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Ron Radosh: What Conservatives Need to Know About Joe McCarthy

Posted on September 30 2009 11:52 am
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here
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I noticed the controversy over the late Senator McCarthy in the comments column at NewsReal. It is a mistake for conservatives to think that just because McCarthy’s targets were real, the Senator did no harm. Stan Evans has contributed mightily to this confusion in his recent book Blacklisted By History. NewsReal readers may be interested in my review.

There were Communist spies, and they did infiltrate the U.S. Government at the highest levels during the New Deal years of F.D.R.’s presidency. While the U.S. treated the Soviet Union as an ally during the war against Nazism, the Soviet Union and its rulers used this relationship as an easy way to gain access to our nation’s top military and diplomatic secrets.

spiesThe problem was that by the time Joe McCarthy surfaced with his accusations, the key Soviet spy networks had all been closed down, due to the KGB’s well found fears that Elizabeth Bentley’s defection in 1945 compromised all of their operations. Although they tried hard, they never could successfully put together the kind of networks they had in operation during the war years.

Despite all of this, and the information provided by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev in their book Spies:The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, – a book that inflamed leftists and liberals with proof that people like the journalist I.F. Stone had been a Soviet agent from 1936 to 1938, a revelation that conservatives accepted as true. Their equally reasoned conclusion that most of Joe McCarthy’s charges were false was completely ignored. On the issue of McCarthy, they point out that his,

“charges were…wildly off the mark. Very few of the people he accused appeared in KGB documents (or the Venona decryptions), and by the time he made his charges, almost all Soviet agents had been forced out of the government and Soviet intelligence networks were largely defunct.”

In February of 1950, for example, McCarthy listed one Gerald Graze on a list of 81 cases he called major security risks. But by that time, however, Graze had already left government service, and McCarthy and others never pursued the case. In fact, Graze had been a Soviet agent between 1937 and 1945. In other words, McCarthy used old cases to rail about a threat that no longer existed, by exploiting the failure of the Roosevelt administration to act when it might have mattered. In a similar fashion, the German émigré and scholar Franz Neumann had been a source in the OSS during the war years, giving valuable information to Moscow in 1944. Yet McCarthy included him in a list of State Department security risks in 1950!

And in 1953, McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee called Nathan Sussman to testify in its

Roy Cohn

Roy Cohn

investigation of Communist infiltration of the Army Signal Corps. They suspected correctly, it turns out, that he was an active member of the Soviet network put together by Julius Rosenberg. Yet Sussman acted as a “model of a cooperative witness,” verifying that Rosenberg was a Party member when he knew him. Neither McCarthy or Roy Cohn ever asked him about espionage, and he departed unharmed, successfully playing McCarthy and Cohn and escaping without their discovering any of the actual spy work he had carried out for the Soviets.

It is time, therefore, that conservatives give up their shrill accusations against those of us who believe that Joe McCarthy’s greatest accomplishment was to give anti-Communism a bad name. As my friend, the late Eric Breindel used to say,

“the legacy of McCarthy is that you can no longer call a Communist a Communist, unless he or she proclaims it loudly first.”

Real and genuine spies were able to hide behind the charge that they too were innocent victims of a witch-hunt. One key example is the British subject and American resident Cedric Belfrage, a journalist who started the influential pro-Communist newsweekly, The National Guardian. Belfrage wrote a book he titled American Inquisition, in which Belfrage advanced the thesis that a paranoid America was waging a witch hunt in the search for non- existent spies. Working for British intelligence in the US during the war, Belfrage had reported regularly to the New York office of the KGB. It was the wild accusation by McCarthy against an innocent and anti-Communist liberal journalist like New York Post editor James Wechsler that gave a skunk like Belfrage the chance to portray himself also as just another victim of a McCarthy smear.

So, conservatives—time to get a grip on what Joe McCarthy was all about. I offer you two links. First, my critical review of M. Stanton Evan’s defense of McCarthy that appeared in National Review.

And next a lecture by Harvey Klehr, titled “Was Joe McCarthy Right,” presented a few years ago at the Raleigh NC, International Spy Conference.

Editor’s Note: Read Professor Radosh’s Books and visit his blog.

A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel

Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left

Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left

The Rosenberg File: Second Edition

Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War (Annals of Communism Series)

Divided They Fell

Prophets on the Right

The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism

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