This piece was reprinted by OpEd News with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.
Joe McCarthy's anti-communist campaign was aimed at destroying progressive unions and the American left. McCarthyism is the model for Trumpism. Larry Tye, the author of "Demagogue', joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.
Welcome to the theAnalysis.news podcast. I'm Paul Jay.
The book, "Demagogue", Larry Tye's biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy has been hailed as the definitive take on the life of a man whose name has become synonymous with witch hunts and abuse of power, with the objective of creating an ideological terror campaign against political foes.
Tye likens McCarthy with President Trump, another in a long line of such bullies. Now joining us to talk about Joe McCarthy and his book is Larry Tye. He's an author and journalist known for his biographies of Americans, including Edward Bernays, Satchel Paige, Robert F. Kennedy, and, of course, Joseph McCarthy. Thanks for joining us. Larry.
Great to be on with you.
So before we get into who Joseph McCarthy was and what McCarthyism was all about and linking it to Trump and so on, I think it's important to get to some underlying assumptions a lot of people have about McCarthyism, about anticommunism. And my take is that the beginnings of this anticommunism and the kind of Red Scare, is long before there ever was a Soviet Union, it's really late 19th century with the development in the United States of a revolutionary workers movement. General strikes, a militancy of the working class United States getting organized, very influenced by socialist ideas of various kinds, including Marx.
So in terms of understanding McCarthyism and the House of un-American Activities Committee, I think it's important to distinguish between a legitimate domestic revolutionary movement that had every right for workers to get organized, to form unions, to become Marxist communists, socialists, whatever they wanted if one believes the U.S. Constitution protects the right to get organized and the right to free speech. All of this was more than legitimate activity and including the opposition to the First World War, which the left progressive socialists, communists, and so on, including Eugene Debs, waged a big campaign against the United States joining the First World War. And that gave a lot of impetus to sections of the elites and the political elites wanting to crush this movement.
So the idea that communism was always the sort of Soviet organized conspiracy and not primarily, not only but not primarily, a domestic social-political development that comes out of the political consciousness and the growth of the American workers and American intelligentsia. I think that gets lost in this discussion. And it's kind of an underlying assumption, "Oh, communism bad. Even if McCarthy went too far, the underlying objectives weren't so bad".
So I don't know if you agree with me or not, but let's talk about that because I think to understand this phenomenon, I think that needs to be the starting place.
So I think that you're right that McCarthyism ends up sweeping up a lot more of a movement than actually Joe McCarthy represented in the anti-communist movement in America, was sweeping in a way that seemed to me in many ways un-American that. So I want to say a couple of things about the fight to uncover communists in the government goes back at least to 1938 in the formation of the House un-American Activities Committee and for a dozen years before Joe McCarthy, members of Congress, were out there looking for alleged Soviet spies buried in the US government. And they did a whole lot more careful looking while they swept too many people along with this, and lots of careers and lives were ruined by McCarthy standards, they were responsible.
And when we talk about this second Red Scare, the Red Scare in the 40s and 50s, it didn't begin with Joe McCarthy and didn't end with Joe McCarthy, but he was the most cowboy-like bomb-throwing figure, and therefore it was his name that had the "ism" attached to it.
But you're right that McCarthy's search for communists in the House Un-American Activities, search for communists, did something that seemed to me decidedly un-American, which rather than just looking for people who were doing espionage and who were legitimate targets of congressional committees and of anticommunists, they swept up lots of people because they believed in socialism or communism. And Americans are free or should be free, to believe in whatever they wanted, to espouse those beliefs, as long as the beliefs don't turn into an action that somehow threatens our government or turns into espionage for a foreign power. And I think that McCarthy managed not just to encompass a lot more than his personal movement ever really did, but he ended up, in addition to the people he drove to take their own lives, which were at least a dozen people that we could point to, the hundreds of careers that he ruined in a way more damaging than anything to me, were the millions of people who were silenced from espousing legitimate political beliefs and expanding the political dialogue in America. And those are the only people who despise leftist beliefs. And to this day, 70 years after McCarthy launched his crusade, it still becomes a facile response to beliefs you don't like to call somebody a leftist or a socialist or a red.
Yeah, certainly part of the Trump and most Republicans' vocabulary.
Do you agree that the primary opposition to the socialist-communist movement in the United States was primarily driven by the fear of socialism? That it wasn't about primarily, certainly even at the time of the Russian Revolution and so on, it wasn't about foreign espionage, it was about workers in the United States getting inspired by an idea, a revolution, that threatened the way things were owned in the United States and threatened, to use Bernie Sanders language, the American oligarchy.
I definitely agree with that. If we're talking about in the 1930s and certainly through the end of World War Two, I would say that when it came to McCarthys' era in the 1950s, early 1950s, the fear was very real in terms of the Soviet Union, in terms of things like espionage.
