First Published: Notes of the Month, The New International, Vol.XXI, No.1 (Whole No.167), Spring 1955.
Transciption, Editing, & HTML markup: Tom Unterrainer and D. Walters in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.
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Four years ago in Wheeling, West Virginia, a relatively obscure senator speaking at a political rally dramatically waved a sheaf of papers. It was the climactic moment of a speech inveighing against the alleged treachery of the Democratic Party, delivered in a voice and manner that have become so painfully familiar since then. Speaking “from deep down inside,” to borrow one of the senator’s favored expressions, he informed the nation through his audience that he held in his hand a list of 205 communists currently in the employ of the State Department. The tightly clutched papers were promptly put back into the briefcase lest a gust of wind blow the “documents” among the newsmen and thereby prematurely bury McCarthy’s ambitions.
McCarthy’s extravagant accusation against Truman and Acheson made in Wheeling was a political gamble; a throw of the dice by an ambitious man of mediocre talents seeking notoriety and support through irresponsibility. There was no way of knowing in 1950 whether charges of treachery against the Democratic administration would lead to oblivion or popularity. The day following the Wheeling episode McCarthy himself must have been surprised to learn that he had rolled a “natural.” The ferocity and vehemence of his charges almost immediately brought both the wide acclamation and the animosity he sought. He had hit upon the technique which, within the context of the times, could lead him to a positon of enormous influence in American politics and make him an internationally feared figure: decry “communism” in government, expose “communism” in the Democratic Party, spotlight “communists” in industry, wave fraudulent papers, follow through with sensational investigations, etc.; perform these activities with a perverse devotion to vilification and a passionate disregard for truth that would single him out from all other witchhunters, and his future seemed assured.
Though McCarthy gambled in 1950, his success was not accidental. The element of risk had been sharply reduced by the political climate of the times. Had these charges been made against Roosevelt or Marshall during any of the farmer’s four administrations their author would have been relegated to the category of public nuisance. McCarthy’s allegations could be given credence only in a period of profound reaction. This reaction set in and developed in tempo paralleling the inevitable rift and conflict between American capitalism and Stalinism. The architects who laid its foundations were the same Democratic Party politicians in power who were now to become the target of McCarthy’s sledge hammer blows. Before McCarthy’s name was splashed all over the front pages, the social phenomenon now known as McCarthyism had already grown from seed to sapling and its poisonous roots were deeply and firmly imbedded in America’s political soil. The atmosphere of fear and suspect-thy-neighbor, the firings, witchhunting and defamation, this sickly political complexion of postwar capitalism virulent by 1950, permitted the success of McCarthy’s gamble; it raised him not out of the sewer, but with it onto the center stage of American politics.
After Wheeling, McCarthy wedded the anti-Communist technique proclaiming, in effect, a monogamous monopoly over it. His life was circumscribed by his political bride. All of his energies and interests revolved around exposing “communism and corruption in government” more militantly than his nearest competitors. McCarthy as no one before him, succeeded in raising communist hunting to an exclusive political way of life. In three years the senator won the enthusiastic support of millions, he received powerful support from men in Washington who admired and feared him, his influence was decisive in senatorial races and he earned the profitable respect of Texas oil tycoons.
McCarthy bludgeoned his way to the peak of his career by the end of 1953. At that time, a poll taken by the American Institute of Public Opinion (Gallup) revealed that of many thousands who were polled from different geographic areas and economic categories, 50 per cent endorsed the senator’s activities. It also indicated that his support was more or less equally distributed among all social classes.
IF MCCARTHY’S rise to his peak in 1953 was at a whirlwind rate, his loss of popular support and decline in official standing has been jet propelled. As of this moment, slightly more than a year since McCarthy attained his pinnacle of success, he is not thought of by the citizenry as either a public menace or a public hero. He is either not thought of at all, or as one of the nation’s most crashing political bores – which is in itself no mean achievement in current American politics.
The measure of McCarthy’s lost prestige and power can best be taken by a brief review of pertinent 1954 election figures.
In McCarthy’s home state, Wisconsin, Republican Governor Kohler squeezed through by a margin of 33,000 over his Democratic opponent, William Proxmire. In 1952, however, Kohler was elected to the governorship by a majority of 400,000 over the same opponent. In the earlier election the governor received 62 per cent of the vote while in the recent contest it dropped to 51 per cent. If the November contest had not been an off-year election, McCarthy’s gubernatorial candidate might have been defeated. Again, in Wisconsin, the pro-McCarthy incumbent, Charles Kersten of Milwaukee, was defeated in the race for Congress by an openly anti-McCarthy Democrat, Henry Reuss.
In Michigan, one of McCarthy’s pet Neanderthalites, Kit Clardy, was defeated for re-election to the House. In New Jersey, Clifford Case, “left-wing” Republican whose campaign for the Senate was publicly sabotaged by McCarthy, won an upset victory. In Colorado, Democrat Edwin Johnson, who was on the Watkins Committee and the object of McCarthy’s special scorn, was elected governor. In Illinois, Senator Paul Douglas, whose anti-McCarthy reputation is as large as it is unearned, defeated his ultra-reactionary opponent, Joseph Meek, publicly embraced “by McCarthy, by a large margin. In Montana, Senator Murray, who has been one of the more spirited Democratic opponents of McCarthy was re-elected. In Michigan the powerful right-wing Republican, Homer Ferguson, was beaten for re-election to the Senate.
