A question from Alysia…What do I remember about Senator Joseph McCarthy?

Our granddaughter called today. She is doing a report on McCarthyism for a school report. What did we remember she said.

Dear Alysia,

I had not thought about this in so many years.

When I was about nine, Senator Joseph McCarthy began a vendetta against those people he considered to be a threat to our national well being. An article in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCarthyism) says:

“Joseph McCarthy’s involvement with the ongoing cultural phenomenon that would bear his name began with a speech he made on Lincoln Day, February 9, 1950, to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. He produced a piece of paper which he claimed contained a list of known Communists working for the State Department. McCarthy is usually quoted as saying: “I have here in my hand a list of 205-a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” This speech resulted in a flood of press attention to McCarthy and set him on the path that would characterize the rest of his career and life.”

Because this speech and others to follow the American people began to fear that the USSR and it’s communist ideology might be a threat to our way of life. McCarthy was allowed to go about his hate mongering unfettered. Communism and its ideal of sharing wealth, land and labor did appeal to some people. It was the denunciation of the existence of a God that frightened many away. On the surface it seemed fairly harmless. Intellectuals, artists, union leaders and free thinkers were somehow drawn to the ideal. But what they did not see coming was the ideal being taken over by a country that somehow needed to expand it boundaries in order feed their people and industries. That country was Russia. It was after WWII that the western world began to realize that the spread of communism might be a threat to our national security and even to our form of government. Russia became our worst fear. We watched as communism spread to China and later to Cuba and south east Asia.

In comes Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Committee on Un-American Activities. Thousands were accused and the questioning, which was incidentally broadcast live a great deal of the time, was intense and brutal. There was a Hollywood Blacklist and many talented artists were not allowed to work. Nothing was proven against the majority of them in a court of law, but because of suspicion and innuendo, many simply were cut off from the life they knew. Some had attended meetings, as I remember it, without knowing they were sponsored by a communist organization. Government employees, college professors, union activities suffered the same fate and, in these particular cases, the accusation was a enough for them to loose jobs and suffer humiliation. The fact that if these people could not actually remember the facts did not matter and they could be convicted of a crime. As time passed Senator McCarthy and his committee members became even more powerful.

There were, of course, cases that were actually brought to court and people like Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were found guilty. The Rosenberg’s were executed for their crimes. Alger Hiss was sent to prison for not telling the truth. There were a number of people convicted of lying to a congressional committee, a crime in and of itself.

I can remember conversations between my parents about Joseph McCarthy. They did not like his tactics or even the sound of his voice. But the era did lead us to a feeling of fear. We learned to duck under desks to avoid nuclear bomb blasts and local air defense teams scanned the sky for planes. Magazines carried plans for bomb shelters. Because we lived in a remote area, we felt very safe. But WWII was fresh in everyone’s memory and my mother dreamed of a foreign army invaded our town. Could that generation be forgiven for their support of Joseph McCarthy and his tactics? I don’t know. But over 50% did support him. In a book by , Richard H.Rovere (1959)about Senator Joe McCarthy. (University of California Press, pp. 21-22. ISBN 0-520-20472-7.) Earl Warren was quoted as saying that if there had been a popular vote on the Bill of Rights during this period it would have failed. It was truly an era that seemed so simply on the surface. The truth of it was not visible for us to see until many years later. I guess time teaches us all things. And I might add that people did not speak out against the McCarthy agenda…he truly was a man to be feared. Those that opposed him kept quiet for a long time.

So Alysia, this is how it was. Now I feel such outrage that our country to fell into such a pit of fear and hatred. It happened again, I think, after 9/11. Fear drove our government to tactics driven by that self same fear and hatred. Freedoms were lost and government moved into our lives in many unwanted ways. Hopefully, we will regain our balance again someday soon.

I love you.

Grandma Barbara


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