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Decency Lost: McCarthyism Revisited

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Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC by 2.0

With unsurprising convenience, a growing chant can be heard from a choir of lay scholars who find revisionist console in diluting the aim and reach of what was the very real, dark and damning nativist clutch of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Like its political ancestor, today’s cheap sale does great damage to not just truth but, as important, the survivors and memory of the generational victims of a domestic political purge come to be known as simply McCarthyism.

From social media pundits to accomplished bloggers, trendy journal keepers and political gurus, a partisan echo can be heard that reduces any attempt to investigate institutional accountability to little more than a global witch hunt that targets the vulnerable super rich, the powerful and the despots among us…  be they the current resident of the White House, the Kremlin or offshore banks.

Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit.  Let them eat caviar. Better still, a one way ticket to the Bastille, for them all, will not leave me with an overwhelming sense of lament or loss.

McCarthyism, by its very definition, was the storied practice of manipulating facts through accusations of “disloyalty”… especially through pro-Communist activity… based upon little more than speech, association or artistic voice… as if that matters ,at all, given the intended broad reach of the First Amendment.

Had it just stopped there, veterans of the day would have little more to complain of than, perhaps, noxious harassment that sought to mute or compartmentalize a diverse and unorthodox chorus into neat political and social “norms.”

After-all, the rush to mandate the political culture of a given era has, in the United States, become very much the routine ritual that provides cover for arbitrary purpose and power whether it be the prevailing winds that blow across our political bow from the East… or the West.

No, McCarthyism was much more than purification of language and view in the broadest sense. It was a calculated, vicious drive to control the tenor of the times as it aimed to vanquish individual thought as so much a compelled, but necessary, sacrifice to “patriotic” group speaks.

During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists, or sympathizers, and became the targets of aggressive inquisition before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies.

Most of those, so marked, paid dearly for their voice or vision with the number imprisoned for their alleged beliefs or associations running into the many hundreds. Often, simply being subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) or one of the other “security” committees of the day… such as the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee  or the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations… was sufficient cause to be fired.

Indeed, between 1949 and 1954, it is estimated some ten to twelve thousand people lost their livelihood falling victim to an environment of fear and repression generated by various Congressional Committees that held a total of 109 separate “loyalty” investigations.

Though remembered largely for HUAC, the campaign to cleanse the United States of “seditious” political, cultural or social diversity had its genesis well before McCarthy grabbed his damning 15 minutes of fame.

As very much a cheap stench of what was yet to come, the first legislative salvo against the artificial threat of Communist subversion was empowered through a series of federal laws.

Under the Alien Registration Act or Smith Act of 1940 it was a criminal offense for anyone to “knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise or teach the […] desirability or propriety of overthrowing the Government of the United States or of any State by force or violence, or for anyone to organize any association which teaches, advises or encourages such an overthrow, or for anyone to become a member of or to affiliate with any such association”.

Between the start of World War II through well after the armistice in Korea, hundreds of communists and alleged supporters were prosecuted under this law.

In 1949, eleven leaders of the Communist Party were convicted under the Smith Act; ten received sentences of five years, the eleventh three years. Several of their defense attorneys were, themselves, imprisoned having been held in contempt of court. Two years later, twenty-three other leaders of the party were indicted… including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a founder of the ACLU.

In 1952, Albert J. Lima, a Latino community activist, who ran twice, unsuccessfully, in California as a Communist candidate for the House of Representatives and 13 others were convicted of threatening to overthrow the United States government.

By 1957, 140 leaders and members of the Communist Party had been prosecuted under the law, with 93 convicted on the basis of little more than speech and association propped up by government induced false testimony.

In quick succession, other national laws laid the ominous footing of McCarthyism well before the Senator himself had a chance to deceptively proclaim that he had a list of 205 known members of the Communist Party who were “working and shaping policy” in the State Department.

For example, the McCarran Internal Security Act, which became law in 1950, required the registration of Communist organizations with the Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board to investigate so-called Communist-front organizations so they could be required to register.