The Senate motion to condemn McCarthy in line with the report of the Watkins Committee which passed by a. vote of 67-22 is the only statistic one needs to gauge the senator’s calamitous drop in official standing. What must be underlined here is that a successful motion to repudiate McCarthy was unthinkable before 1954.
The 22 votes against the censure motion cannot by any stretch of the imagination be interpreted as coming from senators who owe undying fealty to McCarthy. When Senator McCarthy saw fit to vent his spleen on Eisenhower in a public break with the administration following the President’s praise of Senator Watkins, the most important of the 22 senators who voted against condemning McCarthy in the Senate were quick to dissociate themselves publicly from McCarthy’s malevolence. Even Everett Dirksen made it politely clear that he would not follow McCarthy into the lion’s den. McCarthy is no Daniel in Dirksen’s well thumbed bible.
During the debate on the Watkins report, the McCarthyites saw fit for the first time to initiate an independent organization on a national scale, the Ten Million Americans Mobilizing for Justice. Unlike the extreme right wing “For America” group which operates as an “educational” and pressure group inside the Republican Party, the “Ten Million” attempted to form an organization outside the confines of the two major parties, not limited to propaganda, but busily engaged in such activities as petitioning and organizing mass meetings to combat the censure movement in Congress. Though it was not projected as a permanent organization, it was at the very least a feeler for a possible third party movement and intended as a threat to the Republican Party leadership. Had this movement succeeded in arousing a significant amount of interest and support, McCarthy could either have used its success as a club inside the Republican Party to recover his declining fortunes, or as a vehicle for a third party jaunt, should he have felt compelled to break formally with the party.
But the “Ten Million” died aborning. It charged onto the national scene with a rafter of retired admirals, generals, professional bigots and politicians at the head of a brigade of old ladies, priests and true white patriots, and as though exhausted by the very effort of the attack, quietly collapsed and disintegrated before coming within sight of the enemy. It had arranged for mass meetings in three of America’s largest cities. Two were called off and the third, held at New York’s Madison Square Garden was a first class fiasco. The “Ten Million” predicted a capacity crowd of 20,000 with an overflow of many thousands listening outside the gates. The turnout was little more than half of what was expected and traffic outside the Garden was not impeded by swarms of enthusiastic McCarthyites.
The “Ten Million” was no more successful in its petitioning. As the name indicates, ten million signatures were to be collected protesting the move to censure McCarthy. Most of the energies of the organization were focused on this objective. Petitioners gathered outside of Catholic churches and priests cajoled inside; 10-year-old parochial school children were obliged to become signatories and circulators of the petitions. There were numerous reported instances of individuals intimidated into signing. Nevertheless, when all was added up, the “Ten Million” did not even claim much more than a fifth of its goal although the drive was extended ten days. If one were to deduct fraudulent and coerced signatures, ten per cent might be a charitable figure.
On February 10th of this year, the “Ten Million” gave up the ghost “without so much as a post mortem or a two-paragraph obituary in the leading New York papers. It left in its un-lamented wake a few scattered, local groups the most recent of which is the Americans for American Action headed by former Democratic Governor of New Jersey, Charles Edison.
An interesting statistical show of McCarthy’s decline was evidenced in another Gallup Poll released on November 6, 1954. This poll was on the pro and con of the move to censure McCarthy. Fifty-six per cent of those polled favored censure of McCarthy, 12 per cent were of no opinion and 32 per cent did not think that censure was proper. While there can be no question that the 56 per cent who favored censure were anti-McCarthy it is reasonable to assume that the 32 per cent in opposition to censure were not all motivated by loyalty to the senator. Compare these figures to the 50 per cent support of McCarthy shown by the Gallup Poll ten months earlier and we have a graphic picture of his decline.
WE SEE IN THE RISE of McCarthyism one of the more important reasons for the decline of McCarthy. But before discussing this paradox, it is necessary to define our terms a little more clearly.
The definition of McCarthyism is not an arbitrary question, a matter of individual choice where one can say “this is what I mean by McCarthyism” and another can provide McCarthyism with a content at great variance to it. In the very choice of the term “McCarthyism” there is recognition, consciously or not, of something new and specific which does not allow for much ambiguity or conflicting definitions. The term is a new label and new political labels which are permanently incorporated in our political vocabulary are resorted to only when we consciously acknowledge or at least sense a profound political change. The most accurate and politically useful definition of McCarthyism, then, is not one which merely notes surface manifestations of change, but which also answers the questions: how deep are these changes in American politics, how permanent are they, who and what is responsible for them?
McCarthyism is most commonly thought of by liberals and respectable conservatives as an assault on democratic rights by reactionaries and the use of particularly offensive witch-hunting techniques promoted by extreme right wing irresponsibles m either or both major parties. We reject this definition. If McCarthyism is something’ new, for which traditional terms are obsolescent or not sufficiently dramatic, then this definition fails to demonstrate it. This theory is weak in that it implicitly underestimates the extensiveness of the McCarthyist virus. McCarthyism becomes nothing more than the offensive of right-wing elements in Congress and in the two parties; throw these reactionaries out of office, crush the extreme right wing in both parties and the political devil will have “been exorcised. McCarthyism in this view is little more than a road sign, reading “Danger, Bad Men At Work.” We wish that such were the case, for then we might find a ready detour. 
