Word of the Month: McCarthyism

On 2 May 1957, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) died of various illnesses exacerbated by alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver. McCarthy had been a key instigator of the anti-communist hysteria that engulfed the United States in the early years of the Cold War and McCarthy was the eponym for the term that came to symbolize this hysteria and the tactics used to uncover communists in American society and government. It is our word of the month:

McCarthyism, n., the practice of identifying alleged communists and removing them from government departments or other positions of responsibility through public but unsubstantiated allegations and personal attacks, specifically as pursued by McCarthy in the 1950s. In extended use, any form of persecutory investigation that uses similar tactics. The term was first used on 29 March 1950 in a Washington Post editorial cartoon by Herbert “Herblock” Lock.

McCarthy was elected to the US Senate in 1946 by using aggressive attacks to narrowly defeat Progressive Senator Robert LaFollette, Jr. McCarthy falsely accused LaFollette of war profiteering and castigated him for not enlisting during the war. (At 46 in 1941, LaFollette was too old to serve). In the campaign, McCarthy used photographs of himself in an aviator’s cap and with a belt of machinegun ammunition slung over his shoulder and gave himself the sobriquet of “Tailgunner Joe.” He claimed to have flown 32 combat missions. In actuality, McCarthy served in an administrative position and only flew on training missions. After the loss, LaFollette retired from politics and committed suicide in 1953.

McCarthy’s first few years in the Senate were unremarkable. Needing an issue to take into the 1952 re-election campaign, McCarthy embraced anti-communism, specifically the issue of communist infiltration of the US Government. On 9 February 1950 he made his famous statement, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” The charge was unsubstantiated. The list had been made public by the State Department in 1946 and consisted of names of federal employees who had failed security screening for various reasons. Some were indeed communists, but others were fascists, alcoholics, and homosexuals. Ironically, McCarthy, an alcoholic and a homosexual himself, would have failed the same security screening.

Over the next four years, McCarthy continued to make wild and unsubstantiated charges, destroying the careers of many individuals who were called before his investigatory committee and cowing and bullying others into silence or acquiescence. Few noticed that McCarthy never uncovered a single communist, either in or out of government.

In 1954, McCarthy’s assistant David Schine was drafted into the Army. Another McCarthy assistant, Roy Cohn, who was also Schine’s lover, attempted to use his political influence to get Schine released from the service. There was a public investigation into the affair, which was one of the first Congressional inquiries to be televised. During the hearings, the Army’s general counsel, Joseph Welch, disdainfully dismissed McCarthy with the now-famous retort, “Have you no sense of decency?” The public, seeing McCarthy’s tactics live for the first time, turned against him and journalists, including the broadcasting icon Edward R. Murrow, took up the attacks on McCarthy. His political fortunes rapidly faded and he was formally censured by the Senate in December 1954 for his tactics. McCarthy died in 1957 from liver ailments associated with his alcoholism.

In current historical usage, the term McCarthyism conflates the activities of McCarthy and those of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which had carried the anti-communist banner both before McCarthy’s rise and after his fall. Other terms associated with McCarthyism include:

blacklist, n. & v., a list of people who are not to be employed in a particular profession or industry, to compile such a list or add a person’s name to such a list. The term, in the sense of a list of undesirable persons, dates to c.1619, from the sense of black meaning subject to censure or guilty of crimes. The term was used in the employment sense in the late-19th C., when it was primarily used to exclude union members from employment. The association with anti-Communism is most famously exemplified by the Hollywood blacklist. In 1947, the HUAC began an investigation of Communists working in the film industry. Many refused to testify or testified and described their own leftist activities to the committee but refused to implicate others. These were placed on a blacklist that eventually grew to over 320 names. Ten were sentenced to prison for failing to cooperate, becoming known as the Hollywood Ten. The Hollywood black list included such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Aaron Copland, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Burl Ives, Ring Lardner, Jr., Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, Dorothy Parker, Paul Robeson, Zero Mostel, Pete Seeger, and Orson Welles and hundreds of other, lesser-known individuals. A few of those blacklisted continued to work under assumed names. (For example, screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman won the 1957 Academy Award for their screenplay for A Bridge On The River Kwai under assumed names.) But most had their careers destroyed. It was not until 1960 when those blacklisted began to return to work under their own names.

