Unless your in your 80’s or maybe late 70’s, you don’t remember the Army-McCarthy trials. My guess is you don’t remember anything about McCarthyism unless you’ve read it in a book, or your history teacher told you what it was. Funny how time throws dust over old chapters, and the memories become covered over, barely visible. It’s not that we don’t remember, we do. The memories are written in books, preserved in scratchy audio interviews, or in old black and white television clips when people with horn rimmed glasses and slicked back hair seemed more sinister or trustworthy, depending on your point of view.
For those that don’t remember, Senator Joseph McCarthy was a Republican Senator from Wisconsin, serving from 1947 until his death in 1957. He was known for what some felt were spurious accusations of communist infiltration throughout the fabric of our nation. He claimed to have information on members of the Communist party who’d infiltrated the Truman administration, the United States Army, and other top echelon positions within the government. Further, he lobbed allegations toward members of Congress, accusing some of being sympathizers with the Communist party, serious allegations during the 1950’s.
In short, anyone that was perceived to be un-American were seen as somehow connected to the Soviet Union and the Communists. In fact, there was even a body created called the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) which was established in 1938 and ended in 1975.
Un-American. An interesting term. Today, calling one un-American might be perceived a badge of honor rather than the scarlet letter it once was considered. To be considered such in those days could be the death knell of one’s career, no matter the choice. Coming out of the fog of World War II and into the new fog much further away in Korea meant one’s loyalty to the nation should never be questioned, especially with the specter of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s gnashing teeth inches away from our collective jugular. We could not, according to those like McCarthy, afford to not be on our guard.
Hollywood writers, actors, and producers were black-balled after accusations of being communist sympathizers or as actual communists themselves. Such names as Charlie Chaplain, Orson Welles, and the poet Langston Hughes who even visited the Soviet Union (but always denied he was a member of the Communist Party) were victims. Many said that Senator McCarthy was charging them along with other members of the now infamous Hollywood Blacklist, but that’s a myth. Senator McCarthy never investigated Hollywood, but Hollywood policed itself, McCarthy’s hot breath not too far from the Hollywood neck.
There were even stories of ordinary people who worked for the government that became blacklisted. I recall reading about one such person, a secretary, who simply visited a bookstore known to have “communist leanings” to visit a friend and enjoy a coffee. She was discovered, lost her job, and didn’t work again for some 20 years after.
No one was safe from the anti-communist knife, just waiting to peel away the scab of communist collusion. One prominent member of Congress, Lester Hunt, committed suicide in 1954 because of such incriminations. After confronting McCarthy about his investigatory activities directed toward his son who was gay (it was alleged he’d solicited sex from an undercover male police officer – homosexuality being illegal in those days), the Senator fought back, rightfully defending his son. Eventually, threats by McCarthy and some other Republican Senators led to his son being convicted and fined in 1953, and Hunt, while initially refusing the call to abandon his re-election bid, did abandon it and committed suicide in 1954.
This dealt a fatal blow to Joseph McCarthy and his investigations, including the Army-McCarthy trials. Eventually, McCarthy and his ilk were censured by Congress and McCarthy passed into the ether with little left but a legacy of destruction, accusations, and national division left in his wake.
There was, at the time, seemingly solid reasoning for the actions of Joseph McCarthy and others on the political right. The Cold War was heating up rapidly, the Soviet Union had “the bomb” and was perceived by most everyone to be our most significant enemy. Further, China turned “Red” in 1949, exacerbating the feeling among Americans and our government that we were being surrounded and ripe for invasion by Communists. Additionally, the Korean War was raging and World War II was not too far in the rearview mirror. It was the time of the Red Scare, the building of backyard bomb shelters and generalized fear of nuclear war. Rooting out communists among us seemed the thing to do for many, constitutional guarantees notwithstanding.
There were even loyalty oaths enacted by federal and state government. The favorite question of the era was, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” A menacing question fraught with dire consequences should one answer in the affirmative. Most didn’t.
Feelings cannot be duplicated in scholarly tomes of a period, the McCarthy era certainly driven more by fear than anything else. History doesn’t happen in a vacuum as the many drivers at play during those ripples in time tend to generate policy be it good or bad, many of them only quantifiable in the moment. No matter how we may analyze a given period historically or critically, we may never understand the feeling, that which gives rise to our fears, foibles, and, yes, mistakes. The McCarthy era was the epitome of a fear driven policy, with history judging it so.
Think31 fears we are in such a time right now. While there is no disagreement in any quarter save the most radical ones that the attack on the Capitol Building was reprehensible, along with any other word choice one wishes to attach, the fact is some Democrats in government and the left leaning media are painting anyone who leans conservative or libertarian for that matter, with the same radical brush accusing anyone on the political right of center and beyond as being complicit in the attack and as enemies of the nation.
Statements such as “if you voted for Trump you are complicit” echo on social media platforms, or spewed by the talking heads on cable networks. Listening to their voices and reading their rhetoric gives one the impression of a certain revelry by some over the incident as it provided and excuse to attack those on the “other side” of the political fence.
Studying one’s opponent and attacking weakness is how one wins a war, and at the current, the Democrats are doing just that if one perceives politics as war. Then again, it was Carl Von Clausewits who said, “Politics is just warfare by other means.”
Who can blame them? If the shoe were on the other foot, Republicans would be doing the same thing. Sniping, biting and scratching for the soul of a nation in order to implement their agenda, not caring about the outcome, just the win. Whomever comes out on top in the coming years, it will surely be a Pyrrhic victory at best, the shambles of a nation left in ruin to be scooped up by whomever survives. Such is the nature of political warfare today and the battle for the hearts and minds of the people they govern.
However, painting anyone that is not of the liberal mindset with the broad brush of guilt and shame because of the actions at the Capitol Building smacks of the hysteria and insanity of the McCarthy period, but this time, cloaked in wokeism, a wokeism that’s attacking free speech, freedom of expression and enacting censorship on collegiate campuses, once the hope and home of speech itself.
There are further examples of this type of extremism as well dating back to the French Revolution when one could be, and was, executed for simply being perceived as not supporting the revolution. That’s all it took, a perception, and one lost their head over the matter…literally. Calls for “re-education”, “de-programming”, and other such extremism by many on the left are not far from this reality. Friends turning in friends, relatives turning in relatives is just the beginning. Fear is becoming the order of the day, rather than rational discourse, fanatics be damned.
To be sure, the tragedy of the Capitol Building attack was both a dark day and unprecedented in our nation’s history; that cannot be understated. Those that perpetrated that heinous act must be rounded up, prosecuted and imprisoned for as long as the law allows. A direct frontal assault on our nation cannot be tolerated by any one or any one group no matter their political affiliation.
The caution here, however, is to not paint those with conservative or libertarian viewpoints as complicit in, or approving of such a dastardly event. To do so would be to revisit Joseph McCarthy’s almost pogrom of the 1950’s, one that was punitive and destructive in itself. We have a chance to not allow history to repeat itself. I wonder if we will.