You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Devils in America

Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America
By Ted Morgan
(Random House, 685 pp., $35) 

NEARLY FIFTY YEARS AGO the United States Senate voted to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy. Within three years of his disgrace, McCarthy was dead, his health destroyed by heavy drinking. His time in the limelight had been brief. In February 1950, the heretofore obscure first-term senator from Wisconsin had catapulted himself onto the national stage with an angry speech in Wheeling, West Virginia charging that the Truman administration had tolerated the presence of dozens of communists in the Department of State. He quickly became a staple on the front pages of American newspapers with his accusations of numerous covert communists undermining American policies and institutions, going so far as to link such prominent Americans as Dean Acheson and George Marshall to “a conspiracy so immense” as to threaten the integrity of the American political system. By 1954, his own Senate colleagues, acting with the covert acquiescence of both President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon, had repudiated him. 

The political movement to which McCarthy gave his name did not survive his political repudiation. By the mid-1950s, the fervent anti-communism that he symbolized was already fading. The world communist movement, shaken by the struggles for the Soviet succession after Stalin’s death, fell into crisis after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the revelations of Soviet anti-Semitism, and Khrushchev’s secret speech admitting Stalin’s crimes. At home, in a series of important decisions, the Supreme Court limited the scope of the congressional investigations on which McCarthy had thrived and gutted congressional legislation used to prosecute and to persecute American communists. By the end of the 1950s, in sum, the communist issue, for years one of the most urgent and inflammatory features of American politics, no longer had much traction. 

But the term “McCarthyism” has had a far longer afterlife. Leftists have used it to demonize any criticism of communists. Certain historians have blamed McCarthyism for every evil in modern American life, from lousy movies to the slow development of the civil rights movement, and labeled all varieties of anti-communism as species of McCarthyism. The first version of the National Standards for History for high school students, released in 1994, mentions McCarthy and McCarthyism twenty times, lavishing more attention on him than any other politician in recent American history and suggesting that the entire anti- communist movement was guilty of violating fundamental American values. 

Material emerging from both Russian and American archives after 1991 emboldened some conservatives to attempt to rehabilitate McCarthy. Not only were Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg indeed guilty as charged of providing aid to the Soviet Union, but also hundreds of Americans had collaborated with Soviet intelligence agencies, lending credence to McCarthy’s charges of a vast subversive conspiracy. In 2000, Arthur Herman produced the first avowedly sympathetic biography in decades, and Ann Coulter’s crass apologia for McCarthy, in an aptly McCarthyite spirit called Treason, became a best-seller last year, charging that “crying ‘McCarthyism’ is the coward’s version of fatwa” and that liberals had engaged in “a bellicose campaign of lies to blacken McCarthy’s name.” 

Many of the recent defenders of McCarthy have emphasized the extent of Soviet espionage directed against the United States while minimizing how ineffective and counter-productive his investigations of it were. McCarthy’s critics have denied or minimized the threat of communist subversion while highlighting his abusive, scurrilous, and often wrongheaded charges. Ted Morgan manages to avoid the errors of both camps, properly characterizing the senator’s activities as “an exaggerated reaction to a real threat.” McCarthyism was no reign of terror, Morgan believes, but “a series of scattered outbreaks” that targeted, often with poor aim, a political movement that was itself a pathology of democratic society. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) had a long history of serving as a front for Soviet espionage. Although the vast majority of American communists were not spies, several hundred communists did cooperate with the NKVD and the GRU with the acquiescence of the Party’s leadership. 

The author of previous books on intelligence and on Jay Lovestone, the one- time leader of the American Communist Party, Morgan is splendidly equipped to assess both the danger to American security posed by Soviet spies and the danger to American liberties posed by McCarthy. His new book is measured and thoughtful, when it sticks to its theme. But frequent sallies into tangential issues and topics weaken its force, and Morgan’s surprisingly immoderate conclusions undercut his own arguments about McCarthy. 

