The gray area of red hunting

Sam Tanenhaus, author of "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography," is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

Half a century after his rapid rise to power and even swifter fall from grace, Sen. Joseph McCarthy remains a towering figure in our politics, one of the few legislators of his day whose name still has meaning. Just what that meaning is, however, has grown more ambiguous with time. The Soviet Union's implosion and the subsequent release of documents long buried in archives in Moscow and Washington have caused many to rethink the various outbreaks of red hunting in American history. What was once deemed "hysteria" now seems to have been something different, an excess of zeal occasioned by actual subversions.

It is also the case that the peak years of McCarthy's crusade, 1950-54, were a period much like our own. Then too, America was waging a distant war (in Korea) in the context of a broader conflict (against global communism). The country had never been stronger yet had seldom felt itself so vulnerable to foreign threats. No wonder that since Sept. 11, the term "McCarthyism" has gained new currency, particularly in connection with the Bush administration's expansion of prosecutorial powers through the Patriot Act and the White House's embrace of secrecy. Of course, it is not only anti-Communists who operated in this way. Communism itself functioned as a conspiracy. The prime virtue of "Reds," Ted Morgan's new book, is his understanding that in all too many cases, Communists and their adversaries inhabited the same hothouse of ideological obsession.

The author of a sturdy biography of labor leader Jay Lovestone, who helped create the American Communist Party but then turned fiercely against it, Morgan has dealt before with the strange double helix of communism and anti-communism. The starting point of his sprawling new narrative is the Russian Revolution of 1917, an event initially greeted in the United States and Europe as a subplot in the grander drama of World War I. This perspective changed as Bolshevik fervor spread and Americans on the scene became giddy heralds of the new order. Morgan cites well-known examples, such as the swashbuckling journalist John Reed, author of "Ten Days That Shook the World," and his bohemian wife, Louise Bryant. But he also describes more obscure figures, such as the Red Cross officer Raymond Robins, who was dazzled by Lenin's statesmanlike qualities and thereafter "never wavered in his admiration for the Soviet regime."

In contrast was Edgar Sisson, a journalist who went to Russia after the revolution to do propaganda work for the U.S. government and was firmly convinced he was witnessing an incipient tyranny, as political opponents were jailed, the opposition press was silenced and courts gave way to bloodthirsty "people's tribunals." When a dissident produced documents all too neatly "proving" that Lenin and Trotsky were traitorous pawns controlled by "a secret office of the German General Staff in Petrograd," Sisson seized on them -- although others (Robins, for one) instantly surmised that the papers were forgeries. But Sisson couldn't be budged, and his superiors were taken in too. One of them, President Wilson, already loathed the Bolsheviks and felt further encouraged to send over American troops in what Morgan pointedly calls "the first American attempt at regime change."

Of these two careers, Morgan concludes: "Edgar Sisson could be said to be the first McCarthyite, just as Raymond Robins was the first fellow traveler." The clash of rival fanaticisms would be reenacted time and again, as the passions of pro-Sovietism met the counterforce of equally unrestrained anti-communism -- first in the 1920s, when outbreaks of violent anarchism prompted an orgy of mass arrests and deportations; next in the Roosevelt years, when Soviet agents infiltrated the State Department and the Manhattan Project even as congressional reactionaries denounced the New Deal as Bolshevism in disguise; and later still, in the Cold War, with the unmasking of Soviet spies like Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg and the growth of the "national security state," complete with loyalty oaths, paid informers and rampant FBI surveillance. These later episodes have been chronicled many times, and Morgan's rehashings supply more detail than we need, sometimes in overheated prose rife with borrowings from antique G-man melodramas. "Gumshoes" skulk through the narrative, carrying out "black bag jobs."

His book is more readable and more enlightening on a varied cast of grandstanding red hunters, beginning with A. Mitchell Palmer, the U.S. attorney general who manufactured the Red Scare of 1919 and unleashed his zealous young adjutant, J. Edgar Hoover, himself a champion persecutor of radicals. Morgan is especially illuminating on the background of Martin Dies, the publicity-mad Texas Democrat who, as the first chairman of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, "pioneered the issue of Communists in government, using it to undermine the New Deal" and "manipulated the press in ways that McCarthy would later emulate."

