McCarthyism in

Ted Morgan
(Random House)
Some of us came of political age with the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1953. The Communist Menace and the multifarious investigations meant little to us who were barely out of puberty at the time. But early television and McCarthy and all the various characters in what Morgan calls a Five-Act play (a Morality Play, for sure) made us aware, for the first time, of the drama being played out in Washington in the name of anti-Communism.

I was working a 11 PM to 7 AM switchboard job at the time, but would struggle out of bed at some ungodly hour of the late morning to watch Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Walter Jenkins, Joseph Welch, G. Robert Stevens, and David Schine (in absentia), go through what was one of the most engaging political dramas of all time. It was played out before my feasting, bedroom eyes on a tiny black-and-white thirteen-inch DuMont television set that we kept in the kitchen. I couldn't get enough of it.

Engraved in my consciousness forever is this gravelly, bushy-browed Senator, and "Point of Order," brow-beating everyone in his path, and always, at his side, a pilot fish at the mouth of the shark, Roy Cohn, unsmiling, whispering, always whispering in the Senator's ear (even when the Senator was expostulating) --- that ominous looking lawyer who had created this whole drama, we were to find out later, on behalf of his handsome lover David.

It was all there spread out for all to see. Loyalty (and disloyalty). Love (and secret love). Naked power. Bitter anger. Vicious characters. And charming ones, too --- that Welch in his bow-tie. This was what participatory democracy was all about, and we were right in the middle of it, in the midst of a titanic drama fought between strong-willed characters who, I now realize, from Morgan's extensive background research, were fighting not only the battle against statist power and "internal subversion" but, too, the very future of the country. For most of us were just beginning to learn that McCarthy was riding high, so high that it was thought he might just get himself elected president of the United States.

And with his grip on dramatic performance and the fear of his country-men --- fear of Communism, fear of him --- it may well have happened ... but for one thing. His greatest enemy shot him down in mid-flight. His name: Joe McCarthy.

§     §     §

Morgan defines McCarthyism as "the use of false information in the irrational pursuit of a fictitious enemy." His main thesis in this fat (685 page) volume is that the perceived enemy --- anarchists, Bolsheviks, Communists --- and the strange way Americans dealt with them existed long before the coming of Joe McCarthy, and lasted long after his death (witness, our present-day spasms over "terrorism.")

As proof, Morgan takes us all the way back to the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the consequent wave of fear that swept America, resulting almost instantly in an investigation of "reds." A pro-Soviet rally in New York City in 1919, caused U. S. Senator, Lee Overman, to call a hearing, "the first of many congressional investigations of Communism, which in 1919 was a brand-new topic." The hearings lasted a month, brought in twenty-five witnesses, and provided us with this fascinating back-and-forth: Archibald Stevenson, a lawyer and an expert on Bolshevism, was asked by Overton,

    "Do they have as many wives as they want?"

    Stevenson: "In rotation."

    "A man can marry and then get a divorce when he gets tired and get another wife?"


    "They can renounce the marital bond at will?"


Reds also takes us into that period where the 339th Infantry Regiment of the United States, on September 4, 1918, joined the British at Archangel to rout Bolshevik troops --- an invasion that lasted for almost a year, created a near-mutiny, left some 400 Americans dead, and was a constant source of anti-American propaganda for the Stalinists.

Morgan takes us from these excursions, into Mitchell Palmer's deportation of radicals, the rise of the Communist Party in the United States, the works of the Comintern, the coming of paid government operatives, WWII, J. Edgar Hoover, the hearings of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, the Eastland Committee, and the astonishing rise (and equally astonishing fall) of Joseph R. McCarthy. It ends with a few thoughts on the politics of anti-terrorism in present day America.

§     §     §

Morgan has produced a great number of words, not only in Reds but with his seven previous volumes --- including works on Somerset Maugham, Winston Churchill, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He may be a sterling researcher, but his writing style can be straight out of Ennui Village. For example, there is an extended exegesis on a minor "friendly witness" named Harvey Matusow. It takes up a dozen pages and --- not being all that vital in the annals of espionage, red-baiting, and the question of paid informants --- could have been dispensed with in a paragraph.

In addition, Morgan's characterizations of the individuals involved can be klunky. Soviet spy Valentin Markin wore elevated shoes and his "hair stood up, like the hair of cartoon characters struck by electricity adding another inch, and his arrogance compensated for his bantam size." Hungarian Communist Josef Peters looked "somewhat like a mustached and bushy-eyebrowed chow dog strutting on its hind legs." The New York Communist Party in 1948 included Robert Thompson ("thick-necked and verbose,") and Carl Winter ("flabby and soft.") One gets the feeling that Morgan may be bored with the very facts and is struggling to bring some life to the page.

It is only when he gets to the very real conflicts, the astonishing dramas, and the wonderful characters in subversive-stalking does Reds come to life. The chapters on early Joe McCarthy are worth the price of the book. They include his little-known involvement in the Malmédy Massacre controversy where, late in WWII, over a hundred American soldiers were captured and massacred by the German SS.

McCarthy headed up a senatorial investigation in 1949 which was, surprisingly, not about the death of so many unarmed American prisoners, but whether German troops captured later had been brutally questioned by the U. S. Army. Excerpts from the transcripts shows McCarthy's techniques in full flower: insults, sarcasm, innuendo, and self-pity, plus a strange sort of interest in certain private parts. The Senator returns again and again to the question of whether SS men had been "kicked in the genitals," "injured in the testicles," "kicked or kneed in the groin."

§     §     §

Morgan, as I say, can write up a storm when he is onto something good: McCarthy, and Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer, J. Edgar Hoover with his pathological hatred of Martin Luther King, Jr. But when he gets off the track, he does so badly. For example, Morgan's affection for the works of the House Unamerican Activities Committee comes as a surprise. His thesis is that there was a real and present dangerous threat of Communist invasion in the film industry and that the work of HUAC to uproot them was honorable and true. However the author's attacks on those who by necessity used the Constitution for protection against self-incrimination sounds ominously like McCarthy's garish references to "Fifth Amendment Communists."

    Why could they not tell the truth? The answer was that if you admitted membership, you would have to name others, which made you a stool pigeon. But between the posturing cardboard heroes who took the Fifth and those who named names, the former were cowards afraid of admitting their allegiance, while the latter were doing their duty as citizens under oath before a congressional committee. Some of the latter were opportunists trying to avoid the blacklist, but others had left the party and felt it was proper to expose its underhandedness.

Thus, in overly-simplified form, Morgan has condemned those who did not have the stomach for ratting on their friends and acquaintances, giving mere hearsay as testimony.

Once you were under oath to the HUAC, if you gave any answers whatsoever (outside of name and address) you were required, under pain of arrest and imprisonment, to name any and all names of those you had gone to meetings with, eaten with, slept with, associated with, worked with --- all the while giving opinions on their loyalty or lack of it.

Such gossip was not only malicious, but a vicious way used by many to get back at old enemies. "Be a tattle-tale," Morgan is saying --- "It's OK. Your patriotism requires that you do so."

--- Françoise Felber
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