In September 1950, four months into the Korean War, Congress passed the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), known as the McCarran Act, after its sponsor, the Nevada Democratic Senator Pat McCarran, a son of immigrants who hated immigrants. The act required all members of the Communist Party and all Communist “front” organizations to register with the government, deprived “subversives” of their right to passports and to government employment and subjected aliens deemed “subversive” to exclusion or deportation. Most notoriously, it granted the President emergency powers to intern “potential subversives” in concentration camps.

This “preventive detention” provision, which remained on the statute books for twenty years, had not featured in McCarran’s original bill. Its authors were, in fact, McCarran’s liberal opponents–including Hubert Humphrey–who had hoped to sabotage the bill by offering an alternative that was even tougher on Communism. Alas, the alternative ended up as an addition. After Truman vetoed the bill, Humphrey found himself arguing in the Senate in support of the veto on the grounds that the bill was wrong to guarantee the right of habeas corpus to the “despicable traitors” who would be interned in the camps.

The ISA was perhaps the worst legislative excrescence of McCarthyism, though Senator Joe McCarthy had nothing to do with it. The wave of domestic repression of the late 1940s and early ’50s that bears his name–also referred to as the Red Scare, the blacklist, the witch hunt, the cold war purge–was, of course, the work of an array of social forces, not a single individual. Nonetheless, if it is to be called after an individual, McCarran’s claim is stronger than McCarthy’s.

Pat McCarran was one of the great monsters of American public life. Though he started out as a Western populist and was elected to the Senate on FDR’s coattails in 1932, he broke with the New Deal and became one of Roosevelt’s chief Congressional tormentors. He hated Jews as well as Communists, and later described the new UN headquarters in New York as “a vantage ground for the infiltration of the United States.” Thanks to the seniority system, and what Michael Ybarra describes as his “uncommon parliamentary skill, great tenacity and utter ruthlessness,” McCarran acquired vast power in Washington and “ran a virtual government in opposition, even while his own party controlled the White House and both wings of the capital.” He bullied the departments of Justice and State, created the racist and restrictive McCarran-Walter immigration act, and as chair of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) presided as the nation’s grand inquisitor, hounding unions, intellectuals and federal employees, provoking fear, firings, deportations and suicides. He was despotic, vindictive, corrupt and mendacious–and fully merits the thorough treatment he receives in Ybarra’s book, where he is used as a linchpin for a synoptic account of “the great American Communist hunt.”

The canvas Ybarra paints in Washington Gone Crazy has both the scale and detail demanded by the subject, but he works too hard at making his tome readable. The racy journalese descends into cliché and the novelistic touches undermine the narrative’s credibility. (“The switchboard at the Daily Worker lit up like a Christmas tree,” “the sight of the flag never failed to move him,” “Pat McCarran picked up the phone. Jim Farley was on the other end.”)

However, as a work of scholarship it is far superior to Ted Morgan’s cartoonlike account, which makes only three fleeting references to McCarran. Throughout, Reds is shaped by a bizarrely arbitrary selection of sources and by astounding jumps from the anecdotal to the epochal.

For an ostensibly liberal critique of McCarthyism, Morgan’s book is curiously indulgent toward some of its most noxious avatars. Martin Dies, first chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, is described as a “simplistic but dogged ideologue” who “turned out to be surprisingly effective in uncovering the concealed activities of the party” and “created an instant awareness that the danger of communist subversion was real” in 1938, when he investigated the CIO. As Morgan’s own account makes clear, Dies was a shameless white supremacist who used his committee to harass low-ranking federal government functionaries, provide a platform for semifascist cranks and mount sweeping attacks on the labor movement and the New Deal.

Although Morgan condemns McCarthy’s scattershot accusations, he often replicates his method, repeatedly eliding the categories of Communist Party member and Soviet agent, casually sweeping individuals into the suspect camp. He is harsh on “the posturing cardboard heroes who took the Fifth…cowards afraid of admitting their allegiance,” while those who “named names…were doing their duty as citizens under oath.” His is an eerie form of liberalism, one that glibly endorses state inquisitions into the political opinions and personal associations of individuals.

In his verdict that McCarthyism was an “exaggerated reaction to a real threat,” Morgan shares common ground with Ybarra, who argues that “the Communist party presented a unique challenge to American liberty…. Anti-Communism, then, was both a rational and necessary response. Anti-Communism run amok was something altogether different.” But where does “anti-Communism” end and “anti-Communism run amok” begin? Who draws the boundaries of “American liberty”? How was the Communist Party “unique” in its challenge to this system? Surely J. Edgar Hoover’s reign at the FBI mounted a more sustained and substantial challenge to human rights in the United States than anything the American Communist Party was responsible for. And the Constitution, which is held up as a repository of “American liberty,” is also the document that handed disproportionate and unaccountable power to the likes of McCarran, who sat in the Senate for twenty-two years without ever winning more than 36,000 votes in an election.