The many pages on McCarthy also tread familiar ground, though Morgan has unearthed new nuggets from two sources only recently made available: McCarthy's papers and the files on closed sessions of the Senate subcommittee he chaired on "government operations." None of this material clarifies the murky picture of McCarthy that has come down to us -- but then murk was his native coloration. To his credit, Morgan acknowledges this: in places, his McCarthy resembles the nihilistic demagogue depicted by his opponents, elsewhere the boorish stumblebum misguided in his "methods" but sincere in his "goals," as his defenders often put it.

Either way, "Reds" reminds us that McCarthy contributed little if anything to the uncovering of Communist spies. In fact, he belatedly joined an operation already well underway and he got everything backward. The Truman administration, which McCarthy slandered as crypto-Communist, was hostile toward the USSR and had been busily purging itself, via its "loyalty" program, of federal employees who were "soft" on Moscow. Like those fellow travelers, McCarthy and company seemed oddly indifferent to the actual threat, which came in the form of Soviet incursions abroad, as Stalin methodically tightened his grip on Eastern Europe and sponsored insurgencies in the same nations that conservatives declined to assist with foreign aid. The release in the 1990s of documents in Washington and Moscow would confirm that U.S. intelligence had done its job in the Truman years. The best evidence is that the Hiss and Rosenberg prosecutions led Moscow to shut down its operations in the United States.

Nonetheless, McCarthy's initial premise -- that subversives might still be on the government payroll, protected by higher-ups -- was by no means farfetched. Others too, including several conservative senators, were making this case, though McCarthy outdid them all. His instinct for sensationalism was surer and he was more daring, moving beyond insinuation and into the territory of outright falsehood. His celebrated initial accusation, in a 1950 speech in Wheeling, W.Va., that 205 "known" Communists were still in the State Department (the number would soon be revised to 57 and then 81) was patently false. Even so, Morgan notes, he "had a valid case to make, documented by two House committees in 1948, that security risks were allowed to remain" in the department after they had been identified.

This was the argument McCarthy's savviest defenders would press. Joe's rhetoric might be "impolite," but given the gravity of the problem, maybe the country needed someone like him, willing to go after not only Communists but also those who had given them government jobs in the first place and now seemed more preoccupied with safeguarding the rights of the accused than with exposing their guilt. This case also rested on a plausible foundation. Even the Democrats' favorite diplomat, George Kennan, wisest of the Cold War's "wise men," would criticize Truman for downplaying the serious implications of the Hiss case and shrugging it off as a Republican "red herring."

Morgan faults the Truman administration on another count, first raised by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his 1998 book, "Secrecy": Once the celebrated Venona code-breaking operation began to bear fruit, the government should have publicized its findings, which showed, on the basis of intercepted cable traffic, that a Kremlin-directed spy operation had indeed infiltrated the U.S. government in the war years. The release of selected intercepts, says Morgan, "would have nipped McCarthyism in the bud, for the true facts about real spies would have made wild accusations about imaginary spies irrelevant." This is wishful thinking. In the tense atmosphere of the early Cold War -- when China was "lost" and the USSR tested atomic and hydrogen bombs well ahead of schedule -- naming a handful of spies would only have fed the suspicion that many more were being sheltered. McCarthyites would have leaped on the revelations as proof that the Democrats had been concealing the facts all along and then would have attacked the Venona project itself once the painstaking labors of cryptanalysts failed to satisfy a public impatient for fresh disclosures. It is all too easy to envision McCarthy demanding a "full accounting" of Venona and launching another headline-grabbing hearing, in which tongue-tied code-breakers would tremble under his browbeating interrogations.

No, there was but one solution to McCarthy's crusade, and the nation had rejected it preemptively when it kept Truman in the White House in 1948. Had victory gone to his heavily favored opponent, Thomas Dewey, Republican grandees would have hailed the dawn of a new conservative era and muzzled McCarthy directly after the Wheeling speech. Instead, stung by Truman's upset win, the party leadership, including Robert Taft, "Mr. Republican," egged him on. Only in 1953, when the Republicans finally had one of their own in the White House, did Taft pull back. But by then it was too late. McCarthy had become, in the words of the political analyst Richard Rovere, "a sovereign force in American political life" and could not be stopped -- save by Eisenhower himself, although the new president avoided the controversy for several months until McCarthy did the unthinkable and declared war on Ike's beloved Army.

