Where Do We Go From Here?

The debt-ceiling business is a hostage crisis. That much became unmistakably clear last week, with multiple commentators endorsing the view, James Fallows, Paul Krugman and law professor Geoffrey Stone among them (“Negotiating with Terrorists” was the original headline on Stone’s post). And while it’s yet to be determined how many casualties there will be from the Tea Party’s astonishing attempt to highjack the spending and taxing debate, it is not too soon to be thinking about what will happen next. These are bleak times, but here I aim to offer one hopeful possibility.

There has been bad behavior in the US Congress before, though not on such a scale. That’s not to say it wasn’t scarily dangerous at the time. I am thinking of the movement in the early 1950s that came to be known as “McCarthyism.” In these trying times, it’s worth remembering how civility was restored in those circumstances; how a new consensus developed rapidly in the mid-1950s that placed limits on disruptive political behavior.

Concern about communist influence in the United State percolated at a relatively low level during the early stages of the Cold War. Not all of it was misplaced. It escalated in 1948-49 with the Berlin Blockade , the Soviet atomic bomb, the Chinese Revolution, and spying allegations against Alger Hiss.

But anti-communism blossomed into a full-fledged political movement only after February 9, 1950. That was when a little-known US Senator from Wisconsin made a sensational claim. Joseph McCarthy told the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia,

I have here in my hand a list of 205 – a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

Attacking Secretary of State Dean Acheson was tantamount to attacking President Harry Truman himself. A few months later the Korean War began. For the next three years, McCarthy built a considerable following by playing on fears of betrayal (best sellers in those years included The Enemy Within and I led Three Lives). He manipulated the issue through frequent Congressional investigations and hearings, supported by religious leaders and, behind the scenes, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, and aided by various allies in the House of Representatives and in the press.

McCarthy assaulted Republicans as well as Democrats. Not even President Dwight Eisenhower, who took office in 1953, was immune. The Democrats had perpetrated “twenty years of treason,” McCarthy charged, but the new administration’s policy had turned out to be “appeasement, retreat, and surrender.” Journalist Richard Rovere wrote in 1959, “He held two Presidents captive – or as nearly captive as any President has ever been held.”

The firebreak came with the Army-McCarthy hearings in the summer of 1954. McCarthy’s aide, Roy Cohn, had bullied the Secretary of the Army, seeking preferential treatment for a member of McCarthy’s Senate committee. At some point McCarthy himself joined in the hunt. At a certain point, the Senate convened hearings on the differences of opinion.

For seven weeks that summer, five days a week, more than 20 million Americans watched transfixed on the still-new device of television, or listened on radio, as McCarthy tarnished himself before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Karl Mundt (R-S.D.). For a vivid summary of the proceedings, see the documentary Point of Order, produced by Emile de Antonio and Daniel Talbot, in 1964. Their film, it seems to me, is one of the great texts of American history, on a par with Federalist Paper 10 and the Gettysburg Address.

The climax of Point of Order comes, not in the dramatic confrontation with attorney Joseph Welch that everyone remembers, when McCarthy seeks to damage the reputation of a bystander to the proceedings (“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” asks Army counsel Joseph Welch. “Have you left no sense of decency?”) Rather it occurs during a lengthy exchange at the end with Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) in the course of which Symington alternately challenges and mocks McCarthy.

The charge by the junior senator from Wisconsin that we’ve had another year of treason under President Eisenhower, the charge that the CIA is infiltrated and infested with Communists, the charge that the Defense Department is full of Communists, the charge that the Department of Justice, that the Attorney General of the Department of Justice – there’s something phony about him – and the charge that the hydrogen bomb plants and the atomic bomb plants are full of Communists. Well, where do we go from here as the American people? It would appear some of us want to end up in this country with just plain anarchy.

Wounded but still dangerous, McCarthy was censured by the full Senate the next year. He lost influence rapidly and died of hepatitis in 1957. The anti-communist mania lost force.

Now to the present case. What are the chances the behavior involved in the debt-ceiling stand-off will come to be generally condemned, too? They are pretty good, it seems to me, especially if you’re not too mechanical about the correspondence between the situations.