In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality, or McCarran-Walter Act, was passed which allowed the government to deport immigrants or naturalized citizens engaged in “subversive” activities and to bar suspected subversives from entering the country.

In 1954, the Communist Control Act  was passed as an adjunct to the Internal Security Act of 1950. It sought to outlaw the Communist Party by declaring that the party, as well as other “Communist-Infiltrated Organizations”, were “not entitled to any of the rights, privileges, and immunities attendant upon legal bodies.”

In 1954, this Act was used to prevent Communist Party members from running for political office in New Jersey. In 1960, it was cited to deny the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) lawful status as an employer under New York State’s unemployment compensation system.

Not to be outdone by Congressional pandering to a public looking for a new generation of women to be hanged as witches, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower gladly joined the torch lit parades of the day.

Under Truman’s Executive Order 9835 of 1947, all federal civil service employees were required to be screened for “loyalty.” In relevant part, the order said that one basis for determining disloyalty would be a finding of “membership in, affiliation with, or sympathetic association” with any organization determined by the Attorney General to be “totalitarian, Fascist, Communist or subversive.

When Eisenhower took office in 1953, he expanded Truman’s loyalty review program while limiting appellate rights available to the many government employees dismissed on the basis of mere political belief or unacceptable party affiliation or sympathy.

One such victim of the political purge was J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb. Then working as a consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance and, essentially, driven from his chosen field following a “fact finding” hearing.

During the same period, various states and municipalities enlisted in the palpable rampage against speech and association by enacting statutes against criminal anarchy and criminal syndicalism.

Although ultimately struck down as unconstitutional, or repealed, local governments banned Communists and other subversives from public employment or receiving public aid, demanded loyalty oaths from employees, or restricted or proscribed the Communist party as a whole.

Some states had their own equivalent to HUAC… including California which established the California Senate Factfinding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities.

Others passed draconian laws that targeted political organizations or activists within their own state lines.

Thus, in 1950, Michigan passed a law which called for a sentence of life imprisonment for subversive propaganda. A year later, Tennessee approved the death penalty for mere advocacy of the violent overthrow of the government. The death penalty for nothing more than membership in the Communist party was widely discussed and supported in Texas.

New York had laws that prohibited state employees from belonging to any organization that advocated the overthrow of the US government or was “treasonous” or “seditious.”

The regents of the State University of New York required teachers and employees to sign an oath that they were not members of the Communist Party. Those faculty and staff who refused to sign the oath were fired. In 1952 the New York City Board of Education dismissed a public school teacher because of his previous “connection” to the CPUSA.

Reaching levels of absurdity, those applying for licenses to fish in New York reservoirs had to sign loyalty oaths.

During the same period, in 1950, thirty-one professors, after refusing to sign a loyalty oath, were dismissed from the University of California. Not long thereafter, the Los Angeles City Council enacted anti-Communist ordinances that required local Communists to register with the Police Department and prohibited any Communist or “Muscovite model of police-state dictatorship” from owning a firearm. In Birmingham, Alabama and Jacksonville, Florida, Communists were banned from being within the city limits.

Like blind oaths, proper patriotism knows neither bounds nor modesty, whether in government or out, as private agencies and groups willingly volunteered during this time to ensure the proper decorum of speech and association.

At its height McCarthyism was supported by a variety of private groups, including, predictably, the American Legion and a number of women’s organizations such as the American Public Relations Forum and the Minute Women of the U.S.A. Both were fiercely anti-communist with thousands of their membership organized into study groups and letter-writing networks that worked to identify and stamp out perceived subversion.

Private loyalty review boards and anti-communist investigators found bountiful work in industries anxious to ensure their employees had the appropriate beliefs. For a fee, these teams would investigate employees and question them about their political identity and affiliations at informal hearings where their attendance was mandated… but their right to counsel disavowed.

By 1958, it was estimated that roughly one out of every five employees in the United States was required to pass some sort of loyalty review which was often cross referenced against a private nationwide data bank.

