Why They Call It “McCarthyism”

“Do remember you are there to fuddle him. The way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would supposed it is our job to teach!” Screwtape

Most history textbooks use the word “McCarthyism” to describe the backlash against Soviet espionage and influence that took place in America from the mid 1940’s to the late 1950’s, despite the fact that Senator Joseph McCarthy played no role in “McCarthyism” until 1950, and his role in it was always limited to Senate hearings.

Joseph McCarthy was never part of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He never had anything to do with blacklisting Communists in Hollywood. He had nothing to do with the 1947 Loyalty Program that cost hundreds of government employees their jobs. He didn’t put Alger Hiss or the Rosenbergs on trial.

The almost universal use of the word “McCarthyism” among college professors and other liberals reflects the desire of people on the political left to discredit the whole anti-Communist movement of that era, through the use of a convenient villain. Senator McCarthy was his own worst enemy at times, and some of his personal failings have made him the right person to use to put a an ugly face on a movement leftists resent.

Eric Foner’s freshman history textbook Give Me Liberty, for example, tells the reader that by the time McCarthy died in 1957 “the word ‘McCarthyism’ had entered the political vocabulary, a shorthand for character assassination, guilt by association, and abuse of power in the name of anticommunism.”1

What Professor Foner doesn’t say is that anti-Communism was an idea whose time had come by the mid 1940’s.

Foxes in the Henhouse

The period leading up to the “McCarthy Era” was an unusual time in American history. It was a time when the President of the United States could keep the nation’s wartime nuclear weapons program concealed from his own Vice President, but not from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. It was a time when one Communist traitor would represent the United States at the first meeting of the United Nations, and another would represent America at the founding conferences of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. It was, in short, a time when Soviet agents had infiltrated the United States government at every level.

Prior to about 1945 few people outside of the FBI would express much concern about Communist subversives and spies in the government. A Texas Democrat, Congressman Martin Dies Jr., chaired a committee that investigated Communist influences in the government; but even when the Dies committee would identify someone as a security risk the warning was often ignored.

Things began to change around 1945, when Soviet spymaster Elizabeth Bentley turned against the Russians and began cooperating with the FBI. By corroborating much of the testimony ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers had already given, she renewed congressional interest in Chambers, whom government leaders had been reluctant to believe at first. The testimonies of these two erstwhile Soviet agents shocked and angered the public. The extent of Soviet penetration of the US government that Bentley and Hiss described was horrifying, coming as it did at a time when Joseph Stalin’s crimes against his own citizens were also coming to light.

Anti-Communism: A Popular Movement

The hunt for enemy agents was widespread during this era, and it had many leaders. City and state police departments investigated local bureaucrats, union leaders like Samuel Gompers conducted purges, Republicans and Democrats held hearings at various levels of government.

Even Hollywood figures like John Wayne and Walt Disney crusaded against pro-Soviet subversion in those days, but left-leaning historians and textbook writers have settled on the word “McCarthyism” to describe the movement, presumably because it would be hard to give the word “Disney-ism” a sufficiently menacing sound.


Communism has always been considered chic in academia, and it remains so today, even though the Soviet Union itself lies moldering on the ash heap of history. It is still fashionable in some circles to talk in romantic terms about the theory of Marxism, while overlooking the abuses that happened in countries where the theory was put into actual practice. And many people who hold this point of view bitterly resent the backlash against Communism that so damaged its prospects in this country in the mid 20th Century.

For this reason, leftist scholars have labored to put the ugliest possible face on the whole anti-Communist movement. And several things about Joe McCarthy make him stand out as the best poster child for a movement historians want to besmirch. McCarthy had a drinking problem. He had a temper. His disgust at Soviet infiltration of the government sometimes led him to lash out at other political leaders whose “don’t rock the boat” attitudes gave a layer of protection to well-connected persons.

The senator has been painted as an insincere opportunist, whose rage at Communist subversion was all just an act, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Time and again, after asking some government official a question like “Have you ever turned government secrets over to anyone known to you to be an espionage agent?”2 McCarthy would listen to another invocation of the Fifth Amendment, and react with anger that was ugly, but quite genuine.

McCarthy, unlike most congressmen, made little attempt to build alliances with other politicians to enlarge his power base and protect his back. He focused on his own agenda, and never learned the quid pro quo nature of DC politics. He lost the support of some of his fellow Republicans when Republican Dwight Eisenhower succeeded Democrat Harry Truman in the White House, and McCarthy kept up his hunt for administration spies without any regard for partisanship.

Not Ready for Prime Time

Even worse; McCarthy and his assistant, Roy Cohn, were slow to adapt to the rules that the new medium of television was writing for politics. The senator’s public image took a beating in March of 1954 when an Army Signal Corps code clerk named Annie Lee Moss was called before McCarthy’s committee to answer charges that she had gotten her security clearance by falsely denying membership in the Communist party. The hearing was televised.

Mrs. Moss was actually very bright; in addition to the challenging job she did for the army she held a real estate license in the District of Columbia. But on TV she came across as a kind but dim-witted little old lady who didn’t understand why she was being picked on. She even claimed that she had never heard of Karl Marx. And as Roy Cohn questioned her more and more aggressively she looked more and more the victim.

Subsequent evidence would prove beyond all doubt that she was deliberately lying when she denied her membership in the Communist party. But, as the Wikipedia page on Annie Lee Moss tells us, “Historians with a mainstream view of McCarthy have placed little importance on the issue of Moss’s guilt.”

The same could be said of the other Communist agents McCarthy exposed. Their guilt does not matter to “historians with a mainstream view.” McCarty’s abrasiveness and unpopularity make everything else a moot point.

Today history professors and other leftists will pull out McCarthy’s name like a gun from a holster, whenever anyone on the right complains about Communist infiltration in the United States. The mere use of the word is supposed to silence the heretic and end the debate. The finger points accusingly, the brows contract, and the charge is made: “That’s McCarthyism!”
1Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (2006 edition) p. 801
2M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted by History, p. 509

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