In the months before McCarthy launched his crusade, we had watched nationalist China turn into, what looked like a threatening Red China. We had seen the atomic spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.
We were afraid enough about the Soviet menace that we were about to teach our kids something extraordinary, which is if they put their hands over their head and did what was called, duck and cover, duck under their desks, that they would be free from the fallout of a nuclear bomb. And we were afraid, and the Soviet Union was, by that time, a relatively scary case.
And yet Joe McCarthy, like demagogues everywhere, played on that fear, but in lieu of solutions, he pointed fingers. By the time McCarthy came along, most of the 24k spies in our government had been exposed. And he was pointing fingers at people who were almost entirely anything but the spies that he said they were.
It was said of Joe McCarthy, by the way, and jokingly, I think it's actually true, that he could have been dropped into the middle of Red Square on May Day and not know how to pick out a communist.
Roosevelt and his vice president, Wallace, worked with the Soviet Union in an alliance against Hitler and against Japanese imperialism. If Wallace had continued to be the vice president and Roosevelt died, who knows where the 1950s would have ended up because Wallace certainly wasn't in favor of the Cold War that Truman developed with the Soviet Union.
The origins of this Cold War, according to people like Daniel Ellsberg, who worked with the Rand Corporation, (offers research and analysis to the United States Armed Forces), and wrote a book, "Doomsday Machine", I should say, I'm working with Ellsberg doing a documentary about that book. He was a quite convinced Cold Warrior. He was a Democrat, but that certainly means nothing because a lot of the Cold War was initiated under the Democratic Party.
He came to the conclusion and what he came to learn was certainly known at the highest political levels in the United States and military, that there was no expansionist Soviet threat, that the Soviet Union was in a defensive posture, that the missile gap didn't exist, that the United States at the time of the talk of the missile gap, which was a big impetus towards the further militarization of the United States, that the missile gap actually was the other way around. The United States had 200 ICBMs at a time the Soviet Union had four, and that the whole threat of the Soviet expansionism globally was really exaggerated to justify this development of what Eisenhower when I went on to call the industrial-military complex.
So to a large extent, do you think that both Nixon going after Alger Hiss, (an American government official accused in 1948 of spying for the Soviet Union), and McCarthy, if I understand it correctly, kicked his career off with that as well. The Alger Hiss case, which still seems like Hiss was not guilty of anything, although the debate continues.
But, to use the Ellsberg phrase, and I'm quoting him directly here, he's come to the conclusion now that, "the Cold War was essentially a subsidy for the aerospace industry, and that drove a lot of this anti-communist fervor,". What do you think of that?
So I'm a fan of Ellsberg. He blurbed my McCarthy book. He posted a talk from my Bobby Kennedy book. But I don't pretend to be enough of a scholar in terms of the broader issues of the origins of the Cold War and what the Soviet Union was doing. I find Ellsberg's arguments very convincing. What I do know is that Joe McCarthy had no clue about anything that the Soviet Union was doing. And what he was doing was not looking for a way to respond to a real or perceived fear of the Soviet Union. What he was doing was a way to get into the limelight and not become a one-term senator that looked like he would be in 1950 when he launched his crusade. His crusade is a sign of his cynicism, and that's a sign of his cluelessness about the issues that we're talking about. When he went to Wheeling, West Virginia in February 1950, in a speech that launched his whole crusade against communism and McCarthyism. He brought with him in his briefcase two speeches. One was a snoozer of a speech on national housing policy, which is something he knew something about, and had he pulled that speech out of his briefcase, you and I wouldn't be discussing him 70 years later, he would have been a one-term senator and he would have been a forgotten senator.
Instead, he pulled out of his briefcase his second speech that he hadn't read and on a topic that he knew absolutely nothing about. He waived that speech in the air to his audience, in front of his audience, that night in Wheeling, West Virginia. And he said, I have in my hand a list of 205 spies at the US State Department, and this is what the threat to America is all about, and if we would only root out these spies, we'd be a whole lot safer country. Now, he didn't have in his hand a list of the 205 spies at the State Department because they didn't exist.
He didn't care about that. What he cared about was that in two days, within two days, he was on page one of every newspaper in America and he never looked back. His charges were generally on page one. The responses to his charges were, generally a day later, on page 24.
Joe McCarthy knew the way the demagogues have an instinctive sense of how to play to the press and manipulate the press and how to play on the public's fears. So whether Ellsberg is right or wrong, the public was afraid, back in 1950 in whether there were spies or not still left in the government, and I'm convinced there weren't many. Joe McCarthy had no clue who they were and didn't care much, he cared about getting power and holding on to it, with little sense of what he would do with that power.
And in the process of this, what we're talking about now is important not just because of who Joe McCarthy was and because of ancient history 50 years ago. It's important, I think because this is the model. He was the archetype for demagogues who came after. And what we see 70 years ago is a template for what we see going on in Washington today.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).