In our opinion, what is qualitatively different in American politics today that necessitates a new label is the gradual nibbling away at the foundations of bourgeois democracy; but this destructive process is not engineered solely or even primarily by one wing of capitalism against another determined to preserve the rights and institutions of bourgeois democracy. McCarthyism in our view is the label which refers simply to the class politics of American capitalism as a whole. McCarthyism, which is manifested by subversive lists, feverish investigations, loyalty oaths, the Smith Act, McCarran Act, Taft-Hartley, executive orders, is the political methodology of a bourgeoisie which is frightened and panicked – not without reason – in its struggle with Stalinism. Just to list these tangible symptoms of McCarthy-ism should be sufficient evidence that this threat to basic civil liberties is a class offensive – though not a united one.
It makes as little sense to evaluate McCarthyism in terms of right-wing politicians as to ascribe the Permanent War Economy to the ideology of Truman’s economic advisers. Both the Permanent War Economy and McCarthyism in their early phases were introduced by the left wing of the Democratic Party; they have flourished under the liberal wing of the Republican Party and no wing of either party can consider fundamentally reversing this economic and political drift of American capitalism. The hope that some see in the Fair Deal wing of the Democratic Party as the agency which will save America from McCarthyism, is, itself, a reflection of the drastic shift to the right in the nation’s political values. It has not mobilized masses of people against McCarthyism and it will not, because the Fair Deal is deeply committed to this political attitude.
The most reactionary law to date which in effect illegalizes the Communist Party – and which can be broadly interpreted to include any Marxist party – was introduced by Hubert Humphrey and rushed through by the Fair Deal Democrats. It is true that there are those Democrats who, moved by some dimmed sense of conscience, pretend to resist McCarthyism with all their feeble strength – but they voted for the Humphrey bill; there are those who owe their congressional seats to labor support and minority group backing and feel compelled to vocalize on the virtues of democracy – but they voted for the Humphrey bill; there are the politically sophisticated Democratic senators who, recogni2ing the damage done to American prestige abroad by McCarthyism, are emphatic in their opposition to excesses – but they voted for the Humphrey bill.
Our point is not to be misconstrued as placing all wings of either or both parties in the same file folder, labelled “McCarthyists.” Between the Republicans and the Democrats, and within the Democratic Party between the Southern reactionaries and the Fair Dealers, significant differences do exist on the question of democracy. The Republican Party, more so than ever, the party of big business, its politics are particularly crude with strong isolationist and powerful chauvinist pulls and with a voting base in the more backward rural areas. Thus, it feels relatively comfortable in the McCarthyist era compared to the Democratic Party with its more liberal traditions, its powerful labor backing, its greater sophistication and its recent history in world affairs which makes even it suspect by the extreme McCarthyist criteria of subversion.
What is more, we will grant that the impact on the democratic consciousness of the nation would vary considerably given a sweep of the Democratic Party in the 1956 Presidential elections as against a Republican victory. A Democratic victory might well tend to relax the grip of McCarthyism for a limited time. A winning Republican ticket headed by the Eisenhower wing would try to keep McCarthyism within “moderately progressive” limits. But a right-wing Republican victory would unquestionably tighten the McCarthyist stranglehold.
We do not minimize, then, the genuine differences on the question of democracy which exist in bourgeois politics, but this does not vitiate in any way our main point that all wings cf both parties are functioning within the framework of McCarthyism. The Fair Dealers, the left wing of American capitalism, do not include in their “liberal” program a return to classical bourgeois liberalism, but limit themselves to the liberalization of McCarthyism. America has become so psychologized to McCarthyism and its shift in values so accented, that no one can sensibly expect the Fair Dealers to do anything more than slow up its tempo. This shift in values has already gone to such extremes that even the Southern Democrats can be lavished with unashamed praise by our most enlightened liberals for the role they played in the Senate debate on the Watkins Committee recommendations to censure Senator McCarthy. One got the impression from Murray Kempton, writing in The New York Post, for example, that Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina far from being the Southern bourbon he is, is a kindly, good-natured, fair and square sort of fellow; a cross between a mint-julep – Southern – gentleman, and an evangelist. In one rhapsodic column on Senator Ervin, a man whose last consideration would be to undermine McCarthyism., Kemp ton concludes with a generalization about the anti-McCarthy Southern Democrats:
The true conservatives who are not new because true conservatism is well-seasoned by definition have spoken up at last. They are fighting from the old secure ground for principles they grew up with. It is nice to hear from them again.
Who would have thought only five years ago that political standards would be lowered so drastically that a left-wing liberal would virtually bedeck himself with Confederate grey, even if only in an off moment?
This preeminence of McCarthyism produced the paradox that is central to our discussion. As McCarthyism has taken firm, root, it has served as a determinant for McCarthy’s relaxed hold on the public imagination. In 1950, McCarthy was a unique phenomenon, outstanding in his lack of subtlety and candor. His unexcelled militancy in his war against alleged “subversion” was not in contradiction to the spirit of 1950 but far in advance of it. But McCarthy and his singular “style” in 1950 have proved to have been but an interesting preview of things, including politicians, to come. As the post-war reaction evolved from a mood to a virtual political institution; from reactionary laws only occasionally enforced, to even more sweeping laws and witch-hunting on a large scale, McCarthy with his limited imagination, has had the wind taken, out of his sullied sails. Activities and accusations which once bore the distinctive McCarthy trademark are now uttered with the greatest of nonchalance by leaders of his own party – and by the Democrats. For example – within his own party – the charge of treason against the Democrats which McCarthy made explicit in his party-sponsored speeches in 1952 had a startling effect on the nation. Since then, however, that charge or its equivalent has been hurled against Democratic ex-presidents by such “moderate progressives” as Dewey, Brownell, Nixon and even by Eisenhower. While the frequency of the charge may not reduce its political effectiveness, its choral performance has acted as a levelling force on McCarthy by bringing his fellow party members down to his once private pit.
