“The Great Witch Hunt”

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s conservatives in Congress, and in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, conducted hearings and investigations aimed at rooting out Soviet agents in the federal government. This campaign was widely supported by the general public at the time. Today college professors and other leftists refer to the hunt for Communist spies as “McCarthyism,” and the public support for it as “anticommunist hysteria.”

The part of this story that you won’t learn in college is that there actually were many Soviet spies in the government before and during the “McCarthy Era,” and that “McCarthyism” forced many of these enemy agents out of the government.

One element of this era that liberal academics love to misrepresent is the Loyalty Program established by a 1947 executive order signed by President  Truman. The three history professors who co-wrote the freshman textbook America’s Promise tell us that “In March 1947, under increasing pressure, Truman ordered the FBI to investigate all federal employees…So began the great witch hunt.”

Eric Foner’s widely used history book Give me Liberty similarly portrays Truman’s loyalty program as unjust and cruel, then goes on to say “The loyalty program failed to uncover any cases of espionage. But the federal government dismissed several hundred persons from their jobs, and thousands resigned rather than submit to investigation.”

In Howard Zinn’s aptly named A People’s History of the United States Zinn uses similar language about the loyalty program, and then quotes from yet another book that makes the same statement: “Not a single case of espionage was uncovered, though about 500 persons were dismissed in dubious cases of ‘questionable loyalty’…Despite the failure to find subversion, the broad scope of the official Red hunt gave popular credence to the notion that the government was riddled with spies.”

Foner and Zinn make much of the fact that Truman’s loyalty program did not “uncover” any Soviet spies. But neither of them tells us how he is defining the word “uncover.” Both authors admit that hundreds of federal employees were dismissed as a result of the program, but apparently assume that the government fired all those people without first identifying any of them as security risks.

If “failed to uncover any cases of espionage” means that Truman’s loyalty program did not result in the arrest, trial, and conviction of any Soviet spies; then the statement is specious to the point of being shameful. The complete text of Truman’s 1947 executive order is a matter of public record, and there is nothing in it that makes provision for arresting or trying spies. The FBI did arrest many Soviet agents during this period, but none of the spies were arrested as a direct result of Truman’s executive order. The 1947 loyalty program was designed not to catch spies, but to keep them out of the government. Saying that the loyalty program did not result in jail time for any Soviet spies is like saying the vault in your local bank has not captured any bank robbers.

As for what Zinn calls “the notion that the government was riddled with spies,” the government certainly was riddled with spies in those days. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, to cite two well-known examples, were hanged for running a spy ring that operated inside the Manhattan Project and gave Joseph Stalin the ability to develop an atom bomb. Alger Hiss, an American who was the first Secretary General of the United Nations, was convicted of perjury after lying about his involvement with a Soviet spy ring. So was William Remington. Cedric Belfrage, Frank Coe, Leonard Mins, and Harold Glasser had to invoke their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination when asked questions like “Were you engaged in espionage activities in behalf of the Soviet Union?” and “Were you at that time on the payroll of the Soviet military intelligence?”

The list above is far from comprehensive. Space does not allow anything like a complete listing of US government employees who have been positively identified as Soviet agents. The handful of spies mentioned above were all members of the Communist Party USA, were all involved in illegal activities, and are all are easy to look up in a few seconds on Wikipedia.

The US Army’s “Venona” decrypts of Soviet radio traffic, along with KGB files briefly made available to Western researchers after the fall of the Soviet Union, have now confirmed the guilt of many suspected Soviet agents who managed to avoid arrest during their careers. Two excellent books on the subject of Soviet espionage areThe Venona Secretsby Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, and Blacklisted by History by M. Stanton Evans. These books make for scary reading, as they detail the extent to which America’s government and other institutions were penetrated by agents of a hostile foreign power.

Calling President Truman’s loyalty program a “witch hunt” is a clever turn of phrase; it implies that there were never any actual witches out there, and that the hunt was a fraud. The truth of the matter is very different. The witches were real, and the hard work of exposing and expelling them may well have saved the United States from losing the Cold War.

Al Fuller

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