One similarity to the McCarthy phenomenon is obvious. The Republican position is built on fear-mongering about the national debt. Clearly Congress needs to do something in the next few years to bring spending and taxing into long-term balance: that much has been obvious for years. But while a tender economy may not be the best time to implement tax hikes, it’s surely the worst time to institute massive government spending cuts – never mind the threat that default itself presents to the fragile recovery.

Much less parallel is the character of the threat. McCarthy worked by retail intimidation, a sheaf of blank subpoenas in his pocket. The Republican strategy today is tantamount to hostage taking – acquiesce to our demands or we take down the economy. Default is the equivalent of a nuclear weapon, as Politico’s David Rogers pointed out the other day. “The reason Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD worked in the Cold War was because the world had witnessed an atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima,” he wrote. “Boehner’s rebellious conservatives don’t share that same fear of default, a bomb that has never fallen but is just four days away and counting.”

Another big difference between then and now is that it’s not one alcoholic senator who is doing the bullying. The leadership of the Tea Party is diffuse and amorphous. The “young guns” may have been similarly opportunistic, but Eric Cantor (R-Va), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Paul Ryan (R-Wisc) are smarter than McCarthy was. They know the demographics; they know how to poll; they know how to do TV soundbites.

Finally, there is the absence of a suitable forum in which to bring the issues into focus. The Army-McCarthy hearings, when they occurred, were up close and personal. The audience had nothing better to do that summer politically, and almost all of them had come through a galvanizing war together. There was a marvelous unity of time and place, and the tension of the drama, as Rovere later wrote, derived from “the greatest of all sources: the conflict of human spirits: every face was a study, every voice a revelation of the man from whom it came.” There exists today no similar lens through which a great mass of people can view the current situation.

That said, the bad behavior is so epic that it’s hard to believe it won’t evoke some form of mass condemnation, if only at the polls. We have YouTube in lieu of network television broadcasting: that is the medium through which the inevitable moments of crack-up will be virally viewed. The elections are barely a year away. The financial, industrial and commercial Establishments of the United States, such as they are, are energized. The documentarians are at work. Obama still has the bully pulpit. We’ll see how he deals with the hostage-takers.

Where do we go from here as the American people? Based on an understanding of human nature and the political traditions of the United States, there is some reason to hope that the Tea Party Taliban may yet suffer from the of kind of moral revulsion that brought the McCarthy era to a conclusion. The alternative – the political anarchy of non-negotiable demands, enforced by credible threats of grave harm – is pretty dreadful to contemplate.

5 responses to “Where Do We Go From Here?”

  1. David, David, David, you are a much better journalist than this. Your narrative of McCarthy is simply not factual, and will not survive confrontation with Stanton Evans’ ‘Blacklisted by History’ from 2006.

    Richard Rovere is an extremely unreliable source for the McCarthy era.

    Just to correct a few of your errors: McCarthy’s first speech in Wheeling W. Va claimed a list of 57 names (he actually had over 100), not 205. That erroneous number was the fault of a newspaperman in Wheeling misunderstanding some notes McCarthy had given him for background BEFORE his speech. The guy wrote his lead on the way to the ballpark. Evans book is irrefutable on this, including a picture of a Denver newspaper headline that reads, ‘McCarthy claims 57 Reds…’

    Democrats on the Tydings Committee tried to catch McCarthy on a perjury charge over this because the Wheeling newspaper conflicted with what McCarthy read into the congressional record later. They had to sheepishly abandon that plan after their own investigation concluded he’d said ’57’.

    The only innocent victim of congressional hearings back then was McCarthy. Especially in Joseph Welch’s famous, ‘Have you no decency?’ line. The story of the Army-McCarthy hearings is that the Army, having brought formal charges against McCarthy had to admit the charges were just an attempt to get McCarthy to drop his investigation because Army Sec’y Robert Stephens (initially enthusiastically cooperative with McCarthy) was embarrassed by the revelations over the security situation at Ft Monmouth, NJ. Eisenhower, a career army man, didn’t like the black eye (entirely deserved on the record of the hearings) his beloved army was getting and let Stephens know it.

    When Stephens, as the opening witness, conceded this, it was all over. Joseph Welch, the army counsel, was then in the position of the lawyer with neither the law nor the facts on his side, so he pounded the table.