All this is to say that while McCarthy's theme was subversion, his broader message was political. Emerging from the factitious "consensus" of the Cold War, with its high-toned bipartisanship, he was the first tribune of the new insurgent right. He was fitted for the part because of his "genius for disruption," as a Senate colleague characterized his unique ability to gum up institutional procedures and defy established rituals. His clamorous, chaotic hearings and anarchic investigations were exercises in what Garry Wills, in his 1999 "A Necessary Evil," has identified as anti-government vigilantism. Even as McCarthy came before the public promising to finish the dirty job shirked by the starchy guardians of the civil order, his true quarry, as he all but announced in the Wheeling speech, was the exclusive club running the government -- the "striped pants" diplomats, Wall Street lawyers and Ivy League experts for whom the State Department had become a kind of postgraduate annex of Harvard Yard.

Liberal diagnosticians, most prominently Richard Hofstadter, concluded that McCarthyism was a sign of a culture-wide epidemic of "status anxiety" infecting a rising class of the unwashed and ill-tutored who chafed at the privileges of the elite. But it was closer to status enthusiasm. McCarthy stood at the crest of a new movement that had been quietly assembling since the prewar period and was keen to settle scores. The McCarthyite tactics so often denounced as outrageous -- the "big lie" asserting that policymakers like George Marshall and Dean Acheson had been secretly serving the Kremlin -- simply appropriated the rhetoric of disloyalty that Democrats had used to discredit anti-interventionists in the period leading up to World War II. McCarthy's state, Wisconsin, was a stronghold of the America First Committee (McCarthy himself had opposed the war) and the home of its principal publication, Scribner's Commentator, whose editors were among the dozens indicted by FDR's Justice Department on bogus sedition charges in 1942-43. A judge had thrown that case out, but conservatives didn't forget. "Where were the Liberals when the weapons they now forbid us to use against the Communists were being used, fifteen years ago, against American fascists and against a number of Americans who were not fascists?" asked William F. Buckley and L. Brent Bozell in 1954 in "McCarthy and His Enemies," still the most cogent defense of its subject.

Not that all of McCarthy's support came from the Old Right. He also attracted a nucleus of apostates from the Old Left: ex-Stalinists, ex-Trotskyists, ex-New Dealers and ex-all-purpose apparatchiks who had found a new haven in the steamy Hearst tabloids, those Daily Workers of the right. Some wrote speeches for McCarthy or served as unofficial consultants. This collaboration also showed how close left and right had grown in their fixations. "McCarthy and the American [Communist] party were mirror images," Morgan writes, "both employing falsehood and deceit, both using heated rhetoric and hidden informants, and both making unfounded charges against their government. They expressed two pathologies in a democratic society, one of the misguided or fanatical radical, the other of the anti-Red zealot." Neither could have existed without the other, though the nation could have done very well without both.

Morgan should have ended his account with McCarthy's sudden downfall in 1954, after he was formally "condemned" by the Senate. Instead, he has added an epilogue purporting to track McCarthy's legacy into the 1960s (when the FBI harassed campus protesters and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) and beyond, through the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush. In these pages McCarthyism is recast as "the politics of fear, the politics of insult, and the politics of deceit." By that definition, any strong American statesman, including Jefferson and Lincoln, might deserve the McCarthyite label. John Ashcroft's prosecutions and President Bush's untruths about "weapons of mass destruction" leading up to the war in Iraq, disturbing though they are, have little to do with McCarthyism, which originated not in an excess of federal power but oppositely, in an attack on the federal bureaucracy and its policymakers.

McCarthyism does indeed live on in current conservatism, in its conjunction of authoritarianism and populism, of conformism and hatred of the "elite." But these exist outside the claustral world of reds and red hunters and derive instead from the ambiguities inherent in the democratic experience as Americans have known and lived it since the birth of the republic.

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