1980, as tensions ran high in America with the presidential
elections playing out over the long-running Iranian hostage
crisis, Alger Hiss took a look back at the McCarthy period
for Barrister magazine, a publication of the American
Bar Association. In this article, Hiss examines the roots
of witch hunting and addresses the question, "Could
it happen again?"
more than 20 years I have lectured and taken part in seminars
at a number of high schools, colleges and universities.
In the late '50s and early '60s, there was a good deal of
student interest in having me talk to them about the Great
Depression and the New Deal. Then, in the late '6Os and
early '70s, the trauma of the Vietnam War caused students
to ask me to lecture on the beginning of the Cold War, itself
no minor factor in the virulent anticommunism of the McCarthy
period. Almost uniformly in the last four or five years,
I have been asked to cover the McCarthy era in my lectures
and classroom seminars.
far as I can tell, the student interest is independent of
- and little influenced by - the books and films and articles
prepared for an older audience. My discussions with students
have convinced me that their concern with McCarthyism is
personal and emotional, not a matter of intellectual, historical
inquiry, and certainly not the following of a current sophisticated
fashion in popular culture. Their concern was sparked by
the continuing campus reverberations of the sharp shocks
of Vietnam and Watergate. Many were too young to have experienced
directly the anxieties of the antiwar generation or even
the public anger at the arrogant deceptions and illegalities
disclosed by the Watergate constitutional crisis. But the
echoes of those convulsions, and of the 1960s civil rights
and student movements, brought to thoughtful students a
disquieting feeling that those violent and disturbing events
might have antecedents equally inconsistent with the American
Dream. And as they learned of the indecencies of the McCarthy
era, they were led to ask whether such events could occur
they had no personal knowledge of the period, their stirrings
of anxiety prompted a desire to learn about the origins
of the whole postwar preoccupation with anticommunism of
which McCarthyism was both a part and a cause. For some
of them, there was a fascination with the discovery that
Joe McCarthy was a Johnny-come-lately, that his predecessor
in exploiting public fears of the bugaboo of domestic Communism
had been Richard Nixon. Technically, the decade of hysterical
red-baiting that began soon after the end of the war could
more appropriately be called the "Nixon era."
Nixon, already well known to them as having been a threat
to constitutional government and having cynically continued
and expanded the Vietnam War, thus provided a link with
another earlier, shameful period of our recent history.
McCarthy - the opportunist voted the worst U.S. Senator
by the Washington press corps - had sought a campaign
issue for reelection. Another opportunist - Nixon -
and HUAC had already demonstrated the vote-catching possibilities
of red-hunting, in a real but horrifying sense, as the late
Professor H. H. Wilson of Princeton put it, anti-communism
became American anti-Semitism.
only did the period of apocalyptic rhetoric and vicious
attacks begin before McCarthy's participation, it lasted
after he had been personally discredited and censured by
the Senate in the mid-50s, and continued even after his
death in 1957. Remnants, as students readily see, are evident
even today. It took until 1975 for Congress to terminate
HUAC's existence. In the same year, legal action instituted
earlier by the American Civil Liberties Union finally accomplished
the elimination of loyalty oaths for federal employees.
Americans are still reluctant to sign petitions to enable
unpopular or radical candidates to win a place on the ballot.
recently as February of 1980, an official of the Department
of Justice investigating Nazi war criminals who had fled
to this country explained, in terms that caused no expression
of surprise, why his office had lacked diligence in pursuing
in the early '5Os and mid-'50s when this work really should
have been done rather than in 1980, McCarthyism was at its
height, anti-communism was at its height, and most of these
people were anti-communists. There was a tendency to measure
their worth as citizens on the basis of their anti-communism
rather than on what they had done during the Holocaust."
(The New York Times, February 6, 1980).
whether the term "McCarthy era" is technically
accurate, it is nevertheless appropriate to name this ugly
time in our recent history after the unprincipled demagogue
who for a brief few years personified its worst aspects.