THE FULL MEASURE of this decay of democratic values can be gauged by the attitude toward democracy of our educated liberals, men of learning and presumed enlightenment who pride themselves on intellectual independence, and prefer not to think of themselves as political automatons.
For the most part, these men who might at least set an intellectual tone of rebellion over methodical encroachments on democracy have not seen fit to give organized and principled battle to the legions of reaction and anti-intellectualism. What is worse, many of them have gone over to McCarthyism, some with reluctance, others with abandon. The bulk of the intellectual liberal world puts up a confused resistance to the more extreme symptoms oÂ£ McCarthyism at the same time partially adapting to it, accepting as necessary some of its concrete measures and many of its premises. Instead of functioning as the conscience of America, it has for the most part provided the government with apologists, rationalizers, advisers and authorities on the boundaries of witchhunting.
Almost as though to demonstrate this, a book has been published recently, written by two prominent liberals: McCarthy and the Communists by James Rorty and Moshe Decter. The book merits some reference here not only for what the authors have to say, but because it was sponsored by America’s leading organization of liberal intellectuals dedicated to the preservation of freedom and culture (behind the Iron Curtain, to be sure) – the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. Although the Committee does not endorse every opinion of the authors, it is nevertheless apparent that as a whole, the book reflects its sponsor’s attitude.
From this book the shift in values of these atomic age liberals and intellectuals can be briefly demonstrated and itemized:
Item: The new virtues of many Cold War liberals are illustrated in the following passage on page 151:
McCarthy was not then (1950) allied with the group of militant, dedicated anti-Communists in the Senate, which included McCarran, Bridges, “Wherry and Eastland. These men were conservative; some of them were isolationists who opposed constructive measures like the Marshall Plan, designed to strengthen the free – world. But they had the virtue of being strongly anti-Communist and anti-Soviet in the critical years immediately following World War II. (Emphasis added.)
Item: On the Loyalty Program. Decter and Rorty have several serious criticisms of the loyalty program instituted under Truman’s Executive Order. They present the statistic of 17,060 cases being tried by the Civil Service Loyalty Review Board by June 1953. Of these cases 557 were dismissed or denied employment. The authors comment: “It does not take a trained investigator to see something wrong with this picture: either too many innocent people were placed in jeopardy, or too many guilty persons were being cleared. Actually, the Truman loyalty program was faulty in both respects.” The authors then proceed to emphasize Truman’s “laxness” in allowing not only Communists but “especially fellow travellers and Communist-fronters [to slip] through the loopholes of the loyalty standards.” Insofar as McCarthy’s charges of Communist infiltration of the State Department are concerned, the authors believe that: “in spite of exaggerations on both sides McCarthy’s essential point was a valid one: the State Department’s security program had been lax and frequently ineffective/’ Damaging evidence of Truman’s lax witchhunt is then offered. Of the 110 names submitted by McCarthy in 1950, 18 of McCarthy’s cases had finally by 1954 “been separated in one way or another from government service” thus proving to these sterling liberals that the Truman administration was trying to overlook subversives for partisan reasons. Decter and Rorty list the most “notorious” and “dangerous” men on McCarthy’s list including Owen Lattimore, William Remington, John Carter Vincent, concluding that:
There were quite a few similar cases; people with bulging records of pro-Communist activities and associations successfully, weathered many departmental security hearings, only to be discharged or allowed to resign under fire later – after McCarthy’s charges. (Emphasis added.)
As a tribute to Joe McCarthy for his battle against laxity, and for his list of dangerous names, there follows:
In calling public attention to these and similar derelictions, Senator McCarthy and others performed a public service. The subsequent acceleration of the State Department’s security processes was certainly the result, at least in part, of the public pressures stimulated by the senator’s activities.
In a summary section of the book, the authors have the following praise of Eisenhower’s more inclusive – job exclusive – program:
It was one of the grave drawbacks of the Truman administration’s security program that it placed the major emphasis on finding grounds for doubting the loyalty of an employee. And it is one of the major advantages of the Eisenhower program that the loyalty and security programs are now formally combined. This means that decisions will tend to emphasize security, which can be ascertained with far more objectivity and accuracy than Soyalty.
Item: On Investigating Committees. Rorty and Decter do an effective job in laying bare the various frauds that McCarthy perpetrated while chairman of the Senate Permanent Sub-Comrnittee on Investigations. But this does not deter the authors from praising with, an almost disarming frankness the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee while headed by the late Senator McCarran. The work of this committee is used as an example at least four times in the book of the type of investigating committee America needs, with, such comments as “the sober and devastatingly factual hearings conducted by the McCarran Committee.”
For those who may have forgotten the “devastatingly factual hearings” conducted by this committee, they produced the “sober” report that Owen Lattimore “was from some time in the 1930’s a conscious articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy.”
