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Spy Fever

My contact with the would-be greats has merely confirmed and crystallized the thoughts which I have long held [he told the reporter]. I was appalled at the rapidly increasing momentum of our march toward war…. If we get into war the fault will lie with the administration and it will perhaps mean the end of the Democratic party…. One of course does not feel that our representatives are evil or dishonest men, but merely weak men…men who are weather-cocks swaying in the breeze of public opinion.

These injudicious remarks, published in several Wisconsin newspapers the day before Pearl Harbor, would have ended the career of a more easily rattled man, but McCarthy had a rare political gift—nothing touched him. The man simply could not be embarrassed. If A didn’t work he would try B. McCarthy’s brief flirtation with “America First” went down with the ships in Pearl Harbor and the next day, reborn, he simply denied he had ever said any such thing, adding that whatever he did say was quoted out of context, and anyway he didn’t mean it. He wrote the miffed Wisconsin congressmen that it was all a mistake (“I have been accused of a lot of things… but never of being a damn fool”) and the next year he joined the Marines.

The unembarrassable McCarthy had a routine war. On paper he was an intelligence officer for a bombing squadron based on Guadalcanal, but he flew enough missions seated next to machine guns in the rear of bombers to lay claim to the nickname “Tail-gunner Joe.” How many missions exactly? Wartime news releases by a Marine PR officer said six. When McCarthy ran for the US Senate (and lost) in 1944 he claimed fourteen. Two years later he ran again, upped the number to seventeen, and got elected. In 1951, Morgan tells us, he applied for a Distinguished Flying Cross, citing thirty-two missions. To these imaginary combat missions McCarthy on the stump added an imaginary war wound—“a broken and burned foot and leg”; the injury was real enough, but the cause was shipboard hazing on crossing the equator, not heroics in combat. McCarthy’s smoke-and-mirrors rise to the Senate was followed by an equally erratic career in Washington, where his support was easily bought. A bankrupt builder of pre-fab housing testified in 1951 that McCarthy had been on his payroll but did little to earn his pay; on one junket he spent most of his time on his knees in a craps game, “reeking of whiskey, and shouting, ‘come on babies, papa needs a new pair of shoes!’”

Morgan finds none of that especially remarkable; what most distinguished McCarthy in Morgan’s view was the astonishing gall that allowed him to rescue his own failing political career, hold the country in thrall, and give his name to an era starting with nothing more by way of capital than an outdated sheaf of paper about loyalty risks in government offices—some serious, most not, all well known to the spy-hunters in the Truman administration. The moment of genesis came on the evening of February 9, 1950, in Wheeling, West Virginia, when McCarthy rose in a hotel meeting room to say, “I have in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”

The moment was admittedly ripe. The Communists had just come to power in China; the Russians had detonated an atomic bomb, ending the American monopoly; the physicist Klaus Fuchs in Britain had confessed to helping Russians steal atomic secrets while he had worked on the American bomb project during the war; Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury a month previous for denying he had been a spy. Communists seemed to be turning up everywhere. When McCarthy said the problem was a lack of political will to name Reds as traitors, kick them out of government, and put them in jail, it seemed plausible, at least on first hearing. But McCarthy’s list of Communists was as elastic as the number of his combat missions and in his many subsequent speeches on the floor of the Senate (where he was protected from charges of libel) or in public hearings and closed executive sessions he never discovered or revealed the identity of an honest-to-God loyalty risk unknown to the spy-catchers. Moreover, McCarthy was under attack virtually from the day of his Wheeling speech, but armed with native wit, a gift for vitriol, and the combative energy of a junkyard dog he kept the critics at bay and basked in fame for nearly five years. This feat of survival, Morgan argues convincingly, was what distinguished McCarthy from the ordinary run of affable demagogues who fatten at the table of democracy.

