Lessons Learned (And Not Learned) from McCarthyism

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Ms. Rosen is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and former Professor of History at the University of California Davis.

McCARTHYISM. The very word conjures up the image of someone using smear tactics to question a person's patriotism and to silence dissent. Could such political persecution happen again in our country?

That is the question some Americans pondered last week when the U.S. Senate unsealed 4,000 pages of transcripts from secret sessions held by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953-54. He used these closed hearings to weed out witnesses who refused to be intimidated and as dress rehearsals for public hearings.

What are the lessons to be learned from this poisonous period in our nation's past?

One is how quickly our fragile freedoms can be eroded. McCarthy rose to power in 1950 on a tsunami of anti-communist hysteria, brandishing a list of "known communists" in the State Department, and held public trials to enhance his own political clout. He fell from power only when his attacks against the U.S. Army -- broadcast to millions of Americans in their living rooms -- exposed his indecent persecution of innocent people. The Senate censured him in December 1954. Discredited and disgraced, he died three years later, at age 47.

Nevertheless, his influence lasted for more than a decade. Loyalty oaths, indictments and blacklists destroyed the reputations and careers of thousands of innocent people. Fear of internal sabotage and infiltration of all institutions crushed dissent. A pervasive atmosphere of fear quarantined permissible debate.

Anti-communism, in short, turned into a political weapon. In his splendid "Story of American Freedom," historian Eric Foner reminds us that "Anti- communism became a tool wielded by white supremacists against black civil rights, employers against unions, and upholders of sexual morality and traditional gender roles against homosexuality. . .." It was, he writes, "an inauspicious time to raise questions about the imperfections of American freedom."

Another lesson is that most official secrets and lies eventually see the light of day. Some repentant former official writes a revelatory memoir. A new administration opens up the archives and historians and journalists excavate deeply buried secrets. It only took days, for example, for the world to learn that Secretary of State Colin Powell had received forged and faked evidence when he made his case for war in Iraq at the U.N. Security Council.

The Bush administration, infamous for its excessive secrecy, should take this caveat to heart. Attorney General John Ashcroft has encouraged federal agencies to reject Freedom of Information Act requests; President Bush has illegally sealed the papers of former presidents; and the USA Patriot Act has expanded government surveillance powers and trampled upon the privacy rights of American citizens.

Could the chill of fear that froze political debate in the 1950s occur again? In an interview with National Public Radio, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., says, "History is a powerful teacher . . . I think there's greater awareness of McCarthyism and there's greater resistance against those who would try to still voices that they disagree with."

He's partly right. As of last week, more than 100 communities had passed resolutions against cooperating with the USA Patriot Act. San Mateo and Marin counties, as well as the city of Sausalito, recently added their names to the growing list. Librarians in Santa Cruz and other communities, moreover, are shredding the library-use records of their patrons, rather than give them up to John Ashcroft.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who initiated the release of the transcripts, thinks the newly released McCarthy papers provide a timely reminder of the danger posed by fear itself. "We hope that the excesses of McCarthyism will serve as a cautionary tale for future generations."

But Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the only senator who voted against the USA Patriot Act, is far more pessimistic. In an interview with NPR, he warns that "This is a dark hour for civil liberties in America. What I'm hearing from Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, South Asians and others, suggests a climate of fear toward our government that is unprecedented."

Last lesson to be learned: Never take civil rights and liberties for granted. Freedom, as it turns out, requires constant struggle, not only on the battlefield, but here at home as well.

This article was first published by the San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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More Comments:

Michael Pugliese - 6/26/2003

Comment removed.

Les Milton - 6/1/2003

Just to play devil's advocate, Mr. Heuisler...

What does 9/11 have to do with Iraq? What does Iraq's invasion of Kuwait 12 years ago have to do with Iraq today (or prior to our most recent invasion)? How does Orlando Bosch (noted Cuban terrorist) get to live in the U.S. for well over 10 years? Does it matter that the Al Queda training camps were located in a part of Iraq that Sadaam Hussein didn't control?

Bill Heuisler - 5/29/2003

Mr. Lee,
Spouting misinformation about my country annoys me, yes, but it also makes you seem a foolish, purblind ideologue. Has it slipped your mind that HNN is a history site?

You wrote about the US, "for the first time in its history, playing the role of unprovoked and hypocritically arrogant aggressor." Totally wrong. Were you referring to Haiti? Mexico? The Philippines? Maybe Bosnia? Kosovo? No. Just an awkwardly unsophisticated remark made for political purposes to impress giggling sophomores. Grow up and get your facts straight.

