Four Great Myths of the McCarthy Era

Sixty years after the Army-McCarthy hearings, we should reexamine some of our accumulated lore about the period.


Joseph McCarthy (artist's rendition).
Walt Kelly

Sixty years ago today, the ABC and DuMont television networks began their live broadcasts of the Army-McCarthy hearings, a two-month Senate soap opera that marked the final stage of the Wisconsin Republican Joseph McCarthy's period of power. The hearings are most famous today for what happened when the senator tried to make hay of the fact that Army attorney Joseph Welch's law firm employed a man who had once been a member of an organization with links to the Communist Party. The guilt-by-loose-chain-of-association charge was a showcase for McCarthy's sleazy style, allowing Welch to let loose a line that is constantly quoted to this day: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

The hearings would go on for another week, and McCarthy would remain in office until his death three years later. But it was that exchange—which wrapped up with McCarthy blustering, Welch cutting him off, and the gallery bursting into applause—that effectively ended the senator's career.

Today McCarthy has come to symbolize the entire postwar Red Scare, allowing the hearings to serve as a tidy end to a tidy story about a demagogue who attained outsized influence and then was cut down to size. But the crusade against Communist subversion that marked the late 1940s and the '50s began before McCarthy seized the issue; and if his downfall was a sign that those fears were fading, it did not bring them to an end. The biggest myth of the McCarthy era is that it was a McCarthy era, rather than an episode in which McCarthy was merely one of the most noisy and irresponsible figures.

World communism (artist's rendition).

There are other myths of the period too. The great radical myth of the Red Scare is that it was nothing but a scare—that the Americans accused of being Russian agents were virtually all innocent. (It's hard to maintain that position now that the Venona files have been released and some of the left's biggest causes célèbres have come crumbling down—at this point even Julius Rosenberg's children have acknowledged that he was a spy—but some folks still hold onto the dream.) The great conservative myth of the period, meanwhile, is that the espionage justified the witch-hunts. People like Ann Coulter and M. Stanton Evans have taken to declaring that McCarthy was right without acknowledging that the bulk of his accusations were false, and that this was true of many other red-hunters too. And then there's the great liberal myth of the period: the idea that the libs of the day managed to plot a course between the Soviet apologists and the paranoid hysterics, striking a delicate balance between protecting the country's liberties and protecting its security. In fact, the Red Scare, like the Cold War itself, had liberal fingerprints all over it.

Some of those fingerprints were left before the Red Scare actually began, as Democrats eager to ferret out fascist subversives in the '30s and early '40s lent their support to tools that would later be turned against the left. The Smith Act, which made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government, was a potent weapon during the Red Scare. But it was passed with liberal backing in 1940 and then used against alleged fascists, most infamously in the great sedition trial of 1944. Similarly, when Congress rechartered the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1938, many liberals voted with the ayes because they wanted to investigate the right.

TAKE THE RED PI—whoops, wrong movie.

When the Cold War got underway and the threat of communism replaced the threat of fascism, liberals often found themselves in the red-hunters' crosshairs. But liberals also went on the hunt themselves. "It was the Truman administration," Richard Freeland notes in The Truman Doctrine & the Origins of McCarthyism, "that developed the association of dissent with disloyalty and communism, which became a central element of McCarthyism. It was the Truman administration that adopted the peacetime loyalty program, which provided a model for state and local governments and a wide variety of private institutions. It was the Truman administration, in the criteria for loyalty used in its loyalty program, that legitimized the concept of guilt by association." To his credit, Truman vetoed the McCarran Act of 1950, which went well beyond chasing spies to limit Communists' civil liberties. (Congress overrode the veto and the bill became law anyway, though the courts eventually struck down many of its provisions.) But the Democrats who broke with Truman and voted for the measure included both Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Speaking of Kennedy: His brother Bobby, later a liberal heartthrob, was a counsel for the McCarthy committee, and McCarthy was godfather to Bobby's first child.

It may be tempting to put all the madness of the early Cold War on the shoulders of one Wisconsin senator, and then to cheer as Joseph Welch ritually exorcises him on the floor of the Senate and the TV screens of America. The truth, alas, is much messier and uglier than that. When it comes to the Red Scare, there's plenty of shame to go around.