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John Simkin

Interpretations: McCarthyism

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With the release of Good Night, and Good Luck, it might be worth considering an interpretation exercise on McCarthyism.

For example, I have included a review of the film from the Irish Times and my own comments on the film and article.

Kevin Myers, The Irish Times (22nd March, 2006)

We are all familiar with the McCarthyite witch-hunts behind the George Clooney film, Good Night and Good Luck. They are a salutary tale of how one evil man, Senator Joe McCarthy, set about the destruction of liberalism in the US in an insane search for wholly imaginary communist subversives, using the hilariously named House Un-American Activities Committee.

His hysterical campaign - amongst other things - ruined the careers of 10 innocent Hollywood screenwriters, and the lunacy was finally brought to an end by the one man who was brave enough to stand up to McCarthy: the broadcaster Ed Murrow.

I guess we could all pass an exam on that one - but what we'd be passing would not be a test of our knowledge of history but of liberal mythology.

For Senator McCarthy had nothing to do with the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was a senator, not a member of the House of Representatives, and the HUAC was first formed in 1938, when he was still an unsuccessful lawyer. And he was right. There was a major communist conspiracy to overthrow the US government, with the Hollywood Ten being an extended part of that conspiracy. And the man really responsible for ending McCarthy's campaign wasn't a journalist, but President Eisenhower.

In 1943, a far-sighted soldier, Colonel Carter Clarke, head of army special branch, hearing reports of a possible separate peace between the USSR and Nazi Germany, ordered an analysis of Soviet diplomatic signals between the US and Moscow to check for such a possibility. Soviet codes depended on a complex ciphering system, involving a "one-time pad", which their authors thought impenetrable. However, US codebreakers managed finally to break it, and the resulting product was known as "Venona". It caused a sensation within American intelligence circles.

Far from diplomats sending coded traffic to the People's Commissariat of Foreign Affairs in Moscow over any Nazi-USSR détente, they were actually sending vast amounts of intelligence material from trained field officers to General Pavel Finn, head of the KGB foreign desk. In 1944, one of the first telegrams to be broken revealed, terrifyingly, that Soviet spies had even penetrated Project Manhattan, the programme to make an atom bomb. By 1948, and just from the small proportion of Soviet material which cryptanalysts had been able to break, US intelligence had identified 349 US spies working for the Soviet Union.

They were everywhere. Harry White, the second most powerful figure in the US Treasury, architect of the Bretton Woods Agreement, and founder-member of the US delegation at the UN, was one. Lauchlin Currie, a trusted aide to President Roosevelt, was one. Maurice Halpern, head of project-research at the Office of Strategic Studies (forerunner to the CIA) was one. William Perle, running the main US jet-engine development project, was one.

Laurence Duggan, a top man at State and the main foreign policy adviser to the vice-president, was one. David Greenglass, Klaus Fuchs and Julius Rosenberg, all nuclear scientists at Los Alamos, were ones. Judith Coplon, senior FBI admin officer controlling the bureau's counter-espionage files, was one. And Gregory Silvermaster was both senior government economist and a spymaster running an entire network of communist agents at every level of government.

That was bad. Worse, how many more were there? For it was true. There really were reds under the beds - and not nice reds who thought we should all live in peace and harmony, but loyal servants of Stalin, eager to impose his state terrorism around the world. With them installed in the heart of US government and of defence, the Soviet Union had been confident enough to go on the global offensive. Post-1945, and Eastern European countries fell one by one to communist parties, communist insurgents began wars in Vietnam and Malaya, and by 1949 were victorious in China, the same year the Soviet Union detonated an exact copy of the US Fat Boy atom bomb.

The next year, North Korea attacked South Korea, nearly consuming it, and the US nuclear threat, which might have deterred that invasion, had been neutralised by the Los Alamos spies.

In other words, in essence, Joe McCarthy was right. He brought the appalling truth to the attention of the people of the US. However, he was also a drunken demagogue and a xxxx, and often and easily ran out of control. Nonetheless, utterly unlike Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs or the Hollywood Ten, he was, roughly, on the side of democracy. And in the end he was defeated by democratic means which he had himself defended - the institutions of the USA.

