How sensible is it to define the period 1945-1957 by the name of Senator Joseph McCarthy?

Joseph Macarthy was the Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957. Between 1947 and 1950, he was little known except for funding scandals and an attempt to prevent the execution of SS prisoners in Europe who had been convicted of involvement in the Malmedy massacre, on the basis that there was corrupting evidence that the US had employed torture in gaining confessions. He was unpopular with the press corps, and widely disliked inside the beltway for removing his predecessor, a distinguished member of the Progressive LaFollette family, in a dirty campaign in 1946. Between 1950 and 1954 McCarthy enjoyed spectacular prominence as an Inquisitor and hounder of putative and alleged Communists in the American government, executive, and entertainment industries. He fell from this version of grace in 1954 when he challenged the US Army, and specifically its dentists, and then descended into a relatively irrelevant alcoholism before dying at Bethesda naval hospital quickly and unexpectedly.

It is important to rehearse this narrative of McCarthy’s career to show that he was neither fundamental to the elaboration of America’s deep-seated anticommunism in the 1940s, nor to its progression in the fifties, nor to its institutionalisation by means of Truman’s loyalty oaths and the expansion of the FBI and CIA, nor to the transformation of anticommunism into technological competition and national ‘invigoration’ or ‘rejuvenation’ campaigns after Sputnik. McCarthy had not proceeded via the Dies Committee, the House group on Un-American activities with which he is often confused, and he was despised by President Truman. He also played very little role in the 1948 presidential campaign that confirmed the Democratic Party under Truman as anti-popular front by isolating the Wallace and Roosevelt elements who had worked with communists, but anti-segregation too. It was Richard Nixon who was more prominent in the investigation of the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, and the name on the Act barring communists from the USA whilst requiring them to register within it was that of the Franco admirer and Nevada Democrat, Pat McCarran, not McCarthy. Though Lyndon Johnson and J.Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, were close to MCCarthy (as indeed was the Kennedy Patriarch Joe Kennedy) serious counterintelligence work against communism was guarded by James Jesus Angleton, Richard Bissell, and the Dulles brothers within the CIA.

McCarthy was one of a number of Senators who arose because of the confluence of post-war discontent with the liberalism that had prevailed since 1932 in the political system, allied to distaste for corruption and the perception, encouraged both by two decades of anti-Nazi and anticommunist popular culture, that totalitarian states were out to ‘get’ the USA. This mood drew upon longstanding traits in US culture, such as a tendency to paranoia and conspiracism that had previously manifested itself in things like the Independence movement, the anti-masonry programmes, the ‘Slave Power abolitionism’ and ‘Black Republican’ perspectives, the Red Scares of the pre-war period, and in the idea that financial interests had both sponsored world war one and the League of Nations. Americans were receptive in the 1940s because of the power of television, but also because of the instability of social mobility accompanied by insecurity within the new economy, and the trauma of war and social change that was not met by any serious effort at counselling once people were suddenly demobilised. In such circumstances—when women who had worked were forced back into the home, when men who had been in terrible battles or who had risked their lives on multiple occasions were dropped back into civilian life, when the GI bill and postwar urban flight gave people the experience of a new life that might be as passing as the 1920s—it is no surprise that popular culture looked to reassuring showmen who could channel insecurity. Richard Nixon rose by investigating communists; Estes Kefauver by using television and Senate Hearings to investigate corruption; John Kennedy by examining mafia links to the Teamsters slightly later; and Joe MCCarthy by employing agents such as Roy Cohn to prepare cases for the benefit of the TV cameras.

McCarthy thus stood briefly at the centre of a cultural movement, which was reinforced in its paranoia by Stalin’s acquisition of the bomb, by the Korean War and its apparent proof of a Sino-Soviet ‘plot’, and by local exposures of communist activity such as those that Cohn revealed whilst in the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. Indeed, the way that Cohn became McCarthy’s ‘right hand’ is illustrative; J. Edgar Hoover recommended him over Robert Kennedy, who was seen as too associated with his anti-Semitic father, to McCarthy as Senate counsel. McCarthy then used Cohn, a closeted homosexual, to justify his much-touted allegation of ‘205 communists in the State Department’ by alleging that Undersecretary Peurifoy had allowed 91 homosexuals—whom McCarthy and Cohn implied were essentially communists—to resign. Anticommunism thus mixed with post-war gender anxiety of the sort that produced the Comics Code, the regulation and self-censorship of Hollywood, and the reaction to the McKinsey sex studies, funded by the Rockefeller foundation and opposed by much of McCarthy’s electorate.

