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3 Was Senator Joe McCarthy right about Russian infiltration?

In researching for our book Stalin’s Priests, and the coming sequel, I scoured the internet for information and stories about Russians/Communists infiltrating our government and other institutions such as the media and labor unions. In doing so I ran across an article published in the Washington Post on April 14,1996. It was written by an American journalist named Nicholas Van Hoffman who died just recently in February 2018. Van Hoffman worked for the Washington Post, appeared on 60 minutes, was heard on nationally syndicated radio shows, and wrote a number of books, most notably Capitalist Fools, Tales of American Business.  He also worked for 10 years as a community organizer in Chicago for none other than Saul Alinski from 1953-1963 according to his Wikipedia profile. It is safe to say that he was not a conservative, so when I saw his title and read the column I was intrigued. I thought our readers would be too as it ties in closely with our novel. The following is an edited version of his piece. The full article can be found at https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1996/04/14/was-mccarthy-right-about-the-left/a0dc6726-e2fd-4a31-bcdd-5f352acbf5de/

For decades liberals and leftists held the high ground in the dispute over whether a communist conspiracy actually existed in the United States or was simply a by-product of “the paranoid style in American politics.” They came to accept that there was a foreign communist menace but never a domestic one. There were rancorous divisions on the liberal-left in the 1950s over who was a spy and who was an accused innocent, who was a secret communist political operative and who was a straightforward fighter for social justice. In the upmarket universities and other places where the dominant form of polite liberalism thrived, the accusers, who had named names and had pointed out the communist spies, were scorned as despicable vermin.

As the 1960s wore on, the savagery and futility of the Vietnam War discredited the anti-communist cause. By the end of the 1960s, the demonization of the anti-communists had gained currency, and not just on the far left. Everyone from Richard Nixon to Whittaker Chambers to Elizabeth Bentley, a former espionage agent who in the early 1950s had given scores of names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, were dismissed as opportunists, and junior Joe McCarthy’s.

But in the last year (this article was written in 1996) as though from a buried, toxic waste dump, poisons, moving with the slow capillary action of history long hidden, are hiccuping up a different truth. The materials that first made their way to the surface in the early 1990s — records from Moscow’s Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History — provided proof past peradventure that the Communist Party of the United States was subsidized by the Soviet government and used as a base for extensive espionage.

So now the question: Was Joe McCarthy right? The answer is, no and yes.

It has long been known that the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) had been paid for by the Soviet Union. But acknowledgment of even this truth has been hard to come by.

Now comes more from vaults of the National Security Agency. In the 1940s, the NSA had a top-secret program called Venona which intercepted (and much later decoded) messages between Moscow and its American agents. The recent publication of a batch of Venona transcripts gives evidence that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were rife with communist spies and political operatives who reported, directly or indirectly, to the Soviet government, much as their anti-communist opponents charged. The Age of McCarthyism, it turns out, was not the simple witch hunt of the innocent by the malevolent as two generations of high school and college students have been taught.

The sum and substance of this growing body of material is that: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in June 1953 for atomic espionage, were guilty; Alger Hiss, a darling of the establishment was guilty; and that dozens of lesser known persons such as Victor Perlo, Judith Coplon and Harry Gold, whose innocence of the accusations made against them had been a tenet of leftist faith for decades, were traitors or, at the least, the ideological vassals of a foreign power.

And where was Harry Truman? His hagiographers today present him as the plucky, courageous, little guy who stood up to world communism and led America into a new age of cosmopolitan internationalism. It is a description that millions of his adult contemporaries would have found unrecognizable. In fact, the public conduct of the Truman administration became the affirmation of people who said Truman was soft on communism. When Winston Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Mo. in March 1946, Truman immediately disavowed the former British prime minister. Astonishing as it may seem to those who get their history from movies and TV, the American president invited Joseph Stalin to come to Fulton and give a speech presenting his side of the story. Truman actually offered to send the battleship Missouri to fetch the Soviet tyrant.

Inevitably came Sen. Joe McCarthy to exploit this suspicion. He came to fame on Feb. 9, 1950, when he gave a speech at McClure Hotel, in Wheeling, West Va. The exact text was not preserved but reporters on the scene quoted McCarthy as saying, “While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, 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 in the State Department.”

McCarthy, as his subsequent history would show, knew little about communism, on this side of the ocean or the other. This loutish, duplicitous bully, who carried, not the names of Reds but bottles of hootch in his briefcase died in disgrace and of alcoholism. Yet, in a global sense McCarthy was on to something. McCarthy may have exaggerated the scope of the problem but not by much. The government was the workplace of perhaps 100 communist agents in 1943-45. He just didn’t know their names.

When McCarthy and his congressional allies began to demand testimony from alleged communists about the infiltration that was real but undocumented (the Venona program then being the most sensitive of state secrets), liberals denounced them for “star chamber” tactics.

In our own era liberals found Ronald Reagan’s characterization of international communism as an “evil empire,” gauche, tasteless and embarrassing. Would they have preferred, a very, very bad empire, a wicked one or merely naughty?

As yet unexplored is the possibility that certain features in the political culture of the American left are hand-me-downs from this period. The “elitism” and didacticism that so gall its opponents may be a morphed version of the communist doctrine of vanguard leadership. The liberal penchant for government giganticism, complex bureaucracy and central planning may also have taken root in the liberal admiration of the Soviet system in the 1930s.

An adequate history of the McCarthy/Truman period, one that gives proper attention to the class, ethnic, religious and cultural antagonisms of those times, has not yet been written. But enough new information has come to light about the communists in the U.S. government that we may now say that point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was still closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him. Nicholas von Hoffman, a columnist for the New York Observer, is a frequent contributor to Outlook.

Van Hoffman contributed to volumes of material about actual Soviet infiltration of American institutions, including catholic seminaries here in the USA. Stalin’s Priests is a fictional mystery thriller about this period that will captivate you from the beginning and chill you to the shocking end.

Your comments on this piece and the book are welcome.

Erik and Rita Brandin