bookburner, n., one who destroys literary works considered objectionable or subversive; or by extension a censor of such works. In 1954, McCarthy assistants Roy Cohn and David Schine conducted a tour of US Information Service facilities in Europe and recommended that works by “Communist authors” be excluded from the government libraries. Various press reports used the term bookburner to describe this and President Eisenhower, in a speech to Dartmouth College students urged the students “Don’t join the bookburners! Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed.”

censure, n. & v., a judicial sentence, a judgment that condemns, to make such a judgment. From the French, ultimately from the Latin censura, c.1470. In the US Congress, censure is the harshest punishment, short of expelling the member, that either house can direct at its members. In December 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy.

character assassination, n., the destruction of the reputation of an individual, also character assassin. The term dates to 1949 and rose to prominence in the McCarthy era. An 18 February 1951 editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the period as, “a period of ‘the big lie,’ of the furtive informer, of the character assassin, of inquisition, eavesdropping, smear and distrust. They lump the whole under the term McCarthyism, a common noun derived, as in the past other expressions have been taken, from personalities such as Judge Lynch, Capt. Boycott, and Vidkun Quisling.”

communism, n., a political theory which holds that there should be no private ownership of property and that all should work according to their abilities and receive goods and services in accordance to their needs, 1843. The theory was formalized in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, especially The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867). In modern use, the term is usually a specific reference to Marxism-Leninism (1932, although the term Leninism dates to 1918), or the theory as modified by V.I. Ulyanov (a.k.a. Lenin) and the political doctrines underpinning the governments of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and their satellite allies.

engage in personalities, c.phr., to make a personal attack on a political opponent, to lay blame for a failure. The term was uttered by Dwight Eisenhower during the 1952 campaign for president in reference to the “loss” of China to the communists, which many blamed on alleged communists in the US State Department. Eisenhower was later criticized for failing to engage in personalities and take on McCarthy.The phrase is a clipping of engage in a discussion of personalities.

fellow traveler, n., one who believes in or sympathizes with the communist cause but does not formally join the Communist Party, 1936. A translation of the Russian popútchik, a term coined by Trotsky.

Have you no sense of decency, Sir!, c.phr., uttered by US Army counsel Joseph Welch to McCarthy during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 9 June 1954. McCarthy’s assistant Roy Cohn, had attempted to get his colleague and lover, David Schine, released from Army service. This resulted in a public inquiry in which the Army was represented by Welch, a lawyer in private practice. During Welch’s cross-examination of Cohn, McCarthy intervened in an attempt to save his assistant by impugning that a young lawyer in Welch’s firm, Fred Fisher (who was not involved in the case at hand), was a communist. Welch stopped this tactic cold with his, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

HUAC, abbrev., House Un-American Activities Committee, a committee of the US House of Representatives that investigated subversive activities, 1938-75. The committee pioneered the tactics that were later used by McCarthy in the Senate, although unlike their Senate counterpart, the HUAC occasionally correctly identified communist spies, most notably State Department official Alger Hiss. Richard Nixon first rose to national prominence as a member of HUAC and the Hiss hearings. HUAC initially focused on the activities of fascist organizations and the Ku Klux Klan, it focused on anti-communism after WWII. The committee was renamed the House Internal Security Committee in 1969 and abolished six years later.