Item: On Communist teachers: Needless to emphasise, Decter and Rorty feel that membership in the Communist Party is prima facie evidence of “unfitness to teach.” But the authors go Sidney Hook one better. Whereas Hook wants to leave it up to the faculty or school administration to dispense with the services of Communists on the faculty, our authors coyly suggest that:
It has been suggested that legal acknowledgment of this principle might end the debate about the “right” of such persons to teach.
The book expresses similar attitudes on most major questions of democracy. It berates those who do not inform on former Communist associates, it admonishes others who “hide” behind the Fifth Amendment, it justifies firings of individuals with dubious backgrounds from government positions and defense plants.
In the interests of the Cold War these “liberal” authors, in effect, justify and rationalize the witchhunt. They are themselves a peculiar breed of moderate McCarthyists.
Thus, the consolidation of the Cold War reaction, and the increasing displacement of constitutional liberties by the witchhunt, the growing lack of libertarian ideals in the liberal world have all served to eclipse the Wisconsin senator.
In terms of providing a political barometer the Senate debate was by far the more instructive and important of the two. In the Army-McCarthy hearings the speeches and verbal blows exchanged were rarely raised above the trivial formal charges: who posed with whom and why, did Adams leave McCarthy’s house on good terms with a slice of cream cheese under his arm, who shined Schine’s shoes, how many times did Cohn, seeking favors for Schine, disturb Adams at his New England retreat, etc., etc.? Similar weighty problems were aired ad nauseam. The hearings understandably produced a general revulsion against all participants, accused and accusers, counsels and judges for their general spinelessness and ineptness. If nothing else, it provided the nation with an object lesson in how low the watermark of American politics can fall.
Despite this character of the hearings it is not to be denied that beneath the inane charges and counter charges more serious political issues were at stake. McCarthy’s appeal for government informants, made late in the hearings, was the only overt evidence of the seriousness of the rupture between McCarthy and the administration.
The Senate debate on the Watkins Committee report was a different matter. This debate had only one very important feature in common with the Army hearings – the superficiality of the charges. The general accusation that McCarthy insulted the dignity of the Senate, and should therefore be censored – or condemned – can hardly be taken seriously. Abuse of one senator by another Is not that novel nor arc senators as a rule that sensitive. At any rate McCarthy’s abusiveness nowhere near matched that of the late uncensored Senator Bilbo, for example, whose foul language was no less personally directed than McCarthy’s.
Unlike the Army-McCarthy hearings, in the course of the Senate debate political differences were clearly expressed. The political motivations of the Eisenhower administration to drop McCarthy which can be deduced from the Army hearings were clarified at the Senate debate.
If these differences were openly expressed at the debate, it was no less clearly shown that for the bulk of the Senate McCarthy was not to be condemned for McCarthyism. The differences were serious but not that fundamental. It was only a rare speech by Senator Monroney or Lehman that revealed genuine misgivings over the institutions of McCarthyism. For the most part, senators went out of their way to let the nation know that they are for die Cold War witchhunt. Republican Senator Alexander Smith of New jersey, who finally voted to condemn McCarthy, felt that any Senate action should “... in no way be interpreted as condemning the junior senator from Wisconsin, Mr. McCarthy, for the work he has done in investigating the public menace.” This same concern over maintaining the witchhunt was expressed by the majority of Republicans and Southern Democrats who led their parties’ attack on McCarthy. They rolled around in the mud of McCarthyism before taking the floor to berate McCarthy so that no one could accuse them of going soft on the witchhunt.
That it was not McCarthyism which was disturbing the Senate as much as Senator McCarthy and the needless, restrictive, and often partisan excesses of the committee he led was made most explicit in the speeches of Senators Ervin and Stennis, both members of the Watkins Committee and both highly praised in the liberal and anti-McCarthy press.
Senator Ervin speaks:
Other members of the Congress have fought Communism with as much devotion and with far more wisdom than has the junior senator from Wisconsin. I cite the names of only a few of them: Vice-President Nixon, Senator Karl Mundt, Senator Willis Smith, Representative John Woods and Representative Francis E. Walters.
Senator Stennis made his position clear.
I commend the junior senator from Wisconsin for what good he has done. But the fact that he has done good work in that mission of the Senate does not give him license to destroy other processes of the Senate or to destroy its members.
The Senate majority was so conscious of its need to delimit the condemnation of McCarthy that they threw out the one charge which might be interpreted as a broad repudiation of Congressional investigating techniques, The Watkim Committee reported its finding that “the conduct of Senator McCarthy toward [General] Zwicker was reprehensible” and that for this conduct he should “be censured by the Senate.” The implications of this charge were too strong for the Senate majority. General Zwicker, although a war hero, was, in fact, roundly abused by an enraged McCarthy seeking to bolster his faltering Fort Monmouth investigations. This disrespect for the military angered many legislators but to condemn McCarthy for it implied a limitation on the “right’ of investigating committees to browbeat and threaten witnesses and the charge was dropped from the final resolution of condemnation adopted by the Senate. In its place was a condemnation of McCarthy for referring to the Watkins Committee as the unwitting handmaidens of communism. There were a host of reasons for the overwhelming vote to condemn McCarthy. There was the obvious advantage to the Democrats in furthering the already wide rift in the Republican Party. For the Eisenhower Republicans, in the course of the debate and preliminary committee hearings, the vote to censure McCarthy took on a wider political meaning as an attempt to discredit the right-wing isolationist Republicans, closely identified with McCarthy, who were openly challenging the wisdom of the Eisenhower-Dulles foreign policy.