This collection of personal information contained detailed referenced lists of leftist organizations, publications, rallies and charities along with a registry of those known or suspected to be Communists. Books and newsletters, such as Red Channels , Counterattack and Confidential Information were published by private organizations to monitor and share the identity of Communist and leftist organizations and individuals.

Not to be outdone by private patriots, in the vanguard of our national defense against the Communist menace stood, of course, the Department of Justice which started maintaining a list of “subversives” as early as 1942. Made public in 1948, when it included 78 groups, the list grew to include some 154 organizations… 110 of them identified as Communist.

FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, was the architect of President Truman’s loyalty security program with its background investigations of employees carried out by his agents. As a result of these investigations, thousands of government workers lost their jobs without the benefit of any due process whatsoever.  Most targets of loyalty security reviews were not allowed to cross-examine or even know the identities of their accusers. Often, they were fired without learning of what they had been accused.

Although the results of Hoover’s loyalty screening program were to be maintained as strictly confidential, “evidence”  developed through the investigations (reliable or otherwise) was routinely shared with other government and private entities.

For example, information was provided to Congressional committees such as HUAC.  So, too, from 1951-1955 the FBI operated a secret “Responsibilities Program” that distributed anonymous, unreliable documents to state governors and civic leaders pertaining to alleged communist “affiliations” by teachers, lawyers, and other professionals. Many of the accused were promptly fired without any notice of consequence or other fundamental due process.

Never known to be uncomfortable with skirting the very laws they were sworn to uphold, during this frenzied period of subversive hunt the FBI engaged in a wide range of illegal practices as it tried to build so-called loyalty cases against Communists or sympathizers. Indeed, agents routinely undertook warrantless searches, burglaries, illegal wiretaps and opened mail.

The National Lawyers Guild, then at the forefront of the defense of many Communist-related cases, was a favorite target of the FBI with its offices burgled by agents at least fourteen times between 1947 and 1951 as they sought to uncover legal strategies of NLG defense attorneys.

On other occasions, the FBI used illegal undercover operations to disrupt Communist and other dissident political groups, meetings and speak outs. In 1956, this strategy led directly to Hoover formalizing a covert “dirty tricks” program under the name COINTELPRO… short for Counterintelligence Program.

Initially designed to disrupt the activities of the CPUSA in short order, and over the following 15 years, it went on to target all major domestic civil rights organizations… with a particular focus on such groups as the Black Panther Party, the Latino organization, the Young Lords, the American Indian Movement (AIM), Students for a Democratic Society, and the Socialist Workers Party.

In Hoover’s own words, a now declassified 1967 document set forth the willful criminal use of COINTELPRO:

. . . to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters

The government goal to disrupt and destroy these movements was accomplished through a wide range of largely lawless activity. It included planting forged documents, smear campaigns and blackmail, leaking information to the press, unleashing IRS audits, physical harassment and intimidation.

COINTELPRO resulted in various show trials designed to tie up activists, their lawyers and resources… usually ending in acquittals and, often, with those charged spending many months in jail awaiting trial.

Numerous targeted activists were sent to prison on the basis of fabricated evidence and testimony from paid government informants. Others were murdered… in particular, members of the Black Panther Party including Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

Though formally “disbanded” when exposed in 1971, COINTELPRO tactics remained very much the hallmark of the FBI attack on AIM. Virtually every known AIM leader, since the organization’s emergence in 1968, was incarcerated… some time and time again.

In 1973, during the 71 day siege at Wounded Knee, the FBI fired over 250,000 rounds of ammunition into the Tribal Reserve… killing two Natives whose deaths were never investigated.

After the standoff ended, the FBI caused 542 separate charges to be filed against those identified as key AIM leaders. This resulted in only 15 convictions, all on petty offenses. As with the persecution of the Black Panther Party, AIM members often languished in jail for months on end unable to raise bail.

HUAC

Of all the high profile Congressional loyalty programs, the one most active was the House Un-American Activities Committee which initiated a televised effort, it professed, to identify and eradicate Communist subversion in the United States.

Although HUAC also targeted educators, union activists and State Department “liberals”, it achieved its greatest notoriety through its harassment, indeed purge, of the Hollywood film industry.

In October 1947, the Committee began to subpoena screenwriters, directors, and other film industry members to testify about their known, or suspected, membership, or association, with the Communist Party and/or any support of its beliefs.

It was at these appearances that what came to be known as “the $64,000 question” was routinely asked: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”

Among the first movie industry witnesses who appeared before the Committee were ten who decided not to cooperate with its investigation. Known as the “Hollywood Ten“, these men cited the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and assembly which they believed provided them ample protection from being required to answer the Committee’s questions. Falling on deaf ears, this defense proved to be, at the time, but an abstract constitutional shibboleth… as the ten were ultimately sentenced to prison for contempt of Congress. Two of the ten were sentenced to six months, the rest to a year.

The day after the House of Representatives approved citations of contempt for the Hollywood Ten, the President of the Motion Picture Association of America issued a press release on behalf of all of the major studios. Known simply as the Waldorf Statement, with patriotic flare, it announced the Hollywood Ten had been fired and would not work again until they renounced Communism. In relevant part, the release went on to proclaim that “We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States.”

This was to unleash the decade-long artistic purge known simply as the Hollywood Blacklist. Though hundreds would be denied employment, with many forced to find work outside their chosen field or under pseudonyms or abroad, the studios, producers and other employers denied the existence of any such blacklist.

Not satisfied with the damage already done by their televised political inquisition, HUAC continued to subpoena additional witnesses connected to the entertainment industry and government agencies.

Although many of the next generation of witnesses successfully invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination before the Committee, and were thus safely beyond the reach of its questions, it was not without adverse consequence.

Now known as “Fifth Amendment Communists”, a soubriquet coined by Senator Joseph McCarthy, this particular constitutional protection proved too little too late, when it came to careers, as its invocation was deemed grounds for dismissal by various government and private industry employers.

Indeed, in the film industry alone it is estimated that more than 300 actors, authors and directors were denied work in the U.S. because of “questionable” political beliefs or associations.

During this period, blacklists were by no means limited to the entertainment industry alone. For example, it is estimated that nearly 3000 seaman and longshoremen lost their jobs, not long after the start of the Korean War, due to a loyalty review program initiated by the Coast Guard.

Under this program, long employed workers were summarily fired on the basis of accusations which, all at once, challenged their patriotism yet kept secret the identity of their accusers and the nature of any accusations lodged against them.

Within the trade union movement, as a whole, the government moved with swift pace to control the political tone of its membership. Thus under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 all union officials were required to sign an affidavit affirming they didn’t belong to, or sympathize with, any communist or subversive organization.

Unions, with officials who refused to sign the affidavit, were denied any government protection through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Unions that failed to sign the affidavits could not participate in NLRB elections or challenge unfair labor practices directly to the NLRB.

Enter Senator McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy spent almost five years trying, without success, to expose alleged Communists and other left-wing “loyalty risks” both in the U.S. government and out. In the hyper-charged atmosphere of the Cold War, McCarthy’s witch hunt, fueled by sweeping claims of disloyalty, was enough to convince many Americans that their government was overrun with traitors and spies.

Given the times, and McCarthy’s bluster, his accusations, alone, were so menacing, and strangely credible, that few “ordinary” Americans dared to challenge, or to look beyond, his simplistic patriotic screed. Others of political prominence or office feared, as well, to challenge his shrill bombast lest their own loyalty become suspect.

As noted by a Gallop poll in 1954, at the height of his popularity a majority of Americans supported McCarthy even as he blindly railed against long accomplished institutions and individuals on the basis of little more than explosive rhetoric and unsubstantiated accusations.  Indeed, at the time, Earl Warren, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court opined that if the Bill of Rights was put to a vote it likely would have lost. It seems history does, in fact, repeat itself.

From 1953 to 1954, McCarthy headed the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations  which he used to its full tyrannical potential for a number of his “Red Scare” investigations that ultimately proved to be a complete waste of time and expense. During these hearings, witnesses were badgered… and lives destroyed … by explosive accusations of Communist subversion that proved to be groundless.

At first, the McCarthy inquisition raised allegations of pervasive Communist influence in the staffing and content of Voice of America. It failed.

Next, he moved on to the overseas library program of the State Department. Demanding its card catalogues, McCarthy vetted them for publications he considered to be subversive. Reciting the list of authors, and their books, which he deemed to be “un-American” before his Committee and the press, the State Department and many libraries in the US were cowered into removing the books from circulation.

It is estimated that some three hundred books were removed from library shelves…  with some being burned. They included Robin Hood, Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. In Providence, Rhode Island, the post office barred Lenin’s State and Revolution from being delivered to Brown University.

McCarthy’s committee then began an investigation into the United States Army with televised hearings watched by 20 million people.  Beginning with the Army Signal Corps  laboratory at Fort Monmouth, McCarthy once again made headlines through wild baseless claims of a spy ring among the Army researchers at the base.

One line of examination by McCarthy of Stanley Berinsky, a civilian worker for the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, about the political affiliations of his mother  speaks volumes about the Red Scare of the day. “Did you ever ask her if she was a communist? …When you went to see her, weren’t you curious?”

Needless to say, nothing came of this particular investigation, either.

Next, McCarthy took on an Army dentist who had been promoted to the rank of major despite his refusal to answer questions on a loyalty review form.

During this inquest, McCarthy levied various public insults at a brigadier general which led to the Army-McCarthy hearings… with the two trading charges and counter-charges for more than a month before a national television audience seemingly fixated on the proceedings.

Following this public exposure, McCarthy’s popularity dropped precipitously. Not long thereafter he was censured by the Senate and his calling as the country’s leading red-baiter ended.

It is difficult to estimate the number of victims of McCarthy, or the era from which he sprang, and which he subsequently came to personify.  McCarthy sought to promote himself as the guardian of social morality… as the embodiment of certain rigid values and traditions which he, and others of the day, falsely found to reflect uniformity of belief and purpose.

While America, as a whole, was assaulted by the poisoned pledge that McCarthyism promoted, tens of thousands of its citizens felt the immediate injury of his political cleanse through the loss of jobs, opportunity and hope. Millions were formally investigated. Thousands lost their liberty or reputation. Many fled the United States to find freedom abroad no longer available to them at home. Still, others took their own lives from the desperation fed by the narrow and hateful voice of a man who would stop at nothing to promote his agenda.

We are a people that generally applaud success and recognize accomplishment. In that light, some of the notable persons who were blacklisted or suffered other persecution during McCarthyism, and which follows, provides a dramatic view of just how damning and far its reach existed in the United States:

+ Nelson Algren, writer

+ Lucille Ball, actress, model, and film studio executive.

+ Alvah Bessie, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, writer, journalist, screenwriter, Hollywood Ten

+ Elmer Bernstein, composer and conductor

+ Leonard Bernstein, conductor, pianist, composer

+ David Bohm, physicist and philosopher

+ Bertolt Brecht, poet, playwright, screenwriter

+ Archie Brown, Abraham Lincoln Brigade, WW II vet, union leader, imprisoned. Successfully challenged Landrum–Griffin Act provision

+ Esther Brunauer, forced from the U.S. State Department

+ Luis Buñuel, film director, producer

+ Charlie Chaplin, actor and director

+ Aaron Copland, composer

+ Bartley Crum, attorney

+ Howard Da Silva, actor

+ Jules Dassin, director

+ Dolores del Río, actress

+ Edward Dmytryk, director, Hollywood Ten

W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights activist and author

+ George A. Eddy, pre-Keynesian Harvard economist, US Treasury monetary policy specialist

+ Albert Einstein, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, philosopher, mathematician, activist