But most remarkable of all, Morgan suggests, was the cause of McCarthy’s downfall—not his many lies and exaggerations, or his reckless accusations of treason in high places (reaching all the way to retired General of the Army George Marshall), but rather the repeated backdoor interventions of McCarthy’s counsel, the secretly homosexual young lawyer Roy Cohn, to ease the way for the object of his current affection, G. David Schine, whose luck was to be drafted into the Army while employed on the staff of McCarthy’s committee. What have come to be known as the Army-McCarthy hearings were held in the late spring and early summer of 1954 to investigate charges that McCarthy had brought improper pressure on the Army, mainly to secure preference for Schine. The hearings were televised and it was during them that the figure of McCarthy was imprinted indelibly on the American mind—a beefy, dark-jawed man, shouting “Point of order!” to disrupt the proceedings with irrelevant questions and casual charges of Red taint, while the feline Cohn, eyes flicking across the hearing room, leaned in to whisper advice to his moon-faced boss.

McCarthy had a kind of genius for maneuver in debate, switching subjects in mid-sentence, turning evidence on its head, springing questions from left field. In one hearing he had accused a witness of following the Communist line in a book he had written about the commercial aspects of college football. When the witness protested McCarthy raised the stakes: “You repeat that you have been cleared…but you understand that Alger Hiss was also cleared.”

Witnesses often broke down under this kind of off-the-wall attack, but watching McCarthy’s slippery malice day after day, week after week gradually altered the public view of the Red-hunting senator. It was Joseph Welch, lawyer for the Army, who sensed a moment of supreme vulnerability on June 9, 1954, and made the lethal thrust that opened a vein. Two days earlier Cohn and Welch had made a deal—no mention of Cohn’s slippery evasion of the draft during World War II and Korea, in return for silence about a young lawyer on Welch’s staff who had once, briefly, in his student days at Harvard, been a member of the National Lawyer’s Guild, which had been named as a Communist-influenced organization by the attorney-general. But McCarthy couldn’t resist and seized the microphone to say that Welch “has in his law firm a young man named Fisher….” No one who saw what happened next will forget the awful uncomprehending grin of McCarthy as Welch slid the blade home. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

The hearings ended on June 17, 1954. Cohn resigned two days later, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy in December, his power to agitate the public abruptly ended, and he devoted the brief remainder of his life to the bottle, dying of liver failure in 1957. In Morgan’s view it wasn’t really Welch who slew McCarthy; he had destroyed himself, by his blind indulgence of his counsel’s

obsession for another man…. Seldom had men in high office been drawn into such insignificant matters…. Never before had the power and resources of a congressional committee been applied to such a trifling end.

Morgan’s account of the years we remember by McCarthy’s name is rich and fast-paced, bringing life to a succession of all-but-forgotten persons and episodes, and culminating in many stirring pages retelling McCarthy’s awful progress to destruction before the accumulated wrath of those he had injured and outraged. But this brisk and compact book within a book—the 175-page narrative of McCarthy’s arc across the mid-century sky—is bounded before and after with hundreds of pages of perfectly interesting stuff more or less about Reds and other home-grown radicals and their opponents, but lacking any clear thematic line and veering off at the end into an eighteen-page digression on September 11 and the invasion of Iraq. Morgan quotes a 1939 remark by Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, in his diary that what happened in Germany and Italy—seizure of power by demagogues manipulating the fear of Reds—ought to serve as warning that in America, too, “some man on horseback may arise to ‘protect’ us against the fancied danger.”

Morgan appears to think that President Bush is manipulating the fear of terrorism in some equally dangerous way, but the point is not argued and the section on US deception over Iraq wanders to a close with a quote from Kipling. Morgan must have dug in his heels deep to keep all this irrelevant matter in the finished book. One imagines an increasingly desperate editor trying every sort of argument to get him to listen to reason before concluding sadly that a moment comes, when a man insists on firing a bullet into his own foot, that you might as well let him get on with it.

