“McCarthyism” originates from March 29, 1950
political cartoon by Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert Block.
The cartoon depicted four leading Republicans trying to push an elephant
(the traditional symbol of the Republican party) to stand on a teetering stack of ten tar buckets,
the topmost of which was labeled "McCarthyism". The reluctant elephant was quoted in the caption
as saying "You mean I'm supposed to stand on that?".
(Outline from American Inquisition: The Era of McCarthyism, Tape 9: Joe McCarthy and the Loss of China. Ellen Schrecker)
When we consider how McCarthyism spread throughout American society, we must look beyond the individuals and groups that were actively pushing the anticommunist crusade to those that might have been able to prevent or mitigate it, but did not. In this lecture we will examine the—mainly liberal—institutions whose failure to resist McCarthyism contributed to its success.
1. Who opposed McCarthyism?
2. Why did so many liberals fail to mount a vigorous defense of individual rights?
I. Why wasn’t there stronger opposition to McCarthyism?
A. Powerful forces within American society were supporting anticommunist crusade
B. The groups and institutions that might have been expected to defend civil liberties and resist the anticommunist witch hunts were surprisingly silent—in part because they feared marginalization and were anticommunists themselves.
C. McCarthyism’s main opponents were its victims.
D. Later on, after the worst of McCarthyism was over, many liberals and moderates regretted that they had not opposed it more vigorously.
II. The Supreme Court, which would have cracked down on the early Cold War violations of civil liberties, shrank from opposing anti-communist measures until the mid-1950’s.
A. The court often split during this period. The majority of its members were also worried about Communism, willing to subordinate individual rights to national security, concerned about the doctrine of “judicial restraint,” and, I think, worried that na unpopular stance on Communism might damage the reception of their important decision in the area of civil rights.
B. Decisions in the late 1940s and early 1950s avoided dealing with First Amendment issues. At best, they allowed individuals a few procedural safe guards.1. In its 1951 Dennis v US decision, the Court upheld the conviction of the Communist Party’s top leaders.a. The Smith Act, which prohibited “teaching or advocating” the overthrow of the government, probably violated the First amendment.
b. The Korean War intensified the judiciary’s concern with national security.
c. The Dennis decision legitimized many other aspects of the anti-communist furor.
2. The Supreme Court did not prevent congressional committees from questioning witnesses about their political views and activities.a. Since the Court did not directly take up the issue of the First Amendment, it condoned lower court rulings that favored the committees.
b. As we have already seen, the Justices did allow witnesses to avoid contempt charges by taking the Fifth Amendment, but only if they did not “waive” that privilege.
c. By 1956, the Court’s majority had changed and it placed more limitations on the committees’ activities.
3. The Court refused to place constitutional limitations on political tests for employment.a. A split decision allowed the federal government’s loyalty-security program to rely on unidentified informers.
b. In the late 1950s, the Court began to provide more protections against political dismissals.
C. In the mid-50’s, the Court changed course and began to limit the more egregious violations of people’s rights.1. Though the Justices remained divided, a liberal majority prevailed.
2. The urgency of the early Cold War receded and the political climate changed.
3. The Court recognized that McCarthyism had abused its victims.
4. The Court’s liberal rulings exposed it to so much hostility that the Justices pulled back and rendered repressive decisions in a few cases—like that of Junius Scales—during the late 1950s and early 1960s
III. Because of their own anticommunism, liberals failed to take a strong stance against he witch hunt.
A. Liberal politicians went along with—and sometimes went beyond—the Truman administration’s repressive policies.1. Liberals tended to support the FBI.
2. Liberal senators added detention provisions to the 1950 Internal Security Act.
3. Liberal politicians became hesitant to criticize McCarthyism after the 1950 congressional elections seemed to demonstrate McCarthy’s clout.
B. The main liberal organization, the Americans for Democratic Action, was organized as a specifically anticommunist group that red-baited the left-wing presidential candidate Henry Wallace in 1948.
C. The “New York Intellectuals” of the late 1940s and 1950s stressed their anticommunism and often supplied intellectual justification for what happened.
IV. Organized civil liberty groups often failed to combat McCarthyism.
A. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was split by the Communist issue and, as a result, did not provide leadership against the witch hunt.1. Some ACLU leaders and staff members supported the anticommunist crusade and even worked with the FBI.
2. The splits within the organization prevented it from active participation in lawsuits against violation of civil liberties.a. Like many liberal lawyers, the group would not defend Communists.
b. At best, the ACLU submitted amicus briefs rather than taking cases itself.
c. The group refused to intervene in some of the most important cases of the period.
B. Left wing civil liberties groups, which did not disassociate themselves from Communists, did try to fight McCarthyism.1. Liberals often red-baited these groups
2. The FBI harassed these groups, especially the National Lawyers Guild.
C. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which ordinarily defended academic freedom, remained passive during the McCarthy period.1. internal problems unrelated to McCarthyism prevented the group from functioning.
2. Academics who might have taken a strong stand against the political dismissals of the era refrained from doing so because they assumed that the AAUP would intervene.
V. The liberals failure to resist much of what happened during the McCarthy era may have contributed to the violations of civil liberties that so many of them claimed to oppose.
A. We will never know how effective a stronger stand would have been.
B. Whether because of their own anticommunism or their fear of being seen as “soft” on Communism, most liberals drew a line at defending the rights of Communists.
C. Liberals tended to focus their opposition specifically on Senator McCarthy.
D. In retrospect, many liberals and their organizations admit that they had erred in not opposing McCarthyism more vigorously.