+ Hanns Eisler, composer

+ Howard Fast, writer

+ Lion Feuchtwanger, novelist and playwright

+ Carl Foreman, writer of High Noon

+ John Garfield, actor

+ Jack Gilford, actor

+ Allen Ginsberg, poet

+ Ruth Gordon, actress

+ Lee Grant, actress

+ Dashiell Hammett, author

+ Elizabeth Hawes, clothing designer, author, equal rights activist

+ Lillian Hellman, playwright

+Dorothy Healey, union organizer, CPUSA official

+ Lena Horne, singer

+ Langston Hughes, writer, poet, playwright

+ Marsha Hunt, actress

+ Sam Jaffe, actor

+ Theodore Kaghan, diplomat

+ Garson Kanin, writer and director

+ Danny Kaye, comedian, singer, actor

+ Benjamin Keen, historian

+ Otto Klemperer, conductor and composer

+ Gypsy Rose Lee, actress and stripper

+ Cornelius Lanczos, mathematician and physicist

+ Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriter, Hollywood Ten

+ Arthur Laurents, playwright

+ Philip Loeb, actor

+ Joseph Losey, director

+ Albert Maltz, screenwriter, Hollywood Ten

+ Heinrich Mann, novelist

+ Klaus Mann, writer

+ Thomas Mann, Nobel Prize winning novelist and essayist

+ Burgess Meredith, actor

+ Arthur Miller, playwright and essayist

+ Jessica Mitford, author, muckraker. Refused to testify to HUAC.

+ Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor, pianist, composer

+ Zero Mostel, actor

+ Joseph Needham, biochemist, sinologist, historian of science

+ J. Robert Oppenheimer, physicist, scientific director of the Manhattan Project

+ Dorothy Parker, writer, humorist

+ Linus Pauling, chemist, Nobel prizes for Chemistry and Peace

+ Samuel Reber, diplomat

+ Al Richmond, union organizer, editor

+ Martin Ritt, actor and director

+ Paul Robeson, actor, athlete, singer, writer, political activist

+ Edward G. Robinson, actor

+ Waldo Salt, screenwriter

+ Jean Seberg, actress

+ Pete Seeger, folk singer, songwriter

+ Artie Shaw, jazz musician, bandleader, author

+ Irwin Shaw, writer

+ William L. Shirer, journalist, author

+ Lionel Stander, actor

+ Dirk Jan Struik, mathematician, historian of maths

+ Paul Sweezy, economist and founder-editor of Monthly Review

+ Charles W. Thayer, diplomat

+ Dalton Trumbo screenwriter, Hollywood Ten

+ Tsien Hsue-shen, physicist

+ Sam Wanamaker, actor, director, responsible for recreating Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, England.

+ Orson Welles, actor, author, film director

+ Gene Weltfish, anthropologist fired from Columbia University

The decade plus run of McCarthyism was not simply about red baiting or a drive to demand political purity or obedience whether in the workplace or the world of electoral politics, academia or entertainment.

At its core, McCarthyism demanded rigid uniformity in sexual identity and expression… and unleashed cold war attacks upon race and those who deviated from religious faith. It was also noted for sweeping conspiracy theories.

Not far from the shadow of World War II, social conformity became very much the rallying cry, across the country, in a staged shriek against communism.

No longer needed for the war industry, women were dropped from the work force and told to go home and become obedient housewives.  African American soldiers who fought in largely segregated units, and who survived, returned home to the pain and punishment of “separate but unequal”.  Meanwhile, American religion was fixated on what McCarthy called an “all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.”

While examples of each drive for cultural uniformity abound, several sum up the place and time that was America during its full-time chase for subversives.

Thus, while Jim Crow was at its zenith, African American civil rights organizations and activists were targeted for their alleged connection to communists who had long supported their struggle for equal rights.

Because of little more than his work in the civil rights movement, famed international actor and artist, Paul Robeson’s passport was seized by the Government… eliminating his ability to travel and earn a living.

Never one to be slowed or intimidated by government restriction, Robeson would speak to the roar of enormous rallies in Harlem and then move on to the next demonstration… despite ever-present FBI surveillance as it tried to build a subversion case against him.

