I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.
—Senator Joseph McCarthy (November 14, 1909–May 2, 1957)
That was then (February 9, 1950)
Senator McCarthy, who switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1944 and who served as Senator of Wisconsin from January 3, 1947 until the day of his death on May 2, 1957, gave a speech at a Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950. In that speech he waved a sheet of paper that he said had the names of known Communists on it, and he claimed that President Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson (in office January 21, 1949—January 20, 1953), knew that 205 civil servants within the State Department were members of the Communist Party. McCarthy later backed down from that number and claimed on the floor of the Senate that the actual number of Communists in the State Department was 52. When pressed for details, he produced the list, and it turned out that most of them were former employees of the State Department, and those who were still employed had been carefully screened and exonerated. Although his charges were entirely without foundation, the accusation caught the public imagination. McCarthy was soon one of the best-known Senators in Washington. All this took place during a time in history known as the second Red Scare, which reached its peak between 1950 and 1956. The tone of the second Red Scare bore a resemblance to the time of national paranoia and fear-mongering of the first Red Scare a generation earlier.
The first Red Scare had taken place between 1917 and 1921 and had focussed on the perceived menace posed by labor unions, who were often accused of having ties with the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union. The first Red Scare reached its peak in 1919–1920 and was a factor in the landslide victory of the Republican candidate Warren G. Harding (November 2, 1865 – August 2, 1923), who had been described in newspaper editorials as a weak and mediocre man who had never had an original idea and was therefore the least qualified candidate to run for President since the notoriously incompetent fifteenth President, James Buchanan (April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868). Because he was a Washington outsider, Harding’s candidacy had only lukewarm support of the Republican Party, much of which felt he had very little chance of winning the general election. As a campaigner, Harding was famous for his pompous oratory filled with vacuous rhetoric, vague promises and dire warnings of foreign spies infiltrating venerable American institutions. The editorialist H. L. Mencken wrote of Harding’s speeches:
it reminds me of a string of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a kind of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm … of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is balder and dash. [In Dean, John W., Warren Harding. Henry Holt and Co. (2004). p. 72]
Although Harding’s speeches were ridiculed by many journalists, it was begrudgingly acknowledged that what he said resonated with many men and women—1920 was the first Presidential election in which women had the right to vote throughout the United States—and indeed he won 60.35% of the popular vote and 76.1% of the electoral vote. He carried all the states except for the solidly Democratic states in the deep south. No United States President has ever won by a larger margin since the two-party system came into effect. Not only did he win by an overwhelming margin, but the Republican Party increased its strong majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Harding had demonstrated that a campaign of fear-mongering bombast and incomprehensible promises can be a formula for electoral success. His presidency, on the other hand, was riddled with scandal, ineptitude and mediocrity—just as the journalists of his day had predicted.
Senator Joe McCarthy’s rise to prominence was characterized by a series of accusations, and by innuendo and insinuation of subversion or treason. He used aggressive interrogation techniques and managed to use threats to achieve a restriction of political dissent or criticism. Although most of his attention was devoted to making accusations of some sort of Communist affiliation, he also conducted a so-called Lavender Scare, which was a witch-hunt conducted against homosexuals. His claim was that homosexuals in government service would be targets of blackmail by Soviet agents, and this vulnerability posed a serious security threat to the United States. Ruining the careers of diplomats, civil servants, military offices and even entertainers was all justified on the grounds that it supposedly made America more safe from the dangers of foreigners whose sole purpose in life was to destroy American democracy and freedom. President Dwight Eisenhower (October 14, 1890 – March 28, 1969) reportedly said of McCarthy’s popularity:
It is a sad commentary on our government when such a manifestly useless and spurious thing can divert our attention from all the constructive work in which we could and should be engaged.
Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade was intense but relatively brief. On December 2, 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy. The Democrats who voted were unanimously in favor of the condemnation and the Republican vote was split evenly for and against censure. After being censured by the Senate, McCarthy continued being the Senator from Wisconsin, but his popularity in the nation and his influence in Washington declined dramatically. He died a few years later of acute hepatitis, a condition widely believed to have been brought on by his alcoholism.
This is now (2016–2017)
The current Executive and Legislative branches have not forgotten that secret of Harding’s electoral success: fomenting fear with constant references to foreign menaces, accompanied by vague slogans and unrealistic promises, still wins elections, although not nearly by the same commanding margins as the election of 1920. While remembering Harding’s election strategy, today’s Republicans may have forgotten the dismal presidency that followed the 1920 elections.It is difficult to find a presidential historian who would rank Harding’s brief occupancy of the White House much higher than the worst presidency in American history. Also forgotten seems to be the moral of the Senator McCarthy story, which was expressed well by President Harry S. Truman, who portrayed McCarthy and other Senators inspired by him as striving to establish what he called a “totalitarian dictatorship.” Truman described one piece of legislation passed in 1950 by the panic-inspired Congress, the legislation that established the Subversive Activities Control Board, as “the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press, and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798.” Truman vetoed the creation of the SACB, but his veto was overridden by Congress. By 1956 the SACB was rendered nearly powerless by a Supreme Court decision, but it continued to operate in its enfeebled condition until 1968. Attempts to bypass the safeguards of democracy laid out in the Constitution have up until now had limited success of relatively short duration. That lesson of history is forgotten by some from time to time, but it seems that so far there has always been a critical mass of citizens who recall the lesson just in time to prevent the nation from sliding into despotism.
I have written more personally about my reflections on the McCarthy Era elsewhere. In that piece I mistakenly referred to a Canadian satire of McCarthy as The Inquisition. In fact, the title of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation satirical radio play was The Investigator. In an earlier post, I wrote about my personal experiences with the politics of fear.