But the primary reason for condemning McCarthy was the simple irresponsibility of the Wisconsin senator. In the course of a speech by that Liberace among politicians, Everett Dirksen, included the following defense of McCarthy:
... Joe McCarthy, in the language that I understood in my neighborhood when I was a boy, is something of an alley fighter. That is a pretty good description. He is no master of the English language. He does not know all the fine and tripping phrases. There is a bluntness about his spirit.
This tribute to McCarthy’s character is, indeed, “a pretty good description.” McCarthy is an “alley fighter” par excellence. But this is precisely what disturbed the Senate. As an alley fighter, McCarthy drew no fine distinctions and his cat’s claws were growing long and sharp, nailing too many and too deeply.
McCarthy is too unpredictable and completely without scruples, becoming thereby a source of worry to more responsible Republicans. He was beginning to witchhunt the witchhunters, and that was insufferable to half the Senate Republicans and all Democrats. It meant playing outside the rules of the game. Perhaps if McCarthy committed his excesses with less ostentation – if that were possible – he would not have run into the obstacles he did. But part of McCarthy’s political irresponsibility is his boisterousness and publicity consciousness.
He broadcast his irresponsibility to the nation and the world. In terms of America’s prestige abroad McCarthy was an obvious liability. He presented to Europe and Asia a distorted image of America which only served to discredit the Eisenhower administration and added considerable ammunition to the propaganda arsenal of world Stalinism.
McCarthy’s irresponsibility reached its apogee in the last week of the Army hearings when he gave notice to the Eisenhower administration that he considered himself beyond the pale of legal restrictions. His appeal to all Federal employees to send him information, even if classified and secret, concerning “communism and corruption” in government, was such an open and brazen flaunting of lawful procedure, that then and there the Eisenhower administration was left no alternative but to batter McCarthy. The Army-McCarthy hearings were inspired by the senator’s invasion of the military pillar of capitalism; the Senate condemnation was brought on by his further irresponsible and totalitarian threat to place himself outside and above the hierarchy of bourgeois institutions and laws. Had the Eisenhower administration and the Senate permitted this, it would have suffered more than lost dignity; it would have established the precedent whereby a dangerous demagogue could displace the source and center of political authority.
In addition to condemning McCarthy for challenging the authority of the administration, the law and government agencies, the Senate was anxious to relax (not relinquish) the witchhunt which has been getting out of hand. Even the pioneer among witchhunters, Representative Martin Dies, has felt the need to defend the American constitution in the light of hysterical security procedures. McCarthy was the personification of witchhunt excesses and through its condemnation of him, the Senate was expressing its desire to “normalize” the witchhunt which has had a crippling effect on American diplomacy and generally disoriented and hampered the efficiency of government operations.
A MYTH HAS DEVELOPED around Joseph McCarthy: he may not have much finesse or polish, he may not be a man of vast erudition but to compensate for these inadequacies he is a brilliant tactician, very clever in cross examination, an expert in timing his blows, etc. This misconception of McCarthy served him well. It confused his critics and helped to intimidate his would-be opponents in advance. Any objective evaluation of McCarthy’s record will reveal, however, that every clever tactical move he has made has been accompanied by twice as many blunders which have, in the long run, served to divorce him from many adherents and made bitter enemies of influential men. His greatest defect on this score is his utter inability to gracefully retreat in the face of more powerful opponents or to parry their blows, and an irresistible urge to strike out against all antagonists with a violence peculiar to himself. In short, McCarthy is more blunderer and blunderbuss than brilliant tactician.
Among the blunders which have so blighted McCarthy’s career we would list the following: his refusal to retreat when Washington sounded the attack which precipitated the Army-McCarthy hearings; his behavior before the Watkins Committee; his abuse of General Zwicker originally and before the Watkins Committee; his earlier accusations against General Marshall and his offer to teach Adlai Stevenson Americanism with a slippery elm club, his “revelations” about Adelaide Case, his poorly concealed innuendoes about the loyalty of the Eisenhower administration (“21 years of treason”), his conduct at the Senate hearings on the Watkins Committee report and his subsequent direct break with Eisenhower – all these were blunders. A list of similar exam-pies of poor timing is endless and the accumulated effect has inevitably been a negative one on McCarthy’s prestige and power. There has been no compelling political reason for McCarthy’s outbursts. His self-chosen calling as America’s No.1 witchhunter did not require, for example, that he extend the arena of alleged treason from the Democrats to men high in the councils of the Republican Party. This last demonstrative public move by McCarthy only served to intensify his isolation., It lost him the support of such men as General Van Fleet who was “shocked” by the “personal bitter attack against the President.” (Up to the day that McCarthy excoriated Eisenhower, Van Fleet was a leading figure in the Committee of Ten Million Americans.)
What has impelled these broadsides against anybody and everybody is not exclusively in the realm of politics but psychology. That much should be obvious to anyone who has followed McCarthy’s outbursts; frequently incoherent and irrational, during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings and in the course of hearings he has conducted as Chairman of the Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations.
To be a successful politician and demagogue one need not be equipped with a temperate and well balanced personality but the forms of McCarthy’s distemper and imbalance must be accredited as an important factor contributing to his decline.
