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Un-American Activities

These men represented the most extreme factions of cold war anticommunism, which took as their target not the nearly defunct CPUSA but rather anti-Communist liberals, who believed McCarthy was endangering civil liberties and were critical of Red-hunting investigations in general. It was only proof, as Buckley and Bozell put it, that the nation’s “disintegrated ruling elite…had no stomach for battle” against “the enemy in our midst.” That the Communist enemy was scarcely to be found in the US by then was no excuse. A price must be paid for past sins. “Some day,” wrote Buckley and Bozell,

the patience of America may at last be exhausted, and we will strike out against Liberals. Not because they are treacherous like Communists, but because, with James Burnham, we will conclude “that they are mistaken in their predictions, false in their analyses, wrong in their advice, and through the results of their actions injurious to the nation.”

Yet those “injurious” acts included measures such as Social Security and helping to lead the Grand Alliance to victory in World War II.

By this logic, once Eisenhower, a Republican, took office in January 1953, thus putting an end to the twenty ostensibly treasonous years, McCarthy should have been ready to stop his campaign. The new administration made strong overtures toward him. John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, appointed McCarthy’s ally R.W. Scott McLeod, an ex-FBI man and rabid Red-hunter, to head the department’s security program. But McCarthy was not satisfied. He still needed the Communist issue in order to remain a force in politics. When Eisenhower named the Russian specialist Charles E. Bohlen to succeed George Kennan as the ambassador in Moscow, McCarthy, briefed by McLeod on the contents of Bohlen’s FBI dossier—it hinted without serious evidence that Bohlen had “homosexual associations”—contested the nomination and forced a floor debate.

Bohlen was confirmed, but McCarthy roared on. He launched fresh assaults on the State Department and charged that the CIA had been penetrated by the KGB. No one in either party dared take him on. His approval rating soared from 34 percent in the summer of 1953 to 50 percent in December.10 In 1954, the Senate approved funding for his Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations by a vote of 85̱1. He had allies in the executive branch, too, “a secret seditionist cabal,” in Richard Rovere’s phrase, who fed him classified documents, strengthening his hand. The network included Walter Bedell Smith, the former CIA director who had since become Eisenhower’s undersecretary of state.

But the new focus of McCarthy’s attention was the US Army. In autumn 1953, he announced he had uncovered a “Rosenberg spy ring” at Fort Monmouth, a Signal Corps Center in New Jersey. In fact Army Intelligence had already looked into the possibility, as had the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Both had turned up nothing and dropped the investigation. McCarthy, too, came up with nothing. He had much better success exposing the trivial case of Irving Peress, an Army dentist who had been promoted to the rank of major and then received an honorable discharge despite strong evidence that he was a Communist and had lied about it on loyalty forms. The case led to a confrontation with the secretary of the Army, Robert Stevens, who signed an agreement pledging full support to McCarthy.

Stevens’s “surrender” was humiliating both to the Army and to Eisenhower, who was not only the president but the world’s most honored soldier. At last he authorized a counterattack by his vice-president, Richard Nixon, who in a televised speech warned against McCarthy’s “reckless talk and questionable methods.” Giving the job to Nixon, a former ally of McCarthy and Hiss’s congressional prosecutor, insulated the administration from the usual McCarthy rejoinder that only the Kremlin would benefit from such dissent. Soon GOP moderates spoke up. Ralph Flanders of Vermont denounced McCarthy on the Senate floor. “He emits his war whoops,” said Flanders. “He goes forth to battle and proudly returns with the scalp of a pink Army dentist.” In March 1954, Edward R. Murrow narrated the famous “See It Now” television documentary which presented the images still familiar today: McCarthy’s bullying of witnesses, his giggles, his smirking references to the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 as “Alger—I mean Adlai.”

The Army, meanwhile, retaliated by initiating an investigation of David Schine, a member of McCarthy’s staff who had been drafted and was accused of receiving special favors at Fort Dix at the behest of his colleague and friend Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel. Cohn and Schine, both in their twenties, had earlier caused a sensation during a three-week trip to Europe in which they had “investigated” US embassies and information offices from London to Belgrade, holding clamorous press conferences along the way and announcing the discovery of such subversive publications as the liberal Catholic weekly Commonweal, calling it a “Communist Catholic magazine.” McCarthy, by now all but spoiled by drink—he consumed “a quart or more a day,” says Oshinsky—grew increasingly reliant on Cohn and effectively turned over his committee to him. This set the scene for his fall, in the spring of 1954, during the televised hearings that pitted McCarthy and Cohn against the Army’s special counsel Joseph Welch in a series of memorable skirmishes.

The climax came in June. In a back-room meeting the two sides had negotiated a deal: McCarthy promised not to go after Welch’s young law associate Fred Fisher, who had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, a CP front. In return Welch said he would not embarrass Cohn by asking him about the West Point physical exam he had flunked. But when the cameras rolled McCarthy attacked Fisher anyway, prompting Welch to utter the famous words: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Herman’s treatment of this episode is characteristic. Excusing McCarthy’s actions—“He had forgotten the deal; it is possible, because of his drinking, that he even blacked out on it”—he reserves his fury for Welch, whose tear-stained performance he calls “a sham.” But Welch had good reason to be indignant over the broken agreement, and whatever theatrics he indulged in were mild compared to McCarthy’s own performance since his speech at Wheeling, West Virginia.

