Optimism, Inc. Part 2: Will Wokeness Finally Cannibalize Itself?

Joseph McCarthy confers with Roy Cohn.

Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers

Part 2: The First Russian-Under-Every-Bed Frenzy (prior to Adam Schiff)

The Depression and the January 1, 1942 alliance with the Soviet Union had peaked American communist membership at 75,000. The treasonous Alger Hiss mentality in the State Department—the Soviets would be progressive postwar partners while the British imperialists faded and were thankfully forced to relinquish their colonialist empire—occasionally led to outright espionage (the Rosenbergs really were guilty), leading to the loss of atomic secrets, a preference for Mao over Chang Kai-shek, and excusing the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. 

In the midst of the public confusions that we had won the war over Hitler but might have lost the peace to Stalin, Democrat Harry Truman ordered loyalty oaths and tried to root out from government communists “sympathizers” and party members. 

By 1950, a less aristocratic Robespierre-like figure, Sen. Joe McCarthy began accusing hundreds of elites in government and entertainment of communist party membership and betrayal of their own country. He was occasionally not wrong, but never distinguished youthful naïveté from mature subversion of America, or whether it was or should be illegal to be a communist or express communist sympathies. 

No matter. After some of Hollywood’s best were sidelined and blacklisted (not all of them sympathetic characters), McCarthy enjoyed overwhelming public support, including that of William F. Buckley, and from time to time an embarrassed but silent Dwight Eisenhower. The sweep of communism abroad into Asia, Africa and Latin America fueled McCarthy’s conspiracy charges.

Then bloated with his lists of “traitors,” McCarthy went after George Marshall, the U.S. Army, the CIA, and the likes of Lee Grant, Orson Welles, and Edward G. Robinson. His own drinking, bombast and sidekick Roy Cohn (a closet homosexual who hounded dozens of others on sensational charges of closet homosexuality) turned off the American middle: McCarthy’s accusations grew, but his proof thinned.  

By 1954, Ike, the grandees of the Republican Party and the establishment had become fervent anti-communists and now found McCarthy a dangerous liability. Edward R. Murrow—with sometime TV audiences of 60 million—demolished McCarthy in a famous “See It Now” in-depth report: “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy.” While Murrow had his own demons, no one could deny his courage and resonance and he quickly turned public opinion against McCarthy.

Soon Joe met his own Waterloo in the 1954 Senate hearings when Army counsel Joseph Welch (who himself had no problem in making a homophobic slur/joke about Roy Cohn) destroyed McCarthy’s credibility as he finally famously uttered, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Applause followed. 

And the Red Scare began to end.

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