McCarthyism: This Time It's Found a Home on the Left

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Moser is an assistant professor of history at Ashland University. He is author of Twisting the Lion's Tail: American Anglophobia between the World Wars (New York University Press, 1999) and Presidents from Hoover through Truman, 1929-1953 (Greenwood Press, 2001). He is currently working on a biography of the liberal-turned-McCarthyite journalist John T. Flynn.

In the past few weeks an old term has made its return to American political discourse. That word is "McCarthyism." Critics of the current war complain that there is a move in this country to silence dissent. They point to the refusal of radio stations to play music by the Dixie Chicks, who expressed their shame that the president is, like them, a Texan. They direct our attention to the recent firing of Phil Donahue, an antiwar liberal, from MSNBC. They claim that teachers have been taken to task for making antiwar statements in their classrooms. By invoking the name of Joseph McCarthy, many in the antiwar movement hope to portray themselves as innocent victims of hysteria, brave souls who dare to challenge a jingoistic culture.

But is this really what McCarthyism was all about? To be sure, the original McCarthyites were no doubt, broadly speaking, conservatives, and certainly anticommunists. And yes, they did take aim at liberals. But of course there were conservatives and anticommunists who wanted nothing at all to do with Joe McCarthy and his tactics. One might argue that responsible figures like President Eisenhower and Senator Robert A. Taft should have done more to restrain McCarthy, but they were never truly part of his movement.

To characterize today's pro-administration forces as "McCarthyite" misses what truly distinguished the original McCarthyites from the broader community of conservatives and anticommunists-that is, their hostility toward "the Establishment." Those who rallied behind Joe McCarthy's crusade were largely lower middle class, and more often than not of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European descent. They resented the fact that American politics and society were dominated by upper class WASPs who seemed too eager to make accommodations with communism. They concocted elaborate conspiracy theories allegedly proving that the State Department and other federal agencies were under communist control. They argued that the mainstream media were not to be trusted; that the newspapers were havens for "parlor pinks," and the publishing industry was overrun with "commies" and "fellow travelers." They railed against American corporations who wanted to trade with "Red China," accusing them of dealing in "blood money."

To be sure, there are still people on the American Right who continue to harbor such fantasies-one finds them in organizations such as the John Birch Society and the various "militias" that we heard so much about in the mid-1990s. But in the context of the current war, the essence of McCarthyism-that is, hatred of "the Establishment" and espousal of conspiracy theories-is today almost the exclusive domain of certain elements among the antiwar Left. Instead of "Red-baiters," they might more appropriately be called "Red, White, and Blue-baiters."

An examination of some of the rhetoric heard during antiwar demonstrations confirms this. There are suggestions that American policy is secretly being made by Texas oil companies, or, more strikingly, Israel (a clear point of comparison to the McCarthyite accusation that the Soviets were directly running U.S. diplomacy). There are other conspiracy theories as well-about Halliburton and the "Carlyle Group" orchestrating the war (how long can it be before the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations are mentioned?), about the allegedly "stolen" election of 2002, about how the television networks and other mainstream media outlets are owned by military contractors, and hence hopelessly biased in favor of war (Katie Couric-Merchant of Death?). And behind it all one detects, above all, a seething resentment of those that hold power in America; just the sort of resentment that Joe McCarthy was so successful in exploiting in his day.

Of course, there was one major difference between the McCarthyites of old and those on the modern Left-the former ones managed to find their way into a position of power, from which they could launch investigations and ruin lives. By contrast, the antiwar protesters appear completely impotent-they have failed even to win over the support of college students.

Yet there is nothing fundamentally inconsistent about being anti-Establishment and holding political power. Indeed, that is what made the McCarthyism of the early 1950s such a notable event-a demagogue who spoke for a significant disaffected group was able, for a brief time, to achieve a position of authority. So-called "responsible" individuals were quick to denounce McCarthy-at least those who were not afraid of him-or distance themselves from him in one way or another. The mainstream media in particular hated McCarthy, even as newspaper publishers realized that he made for excellent copy. And within a few years the U.S. Senate censured him, bringing an end to the entire unfortunate episode.

There will be those who will immediately object to any effort to associate the Left with McCarthyism, but is the ability to move from the paranoid Right to the paranoid Left (and back again) really so difficult to understand? The fascist parties of Europe in the 1930s frequently commented on their success in winning recruits from among socialists and communists; indeed, Benito Mussolini himself had been a socialist. Moreover, in the United States quite a few of those who supported McCarthy in the 1950s had been radicals of some sort in the 1920s and 1930s. Once one has demonstrated the ability to believe conspiracy theories, it soon makes little difference whether they are theories of the Left or theories of the Right.

Skeptics will no doubt also point to another apparent difference between the McCarthyites of the 1950s and many of today's antiwar protesters-the latter do not seem to be attempting to silence their opponents by suggesting that they are engaged in treason against their country. It was convenient for the original McCarthyites to connect critics of U.S. foreign policy with a foreign power, and it would be difficult to do this today. Today's antiwar forces hurl about terms like "racist" and "imperialist" as hurtful slurs, but they hardly carry with them the suggestion of treason. Moreover, all but the most radical opponents of the administration seem to recognize the anti-Semitic implications of claiming that the administration is riddled with Israeli agents.

On the other hand, the fact that the protesters have been so much in the minority might cause us to overlook how this situation could change if a few of the more extreme among them found their way into positions of authority in the Federal Government. The organization of corporate America, with its vast network of subsidiaries and stockholders, offers radicals a structure just as suggestive as-though even less relevant than-the flow charts of communist front groups and fellow travelers that the original McCarthyites liked to display. The recent accusations against Richard Perle, suggesting that his concerns about homeland security are really driven by his investments in certain high-tech companies, points the way to the sort of smear campaign that progressives could get behind. "Do you now, or have you ever held stock in Halliburton?" could become the catch phrase of the "Red, White, and Blue-baiters."

This is certainly not to suggest that all opponents of current U.S. foreign policy are closet McCarthyites. However, it does mean that antiwar activists should examine their own attitudes before invoking the legacy of Joe McCarthy as a slur against their political enemies. More importantly, thoughtful critics of the war ought to pay close attention to the company they keep, and the leaders they support. America no more needs the McCarthyism of the Left than it needs a resurgence of its right-wing counterpart.

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Charles Trent - 8/13/2004

I think that you and Ann couldn't be more wrong. Here's what I think:
McCarthy's believed or feared (take your pick) that communist spies had infiltated the US government. The president, nor any other major elected official, did not believe that to be the case. Ultimately what McCarthy did was create a scare that led many to persecute American citizens for their belief that communism was a viable political system.
The ultimate damage was an unwarrented fear of the communistic political system and a world struggle for dominance between the east and the west, eventually leading to the nuclear arms race.
My contention is that people not only in the US, but worldwide, were coerced to believed that communism was bad.
So, let's review communism for just a moment.
The dictionary defines communism as:
"A theoretical economic system characterized by the collective ownership of property and by the organization of labor for the common advantage of all members."
I personally think that this is a Christ-like system. Capitalim is a dog-eat-dog system that promotes survival of the fittest - which is not a Christ-like system.

Wendell Harrelson - 9/28/2003

Just read an article by John Moser about McCarthyism.

Mr. Moser needs a re-examination of his knowledge on Joe McCarthy. The word McCarthyism is always mistakenly used. This man uncovered "real" facts about communists spies in Democratic administrative positions. He did not deserve the censure and mockery he received from the mouths of lying Democrats. What he deserved and still deserves today was to be honored as one of the truly great, brave and dedicated patriot heroes in American history.

Study the truth. Study the outcomes as we know of today from the Venona Papers. Read Ann Coulter. Be honest.

Wendell Harrelson, Teacher
Macon, Georgia

Herman A. Schultz - 9/20/2003

McCarthy was not that bad an individual. He was demonized by the liberals. In my mind, he was a hero by staying focused on the question of whether there were communists in the government.

If you read about the Venona Papers, you will realize that there were many communists, paid by the Soviet Union, working in the Federal Government. Their influence on foreign policy no doubt caused the deaths of many millions of people.

Finally, go to the congressional records and transcripts with McCarthy. These are the truth. Don't believe what others write about the hearings... view the source documents yourself. You will find that McCarthy did not want to 'name names' since he did not want to be judge and jury. He was continuously requested and badgered to 'name names' by the other senators.

I am glad that Joe McCarthy came when he did. He is an American hero. In spite of enormous backlash, he stayed focused on "are there communists in the federal government?". The media and other senators were the ones who practiced character assination.

You will find that JFK even defended Joe. I think it was RFK that actually sought work on his committee. Joe actually started as a democrat but switched to the republican party when he realized what the democrats were really like.

Herman A. Schultz - 9/20/2003

You mention Ann Coulter's book 'Treason'. What a book! I read it and then have done much research on it using Congressional transcripts of the hearings as she suggests. She certainly speaks the truth when she says to use the source documents since most articles that demonize McCarthy always use other books and media articles as references. Use the source documents and you will get closer to the real truth.

Before buying Ann's book, I read the reviews on Barnes and Noble. It seemed to get either the lowest or the highest rating... very few were middle of the road. I suspect liberals were there discrediting the book while those that read it with an open mind (or even conservative mind) gave it the highest rating.

Finally, Ann is right when she talks about getting past the BS by asking "Yes, but were there communists in the Federal Government?". Liberals will bring up all sorts of side issues but the real question remains "were there communists in the Federal Government?".

Herman A. Schultz - 9/20/2003

If you do more research, you will find that McCarthy was more bullied than bully. In addition to being villified by the left and the media, he stayed the course to keep the American public focused on the fact that there were many communists within the government and they did influence foreign policy to the demise (read death) of many peoples in other countries.

You do well to note the Venona Papers. They contain the best source of these communists who were in government.

Also, do not be fooled by other's accounting of the McCarthy hearings. Go to the transcripts themselves. They will deomonstrate that McCarthy was repeatedly, to his displeasure and denial, asked to name names. He often protested that he did not have definitive evidence, only that they were worthy of investigation. Still, the Venona Papers prove his point that there were many communists within the government. McCarthy should be a hero, not a villian.

If you read Ann Coulter's Book Treason, you will get a feel that you need to use real sources since McCarthy has many enemies and that the history of McCarthy has been significantly skewed. Go to the Congressional transcripts and you will see how he was treated and how he conducted himself. Then, square that with how he was treated by the media and you will wonder why a person with the best interests in the USA was treated as a villian.

eugenio m. santiago - 9/1/2003

it's incredible that, after venona, that any fair minded individual would doubt that mccarthy, in essence, was right. both roosevelt's and truman's administrations had paid soviet agents at the highest levels and refuse to hear anyone who tried to bring to their attention the possibility of such ties.
for another perspective on this much misunderstood period in american politics, i recommend "treason" by ann coulter.

Lewis L. Gould - 4/28/2003

For those of us who were in graduate school in the early 1960s, the discussion of agrarians and anti-Semitism brings back historiographical memories. Before this discussion goes further, it might be well for everyone to refresh their mastery of such works as Norman Pollack, "The Myth of Populist Anti-Semitism," American Historical Review, 68(October, 1962): 76-80, Walter T.K. Nugent, The Tolerant Populists (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), and Theodore Salutos, "The Professors and the Populists," Agricultural History, 40(October, 1966): 235-254. Richard Hofstader's Age of Reform (1955)was and is a great book, but the link between Populism and anti-Semitism was not one of its strongest arguments.

Charles V. Mutschler - 4/28/2003

A good example of this agrarian anti-semitism preserved in fiction appears in Frank Norris's *The Octopus.* in the character of S. Behrman, the local agent for the railroad.


William H. Lec kie, Jr. - 4/28/2003

Mr. Moser's essay and the comments that followed are intriguing, but what strikes me about the rhetoric of the antiwar movement is that it describes quite open policies of the administration to do exactly what the movement claims.

John Moser - 4/27/2003

I was reading a comment on another of this week's articles, and it brought up some of the points of comparison between those who were opposed to the Iraq war and the America Firsters of 1940-41. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit (given that the anti-interventionist movement is one of my primary research interests) that when I originally wrote this article I failed to pick up on another relevant point--virtually all of the McCarthyites of the early 1950s were also involved in the fight against U.S. intervention in World War II. In fact, many of them seriously entertained the conspiracy theory that claimed FDR knew in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack. This isn't too far off from some of the claims I've seen made on HNN in recent weeks.

