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The Revivial Of McCarthyism

by Marty Jezer

McCarthyism making its most forceful comeback via TV journalism
In a Lincoln Day speech in 1950, Joseph McCarthy, then an obscure Senator from Wisconsin, waved a piece of paper at his Republican audience and declared that it contained the names of 205 current State Department employees who were members of the Communist Party. The crowd went wild. As did the press.

In reporting McCarthyÕs allegations, journalists made no attempt to substantiate his charges or even to ask him for the list of the alleged communists. In fact, McCarthy had no list, had no names, and had done no research. He was just looking for headlines Š and he got them. The mediaÕs assumption was that McCarthyÕs speech, in and of itself, was news. Whether what he said was true or not did not matter. If Chicken Little had held a press conference to declare "the sky is falling," the press would have reported it as news.

McCarthyÕs charges were accepted as "truth" by right-wing Republicans and Democrats. The Cold War had started. The American monopoly on weapons of mass destruction had recently been broken when the Soviet Union tested its own atomic bomb. China had been "lost" to the Communists as if the United States had somehow once "owned" it. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was making a name for itself and its members (one of whom was Richard Nixon) investigating communism in Hollywood, the labor movement, and in liberal New Deal federal agencies. Ferreting out liberals and leftists seemed a good career-move for an obscure Senator from Wisconsin as it was for an obscure Congressman from California.

Boosted by the publicity, McCarthy decided to make anti-communism his issue. In 1951 he went after the Truman administration, accusing the president of being a front for "a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man." What he was referring to was TrumanÕs foreign policy!

In 1954 McCarthy set out to expose communists in the United States Army. The hearings were broadcast live on TV and showed McCarthy as the bully he was. The tide turned when the ArmyÕs counsel, a crusty New England lawyer named Joseph Welch, stood up to him with eloquence, wit and decency. A documentary of the Army-McCarthy hearings, "Point of Order," should be revived and shown in every school and community. McCarthy was soon brought down by a Vermont Republican Senator, Ralph Flanders, who led a successful effort to censure him for "conduct...unbecoming a member of the United State Senate."

This week we got a reminder of the dangers of McCarthyism when two Senators, Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Carl Levin of Michigan, released transcripts of closed-door hearings that Senator McCarthy held during the 1950s. Nearly 500 witnesses, alleged by McCarthy to be communist or communist sympathizers, were subpoenaed and questioned about their politics. The 4000-pages of transcripts show that McCarthy often lied about the closed-door testimony, making public incriminating statements by the witnesses that they never made, and making allegations that the public record did not support.

The transcriptions also show that those who stood up to McCarthy and refused to be bullied were usually let go. Those who appeared weak and intimidated were brought back to testify in public hearings. There, with the press present, McCarthy could browbeat them more. The goal, as the transcripts indicate, was to frighten political dissenters, to convey the message that there was a price to pay for holding dissident political opinions.

Though McCarthy faded, McCarthyism continued. HUAC tried to prove communist influence in the civil rights, ban the bomb and anti-Vietnam war movements well into the 1960s. The same spirit that apparently intimidated McCarthy ultimately destroyed HUAC. Strong-willed and articulate witnesses who refused to be cowed, who refused to accept the assumption that a congressional committee has a right to question anyoneÕs politics sent the bullies running.

In releasing the McCarthy transcripts, Susan Collins said, "We hope that the excesses of McCarthyism will serve as a cautionary tale for future generations." Those future generations are here and now.

We see a revival of McCarthyism today in the Patriot Act that blurs the distinction between terrorism and dissent and undermines individual rights and protections. While Congress is not formally investigating the anti-war movement, its right-wing leaders are deliberately creating a political climate in which criticism of the administration is construed as un-American and unpatriotic.

This is evident in a number of areas. There have been reports of airlines bouncing people off flights because their names appear on mysterious lists of potential "terrorists." Entertainers like the Dixie Chicks, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon have had their careers threatened because theyÕve criticized the President. Warner Brothers has pulled an ad for its movie "What A Girl Wants" because it shows its star, Amanda Bynes, flashing a peace sign.

Jay LenoÕs "Tonight Show" often serves as a barometer of the political climate. The former comedian and failed football analyst Dennis Miller was a guest the other night. After the obligatory insult of Hillary Clinton, Miller declared that it was wrong to criticize President Bush, our great wartime leader. Leno, who has made a career out of attacking the Clintons, applauded, as did the audience. As public figures, the Clintons are legitimate targets for satire and humor. When a president is off-limits from a comedianÕs shtick, the political climate gets chilly.

ItÕs in the arena of TV journalism that McCarthyism is making its most forceful comeback. Bill OÕReilly and other commentators on Fox News insult the patriotism of all who oppose the administrationÕs policies. Commentators with independent views rarely get heard on either cable to network television. The Chicken Little School of news reporting is having a revival. When it comes to the Bush administration, TV journalists rarely do investigative reporting. We went to war because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. President Bush said we had the evidence. Yeah, right! Just like Joe McCarthy had a list of 205 communists.

Marty Jezer writes about McCarthyism in his book The Dark Ages: Life in the U.S.1945-1960

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Albion Monitor May 2, 2003 (

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