What Was McCarthyism

McCarthyism has been and will always be a provocative topic in American life. The opening of Soviet archives containing CPUSA documents and NSA’s declassification the Venona decrypts, forced historians and political observers to reassess our understanding of the American Communist movement, Soviet espionage, anti-communism, and consequently McCarthyism. The goal of this essay is to look back at what McCarthyism was and was not, and how those on the left and the right distort it.

A quick aside:
I used many of these documents in my biography of Albert Blumberg, the head of the Maryland CPUSA in the 1930s-1940s. If you are interested in reading it please email me and I can send you a copy.

The reassessment has produced great historical works such as those from John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr’s Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage, Allen Weinstein’s The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America–The Stalin Era, and locally Vernon Pederson’s The Maryland Communist Party:1919-1957.

And some unbelievably bad histories from both the right and the left; Ann Coulter’s Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terror, being the most notable, and Ellen Shrecker’s Cold War Triumphalism: Exposing the Misuse of History after the Fall of Communism.

Coulter’s argument takes her rehabilitation of McCarthy far past what the historical evidence provides. Not withstanding the areas where McCarthy has been vindicated, No one seriously believes Coulter’s defense of McCarthy’s contention that Harry Truman, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson were part of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men…”

In fact, Ellen Shrecker argues, from the left, that Truman et al were more dangerous than McCarthy was. So what does that say about Coulter’s terrible argument.

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Don’t get me wrong, Shrecker is just as bad as Coulter. Shrecker is the foremost anti anti-communist scholar in academia. So much so that she has found the most novel ways to twist truth and apologize for Stalinism and American communist spies. Speaking of traitors like the Rosenbergs. Shrecker writes in her book “they did so for political, not pecuniary reasons… As communists these people did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism; they were internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national boundaries. They thought they were ‘building… a better worlds for the masses,’ not betraying their country.”

M. Stanton Evans has new book on McCarthy, Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies, which is sure to stir the pot even more. I have not read it yet so I cannot comment on it.

However, what the ongoing reassessment has done is shift the focus from the early 1950s to the 1930s when Soviet communism had its greatest sway over American intellectuals, activists, and politicians. Obviously, the Great Depression had an enormous effect on those who turned to communism, or became fellow travelers; and some who after a short dalliance with communism turned to the right. This included many of the initial New Deal brain trust folks like Rexford Tugwell, and Stuart Chase; intellectuals like Edmund Wilson, Bertrand Russell Sydney Hook, Frank Meyer, Irving Kristol; and writers like Whittaker Chambers, Lionel Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, and Dalton Trumbo.

After 1936, the truth about the horrors of Stalinism (The Great Terror and the purges) was there for all to see. Despite what they knew, some of these folks willfully sided with Stalin and portrayed the Soviet Union as the wave of the future. Lincoln Steffens returned the United States from a junket in the Soviet Union and said, “I have seen the future and it works,” Stuart Chase’s conclusion in his book that gave the New Deal its moniker was, “why should Russians have all the fun remaking a world?” Lillian Hellman and her lover Hammett along with Dalton Trumbo led the Stalinist charge in Hollywood. Make no mistake, the Hollywood Ten, were not innocent liberal martyrs they were, indeed the most ardent of Stalinists and practiced it against their own. Just ask Albert Maltz. Maltz was a communist screenwriter who dared praise the writing qualities of a Trotskyite author, in communist journal New Masses. Whittaker Chambers was editor of New Masses at one point. His Hollywood comrades subjected him to a most cruel self incrimination/confession. In order to save himself from expulsion from the party, he published a humiliating retraction in New Masses.

Some intellectuals went beyond bleating for the communist wave of the future and actively assisted the Soviet intelligence services. Alger Hiss was an agent of the GRU (Soviet military intelligence, not the KGB); Whitaker Chambers served the American CP underground as a courier for Hiss’ stolen documents. The Silvermaster Group, the Ware Group and the Perlo Group were all composed of New Deal intellectuals/officials who provided classified US government information to the Soviets, Shrecker’s so-called non-traditional patriots.

Some intellectuals, once they realized the horrors of Stalinism and the totalitarian nightmare of the Soviet Union, broke with communism and became leaders in the anti-Stalinist left like Bertrand Russell, Sydney Hook and Lionel Trilling.

Others, like Whittaker Chambers, Frank Meyer and Irving Kristol found themselves on the nascent American right, and obviously anti-communists.

