Although the release of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s secret papers confirm that the Wisconsin politician was a demagogue -- something that’s been apparent to most Americans for decades -- the documents shouldn’t be allowed to undermine the important historical fact that Soviet communism was a very real threat to U.S. defense and freedom, and that the anti-communist fight waged in this country was a moral one.
Even though the Communist Party succeeded in seducing an estimated 250,000 Americans to its ranks over the course of 40 years, and Soviet records released after the Cold War showed unequivocally that Moscow was giving them their marching orders, McCarthy’s actions greatly contributed to an ethos that today largely ignores the implications of those harsh realities and instead frowns on those who fought against communism.
It’s ridiculous that in many respected circles, someone who helped the FBI during the Cold War is deemed a greater sinner than someone who helped the American Communist Party. Many seem to have forgotten that the Communist Party was dedicated to replacing our democratic form of government with a totalitarian state similar to what existed in the Soviet Union. McCarthy and those who exploited his excesses are largely to blame for this.
Years before McCarthy began his controversial Senate probe, there were questions about his credibility. Most honest anti-communists saw him as a political opportunist, especially because he accepted support from the Communist Party in his 1946 campaign against incumbent Sen. Robert LaFollette.
In 1950, McCarthy infamously said he had a list of more than 200 communists who had “infested” the State Department and were shaping its policy -- claims he could never prove. He also insinuated that Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Gen. George Marshall were traitors. Those familiar with the techniques of the party later recognized the irony in the fact that McCarthy used the same kind of dishonest tactics -- grandstanding, fomenting internal political division, confusing issues on purpose and vilifying those who stood in his way -- that had been mastered by the communists.
Communist Party activists relished McCarthy’s approach. He made their strength seem greater than it really was -- and he made “anti-communist” a dirty word. No less a Cold Warrior than Harry S. Truman once aptly observed, “The greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Sen. McCarthy.”
Contrary to popular myth, there were some in Washington who did valuable and responsible work combating communism. Spies such as Alger Hiss, Judith Coplon and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were stopped without any help from McCarthy. Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley gave sobering testimony before Congress that helped explain the communist threat, and why the Soviet state shouldn’t be emulated in a country built on principles of freedom and equality.
McCarthy, on the other hand, never understood the political philosophy of Soviet communism. Therefore, the truth about communism -- that it was a global conspiracy organized in Moscow, and that communists were a threat because they acted as apologists and agents of a hostile military power -- was largely obscured.
Anti-communist leaders such as Ronald Reagan and labor chief Roy Brewer, who fought against the party in Hollywood during the 1940s and ‘50s, saw what McCarthy didn’t want to see: that there was a difference between those who innocently got caught up in communism and those who knowingly pledged their allegiance to it. “We knew how clever the communists were, and that you didn’t have to be a bad person to get dragged in,” Brewer told me. “McCarthy left the impression that you couldn’t go after communism without damaging basic civil rights.”
We need to know the full extent of McCarthy’s demagoguery, and why he is considered a villain. This nation must never go down his path again. But it’s even more essential to acknowledge the root of what John F. Kennedy called the long, twilight struggle. The ideas and goals of Soviet communism were repugnant, and those who took sides against it with honesty and integrity are heroes.