History Book Club
September 28, 2016
Witch Hunts in America
Charles River Editors, House Un-American Activities Committee: The History and Legacy of Congress’ Most Notorious Investigative Committee, Cambridge, MA: Charles River Editors, 2016.
Charles River Editors, McCarthyism: The Controversial History of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the Red Scare during the Cold War, Cambridge, MA: Charles River Editors, 2016
When we see how skillfully Donald Trump activates his audience, so that they follow his lead in denouncing all Muslims, we see a demagogue at work.
In the hands of an uncritical throng of believers, the demagogue can heat them up until they will follow his lead. We saw how demagogues like Benjamin Tillman in the south used this technique to fire up white farmers, telling them that freed slaves were on the rampage, ready to rape their women and kill them.
Adolf Hitler was a marvelous demagogue, turning Germans against Jews, and eventually causing the death of some six million Jews.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI)
Senator Joe McCarthy found his target, rooting out communists that he claimed were hollowing out our federal government and shaping thought in our colleges and in our entertainment. He saw communists everywhere. The State Department was riddled with them. Hollywood was full of actors ready to use communist skills to turn the whole country into a communist state.
Martin Dies, Jr.
The House Un-American Activities Committee was formed in 1938, and Congressman Martin Dies (D. TX) served as its chairman until 1944. Dies, a conservative southerner, had originally supported Franklin D. Roosevelt, but by 1936 he was taking another path. The HUAC was originally intended to search out un-American activities from the right and the left, as Nazism was rapidly gathering steam. HUAC looked at the Ku Klux Klan, and other pro-Hitler efforts, but soon concentrated upon the left wing.
The Committee brought in Hallie Flanagan for questioning in 1938. She was head of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal initiative that was sponsoring amateur theatre all over the country, in social organizations, trade unions, religious organizations, industries, fraternal organizations and political groups. Someone had suggested there was a communist flavor in all of this.
In questioning before the committee, one member asked Ms. Flanagan about one Christopher Marlowe, whom she had quoted in her literature. “Tell us who this Marlowe is, so we can get this in perspective. Was he a communist?” “put in the records that he was the greatest dramatist in the period immediately preceding Shakespeare,” she replied. Further questioning implicated “Mr. Euripides” as a playwright who “was guilty of teaching class consciousness.”
Dies apparently was hoping to smear and conquer the New Deal with all this, and he did manage to shut down the theatre program.
Soon, communists, or people called that, were popping up everywhere. Shirley Temple, then a Hollywood star at age 10 in 1938, was included in a list of Hollywood actors suspected of red ties, because she had written a letter to the Paris newspaper Ce Soir, which had a reputation of leftist tendencies.
Dies brought his committee to Los Angeles for this investigation, claiming that he had been given a list of about 42 prominent members of the film colony who were either full-fledged members of the Communist Party or active sympathizers and fellow travelers. Dies investigated Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Kathryn Hepburn and Fredric March, among others.
When Congress took up communism in 1938 Americans were conflicted, because we saw a right-wing fanatic in Germany threatening war in Europe; but we also saw danger from Stalin in Soviet Russia. Some, including Dies, and Father Coughlin, a vocal Catholic priest then gaining a large audience in the U.S. thought that FDR and his New Deal were too cozy with the left.
FDR and the New Deal prevailed, despite Dies’ and Coughlin’s best efforts. We went on to fight World War II with Russia as an ally. We officially suspended our misgivings about communism for the duration of the war. Membership in the Communist Party of the United States peaked during wartime, to about 50,000.
As soon as World War II ended, Stalin immediately began to swallow up bits and pieces of Europe. France saw a huge increase in sympathy for communism, as did Italy. Communism, and the threat of Reds in America, even embedded in our government, arose again.
There was a time when it looked like communism would cover the earth.
As Americans came home from World War II, and people at home began to live in peacetime, the House Un-American Activities Committee became increasingly active in hunting down communists. Some real communists got caught up in this.
In 1948 Whitaker Chambers, a known communist, appeared before the HUAC. He implicated several in government. In particular he named a bright young attorney named Alger Hiss. His, born in Baltimore, graduated from Johns Hopkins University and then Harvard. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and then went to work in a prominent Boston law firm. He soon found a job in the Roosevelt administration, as counsel defending the Agricultural Adjustment Administration against conservative congressmen seeking to disband it. Then he went to work in the State Department, first as assistant to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, and then in the Office of Far Eastern Affairs.
In 1944 Hiss became Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs, an office working to plan the postwar world, including creating the United Nations. This took him to the Yalta Conference where FDR met with Churchill and Stalin to plan for the world after Hitler was defeated. After the war, Hiss became President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Alger Hiss, 1950
Even though he had been named by Chambers, Hiss might have been lost in the shuffle, but an aspiring young communist fighter named Richard Nixon took up the cause, claiming that he alone was responsible for nailing Hiss, because the Justice Department would not prosecute, and J. Edgar Hoover didn’t cooperate. Nixon leaked Hiss’ name in the papers, and eventually brought him in. “I had Hiss convicted before he ever got to the grand jury”, Nixon bragged.