Have you forgotten 9/11? Does Hussein's invasion of Kuwait ring a bell? How did Abu Nidal get to live in Baghdad for ten years? Why were those Al Queda training camps in Northern Iraq? Never mind. Don't let history get in the way of anti-Bush cheap shots.
Bill Heuisler

Stephen Kriz - 5/27/2003

What do you call an Administration that violates all of the norms of international law to attack a country without provocation?
What do you call an Administration that holds American citizens (Jose Padilla) without charging them with a crime or allowing them to see an attorney and denies them the right to a speedy trial?
What do you call an Administration that wants the right to search your home without a warrant, review which books you check out of the library or which sites you visit on the Internet?

I have a name for an Administration like that - FASCIST!!!!

Frank Lee - 5/26/2003

The trouble is we have a pretend President who is both a dry drunk AND a traitor to American principles. The real powers behind him are following a script that could have been written by Bin Laden: endless, purposeless war, with America, for the first time in its history, playing the role of unprovoked and hypocritically arrogant aggressor. On this Memorial Day we can at least remember the real American heroes who died for what this country was, before Cheney and his corrupt crooks got their paws on the levers of power.

AnotherNYGuy - 5/25/2003

You seem to believe that anyone to the right of you is a fascist. What a shame!

Frank Wood - 5/24/2003

I understand that some papers of Franklin Roosevelt were classified in perpetuity by Harry Truman. The fact that they continue to be so classified after over 50 years is in fact a matter in a lawsuit pending against the Federal government. Would Ms. Rosen care to comment on the damage done to American democracy by Roosevelt and Truman -- or is it only conservative Republicans who are capable of inflicting such damage.

Herodotus - 5/23/2003

You persist in this vacant notion that there are 'facists' in the government. Keep at it. Someone might humor you.

Stephen Kriz - 5/23/2003

And there are fascists in our government now, but you don't seem too concerned about that....

Steven Uanna - 5/22/2003

The way the Eisenhower Administration responded to McCarthy's charges of Communist influence in the U.S. State Department promped the cover story in the old "REPORTER" magazine entitled "Big Brother in Foggy Bottom". What no one knew at the time was that the way in which Executive Order 10450 was being carried out was probably not the way that the man who was responsible for it and the government's "EVALUATORS HANDBOOK" intended. That man was William L."Bud" Uanna, a Stevenson Democrat. The loyalty oath that employees were forced to sign in accordance with E.O. 10450 was very similar to Truamn's E.O. 9835 and asked the employee if they were a member of a Communist, Fascist or other organization that sought to take away someones rightds that were guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States. State Department security officer Otto Otepka, who I suspect will be mentioned in the recently released McCarthy transcripts, was the head of the EVALUATIONS DIVISION at the State Department. He would never get past the Communist part of the loyalty question mentioned above. Years later he would claim that he wrote the "Book" at State Department on security but as you can see in my web site it was Bud Uanna. Bud Uanna had a varied and exciting career, he had degrees in Engineering, Education and Law. Entering the Army Counter Intelligence Corps right before WW II he set up the first intelligence units with the troops. He was the main security officer on the Manhattan Project and was for a time the Intelligence Officer to the Secretary of War. Contrary to the "Official" history of the Manhattan Project, it was not General Leslie Groves but Bud Uanna who was the driving force behind the Project. If there is any doubt about it should be dispelled by his next position, As the first chief of personnel clearance at the Atomic Energy Commission he transferring the Manhattan Project's civilian, military and industrial contractors to the newly created Atomic Energy Commission. Bud Uanna oversaw the construction of the storage bases for the U.S. atomic arsenal in the late 1940's while we still had the atomic monopoly. Next at the CIA he helped create the Office of Policy Coordination, the cover action branch of the government. At Commerce Department and during the Korean War he chaired the Facilities Protection Board which was responsible for the security of the nations industries and utilities. He was involved in the nations Civil Defense structure and "Internal Security", something the Homeland Security Department may want to revisit. Coming to the State Department in late 1953 on a temporary position he set up the Evaluations Division. But Otto Otepka carried it out. Then he became the Chief of the Division of Physical Security with direct responsibility for the Secretary of State, all State personnel and facilities and all visiting foreign dignitaries. He personally escorted all the VIP's of the 1950's like Queen Elizabeth and Khruschev. He was a member of the NSC's Special Committee(where the most secret plans originate) and rubbed shoulders with Sheffield Edwards (best remembered for enlisting the mafia to kill Fidel Castro) and Edward Lansdale (one of the prime suspects in the conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy). He was exiled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in Nov. 1958. He died there mysteriously on December 22, 1961, right at the time JFK fired Allen Dulles and two of his deputies for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Although Bud Uanna has been mentioned in numerous newspaper and magazine articles and has been portrayed in two movie, James Whitmore played him in the 1952 movie ABOVE AND BEYOND and Stephen Macht played him in the 1980 movie ENOLA GAY, most people are unaware of his role in U.S. history. That is not by accident. The movie Enola Gay said that he was murdered in Africa and all records pertaining to his death have dissippeared. The source of this information? Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay. The official cause of his death is "heart attack", that is what the U.S. State Department says. To see the REPORTER cover "Big Brother at Foggy Bottom", a picture of Bud Uanna "body guarding" John Foster Dulles, more information about E.O. 9835, E.O. 10450 and E.O. 10501 plus an important clue in in the Kennedy assassination. Visit http://www.securitysuperchief.com Thank you, Steven Uanna

AnotherNYGuy - 5/22/2003

Just like a liberal to smear our leaders by calling them "worse than McCarthy." McCarthy used the wrong tactics, but there were communists in our government. The Venona Report proved that.

