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Un-American Activities

McCarthy subsequently whittled the 205 down to 81 and then to 57, insisting this last was the figure he’d cited in the first place. The new number, like the original one, derived from old files. In 1947 a Congressional committee had examined FBI documents on 108 “past, present, and prospective” employees. According to Herman, they “discovered more than enough information to suggest they were ‘poor risks.”’ Forty-two were fired, which left “at least 57 people…still circulating in the State Department at the beginning of 1948.” The exact figure would have been 66; but Herman fudges it downward so as to preserve McCarthy’s magic 57.

Worse, Herman neglects to point out that a “poor risk” was a loaded term in those years, since its basis was the list of no fewer than eighty-two “subversive” organizations listed in 1947 by Truman’s attorney general, Tom Clark. The Industrial Workers of the World (whose power had peaked in 1912), Depression-era organizations such as the American League Against War and Fascism and the League of American Writers, and even the fiercely anti-Soviet Socialist Worker’s Party were all on the list.

Shaken by McCarthy’s charges and the publicity they were receiving, the Democrats formed a committee chaired by Maryland’s Millard Tydings, a war hero and conservative who headed the Armed Services Committee and had solid credentials as an anti-Communist. Under pressure to make good on his allegations, McCarthy suddenly promised to identify “Moscow’s top spy,” installed “at the top of the whole ring of which [Alger] Hiss was a part.” He then named Owen Lattimore, a Far East policy specialist who was currently director of the School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins. Previously Lattimore had edited (from 1933 to 1941) the left-wing journal Pacific Affairs, a scholarly publication of the Institute of Pacific Relations, and had written many books. He had also been FDR’s China adviser in 1941, had accompanied Vice President Henry Wallace on a tour of China and Russia in 1944, and had been on the staff of the Office of War Information. But he had never had a desk at the State Department, and there was no evidence he was a Soviet agent. McCarthy depicted Lattimore as a Svengali, “the voice for the mind of Acheson.” In reality, as Reeves observes, “Acheson had not heard of Owen Lattimore until McCarthy put his name in headlines” in 1950. McCarthy, who had declared himself “willing to let his reputation ‘stand and fall’ on the Lattimore case,” scrambled for reinforcements, summoning repentant ex-Communists such as Louis Budenz and Freda Utley, to testify against Lattimore. But they offered only hearsay of the most dubious kind.

After a five-month investigation, the Tydings Committee released a report. Running to some three hundred pages, it concluded that McCarthy’s claims were “a fraud and a hoax” and rebuked him for squandering legislative resources at a critical moment of the cold war. Unchastened, McCarthy replied that “the most loyal stooges of the Kremlin could not have done a better job of giving a clean bill of health to Stalin’s fifth column in this country.” This would always be his tactic: to label any and all criticism as serving the Communist conspiracy. Two years later, a second committee, chaired by Senator Pat McCarran, the Democrats’ version of McCarthy, concluded that Lattimore had been a “conscious articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy”—an exaggerated way of saying that he was, as James Rorty and Moshe Decter put it in their early study of McCarthy, an “influential Party-lining propagandist,”5 who, like all too many people, had defended the Moscow trials in the late 1930s.

Herman goes much further. Lattimore, he says, was implicated in Communist intelligence operations and had an “intimate association” with Lauchlin Currie, FDR’s China adviser, who has recently been identified in Moscow and Washington documents as a Soviet agent. “It was Currie who sent Lattimore to China as FDR’s representative and later as part of the Wallace mission,” Herman writes. “It was also Currie who instructed Lattimore to hire the Cambridge spy Michael Greenberg as his assistant at Pacific Affairs.” Herman provides no evidence for either assertion, however, noting only that “the complex threads running between the Institute of Pacific Relations, Soviet and Communist Chinese intelligence, and the CPUSA are all to be found in [Harvey] Klehr and [Ronald] Radosh,” coauthors of an account of the Amerasia spy case. But as Ronald Radosh has pointed out, “nowhere in our book do we claim or suggest that Lattimore was a Soviet agent, or that he knowingly recruited Soviet agents to work at his journal and his think tank.”6 They reach the same conclusion as Rorty and Decter and find Lattimore guilty only of concealing his excessive enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and Chinese Communists.7

The Lattimore hearing should have finished McCarthy. Instead it propelled him forward. He had discovered his métier, the investigative hearing, with its air of performance and dramatized conflict and its parade of cowering witnesses. Many more such circuses would follow—no fewer than five “concerned exclusively with the problem of whether Senator McCarthy was telling the truth about others,” wrote Rovere, “or, mutatis mutandis, others were telling the truth about Senator McCarthy.”

It is a sign of the partisan bitterness of this period that McCarthy’s charges, though they could only weaken the US government in the face of Communist expansion abroad, were nonetheless condoned by senior Republicans, including the party’s leader Robert Taft, who dissociated himself from McCarthy’s most extreme pronouncements, such as his attack on George Marshall, but saw that his cry of treason made him a uniquely valuable asset to the party, a missile to be launched at the Democrats, particularly during elections. In 1948 Thomas E. Dewey, the complacent front-runner, had soft-pedaled the subversion theme and lost the election. The GOP was not about to repeat that mistake. In 1950 McCarthy barnstormed for Republican legislators across the country and helped topple his former nemesis Tydings by means of tactics so rough they occasioned a congressional investigation the following year.

