This coming Wednesday, May 2, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of a venal and cowardly man, a true antihero of the 20th century.
Evil individuals are often unfairly called “cowards,” but this particular one snugly fits the bill. Furthermore, his influence on American life in his time and ours has been so marked as to deserve the suffix “-ism” after his name.
But was the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph Raymond McCarthy, really responsible for McCarthyism? Or is this diabolical ideology of fear ever-present in America’s air, waiting to be bottled, labeled with stars and stripes, and sold on the cheap to a God-fearing nation?
McCarthy’s power derived from the sheer popularity of his ideology. That ideology was Anti-Communism, and he used it to seek, damage and destroy. He and his followers lashed out at thousands of progressive people and groups, questioning their loyalty to the United States.
Today we see McCarthyism in a new form, where President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney use “the war on terror” as a similar ideology to amass power and profit.
That is why this anniversary is significant: It throws into sharp focus the fact that today McCarthyism is alive, well and kicking in the United States of America.
McCarthy began his political life as most members of Congress do, as a lawyer. He became a judge in the late 1930s and enlisted in the Marine Corps. (Subsequently, he grossly falsified his record, painting himself as a war hero and denouncing his opponents, some of whom were genuine heroes. George W. Bush certainly took a handy leaf from this book.)
In 1946, McCarthy gained the Republican nomination for the Senate, running against Robert LaFollete, Jr., whose father had been one of the primary proponents of the so-called Wisconsin Idea. (McCarthy’s state was known for its pioneering social and political agenda. But the Wisconsin Idea of far-reaching reform had been formulated a half-century before McCarthy’s time, and was already a part of the social fabric.)
McCarthy won the seat, but remained a minor — and widely disliked — young senator until 1950, when he delivered a speech denouncing diplomats and officials in the State Department who he alleged were “known Communists.”
Domination of world markets
With this speech, McCarthy caught the mood of a nation that had considered victory in World War II exclusively its own. The U.S. was being forced to watch the Soviet Union, its power and influence growing, challenge the fruits of that victory. That country now possessed the atomic bomb, and the U.S. was not about to allow anything to threaten American domination of world markets.
It wasn’t enough for McCarthy to limit himself to the State Department. He eventually took on the U.S. Army, alleging Communist infiltration in the military. This was eventually to lead to his downfall. Whatever your political preference, right or left, attacking the armed services in the U.S. is a tactical no-no.
But it wasn’t until 1954 that the anti-McCarthy bandwagon started rolling. He had four good years, and he used them with consummate guile.
His ploy was to attack an institution without naming names, claiming — as he’d wave a sheet of paper in the air — that he knew them. He was assisted by a very clever legal team, headed by Roy Cohn and Robert Kennedy. In fact, the Kennedy family had always been close to McCarthy. They shared his spiritual faith in anti-communism and never disassociated themselves from him. When the motion to censure McCarthy was brought before the Senate in December 1954, the only senator not present for the vote was John F. Kennedy.
McCarthy was, of course, not unique in playing “Hunt the Witch,” America’s favorite game — now, in the Bush era, called “Hunt the Liberal.”
In 1938, Texas Congressman Martin Dies, an ardent supporter of the Ku Klux Klan, had established the Dies Committee, later renamed the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This committee ruined the careers and lives of thousands of American artists, academics and business people. An academic friend of my own family was stripped of his university position. He and his family luckily escaped America for Britain, where their passports were confiscated. His “crime” was his sympathy for the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.
Even the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who had spent the war years in Los Angeles, was called before the House committee on Oct. 30, 1947. Brecht’s wily presentation disarmed the committee members. It is a mystery to this day, at any rate, how a non-American can be un-American in the first place.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated anyone who had liberal sympathies. This led to the blacklisting of many authors and some famous Hollywood scriptwriters. But the damage such illicit probing did to people’s lives and marriages is untold. The attackers in government, and their opportunistic friends in the press, had a field day for the very reason that the vast majority of Americans supported them. This was essentially the case with McCarthy’s high-handed invasions of privacy, too.
Ulterior motives of patriotism
Who were the primary enemies of McCarthy as he himself saw them?
They were not the Soviets, nor were they the “Reds” who took control of China. They were his own compatriots: Americans.
McCarthy’s ideology was faith based. While he did not possess the religious fervor of a George W. Bush, he nonetheless believed strongly that all true Americans were made from the same stuff, and that this allowed for no dissent, nor any questioning of the ulterior motives of patriotism.
As we consider now, 50 years after McCarthy’s death, the many parallels between his methods and designs and those of George W. Bush, it may be helpful to recall the words of President Harry S Truman on the subject of the senator from Wisconsin, that [McCarthy is] “the best asset the Kremlin has.”
Certainly the present occupant of the White House is, in the same way, the terrorists’ ace in the hole.
What is it, then, that remains under the American skin, to erupt from time to time, from era to era, in the form of an intolerant mistrust, rejecting any element that its supposedly pure body detects as dangerous?
Perhaps it is a fear engendered by a bizarre form of idealism, according to which the “American way of life,” however judged, always emerges as superior; and a belief that everyone in the world wants to be like you — coupled with a zeal to help them get there.
This will motivate Americans now to denounce anyone who negates this moral superiority, which by self-definition is “ideal”; now to bomb the living daylights out of all and sundry whose culture, lifestyle or ideology is seen to threaten — by its very own robustness and pride — America’s claim to be the world’s No. 1 One Good Guy.
This is certainly how McCarthy and his heirs in today’s Washington saw and see themselves. It’s the good guys against the bad guys, now and forever.
How much have Americans learned in 50 years? Hopefully enough to realize that, from time to time, the bad guys may not be them, but US.