Gone Crazy:

Senator Pat McCarran and
The Great American Communist Hunt

Michael J. Ybarra

Part II

Senator Joe McCarthy, the freshman minority-party senator from Wisconsin had no real power, but Senator Patrick McCarran --- majority-party senior senator from Nevada, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, master political infighter and populist turned anti-New Dealer and ardent anti-Communist --- did. Joe McCarthy was a sideshow, ever colorful and quotable, who dominated news coverage ... while the heavy lifting was done by McCarran and his Republican co-conspirators.

Ybarra's book gives an exhaustive recounting of McCarran's anti-communist crusade of the early 50's, in addition to a detailed and sympathetic portrait of his impoverished early life.

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McCarran can't be understood without historical context. The time of America's great depression was a complex time and Ybarra recounts it nicely. Weaving McCarran's early life into the history of Nevada, Ybarra ties them into the social history of the Great Depression and the concomitant social upheaval here and in Europe. The great fear was the bloody Communist revolution in Russia --- just as 130 years earlier the fear of a bloody French revolution brought to these shores had split the Whigs from the Jeffersonian Republicans.

From Russia, Stalin sought to export Communism wherever he could. Moscow supported foreign Communist parties and used them for intelligence and, where possible, active subversion. In Europe the battles between right and left were often pitiless. In depression-era America, though, the Communist effort was attenuated by America's natural practicality. The system was badly broken but most Americans wanted improvement, not revolution.

The Communist conspiracy was real. Card-carrying Communists and sympathizers existed, and some of them worked for the government and policy organizations. Some of them provided a steady stream of internal government papers and memoranda that were promptly transmitted to the Comintern and Moscow.

Later, some of these fellow-travelers repented and testified against their former colleagues. In many cases it is only now --- with access to the former Soviet Union's intelligence files --- that we can sort out the truth of the many charges and counter-charges that flew in the overheated atmosphere.

In the '40's, of course, Stalin's Soviet Union was the most important US ally in World War II against Nazi Germany. The Russians bore the brunt of the Nazi war machine, and the brutal war of attrition against the Wehrmacht finally drove the Nazis back.

Without our Russian allies, America would have faced a much tougher fight against the Nazis, especially after the invasion of Normandy and the collapse of the German army in northern Europe. America's Lend-Lease investment literally traded trucks for the blood of millions of Russians.

So America went from hating Stalin in the '30's, to coöperating with him in the 40's, to hating and fearing him in the 50's. For left-wingers who justified Stalin's atrocities beginning in the 20's, even through the later purges and show trials, the backlash against Communism in the early 50's was unimaginable. For conservatives who'd been pushed into irrelevance during the New Deal, it was payback time.

Stalin's post-WWII actions --- the Iron Curtain, the Berlin blockade, the development of atomic weapons --- confirmed the Soviet Union as America's chief post-war rival and enemy. The obvious corollary was that those who supported the Soviets in the 30's must also be dangerous.

In 1950, Chiang Kai-shek fled China, tripling the world's Communist-ruled population. The fear of Communist world domination grew apace. "Who lost China?" became the rallying cry of the right. Mao injected Chinese troops into the Korean War, almost pushing American troops off the peninsula.

Fed by bad news and red meat from Joe McCarthy, Pat McCarran and a host of right-wing pundits made "liberal" a dirty word. It was all a part of a larger agenda to roll back Roosevelt's New Deal.

The House had the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). McCarren set up the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), stocked it with the most conservative Republicans and Democrats he could find, and named himself chair. SISS focused on China and leftwing labor unions, especially those whose Nevada chapters had opposed McCarran's re-election.

In hearings stretching for more than a year, McCarran's committee left a trail of brutalized witnesses. Most of them were people whose major crime was to be liberal-to-far-left in the 30's, advocates of policies that were, in hindsight, too solicitous of the Soviet Union.

On the big question, "Who lost China?" Occam's razor tells us it has to be Chiang Kai-shek. The general was famously corrupt, reluctant to fight the Japanese. Despite three billion dollars in American military aid, his rule and he were so ineffective that they were, ultimately, doomed.

But Chiang Kai-shek was a gifted self-promoter, and had the crucial support of Time Magazine's Henry Luce. Roosevelt, who preferred direct contact over the opinions of the State Department professionals, was impressed ... even though General Joe Stilwell, Chiang's US military liaison, vociferously argued for dumping the general in favor of supporting the Communists (who were actually actively fighting the Japanese). Yet when the Nationalists fled the mainland, American diplomats were blamed.

All this drama fed domestic hysteria. While Communist conspiracy was real, it was also never a serious threat to the US, even at the depths of the depression, certainly not in the much more prosperous '50's. While the Communists used fifth columnists effectively, they had much broader support in much smaller countries. The image of a couple of million American Communist sabotaging America from within had the right manning the barricades, waiting for non-existent hordes.

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A frightening image, yes. A realistic one? No.

CPUSA membership peaked at 70,000 in the 1930's. Pick your own multiplier for "fellow-travelers" and sympathizers. Five would be a generous number, given how quickly the topic of Marxism can clear even an open bar. So the question is: in a democratic and conservative nation of 150 million people how dangerous are 500,000 radicals?

Yet for five years McCarran and McCarthy played on America's fears: fear of a devious and powerful enemy; fear of one who subjugated foreign hordes; fear of one who could seduce our elites. There was no more powerful nation than America in the world, yet millions of Americans raged about the imminent threat of Communist subversion. McCarran didn't create these fears, but he was the politician most skilled at playing on them.

The liberal's need to be "tough on Communism" led us directly into Viet Nam --- America's longest war and biggest military failure. Today, a similar dynamic has given us the folly in Iraq.

Students of history and/or American political paranoia will enjoy Ybarra's evocation of the 1930's, 40's and 50's --- a time when so much of what George Bush is dismantling was being created. Washington Gone Crazy is a fine and careful telling of this important era in American and world history.

--- Robin Harris
Go back to Part I

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