’s democratic traditions to the brink of destruction in his mad quest for personal glory and power. In the modern imagination, Joe McCarthy is portrayed as the personification of small-minded parochial intolerance, and we are told over and over that we must never allow the horrors of “McCarthyism” to be repeated.
The Nature Of The Threat: Separating Fact From Fiction
Historians and media types have called Joseph McCarthy a self-aggrandizing, pathological liar who made things up in order to get attention. But in fact, McCarthy’s claims of an unacknowledged communist conspiracy were based on the results of two official government investigations that were undertaken to determine whether or not the government was employing individuals who might present a security risk. The first, carried out by the State Department in 1946, involved a thorough examination of the backgrounds of 4,000 new employees who were transferred into that department from other wartime organizations following the cessation of hostilities overseas. In a letter entered into the 1946 Congressional Record, former Secretary of State James F. Byrnes identified 285 individuals whose personal histories and/or behavior raised suspicions, only 79 of whom had been removed from their positions as of 1950.
The second investigation that caught McCarthy’s attention was sponsored by a 1947 Senate Appropriations subcommittee. Their special investigator compiled a list of 108 people who were employed by the State Department despite having backgrounds that should have raised red flags. Secretary of State George Marshall was alerted to these findings, but he chose not to take any further action.
McCarthy’s critics accused him of going off half-cocked. But his alarm at the prospect of extensive communist espionage was based on his awareness of the results of these legitimate government investigations, which had raised real concerns that clearly needed to be addressed.
The VENONA Revelations
If nothing more had ever been discovered, perhaps it would have been possible for some to assert that McCarthy was guilty of paranoia, and that he overreacted to the information he was given and blew things up out of all proportion. But four decades later, information emerged that proved conclusively McCarthy’s fear of a communist conspiracy was well placed. The full extent of Soviet espionage during the early years of the Cold War was finally revealed in 1995, when the U.S. government released classified documents related to a top-secret intelligence project that went by the code name VENONA.
This counterespionage initiative involved the interception and decryption of thousands of Soviet communications by the NSA and the FBI during the late 1940s and 1950s. In these cables, Soviet sources referenced 349 Americans in sensitive positions who were either spying for them or otherwise providing useful information about a variety of US government activities and defense programs, including research and development into nuclear weapons. Because these individuals were all given code names or numbers, it was not possible to identify every single one of them. However, many who were eventually identified as communist agents were in fact some of the very same people who had been named and listed on the government reports that had been used by Joseph McCarthy as his primary sources of information. Additionally, McCarthy was close to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and while it is not known exactly what Hoover may or may not have told him in their private conversations, some of the information that was being picked up on the VENONA intercepts certainly could have made its way back to McCarthy through this channel.
But regardless of any secret sources McCarthy may or may not have had, the release of the VENONA documents proved conclusively that his concerns about communist infiltration of the U.S. government were entirely justified, and, if anything, perhaps even a little too restrained.
The Blacklisting Myth
Most of the stories people have heard about lives being ruined by the excesses of “McCarthyism” have involved Hollywood screen writers, actors, and producers, college professors and high school teachers, labor union officials, and social activists of various stripes who lost their jobs and were blacklisted on the flimsiest of excuses. These things certainly did happen, and some have estimated that as many as 10,000 Americans lost their livelihoods as a result of the excesses of the “Red Scare” of the 1950s.
But there is one thing that many people do not realize – Joseph McCarthy and his Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had absolutely nothing to do with any of this. Sen. McCarthy was not the least bit interested in the follies, foibles, or youthful indiscretions of Hollywood celebrities, nor was he concerned about the hidden political proclivities of anyone else not directly employed by or associated with the U.S. federal government. Joseph McCarthy was concerned with one thing and one thing only – protecting the security interests of the United States against enemies both foreign and domestic.
The House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, was responsible for the persecution and blacklisting of private citizens that we tend to associate with the “McCarthyism.” Out of the 10,000 people who lost their jobs as a result of government investigations into communism, perhaps 40 or so were subjects of hearings or fact-finding missions conducted by Sen. McCarthy. Those who have attempted to blame the blacklisting phenomenon on “McCarthyism” are simply ignorant about what really happened during those times, and it is an ignorance that has been cultivated by those who don’t want the truth to be known. In reality, Joseph McCarthy’s investigations were a model of restraint in comparison to those carried out under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Rethinking A Legacy
While not the monster he has been made out to be, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was far from a perfect person. As has commonly been reported, McCarthy was an alcoholic who essentially drank himself into an early grave, and his alcohol-fueled deterioration no doubt affected his critical faculties and caused him to make many intemperate public statements. He was undoubtedly a person of high ambition, and it is well known that he exaggerated his war record in order to make it seem like he had been a bigger hero than had actually been the case. McCarthy certainly targeted some individuals for investigation who were not guilty of anything, and he was not above accusing those who disagreed with him of themselves being communist sympathizers. There was an element of over-the-top hysteria and paranoia that accompanied the government’s investigations into the communist threat, and at times McCarthy helped to feed into that hysteria.
But as VENONA records and official documents released after the fall of the Soviet Union have revealed, the communist infiltration that McCarthy tried to warn everyone about was a real phenomenon, and it did compromise the security of the United States in ways that were quite troubling and disturbing. Thanks to VENONA, we now know that virtually every important American diplomatic and military organization during the late ‘40s and early ‘50s had been penetrated by Soviet agents to some extent, and anyone who still claims the problem Sen. Joseph McCarthy spent his years in Washington trying to expose did not exist is not being intellectually honest.
Like most human beings, Joseph McCarthy was neither hero nor villain. His legacy was a complex one, and he deserves to be recognized for the good things he tried to accomplish, and not just for the mistakes he made in his enthusiasm to protect his country from its most intractable and dangerous enemies.
©2012 Off the Grid News