Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Conspiracies real and imaginged (2): McCarthyism and the post-WWII Red Scare

This is Part 3 of a four-part discussion of the book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (2009).

McCarthyism: chasing the Red specter

Minnesota Senator Joe McCarthy was an alcoholic and blowhard liar whose biggest claim to fame prior to 1950 was furiously attacking the prosecution of Waffen-SS soldiers who had murdered American prisoners of war in Malmedy, France. But this sleazy character remains to this day a hero of the hyper-patriotic Radical Right in the US. And that's because of his own high-profile accusations about alleged Communist influence in the US Government at the time. Olmsted also emphasizes that the Red Scare also explicitly directed suspicious at homosexuals ("gay" had not yet acquired its curent usage). She notes that during the Truman administration, "more than twice as many gays and lesbians as suspected communists" lost their State Department jobs over suspicious about their sexual orientation.

Only such a conspiratorial influence could account for the issues the US faced in foreign affairs, he argued: "This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man." Yes, it sounds like the ravings of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, the present-day leader of the Republican Party. And they are both very much in Joe McCarthy's ugly tradition. McCarthy's sleaze-slinging style and his confident way of asserting falsehoods as fact were actually very similar to Limbaugh's. McCarthy's drug of choice was alcohol rather than OxyContin ("hillbilly heroin"), though.

Olmsted gives a competent brief account of Soviet espionage in the United States up until the 1950s. She discusses only espionage (the collection of information), not subversion or sabotage.


But she's not as cautious as she might have been on the topic. For instance, she credits Whittaker Chambers' accusations that Harry Dexter White - an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury who was the leading official in creating the postwar Breton Woods currency system, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank - was a Soviet agent as well as Alger Hiss. I'm convinced that Hiss actually did spy for the USSR. But the evidence on White is far less conclusive.

I haven't kept up with the most recent work on White and I'm not familiar with his case in detail, so I can't say I have a strong opinion on it. But her account would have benefitted with an explanation of why many found the charge against White so dubious.

In an endnote, she also mentions that there "has been some debate among scholars" over whether Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb who headed the scientific effort in the Manhatten Project, also acted as a Soviet agent. There is no evidence in the public record establishing such a conclusion. Oppenheimer was an active Communist in his politics before the Second World War during his period at Berkeley, though he always denied having been an actual Party member. The accusation that he was a spy is essentially speculation based on that association.

Still, her account makes clear that the espionage networks in the government that the Soviets had established before and during the Second World War had been exposed or otherwise neutralized by 1950. When an important Soviet agent named Elizabeth Bentley confessed her espionage role, the Soviets learned about it immediately through the British mole Kim Philby and discontinued that important spy network, for instance. The anti-Red hysteria of what we now think of as the "McCarthy era" was directed against an almost completely imaginary threat, a phantom. J. Edgar Hoover, the cross-dressing bachelor who headed the FBI for decades and lived with another man most of his life, contributed greatly to the start of that Red Scare by leaking FBI files to embarass the Truman administration. Hoover hated Harry Truman.

And, as Olsmsted puts it, "Hoover projected his own Machiavellian tendencies onto the president and resolved to fight him with all the weapons available to him." It's amazing and tragic that such a nasty, sleazy character as Hoover became at that time was able to hold so much sway within the national security establishment for as long as he did. Many Republicans and conservative Democrats during this period were happy to use the Red Scare to reap "the political advantages of linking liberalism with Bolshevism". As we see today, many Republicans are still at it.

But it was the linking of those toxic charges with the fear generated by the then-young Cold War in general with events like the Soviets' development of an atomic bomb, the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war and the Korean War that gave them the potency they acquired. Ironically, the exposure in 1950 by British intelligence of the role of Klaus Fuchs in stealing Manhatten Project secrets led to the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage and "to the destruction of the remaining traces of the once-formidable Soviet espionage network in North America." The system worked, to pick a phrase. But the fear and demagoguery became much wilder.

Olmsted calls attention to the ways in which far-rightists like John T. Flynn who claimed to fear dictatorship from Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and denounced the state as "the oldest villain in history" (Flynn) found aggressive police powers for the FBI, abusive Congressional investigations, and other intrusive measure against alleged Communist and gay subversives to be just dandy.

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