Reaction to McCarthyism

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The excesses of the Red Scare and McCarthyism did not go unnoticed. The Army–McCarthy hearings in 1954 marked the apex of Cold War fears, with Joseph McCarthy discredited in the full glare of TV lights. The release of the VENONA transcripts and material from Eastern Bloc intelligence archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, added more material for the discussion of what had been going on during the 1950s. The Soviet records show that Western anti-communists grossly overestimated the actual capacity of the Soviets to do harm through military and economic means — long believing, for example, that Soviet nuclear missile technology was vastly superior to that of the U.S., and also grossly overestimating other measures of Soviet strength such as annual GNP. Records show that the Eastern Bloc did some spying on the West in the same manner the West was spying on the Eastern Bloc (Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin. The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Basic Books, 1999, hardcover edition, ISBN 0-465-00310-9). On the other hand, many of the specific people investigated by the McCarthy hearings (such as playwright Arthur Miller) turned out not to have played any part whatsoever in Soviet activities. Likewise, the Soviets typically did not use the methods suspected by McCarthy and his ilk, who often engaged in fantastic witch hunts unrelated to Soviet efforts at infiltration, espionage and subversion.

Continuing controversy

Many Americans responded to the cruder manifestations of the Red Scare by dismissing all claims by anti-communists concerning presumed communist infiltration in the United States. This reaction is also found among the majority of academic researchers. Though many of the more outrĂ© accusations of the McCarthy period — such as the claim that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a communist — now seem laughable, the debate over the Red Scare remains a significant theme in the culture wars between left-liberal and conservative factions in American politics. The guilt, innocence, and good or bad intentions of the icons of the Red Scare (McCarthy, the Rosenberg], Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Kazan) are still discussed as proxies for the imputed virtues or vices of their successors and sympathizers.

Many acknowledge the crimes of stalinist regimes, but also point out that the American government has supported dictatorships of their own, which were notorious for their brutality, such as the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran] and Pinochet of Chile.They state that while the death tolls may be different, the fact that there were so many US-supported anti-democratic governments reveals a troubling hypocrisy of bragging about democracy at home while crushing it abroad and using anti-communist rhetoric to justify it.

Though the interpretation of the Red Scare might seem to be of only historical interest following the end of the Cold War, the political divisions it created in the United States continue to manifest themselves, and the politics and history of anti-communism in the United States are still contentious. One source of controversy is that illegal actions taken against the radical left during the Palmer and McCarthy periods are viewed as providing a historical template for similar actions against Muslim following the September 11th terrorist attacks, an analogy made explicit both by left-wing opponents of such actions (such as the American Civil Liberties Union) and right-wing proponents (such as Ann Coulter).

Further reading

  • John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial : Historians, Communism, and Espionage, Encounter Books, September, 2003, hardcover, 312 pages, ISBN 1893554724
  • Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Basic Books, 1999, hardcover edition, ISBN 0-465-00310-9
  • Victor Navasky Allen Weinstein's Docudrama, 1997, The Nation
  • Victor Navasky Cold War Ghosts, 2001, The Nation
  • Richard Gid Powers, "Not Without Honor: A History of American Anticommunism" (Free Press, 1997)
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