Seventy years ago today, on January 3, 1946, Joseph Raymond McCarthy stepped into the U.S. Senate seat formerly occupied by the founder of this magazine, Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette. By February of 1950, McCarthy had burst into the national spotlight with a series of speeches against purported Communist infiltrators in the U.S. government. A recent cover story on Donald Trump in the National Enquirer brought back memories of McCarthy’s list, claiming “shocking details about Trump's plan to go after fifty-five Islamic spies who have penetrated all levels of the U.S. government.”
Joe McCarthy, known sarcastically as “Tail-Gunner Joe” because of his false claims of military heroism, held onto his Senate seat until his death in May 1957. His career was marked by bullying, and a series of unsubstantiated allegations regarding the loyalty of hundreds of U.S. citizens. He is most remembered for his crusade against suspected Communists, which came to be known as “McCarthyism” (a term first coined by political cartoonist Herbert Block). In addition to his persecution of individuals, McCarthy was well known for his attacks on the press, not unlike the attacks launched more recently by Donald Trump.
From the start, The Progressive was a leading voice against McCarty’s crusade. The magazine once called him “an ambitious faker living by his wits and guts, a ruthless egotist bent on personal power regardless of the consequence to his country, a shrewd and slippery operator with the gambler's gift for knowing when and how to bluff . . . .”
These are words that sound eerily familiar today.
In fact, the spirit of Joe McCarthy continues to infuse our politics—especially today, in an era of politically charged Congressional investigations into topics like Hillary Clinton’s supposed role in the deaths of U.S. embassy staff in Benghazi, Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s racially charged attack on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel because of his Mexican heritage, and Trump’s the suggestion that the United States create a special a registry for Muslims. The Progressive was, is, and will remain the voice of reason in an era of dangerous demagoguery.
In 1954, McCarthy booked a five-city tour, beginning at the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, during which he claimed to have a list of 205 known Communists in the U.S. State Department. By the time he reached Salt Lake City, Utah, that number had changed to fifty-seven, and later eighty-one—it was always a moving target.
“If the ‘numbers racket’ seems a tricky and confusing story,” noted The Progressive’s editorial, “it is solely because McCarthy's repeated change of numbers made it hard to follow his charges from day to day, week to week, and month to month during the period when his sensational allegations were winning him headlines throughout the world. It is worth noting here how guesswork played a part in McCarthy's charges in so grave a field as treason and espionage.”
The Progressive first covered the actions of McCarthy and his investigations into so-called “Reds” in the State Department in a June 1950 article by Stuart Chase called “’Jumpin’ Joe’ McCarthy—His Motives and Methods.” Chase enumerated a list of the methods used by McCarthy that painted many as subversives through innuendo and unsubstantiated claims: “It must be remembered that McCarthy's methods produce obloquy by mass communication—headlines, syndicated commentators, radio, newsreels, television—a Niagara of words and symbols unparalleled in history. How can an innocent person hope to clear himself?”
Another 1950 article by Joseph L. Rauh Jr, titled “Informers, G-Men, and Free Men,” looked at the various aspects of the Loyalty Program to investigate federal employees. “If there are many Communists in the Federal Government, the relentlessly administered Loyalty Program has failed to uncover them,” Rauh wrote, “One of the chief dangers of the loyalty program springs from the FBI’s refusal to disclose to loyalty suspects the identity of the persons who informed against them.”
Rauh went on to conclude: “The time has come to return to the fundamental principles on which this nation was founded and which made us great. Let the Government stick to its job of detecting and preventing crime, but let it abolish resort to the techniques of the police state. Let us do away with confidential informants, dossiers, political spies, wire-tapping, and headlines for publicity-seeking ex-Communists. As an indispensable first step, we must banish that fear of the future which generates hysteria and rewards informing, and go back to the essentials which made this nation proud to call itself the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
In June 1953, James Wechsler, editor of the New York Post and former Washington correspondent for The Progressive, gave a gripping recount of his own seventy-minute testimony before Joe McCarthy’s committee.
“But to assume that such facts make any decisive difference in a McCarthy hearing,” he wrote, “is to assume that this is a rational proceeding in which the ordinary rules of reason, evidence, and logic prevail. In McCarthy's nightmare world all such rules are obsolete.” In this world, Wechsler noted, “truth is irrelevant if it conflicts with McCarthy's premise. McCarthy's point was quite simple. The only yardstick of patriotism in his hearing room is submission to McCarthy and his mob.”
Many people were afraid to stand up to McCarthy and his mob, as careers were ruined and some of McCarthy’s victims even committed suicide. But The Progressive’s April 1954 issue was a bold step in the opposite direction. The special issue, titled “McCarthy: A Documented Record,” was divided into separate sections including “The Numbers Game,” “McCarthyism in Action,” “Win at Any Cost,” and most notably, “Striking at the Freedom of the Press,” which chronicled McCarthy’s efforts to undermine journalists and news outlets. These included a specific request to the Post Office “to supply him with estimates of the cost of ‘subsidizing distribution’ of The Washington Post [and] The Wall Street Journal” through postal cost breaks—threatening these mainstream publications economically, in a manner not unlike Donald Trump’s threats to sue The New York Times.
McCarthy also personally threatened Time magazine by calling for an advertising boycott, leading the conservative magazine Editor & Publisher to write: “When a United States Senator attempts to silence criticism in the press by high-pressuring advertisers into dropping their economic support of a publication, that is a new low in politics. This strikes at the very roots of press freedom—the economic power that makes a free press possible. . . The whole thing reeks with totalitarianism.”
The Progressive’s special issue was being prepared during the same month that Edward R. Murrow aired a half-hour special, “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy,” on his popular television program See It Now. It was bold, critical, and well-researched exposés like Murrow’s and The Progressive’s that led to the eventual censure of Joe McCarthy in the Senate in December 1954. After that, McCarthy’s role as a public figure declined rapidly. He was shunned by his colleagues in the Senate, and died May 2, 1957, probably of the effects of alcoholism. He was succeeded by William Proxmire in a special election. Proxmire, a progressive Democrat who had once worked as a reporter at the The Capital Times, said of McCarthy that he was a "disgrace to Wisconsin, to the Senate, and to America."
Even though McCarthy’s investigations in the Senate ceased, the House Un-American Activities Committee (formed in 1938) continued its investigations of private citizens and organizations for potential communist ties until 1969, when it was renamed the House Internal Security Committee. It was finally abolished in 1975.
In June of last year, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a prominent Trump supporter, called for HUAC to be revived.
Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive.