The senator behind the scare
Everyone knows Joe McCarthy. His name is synonymous with the search for Reds under every bed, with unleashing a hysterical and paranoid search for un-American demons bent on betraying the republic. But who today remembers Pat McCarran, the senator who made McCarthy possible?
Now, thanks to Michael J. Ybarra’s magisterial and beautifully written book, “Washington Gone Crazy,” McCarran’s disquieting place in our history is restored. While it was, of course, McCarthy who screamed about “twenty years of treason,” it was McCarran whose legislative and political victories put a brake on the liberal agenda of the Truman administration in the 1950s. Having entered the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol as part of FDR’s 1932 landslide, he created the all-powerful Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, forced the Asia expert Owen Lattimore (whom McCarthy falsely called the “top Soviet spy” in America) to be indicted for perjury, got American officials fired from employment at the United Nations and sponsored the Internal Security Act, which required all Communists to register with the U.S. government and created detention camps to hold them in case of a national emergency.
Aside from communism, McCarran’s other main obsession was immigration and his fear that Communists would easily enter the country. And so he introduced the most restrictive immigration law in America’s history, the McCarran-Walter Act, whose immigration provisions remained intact until 1965 and whose ideological bans were lifted only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.
Ybarra, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, meticulously traces McCarran’s rise to power and tells the often sordid story of the havoc he unleashed. Ybarra also offers a compelling portrait of the turn-of-the-20th-century Nevada from which McCarran arose. The result is a gripping picture of an extraordinary politician and the unscrupulous, greedy and petty men with whom he would wield enormous influence over the country.
Ybarra’s book is indispensable as a more nuanced assessment of a crucial and still contested period of our recent history. He is sober in his judgments and has well absorbed the recent scholarship that has cast new light on the American Communist Party’s relationship with the Soviet Union. He recognizes, for example, that in the aftermath of World War II the threat of communist expansion abroad was real. To be sure, demagogic politicians were tempted to exaggerate it, but responsible government officials of the time tried hard, if not always successfully, to balance the needs of national security with those of civil liberties.
Ybarra does not minimize the actual infiltration of government that some American Communists had managed to achieve during the war years. Nor does he ignore the espionage of those who had entered the government’s top ranks. He knows that anti-Communist witnesses like Whitaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley were largely “telling the truth” when they sought to expose the extensive intelligence network the Soviet Union ran through its operatives in the American Communist Party. Of course, “not all Communists were subversive,” Ybarra writes, “but in ways small and large, many of them were.”
The left, for its part, argued at the time that the threat from communism was phony and was manufactured by unscrupulous politicians as a smoke screen to conceal their own powerful reactionary ambitions. The issue tormented American liberals, who sought, for the most part, to resist Soviet designs by backing an expansion of worldwide democracy and supporting careful steps to remove actual Communists from government employment, while opposing the techniques favored by demagogues like McCarthy and McCarran, who in the name of anti-communism sought to take measures that severely restricted the liberties of all Americans.
Just who was Pat McCarran? Born in 1876 to a hardworking Irish immigrant family who bought a ranch by a river canyon near Nevada’s Truckee Meadows, young Pat raised and herded sheep as thousands of gold prospectors passed by, walking the rails after failing to make their fortune with the Comstock Lode. The nearest town was Reno -- a good 15 miles upstream, an entire day’s trip over rough roads. When he finally began school at the age of 10, he would have to wake up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows and handle other farm chores. Hard work, ambition and his parents’ desire to see their son educated led him to the University of Nevada.
McCarran caught the “free silver” fever that operated through the state -- the panacea advocated by many to ease the harsh debt of farmers and miners. Joining with the so-called Silver Democrats, McCarran entered politics in 1902, beginning a long climb through law school, judgeships and a seat in the state Assembly, where he campaigned for an eight-hour workday and the rights of labor. It was ordained that the ambitious and hardworking rancher would leave sheepherding behind and enter the world of politics; that led three decades later to a seat in the United States Senate, which he held from 1932 until his death in 1954.
Ybarra thus brings his readers to contemplate a very different world, his vivid writing telling of how people lived in a young and undeveloped state, and how McCarran helped shape the very different Nevada of today. Knowing the McCarran of the 1950s, one is stunned to learn that he saw the first Red Scare of the 1920s as an excuse by mine owners to strangle labor. He once began a law firm with a Nevada socialist, and when eventually made a member of the state Supreme Court, Ybarra writes, “his heart went to the powerless.” He even ruled in defense of labor and was openly critical of J. Edgar Hoover’s Palmer Raids, in which immigrants were rounded up for deportation on the grounds that they were most likely radicals. As Ybarra notes, McCarran “sounded more like Felix Frankfurter than J. Edgar Hoover.”
So how did McCarran come to be branded “an evil man” by Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois, one of the Senate’s most principled and admired old liberal hands? After all, here was a senator who could arrange special permission to admit 350 uneducated Basque sheepherders into the United States, demanding exception to his own harsh laws for admission of immigrants. Yet, at the same time, he fought strongly to refuse admission to Jewish refugees from World War II, destroying the morale of Truman’s Displaced Persons Commission.
For him, Judaism was the evil twin of communism, and privately he referred to Jews as “kikes.” He viewed those who had Eastern European origins as part of “unassimilable blocks of aliens with foreign ideologies.” By the end of 1952, fewer than 100,000 Jewish refugees had been permitted to enter the United States. Running for reelection in Nevada, he received friendly advice from a local supporter, whom he had made postmaster of Reno: “Emphasize the fact that the Jews were after you.”