    Welch was engaged in an amazing childish, sing-song denunciation of Roy Cohn; asking him why whenever he discovered a communist in the army didn’t he immediately run over to Stephens’ office, burst past the receptionist, and say, ‘Here’s another one. Sic em, Stephens.’

    Finally fed up with the histrionics, McCarthy interrupted to say that Stephens was no great shakes at recognizing communists himself, and attempted to read from a NY Times article in which Stephens told a reporter that he was sending a young lawyer (Fred Fischer, iirc) from his Boston law firm back to Boston because he’d just discovered that he’d been a member of the National Lawyers Guild (a well known communist front organization).

    Welch’s tearful denunciation of McCarthy was actually Welch blaming McCarthy for something Welch himself had done.

    No one has ever been able to name even one person unfairly brought under public scrutiny for their activities. Not Gustavo Duran (Hemingway’s inspiration for Robert Jordan in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’), not Phil Jessup, not Lauchlin Currie, not Owen Latimore (indicted for perjury), certainly not John Stewart Service.

    Service, still employed at State, and mentioned by name in the Wheeling speech, had been arrested in 1945 for passing secret documents to communist agent Philip Jaffe of Amerasia magazine. The FBI had even wiretapped the events. Jaffe then went to visit the Soviet consulate in NYC and was seen with Earl Browder after getting the trove of documents from Service.

    Service escaped prosecution thanks to Tommy, the Cork, Corcoran pressuring Justice to drop the case. McCarthy exposed this. Service even finally admitted the truth shortly before his death; he wanted the communists to win in China.

    Even McCarthy’s criticisms of George C. Marshall were validated by the Chinese scholar Jung Chang in her ‘Mao, the Untold Story’. Using Chinese sources (and she had known Mao herself), Chang told the story of how in November 1945 newly arrived Ambassador Marshall, under the influence of American communists, had ordered Chang Kai Shek to stand down and not attack Mao’s weak forces.

    Chang, with a battle tested army could have made short work of the communists then, but the delay ordered by Marshall gave Stalin time to transfer captured Japanese weapons to Mao and send his generals down to train Mao’s army. Without that delay, China would not have gone to the communists when it did.

    Even George Clooney has had to admit that McCarthy was right about Annie Lee Moss, Pentagon code room clerk, being a communist.

    So, c’mon. Economic Principals has always been factually correct, you need to return to that standard. Consult Stan Evans’ (MA in economics!) book, it’s a fascinating story, dense with footnotes.

  2. One aspect of the current imbroglio that I do not see well-discussed is that there really is a faction of the US electorate which wants to see the “size” of the federal government reduced dramatically. As far as I can tell, they define “size” in terms of taxation, not spending — they’re willing, even eager, to take government money, but given the choice, they’d rather see government spending reduced than taxes increased. It seems that this faction has become “the 26% that is the majority of the majority”, they’ve turned out at higher rates than other factions in the recent elections, and as a result, just enough Republican House members are beholden to them for being elected to block any tax increases.

    In a sense, their current actions are bad behavior, but at root, their motives are to promote a policy which is to a greater or lesser extend opposed by all the other factions (even many that are labeled conservative). I think there is a parallel with the McCarthy era — McCarthy and his allies exhibited a lot of bad behavior, but the emotional core of his charges was correct: there were many people in positions of respect and power in the US who did not consider any and all tendencies toward socialism as anathema.

    In the end, I think the problem will be resolved when the approximately 75% of the voters on the other side of the issue regain control of the political apparatus. Given the degree to which the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party has frightened the big-business community, the mediating mechanism may be a severe difficulty for Republicans to raise large sums of money in the 2012 elections.

  3. ‘McCarthy and his allies exhibited a lot of bad behavior’

    Could you name any such, specifically?

  4. I don’t wish to be rude, but the comments function here is a letters-to-the-editor feature, not a chat room. The film speaks for itself. dw

  5. I don’t mean to be rude either, David, as I’ve always considered you to be a person interested in facts. However, the De Antonio film is from 1964. Quite a bit of information has been made available since then; Venona, KGB archives, FBI files, and we now have a near complete picture of what McCarthy knew.

    All De Antonio did was snip fragments from hundreds of hours of kinescopes to make a Marxist propaganda piece. It’s hardly scholarly.

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