Like others, Ybarra and Morgan treat the Venona transcripts published in the 1990s–decryptions of secret communications between Soviet officials and their agents in the United States–as a watershed, belated and conclusive proof that Communists were engaged in an illicit and treasonous conspiracy. Venona is also held to confirm the guilt of Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, two eminent New Deal liberals accused of spying for the Soviet Union. As Treasonable Doubt, R. Bruce Craig’s careful study of the White case, makes clear, the initial attack on the two men was very much an attempt to roll back the “American internationalism” that had gained influence in government during the Roosevelt years. At the Treasury Department, White played a key role in the establishment of the IMF and World Bank, while Hiss at State was closely involved in the launch of the UN–institutions reviled by the American right of the era as alien encroachments on US sovereignty. Neither Hiss nor White was, remotely, a Marxist revolutionary; both were liberal elitists and believers in active US participation in multilateral institutions. Though sympathetic to the USSR, they were even more committed to a peaceful postwar order built on US-USSR cooperation–a commitment that may have led them to pass on confidential information to Soviet agents.

The Hiss and White cases were infamous mood-setters, used to bolster the claim that liberals had presided over “twenty years of treason.” As Craig’s book makes clear, the central charge against White–that he subverted US government policy in the interests of the Soviets–is contradicted by his record in office. As for Hiss, not even the harshest interpretation of the Venona evidence justifies the elaborate edifice that G. Edward White constructs in Alger Hiss’s Looking Glass Wars: a double life postulated in great detail and an inner life analyzed as if the subject were on the dissection table. Speculation here turns casually into assertion and assertion into psychobabble.

In contrast, Robert Lichtman and Ronald Cohen have produced in Deadly Farce a judicious and nonjudgmental account of one of the now-forgotten celebrities of the era, ex-Communist Harvey Matusow, who achieved notoriety first as a star witness for the government against his former comrades, and then for spectacularly recanting his testimony. Matusow was one of at least eighty-three ex-Communists on the Justice Department payroll in the early 1950s. As Lichtman and Cohen note, “The sheer volume of employee loyalty cases, deportation proceedings, Smith Act prosecutions, SACB [Subversive Activities Control Board] proceedings, and Congressional and state investigative committee hearings created a large market for informers.” In the end, this troupe of professional witnesses perjured themselves frequently and flagrantly, and–unlike Hiss, White and others named as spies–did so with impunity. Matusow was a valuable asset to his employers, naming 216 people as party members. He solemnly told McCarran’s credulous SISS that the Communist Party planned to infiltrate the Boy Scouts. He was paid by the New York school system to identify Communist teachers. He advised industrialists and columnists and enjoyed the limelight.

It was a period when informers were not only financially rewarded but held up as moral exemplars, and the young Matusow found the lure irresistible. But what he did next was rare. As a result of what seems to have been a genuine fit of conscience, he announced that he had made it all up. The Justice Department then brought a perjury charge against him–not for his original testimony but for his recantation, specifically his claim that prosecutor Roy Cohn had induced him to lie in the Smith Act trials. He was convicted and served three and a half years in prison. Matusow is sometimes mocked as an attention-seeker, but in Lichtman and Cohen’s account he emerges as a complex figure, elusive and more symptomatic of the pressure-cooker times than the Washington high-fliers.

Any history of the Red Scare must also include some account of its putative adversary, the Communist Party USA. The party was habitually authoritarian in its internal regime and sectarian in its relations with others. Its strategic lurches–subordinated to Stalin’s realpolitik–were crude and frequently opportunistic. It attracted its share of abusive or inadequate personalities. But that is not the whole story. The party was first and foremost a political entity whose existence was tied up with the fluctuations of a wider social movement. Neither Ybarra nor Morgan has any feel for the left as a shifting milieu, for grassroots activism or for the labor movement. They see only hardened party hacks (knaves) or gullible fellow-travelers (fools). Neither makes use of the extensive literature on American Communism produced over the past twenty-five years. Their narrative is not merely incomplete; it’s lopsided and misleading. It cannot come to grips with the real social impact of the witch hunt or its lasting legacy.

There is a huge leap between taking a cold-eyed or even hostile view of the Communist Party and embracing “anti-Communism” as an unremitting ideology. But with few exceptions, that was the leap American liberals made in the late 1940s and early ’50s. And that is a leap that Ybarra and Morgan hold up for us to admire today. But they can do so only by ignoring a good deal of intervening history. Marxists are rightly urged to face up to their history of appalling errors, but liberals must do the same. As an ideology anti-Communism has as much blood on its hands as any. The Vietnam War stands as a grisly monument to cold war liberalism, to which a string of other crimes could be added: mass murder of leftists in Indonesia, death squads across Latin America, support for the likes of Mobutu in Africa and the Shah in Iran.

Ybarra and Morgan both exalt Truman as a foe of intolerance, a bulwark against the right. But as Ybarra recounts McCarran’s repeated victories over the White House, it becomes clear that the liberals’ blunder in introducing the concentration camp clause was not unique. Their strategy of pre-empting the right wing by beating them to the anti-Communist punch proved as great a failure as the CPUSA’s protestations that Communism was merely “twentieth-century Americanism.”

In 1947 Truman publicly intervened on behalf of the right wing in the civil war in Greece (and helped establish a military dictatorship there). This critical escalation of the cold war witnessed the forging of the postwar bipartisan foreign policy consensus–a consensus that was not merely anti-Soviet but pro-military intervention wherever US interests were seen to be under threat. That same year Truman issued Executive Order 9835, under which more than 2 million federal employees were made subject to loyalty checks. His Justice Department compiled official lists of subversive organizations and “fronts” and prosecuted Communist leaders under the Smith Act. These leaders were jailed in the end not for espionage but for a thought crime: They were proven guilty of formally adhering to Marx and Lenin, who did indeed preach the overthrow of the bourgeois state. All this before the rise of Joe McCarthy–indeed, before the “loss” of China, the Soviet blockade of Berlin or the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia.

By colluding in the transformation of “socialism” into a dirty word, the liberals set a trap for themselves–and helped create the political culture in which “liberal” itself became a dirty word. They handed the right a devastatingly flexible ideological trump card: “Americanism,” a means to delegitimize radical, nonconformist and especially avowedly internationalist ideas.

The “excesses” of McCarthyism were eventually curbed, but its assumptions remained in place. By world standards, the cold war purge was nonlethal (compare Indonesia or Chile). Nonetheless, the damage was profound, and much of it has still not been undone. Ultimately, McCarthyism wasn’t about spies or celebrities or even grand inquisitors. It was about factories and offices, schools, local libraries. PTAs. Radio stations. Comic books. TV series. Advertisements.

In the labor movement the purge led to mass expulsions, splits, internecine battles and a historic depoliticization from which US unions never fully recovered. State and local governments subjected 80 percent of the country’s 1 million public school teachers to some form of loyalty screening. Nationalist paranoia and superpower prerogatives merged, with long-term consequences for US political culture. McCarthyism’s defining legacy was not its procedural abuses (grotesque though these were) but the foreclosure of radical options in general. Any politics that did not genuflect before the idol of American exceptionalism was demonized. The divergence of the US polity from its European counterparts was deepened and the center of gravity pushed to the right. That’s why the label “McCarthyism” is worse than a casual misnomer. It’s a misrepresentation and an evasion.

Ybarra and Morgan largely ignore the intertwined economic and international dimensions of the witch hunt. It was as much the revenge of big business on organized labor as it was of the right wing on the New Deal, and it unfolded against the background of anticolonial struggles in Indochina, Indonesia, the Philippines and West Africa, in many of which US corporate interests had a major stake. The cold war purge and the consensus it bred led to the establishment and acceptance of huge peacetime military expenditures. It also insured that there was barely a whisper of domestic dissent when the United States helped overthrow the non-Communist, nationalist regimes of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, and when it invaded Lebanon in 1958.

While Ybarra and Morgan are keenly aware that the “protection of American liberty” has served as a pretext for fierce attacks on freedom in America, they are much less alert to its role as a pretext for the mass destruction of liberty and life overseas. Long before the rise of the neocons, cold war liberalism had brought the United States into disrepute across several continents.

The Red Scare consolidated American popular support for what was, in reality, a burgeoning empire, though then as now it refused to call itself that. In the “war on terror,” as in the Red Scare, an international conspiracy whose agents are said to be in our midst has been posited as the national nemesis. Once again America is depicted as under siege from both without and within. This time around, the public has proved more resistant and dissent more resilient. Nonetheless, like their cold war forebears, liberal opponents of the “excesses” of the war on terror often accept the bulk of its premises–not least America’s assumed right to invade and occupy foreign lands.

For Ybarra and Morgan, 1954 marks the end of the era of darkness. McCarran died and McCarthy was censured by his Senate colleagues. That year, independent journalist I.F. Stone (referred to by Morgan, preposterously, as “the pro-Soviet Washington correspondent”) warned that it would take more than the fall of one extremist to put an end to the witch hunt: “It is sometimes hard to draw a line of principles between McCarthy and his critics. If there is indeed a monstrous and diabolic conspiracy against world peace and stability, then isn’t McCarthy right?… How talk of fair procedure with a protean and Satanic enemy?… McCarthy is personally discomfited but McCarthyism is still on the march…to acquiesce in the delusions which create a panic is no way to stem it.”