junketeering gumshoes, n., derisive nickname for McCarthy assistants Roy Cohn and David Schine, based on a 1954 visit by the two to ferret out communists in European outposts of the US Information Service (later the US Information Agency). The term was probably coined by Theodore Kaghan of the US High Commissioner’s Office in Germany. The term junket is a derisive term used to describe an taxpayer-funded trip to a desirable location, ostensibly for official purposes but really for pleasure. This American political usage dates to at least 1886, but the use of junket to mean a banquet or pleasure outing dates to the 16th C. The term is of obscure origin, but probably comes from the Old Norman French for a basket made of rushes, presumably used to hold food and delicacies.

loyalty oath, n., a sworn promise of fealty to the government, esp. by public employees, 1952. The term dates to the McCarthy era, but the concept of requiring such oaths has enjoyed voguish popularity in earlier eras where national security is threatened. In the US, such oaths were required during the red scare following WWI and during the Civil War.

name names, v., to incriminate or implicate specific individuals. This verb phrase dates to the late 17th C., but is often associated with McCarthy era and especially with the Hollywood blacklist.

numbers game, n., misleading use of statistics in support of a political argument. This term was coined in 1954 by Democrat Adlai Stevenson as a description of the Eisenhower administration’s announcement that 2,247 federal employees had been removed from their positions because they were security risks. Stevenson claimed the number included those who had left government service for all reasons and were only later found to be security risks. The term has a deliberate association with the earlier sense of an illegal gambling racket.

Philippic, n. & adj., a bitter, vitriolic argument. The term dates to the late 16th C. and is a reference to Demosthenes’ orations on Athenian liberty and against Philip of Macedon. McCarthy’s tactics were frequently described as Philippic.

pinko, n. & adj., denoting or descriptive of a person whose politics are left of center, not quite “red” or communist. Noun use dates to 1936 and adjectival use to 1957. The use of pink to describe radical or progressive politics dates to 1837. The term parlour pink, referring to wealthy socialists, dates to 1929, although other forms, like parlour socialist, date to at least 1910.

point of order, n., in parliamentary procedure, an objection to a ruling from the chair regarding a question of procedure, 1751. McCarthy used points of order to great effect, using them as a tactic to interrupt and introduce substantive objections and ad hominem accusations into the proceedings. As a result, the term rose in popularity in the 1950s and was used extensively in fields far from parliamentary procedure.

red, adj. & n., anarchistic, revolutionary, communist. The color red is first explicitly associated with radical politics in 1848 when the French Second Republic was called the Red Republic.

security risk, n., a person whose tenure in an official position constitutes a threat to the state, 1948.

smear, v. & n., to discredit, to launch an ad hominem attack, such an attack. The word is from the Old English smeoru, meaning fat or oil. The verb first appears in the sense of to anoint with oil. Later used to mean to spread any thick or gelatinous substance. In the 16th C it began to be used metaphorically in reference to applying discreditable qualities. Political usage dates to 1936 when Republicans referred to Democratic tactics in the previous US presidential election as a “smear Hoover” campaign. Noun usage to mean a defamatory remark or charge dates to 1943.

spy ring, n., an organization of people engaged in espionage, 1943.

take (or plead) the fifth, c.phr., to refuse to answer a question, to remain silent in the face of accusations. The phrase is a reference to the fifth amendment to the US Constitution which grants protection against self-incrimination. The phrase first appears in print in 1955.

un-American, adj., contrary to the values of American democracy and society, 1818. The term is obviously somewhat nebulous, with exactly what is un-American changing with time, circumstances, and the political views of the speaker. In the late-1940s and 1950s, the term came to be associated with communism, especially in the title of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

vet, v., to examine carefully, esp. to examine a person for political suitability, 1904. From a late-19th C usage meaning to examine an animal medically, particularly to examine racehorses for suitability.

witch hunt, n., malicious investigation or persecution directed against groups deemed politically or socially unacceptable. Literal use of the term to refer to historical persecutions of people deemed to be witches dates to 1885. First use in a political context dates to 1938 when the term was used by George Orwell to refer to persecution of communists in Spain.

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