Laura's Blog

Today and McCarthy

- by Laura Malone Elliott

February 1, 2018

Comparisons to Watergate and today seem appropriate warnings about what we are witnessing these days in Washington. But we should also take Senator McCarthy and the 1950s Red Scare as lesson. For direct parallels between Trump and Red-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy (and who is this Roy Cohn that Trump was referring to when he complained about not having lawyers protecting him adequately) see this post from the fall: https://www.lmelliott.com/lauras-blog/mccarthy-trump-connections.

Today, I’d simply like to point out that it took a straight-arrow lawyer in OPEN Senate hearings to finally check McCarthy’s relentless manipulation of fact, fear-mongering, and name-calling as he sought to rid the government and the nation itself of people who didn’t agree with him. (This is not to question there was a legitimate Communist threat from the Soviet Union.)

In his State of the Union this week, Trump said: “Tonight, I call on Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” That feels a not-so-subtle threat. It and the revelations that Trump constantly asks public servants if they are loyal to him and how they voted in the presidential election, plus the methodical firing of people involved with the Russia probe, and the anticipated release of Nunes’ memo aimed to discredit Robert Mueller are chilling echoes of the 1950s and McCarthyism—when thousands of people lost their jobs, sometimes simply because they had Russian friends or interests, signed a liberal “radical” petition, or protested what they felt were oppressive laws or civil rights violations. Or opposed McCarthy’s tactics.

The 1950s brought Loyalty Oaths and review boards. “Under God” added to the pledge of allegiance. Guilt by association replacing actual evidence and due process of law. Witnesses called in front of hostile Congressional hearings, often purely on fishing expeditions to root out other citizens to question. Those refusing to name names or who used their constitutional right to not self-incriminate, labeled “5th Amendment Communists” and slapped with contempt of Congress. Smear campaigns and discrediting opponents with half-truths or innuendo the political modus operandi.

By 1954, McCarthy had become so inflated with his power, he took on the U.S. Army and a much-decorated WWII general, claiming they were “soft on Communism” and even UnAmerican. Echoes with attacking the FBI?

During that televised hearing, Joseph Welch was the lead attorney for the Army. Twice, he caught McCarthy doctoring evidence and maybe even fabricating it altogether—immortalized in the Herblock cartoon below. Welch’s outraged cry —“Have you no sense of decency, sir?” –when McCarthy tried to discredit him by smearing his young associate as a possible Communist-sympathizer, resounded through the Senate hearing room and the nation, and helped break the hypnotic, fearful hold McCarthy had on the United States. Ultimately, it was Americans’ sense of decency that was the judge.

 

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