McCarthy attained his highest point of influence during the presidential election of 1952. Addressing the Republican nominating convention, which chose the moderate Dwight Eisenhower over the Old Guard stalwart Robert Taft, McCarthy declared that “one Communist in a defense plant is one Communist too many. One Communist on the faculty of one university is one Communist too many. One Communist in the State Department…would still be one Communist too many….” The bombast served only to highlight an embarrassing fact: the 205 or 57 Kremlin agents in the State Department had shrunk to “one” hypothetical Communist.

But McCarthy’s crusade did not depend on uncovering new Communists. The pretext of investigating “security procedures” enabled him to attack an executive branch staffed by the “egg-sucking phony liberals” and the “Communists and queers” who in “twenty years of treason” had sold America out to the Kremlin. Herman thinks this attack was not only justified but necessary. “For McCarthy and his supporters, the problem America faced was not so much failure at the top as betrayal,” he writes, since “a liberal establishment had permitted America’s enemies to direct its foreign policy” and had shown “its own inability to act to protect the national interest.”

But which enemies does he have in mind? Only three Communists—Currie, Hiss, who had been in charge of the United Nations desk at the State Department, and Harry Dexter White, an assistant secretary of the Treasury under FDR and later an executive at the International Monetary Fund—had filled important federal posts. Currie left the government in 1945, after FDR’s death. The others resigned in 1946, in Hiss’s case under pressure from State Department security investigators. All this became public in 1948, long before McCarthy discovered communism. He failed to locate any fresh Red scalps for the simple reason that almost none were to be found.

Stranger still, he mounted his anti-Communist campaign well after the Democrats developed a strongly anti-Soviet policy, which dated back to the first months of 1945, when it had first become clear that the Yalta accords were breaking down. In February 1946 George Kennan had sent his famous “long telegram” from Moscow warning that harmonious relations with the Soviets were not going to be possible. In September Truman fired Henry Wallace, his secretary of commerce, for making a pro-Soviet foreign policy speech. In 1947 a federal grand jury heard testimony on the underground operations of the American Communist Party, which resulted in indictments in July 1948 against the top leadership of the Party under the Smith Act. These same sessions inspired the congressional hearings that led to Hiss’s indictment five months later, shortly after Truman used the Communist issue to destroy Wallace’s third-party bid in the presidential election of 1948. In the summer of 1949, weeks after the first Hiss trial ended in a hung jury, Dean Acheson, newly installed as secretary of state, had gone before Congress to plead for an enlarged budget, citing—among other factors—the peril posed in Europe by the “internal Communist threat.”8 So intently did Truman try to com-bat communism that a later genera-tion would accuse him of creating a “national-security” state and of sowing the seeds of McCarthyism.

Why, then, were McCarthy and his followers wedded to the argument of Democratic treason? Early analysts of McCarthyism, such as Richard Hofstadter, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Peter Viereck, thought the answer had very little to do with communism and much more to do with sociology. McCarthy, in this interpretation, articulated the frustrations of a newly emergent middle class which sought to establish its place in postwar society but felt stymied by the longstanding WASP patriciate, personified by FDR and officials from the Ivy league and Wall Street who had designed and administered the New Deal.9 There was no mistaking the emphasis on class in McCarthy’s assault. At Wheeling he had said:

The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores…but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this nation. It has not been the less fortunate, or members of minority groups who have been traitorous to this nation…but rather those who had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer…the finest homes, the finest college education and the finest jobs in government we can give.

This populist note was taken up by much of the hard-line anti-Communist press, a bastion of pro-McCarthy sentiment: among McCarthy’s supporters were the Hearst journalists Westbrook Pegler, George Sokolsky, and J.B. Matthews, and the China lobbyist Alfred Kohlberg, publisher of the strident anti-Communist monthly Plain Talk. Some lent their services to McCarthy or joined his staff. Garvin Tankersley, an executive at the Washington Times-Herald, the McCormick paper, devised the dirtiest trick in the smear campaign against Millard Tydings: a composite photograph which showed Tydings “listening attentively” to Earl Browder, the longtime secretary of the American Communist Party, and included a caption linking the two as allies. McCarthy’s most notorious speech, his ten-thousand-word defamation of General George Marshall, was written by Forrest Davis, a Washington columnist and former staff writer for The Saturday Evening Post. Brent Bozell, the coauthor with William F. Buckley Jr. of the most sustained defense of McCarthy, McCarthy and His Enemies, a best seller in 1954, went on to write speeches for McCarthy.

  1. 5

    James Rorty and Moshe Decter, McCarthy and the Communists (Beacon Press, 1954), p. 13.

  2. 6

    The New Republic, January 3, 2000, pp. 38̱39.

  3. 7

    Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh, The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), pp. 39̱40, p. 168.

  4. 8

    See I.F. Stone, The Truman Era, 1945̱1952: A Nonconformist History of Our Times (Little, Brown, 1972), pp. 74̱77.

  5. 9

    See their essays, and those by Talcott Parsons, David Riesman, and Nathan Glazer, in The New American Right, edited by Daniel Bell (Criterion, 1955; expanded and updated in The Radical Right, Anchor, 1964).

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