The disaffection with communism/Stalinism/Soviet Union came at different times for all of these folks, both left and right. For some like Chambers it came when he realized the horrors of Stalin’s purges, for others it was the Soviet alliance with Hitler, and many more left after Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress. It should be noted that Khrushchev denounced Stalin in part to consolidate his own power and to hide his own culpability as on of Stalin’s chief henchmen in the Great Terror.

So what does this have to do with McCarthyism? Well given the hysteria of the era and some contemporary writers (Coulter), it is important to draw serious distinctions between those who were at one time, drawn to communism and saw the light versus those who knew the truth and kept the faith, and even engaged in acts of treason in fulfilling that faith.

Anti-communism was a noble cause. I say that with one caveat; Joseph McCarthy, despite the fact that in a vaguely general sense, he was correct, did nothing to help the anti-communist cause, and in fact did much to hurt it. No less than Whittaker Chambers himself denounced McCarthy for doing so.

How is this so? McCarthy appeared on the scene in 1950, well after the early Cold War spy cases (Amerasia, Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs), after the defections of Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, and after the Truman administration had begun its security program to oust spies and communists from the federal government. The great majority of the actual communists and spies McCarthy accused had already been revealed or neutralized, BEFORE McCarthy made his speech in Wheeling West Virginia.

McCarthy made no such distinctions between those who had at one time been communists and left the party and those who stayed and engaged in espionage for example, James Wechsler. McCarthy defenders like Coulter fail to make these distinctions as well and their arguments, part of which I agree with, are problematic and become diluted for this very important reason. Former communists Ron Radosh and David Horowitz make this same point. Horowitz’s critical review of Coulter, The Trouble with Treason, is perhaps the best explication of why such distinctions are important and that cheap political satire, in this case cannot substitute for sound historical analysis.

McCarthy was, in the words of the pre-eminent scholar of Soviet espionage, John Earl Haynes, “a minor devil.”

As bad for anti-communism as Coulter and her idol McCarthy were; the progressive left has used McCarthy to distort and demonize the cause in a far worse manner.

When someone points out the now conclusive fact of American communist espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, or the CPUSA’s complicity in Stalinist atrocities: the left responds with the epithet “McCarthyism.” The left uses this reflexive response in utter ignorance of the historical record, and as a means to demonize the messenger and distract from the truth. Polemical screeds masked as scholarship pollute the historiography of the subject, and our political discourse.

The left uses McCarthyism in three very deceptive ways. They use McCarthyism to protect the reputation of, and cover up for those who were indeed guilty of supporting or spying for Stalin. Why bother in undertaking the task of defending the indefensible when you can demonize your opponent as McCarthyite. Second, the left used McCarthyism to slander anti-communism as a whole. By that, I mean they used it to discredit the liberal anti-communist consensus that drove American Cold War foreign policy, and used McCarthyism to condemn the American constitutional order itself. The New Left consistently used McCarthyism against “the system” in the Sixties. Lastly the left uses McCarthyism to draw dangerous moral equivalencies between the Soviet Union and the United States. I cannot count the times I have sat in graduate school classes with colleagues, debated people, or read books by people who compared the McCarthy era to Stalin’s terror. I will concede the point that McCarthy ruined the lives of some innocent people and tarnished the reputation of honorable patriotic public servants like Truman, Marshall and Acheson. However, to compare that to the genocide and political terror committed by a man and a regime that murdered more people than the Nazis; is the height of intellectual dishonesty.

Like McCarthy himself, the many on the left make no distinctions between McCarthy’s callous regard for the truth and the actual security threats of the Soviet Union itself and its American sympathizers and spies posed to the United States. The Soviets even had their own presidential candidate in Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Communist Political Association (CPA), the new name of the CPUSA following its reorganization as ordered by Stalin. Here in Maryland, Albert Blumberg ran the Progressive Party apparatus on behalf of the CPA.

We must be wary of any use of the term “McCarthyism” because most of the time, it is used in ignorance of what it was and what is was not by those on the left and the right.

Unscrupulous commentators on the right use it to bludgeon the honorable legacy of what the Democratic Party used to be. They should know better.

Many on left, use McCarthyism to defend and apologize for a murderous totalitarian regime and the American traitors who supported it, and to demonize noble cause of anti-communism and American efforts to in pursuit of that cause.

crossposted on The Main Adversary

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