 JOSEPH MCCARTHY DOES NOT MAKE an appearance in this very long book until page 325. Instead Morgan begins with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and meanders through chapters on Lenin’s ties to the German government, American intervention in the Russian Civil War, and Herbert Hoover’s mission to feed famine-stricken Russia in the early 1920s. While there is a kernel of relevance to these discussions (Morgan argues that the Cold War really began in 1919 and that the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in more than seventy years of open and concealed conflict), they could have been greatly condensed. Still, it is useful to be reminded that anti-communists sometimes fell for forged documents or that nave liberals sometimes sugarcoated communist atrocities long before McCarthy got involved in the anti-communist cause. 

More germane to Morgan’s argument is his demonstration that the American government’s repression of radicalism was often a response to a real threat of subversion. The first “Red Scare” was prompted by left-wing violence. A group of Italian anarchists, led by Luigi Galleani, launched a terrorist campaign in 1914. In 1919 more than thirty bombs targeted opponents of radicalism including Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Rockefeller, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and a variety of United States Senators. The newly organized communist parties created underground wings and issued blood-curdling threats about overthrowing the government. Outraged citizens demanded the deportation of radicals “in ships of stone with sails of lead, with the wrath of God for a breeze and with hell for their first port.” State and congressional committees launched investigations, and Palmer and a young Justice Department employee named J. Edgar Hoover inaugurated a round-up of radicals in 1919-1920 that swept up no less than ten thousand people, with 3,500 held as deportable aliens. Morgan notes that, as in the McCarthy era, there was a genuine threat—thirty- five people had been killed and two hundred people had been injured by terrorist bombs, and the nascent communist movement had thirty-four thousand nominal members committed to overthrowing the government; but Palmer’s blunderbuss response certainly violated civil liberties, failed to target many of the most important perpetrators, and discredited his cause. 

While the chastened FBI under Hoover curtailed its surveillance of radicals in the 1920s, the Communist International, headquartered in Moscow, embarked on a long-term plan to subvert America, setting up clandestine networks that transmitted money to finance the CPUSA, and using such agencies as Amtorg and the Russian Red Cross to facilitate espionage and the illegal transfer of American technology. Following American recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933, the Soviets quickly violated several of the conditions to which they had agreed and began extensive use of the CPUSA as an instrument of espionage. In the late 1930s the Ware Group, for which Whittaker Chambers served as a courier, transmitted material from numerous government departments to Moscow with scarcely a concern for the FBI. Liberals such as Lawrence Duggan, a high- ranking State Department employee, and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White, romantic pro-communists such as Noel Field, covert Soviet admirers such as Alger Hiss, and crooks such as Congressman Samuel Dickstein (the prime mover behind the formation of a special committee to investigate “un- American activities”) all blithely aided Soviet intelligence. 

At the end of the 1930s, during which American communists became cheerleaders for the New Deal, the Popular Front eased these spies’ consciences by making it appear that American and Soviet interests were congruent. Similarly, the hundreds of Americans who spied for the Soviet Union during World War II could rationalize their behavior by pretending that they were only helping a deserving ally. While the Dies Committee, like many congressional investigations of communism (including McCarthy’s) did uncover some significant data, its penchant for wackiness and extremism, giving publicity to cranks and alarmists, led the Roosevelt administration to ignore the significance of some of its findings: that lots of government employees, including several later unmasked as spies, were active in Communist-controlled organizations. 

The Roosevelt administration had first authorized domestic surveillance of radicals in 1936, but such efforts were largely ineffective and sporadic until after World War II. Morgan calls Soviet espionage during the war “without historical precedent. Never did one country steal so many political, diplomatic, scientific and military secrets from another.” Although the most spectacular feat of Soviet intelligence was to pilfer the scientific secrets of the atomic bomb, hundreds of Americans working for Soviet intelligence also turned over important details on virtually every American secret, ranging from proximity fuses and radar to diplomatic cables and war production figures. A killer such as Roland Abbiat, who had murdered the Soviet defector Ignace Reiss in Switzerland in 1937, based himself in New York under the cover of a Pravda correspondent by the name of Vladimir Pravdin and befriended American journalists such as Walter Lippmann and I.F. Stone while supervising a stable of spies. Communist subversion, Morgan concludes, was a real threat to American security.

