Saturday, December 9, 2017


I enjoy studying American history of the post-World War II period, and just remembered that earlier this week we passed the anniversary of a milestone for that period: On December 2, 1954, the United States Senate voted 65 to 22 to condemn McCarthy for "conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute", signaling the erosion of the crushing anti-communist excesses of the previous years. McCarthyism has been applied indiscriminately and almost invariably incorrectly to any number of perceived political and social excesses, but it is worth recalling it for what it was. 

First, to criticize McCarthyism is not to diminish the real threats. We must understand that at the time there was a real, broadly recognized threat to the U.S.  Through documents from Soviet archives and Soviet messages, we know that the Soviet Union engaged in substantial espionage activities in the United States during the 1940's, that the Communist Party in the U.S. was being funded by the Soviet Union, and that it was used as a base for recruiting spies. We should not have McCarthyism diminish the reality of the subversive elements of the time.

The threat was real, but the reaction to that threat was a frenzy, often described as a witch hunt, that was particularly focused on those in the entertainment industry and government. A simple accusation was sufficient for people to be attacked, lose their job and even their career, with no further prospects for employment at more than a menial level. President Truman remarked that, "A man is ruined everywhere and forever. No responsible employer would be likely to take a chance in giving him a job." Those who were accused had no recourse because the process took place through extra-judicial channels; no response could hold sway. Pleading the Fifth Amendment during the proceedings was taken as an indication of guilt.

What is more, although there were instances of serious attempts at subversion, there also were many who were attacked for activities from decades earlier that, though perhaps outside the social and political norm, had been benign. These were pulled up and judged with the now more stringent standard. It was as if a law had been enacted, and those who did not follow that law in the past were found guilty.

Yet at the time, these excessive and unlawful efforts which cast aside any notion of due process were supported by many thoughtful people. For example, William F. Buckley Jr., a prominent conservative intellectual, wrote that McCarthyism “is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks." Certainly there were those who were opposed, but popular opinion – and no doubt the concern that those who opposed the juggernaut would be painted with the same brush – kept them silenced.

The political climate of McCarthyism declined through the 1950’s as public opinion shifted, and a number of court rulings pushed back against the processes that supported it. Most notable is one in 1956 that pushed back on using the invocation of the Fifth Amendment to infer guilt. The Court wrote that “we must condemn the practice of imputing a sinister meaning to the exercise of a person's constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment”, and in 1957, when the Court condemned cases where “Guilt or innocence may turn on what Marx or Engels or someone else wrote or advocated as much as a hundred years or more ago.”   


  1. It is quite a timely reminder. I wonder if you notice analogies with the current climate, with the just retired head of NSA talking about Russians being "genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever, which is a typical Russian technique", or a Democratic congressman saying that "when you meet with any Russians, you're meeting with Russian intelligence" and both speeches not meeting any public condemnation at all. After 1954, this kind of talk would not have been acceptable for quite a while.

  2. I had understood Mr. Bookstaber to be commenting (discreetly) on the current atmosphere of sexual misconduct accusations. The targets are mostly in entertainment and government and although many may be guilty, following nothing more than an accusation, all are being prosecuted and punished by a parallel justice system which cares not for due process or evidence and retroactively applies current standards for behavior to actions in the past.

    1. Thank you for the comment. Here is a NYT op-ed from today that is on point for this:

    2. I unintentionally wrote the above comment anonymously.

      The proportionality argument also seems to have been an issue with the public treatment of Louis CK vs. Harvey Weinstein.

      Without any intention of partisanship, I wonder if accused Republicans (Roy Moore being the notable example) are better able to navigate these accusations because they are more adept at exploiting the psychological currents and flaws of a mob mentality.