In 1951, W. E. B. Du Bois, then 83 years of age (and a founder of the NAACP) was tried in federal court as a Soviet agent for little more than exercising his First Amendment rights through circulating a petition protesting nuclear weapons.

Branded “un-American”, the government argued Du Bois’ long relationship with the CPUSA,during his civil rights work, had led him to protest in order to advance American pacifism at a time when Soviet aggression was on the march.

Acquitted by a federal judge because prosecutors failed to present any evidence, nevertheless, the trial and attendant publicity ruined his career.

The following year, not satisfied with leaving Du Bois penniless, the State Department illegally revoked his passport to prevent his travel to a peace conference in Canada… and to thwart his move to a country where he was not blacklisted.

At the same time that Black activists were being harassed and imprisoned, cold war “warriors” routinely spoke of the core disconnect between “godless communism” and “god-fearing Americanism”.

Religious conservatives such as Baptist Minister, Billy Graham, exalted the idea of traditional god-fearing families as a bulwark against atheistic totalitarianism. In 1950, he preached that communism aimed to “destroy the American home and cause… moral deterioration.”

At times, the anti-internationalist aspect of red scare rhetoric and literature took on a rabid anti-Jewish tone because of the role that many Jews had played in both the Russian revolution and establishment of the Communist Party.

On the Senate floor, Senator J.W. Fulbright of Arkansas, the long-term Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee who supported multilateralism and opposed McCarthyism and HUAC, read from a letter he had received from the president of the Chemical Attraction Oil Corporation of Texas:

“When you joined the only Jew to vote against 76 Senators that proved you were the henchman of the Jew Deal. H. H. Lehman should be deported out of this nation to Russia, or let Germany take that ‘bird’ in and give him the gas, like Hitler did, as per my opinion of his record.”

The red scare produced more than a few sweeping conspiracies. For example, some in the McCarthy camp attacked the public health services particularly in the areas of vaccination, mental health and fluoridation as communist plots to poison or brainwash the American people.

The “lavender scare” drove cold war attacks on “homosexuality” with a hunt for “sexual perverts” who were presumed to be subversive by nature and, thus, a threat to state security.

Having heard the State Department was employing gay staff members, and never one to miss an opportunity to manipulate American fears, McCarthy was the prime mover in the establishment of an FBI surveillance program intended to identify gay and lesbian government employees.  As a result, thousands lost their employment in the name of protecting “national security.”

One tragedy, in particular, sums up the convergence of cold war homophobia and its exploitation by the political thirst of Joe McCarthy… which knew no bounds.

In 1954, a sitting Democratic Senator was found dead inside his Senate office.  A year earlier, his son had been arrested and convicted of soliciting sex with a male undercover police officer. Looking to pick up a Senate seat for the Republican Party, McCarthy threatened to expose the event as a scandal, in the Senator’s campaign, if he did not withdraw his bid for re-election. Two weeks later, Senator Lester Hunt of Wyoming committed suicide.

Fast Forward… 2017

“It’s McCarthyism”…   Nonsense.

I’ve known victims of McCarthyism; real life artists, activists, lawyers, educators, writers, union organizers and street corner screamers. Women and men of diverse race, faith, political belief and sexual identity they took seriously their commitment to their own unique voice, vision and skill. These were people of great courage and principle… of loud and soft presence… who sacrificed much as they fought to make a difference in a world they struggled to leave better than that which they had inherited.

It’s very difficult to read the history of McCarthyism, even an abbreviated version, without feeling some sense of the direct, immediate pain and punishment an entire nation was subjected to in one of the most politically charged, indeed explosive, periods in US history.

Whether it was the hundreds that went to prison, the tens of thousands that lost their livelihood, the millions investigated, a nation cowered to silence, or those who preferred death to the fear of tomorrow, McCarthyism was not an abstract debate. It was a nightmare… a real, seemingly timeless, repeat that passed victims from inquisition to inquisition with no relief in sight.

