Joseph McCarthy has been much maligned by the media, high school history teachers, and textbooks. But like many of history’s maligned characters (e.g. Andrew Carnegie, NOT men like Hitler), I find him fascinating. While much of his work to root out communism has been relegated to political mudslinging, witch-hunt madness, and conspiracy theories, it’s just as likely that we remember him this way due to a more subtle form of political mudslinging. That is, nobody is attempting to keep McCarthy out of office due to his being long dead, but those who teach history refuse to give the man’s crusades any credence at all.
It is important to remember that McCarthy went up against the CIA. The CIA is known for dodgy dealings, from the days of its predecessor organization, the OSS. By “dodgy dealings” I mean that these intelligence agencies had goals that didn’t necessarily include the subversion of communism. This is a big subject, to be sure, and not one that I can address in a short blog post, but it would be good to remember that the Soviet Union became our ally during World War II because we were fighting against NAZI fascism. There is a fascinating .gov article about the history of our early intelligence agencies, and their interactions with the Pond, which was a private intelligence agency intent on keeping tabs on communism…which was not the government’s biggest concern at the time. You can read the article here.
This is an excerpt:
From his first months in the War Department, Grombach [the head of the Pond] was constantly on the lookout for communist subversion, a propensity that repeatedly created friction with others. In 1942, with Alexander Barmine, a Soviet military intelligence officer who had defected in 1937, he identified a “list of Soviet agents working in the OSS.” But 1942 was a desperate time, and the accusations of a mid-ranking Army ideologue did not cut much ice in Washington. The accusations brought only a reminder that the Soviet Union was now America’s ally.22
Grombach stayed on the trail of subversion, however. As the war progressed and the Pond began to collect intelligence from overseas, Grombach found, to his dismay, that 80 percent or more of his reports about the Soviet Union and communism were being “eliminated”—not used in intelligence analyses and not passed to consumers.23 This was ideologically offensive to Grombach and ran contrary to his philosophy of intelligence.
The problem with McCarthy was not his witch-hunt against communism. It was his position as a politician with no real investigative skills, or at the very least, no actual position in any investigation agency. He knew there were communists operating in the government; he simply didn’t know who exactly they were. Also, if you go back to the government article on the Pond, you will see that Grombach was feeding McCarthy information that might or might not have been accurate (Grombach wouldn’t give up his sources). In turn, the CIA fed Grombach false information to pass on to McCarthy.
In other words, McCarthy’s information about communists was a bit muddy at best. However, history has proven McCarthy was right to have the suspicions he did. From Moscow transcripts made available in the early nineties to the publication of the Venona transcripts, it has become clear there were many communists and communist sympathizers operating in the United States during the Soviet era, even in the State Department that was supposed to be investigating them.
Why does it matter? It matters because, in the realm of free association and free speech, our country is extraordinarily vulnerable. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights assures us of these rights, but other systems do not. I.e., communism is a system that is essentially at odds with the American ideal of the sovereignty of the private sector. It can’t coexist with this Constitutional ideal because its focus is rather on the sovereignty of the public sphere which regulates the private. Despite that, we have the freedom to hold communist ideology and to associate with communists…ultimately, a self-defeating freedom.
McCarthy, no matter how misinformed and obnoxious he was, was attempting to upheld Americanism. For that, I’m remembering him on his birthday. *I would like to write more about this, but I have to run. Perhaps tomorrow. Abrupt ending for today.*