Arts Bully for America

As Clooney’s film reminds us, Joe McCarthy took jingoism to new lows

Joe McCarthy earned his place in the Hall of Fame by managing the New York Yankees to eight pennants and four World Series championships. But another Joe McCarthy, the demagogue from Wisconsin who disdained the Bill of Rights, sullied the fine Irish name that the two men shared. A blusterous, bibulous Republican Senator who disgraced the American heritage of freedom and justice for all, he is memorialized in the American Heritage Dictionary with an entry for McCarthyism: “The use of unfair investigatory or accusatory methods in order to suppress opposition.”

McCarthy, who gave his name to an era of bad feelings, died in shame, censured by his colleagues in 1957, but McCarthyism lives on. The perpetuation of witch hunts does not depend on witches, only hunters. Karl Rove, who advanced his agenda by spreading canards that Ann Richards was a lesbian, John McCain the father of an illegitimate black child, and paraplegic veteran Max Cleland unpatriotic, pursues his prey with dirty bombs. McCarthy, who was assigned to a desk job throughout World War II, was elected to the Senate in 1946 by posing in his Marine uniform and boasting about 32 combat missions a whopper without parallel except in Rove’s fabrication that George W. Bush’s military service was more honorable than John Kerry’s.

Targets of McCarthyism included, from left, author Theodore Dreiser,
jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, scientist Albert Einstein,
and author Langston Hughes.

On September 27, 2005, Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) scuttled a plan to designate a post office in California in honor of McCarthy. Naming federal buildings is usually a routine matter of endorsing a recommendation from the member of Congress who represents the district in which the structure is located. However, when Barbara Lee (D-California) sought to name a postal facility in her district after Maudelle Shirek, a 94-year-old civil-rights activist who served on the Berkeley City Council for 20 years, King balked. Accusing Shirek of Communist ties, he rallied Republican lawmakers to defeat the proposal, 215-190. When Lee complained that King’s baseless allegations about Shirek smacked of McCarthyism, King replied: “I think that if Barbara Lee would read the history of Joe McCarthy, she would realize that he was a hero for America.”

Some of that history is on display in Good Night, and Good Luck, whose hero is Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast journalist who helped bring down McCarthy. `See "It's all so familiar."` In director George Clooney’s riveting new film, the junior Senator from Wisconsin is a Capitol Hill bully, a boor who abuses the Constitution to conduct a reign of terror. Rooting out the heresy of Communism was the pretext for his Inquisition, but his style was so crass, his methods so ruthless, and his accusations so spurious that eventually, after Murrow and others exposed him, McCarthy’s own allies turned on him. When it became opportune, even Richard Nixon, himself a master baiter of Reds, denounced the founder of McCarthyism. Like Savonarola, the Florentine preacher who fell victim to the frenzy of piety he incited, McCarthy died despised by those whose worst instincts he had aroused. Anyone who deems Joe McCarthy a hero probably also prays to Saint Torquemada.

In Good Night, and Good Luck (see review), David Strathairn, bottom, plays newsman Edward R. Murrow, who confronted Joe McCarthy and succeeded in delegitimizing his anti-Communist crusade.

In the 15th century, calling someone an infidel was a convenient way to justify repression. In the 17th century, the preferred term of abuse was witch. In 1950, it was Communist. Today, it is terrorist. That is not to say that terrorists do not exist and pose a serious threat. But labeling black sheep as wolves endangers the security of the entire flock. Joe McCarthy, in cahoots with hundreds of other domestic tyrants, blacklisters, and extortionists whom he inspired, caused more direct harm to American society than did Joe Stalin.

Behind McCarthy was J. Edgar Hoover, who directed the FBI away from fighting organized crime and toward monitoring dissent and eccentricity. Hoover manipulated McCarthy’s hunger for the spotlight and his position as chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee to pursue his own agenda of purging leftists from positions of influence. Violating federal regulations, he secretly fed McCarthy privileged intelligence while remaining fully informed about McCarthy himself. The file on the Senator from Wisconsin compiled by the FBI catalogued McCarthy’s financial improprieties, dismissed his military record as “largely bogus,” and took note of his closeted homosexuality. When Hoover determined that McCarthy had exhausted his usefulness to him, he cut him off and allowed him to founder. But Hoover outlived McCarthy, as well as the egregious House Un-American Activities Committee. He outlived Martin Luther King Jr., whom he stalked and harassed. From 1919, when, as special assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, he directed the infamous Palmer Raids against 3,000 resident aliens, until his death in 1972, Hoover created a legacy of political coercion as well as sexual and cultural repression. Despite or because of his own wayward impulses, he was especially intolerant toward what he considered deviancy. An unelected autocrat, Hoover contrived to keep us free not only of Socialism, but also Surrealism, Expressionism, and Existentialism.

One of the most valuable sources I used in writing Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (W. W. Norton) was my subject’s FBI file. Roth did not emerge from obscurity until 1964, when Call It Sleep (1934), the great modern novel of American immigration, was rediscovered and widely embraced as a neglected masterpiece. Yet while Roth remained unknown and ineffectual, the FBI was keeping track of him. In common with many other artists and intellectuals hopeful for solutions to urgent social problems during the Depression, he joined the Communist Party of the United States, prompting the FBI to conduct surveillance of him for about a decade. After filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act and waiting more than a year, I received a package of heavily redacted documents generated by the Bureau’s investigations of Roth. According to their own testimony, his most seditious actions consisted of signing petitions, attending rallies, and expressing indignation over injustice. Nothing Roth did ever had any demonstrable impact on the national security of the United States. Though they emphasize his union activities and Communist associations, the biographical synopses composed by FBI agents are similar in format to the Roth entry that would appear in Who’s Who in America decades later, in 1966. While still entirely absent from biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias, Henry Roth became a subject of interest to federal gumshoes. They were his earliest biographers.