Herodotus - 5/22/2003

Boy you really are out of it. But it's fun to watch.

Stephen Kriz - 5/22/2003

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their corrupt administration are far worse than McCarthy. McCarthy was a paper tiger, who made a lot of noise and did little long-term damage to the country. Bush/Cheney, on the other hand, have done grievious damage to so many different areas it is hard to keep track of them all: Our international relations, the economy, civil rights, the environment, racial diversity, nuclear proliferation are all significantly worse as a result of the misdeeds and lack of responsible governance of these two losers. McCarthy may have ruined the lives of a few hundred people (which is unconscionable), but Bush/Cheney are ruining the lives of millions of people, not to mention the thousands of innocent people who have lost their lives as a result of these misguided men.

These two convicted drunk drivers have driven the U.S. right into the ditch and the car is on fire. They are a catastrophe for both the United States and the world in general.

Herodotus - 5/21/2003

um, well, just someone who is ending a silly thread.

Jeff Danfield - 5/21/2003

And what is someone who replies to a reply not worth replying to ?

Bill Heuisler - 5/21/2003

Mr. Lee,
Calling people clowns convinces no one. And when you defend Dr. Rosen with affected nonsense like,
"What Rosen writes may be incomplete. It is not ambiguous or "selective".. Let the chips fall where they may or take your propaganda elsewhere."
...you reveal only raw and untutored prejudice.

Selective? Most educated Americans have seen excerpts of the voluminous Venona papers. Most of these Americans now know men like Hiss, Oppenheimer and Dexter White - defended to the end by Liberals like Dr. Rosen - were agents recruited by the GRU or KGB. Rosen ignored this very obvious fact. Why? Condescension to HNN readers, or blind adherance to wishful Leftist cant?

New information? We all know McCarthy, an unpopular drunk - his own worst enemy - but we also know he was trying to protect his country against a very real enemy. Rosen failed to mention other clear evidence from "other recently discovered papers" (Venona)that most of the people McCarthy bullied were in fact Communists working for the Soviet Union against the US.

In the warped demi-world of Lee/Rosen it's apparently worse to get drunk, raise uncivilized Hell and bully traitors than to actually betray your country to Stalin.
Bill Heuisler

Bob Greene - 5/21/2003

Can you not think of some new post to attack Herodotous with. This same diatribe is getting a little stale.

Thomas Hagedorn - 5/20/2003

I, like Ms. Rosen, am concerned with suppression of dissent. As a scholar, I propose we show good example by starting on college campuses. Heavy-handed freshmen orientations, speach codes, all too-frequent destruction of conservative, alternative campus papers, the withdrawal of speach invitations to conservatives...let's eliminate all this activity and we can show how we honor dissent from orthodoxy. What do you think?

Herodotus - 5/20/2003

This post is not worth a reply.

Frank Lee - 5/20/2003

"Herod" the king of clowns confuses "posit" with "posture". What Rosen writes may be incomplete. It is not ambiguous or "selective".. Let the chips fall where they may or take your propaganda elsewhere.

NYGuy - 5/19/2003

Herodotus great going, four for four. The play book is always the same, start with some type of introduction and then cheapen the author and insult the audience by betraying a small angry mind. Keep up the good work. Maybe someday we will get some respectable writing on history, not a diatribe by politically motivated hacks.

NYGuy - 5/19/2003

Herodotus great going, four for four. The play book is always the same, start with some type of introduction and then cheapen the author and insult the audience by betraying a small angry mind. Keep up the good work. Maybe someday we will get some respectable writing on history, not a diatribe by politically motivated hacks.

Herodotous - 5/19/2003

I would have appreciated Ms. Rosen including, after her paragraph about how

"Another lesson is that most official secrets and lies eventually see the light of day. "

the fact that it is well understood now by historians that one of the reasons the Eisenhower administration couldn't rein in McCarthy earlier was that the evidence required to show his lies was itself classified--highly classified. The Venona intercepts had made it possible for the administration to know quite a few of the Soviet spies in the government, and McCarthy didn't have the names right. But revealing the information in order to shut McCarthy up, which Eisenhower surely would have wanted to do, would have tipped the Soviets off to the fact that this information was in the hands of the United States.

But I will posit that either Rosen didn't know this, or she's interested in a selective reading of the past in order to bolster her own contemporary beliefs about this administration, not the Eisenhower one. By shaping the truth in this way, she does her readers a disservice.