On January 20, 1950 Hiss was convicted of espionage and sentenced to five years in prison.
After the Hiss conviction, HUAC was flushed with success, and again went on a hunt for communists in Hollywood. This began an era of accusations, blacklists, people reporting on each other. Even when there was no proof, people’s names were brought up, their reputations ruined, as the threat of “Red scare” ran rampant. Even President Truman, who criticized HUAC as being itself “un-American”, found he was powerless to shut it down. It was a bad time for American justice.
In February 1950 a little-known senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, spoke to a Republican women’s club in Wheeling, WV, claiming that he had a list of known communists in the State Department. He began to build a reputation as the most prominent communist hunter in government. When pressed for details, he refused to give any. When people questioned his evidence he’d accuse them of being communists themselves.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were brought to trial for espionage, in particular for stealing the secret of the American atomic bomb and passing it to the USSR, this gave McCarthy more assurance. They were convicted in March, 1951 and executed in June 1953.
The climate in America was ripe for hunting communists in the early 1950s. The USSR had exploded its first atomic bomb in August 1949. America, just five years after World War II ended, was fighting the Communist North Koreans. Red China had consolidated its rule over China, pushing the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-Shek off the mainland and onto the island of Taiwan.
Today, young people might have a hard time taking Communism seriously, because the Soviet Union has collapsed, East Germany is no more, and democratic governments have taken over in Bulgaria, Rumania; Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia have split apart. Unless young people read history, they cannot know how, after we had thrown off the threat of the whole world being conquered by Germany and Japan, communism began to cover the earth, in China, maybe Greece, maybe Iran, maybe India, maybe Egypt, Syria, Africa, certainly in Cuba and maybe elsewhere in Latin America.
McCarthy fought to gain traction in this environment by playing on the fears of Americans. Just like Martin Dies had fought against Roosevelt’s New Deal, now McCarthy tried to show that Truman’s Democratic administration was soft on Reds.
Today we are seeing the same sort of fear-mongering, as a presidential candidate seeks to sow seeds of distrust and play to the fears of Americans by urging the exclusion of all Muslims, and expulsion of some 11 million illegal immigrants.
Gradually, McCarthy’s campaign to hunt down communists began to create the climate of fear and distrust he sought. People were reporting on their neighbors. It seemed as if communists were everywhere. Truman never fell under his spell, nor did many other leaders in Congress, but Congress willingly voted for funds to continue the investigations. McCarthy particularly went after General George C. Marshall, five-star hero in World War II and, later, as Secretary of State, creator of the Marshall Plan to save Europe after the war. McCarthy claimed that Marshall was leading America toward disaster against the USSR.
In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower took office. Although a Republican like McCarthy, “Ike” did not fall under McCarthy’s spell either. McCarthy, who had been a junior officer in World War II (he ran for election as “Tail Gunner Joe”) was not afraid of Ike, who had earned five stars as the general in World War II who commanded all allied forces in Europe. In 1951 he became the first commander of NATO, and later the president of Columbia University. He was in that position when he was elected President in 1952.
McCarthy rolled on with his campaign to root out communists. He published books, and issued congressional pamphlets telling how to spot communists in our midst. He was quick with accusations, and careless with justification. He was gradually building up opposition. At this time, he had a very smart, aggressive assistant named Roy Cohn, and Roy used his position on McCarthy’s Senate investigative staff to engineer the commissioning of a former staff member, recently drafted David Shine. The Army found him unqualified for a commission and refused. Cohn swore to get rid of Army Secretary Robert Stevens.
McCarthy sought to go after supposed communists in the Army. It turns out that this was going too far for the American people. In June, 1954, before a national television audience, McCarthy tried his usual bullying tactics against the Army. Army Chief Counsel Joseph N. Welch turned the tables on McCarthy, and this marked the beginning of the end.
This bullying blowhard was shown as the cowardly demagogue he had become, and soon he was brought before the whole Senate for censure.
McCarthy kept his seat, but disappeared from the national media, began drinking heavily, and died in 1957. He was 48 years old.
HUAC continued to operate, but finally was disbanded in 1975.
Sen. McCarthy questions Joseph N. Welch, Chief Counsel for the
U.S. Army, during investigation into communist activities, June 9, 1954
HISTORY BOOK CLUB TOPICS FOR 2016-2017
Wednesday, September 28, 2016: Scaremongering and Witch Hunts in America. Salem Witch Trials, House Un-American Activities Committee; McCarthy Investigations; more.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016: Political Parties in America. Whigs, Know-Nothings, Federalists, Copperheads; Communists, Socialists, Republicans, Democrats, more.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016: Colonization in America. Jamestown, Plymouth, Gloucester, St. Augustine, Junipero Serra, Roger Williams, Quebec, Nieuw Amsterdam, more.
December: No Meeting
Wednesday, January 18 (vice 25), 2017: History of Cape Ann
Wednesday, February 22, 2017:
Wednesday, March 29, 2017:
Wednesday, April 26, 2017:
Wednesday, May 31, 2017: