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.”)