WHILE IT IS A USEFUL AND well-written summary of what has been learned about Soviet espionage in the last decade, Reds adds little new to what has already been revealed. Morgan has unearthed additional details from FBI reports in the Truman Library about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s communist contacts in the years before he moved to Los Alamos to direct the Manhattan Project. His conclusion that Oppenheimer kept his distance from communists once he became privy to secret information, but ran into trouble because he lied to security agents to cover up his past activities, is congruent with Gregg Herken’s argument in Brotherhood of the Bomb. Morgan occasionally stumbles into minor factual errors, and he has an annoying habit of calling Elizabeth Bentley “Liz,” despite the fact that no one referred to her in that manner. More seriously, his footnoting apparatus makes it impossible to be sure about his sources. Citations are only loosely related to specific paragraphs in the text and direct the reader not to specific documents but to such sources as “Hoover memo, Truman Library.” 

One of the virtues of Morgan’s book is his reminder that McCarthy was a latecomer to the anti-communist cause. He was able to exploit the issue because Harry Truman, far more suspicious of Stalin’s intentions than Roosevelt, was also ambivalent about dealing with communist subversion, an issue that threatened to embarrass Democrats and liberals who had once welcomed communists as allies. After Republican gains in the election of 1946, Truman decided that he had to respond to public concerns. Although the loyalty-security program that he created in 1947 did purge a few hundred suspected communists from federal employment rolls, Truman was publicly dismissive about the seriousness of Soviet espionage, calling it a “spy scare” and a “red herring,” claiming HUAC hearings into espionage served “no useful purpose,” and allowing his aides to try to impeach the credibility of Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley. He authorized the prosecution of communist leaders under the Smith Act in part to insulate himself from Republican charges that the Democrats were soft on communism. 

Whatever his reservations, however, Truman’s policies eviscerated the communist movement. Reluctant as his administration had been to credit Chambers, it won a conviction against Alger Hiss, and convicted the Rosenbergs, and drove communists out of the Democratic Party, and supported Philip Murray’s campaign to expel them from their important strongholds in the CIO. As Morgan notes, the Communist Party assisted in its own self-destruction, pushing Henry Wallace to run for president, opposing American efforts to rebuild Europe, and deciding to go “underground” after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Smith Act. All this before McCarthy discovered anti- communism. McCarthy arrived on the anti-communist battlefield, Morgan argues, “after the battle was over to finish off the wounded.” 

MCCARTHY WAS ELECTED TO the Senate in 1946, but he was unknown to most Americans until he gave his infamous speech to a Republican Lincoln Day gathering in Wheeling in February 1950. His first four years in the Senate had not produced any significant legislation; he was best known for attempting to end sugar rationing to benefit the Pepsi-Cola company and for a bizarre crusade to prove that Nazi SS men convicted of murdering American POWs at Malmdy had been unjustly convicted. McCarthy had little knowledge of communism or interest in subversion before deciding that he needed a defining issue for his upcoming re-election bid. 

Just before his Wheeling speech a series of events had convinced Americans that the war with communism had entered a new and more dangerous phase: Mao’s forces seized control of China, President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb and soon revealed that America would work on a hydrogen bomb. Meanwhile Alger Hiss was convicted of lying about his past espionage and the British announced that Klaus Fuchs had confessed to atomic espionage. Confirmation that there had been Soviet spies at Los Alamos and in the State Department left the Democratic administration vulnerable to charges that security had been lax. While Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s comment that he would not turn his back on Alger Hiss reflected his Christian sense of charity, it also suggested an indifference to subversion. When the Senate’s Tydings Committee investigated McCarthy’s Wheeling charges, it was so anxious to expose him as a blustering liar that it whitewashed an earlier spy case involving pro-communist editors at Amerasia magazine and State Department employees John Stewart Service and Emmanuel Larsen, giving further credence to McCarthy’s charges that the Truman administration and Democrats were at best indifferent to communist subversion and at worst riddled with traitors. 