Dean Acheson properly called him "a cheap, low scoundrel,"
and added, "to denigrate him is to praise him."
my discussions with students, whether in the formal patterns
of classroom and lecture hall or in quite informal small
groups, I have found that one particularly disturbing question
recurs: How could it have happened? In turn, this question
was but a subsidiary issue to the still larger concern:
Could it happen again?
questioning of what went wrong was based upon the fear that
the protective devices of press, law and tradition, which
guard against mass irrationality and mob hysteria, could
again prove insufficient. In particular, having taken at
face value the complacent, self-congratulation of our press
for the accomplishment of investigative journalists during
Watergate, students ask: What happened to the press? The
exploits of Bernstein and Woodward, enshrined by Hollywood
and so well described in their own accounts, have led to
marked increases in applications to journalism schools by
talented and idealistic young people. Where, students naturally
wonder, were the counterparts of today's investigative journalist
in the 1950s?
was clear within a week or a month," Alfred Friendly
has told us, "to the overwhelming majority of reporters
covering him" that McCarthy "was using fraudulent
material to regurgitate a succession of malicious, useless
and transparent lies uttered for self-aggrandizing purposes...."
(Washington Post, February 13, 1977). Yet the press
had printed his every word, and with inflammatory headlines.
How could this have happened? Could it happen again?
of this kind led to others. Why had the Senate, to whom
the fraudulence of McCarthy's charges must have been equally
apparent, permitted such conduct on the part of a member
- conduct which could only reflect on the integrity
of the Senate as a whole? Why had Truman, known for his
political courage and short temper, responded to the similar
demagoguery of McCarthy's immediate predecessors by establishing
a program to investigate the loyalty of all federal officials?
Did Truman really think the loyalty of his officials questionable?
Didn't he realize that this was playing into the hands of
demagogues? Why didn't sober citizens put a stop to the
these student discussions, an examination into the origins
of McCarthyism, and into the factors in our society which
let it continue, led to a reexamination of other scapegoating
periods in our history. the Salem witch-hunts; the Alien
and Sedition Acts (while the Founding Fathers were still
in charge of our destinies); the Know-Nothing Movement of
the mld-l9th century (hostility to Roman Catholic immigrants);
the Palmer Red-Raids at the end of World War I (when J.
Edgar Hoover began his trade as supersleuth and paramount
red-hunter); the rounding up of Japanese, both alien and
American citizens, in the months following Pearl Harbor
- did these periods of shameful hysteria bespeak
a national vulnerability to the virus of scapegoating in
times of stress? And if so, would the undeniable stresses
following upon military defeat in Vietnam and the discovery
of arrogant disregard of the Constitution by Nixon bring
about a new attack of the American disease?
is difficult but necessary for young people, not only students,
but most Americans under forty, to grasp the extent and
fury of the hysteria that gripped the country from the late
'40s until the mid-'50s. All over the country, thousands
of Americans entered into a nightmare world of inquisition
- by Congressional and state legislative committees, FBI
agents, and local vigilantes, all of whom publicly sought
to point the finger at "subversives."
thousands of teachers, office workers, seamen, union members,
government employees, editors, social workers, actors, lawyers,
accountants, radio and TV entertainers, writers - people
in every walk of life, the obscure and the prominent - were
publicly attacked, driven from their jobs, and ostracized
by neighbors and fair-weather friends. As David Caute pointed
out, these victims of the McCarthyite purges were guilty
of "no crime worse than the opinions they held, or
had once held" (New Statesman, December 16,
1977). The extent of human injury was, of course, not limited
to those pilloried or purged; their wives, husbands, children,
other relatives and close associates add additional thousands
to the list.
importantly, the nation was deprived for years to come of
the independent thought and initiative of many citizens
who were either cowed by the fates of the victims or simply
wanted "to avoid trouble." Caute summarized some
of the lasting results for the land of the free:
The long shadow of the security officer fell across factories,
dockyards, ships, offices. A generation of workers learned
to conform or to move on.... But in the process careers
were ruined beyond retrieve, marriages broke up, children
were alienated and abused, fathers sat for hours stunned,
staring blankly at the wall."
