On Bill Maher’s HBO show last night, Amy Goodman—a guest on the panel for the first time—reminded Bill and the audience that a new McCarthyism was always a threat in America, even if at a more limited range than the original, back in the early 1950s. She pointed out that Representative Allen West, the raging Florida rightwinger, had claimed there were dozens of “Communists” in Congress, and that meant he could only be referring to the Progressive Caucus.
We’re a long way from the “Red Scare” of old, but we have seen, in increasing numbers in recent years, GOP politicians and rightwing pundits and radio hosts decrying the alleged anti-Americanism of many on the left, including liberal centrists like President Obama. So it might be useful here to look back at how “McCarthyism” got its name—a reminder for some, perhaps a revelation to younger people who may know what it means but unsure of the history.
So here is an excerpt from my book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas, 1950, which was published last week in a new print edition  and for the first time as an ebook . The “Red Scare” and McCarthyism were at the center of that notorious campaign, and the book, but here is a snapshot focusing on McCarthy but also (a surprise to some) President Truman—opening with an incident that occured 62 years ago this week.
* * *
It was the most terrifying moment in the history of the Washington Gridiron Club roasts. One evening in late June, reporters and other guests meeting in the ballroom of the Statler Hotel had just sat down to dinner when the doors flew open and a dark, heavyset, slightly balding man around forty years of age burst in carrying a revolver, a rifle, a machine gun-and a slingshot. Members of the audience gasped, some in horror but most in recognition. The gunman suddenly threw away his weapons and held out a baby’s diaper. “I’ll never let that go,” he declared. “That’s my cloak of immunity.” With that, a musical group started a number, and the intruder broke into song, spoofing a recent Bert Williams tune: “Somebody lied, Somebody lied, dear, dear; Some say there is no evidence, While others say it’s clear…”
The guest of honor had arrived: Joseph R. McCarthy, the increasingly controversial Republican senator from Wisconsin. The onlookers applauded vigorously, perhaps in relief. Many of them had never taken Joe McCarthy seriously. There was some comfort in recognizing—hoping—that he might not take himself seriously either.
The Gridiron roast came at an uncertain time for McCarthy. He had ridden a roller coaster since making his famous February 9 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. When the New York Times, in a June 24 article, reviewed the past four months, the headline said it all: McCARTHY UP TO NOW—NONE OF HIS CHARGES HAS BEEN PROVED BUT NO CONCLUSION IS IN SIGHT. The same day, Freda Kirchwey, editor of The Nation, provided her own summary, which included a definition of something called McCarthyism: “slander masked as testimony, protected by privilege, and broadcast as fact.”
President Truman privately predicted that McCarthy would eventually be thrown out of the Senate for telling lies. A more positive assessment was provided by the Gallup Organization: A poll showed that 43 percent of all Americans felt McCarthy’s crusade was “a good thing,” and 31 percent felt he was “doing harm.” Nearly two-thirds of all Americans believed there was “something” to his charges.
Red scares, of course, were nothing new in the United States. Anti communism had characterized American life for more than three decades, but only periodically, as in I950, did it become a paramount political and social issue.
During the 1930s, desperate social conditions created by the Great Depression caused a surge in Communist activity, little of it out in the open. The Communist Party in the United States had gained thousands of new members and was unquestionably gaining influence in many labor organizations. This sparked the formation in the late 1930s of legislative panels to investigate subversive activities. The first HUAC, led by Congressman Martin Dies of Texas, established a list of over one thousand pro-Communist organizations, including labor unions, political groups, and even the Boy Scouts of America (for promoting “international understanding”) . It was Dies who introduced techniques later embraced by Joe McCarthy, leaking information to the press to defame suspects and linking individuals to Red fronts with which they had only the most tenuous connection. Phrases used by Dies committee members later became part of the McCarthy lexicon: “I hold in my hand,” “soft on communism,” “coddling Communists.”
For a time, Dies was the darling of the press and drew wide public support. In 1940, Congress passed the Smith Act, which outlawed the advocacy or abetting the overthrow of the U. S. government “by force or violence.” Not only actions but also words could now be considered seditious. But then World War II intervened, the Soviets became our allies, and defeating the Germans and the Japanese took precedence over Red hunts.
When the war ended, however, and U.S. -Soviet relations deteriorated, concern about domestic communism again appeared. Americans resented that they had destroyed German and Japanese fascism at a terrible cost and now had to worry about Soviet expansion and infiltration. J. Edgar Hoover fed the fears, claiming Red subversion of unions, movies and radio, schools, publications, and—yes—the federal government. By his count, there was exactly one Communist for every 1,814 Americans. This did not seem like much, but he pointed out that at the time of the Bolshevik revolution there was one Communist in Russia for every 2,771 people. This comparison was cited over and over. Many top officials, including the secretary of labor, called for outlawing the Communist Party.
