June 01, 2017

McCarthyism — Then and Now

Writing about web page https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2017/05/23/there-remains-no-evidence-of-trump-russia-collusion/

On Forbes on 23 May, my co-author Paul Gregory worries about America's risk of a new McCarthyism. He warns:

Joseph Welch, the lawyer for the army in the McCarthy-Army hearings brought the McCarthy Era to an end by asking McCarthy, who had gratuitously ruined the reputation of a young colleague: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” We are beginning to see the use of these guilt-by-association practices.

In picking up this theme, Paul echoed an exchange between US President Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier in the spring. As the controversy over his campaign links with Russia intensified, on 3 March 2017 (at 2:38AM) Trump tweeted that leaks of information were turning into:

a total "witch hunt"!

Lavrov adopted and extended Trump's metaphor later the same day:

I can refer to a quote spread in the media today: all of this looks very much like a witch hunt or the days of McCarthyism, which we long thought have passed in the US, a civilized country.

And the following day, Trump returned the compliment:

Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!

What is McCarthyism? For readers who are not sure what that's all about, Senator Joseph McCarthy was Republican Senator from Wisconsin from 1944 to his death in 1957. He played the leading role in a postwar search for undercover communists and Soviet agents in US public life. With or without reasonable cause, this search placed tens of thousands of people under suspicion, many of whom lost their jobs and careers, and some of whom were eventually imprisoned on criminal charges.

Wikipedia defines McCarthyism as:

the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.

So, that's McCarthyism. Now for the parallel. Those who raise fears of a new McCarthyism suggest that we should compare today's beleaguered Trump campaign and White House officials to McCarthy's victims after the war. How well does that hold up? The comparison is reasonable up to a point. The chief similarity is the fevered atmosphere of suspicion and finger-pointing, inflamed by a widespread belief that America's public life has been penetrated by hidden enemies, who now lurk just beneath the surface of things.

On Vox on 18 May, Zack Beauchamp noted the spread of fake news about the Trump campaign and presidency, the Congress, and Russia connections:

President Donald Trump is about to resign as a result of the Russia scandal. Bernie Sanders and Sean Hannity are Russian agents. The Russians have paid off House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz to the tune of $10 million, using Trump as a go-between. Paul Ryan is a traitor for refusing to investigate Trump’s Russia ties. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent charged with discrediting the American conservative movement.

These are all claims you can find made on a new and growing sector of the internet that functions as a fake news bubble for liberals.

That same evening, my own Facebook feed provided a near-perfect illustration. The evening's news was that investigations into the Trump campaign's Russia links were homing in on a "current White House official" as a "significant person of interest." But who would that be? Nobody knew. I came across some comments by people, not my friends, or even friends of friends, just ordinary, good-hearted, liberal-minded Americans, whom I'll call A, B, and C:

A. Bannon I hope

B. Nope. He's not important. It's Kushner.

A. I wish it could be Pence just to get him out of the picture. So that makes sense why he got so close to top.

C. Please oh please oh please be Jared.

What struck me was not just how interested we have become in the hidden workings of the White House. It was more than that; it was the hunger and thirst for one or another hate figure to be found out for what, in our imagination, they really are -- or what we need them to turn out to be, if the hatred is to be justified.

Common to the new and old McCarthyisms is the burning desire of many to see proven what they feel they already know, in the absence of any hard evidence, to be true. We've made up our minds about Trump and his circle, and what sort of people they are. All we need is the facts that confirm it.

That is not all, however.

There is a deeper point that is buried in the history of the old McCarthyism, a problem that those who warn of the new McCarthyism appear to forget. They hold, and I agree, 100 per cent, that McCarthy and his supporters did despicable things. The McCarthyites ruined the lives of many people who had done nothing wrong. They injected a poison into American political life that persists to the present day.

But there is more. The suspicions that fuelled McCarthyism were not unfounded in fact. McCarthyism was not about nothing. And McCarthyism, in its time, was not technically a witch hunt, although I understand most of its victims felt it like that. For in fact witches do not exist, whereas the traitors that McCarthy hunted in his blind, destructive way, really existed.