During the Army-McCarthy hearings this fatal lack of self-control and the absence of self-consciousness was most visibly coupled with an incredible lack of political intelligence. Worse than politically untutored, McCarthy is a total ignoramus. He has yet to make a speech or statement which reveals any understanding of genuine political problems. To get the flavor of McCarthy as a political person we must quote at least a few of his precious lines at the televised hearings. The quotations below are taken from the verbatim report of McCarthy’s first day on the witness stand. The questions are asked by the temporary chief counsel of the of the Senate Permanent Sub-Commtitee on Investigations, Ray Jenkins, a shyster murder trial lawyer from Tennessee.
In response to a question by Jenkins on the imminence of the Communist threat from within, McCarthy draws a parallel from history:
Mr. Jenkins, let me say this by way of answer, and I’ve been admonishing my staff to make short answers, I hesitate at making a long one. In 1917 or 1918 – I forget “which it was – the Kaiser sent seven devoted Communists into Russia. They were headed by Nicolai Lenin. Seven men and within a hundred days those seven men had taken, over and enslaved a nation of 180,000,000 people, and those 180,000,000 people no more wanted to be communist slaves than we do. Seven people.
Well now – we’ve got 25,000 and they’ve got the experience of a good number of years behind them, so it’s very imminent, urgent day to day danger.
Question: Senator McCarthy, how do you regard the communist threat to our country as compared with other threats with which it is confronted?
Answer: ... answering your questions, Mr. Jenkins, I think I can best answer this way. Back in 1848, that’s 106 years ago, you could number the members of the communist conspiracy on the fingers of both year hands.
They made very little progress in so far as numbers are concerned until 1917 and 1918. It’s true they did organize some hard cells throughout the country. Then all of a sudden their membership – those under communist domination, increased to 180,000,000,
In response to another question, McCarthy offers the following prescription for those suffering from insomnia:
And I may say, Mr. Jenkins, if you only have, if only you have 54,000 communists, if you could block out the fellow-travellers, block out the fellow-travellers, then we could sleep much more easily at night.
McCarthy now replies to a question with the passion of a man whose livelihood is threatened:
Q. Should we get comfort from the decrease in CP membership?
A. No, no, no, Mr. Jenkins.
Q. Why not?
A. Because they are tightening up their organization.
And now McCarthy as a Doctor of Pedagogy:
... now I may say, Mr. Jenkins, I don’t care how much, of a screwball or crackpot any professor or teacher may be, so long as he or she is a free agent.
But if McCarthy himself is not of an intellectual bent what of his advisors. Here too, we have a gauge of the man’s worth and a cause for his lowered station. McCarthy did not even feel the need to surround himself with men of talent. His staff consisted of such zeros as Carr, Cohn, Schine, Surine, Juliana, and his tipsters included such authorities on communism as Matusow and Bentley.
If McCarthy failed to surround himself with intellectual heavyweights, it is not only because he failed to seek them out. It is a mutual repugnance. There are scattered intellectuals who defend McCarthy, but with reservations. McCarthy failed to achieve the respectability which could attract a loyal intellectual elite, and he has built no organized social movement which could provide a focal point for intellectuals of the extreme right.
The ruggedness of McCarthy, his bluntness, arrogance and aggressiveness did serve him well for a time. It blended with the strong, rugged-individualist, know nothing and xenophobic traditions so powerful in the United States, particularly in the midwest. McCarthy, in a sense, talked the language of the people. He was not a slick, mealy-mouthed politician but a man who spoke his mind freely and without fear! He would take on anyone who crossed him! This had an undeniable appeal for a large segment of the American public.
But the basis of this appeal is also a reason for the growing alienation of large numbers of his supporters. While the public may admire a man who can speak its language, it demands more than that of a leader. It wants talents which it, itself, may not possess and which McCarthy has made increasingly clear he does not possess, either.
THE DISILLUSIONMENT WHICH GREW among large numbers of people who watched McCarthy’s antics can only be exacerbated by the wide publicity recently given to McCarthy’s record. The Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations which McCarthy chaired, devoted its main energies in the past three years to two major investigations: (I) The International Information Administration which is an adjunct of the State Department and parent body of the Voice of America and (2) the Fort Monmouth Signal Corps laboratories. McCarthy initiated the investigations with grandiose claims. In the IIA he was to uncover an enormous Communist plot and at Fort Monmouth he promised the same exposures plus revelations of “very, very current espionage.”
McCarthy not only failed to produce “spies” in either investigation, but in neither case was able to expose a single current member of the Communist Party. Instead he brought to the witness chair an army of ex-Stalinists, liberals, crackpot stoolpigeons, men accused of atheism, others of sexual communism, etc., but no one on whom the Communist label could be made to stick.
In the Fort Monmouth hearings, as a result of McCarthy’s pressure and independent army witchhunting, 36 technicians were dropped as security risks. Not one of them was proven to be a Communist and the cases were so flimsy that to date the army has been obligated to reinstate 28 of them.
It cannot be claimed that the McCarthy hoax has been exposed to the satisfaction of all. There are still large numbers of lukewarm admirers of Senator McCarthy who say in effect “we do not like his methods but at least he gets results,” but their ranks have been thinned by the increased publicity of McCarthy’s record.
MCCARTHY IS AN AGITATOR but he is not a social demagogue. An example of the latter could be found in Huey Long, who developed a social program, organized a movement and attempted to create a devoted, socially conscious mass plebeian base, McCarthy has attempted none of these things, and in his inability to follow Long’s pattern we see one of the more basic reasons for McCarthy’s rapid decline. Year in and year out McCarthy has strummed only one string on his guitar – anti-Communism. But exposing non-existent internal Communist plots by its very fraudulent and restricted nature offers no resolution of anxiety producing social problems, and has fatal limitations as an outlet for the dissatisfactions and frustrations of the mass of people. The monotone produced by McCarthy’s one-string guitar plucking could not hold a large audience of admirers spell bound for ever. Boredom began to raise its indifferent head.
Any politician who is going to restrict himself to Communist hunting can ill afford to delude himself with prospects of indefinite notoriety and widespread affection. Communist hunting can only effectively raise a politician to permanent importance if the internal threat is real, if the exposed plots involve real spies – not dentists and clerks, and/or if political passions have been so inflamed by social conflict and overt dissatisfaction that the threat of Communist subversion, even if fictitious, can nonetheless, effectively be made to appear genuine. On the other hand had McCarthy decided to make a permanent place for himself in American politics by embarking on a program of social demagoguery, he could not have escaped disaster. If he attempted to build a political base for himself as a distinctive political personality, it could only be through a distinctive political program. But what would such a program look like and to whom could it appeal today? A program of “works projects” would have little meaning in a period of prosperity, an appeal to farmers for “full parity” would only mean one voice among many. Any extreme proposals of economic demagoguery calling for “sharing the wealth” or “soaking the rich” would not find a positive mass reception and would alienate McCarthy’s important financial “backers who look upon him only as a Communist hunter and a good man to have around for knocking about “pinko” Democrats – and Republicans. In this connection a recent poll taken by Fortune magazine (April-May issues, 1954) is extremely instructive. A number of the nation’s top business executives were polled on their attitude toward Senator McCarthy, A large percentage generally supported the senator’s activities though the editors of Fortune noted that this support had declined from the previous year and was now highly qualified. But, in response to the question of how they would feel about the senator developing any economic reform program Fortune reports the following:
... one of the best illustrations of the limitations upon the senator’s future is to ask a pro-McCarthy businessman how he would feel if Joe turned “liberal” on questions of domestic economic policy. Some astute political observers have said they eould not get alarmed about McCarthy unless, along with his appeal to anti-communism and nationalism, lie also developed a broadly demagogic appeal on economic issues. What if McCarthy suddenly started talking up a more liberal revision of Taft-Hartley than the president has proposed? Vast public works programs? Cheaper money? Pro-McCarthy businessmen said they would start unloading him. Fast.
These pro-McCarthy business men would “start unloading him fast” despite his continued Communist hunt-ting not because at any and all times they are opposed to demagogic appeals – even to reforming the Taft-Hartley Act – but because there is absolutely no necessity for it today. Such extreme and, for it, dangerous appeals become necessary only in times of great social unrest when whole sections of the bourgeoisie feeling itself under enormous internal pressure may make every effort to divert mass discontent.
McCarthy has enough instinctive understanding of politics to know that developing a social program – for which he does not have the talent, even if times were permissive – would be directed against the domestic policies of the Republican Party and could lead only to an organizational rupture. And any attempt to build a “Third Party” today based on a program of economic demagoguery is slated for quick political embalming.
McCarthy obviously feels the need for broadening his interests, and in recent months has shown it by a paying greater attention to American foreign policy. But the impact of his opinions on foreign affairs could not move a steel hall balanced on an egg. McCarthy is already stigmatized as a Communist hunter – and a somewhat discredited one at that – whose opinions on other matters are of incidental significance. The press, for example, refuses to take McCarthy seriously on foreign policy. His speeches, warnings and threats over “softness” toward China have been producing ever diminishing returns. As a Communist hunter, McCarthy In his heyday could hit headlines almost at will; today, however, he stands no chance of usurping Knowland’s position as the spokesman of isolationism.
A final reason for McCarthy’s weakened grip is the personal popularity of Eisenhower and more fundamentally, the fact that the Republican party, dominated by the “moderate progressives” is in power. In a sense, McCarthy needs the Democratic Party in control of Washington. He is in no position to break from the Republican Party now and his most virulent attacks are still reserved for the opposition party. His rantings against a party not in power have obvious limitations for a nation which is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the domestic “accomplishments” and foreign, “program” of the Republican Party.
A new reactionary third party in our opinion is extremely unlikely for reasons already given. But politics is not always rational and we cannot exclude the possibility of an independently organized coalition of the most rabid McCarthyites and isolationists in and outside the Republican Party. Even in the case of this unlikely development we cannot foresee McCarthy regaining his lost popularity. In the first place this new third party would in short order be reduced in the public eye to a crackpot level; in the second place, within such a coalition there is no reason to assume that McCarthy would be its central figure. McCarthy, given all the limitations in his personality, record and intelligence isn’t capable of playing a dominant independent political role.
1. There are other theories of McCarthyism which we cannot discuss in this article due to space limitations. Above all the theory that McCarthyism is the American form of fascism. This theory, however, has already been discussed in an earlier issue of The New International. A more recent and novel theory that is coming into favor attempts to relate McCarthyism to Populism. This view is drawn to hilarious lengths in a recent article by Peter Viereck printed in the Reporter. Viereck draws a parallel between McCarthy and Robespierre and McCarthyism becomes a form of Twentieth Century Jacobinism.
Last updated: 21 February 2010