McCarthy’s name has become associated with memory of popular hysteria at this time because in a sense it clears the more serious actors in the American pantheon from blame or association. Harry Truman, John and Robert Kennedy, and Pat McCarran are not generally remembered as anticommunists, and the FBI, the CIA, and the nexus they established between Congressional Investigators and the information providers of the media and entertainment industries are not things that American journalists and historians build careers by exposing. McCarthy’s rise and fall were spectacular; it therefore makes sense to call an era which many sense they should be ashamed of, McCarthyite.
McCarthy is more remembered than, for instance, Titus Oates or the Antimasons however, not just for his immediacy but because he happened to stumble across an issue of conspiracy which had at its core a substantial element of truth. As the venona decrypts, which were available to the intelligence services but not the president, revealed in the late 1940s, many prominent supporters of the New Deal, as well as journalists and people in Hollywood, were sympathetic to the point of collaboration, with communists in the 1930s. Venona exposed this by showing records of their cables and calls to known Soviet agencies. In addition, the Rosenbergs almost certainly did pass information to the USSR that quickened the soviet development of reflexive lenses which were essential to the creation of the atomic bomb. The Soviet archives do seem to show that Alger Hiss, a very prominent adviser to Franklin Roosevelt within the State Department, was a communist exactly as Hoover and Nixon had alleged, but that also he was ‘exposed’ via a constructed narrative that concealed real sources. Stalin and Kim il Sung did plot a war on vital resources in Asia, and there was an extensive Soviet attempt, according to the Mitrokin Archive of KGB and MGB documents, to penetrate and conduct activities within the West. The British intelligence services were compromised by a communist conspiracy and there were serious threats of Italian and French subversion by communism.

In the face of this reality, the TV-driven prominence and popularity of Joe McCarthy was that of an investigative mouthpiece of the Cold War state, which tended to move in the shadows and which never revealed its own truths. In this, the collateral damage of McCarthy’s methods of smear, accusation and blacklisting created an atmosphere in which the FBI and CIA could expand their activities in defiance of the Constitution and not be stopped. The civil rights programmes, union organisation, voter-based opposition to the destruction of tramways and local transportation in favour of the car and the roadbuilders, opposition to the power of large chemical companies in farming or fluoridation, and incipient environmentalism could all be characterised as ‘pink’ or communist, and shut up. This was of immense value to the nexus of money and anticommunism that was being built in corporate, institutional and media-political America. This nexus does not in any way have to have been ‘conspiratorial’; it arose from the way American politics and culture were played, and how they intersected with America’s growth into world power.

To that extent, the age was the ‘Age of McCarthy’. That description has its limits, however. Democrat liberalism did not collapse after the end of the 1948 Progressive Party; indeed, Eleanor Roosevelt could quite happily support candidates such as Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey well into 1960. Neither McCarthy nor Senator Bricker from Ohio were ever allowed to fundamentally challenge the National Security State, and when McCarthy confronted the Army, just as Bricker threatened NATO, the fall of both swiftly followed. McCarthy proved unable to sustain the sheer levels of interest and emotion required for a panic, and after 1954 was left in the position of the High School bandleader in a parade, still twirling a stick but unable to see that a wrong turn had been taken and that, though they were in place, the band was elsewhere and moving on. The nineteen fifties were to prove much more complicated their designation, at least in the first half, as simply ‘McCarthyite’ would allow anyway; Kinsey kept up his studies, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy and Stuart Symington amongst others developed a new sort of Cold War liberalism, and the Civil Rights movement found both popular and institutional support at all levels. In addition, the Republican Party, whilst embracing Richard Nixon and Robert Taft, delivered ultimate authority to a quintessentially anti-McCarthy figure who could easily have been a Truman Democrat, Dwight Eisenhower. To this extent, the Age of McCarthy is shorthand for a much more complex period indeed.