Truman and the Dawning of McCarthyism
By Isiah Smith | Aug. 8, 2020
Picture it: The last day of July 2020. We are social distancing in a backyard in Traverse City, with friends, bemoaning the state of our country. We represent different cultures, ethnicities, and national origins. We are united in our despair.
“How did this happen?” someone asks. “How did we reach the point where daily our democracy is under attack from within? And what can one presidential election do to restore order, dignity, and security to our country?”
“Blame Joseph McCarthy and Harry Truman,” I opine. “Sometimes in order to see what’s ahead, one needs to take a look backward, to the time and place where what ails us originated.” (You seldom see these two men’s names in the same sentence to make a single point.)
Historians rank Harry Truman as one of our best presidents. He is remembered as the president who protected and reinforced FDR’s New Deal reforms, guided the American economy from wartime to a peacetime footing, and advanced the cause of African American Civil Rights. Most notably, on July 26, 1948, Truman signed Executive Order 9981, committing the government to integrating our segregated military.
Joseph McCarthy’s name, on the other hand, serves as a curse, rude and spiteful. His personal excesses and political vulgarity has less in common with Truman than they do with the current White House occupant. Moreover, Truman loathed McCarthy.
“History has a tendency to magnify virtues and gloss over vices, especially when it considers the lives of significant figures,” I assert.
But Truman made McCarthy possible, an unintended nightmare. After World War II ended in 1945, America and the Soviet Union circled around each other like wary bears unsure whether to embrace or attack. By early 1947, however, both powers concluded the other was a hostile power and therefore not trustworthy. Thus began the Cold War.
On May 21, 1947, Truman signed an executive order establishing the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, instructing the F.B.I, and other federal agencies to investigate government employees suspected of disloyalty to The United States. The language of order was not a model of clarity and could be used to ensnare both the guilty and the innocent: “Any [employee] with membership in, affiliation with, or sympathetic association with any foreign or domestic organization, movement, group, or combination of persons, designated by the Attorney General as totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive.”
Whatever its original intent, Truman’s Order cast a wide net and destroyed many innocent American lives. From 1947 to 1953, almost 5 million American citizens filled out forms initiating loyal investigations. At least 26,236 of them were subjected to more additional scrutiny, and 560 were fired or denied employment.
The order turned the lives of gay Americans into living nightmares. They, along with other “disloyal” and despised Americans were fired, harassed, and discarded with impunity because no laws existed to protect them from discrimination.
To be sure, there were spies in the government, so exposing and removing them was a sensible policy. The history of this period reveals that more than 500 Americans somehow thought it made sense to steal and provide American intelligence to the Soviets. But the "Hunt for Reds” did not stop there; rather, it was used to terrorize and destroy innocent teachers and Hollywood screenwriters guilty of no illegal activities.
Joseph McCarthy used Truman’s Order to ruin the lives of thousands of Americans by making baseless claims that were simply made up. By 1953, the supply of Americans who provided intelligence to the Soviets had dried up. But McCarthy was undeterred; he continued to persecute innocent Americans, ruining their lives and reputations with reckless unsupported claims.
Larry Tye’s new biography of McCarthy, “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy,” brings some clarity to the present moment. McCarthy’s tactics are in evidence today in our government. McCarthy launched accusations and attacks in all directions. Truth was an alien concept to him. He was shameless, and he wanted attention — negative or positive, it was all the same to him. Even when corrected he simply repeated his false claims. He had utter contempt for the rule of law, and when his old “facts” failed him, he simply created new lies.
In his review of Tye’s book, The New Yorker’s Louis Menand observed that America was fortunate that this demagogue was “merely” one unpopular Senator limited in the damage he was capable of doing. Today’s demagoguery permeates the entire executive branch, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s being aided and abetted by not one, but many other Senators who trade morality and honor for proximity to power.
We must wait and see whether our government can recover and return to normalcy. There is only one weapon in our arsenal: the vote.
Use it wisely.
Isiah Smith Jr. is a retired government attorney.