At the 1952 Republican national convention – which nominated General Dwight Eisenhower as its presidential nominee and throughout the subsequent election campaign – Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy delivered speech after speech accusing the incumbent Democratic administration of ‘20 years of treason’. At the convention itself, McCarthy even claimed he had located a cabin in the north woods where Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats’ nominee, had met with Soviet agents to plot America’s downfall. The senator’s ‘years of treason’ rhetoric was echoed by other GOP figures including the party’s vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon. They claimed that the Democrats, beginning with the Roosevelt administration, had not only been ‘soft on communism’ but had permitted Soviet agents to reach positions of influence and power in Washington. In the life and death struggle to defeat the Soviets’ designs on America, Republicans cited with approval the work of the FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover who had been able to unmask communists and Soviet agents throughout the country. The author of a volume, Masters’ of Deceit , on the communist menace, Hoover and his agency were often depicted as allies in the struggle to root out clandestine Soviet agents and communist sympathizers operating throughout the country but especially within the outgoing Truman administration.
All this of course is ancient history except to say that there is an odd parallel with the current American political situation. Russia or the ex- Soviet Union is still identified as the source of subversion in American politics, but its apparent collaborators, those involved in their exposure, and the role of the FBI appear upside down. During the McCarthy era, liberals and those on the Left in general worried that the FBI under Hoover had launched unwarranted attacks on individuals who were simply exercising their rights of free expression and association. Congressional committees, such as the House Committee on American Activities (HUAC) and the one in the Senate on Government Operations chaired by Senator McCarthy accused Americans employed in government – and the entertainment industry especially – of betraying the country by providing secret information to the Kremlin and spreading pro-communist propaganda.
Today, for Democrats and liberals more generally, the FBI when it was led by its former director James Comey and the independent Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, a former FBI director, are engaged in vital investigations of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election on behalf of its winner Donald Trump. Congressional Democrats are now proposing legislation that would protect the Special Counsel from any attempt by Trump to dissolve the agency and weaken the FBI’s role in federal law enforcement. During the McCarthy era the playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, an award-winning play about the Salem witch trials. Miller intended to draw a parallel between witch-hunting in 17th century America and the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. Now President Trump and his supporters accuse Mueller and other criminal investigators as engaging in, what else, witch-hunting. In so doing they are seeking to delegitimize the investigations much as Miller did some 60 odd years earlier.
Now that the Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives they are able to appoint the chairs of the various House standing committees, including and especially the committee on Intelligence. The Democratic majority on this committee, under the leadership of its new chair Adam Schiff, is now committed to a thorough investigation of Russian subversion of American democracy. Among other things various GOP operatives have been accused, with some convicted, of serving in effect as Russian agents in the U.S.
A major difference between the two eras is that the Soviets were able to recruit Americans based largely on Marxist-Leninist ideology (although perversely there were stories of two Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg used some of the money they received from their Soviet handlers to buy new furniture) while today’s Russian recruits have been motivated by more pecuniary considerations. In both episodes loyalty to an ulterior ideology or interest has trumped that to their Democratic or Republican opposite numbers.
In the immediate aftermath of the anti-communist witch-hunting of the McCarthy period, the University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils wrote The Torment of Secrecy (1956) in which he sought to explain what had just occurred in the United States. He compared the American experience with the British one and noted that despite its own retinue of Soviet spies and the presence of a communist party there was nothing approaching American-style witch-hunting in the UK. Parliament did not constitute an “Un-British” activities committee. No politicians sought to win fame and high office by uncovering suspected communists holding public office. Shils’ explanation for the difference between the countries stressed the idea that being American was typically more a matter of belief than birth. There were a set of beliefs and values to which Americans were expected to adhere. Support for Marxist-Leninist ones placed the believer outside the pale or ‘un-American’.
Shils also considered the matter of secrecy. In the United States, he reasoned, the public had a ‘right to know’. Secrecy, public or private, was inherently suspect. Investigations of politicians, government bureaucrats, and virtually everyone in public life was regarded as perfectly natural. In Britain, by contrast, there was no such ‘right to know’. Democratic government in the UK emerged from a long tradition of elitism and social hierarchy with government being a preserve of a ruling class.
The striking thing about Shils’ observations about the McCarthy era in American politics is how much things have changed. Britons, for better or worse, now have a ‘right to know’. Investigations of any and all are now commonplace – an outgrowth of the democratization of the country’s culture.
In the United States the public’s right to know has become Reductio Ad Absurdum. Leaking information about government operations in Washington has become so commonplace it frequently becomes a competition among officials in Washington over who can get their “secret” accounts out to journalists faster and, consequently, achieve some advantage.
On the other hand, the idea of ‘un-American’ activities seems to have become a curiosity. None of the figures caught up in the scandals in the Russian efforts to support the 2016 Trump campaign for president has been labelled ‘un-American’, despite acting to further Russian foreign policy objectives. This difference between the current investigatory frenzy and the anti-communist crusades of the 1950s appears to be based on the absence of ideological considerations, specifically Marxism. Trump and the cast of characters thrown up by the Mueller investigation may be accused of various transgressions, but adherence to some version of Marxism-Leninism is not one of them.
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Career Fellow at CARR and Foundation Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Nevada. His profile can be found here:
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