We have been trained by our culture to respond in a certain way when we hear a particular term or phrase. There is no more stark example of this than the term McCarthyism. For decades this term has been a synonym for demagoguery, false accusations, and heavy handed prosecution. While there are some good reasons to draw these comparisons, there is a lot more to the story than our modern culture has been willing to reveal to us. Any modern discussion of Joseph McCarthy and the events of his time in the Senate always seems to focus on the methods used by McCarthy and the presumption that he was universally condemned. There needs to be more discussion of the fact that he garnered considerable support for quite some time, and that arguably the fears he exploited may have been justified.
When Joe McCarthy entered the public consciousness, it was at the point of the Cold War where post-WWII posturing by the Soviets and Americans were leading to action, namely the war in Korea. The recent Chinese revolution was also a major source of concern. McCarthy began criticizing the government for tolerating Communists within its own ranks when the sensitivity of the public to this sort of thing was at a very high level. As he became more well known, the support he had from the American people hovered around 50%. As long as he was a Republican criticizing a Democrat administration for tolerating Communist infiltrators he could depend on the support of his own party.
Unfortunately McCarthy was either not very pragmatic or not very good at estimating his political capital. In spite of the Republican Eisenhower winning the 1954 presidential election, McCarthy did not relent in his criticism of the executive branch. This caused his support within his own party to ebb. It did not help that he launched investigations into places where no direct evidence of wrong doing could be found, which earned him the infamy that his name continues to suffer to this day. However, it is important to understand that McCarthy was undone by political circumstances and positioning within the Republican Party as much as his questionable methods, which means he was a non-partisan man of principle, whether you agree with him or not.
In researching this post, I found that after 60 years there is still a shortage of objective information about the substance of the accusations McCarthy made. We are either told that McCarthy was a hater who was corrupt and ready to exploit the fears of the American public, or we are told that he was an American patriot that was suppressed by forces that were already under the influence of Communism. Neither of these explanations is very satisfying to me.
Here are some things we do know:
- The Venona papers, which were declassified in 1995, clearly supported McCarthy’s accusations that there was evidence of Soviet infiltration of the US Government during and immediately after WWII.
- President Eisenhower, though withdrawing support from Senator McCarthy, did, in fact, make significant changes to policy in response to suspected Soviet infiltration
- The accusation by Democrats that McCarthy could not decide on how many Communists there were in the State Department was actually debunked shortly after it was leveled
- Senator McCarthy did all he could to protect the names of the accused from being released in case they could be cleared, contrary to public perception. This can be clearly seen in the transcripts of the hearings.
- Of the 159 persons investigated, 9 were found to have involvement in espionage
- Anecdotal evidence suggests that McCarthy’s claims about security problems at the Ft. Monmouth, NJ top secret facility were correct
Given these facts, it is difficult to argue that McCarthy was merely a demagogue. Why then does history condemn him? When I consider the character assassinations that have occurred in my lifetime, such as Robert Borque, Dan Quayle, and Clarence Thomas, I can begin to understand that McCarthy was simply one of the first victims of character assassination by leftists through a process that has been repeated hundreds of times. For me, this is further evidence that he was on to something.
Perhaps you are not convinced that McCarthy was merely an innocent victim of propaganda. Let’s study a different angle then. Let’s pretend it is 1950 and think about what America would be like in 60 years if McCarthy was right and Communists had infiltrated the American Government. This is not that difficult to do considering the abundance of dystopic novels that were published around this time, such as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Atlas Shrugged, etc. Also, in 1963 the Communist Party published a list of goals they needed to achieve to subvert America. This can be easily found on the internet and is yet another way of evaluating if the Communist infiltration was successful.
If you read any of these, you will find it quite frightening how successful the Communists have been in the United States. For example, one desire of Communists is a society that has discarded Biblical moral standards. Does that sound familiar? How about excessive government regulation with the purpose of controlling the economy? One of the predictions that is common to the novels listed above is the corruption of the media and its collusion with the government. Whether it is the perpetual entertainment in Fahrenheit 451 or the doublethink of 1984, it is disturbing how closely this parallels the America we know today.
The history and social upheaval that has occurred over the last 60 years is undeniable evidence that not only did Communists desire to infiltrate America, but they were quite successful, and continue to succeed today. In the end McCarthy was right, whether you agreed with his tactics or not. The final piece of evidence that he was right is our own government, that has failed its citizens in order to pursue its own utopic vision of equal outcomes (i.e. misery) for all. Sounds like Communism to me.