Since the end of the Cold War, historians have been able to reconstruct the deep history of which McCarthyism was an evil outgrowth. During the 1930s and 1940s, particularly during World War II when the Soviet Union and the United States were allied, and so before the Cold War began, the American government was penetrated by hundreds of Soviet spies and undercover agents. It was easy for this to come about because many educated Americans had a spark of sympathy for communism, which made them susceptible to Stalin's fake news about the Soviet Union, and also because America at that time lacked the traditions and institutions of counter-intelligence.

By the late 1940s, by means of partial decryption of Soviet diplomatic cables, the FBI knew of the existence of up to a couple of hundred Soviet agents in and around a variety of government departments and projects, including the Manhattan Project. But the FBI mostly did not know who these agents were. This was because the agents' identities were protected by cover names, which the FBI could not crack except by good luck, which did come around occasionally. Meanwhile, the FBI could only protect its limited capacity to decode the Soviet signals by hiding the authoritative source of its suspicions.

Beneath the surface of the McCarthyite search for traitors, in other words, lay two things. First was a pattern of covert collusion by American citizens with the Soviet Union, a country that was operating an intelligence assault on its wartime ally consistent with a state of undeclared war between them. Second was an investigation into them that could not be completed and would remain unfinished and undisclosed for half a century. It was in this context that public suspicion and the desire to expose traitors took hold, with the destructive results that we know.

There are three clear lessons for today.

First, justice is not served when guilt is determined in advance of the facts, or when evidence is sought only to confirm prior beliefs. That is why we should worry about a new McCarthyism.

Second, calling it McCarthyism doesn't mean there is nothing there. The allegations of underhand dealing between the Trump campaign and Russia need to be substantiated or cleared out of the way, based on evidence.

Third, nothing will fuel popular suspicion more than an unfinished investigation. The investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 US presidential election needs to be seen through to the end.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Mark Harrison

    I asked a friend and colleague, Mark Kramer, to look at my column on McCarthyism and tell me what he thought. Mark is director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and one of the world’s leading experts on the Cold War. Also, he is one of those people that I have always learned a lot from. He sent me some comments for which I thank him. With his permission, I paste them in below.

    “First, McCarthy was a Johnny-come-lately to the search for Communists (he was a non-entity until his Wheeling, WV speech in 1950), and therefore I would take issue with your statement that McCarthy “played the leading role in a postwar search for undercover communists and Soviet agents in US public life.” In reality, the leading role was played by HUAC and the executive branch agencies (the FBI, etc.) that had been looking for Communists and Soviet agents both during and after the war. HUAC’s hearings and the FBI’s investigations had tracked down and broken up most of the spy rings before McCarthy came on the scene.

    “Second, McCarthy was right about some things (e.g., the American Communist Party was indeed recruiting spies for the USSR), but he was wrong a lot of other things, especially the question of who actually was a Soviet spy. The most damaging spies had already been identified by the time he came on the scene. Of the additional people McCarthy named, only a very small percentage turned out to be actual spies. The large majority were baselessly accused. Thus McCarthy tarnished what was a valid cause—anti-Communism and the pursuit of Soviet spies in the U.S. government. At least 500 or so U.S. citizens were spying for Moscow, including numerous senior officials in the U.S. government. They were uncovered not because of McCarthy but because of other U.S. public officials who actually cared about being accurate. McCarthy’s baseless accusations had the tragic effect of tarnishing what had been enormously valuable and praiseworthy work done by the real investigators.

    “Third, the decryptions of messages under what became known as the Venona project were undertaken not by the FBI but by the National Security Agency (and the signals intelligence agencies that preceded its creation in 1952). The FBI was enlisted not to decrypt the messages but to help with identifications of the agents named in the messages. The NSA and FBI cooperated closely on this, but it was NSA (and its precedessors) that did the actual decryption.

    “Fourth, defections by people like Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers also played an extremely important role in helping to break up spy rings.

    “Fifth, in addition to the Venona papers released in 1995-1996, the release of Alexander Vassiliev’s notebooks of transcribed Soviet foreign intelligence documents in 2009 has enormously enhanced what we know about the presence of Soviet spies in the U.S. government and Manhattan Project. These not only corroborate Venona but go well beyond it. In that regard, you should provide a link to the Haynes-Klehr-Vassiliev 2009 book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America in addition to the earlier Haynes-Klehr focusing specifically on Venona.”

    06 Jun 2017, 15:56


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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