But clumsy as the book’s structure is, that is not the only misjudgment in Reds. Ted Morgan is the author of a biography of Jay Lovestone, the former Communist leader and then anti-Communist organizer and activist, in my opinion possibly the best book ever written about the ordeal of American communism—the hopes it raised and dashed, and what the struggle to root it out of the American labor and progressive movements did to people at the epicenter and to the country as a whole. Morgan certainly knows plenty about the spectrum of social activism penetrated and exploited by the Communists and how difficult it was in the 1950s to stand up for ideals that had been tainted by the twin imperatives of the CP-USA—contempt for America and slavish support for Moscow. But Morgan has left all of that out of Reds, sticking instead to spies and spy-hunters. Such choices are an author’s right, and it is hard to imagine Morgan’s harried editor beaming at the thought of more, however relevant. But the absence of the victims of McCarthy witch-hunting starves Reds of its real significance, and leaves readers who do not already know the answer wondering why the era was cauterized on the national memory.

Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs weren’t victims of McCarthyism in the usual meaning of the word; they were spies, got caught at it, and paid the price, mild in the one case, harsh in the other. The real victims—those who suffered unjustly—were a great many ordinary people, from high school teachers to government bureaucrats, who had believed in and tried to do the sort of things American Communists said they believed in and said they were trying to do. McCarthy had a mean streak that liked to see people squirm, and nobody squirms quite like someone who has done nothing wrong and senses that he is being deliberately misunderstood.

But McCarthy was an opportunist, and it was the unholy alliance of the American Communist Party and Soviet spymasters who created the opportunity he exploited by setting the stage for the persecution of “progressives.” The American and Soviet Communist officials acted casually, apparently without thinking, probably with- out caring, when they took a shortcut and recruited spies from the Party’s ranks. What happened next was predictable: once you knew Moscow’s recruiting principle you could read back, and start hunting for spies among people of “progressive” belief. This is where the Soviets found the pickings easy, and McCarthy did too. The closer the progressives were to the Party, the deeper their hue on the spectrum of pink to red, the more easily spy-hunters could charge them with disloyalty or treason, and the more readily the charges were believed.

During the 1930s and 1940s the Soviets recruited and ran at least several hundred agents in the United States. But those hundreds had been plucked from a sea of tens of thousands, and it was the ordeal suffered by this larger group that explains why the purge was called a witch hunt. Sometimes it was actual investigation with all its expense and disruption that ended job and career; sometimes the chilling fear of investigation alone was enough to wreck a life. Morgan tells us that the term “witch hunt” was perhaps first used in its modern sense in 1919 by Raymond Robins, a former American Red Cross worker in Russia at the time of the revolution, whose sympathies were with the Reds. Asked to define “witch hunt” in a congressional hearing Robins said, “When people get frightened at things and see bogies, they then get out with proclamations and mob action and all kinds of hysteria takes place.” It was the bogies McCarthy and his colleagues persecuted—the thousands of Americans of vaguely leftist bent—who paid the price for the convenience the Moscow spymasters found in tapping Party activists for secret work.

How many suffered in all? McCarthy’s lists never went beyond a few hundred, and those he actually tormented in witness chairs were fewer still. It was fear of McCarthy’s approach that created most of the victims. In the spring of 1953, after a much-publicized tour of US embassies in Europe by Roy Cohn, the Voice of America in a whirlwind purge of its ranks fired 830 employees, just to be on the safe side. Many other thousands between Washington and Hollywood met similar fates, cast out because someone might claim they had signed a petition, collected funds for veterans of the Spanish Civil War, subscribed to The Daily Worker—or for nothing at all.

The two claims Morgan makes in Reds—that the Soviets recruited many spies during the 1930s and 1940s, and that whatever danger they posed had been ended by the year of McCarthy’s rise in 1950—are both true. He might have stressed further that political activists of progressive bent in the 1930s and 1940s had been infected by a dismissive anti-Americanism, often hard to distinguish from Communist Party support for the Soviet Union. When the cold war came, the spies, the Communist Party, and the activists of progressive bent were all swept violently aside by the spasm which for convenience we call McCarthyism. We live with the consequences still. Somewhere in Reds the story of that ordeal lies buried.

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