Two realities of the McCarthyism era, which reached its height in the early 1950s, deserve revisiting.
One reality: Politicians engaged in grandstanding and bullying, leveled false accusations of spying, and ruined innocent lives. This reality is widely, if vaguely, remembered, and it is retold through the arts and the education system.
Another reality: Spies did unquestionably infiltrate the U.S. federal government in the 20th century. These spies stole secrets and influenced national policy. This reality is less known and less repeated. Moreover, while the Soviet Union is history, communist spies are still among us.
Both realities hurt the nation, one through the general revulsion it caused toward attempts to root out Soviet spies, and the other through quiet and persisting damage done to American institutions.
McCarthy and HUAC
Joseph McCarthy, the junior Republican senator from Wisconsin, created a sensation in February 1950 when he claimed to have a list of communists employed by the U.S. State Department. The number of people on the list varied at different times he mentioned it. Nevertheless, a Senate committee was set up, and he began questioning people.
The trouble was that the facts he had, many fed to him by the FBI, were sketchy. This didn’t stop him from bullying witnesses and exaggerating to the media. He sometimes lied about details and made false accusations.
His unsavory methods and character were eventually exposed on television. Public support for him dropped, and he was censured by the Senate in 1954. He died in 1957 of hepatitis, possibly caused by chronic alcoholism.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) operated during McCarthy’s time and afterward. Its activities fell under the general concept of “McCarthyism.”
HUAC was also looking for communist spies and others disloyal to the United States, and it also made false accusations against innocent people, including a number of artists and Hollywood figures.
Thus, even today, the label of “McCarthyism” is often enough to dismiss out of hand anyone attempting to unmask spies or other enemies within. This is unfortunate, even tragic.
Transmitting the Culture
The schools and the arts are two main pathways for transmitting culture and refreshing our collective memory—and sometimes for perpetuating incomplete or slanted “truths.”
Nicholas von Hoffman, writing in the Washington Post, said, “The Age of McCarthyism, it turns out, was not the simple witch hunt of the innocent by the malevolent as two generations of high school and college students have been taught.”
The allegory of the witch hunt was introduced in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” a play about the actual witch trials in Salem, written at the height of McCarthy’s time in 1952.
Fewer and fewer people alive today remember the McCarthy era personally. Most of us get our impressions from schools and the arts.
The impression is usually a form of, “Oh, McCarthyism, that awful witch hunt!”
But There Actually Were ‘Witches’
Soviet spies had been infiltrating the U.S. government since the 1920s. Evidence presented to decision-makers was often ignored, perhaps sometimes due to advice from the spies in high positions themselves.
It is now understood that there were at least hundreds of Soviet spies in the government in the late 20th century.
One way we know this is through records left from the Venona program, a top-secret government program not known even to the presidents at the time. Soviet message transmissions to and from its American agents were captured and slowly decoded. The tiny percentage of messages decoded point to numerous spies.
Also, Soviet archives that became available in the ’90s provide evidence of spies within the U.S. government.
These spies influenced policy toward communist nations and led to the Soviet Union incredibly quickly building a nuclear bomb, through stolen information, among other things.
No McCarthyites Today
The backlash against the excesses of McCarthyism has provided cover for communist agents today in the United States. People ridicule any mention of communist infiltration, and the memory of McCarthyism has dampened debates about the evils of communism today.
No politician is willing to risk being “The New McCarthy.”
“But the Soviet Union is history. What’s the big deal?” you may say.
The Soviet Union is gone, but communism is not. The Chinese Communist Party still uses spies extensively and have a level of penetration into the institutions of America that make the Soviets look like the junior varsity.
As Epoch Times has reported extensively, not only government agencies but also corporations, universities, and other institutions are host to Chinese agents who collect data on our citizens, steal industrial secrets, silence dissidents, and seek to undermine our values.
McCarthy used abhorrent methods and got many of the facts wrong. But McCarthyism was right in realizing there truly were communist agents among us, and that they threatened our way of life.
They are among us now, and they still threaten our way of life.
Communism is estimated to have killed at least 100 million people, yet its crimes have not been fully compiled and its ideology still persists. Epoch Times seeks to expose the history and beliefs of this movement, which has been a source of tyranny and destruction since it emerged.