McCarran may have been given to making wild charges, but he often managed to hit pay dirt. Part of the problem was the failure of well-meaning liberals to face the extent of the Communist problem when it was most serious, allowing those like McCarran to fill the vacuum. Truman tried to deal with the attacks on his administration’s handling of the issue by arguing that Communists were no longer a problem in government and that the loyalty of more than 99% of federal workers was beyond question.
Yet, as Ybarra writes, Truman “could have, should have, gone much further” and told the nation “exactly what the government knew about Communist espionage -- and what it didn’t know and only suspected.” Truman’s partisan attack on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating both Alger Hiss and Whitaker Chambers, was hardly convincing. The White House had been lax, especially during the New Deal years, and the failure of liberals to acknowledge this fed the campaign of an overzealous far-right wing. Truman’s attempt to brand the Republicans as an “ally of the Communists” was a failure of imagination that only helped Pat McCarran.
As the president’s archnemesis, McCarran introduced an omnibus bill combining all pending anti-Communist legislation in one package. The McCarran Internal Security Act, Ybarra writes, was a “bold, daring, and defiant” parliamentary motion that energized the far right and divided the Democrats. Truman would veto the law, arguing that it “would seriously damage the right of free speech” by being used not only against subversive groups but against any American engaging in legal political activity, and that it would have the effect of driving Communists into more secret ways of operating. The fight, as Truman saw it, was to stop the government from silencing political opponents and imposing repressive measures that emphasized security to the exclusion of concern for liberty.
Ybarra realizes that "[a]nti-Communism ... was both a rational and necessary response” to the postwar world and the rise of Stalin’s new empire. What he and the Cold War liberals he praises argue, however, was that “anti-Communism run amok was something altogether different.” The problem is that often the line between the two became quite thin. It was easy to show that John Foster Dulles’ nominee for ambassador to the Soviet Union, Charles “Chip” Bohlen, was a solid candidate. McCarran and his supporters, however, saw Bohlen as a concealed Red, and Dulles’ belief that Bohlen was above reproach was not sufficient for them. McCarran and McCarthy moved against him, using the argument that they suspected he was a closeted homosexual. Similarly, McCarran called George F. Kennan before his committee, and the author of the containment doctrine to curb Soviet expansionism found himself being forced to retire from government service because of the stain of having to testify.
Bohlen and Kennan were easy for liberals to defend. That was not the case with the British-born journalist Cedric Belfrage. Belfrage had worked with the postwar occupation forces in Germany and with the OSS during the war, while at the same time, we now know as a result of the once-secret Venona decrypted documents, he passed information to the KGB. In reality a bona fide Soviet agent, Belfrage had long since left government work and had started a pro-Soviet newspaper in the United States, the National Guardian. He refused to say anything while testifying before McCarthy’s committee, and many liberals defended Belfrage on the grounds that his detractors were endangering freedom of the press. At McCarran’s insistence, the Justice Department had Belfrage arrested, and he was eventually deported to his native Britain as a dangerous alien, a term made law by McCarran’s immigration act.
Belfrage never owned up to his very active espionage work and also lied when he swore that he had never been a Communist. Was it so obviously anti-Communism “run amok” to have Justice move against him? The authorities may indeed have “kept hounding him,” as Ybarra says of McCarran and McCarthy, but that did not make them wrong. Those liberals who supported Belfrage and bought his phony argument that defending him was a case of “humanity and ordinary decency” had revealed their inability to make necessary distinctions between all whom McCarran targeted, leaving the senator with valuable ammunition and leeway to go after many who, unlike Belfrage, actually had done no wrong.
In a similar vein, the would-be Red-baiters were correct in their claim that Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White was also a Communist agent; White died a few days after he publicly denied the charge in 1948. During Eisenhower’s presidency, Atty. Gen. Herbert Brownell announced that the FBI had alerted the White House of White’s treachery back in December of 1945 and that the Truman administration had not done anything about it. Yet Brownell noted that, one month later, Truman had nominated White to become head of the International Monetary Fund. The former president was furious and said that the allegations were unproved about White and that he only learned about them after White’s appointment. Again, Ybarra acknowledges that Truman was either lying or trying to evade responsibility, but he backs Truman as being correct about Brownell’s motive: helping partisan right-wing Republicans smear all Democrats as being effectively pro-Communist.
In agreeing with Truman that the Eisenhower administration had, in effect, embraced McCarthyism for “political advantage,” Ybarra avoids the issue of why people like White were supported in high position for so long, and of how Truman’s weak defense of his position on White gave McCarran more credibility.
Ybarra concludes that Pat McCarran’s influence was great but of a malign nature. He, and not Truman, won most of the legislative battles, institutionalizing the edifice of much of what came to be dubbed McCarthyism. Thus, while there were Reds in the government, Ybarra argues that it was McCarran’s hunt for them that “did the real damage.” Though Truman wanted the issue dealt with as a matter of law enforcement, he writes, McCarran turned it into what became a “national nightmare.” Pat McCarran died on the eve of a new election, a few days after the Senate passed its famous censure of McCarthy. He was about to join with McCarthy in turning his venom against Eisenhower, who he was convinced had become as soft on communism as Truman. His legacy was the bills he passed that defined domestic policy for a few decades and moved the nation away from civil bipartisanship and toward the politics of destruction, confrontation and division. How our country handled reconciling the needs of security with those of civil liberties in the McCarran-McCarthy years provides a sober lesson for Americans struggling with the same issues in today’s equally dangerous times. *