All of this government snooping might seem at worst an annoyance. An advocate of full and fair employment, Roth should have taken heart that maintaining his file meant steady work for people on the payroll of the Bureau. However, awareness that he was being shadowed by men with badges contributed to the longest writer’s block suffered by any major figure in American literary history 60 years between Roth’s first novel, Call It Sleep, and his second, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park (1994). Anxiety over being tailed led in part to Roth’s decision to move to rural Maine. He was pursued even there, by strangers in snap-brim hats who interrogated the neighbors and turned them against him. The job teaching math and science that Roth was promised suddenly vanished, after G-men spoke with the school superintendent.

Roth was not unique as a reluctant recipient of official attention. During the middle decades of the 20th century, the FBI maintained files on hundreds of creative figures, including James Baldwin, Lucille Ball, Charles Chaplin, Theodore Dreiser, Albert Einstein, Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Guthrie, Langston Hughes, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Parker, Pablo Picasso, and John Steinbeck. (In a belated gesture of transparency, the FBI has made sample files available, at Yet, newly empowered by the Patriot Act, it continues to snoop on domestic dissent). Cold War hysteria led to the purge of movies and broadcasting; blacklisted, many of the most talented directors, writers, and actors ended up in prison, exile, and early graves. FBI agents pursued novelist Richard Wright to France, where he died under suspicious circumstances. Some remain wary of the way that Ernest Hemingway, who, running his own anti-Fascist spy network in Cuba, was a particular target of Hoover’s animosity, is said to have met his end. To most of Hemingway’s friends, the novelist did not seem suicidal until given electroshock therapy by a doctor who was an FBI informant.

FBI agents pursued novelist

Richard Wright to France, where he died

under suspicious circumstances.

Stalin burned books and murdered their authors, including Isaac Babel, David Bergelson, Nikolai Gumilyov, Osip Mandelstam, and Peretz Markish. In this country, under the guise of defying Stalin, home-grown despots scorched American culture. Accused of expressing leftist sympathies, 30,000 books were removed from the United States Government’s Overseas Library Program; many of them were burned. But the wrong ideology was not the only red flag for wavers of the red-white-and-blue. Though Irish novelist James Joyce never left Europe and refused to sully his exquisite art with politics, he earned Hoover’s special enmity. The extensive FBI file on the author of Ulysses documents pressures placed on publishers, libraries, and bookstores to keep Joyce’s books from American readers. For all his private peculiarities, Hoover was an old-fashioned kind of guy, a provincial bigot who felt threatened by forces that were unconventional, cosmopolitan, and creative. He erected his personal, visceral antipathy to modernism into government policy. The mastermind of the Red Scare possessed the aesthetic sophistication of a redneck.

The standard explanation for the stultifying blandness of public culture during the Eisenhower years the era of Doris Day, Norman Rockwell, Betty Crocker, Pat Boone, and Norman Vincent Peale is World War II and the atom bomb. After the traumas of a global war, Americans craved the lassitude of normalcy. A nostalgia for stability and simplicity was a natural response to the complex new menace of instant annihilation. But American culture was also being systematically purged of its most disturbing elements, driven underground or insane. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” wrote Allen Ginsberg in “Howl,” a 1956 poem that was suppressed for alleged obscenity. How much of that destructive madness was induced by official hostility? In 1941, Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, in despair over the Stalinist terror that murdered her husband and stifled her poetry, hanged herself. In 1955, Philip Loeb, a popular American actor who starred in the hit TV sitcom The Goldbergs, took his own life after a summons from the House Un-American Activites Committee eliminated his prospects for finding work.

Twenty years ago, during an extended stay in the Soviet Union, I became the object of official and ostentatious scrutiny. My mail was opened, my phone was tapped, and my movements were monitored by a team of KGB agents who made no attempt to disguise what they were doing. Had I not an exit visa, I would surely have been intimidated by this personalized treatment of a foreign guest. My sojourn on the other side of the Iron Curtain gave me a taste of how the machinery of repression functioned during the 1950s on this side as well.

Pretending to oppose Communist oppression, scoundrels in the United States ended up resembling their adversaries, establishing a dreadful symmetry between what was happening in the Soviet Union and the United States. “McCarthyism,” explained the man himself, during a campaign stop in 1952, “is Americanism with its sleeves rolled.” No, sir, it was a scheme to pull the wool over his compatriots’ groggy eyes. To honor McCarthy as a hero now is to dishonor the thousands of lives he blighted. Because of the crusade against Hollywood leftists, no less a star than Gene Kelly found it prudent to miss the opening of Singin’ in the Rain in 1951, spending 19 months of involuntary idleness in Europe. If W. E. B. Du Bois, John Henry Faulk, John Garfield, Ring Lardner Jr., Joseph Losey, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Zero Mostel, and other victims of the right-wing witch hunts had been allowed to develop their talents free of interference and persecution, the McCarthy Era might have earned a better name.

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