Three months before Ed Murrow had even begun his television criticism of McCarthy, President Eisenhower authorised the US army (which of course 10 years before, had first discovered the level of the internal communist threat) to start its own major criticisms of McCarthy and his campaign. But of course, "liberal" Hollywood today would never make a film in which Eisenhower and the US army are seen to defend democracy, so the hero of Goodnight has to belong to the golden media classes. Meanwhile, the knife in McCarthy's reputation is twisted by calling him an anti-Semite - though this disingenuously conceals the unhappy truth that the vast majority of Soviet agents in the US were Jewish.

Moreover, we know this. Had the Hollywood Ten been stooges of that infinitely less chic (and, as it happens, considerably less murderous) school of totalitarianism, fascism, liberal America at the time would have been shrilly demanding their eviction from Hollywood. And equally, they would not be martyrs of the silver screen today.

Review of the Review

For Senator McCarthy had nothing to do with the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was a senator, not a member of the House of Representatives, and the HUAC was first formed in 1938, when he was still an unsuccessful lawyer. (Kevin Myers, The Irish Times)

It is true that McCarthy was not a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The HUAC was originally established in 1937 under the chairmanship of Martin Dies. The main objective of the HUAC was the investigation of un-American and subversive activities.

After Martin Dies ceased being chairman of the HUAC in 1944 he was followed by Edward Hart (1945), John S. Wood (1945-46), John Parnell Thomas (1947-48), John S. Wood (1949-1952) and Harold Velde (1953-54). Other key figures on the HUCA included Francis Walter, John Rankin, Karl Mundt and Richard Nixon.

The connection between McCarthy and the HUAC was that he supplied them with information about left-wing political activists. Most of this information originally came from J. Edgar Hoover, although former members of the American Communist Party such as Whittaker Chambers, Louis Budenz and Nathaniel Weyl (a member of the Forum until his death in April, 2005) also provided him with information.

And he (McCarthy) was right. There was a major communist conspiracy to overthrow the US government, with the Hollywood Ten being an extended part of that conspiracy. (Kevin Myers, The Irish Times)

In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by J. Parnell Thomas, began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. The HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named nineteen people who they accused of holding left-wing views.

One of those named, Bertolt Brecht, an emigrant playwright, gave evidence and then left for East Germany. Ten others: Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie refused to answer any questions.

Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of congress and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison.

The reason they did not answer these questions was not because they were communist spies as Myers appears to be suggesting. If they were really involved in some sort of “communist conspiracy” they would have been charged with treason or spying. The only thing they had been guilty of was making films with a vaguely liberal message. Most of these films were made during the Second World War when it was acceptable to make anti-fascist films. This is not surprising when you consider that America was supposed to be fighting a war against fascism.

The reason they refused to answer questions was the HUAC was trying to get the Hollywood Ten to name fellow members of the American Communist Party in the 1930s. The HUAC already knew these names as the FBI had a large number of undercover agents in the ACP. In fact, William Sullivan, the FBI agent involved in this spy program, estimated that around 50% of the members were working for the FBI.

The whole idea was to get these former party members to betray their ideals by naming former comrades. They would then be blacklisted and have their careers ruined unless they also named names. The Hollywood Ten refused to do this and were therefore sent to prison.

They remained blacklisted until 1960 when Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay for the film Spartacus. Based on the novel by another left-wing blacklisted writer, Howard Fast, Spartacus is a film that examines the spirit of revolt. Trumbo refers back to his experiences of the HUAC. At the end, when the Romans finally defeat the rebellion, the captured slaves refuse to identify Spartacus. As a result, all are crucified.

In essence, Joe McCarthy was right. He brought the appalling truth to the attention of the people of the US. However, he was also a drunken demagogue and a xxxx, and often and easily ran out of control. (Kevin Myers, The Irish Times)

Joe McCarthy did not “bring the truth to the people of the US.” Nor did he do this as part of some “moral campaign”.

After the war McCarthy ran against Robert La Follette to become Republican candidate for the senate. As one of his biographers has pointed out, his campaign posters pictured him in "full fighting gear, with an aviator's cap, and belt upon belt of machine gun ammunition wrapped around his bulky torso." He claimed he had completed thirty-two missions when in fact he had a desk job and only flew in training exercises.

In his campaign, McCarthy attacked La Follette for not enlisting during the war. La Follette had been forty-six when Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and was in fact too old to join the armed services. McCarthy also claimed that La Follette had made huge profits from his investments while he had been away fighting for his country. The suggestion that La Follette had been guilty of war profiteering (his investments had in fact been in a radio station), was deeply damaging and McCarthy won by 207,935 to 202,557. La Follette, deeply hurt by the false claims made against him, retired from politics, and later committed suicide.

