Hold on, let me make sure my word processor is in full Cliché Mode: “The specter of Senator McCarthy walks again in contemporary America.”  Yes, that seems to be working properly.

Particularly over the past couple of years, we’ve heard a great deal about McCarthy and McCarthyism.  The name surfaces whenever a government agency identifies an individual or group as potentially subversive or tied to terrorism or, indeed, whenever one suggests that a militant group has unsavory connections.  Over the past few months, many Americans have expressed powerful opposition to the war against Iraq, a stance on which reasonable people can disagree.  However, one major organization involved in orchestrating antiwar demonstrations has been an affiliate of the Workers World Party, a kooky sect that idolizes the dictatorial regimes of Iraq and North Korea.  If you point out this connection, however, and recommend that moderates should stay far away from these troubling characters, you will face an immediate rhetorical response: You are a red-baiting McCarthyite!

Somewhere along the line, the word McCarthyism was curiously transformed to include virtually any criticism of extremist movements, especially those on the left.  Not for a second do I want to defend the memory of the late senator from Wisconsin, who was a liar and a jerk of the first order, but I’d like to see him commemorated accurately.

The problem is one of reading American history.  In the 1940’s, the Communist Party was a powerful force in large sections of American life.  It was well entrenched in labor unions and ethnic organizations, in the mass media, and in the civil-rights movement.  Largely through their union connections, communists, overt or covert, represented a real presence in the Democratic Party.

This activity would not have been alarm-ing in itself if not for abundant evidence that the party was inextricably tied to the government of the Soviet Union, a nation with which the United States was likely to find itself at war.  After the experience of World War II, it was certain that both nations would use clandestine forces on enemy soil, on the successful model employed against the Axis by the American OSS and British Special Operations Executive.  America’s communists looked very plausibly like such a potential fifth column, and recent explorations of Soviet archives confirm the accuracy of this perception.  If we today thought that sympathizers of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah operated networks of secret cells throughout American cities, military bases, and communications centers, we would obviously be worried and would demand some official response.

Against this background, it made excellent sense in the late 1940’s to identify and remove communist supporters in diplomatic, military, or industrial settings, and that was the course pursued by the White House, then headed, of course, by Democrat Harry S. Truman.  Most of this anticommunist movement was fully accomplished by 1950, which is when Senator McCarthy launched his campaign of name-calling, accusations, and smears—what we have come to think of as witch-hunting.  In other words, a vital and necessary internal-security campaign was followed by several years of hysterical insanity, which did little good in exposing communists but actively discredited the anticommunist movement.

When we use the word McCarthyism, we should always remember what the term meant when it was coined during the 1950’s.  It was an irresponsible and dangerous tactic characterized by vague and unsubstantiated accusations for political ends; the exploitation of hysterical public fears; the reckless persecution of innocent or relatively harmless dissidents; and the practice of identifying loose connections between suspected individuals in order to construct “a conspiracy so immense.”  McCarthyism did not, in these years, refer to the use of intrusive or inquisitorial means to discover and root out genuine communists or subversives, potential spies and saboteurs, a process that had received a broad bipartisan consensus for several years before Senator McCarthy himself became a figure of national consequence.  The distinction is crucial: McCarthyism was hysterical extremism, while the red scare arose from the political mainstream.

These distinctions need to be drawn because McCarthyism has since mutated to identify—and to condemn—virtually any attempt to identify subversives, no matter how authentic a danger they pose.    According to the modern historical distortion, “McCarthyism” raged from 1946 through the 50’s and was to blame every time any official action was taken against any left-wing activist.

Just why the term expanded is an interesting political question.  Since most commentators agreed that McCarthyism was evil, it became rhetorically useful for the left to apply this label to all actions taken against them over the years.  But Democrats and moderate Republicans also stood to benefit, although they themselves had launched and supported the internal-security movement of the 1940’s.  Identifying the whole anticommunist movement as McCarthyism allowed the campaign to be depoliticized, to be seen not as a social or political movement in which both parties had been involved but as the criminal ambition of one dubious character and the band of irresponsible adventurers around him.  Once the senator was discredited, his political eclipse served to bury the worst extremes of the previous decade, which, henceforward, were conventionally associated with him.

Whatever the political context, the result is that McCarthyism has become an all-purpose term to discredit any reasonable concern with internal security or domestic intelligence-gathering, even when all sane people recognize that some activity like this is entirely necessary.  You want to trace Arab men learning to pilot Boeing 757s but not wanting to bother to land?  Why, you must be a McCarthyite!