Waving lists is as old as the Republic. But when Senator Joseph McCarthy waved his, 66 years ago, it became much more than the usual political gesture. By waving a list he asserted showing 205 communists currently harbored by the Secretary of State, he worsened an already panicky situation, giving the angry public ready-made answers as to why the country was losing the Cold War while helping foster class divisions in the country and dealing anticommunism a blow that it took decades to recover from.
When McCarthy spoke to the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, a compelling argument could be made that the US was losing the Cold War. For by 1950, Joseph Stalin controlled Eastern Europe, invaded Czechoslokia, and, perhaps the most chilling matter 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.
There was already a perception that the loss was attributed to the government.
The Yalta accords, a wartime summit between FDR, Stalin and Winston Churchill, was already controversial due to FDR’s seeming willingness to capitulate before Stalin. Although privately he asserted that he intended to “give Stalin everything he wants and ask for nothing in return.” Anticommunists on one side blamed Roosevelt, who was, in the words of Senator Ralph Flanders, as “soft as taffy on communism.” On the other, they blamed his illness — he would die two months later in April 1945. Staling took advantage of it.
The Alger Hiss case would give 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 would deny these charges for the rest of his life, Chambers brought forth damning documents he said Hiss gave him that was in the State Department official’s handwriting — liberals, initially supportive, began to accept Chambers’ charges. Throughout the case, Hiss didn’t do the Roosevelt administration any good by wrapping himself in the New Deal flag.
Those who blamed Stalin for taking advantage of FDR’s health could now include Hiss, who in one photograph, sat mere inches from the president. 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 advance him up the career ladder. Those seeing something more nefarious than mere naiveté about communism had a credible case that the communists had burrowed into the New Deal and were the true shapes of events.
Despite the above interpretations, the perception among the populace who watched Hiss prevaricate, dodge, weave, spin and misdirect, was that only vigorous and determined anticommunism represented by HUAC, specifically then Congressman Richard Nixon, could “out” those under suspicion — especially since the Democrats had proven themselves in the eyes of the republic unwilling to investigate their own.
The left then and now argue that the Truman administration, especially due its 1946 investigations, and the president’s attacks on communism at home and abroad gave birth to McCarthyism — a term used by the left, prompting them to say that it was Truman who unleashed “McCarthyism” before McCarthy. But ironically. the very left who hated the senator also helped usher him into office.
During his 1946 campaign against Democratic Senator Robert La Follette, the latter was so hated for his anti-Communism, that the Communist-controlled United Electrical and Machine Workers, supported McCarthy.
In office, they left him alone even though he was big-business friendly. He supported the Taft-Hartley Act, and fought against continuing war-time price controls on sugar. This latter support, plus a $20,000 personal loan from a Pepsi bottling executive, earned him the nickname “Pepsi Cola kid” among the Senate press corps, who had recently named him the “worst senator” that term.
With an election coming up and very little accomplishments to campaign on, McCarthy questioned his staff and the press about what was the gravy train issue that year. Although communism was the electable issue, McCarthy drafted the infamous speech accusing secretary of state Dean Acheson of harboring 205 members of the State Department who were “known communists.” Not content with this mere outing, McCarthy added a class component to this treachery, that in many ways was the beginning of the “silent majority.” McCarthy portrayed government spies as betraying a nation that gave them an Ivy League education and high government posts.
After the speech, McCarthy had created a tsunami. Had he hewed to the number he gave, he might have avoided views that he was more interested in headlines than honest investigations into the problem. But within a few weeks, he changed the number repeatedly to 81,15, or 10.
Conservatives such as William F. Buckley, even when defending him, saw his reckless theatricality deep-six provable cases. For example, he called far east expert Owen Lattimore “the top Russian spy in the country.” Whereas he should have stuck to Lattimore being a fellow traveler shaping State Department policy against Chiang Kai-Shek, as the Tydings Committee — a partisan group of Democrats led by Senator Millard Tydings formed to discredit McCarthy — grudgingly did.
Not all conservatives would support McCarthy, however. Whittaker Chambers, the chief witness against Alger Hiss, and in many ways, the mentor of Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley, refused to back the Senator, calling him “a raven of disaster.” Chambers even echoed the characterizations lodged against McCarthy by the far left as a budding Adolf Hitler.
Even late in life, Buckley still tried to defend the senator. In the 1999 novel The Redhunter, Buckley supported McCarthy’s investigations, and provided the answer as to why they were so ineffective. In one scene he had J. Edgar Hoover summon McCarthy to his office where he showed the senator top-secret documents proving McCarthy’s accusations correct. But because these documents were intercepted from Moscow to the US and vice versa, the senator could not cite them without alerting the Russians that the US had broken their code. Such was his sincerity in the fight against communism that, according to Buckley, McCarthy was willing to continue without them, and patriotically fall on his face.
But for Buckley this wasn’t what finally did McCarthy in. For him, the seeds of destruction were present 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, he used tax-payer money on nightclubs and expensive hotel stays with staffer — and according to many, Cohn’s homosexual lover, G. David Schine.
Such was McCarthy’s loyalty to Cohn, that, against advice from staffers he supported him even when Cohn was threatening the U.S. 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 getting rid of Cohn or he would resign. McCarthy stayed the course and this led into the 1954 disastrous investigations of the Army.
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 of liberal anticommunists toward McCarthy — that he did such damage to the cause of anticommunism that “he may as well have been a KGB agent” — and fashioned it onto the wife of the McCarthy-type senator. Hence, the sheer reckless self-destructiveness of McCarthy’s behavior had method to the madness; its chief purpose was to create a debilitating climate of fear at home and to sever Cold War alliances abroad that would usher in a Soviet takeover of the United States. Thus, his rapidly changing numbers from 205 to 81 to 10 and then back again, was a KGB plot to disorient the country.
There have been many factors attributed to the rise of McCarthy. As mentioned previously, some have located it in the frustration citizens felt over the state of the world. Others have located it in the self-serving tactics of Republicans eager to regain the White House after a 20 year gap. But rarely mentioned was the behavior of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters called to testify before HUAC in 1947, and Hiss.
Neither group would ever hone up to whether they were communists or not. The Ten, in particular, appeared guilty of a conspiracy, by pretending to answer questions when they were not. To the public, Hiss was such a liar that he would continue to wreck policy had it not been for anticommunists like Richard Nixon.
In many ways, the left was complicit in the rise of McCarthy. Some got him into office, while others in their prevaricating behavior kept him there.