The red scare was much more than an intangible political thought about the course of the future. It was not an evening’s amusement for those who race to hear stories that cheer on their particular hero of the day or demonize an expedient foe. Nor was it virtual information fodder for activists of the moment to fill their blog page with artisan passage of the next day.

No, the witch hunt that was McCarthy ripped a real, immediate, and deep hole in the liberty and light that dared to entice people to express themselves and to do so in ways that were personal and, at times, provocative.

The women and men who paid the price for their association and expression were much more than interesting passing footnotes to a now silenced historical sideshow.

Yet, today, for some, their sacrifice has been reduced to an opportune shroud to provide cover for what a narrow group did or did not do during this past election and in the years to its run-up.

For months, now, we’ve heard simple chants of “McCarthy” as partisans have apparently grown fatigued… others, perhaps, fearful of what a search for truth may or may not reveal.

I’ve spent more than three decades shredding or putting together cases, criminal and civil, in state, federal and international courtrooms…often high profile, complex litigation. More than a few were matters handled in quiet and well beyond the reach of the public eye. The search for truth is not a quick-speak or a head-note to be embraced, or rejected, by simple majority vote or process.

I have no idea what an intensive and widespread investigation will, or will not, ultimately reveal about what a small group of individuals, perhaps entities, did or did not do in their conspicuous chase to obtain more and more personal wealth or political power.

But to hear a necessary search to hold accountable those that may have done so, politicized by passion and silenced by secret, is to craft a double standard of law that sends millions of poor, political and powerless to prison while providing a free passageway to those that have usurped their collective rights.

“It’s McCarthyism”…  Nonsense.

More articles by:

Stanley L. Cohen is lawyer and activist in New York City.

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Republican Tax Cuts: You’re Right, They’re Not About Economic Growth or Lifting Working-Class Incomes
Edward Hunt
Reconciling With Extremists in Afghanistan
Dave Lindorff
Remembering Media Critic Ed Herman
Nick Pemberton
What to do About Al Franken?
November 21, 2017
Gregory Elich
What is Behind the Military Coup in Zimbabwe?
Louisa Willcox
Rising Grizzly Bear Deaths Raise Red Flag About Delisting
David Macaray
My Encounter With Charles Manson
Patrick Cockburn
The Greatest Threats to the Middle East are Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman
Stephen Corry
OECD Fails to Recognize WWF Conservation Abuses
James Rothenberg
We All Know the Rich Don’t Need Tax Cuts
Elizabeth Keyes
Let There be a Benign Reason For Someone to be Crawling Through My Window at 3AM!
L. Ali Khan
The Merchant of Weapons
Thomas Knapp
How to Stop a Rogue President From Ordering a Nuclear First Strike
Lee Ballinger
Trump v. Marshawn Lynch
Michael Eisenscher
Donald Trump, Congress, and War with North Korea
Tom H. Hastings
Reckless
Franklin Lamb
Will Lebanon’s Economy Be Crippled?
Linn Washington Jr.
Forced Anthem Adherence Antithetical to Justice
Nicolas J S Davies
Why Do Civilians Become Combatants In Wars Against America?
November 20, 2017
T.J. Coles
Doomsday Scenarios: the UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About the Prospect of Nuclear War and Accident
Peter Linebaugh
On the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest
Patrick Bond
Zimbabwe Witnessing an Elite Transition as Economic Meltdown Looms
Sheldon Richman
Assertions, Facts and CNN
Ben Debney
Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?
LV Filson
Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine
Thomas Knapp
Impeachment Theater, 2017 Edition
Binoy Kampmark
Trump in Asia
Curtis FJ Doebbler
COP23: Truth Without Consequences?
Louisa Willcox
Obesity in Bears: Vital and Beautiful
Deborah James
E-Commerce and the WTO
Ann Garrison
Burundi Defies the Imperial Criminal Court: an Interview with John Philpot
Robert Koehler
Trapped in ‘a Man’s World’
Stephen Cooper
Wiping the Stain of Capital Punishment Clean
Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
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