That summer, the Senate began the hearings which resulted in McCarthy’s censure in December 1954. Herman points out that McCarthy could have put up a better fight and even possibly prevailed. But once his Senate backers deserted him he sank into depression, further deepened by drink. He mustered a weak, half-hearted defense, and was devastated by the overwhelming vote (67̱22) to “condemn.” It came only eight months after the almost unanimous vote to provide money for McCarthy’s investigations. When his attack on the US Army collapsed, so did the air of menace he had projected. In the years remaining to him he attempted to reincarnate himself, first as a foreign policy sage and then as a born-again La Follette progressive. No one was convinced. In fact no one was listening. For his rampage he needed the dignity of the Senate. Once deprived of it, he was powerless. In the spring of 1955, loyalists11 who organized a “McCarthy Day” in the town of Boscobel expected a crowd of fifty thousand. Instead “fewer than fifteen hundred spectators” showed up, Herman writes, “many of them members of the high school bands who had been marched out to greet him.”


In the end he remained as anomalous a figure as he had seemed at his height, with his curiously mechanical passion, his “motiveless malignancy.” Because he defied the ideological stereotypes of his time, some underestimated his impact. In an influential essay published in 1954, the former Communist Will Herberg suggested that since McCarthy himself had lacked a clear-cut program he was not a revolutionary:

He is against Communism and for—Joe McCarthy. He is, in a way, a genius at it, but he has neither the talent nor the interest for the kind of thing the building of a totalitarian mass movement requires. He exploits and utilizes many of the sinister forces that go into the making of totalitarianism, but he does not seem to be interested in organizing them into a cohesive political force. He addresses vast crowds, gets enthusiastic ovations, but leaves his people as he found them, all for McCarthy and against Communism, but not involved in any movement or organization, and certainly not stirred up to insurgency and disaffection, as Fascist or Communist mobs are. It is not in the nature of McCarthyism, nor in the purpose of Joe McCarthy, to desire or encourage such things.12

But to a younger generation of right-wingers McCarthy suggested a new form of insurgency. One admirer, Pat Buchanan, an adolescent during McCarthy’s peak years, later would praise him for doing “to the American Establishment precisely what the New Deal Democrats had done to corporate America and Wall Street. He shattered, forever, the nation’s confidence in their capacity to govern.”

The notion of government itself as the “enemy” of the republic is a familiar one in US history. But McCarthy was the author of what would become a staple of GOP politics over the next half-century: the raid on government mounted from within government itself. Later practitioners included Richard Nixon (Watergate), Ronald Reagan (Iran-contra), and Newt Gingrich (twice: his part first in the government shutdown of 1995 and then in Bill Clinton’s impeachment). Like McCarthy’s crusade, these later insurgencies were conceived in a spirit of hatred for a liberal elite who were perceived to be usurpers and hence subversives. For McCarthy’s followers the New Deal, with its mildly radical reforms administered by Ivy League graduates, was tantamount to treason. In 1950, after Acheson had voiced sympathy for the convicted Hiss, Nebraska Senator Hugh Butler was beside himself:

I look at that fellow, I watch his smart-aleck manner and his British clothes and that New Dealism in everything he says and does, and I want to shout, “Get out! Get out! You stand for everything that has been wrong in the United States for years!”

This was the essence of McCarthyism, of what Pat Buchanan calls its “boisterous, bellowing call for the overthrow of [America’s] reigning Establishment.”

But as Rovere and others recognized, this rebellion was a form of escapism. Thwarted by the complex realities of the postwar world, McCarthy and company became obsessed with past subversions, real and imagined. The best they could manage in the way of policy was a more vigorous campaign to “clean house” and eliminate “loyalty-security” risks. The Republicans’ call to “roll back” communism was cant, no different in practice from the “containment” they equated with appeasement. Even Herman concedes that John Foster Dulles “never seriously challenged [the] consensus on containment” reached under Acheson, or challenged “the assumptions that underlay it.” He admits too that the strategy worked, and that Acheson, George Kennan, and others “turned out to be correct.” But he never confronts the obvious point: Truman’s policies succeeded in spite of McCarthy, who came dangerously close to undermining the consensus that made those policies possible. That a good many people who should have known better supported his excesses remains a particularly discreditable and cautionary episode in American history.

  1. 10

    See Michael Paul Rogin, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (MIT, 1967).

  2. 11

    They included Joseph P. Kennedy and Robert Welch, who later founded the John Birch Society. See Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense, p. 502.

  3. 12

    Will Herberg, “McCarthy and Hitler: A Delusive Parallel,” The New Republic, August 23, 1954, pp. 13̱15 (also in Joseph R. McCarthy, edited by Allen J. Matusow, Prentice-Hall, 1970, p. 124).

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