were other and more powerful forces which made possible
the vigor of the McCarthy Red Scare and which for many months
inhibited effective efforts to end it. Roosevelt's and Truman's
tenure of 20 years in office naturally left the Republicans
frustrated and hungry for political office. The weapon of
the Red Scare used by HUAC, McCarthy, and their supporters
was directed at the Democratic administration. Opposition
politicians cannot be expected to rush to put out fires
in the incumbents' political mansions. In fact, many honorable
Republicans (with regret, one hopes) accepted McCarthy's
Eisenhower, campaigning for election, allowed McCarthy to
board his whistle-stop train as it crossed Wisconsin and
was photographed with him in a pose that clearly bespoke
mutual support. This was the same McCarthy who had called
Eisenhower's mentor and long-time friend, General George
Marshall, a "traitor." Senator Robert Taft, known
as "Mr. Republican," also did not avoid McCarthy's
company. And, of course, other less principled politicians
made common cause with McCarthy even more vigorously.
support given to McCarthy by the Republican Party, though
not the sole cause of McCarthyism, was a crucial factor
in its growth. Roosevelt's popularity had been so enormous
that many Republicans feared a direct attack on him could
well arouse public opposition. But they encouraged or permitted
unjustified attacks upon FDR's lieutenants as a method of
indirect attack upon the revered leader who had held the
country together during the Great Depression and had led
it to victory in the greatest war the world had ever seen.
attacks were an oblique attack on the Roosevelt domestic
and foreign policies, popular with large numbers of the
people, but opposed by powerful groups, some of whom considered
the New Deal socialistic, if not a bright shade of red.
Other groups misguidedly regarded the United Nations as
an alien international threat to U.S. sovereignty, and still
others had been led to believe that the Yalta Agreement
was a sellout of American interests.
addition, the immediate postwar political temper in America
was unstable and highly vulnerable to rabble-rousing and
scapegoating. World War II, unprecedented in scope and savagery,
brought tears, sorrow and stress into most American homes.
Added to these sources of tension were the disruptions of
peacetime social and economic patterns, as the civilian
population strained to accomplish the nation's enormous
productive goals. Public tension, far from being eased by
the joys of victory, was continued, anticlimactically, by
the Cold War that followed close on the heels of the hot
one. Popular morale and national unity that had been so
essential to the fulfilling of the vast demands of war were
soon impaired by bitter domestic partisan political hostilities.
within a few years, Russia exploded the atomic bomb and
China became Communist, public confusion and anxiety increased
to the point that irrationality was endemic. Professor James
Compton says that Europe thought "America had gone
quite mad" ("Anticommunism in American Life Since
the Second World War," Forum Press).
had a knack for manipulating the press - but, to put
it mildly, the press willingly took part in the process.
They exploited the anxieties and fears of the public, by
then easy prey for McCarthy's lurid hobgoblin horror tales.
our dark hour was a national illness. The fires that
fed the hysteria of McCarthyism were not fanned solely by
the press, nor were they - even initially - lighted
only by Republicans. A domestic concomitant of the Cold
War, McCarthyism enfolded within its noxious embrace many
powerful business interests and ethnic groups, as well as
countless mindless frightened little people. Militant trade
unions were destroyed; progressive politics was eliminated
from the political scene; liberal publications and publishers,
together with independent publicists and spokesmen of dissent,
were discredited or silenced; Roosevelt's domestic and foreign
policies were frozen and stripped of their vigor.
indecencies of McCarthyism were the poisonous froth on the
surface of American politics that obscured major shifts
of power among domestic forces. Most important of all, in
Carey McWilliams' words, McCarthy "succeeded in welding
a massive bipartisan consensus which made it possible to
wage Cold War with little criticism or restraint...."
("The Education of Carey McWilliams").
young people are faced with a revived Cold War. Registration
revives memories of the draft in the days of the Vietnam
War; super-patriots harass Iranian students once warmly
invited to come to our shores - events such as these make
an understanding of McCarthyism essential. Under whatever
name it attempts to return, its true nature must be recognized
and its terrible effects prevented.