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Lessons in Witch-Hunting: a Warning for the State Department

A letter, signed by 18 Democrats of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has made its way to Secretary of State John Kerry in an attempt to ward off a potential witch hunt of foreign affairs civil servants who worked on key Obama foreign policies. The letter comes on the heels of an allegedly unofficial request by President-elect Donald Trump to identify and name those within the Energy Department who had worked specifically on climate change.[1]

The letter asserts that any “retribution,” whether “illegal” or legal, yet “unethical,” against such personnel will be fought by the Democratic Party. That the future Trump administration was gearing up for a purge of the state department was made implicit.

More than a warning, the letter should serve as a lesson on how quickly, and seemingly official, a political assumption of bad faith, based on no substantial evidence, can take on an air of legitimacy. As a tweet by Representative Karen Bass of California last Thursday suggested, such plans for a purge were already underway. Americans, she pledged, needed to “Resist the Trump transition witch hunt at the State Department!”

Indeed, there has been no suggestion of a witch hunt in the state department or for the retribution of its employees for involvement in any Obama administration policies by the President-elect.

Nevertheless, the letter does serve to warn of the particular vulnerability Foreign Service officers and government civil servants face in an atmosphere of political recrimination, especially one that the President-elect has been a vocal part of.

The McCarthy era of personal attacks, recriminations for the “loss of China”, the intense fear and hatred of communism and the heated partisanship that plagued the early 1950’s destroyed a whole generation of Foreign Service officers. It resulted in the termination of thousands from government service under erroneous accusations of homosexuality, disloyalty, lewd behaviour, incompetence or for associating with communists.

That such charges were politically indefensible in their ambiguity made little difference. As the case of John S. Service – a 17-year state department veteran and China hand – is indicative of. Forced into unending security reviews due to McCarthyist charges of disloyalty, espionage and harbouring pro-communist sympathies, Service cleared each one (nine in all) until Truman was forced to change the loyalty criteria from “reasonable grounds” to “reasonable doubt”.

The board had found Service not guilty of disloyalty. But based “on a single episode which occurred six and a half years ago”, remarked Service, for which he had been “tried and unanimously acquitted at least nine times”, there was now, retroactively, ‘reasonable doubt’ as to his actions and therefore loyalty. He was summarily dismissed in 1950.

Indeed the list goes on. China hand John F. Melby was fired for an association with an “alleged” communist member, Lillian Hellman. John Carter Vincent was let go by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on the grounds that there was reasonable doubt as to his conduct, which included (entirely reasonable) “studied criticism of the Chiang Kai-shek government”; “indifference to any evidence that the Chinese Communists were affiliated with or controlled by the USSR” (which proved true in 1959) and; his purported “close association with numerous persons who he had reason to believe were either Communists or Communist sympathizers,” (which was quiet normal, despite the implication).

O. Edmund Clubb was initially fired on the grounds that he had a very brief encounter with ex-communist Whittaker Chambers in 1932. John Paton Davies was fired by Dulles for a suggestion he made for a CIA operation into China using, among others, alleged communists.

The problem with such accusations was that once named there was almost nothing that could be done to counter such claims.

Such was the political atmosphere that it erased, almost in its entirety, the state department’s China experts. Those that weren’t persecuted and/or fired were shipped off to far away posts, in the hope to avoid McCarthy’s charges but nevertheless never to return to their area of expertise.

The implications of such attacks were irreversible. The Foreign Service, George F. Kennan wrote in 1957, had been “weakened beyond real hope of recovery”. John K. Fairbank wrote not long afterwards, the “widespread subpoena of China scholars had the public effect of inhibiting realistic thinking about China.” The most disastrous of consequences of this turn of events Fairbank stated, was that the results “carried over into unrealistic thinking about Chinese relations with Vietnam and helped to produce our difficulties there.

The encouragement by Eisenhower in 1953 of this purge had its grounding in an atmosphere similar to the one that exists today. Although Eisenhower wasn’t complicit in the emergence of the ‘retribution’ movement his endorsement of it, and his subsequent purges, proved to strengthen its legitimacy and longevity.

Not incidentally, the state department under the Eisenhower administration became devoid of any independent, critical thinking. China policy became moribund in its intransigence to any recognition of Communist China. It was to deny the recognition of reality, the Administration’s critics concluded at the time (including, for the most part, the allies), and therefore had no basis in sound policy.

In the State Department, one post from the Washington Post wrote, “Honest reporting” had become “verboten.” The Foreign Service officer “is given to understand that any enterprise on his part to find out, assay, and asses is taboo.”

The turmoil of Trump’s successful campaign has not devolved to such low levels of recrimination just yet. Although similarities, too an extent, exist today.

For instance there has been no language among Trump supporters considered too derogatory, too demeaning in describing their feelings toward former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Hang the b****,” was not a one-off slogan, nor was it the most offensive slur. That the president-elect was disposed to mouth and even encourage such vulgarity is indicative of a baser level of political skulduggery.

Does it yet suggest that such a witch hunt will become a feature of a Trump presidency? No. The letter to Kerry is itself an overreaction. No country has yet been “lost”. No anti-ideology has become so engrossing as anti-communism was in the 1950’s. And while the crusading [Senator Ted] Cruz offers a surrogacy for anti-Iran dealers and Israel lobby subjects he is no one issue man as Senator [Willliam F.] Knowland, Congressman [Walter] Judd, or Senator [Joseph] McCarthy were in 1953.

The letter was no less than a sore attempt to damage the credibility of the incoming president; to attach possibly the darkest of political pasts to his image. That it was unconvincing should not be surprising. Since the 20th century the Democrats have never been able to capture the populism, to garner the energy of the ‘mob,’ as the Republicans have. To outsmart Trump, the Democrats will need to do better.

The lesson of the 1950s however should be one that is not glossed over, forgotten or even used as a political tool. They should be studied so that they never occur again.



More articles by:

Adam Bartley is a Researcher and PhD candidate at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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