On his first day in the Senate, McCarthy called a press conference where he proposed a solution to a coal-strike that was taking place at the time. McCarthy called for John L. Lewis and the striking miners to be drafted into the Army. If the men still refused to mine the coal, McCarthy suggested they should be court-martialed for insubordination and shot.

McCarthy's first years in the Senate were unimpressive. People also started coming forward claiming that he had lied about his war record. Another problem for McCarthy was that he was being investigated for tax offences and for taking bribes from the Pepsi-Cola Company. In May, 1950, afraid that he would be defeated in the next election, McCarthy held a meeting with some of his closest advisers and asked for suggestions on how he could retain his seat. Edmund Walsh, a Roman Catholic priest, came up with the idea that he should begin a campaign against communist subversives working in the Democratic administration.

McCarthy also contacted his friend, the journalist, Jack Anderson. In his autobiography, Confessions of a Muckraker, Anderson pointed out: "At my prompting he (McCarthy) would phone fellow senators to ask what had transpired this morning behind closed doors or what strategy was planned for the morrow. While I listened in on an extension he would pump even a Robert Taft or a William Knowland with the handwritten questions I passed him."

In return, Anderson provided McCarthy with information about politicians and state officials he suspected of being "communists". Anderson later recalled that his decision to work with McCarthy "was almost automatic.. for one thing, I owed him; for another, he might be able to flesh out some of our inconclusive material, and if so, I would no doubt get the scoop." As a result Anderson passed on his file on the presidential aide, David Demarest Lloyd.

McCarthy also began receiving information from his friend, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). William Sullivan, one of Hoover's agents, later admitted that: "We were the ones who made the McCarthy hearings possible. We fed McCarthy all the material he was using."

On 9th February, 1950, McCarthy made a speech in Salt Lake City where he attacked Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, as "a pompous diplomat in striped pants". He claimed that he had a list of 57 people in the State Department that were known to be members of the American Communist Party. McCarthy went on to argue that some of these people were passing secret information to the Soviet Union. He added: "The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer - the finest homes, the finest college educations, and the finest jobs in Government we can give."

The list of names was not a secret and had been in fact published by the Secretary of State in 1946. These people had been identified during a preliminary screening of 3,000 federal employees. Some had been communists but others had been fascists, alcoholics and sexual deviants. As it happens, if McCarthy had been screened, his own drink problems and sexual preferences would have resulted in him being put on the list.

On 20th February McCarthy made a six hour speech on the Senate floor about how the Democratic administration had been infiltrated by communist subversives. McCarthy named four of these people, who had held left-wing views in their youth, but when Democrats accused McCarthy of smear tactics, he suggested they were part of this communist conspiracy. This claim was used against his critics who were up for re-election in 1950. Many of them lost and this made other Democrats reluctant to criticize McCarthy in case they became targets of his smear campaigns.

Drew Pearson immediately launched an attack on Joe McCarthy. He pointed out that only three people on the list were State Department officials. When this list was first published four years ago, Gustavo Duran and Mary Jane Keeney had both resigned from the State Department in 1946. The third person, John Service, had been cleared after a prolonged and careful investigation. Pearson also pointed out that none of these people had been members of the American Communist Party.

With the war going badly in Korea and communist advances in Eastern Europe and in China, the American public were genuinely frightened about the possibilities of internal subversion. McCarthy, as chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate, was in an ideal position to exploit this situation.

For the next two years McCarthy investigated various government departments and questioned a large number of people about their political past. Some people lost their jobs after they admitted they had been members of the Communist Party. McCarthy made it clear to the witnesses that the only way of showing that they had abandoned their left-wing views was by naming other members of the party.

This witch-hunt and anti-communist hysteria became known as McCarthyism. Some left-wing artists and intellectuals were unwilling to live in this type of society and people such as Joseph Losey, Richard Wright, Ollie Harrington, James Baldwin, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole and Chester Himes went to live and work in Europe.

The man really responsible for ending McCarthy's campaign wasn't a journalist, but President Eisenhower…. Three months before Ed Murrow had even begun his television criticism of McCarthy, President Eisenhower authorised the US army (which of course 10 years before, had first discovered the level of the internal communist threat) to start its own major criticisms of McCarthy and his campaign. But of course, "liberal" Hollywood today would never make a film in which Eisenhower and the US army are seen to defend democracy, so the hero of Goodnight has to belong to the golden media classes. (Kevin Myers, The Irish Times)

This is of course not true. President Eisenhower constantly refused to condemn the activities of Joe McCarthy. The reason being is that McCarthy was doing tremendous damage to the Democratic Party. The Harry Truman administration had not been infiltrated by “communists”. They were just liberals who believed the best way to defeat communism was to support democratically elected governments in the underdeveloped world. That is why Harry Truman and Dean Acheson rejected the United Fruit Company proposal to order the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected government in Guatemala in 1954. As soon as Eisenhower became president he ordered the CIA to carry out the coup. He did the same thing in Iran. McCarthy’s campaign to create mass hysteria concerning the communist threat, provided cover for Eisenhower’s new secret foreign policy (it was reported in Europe but the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird kept it from the American public).

If any one person should be credited with the destruction of McCarthy (McCarthyism survived until the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989) it is Drew Pearson. By the end of June, 1950, Drew Pearson had written more than forty daily columns and a significant percentage of his weekly radio broadcasts, that had been devoted to discrediting the charges made by Joseph McCarthy.

On 15th December, 1950, McCarthy made a speech in Congress where he claimed that Pearson was "the voice of international Communism" and "a Moscow-directed character assassin." McCarthy added that Pearson was "a prostitute of journalism" and that Pearson "and the Communist Party murdered James Forrestal in just as cold blood as though they had machine-gunned him."

Over the next two months McCarthy made seven Senate speeches on Drew Pearson. He called for a "patriotic boycott" of his radio show and as a result, Adam Hats, withdrew as Pearson's radio sponsor. Although he was able to make a series of short-term arrangements, Pearson was never again able to find a permanent sponsor. Twelve newspapers cancelled their contract with Pearson.

McCarthy and his friends also raised money to help Fred Napoleon Howser, the Attorney General of California, to sue Pearson for $350,000. This involved an incident in 1948 when Pearson accused Howser of consorting with mobsters and of taking a bribe from gambling interests. Help was also given to Father Charles Coughlin, who sued Pearson for $225,000. However, in 1951 the courts ruled that Pearson had not libeled either Howser or Coughlin.

Only the St. Louis Star-Times defended Pearson. As its editorial pointed out: "If Joseph McCarthy can silence a critic named Drew Pearson, simply by smearing him with the brush of Communist association, he can silence any other critic."

Other figures in the media who also stood up to McCarthy include the journalists George Seldes and I. F. Stone, and cartoonists, Herb Block and Daniel Fitzpatrick.

Another important figure in the removal of McCarthy was Frank Wisner. He was head of the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC). This was the espionage and counter-intelligence branch of the CIA. J. Edgar Hoover was jealous of the OPC’s growing power and in 1953 described the group as "Wisner's gang of weirdos". The FBI began carrying out investigations into their past. It did not take him long to discover that some of them had been active in left-wing politics in the 1930s. This information was passed to Joseph McCarthy who started making attacks on members of the OPC. Hoover also passed to McCarthy details of an affair that Wisner had with Princess Caradja in Romania during the war. Hoover, claimed that Caradja was a Soviet agent and implied that Wisner was also a spy. McCarthy also claimed that Wisner’s top agent, Cord Meyer, was a communist.

In August, 1953, Richard Helms, Wisner's deputy at the OPC, told Meyer that Joseph McCarthy had accused him of being a communist. The FBI added to the smear by announcing it was unwilling to give Meyer "security clearance".

Unknown to McCarthy, Wisner and Meyer were running Operation Mockingbird (a highly secret CIA program to influence the American media). Wisner now ordered his CIA media assets to destroy McCarthy.

In October, 1953, McCarthy began investigating communist infiltration into the military. Attempts were made by McCarthy to discredit Robert Stevens, the Secretary of the Army. Eisenhower was furious and removed protection of McCarthy.

However, it was not until the following year that McCarthy was finally brought down. Edward Murrow, the experienced broadcaster, used his television programme, See It Now, on 9th March, 1954, to criticize McCarthy's methods. It was a sign of the times that it took a television programme to seriously damage McCarthy.

