Readers React: Why McCarthyism matters more to U.S. history than Soviet spying

Sen. Joseph McCarthy addresses an audience at Constitution Hall in Washington on Nov. 11, 1954.
(Bob Schutz / Associated Press)

To the editor: Stanford historian Sam Wineburg is concerned about his students’ lack of knowledge of Soviet spying in the United States.

The year is 2019, not 1959. Do most students know who Alger Hiss was? No. Do students care about the real story of Alger Hiss? No.

What students do care about is the story of McCarthyism, how dissent was suppressed decades ago and the relevance that era has to the political environment that we live in now. If “leading textbooks” or even “popular” histories, ones like Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” teach that lesson, that’s really what matters most.

As important as Hiss was in the 1950s, he is now nothing more than a historical footnote. Knowing history is vital, but it must also be a living history.


Edgar Kaskla, Long Beach

The writer is a lecturer in the political science department at Cal State Long Beach.


To the editor: Wineburg correctly states about the need to update history texts: “When the evidence changes, so must the story.”


However, the actual guilt of Alger Hiss, in his example, is opinion, not fact. It is still being debated. Books are still being written.

The problem of decrypting and decoding the Soviet communications is complex. When only a fraction of messages are converted to plain text, one misses the context of the entire situation. The result can be an incorrect interpretation.

Kathie Harine, Kingman, Ariz.

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