Joseph R. McCarthy
Joseph R. McCarthy; drawing by David Levine


No big industrial nation was less troubled on its home soil by the birth, rise, and collapse of communism as a political movement than the United States. Of the millions killed in the Gulag or in back alleys, only a handful were Americans. Communist parties strained social and political life in Germany, Italy, and France for decades and sometimes even threatened outright revolution and takeover, but in the United States Communist presidential candidates were a joke, Communist unions were strong in few industries, and then only briefly; and Communist front groups backed the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War to modest effect, and otherwise supported mainly a kind of earnest vanilla activism on matters of race, social justice, and public welfare.

Indeed, among the Communist parties of the world few were smaller, poorer, or weaker than the CP-USA, despite secret cash subsidies from Moscow until the last days of the cold war. At the outset, when the American party was founded in 1919, Communist ambitions in the United States ran high for organizing the masses and preparing for revolution. But soon Stalin switched lines, retreating to the slogan of socialism in one country, and thereafter the task of the American party was to support the Soviet Union through every twist and turn of the Moscow line at home and abroad. The Party was often noisy but none of it amounted to much. About the only thing American Communists ever really achieved was to help Soviet intelligence officials recruit and service a battalion of spies, including some who stole the secret of how to design an atomic bomb, but that, as Ted Morgan makes clear in Reds, his exhaustive new history of communism and its enemies in the United States, was enough to precipitate a kind of American national nervous breakdown.

There is something deeply unsettling in the discovery of a spy. During the decades when the Soviet Union was aggressively seeking to penetrate the governments and intelligence organizations of the West every president and prime minister came to live in sober dread of the day when his chief of intelligence would arrive through a back door with a somber mien to break the awful news of a spy uncovered at the heart of government. Britain, France, and West Germany at different times all endured the ghastly moment, sometimes more than once. Most governments lived through it, more or less, while others, like Willy Brandt’s in Bonn, were overthrown. In the United States, where the Soviet genius for recruiting spies first came to light in the late 1940s, the experience was both worse and not as bad—worse, because of the sheer numbers of probable traitors unmasked in the span of only a few years—exactly how many is a secret still buried in the Russian intelligence archive. What American officials knew was scary enough. The codebreakers who defeated the Soviet cypher system called Venona secretly reported the existence of scores, eventually hundreds, of cryptonyms, many never identified, each representing an agent reporting to a Soviet case officer.

In other ways the American ordeal was not so bad, because none of the spies uncovered was still operating in the innermost sanctum of American government. Some spies from the 1940s and 1950s were identified and prosecuted at the time, but the full extent of the problem was hidden from the public for nearly half a century until the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan persuaded the CIA and the National Security Agency to reveal the history of Venona. When the spy stories first broke at mid-century many American political leaders spoke as if worse was to come, but in fact the unraveling of the Soviet spy nets reached its climax and the danger passed more or less simultaneously around 1950. Far from being a disaster, the unmasking of these spy nets represented a triumph of counterintelligence.

But American spy-hunters could claim only part of the credit for this coup, which was largely the doing of three Soviet intelligence operatives, frightened and fed up in equal parts, whose defections became public at roughly the same time. The first was Igor Gouzenko, a Russian code clerk in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa who persuaded the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to take him into custody on September 7, 1945. It was a close-run thing; Soviet authorities loudly accused Gouzenko of theft and the Canadians at first were tempted to hand him back to avoid an unruly political flap. But once Gouzenko began to talk, the Canadians realized his importance, and within a week the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover wrote President Truman in Washington to report that among twenty-odd spies run in Canada by the Soviets was Alan Nunn May, a British scientist who had betrayed American atomic secrets. Six weeks later, on October 17, 1945, an American agent for the Soviets, Elizabeth Bentley, gave a 112-page confession to the FBI naming 150 people working for Moscow, including forty employees of the government. Among them were individuals, seeded in government offices in Washington, who had also been handled by another American agent for the Soviets, Whittaker Chambers, the third of the great defectors, who initially found even more trouble than Gouzenko in making himself heard.


In 1938, disillusioned by the Mos-cow purge trials and frightened by the disappearance on American streets of American Communists, Chambers quietly broke with the Party. Just after the outbreak of World War II in 1939 he tried to pass on what he knew to Adolf Berle Jr., then a State Department official, but the report was ignored and it was not until August 1948, in an explosive hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), that Chambers at last named in public American Communists, working in government jobs—the source, he later showed, of purloined government documents which Chambers photographed and passed on to Soviet intelligence officers in New York City. Among the agents he handled was a former State Department official with many powerful friends named Alger Hiss.

