McCarthyism and the Conservative Political Climate of Today
FOR ALMOST fifty years, the words "McCarthy" and "McCarthyism" have stood for a shameful period in American political history. During this period, thousands of people lost their jobs and hundreds were sent to prison. The U.S. government executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Communist Party (CP) members, as Russian spies. All of these people were victims of McCarthyism, the witch-hunt during the 1940s and 1950s against Communists and other leftists, trade unionists and civil rights activists, intellectuals and artists. Named for the witch-hunt's most zealous prosecutor, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), McCarthyism was the most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history. In order to eliminate the alleged threat of domestic Communism, a broad coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, and other anticommunist activists hounded an entire generation of radicals and their associates, destroying lives, careers, and all the institutions that offered a left-wing alternative to mainstream politics and culture. That anticommunist crusade...used all the power of the state to turn dissent into disloyalty and, in the process, drastically narrowed the spectrum of acceptable political debate.
Since the 1950s, most Americans have condemned the McCarthyite witch-hunts and show trials. By large majorities, Americans oppose firing communists from their jobs or banning communist speakers or books. But over the past several years, increasing numbers of historians, writers and intellectuals have sought to minimize, explain away and justify McCarthyism. A spate of books and articles touting new historical evidence has tried to demonstrate that communism posed a real danger to American society in the 1940s and 1950s. They argue that even if some innocent people suffered and McCarthy was reckless, he was responding to a real threat. As a result, Joe McCarthy doesn't look so irresponsible in hindsight.
The tendency to go soft on McCarthyism has been evident in popular culture as well. The presentation of a special Lifetime Achievement Award to director Elia Kazan at the 1999 Oscar ceremony is the most flagrant and controversial example. Another example of the current vogue for McCarthyite apologetics, William F. Buckley Jr.'s recent The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy, deserves special--and contemptuous--notice. The novel is an open, unabashed effort to turn McCarthy into a misunderstood, unappreciated hero.
It's not surprising that self-identified conservatives like Buckley would want to rehabilitate one of their heroes. But what is most disturbing about the efforts to restore McCarthy's good name has been the pathetic response of many on the left. Anti-McCarthy historian Ellen Schrecker urged a...