John Moser - 4/27/2003

Ultimately I suppose it depends on how one defines "liberal" or "leftist," but anti-semitism was a staple of the agrarian populist movement of the late 19th century.

Suetonius - 4/26/2003

The idea here is that the most extreme of the opponents of Israel's policies towards the Palestinians have adopted basically anti-semitic slogans (i.e. failing to distinguish between a government and a people).

At the same time, there has been a move by some conservative pro-Israeli groups to label those who are the most extreme in their hatred for the Israeli policies towards the Palestinians as anti-semites, in an equally dangerous bid to confuse a government with a people.

dan - 4/26/2003

Since when has anti-Semitism been "liberal" or "leftist?"

Kenneth Gregg - 4/24/2003

I appreciate many of the distinctions that you have identified in your article. Certainly conservativism during the '40's and '50's was a rather disparate group, coming from parts of the left that had, in effect, been excommunicated from the mainstream of the left. Here, I would identify three fairly distinct groups: 1) Cleveland Democrats (supporters of "hard money", i.e., gold, pro-free trade, pro-free-market) who had lost their base within the Democratic Party with the rise of FDR; 2) classical liberals/libertarians who were generally regarded as part of the left until they came out forthrightly against the Soviet regime in Russia (they supported much of the efforts in the Russian Revolution in its early days, particularly when the Mensheviks had a dominating position); 3) ex-trotskyites (which one can follow forward in time to the neocons who largely dominate the conservative movement today) who were opposed to the Stalinists.
Each of these groups allied with traditionalists into the "conservative movement". Very largely, these groups were not supportive of McCarthy's efforts. For example, Frank Chodorov, one of the leading lights of the libertarian wing amongst the conservatives, regarded McCarthy and his supporters as foolish in the policy. "You can't get rid of the communists in government, it's their natural breeding ground!" as he once said.
Many of the current libertarians are currently part of the antiwar movement (just a quick viewing of antiwar.com and lewrockwell.com gives you a feel for their position regarding the current foreign policy).
Just a thought.
Ken Gregg

Stephen Tootle - 4/24/2003

I should have said conservatism "should," but we are talking about ideals. I am going to stick with my assertion that McCarthyism is not in keeping with the values of conservatism. Sometimes Liberals aren't so liberal. Sometimes Conservatives aren't so conservative. That doesn't taint the ideal. "An American conservative seeks to preserve the founding values" is not pep rally sloganeering. I am describing the one of the most commonly-stated ideals of conservatism.
The more important point regarding the relationship between McCarthyism and Anticommunism is that not all anticommunists were McCarthyites. Think of the difference between Nixon and McCarthy. Eisenhower drew a sharp distinction between those two. Perhaps we should too.

Derek Catsam - 4/24/2003

Steve --
I think it's disingenuous to say that anticommunism and McCarthyism are entirely different things, that the lines are/were not permeable or fungible. McCarthyism was a virulent form of anticommunism, a dangerous and un-American campaign of character assassination and smearing that violated most of the liberties America was supposed to be able to trump as representing our superiority over those communists. It was destroying the village in order to save it.
I find it even more incredulous to assert that McCarthyism was in no way conservative. "An American conservative seeks to preserve the founding values" is history by sloganeering, which is great at a pep rally, but not so good analytically. There are unseemly episodes in the history of conservatism that do not exactly preserve the values of the founders (values, by the way, that included preventing women from voting and maintaining chatttel slavery, but no matter) just as there are unseemly episodes in the history of liberalism that are not at first blush so liberal. It might be nice and self-congratulatory for the right to define away things like McCarthyism, but I am not certain that it reflects reality. It definitely does not do a lot of justice to the complexities of history.

Stephen Tootle - 4/24/2003

Could we all agree that Anticommunism and McCarthyism were two different things? I would also argue that the former was conservative, the latter was not. An American conservative seeks to preserve the founding values.
The Republicans announced their campaign strategy of liberty over socialism on February 7 (If memory serves me, correct me if I am wrong). McCarthy's speech came two days later. The Wheeling speech should probably be characterized as a clumsy attempt to fit into the larger strategy of the Republicans during the election season. Further, many Republicans had decided to "take off the gloves in the next election" after Truman's charges (comparing Dewey to Hitler) in the 1948 campaign. Also interesting to note: Truman gave his craziest speeches to audiences that would later support McCarthy. They were people who feared totalitarianism, in any form.

Derek Catsam - 4/24/2003

Organized labor took pains to do so, and yet still there were some communists in organized labor. Ditto the CRM. Paul Robeson, sadly, was a communist. But he also was heroically committed to the civil rights movement. As a black man, should he not have been committed to the latter? Furthermore, is it impossible to believe that for a black person growing up under Jim Crow, capitalist democracy might just have seemed a failure and communism a panacea? I am not justifying communism, but simply saying that the American system had failed almost three and a half full centuries of blacks by WWII. For me it is remarkable that so many still supported the "Double V" at all.
By the way -- given that you used the plural of communist, you are being disingenuous when you hint that you could have been referring to a single communist inflitrating the CRM. But in any case, apparently communists are not entitled to racial justice.

John Moser - 4/24/2003

Apparently Mr. Catsam has some numerical distinction in mind. How many "infiltrators" does it take to make a movement "rife with commies"? It only takes one to infiltrate--I never claimed that communists actually controlled the movement. It simply would have been better had they been kept out altogether, as organized labor took pains to do.

Derek Catsam - 4/24/2003

Communists certainly did not "infiltrate the civil rights movement" in any substantial way. Were there some communists and com-sympths? Yes. But to hint that the movement was rife with commies is factually wrong, interpretively vacuous, and intellectually without merit.

John Moser - 4/24/2003

I thank Mr. Heuisler for his kind remarks. I agree that the Venona transcripts reveal that the presence of Soviet agents at very high levels in the Federal Government wasn't merely a paranoid fantasy.

However, I reject the notion that "Taft and Eisenhower might have better served the US if they had payed more attention to McCarthy's accusations." McCarthy might have been saying some of the right things, but his process was extremely sloppy, and the specific substance of his accusations reckless. If he occasionally managed to reveal a communist, it was more by accident than anything else.

Indeed, I am inclined to agree with the assessment of Richard Gid Powers, whose book _Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism_ I heartily recommend to anyone interested in this subject. Powers suggests that through his reckless accusations and his bullying demeanor, McCarthy ended up discrediting even responsible anticommunism. The result was that when communists began to re-infiltrate American society (as was certainly the case with the civil rights and antiwar movements) anyone who dared point this out was immediately dismissed as a "McCarthyite" and not taken seriously.

Scrooge - 4/24/2003

Maybe not to the right of Attila, but as long as you're "right" enough to regard John McCain and anyone else who dissents from George W. Bush as a Stalinist, who cares how the elitist academics might classify you.

Bill Heuisler - 4/23/2003

Professor Moser,
You've written an excellent and entertaining article. Most of the major espionage coups took place under Roosevelt with the Rosenbergs, Hiss and Oppenheimer (imagine Stalin without the bomb...or Yalta without Alger). But your mentioning how Taft and Eisenhower didn't restrain McCarthy made me wonder how things would've been different if they'd supported him.

Were there any major spy undertakings that began under Ike? I'm drawing a blank, but - in light of the Venona revelations - Taft and Eisenhower might have better served the US if they had payed more attention to McCarthy's accusations.
Bill Heuisler

John Moser - 4/23/2003

Mr. Lee is correct, but "apparent chaos" pretty well describes the extreme anticommunists of the late 1940s. The "method" appeared when a few prominent Republicans were willing to take up their cause, driven by a need for a campaign issue that would rescue them from twenty years in the political wilderness. Today it is the Democrats who appear to be in that wilderness.

Moreover, this sort of theorizing (if you can call it that) is not limited to "a bunch of young people just want to go outside in the sun and shout a bit." One finds a strong dose of it on this web site, sometimes from academics who ought to know better.

Frank Lee - 4/23/2003

Conspiracy theorizing is as American as Apple Pie. The Sons of Liberty were well acquainted with it as were the Progressives 130 years later. This article illustrates the tendency by showing how vague innuendo is used to posit method behind apparent chaos (e.g.
in the "anti-war movement"). That a bunch of young people just want to go outside in the sun and shout a bit would be too simple an explanation, not conspiratorial, not McCarthyistic enough.