At this moment, in 1947, President Truman took a fateful step, which, according to one writer, “codified the association of dissent with disloyalty and legitimized guilt by association”—and led inexorably to the rise of Joe McCarthy. Attempting to deflate Republican charges that the government had been infiltrated by Reds, Truman issued on March 21, 1947, executive order 9835, initiating the first federal loyalty program. The action came nine days after the president announced (as part of his call for military aid for Greece and Turkey) what became known as the Truman Doctrine, stating that it is the policy of the United States to help ” free peoples” everywhere stand up to Communist aggression. Isolationists in Congress and other warweary Americans had questioned the nature of this commitment. Truman could hardly hope to gain overwhelming support for intervention without appearing to stand up to communism at home.
The president no doubt had his eye on the political calendar, too. In another year, he would be running for reelection, and the Republicans were poised to club him on the Communists-in-government issue. Clark M. Clifford, a top Truman adviser, would later comment that the loyalty issue had been “manufactured,” and there “was no substantive problem…. We never had a serious discussion about a real loyalty problem…. It was a political problem. Truman was going to run in ’48, and that was it…”
The essence of loyalty, in any case, is devotion freely given. Now, however, 3 million federal employees faced dismissal if investigators judged them “disloyal” to their government. Dossiers compiled by HUAC and the FBI provided evidence, and the attorney general was or dered to draw up a definitive list of Communist front groups. The measure was fraught with dangerous imprecision. Disloyalty was broadly defined. It could be found in blatant acts, such as sabotage or espionage, but also in “sympathetic association” with groups that the attorney general held to be “totalitarian, fascist, Communist or subversive.” Dismissal would not take into account whether the employee was engaged in a sensitive national security job or worked as a clerk in the Agriculture Department. Workers could be fired for something they did or simply because they had a spouse or a close relative friendly with a Communist front—or they might be let go for heavy drinking or sexual indiscretions that left them vulnerable to foreign agents.
What constituted suspicious political activity was highly subjective, of course. Advocating civil rights for Negroes often set off alarms. In other words, ideas as well as overt acts could be penalized. Even worse, the accused had no right to confront their accusers or even know exactly what the charges were and who had made them.
In addition to an assault on civil liberties,Truman’s move was a tragic political blunder. Instead of assuring Americans that he had a minor problem under control, the president lent credibility to the fears of some, spurring on (rather than silencing) the right-wingers on HUAC. He would now also have difficulty rejecting on moral or civil libertarian grounds the call for even more onerous background investigations and loyalty oaths (which his executive order in fact inspired). In his 1948 election campaign, Truman de fended what he called “the most loyal civil service in the world”—the same workforce he was subjecting to a rigorous loyalty test. Carey McWilliams would complain that “few observers have been willing to admit that McCarthyism is a direct outgrowth of the President’s loyalty program. The parentage…is unmistakable…” Truman had “given the sanction and prestige of his office to the very doctrine which he now seeks to disavow. The President does not believe in witches, but…”
After operating for more than two years, the Review Board had dismissed only 201 employees (and half of those cases were still under appeal) . Not one instance of espionage had yet been proved, but that hardly meant the pro gram had little punitive affect. Thousands of accused federal employees had gone through months or years of suffering; many others were kept jittery wondering whether they were next. The apparently reassuring results so far—no spies uncovered—only caused conservatives to charge that the Truman administration’s standards for disloyalty were, well, un-American.
Still, by 1949, the steam seemed to be going out of the federal inquisition. HUAC, which had earlier probed Communists in government and in Hollywood, suddenly pulled in its horns. Democrats had seized control of Congress again, and HUAC, under its new chairman, John Wood, acted more responsibly, even earning reluctant praise from Helen Douglas.
Then, in February 1950, Senator McCarthy, visiting West Virginia, waved around a sheet of paper, which was probably blank but was said to contain the names of Communists in the State Department, and all hell broke loose again. Revived, loyalty oaths soon spread to state and local governments, to factories and offices, to schools and trade unions. In Indiana, professional wrestlers had to take the oath, and in California, amateur archers. F.O. Matthiessen, the noted critic, committed suicide in March 1950, shortly after appearing before a Massachusetts legislative committee investigating communism. “As a Christian and a Socialist believing in international peace, I find myself terribly oppressed by the present tensions,” he wrote in a farewell note.
Even the American Civil Liberties Union succumbed. Its board of directors decided to insert in its legal briefs a clause declaring the organization’s opposition to communism. What Carey McWilliams recently called a “symptom of insecurity” had become a national obsession, and “the more we yield to the anti-Communist hysteria,” he warned, “the more we minimize the differences between democracy and Communism.”
But now, in late June, after riding high for weeks, Senator McCarthy was in eclipse again—for once, not because of his actions but on account of events he could not control. The war in Korea had unified all Americans against the Communist menace, and the senator’s name and face were driven off the front pages. McCarthy told a friend that “the war situation makes it difficult to continue the anti-Communist fight effectively—at least temporarily.”
Why only temporarily? “I am inclined to think that as the casualty lists mount and the attention of the people is focused on what actually has happened in the Far East, they can’t help but realize there was something rotten in the State Department… . I still think this (Communist subversion] is going to be the major issue this fall….” If it wasn’t, neither Joe McCarthy nor Richard Nixon had much of a political future.
Besides Tricky Dick, Mitchell’s other books on influential American campaigns include Why Obama Won and The Campaign of the Century (on Upton Sinclair’s epic race in California).