The senate investigations into the United States Army were televised and this helped to expose the tactics of Joseph McCarthy. One newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, reported that: "In this long, degrading travesty of the democratic process, McCarthy has shown himself to be evil and unmatched in malice."

Leading politicians in both parties, had been embarrassed by McCarthy's performance and on 2nd December, 1954, a censure motion condemned his conduct by 67 votes to 22.

McCarthy also lost the chairmanship of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate. He was now without a power base and the media lost interest in his claims of a communist conspiracy. As one journalist, Willard Edwards, pointed out: "Most reporters just refused to file McCarthy stories. And most papers would not have printed them anyway."

McCarthy, who had been drinking heavily for many years, was discovered to have cirrhosis of the liver. An alcoholic, he was unable to take the advice of doctors and friends to stop drinking. Joseph McCarthy died in the Bethesda Naval Hospital on 2nd May, 1957. As the newspapers reported, McCarthy had drunk himself to death.

Meanwhile, the knife in McCarthy's reputation is twisted by calling him an anti-Semite - though this disingenuously conceals the unhappy truth that the vast majority of Soviet agents in the US were Jewish. (Kevin Myers, The Irish Times)

A high percentage of those blacklisted as a result of McCarthyism were indeed Jewish. However, this is not because McCarthy was necessarily anti-Semitic. It is just a reflection on the background of most liberals and anti-fascists in America in the 1930s. When you consider the way the Jews were being treated by the fascists in Europe this is not very surprising. The Jews in America also had a long record of campaigning on civil rights issues. Understandably this encouraged many of them to join the Communist Party and the Socialist Party in America.

Had the Hollywood Ten been stooges of that infinitely less chic (and, as it happens, considerably less murderous) school of totalitarianism, fascism, liberal America at the time would have been shrilly demanding their eviction from Hollywood. And equally, they would not be martyrs of the silver screen today. (Kevin Myers, The Irish Times)

Of course, those on the right in America in the 1930s were highly sympathetic to German fascism. After all, Hitler claimed he got some of his ideas on the treatment of Jews from studying white politicians in the Deep South.

McCarthyism started off as an attempt to cover-up McCarthy’s corrupt activities. We now know that a large number of these anti-communists were involved in corruption. (Not referring to you Tim Gratz if you are reading this).

John Parnell Thomas was chairman of the HUAC during the Hollywood purges. His secretary, Helen Campbell, leaked information about his corrupt activities to the journalist, Drew Pearson. On 4th August, 1948, Pearson published the story that Thomas had been putting friends on his congressional payroll. They did no work but in return shared their salaries with Thomas.

Called before a grand jury, Thomas availed himself to the 1st Amendment, a strategy that he had been unwilling to accept when dealing with the Hollywood Ten. Indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government, Thomas was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison and forced to pay a $10,000 fine. Two of his fellow inmates in Danbury Prison were Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr. who were serving terms as a result of refusing to testify in front of Thomas and the HUAC.

You can read more about these issues here:

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAred.htm

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Having 'done' McCarthyism with my IB class this morning, I'll be doing interpretations with them tomorrow thanks to this. Great stuff, thanks (again) John.

Religion is an interesting aspect of this subject. Joseph McCarthy was of course a Roman Catholic. This religious group had been especially anti-communist (Spain, Germany and the US in the 1930s). I assume the Irish Times article might have been influenced by the religious views of the writer. Note, he raises the issue of McCarthy being anti-Semetic. Interestingly, LBJ smeared JFK with his family's support of McCarthy during the 1960 campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Another aspect of this story that I did not include above was McCarthy's homosexuality. For some time opponents of McCarthy had been accumulating evidence concerning his homosexual activities. Several members of his staff, including Roy Cohn and David Schine, were also suspected of having a sexual relationship with McCarthy. Although well-known by political journalists, the first article about it did not appear until Hank Greenspun published an article in the Las Vagas Sun in 25th October, 1952. Greenspun wrote that: "It is common talk among homosexuals in Milwaukee who rendezvous in the White Horse Inn that Senator Joe McCarthy has often engaged in homosexual activities."

McCarthy considered a libel suit against Greenspun but decided against it when he was told by his lawyers that if the case went ahead he would have to take the witness stand and answer questions about his sexuality. In an attempt to stop the rumours circulating, McCarthy married his secretary, Jeannie Kerr. Later the couple adopted a five-week old girl from the New York Foundling Home.

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