The exposure of these interlocking cases represented a disaster for Soviet intelligence in the United States, and the cause was not hard to find—a breathtaking failure of Soviet case officers to follow a basic rule of agent-running tradecraft called “compartmentation”—making sure that agents knew nothing of each other. Lavrenti Beria, the postwar chief of the KGB, put his finger on the problem. “In the world of the agent networks,” he wrote to Soviet intelligence officers abroad, “extensive use was made of members of Communist Party organizations who were known to the authorities of that country for their progressive activity.”

The blunder had the usual sources—pride and complacency. When the Soviets had embarked on a program in the 1920s and early 1930s primarily to steal American industrial and commercial secrets they turned to the recruiting pool readiest to hand—the local Communist Party. Why not? Party members needed no persuading, obeyed orders, and worked for free, and police officials, apparently blind to spies, were off chasing bank robbers and bootleggers. The result was a clandestine apparat of spies who knew each other from Party work; these had been suggested for recruitment by Party officials, serviced by couriers picked the same way, and run by Soviet case officers who allowed themselves to become friends and lovers of the spies they ran. It would be hard to have designed a pattern better suited to help the FBI, once aroused, to roll up entire networks.

When the dust settled, roughly at the time of the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1950, the Soviets were left without spies in the United States or a ready strategy for recruiting new ones. This was a problem the KGB solved handsomely over time, as the later arrests of Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI attest, but in 1950, when the average American first started to worry about Communists in government, the Soviet spy threat was largely over.


The history of Soviet spy rings in America probably fills millions of pages in the archives of the FBI and the CIA, many—perhaps most—still classified. Uncounted thousands of files record the names of persons merely suspected and associated witnesses, informers, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Hoover liked to say that the FBI was an investigative, not an analytical, agency. That meant the content of FBI files was mainly unevaluated raw reports—what suspects and informers told FBI field agents in the United States or CIA case officers abroad, what they spoke unknowingly into tapped phones or wrote in letters later opened. Among the uncounted thousands of routine targets would be hundreds of people who became the subject of full-scale investigations, each generating many file-cabinet drawers of records.

A complete history of this episode would dwarf the US Navy’s multivolume official history of the war in the Pacific; none has been written, or even proposed, and it is unlikely that any ever will be. But Ted Morgan, who has an appetite for wide reading and a gift for amplitude in narrative, has made a plausible stab at telling the story of Red spies in America using materials from many archives and books published over the last fifty years. The major names and cases are all here but Morgan wastes no time rearguing dead controversies like the fact of Soviet spy rings or the guilt of Alger Hiss or the Rosenbergs. These he takes as given. His purpose is broader—to map and explain the American response to the challenge of communism, beginning with the so-called Palmer Raids after World War I to round up and deport dangerous foreign-born radicals, and marching compulsively from one event and personality to another right up to the day Morgan was compelled to surrender his tome to the printer. But the name at the heart of his book, and the career in anticommunism which Morgan principally retells, is that of the Irish-American boozer, demagogue, and improbable senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy.


Those who knew McCarthy in the years before his astonishing rise might have predicted that he would win or lose modest fortunes at poker, disturb meetings of the Rotary in small cities, maybe sell a lot of life insurance or used cars, possibly get elected and re-elected to some modest office, and definitely find his way into serious trouble if he didn’t learn to lay off the bottle. There was an affable, impulsive, and erratic but sometimes winning quality to McCarthy, who grew up on a dairy farm and dropped out of school in his early teens to make a million dollars in the egg business before, at twenty, reconsidering the farmer’s life of toil. Changing course, he returned to high school—that is, to the ninth grade, where he took a seat in September 1929 next to kids who were thirteen and fourteen. In Morgan’s view Joe McCarthy in the course of his life did three genuinely impressive things. The first was to complete four years of high school in one, graduating in June 1930. The second, after being elected a Wisconsin circuit judge in 1939, was to establish a solid record “as a fair-minded and compassionate judge,” especially in divorce cases where “McCarthy kept the interests of the children uppermost.” His eye was now on a political career but his touch was unsteady. In December 1941 McCarthy paid his first visit to Washington and gave a long rambling interview to a reporter for Wisconsin newspapers, managed to insult leaders of the state’s congressional delegation, and casually attacked FDR for risking war to save England with the lives of American boys:

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.

This Issue

February 12, 2004