Morgan’s summary of McCarthy’s early career reinforces, again at tedious length, McCarthy’s willingness to exaggerate, lie, and bully in pursuit of his career. (He recounts far more about McCarthy’s judicial activities in Wisconsin divorce cases than anyone will care to hear.) McCarthy was congenitally incapable of distinguishing among Soviet spies, Communist Party members, communist sympathizers, and liberal dupes. He also was unable to understand that there were plenty of anti-communists (including some people who had once been communists or sympathizers themselves) who simultaneously opposed both communism and McCarthyism. McCarthy had a habit of pillorying people such as James Wechsler or Theodore Kaghan, once close to the CPUSA but by the 1950s ardent anti-communists, with the same fury with which he questioned Cedric Belfrage, a British subject whose important service for the KGB was later revealed in the Venona transcripts. McCarthy’s increasingly frenetic charges— by the end of his campaign he was focusing on how an Army dentist could receive an ordinary promotion as he left the service—blurred the important distinctions that needed to be made about communist subversion and eventually led him to grief. 

Morgan demonstrates that McCarthy did question and expose a handful of genuine security threats. Not all of McCarthy’s victims were blameless; some people lost their jobs and others were unjustly accused, but not all those who resisted the senator were moral exemplars. Some people who took the Fifth Amendment rather than testify about their pasts were “cowards afraid of admitting their allegiance” and some who named names were doing their patriotic duty. But Morgan also notes that others who cooperated with McCarthy were unattractive opportunists, particularly Harvey Matusow, an ex-communist turned informer turned anti-McCarthyite who changed his story so often that it became hard to know when he was telling the truth and when he was lying. 

MCCARTHY’S DOWNFALL WAS precipitated by his attack on the United States Army. With his usual recklessness, the senator called General Ralph Zwicker, a decorated war hero, a disgrace to his uniform, shocking even some of McCarthy’s fervent supporters. Already exercised about alleged Army indifference to communist subversion, McCarthy and his chief assistant, Roy Cohn, pressured and browbeat Army officers to obtain special privileges for Cohn’s sidekick David Schine, who had been drafted, leading to a hearing to sort out the charges and counter-charges of improper influence. The Army-McCarthy hearings, the first congressional proceedings to appear on television, exposed to the whole nation McCarthy’s bullying and frequent resort to innuendo and exaggeration. Joseph Welch, the Army’s lawyer, delivered the coup de grce with his famous rhetorical question about the senator’s lack of decency. The very recklessness that had served him so well in his ascent sealed his doom. A Republican president helped to orchestrate his censure, the Senate rebuked him, and a series of Supreme Court decisions by the end of the 1950s dismantled the legal rationales that had allowed congressional investigators to expose individuals’ communist backgrounds merely for the sake of exposure, permitted the firing of government employees in non-sensitive agencies, and allowed the prosecution of Communist Party officials under the Smith Act. 

Had Morgan ended his book with McCarthy’s downfall, it would have been a useful corrective to the hysterical accounts of a McCarthyite reign of terror and the equally blustering defenses of a thug and a liar. Instead, Morgan suddenly redefines McCarthyism at the end of Reds as “the use of false information in the irrational pursuit of a fictitious enemy,” as if he had not just written a few hundred pages about communist spies and subversion. He then draws a direct line between McCarthy and Richard Nixon’s plumbers, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, and the war in Iraq, even though the premise of his entire book is that McCarthyism was a response to the very real and specific issue of communism and the particular dangers that it presented. Morgan asserts, with dubious analogies, that in the aftermath of September 11, a “McCarthyite strain in American political life reemerged with a vengeance—the politics of fear, the politics of insult and the politics of deceit.” 

A far more fitting conclusion to his otherwise valuable book would have been an examination of why and how the charging of your political opponents with McCarthyism has become a useful ploy in American political life. Wesley Clark recently accused his former superior, General Hugh Shelton, of McCarthyism for suggesting that he would not support Clark owing to his doubts about Clark’s character. Anti-smoking activists, anti-pornography crusaders, supporters of campus speech codes, and critics of Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior have all been labeled McCarthyites in recent years. This part of McCarthy’s legacy has far overshadowed the fact, amply documented in Reds, that, vile as his methods were, he was right about a significant threat to American life.

This article appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of the magazine.