Red Bait

It was a given while I was growing up that Sen. McCarthy‘s hunt for Soviet agents in the US government was a sickening example of paranoia gone wild. The common wisdom said that lives were needlessly ruined, innocent people and their reputations were destroyed, and America teetered on the brink of becoming a Fascist state where the FBI would be far worse than the Gestapo.

Heh. Talk about paranoia gone wild.

The reason why this take on McCarthy’s crusade is absurd is due to the fact that he was substantially correct. Declassified documents from the Venona Project, a top secret effort to intercept and decode Soviet messages, essentially proved that there were spies on the Russian payroll working at sensitive jobs inside the US government. Some of them even refused payment for betraying their country, so dedicated were they to the most murderous ideology the world has ever seen.

A film co-written and directed by George Clooney tells the tale of veteran newsman Edward R. Murrow, a journalist who used his television pulpit to stand up to Sen. McCarthy and start his fall from grace. I was wondering how Clooney would handle the fact that Murrow, by discrediting McCarthy and ending attempts to reveal the agents who were working for a hostile foreign power, was actually doing the Soviet’s work for them. Alas, he handles it by making sure that there isn’t a hint of it anywhere in the film. According to these two reviews, the movie portrays Murrow as a hero for speaking truth to power and bringing down the brutish Senator before he could destroy any more innocent lives.

The Venona Project translations of Soviet communiqués have been available to the public for more than ten years now. Even so, a shockingly small percentage of people are aware of them. It would seem that the majority of the people interested in this subject simply swallow the story outlined in the first paragraph and don’t ever bother to read up on it. That’s a great pity. It’s also a great pity that Clooney’s movie will probably be a fairly big hit for a drama that’s all talk and no action.

I think I’m going to miss this one when it comes to my multiplex, though. I just don’t see any reason to reward a filmmaker for perpetuating a thoroughly debunked myth.

16 thoughts on “Red Bait”

  1. And Alger Hiss was a patriot. Doesn’t Clooney realize he is in a long, long tradition. The short one is of movies that actually captured life as lived in an American communist cell or life as lived in a gulag or life as compromised by a tissue of fabrications that did not accord with (could not safely accord with) reality. But the last, well, that hits a little close to home, doesn’t it?

  2. The problem was the McCarthy didn’t really know what he was talking about. He was right in the sense that a stopped clock is right twice a day, but he had no substantial proof.
    By demogogueing it the way he did he made it easy not only to discredit himself but the whole idea of routing out commie spies.
    Thankfully there were others who knew what really was going on and kept up the good work (like that guy who become president of the Screen Actors Guild to prevent the communist from secretly taking it over…what was his name?)

  3. I’m with ElamBend on this. McCarthy was an incompetent boob who was right only accidentally.

    Having said that, I have always though that the McCarthy-era has such a stigma not because of what happened but because of who it happened to. McCarthy’s victims were members of the elite: artiest, academia’s, government officials etc. These were not people used to being held to account for their actions. The fact that they had their careers damaged because of their devotion to a totalitarian ideology outraged their sense of moral entitlement.

    If McCarthy had gone after factory workers, he would be just a footnote.

  4. However many Communist agents there were, that’s no justification for McCarthy. There are also real child molesters, but that doesn’t justify the hysteria and false prosecutions that have apparently happened in some areas.

    That said, I suspect that this movie is really about trying to recover some of the lost status (the rightly lost status) of the mainstream media.

  5. What were the false prosecutions? I’ve heard there were many, but I’ve never seen or read any names and faces.

  6. And the really damaging spying was done in the forties. One of my pets is that Morgenthau’s famous plan to dismember and deindustrialize Germany (written by Morgenthau’s deputy and top Soviet spy Harry Dexter White) was in reality Stalin’s own 1941 plan. Even Roosevelt’s super right hand, Harry Hopkins, may have been a Soviet spy.

  7. David,
    I’ve admired Rabinowitz’s work on the day-care scandals & accompanying modern witch-hunt, so I’m sure she was thorough, impassioned & good. I’d like to read her but (and maybe this is my own lack of thoroughness) the link you gave doesn’t include the McCarthy years as far as I can tell. Nor do her books on Amazon. Could you give us some specific articles, etc. or a more specific way to google? (I know, for instance, that Hammett went to jail and I doubt it was just, but he is someone who never pretended he wasn’t a communist – he was. And I think it was his pacifism that got him into trouble.)

  8. Ginny…sorry if I wasn’t clear; I was just drawing an analogy. I’m not aware of anything Rabinowitz has written about McCarthy. Just pointing out that even if witches really exist, one must be very careful about who one burns as a witch.

  9. A very interesting perspective on the McCarthy era is provided by, of all people, Tom Watson Jr, long-time head of IBM. (In his autobiography)

    Watson had vertical blinds in his office, which were rare at the time. An engineer was intrigued by them and made a sketch, which he left in his suit pocket when he took the suit to the cleaner. The dry cleaner decided that it was a radar system or some such, and that espionage was involved, and gave the sketch to the government. Next, an investigator from HUAC came to visit Watson!

    Watson reports that the hysteria of the time was such that he was concerned that IBM would lose its corporate security clearance over the incident (IBM was then prime contractor for the SAGE air-defense system)

  10. An engineer was intrigued by them and made a sketch, which he left in his suit pocket when he took the suit to the cleaner.
    Watson reports that the hysteria of the time was such that he was concerned that IBM would lose its corporate security clearance over the incident (IBM was then prime contractor for the SAGE air-defense system)

    But they didn’t.

    The point of the post is that the rhetoric about McCarthy is way overblown. I’m having trouble finding all of these innocent victims of the so-called witch hunts which the Liberals insist are out there. There are a few people who went to jail for refusing to cooperate with HUAC, a few more which lost their jobs in Hollywood. Where is the indescribable human misery and lost lives that would have justified the hype?

    Considering the demonization of McCarthy that the media and academia have pushed for the past 50 years, there must be concentration camps and depopulated towns in order to justify it all. But that would mean that the United States was acting just like the Soviets.

    This is serious question. Has every child in America going through our education system been sold a bill of goods? Or is there really something behind all of the anger?

    To point to a few agents showing up to talk about a suspicious sketch, and then nothing at all coming of it, is hardly an example of overzealous law enforcement ruining lives. (Or even causing any damage.) If that’s the best that you can do then I’m afraid you’re going a long way towards proving my point that the fear of McCarthyism is all flash and no substance.


  11. James…I’m not even remotely claiming that McCarthyism was the equivalent of the Gulag. My point is that it *did* contribute to a climate of fear and intimidation.

    To continue Watson’s story: He was concerned enough about the vertical-blind incident that he mentioned it at a business meeting at which he was the speaker, and went on to say that he was worried about the climate that had developed in the country. No one else at the meeting said anything…fair enough, different people have different opinions. But after the meeting, he started getting notes from people who had been in attendance saying, in substance, “I agree with you but didn’t feel like I could say anything in public.”

    These were some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in American business, but they didn’t feel that they dared express their opinions in public. (Even though “public” in this case meant a meeting of 20 people or so)

  12. I imagine people named as communists lost standing in the community in general and some lost jobs.

    One might be forgiven for asking what was so awful about being a communist that caused their country men to despise them. Republicans or Democrats brought before the HUAC certainly could have avowed what they and their associates believed…..Why couldn’t the Communist Party and its members stand up and face the light of day?

    The answer, of course, is that they were deluded and ignorant about the reality of communism. At least the ones who weren’t necessarily interested in a revolutionary power grab by any means, were deluded. In either case, the nature of the communist affiliation tended to make them traitors.

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