Philip Jenkins’ essay about McCarthyism (“Goodbye, Senator McCarthy,” Breaking Glass, May) was an exercise in retailing received opinions about the Wisconsin senator and his countersubversion efforts.

Without offering specific illustrations, Professor Jenkins execrated Senator McCarthy as “a liar and a jerk of the first order” who conducted a “campaign of name-calling, accusations, and smears . . . vague and unsubstantiated accusations for political ends . . . exploitation of hysterical public fears . . . [and] the reckless persecution of innocent or relatively harmless dissidents.”

Whatever one may think of Senator McCarthy’s personality, his work as chairman of the Senate Internal Subcommittee on Investigations has been amply vindicated by the release of archival materials from both the U.S. government (especially the VENONA intelligence intercepts) and the former Soviet Union.  McCarthy’s inquiries, mandated by law and scrupulously conducted within established due-process guidelines, did not target “relatively harmless dissidents”; instead, they focused specifically on federal employees in the executive branch whose actions and affiliations advanced the interests of a hostile foreign power—the Soviet Union.

Hundreds of such individuals were absorbed into the State Department at the end of World War II.  As a result, notes Prof. Arthur Herman of George Mason University, communists and Soviet intelligence assets were “handling sensitive documents, assigning staff positions, and preparing reports, even while proof of their unfitness was mired in red tape . . . ”

Jenkins insists that, by 1950, the effort “to identify and remove communist supporters” from such positions “was fully accomplished” under Harry Truman.  This is flatly untrue.  As Professor Herman points out, the Republican “Class of ’46” (including McCarthy) successfully campaigned against the Truman administration’s refusal to address communist infiltration of the federal government.  A 1947 memo from a Senate subcommittee to Secretary of State George C. Marshall protested what it described as “a condition that developed and still flourishes in the State Department under the administration of [State Department official] Dean Acheson.  It is evident that there is a deliberate, calculated program being carried out not only to protect Communist personnel in high places but to reduce security and intelligence protection to a nullity.  On file in the department is a copy of a preliminary report of the FBI on Soviet espionage activities in the United States which involves a large number of State Department employees, some in high official positions.”  Senator McCarthy was made aware of the extent of the problem in 1949, when he was given a copy of that report.

Senate Associate Historian Donald Ritchie, editor of the recently released transcripts from the McCarthy committee’s executive hearings, is hardly a partisan of the late senator.  While criticizing McCarthy for occasionally being “abrasive” in dealing with hostile witnesses, and for “defin[ing] witnesses’ constitutional rights narrowly,” Ritchie is compelled by the record to admit that the senator “regularly informed witnesses of their right to decline to answer if they felt an answer might incriminate them”; McCarthy, Ritchie continues, also “pointed out that membership in the Communist Party was not a crime.”

In Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Work of America’s Most Hated Senator, Professor Herman points out that during the so-called “McCarthy Period”—roughly 1947-54—“no American citizens were interrogated without benefit of legal counsel, none was arrested or detained without due judicial process, and no one went to jail without trial.  All through the ‘worst’ of the McCarthy period, the Communist Party itself was never outlawed, membership in the Party was never declared a crime.”

By assuming the thankless task of investigating internal subversion, Senator McCarthy acted on a principle articulated by Supreme Court Justice Fred Vinson: “The First Amendment requires that one be permitted to believe what he will.  It does not require that he be permitted to be the keeper of the arsenal.”

Professor Jenkins’ eagerness to invoke the prevailing caricature of Senator McCarthy’s investigative career is immensely disappointing, since his contributions to Chronicles usually offer correctives to cant and clichés.

        —William Grigg
Appleton, WI

Dr. Jenkins Replies:

With respect to Mr. Grigg, I disagree with the statement that Senator McCarthy’s claims have been vindicated by VENONA.

VENONA indeed showed the truth of many charges made by HUAC during the late 1940’s and also confirmed that many other dangerous Soviet agents remained to be tracked down.  That is not at issue.  Among the targets McCarthy hit with his scattershot approach, he did indeed turn up a couple of genuine Soviet agents.  Any good that might have been accomplished by his investigations was, however, countered by the network of false and misleading charges generated at the same time; the failure to distinguish between genuine internal security risks and relatively harmless individuals; and, above all, McCarthy’s astonishingly lackadaisical approach to checking out the cases that came before him or even doing the most basic preparation.  The net result was to discredit not just himself but the whole process of internal security investigation.  We live today with the tragic consequences of that affair.

Mr. Grigg’s remarks about legal process are accurate as far as they go, but they neglect the astonishing abuse of First and Fifth Amendment protections at this time.  In my view, Dr. Herman thus has an unreasonably rosy view of the legal environment in which the hearings took place.  I won’t go into the legalities in detail, but, basically, Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination were severely limited by the 1951 Rogers case, which concerned a woman who had readily agreed to discuss her own political activities but refused to identify others.  The U.S. Supreme Court determined that the witness had “waived her privilege of silence when she freely answered criminating questions relating to her connection with the Communist party,” so that she could not refuse to answer later questions about associates.  (It was not clear how past membership of a legal organization was “criminating.”) That meant, in practice, that you either had to answer every question posed by a congressional committee, including questions incriminating friends and family, or plead the Fifth on absolutely everything.  The mere act of taking the Fifth made you look like a criminal and would get you fired from most jobs.

I discuss all these issues in more detail in my book The Cold War at Home (University of North Carolina Press, 1999).