Relatives visit the farm. Outside, the temperature was -25F. High winds swirled snow devils NW>SW across the south field. We had returned from X-C skiing. He picked up a book on Soviet intelligence operations in mid-twentieth century America.
“That proves Joe McCarthy told the truth,” I said. A mathematician with advanced degrees from the finest American universities, he responded, “Bulls**t,” an acceptable opening to erudite family discourse.
“Have you read the f**king book?” came my witty riposte.
“Can someone open this wine?” The call from the kitchen aborted the debate. Two months later, I return to the discussion, sans beau-frère.
“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”
For a half-decade, these words would course the adrenalin through witnesses’ bloodstreams. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was established in 1933 to investigate foreign-sourced internal threats to American security. In 1947, it began to subpoena film and theater screenwriters, directors and Hollywood professional to testify as to the extent of “Communist subversion” in the film industry.
In 1950s America, Communism seemed a vague danger, lacking definition. It lacked detailed evidence.Overseas, the Communist threat was real enough. In 1917, Lenin’s small Bolshevik gang took power in Russia and, through popular will and the “Red Terror,” controlled the population. Refugees reported the mass murder and state-organized famines, which leading Western intellectuals denied, obfuscated or justified. In 1947, The Communists under Mao Tse-Tung defeated Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists. Like the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, trembling, starving and dazed refugees appeared, murmuring of Stalinist-style mass murder, denied, obfuscated or justified by leading Western intellectuals.
Though full documentation of the Communist holocaust would await the 1991 publication of the Black Book of Communism, American magazine and newspapers reported on the blood-drenched Communist rule. American intellectuals voiced skepticism of reports of Soviet and Chinese Communist mass murder, suggesting these reports were ‘overblown.’ Facts were fungible; the truth was what you believed. The best Americans doubted Nazis death camps until American Army photographers arrived with pictures. The Soviet Union and Communist China did not provide death camp photographs.Whom to believe?
In the absence of fact, The brain confabulates. A bolt of lightning strikes an Athenian noble dead? He had angered Zeus. The Black Plague kills 70% of the city’s gentile population, but only 50% of the Jews. The Jews are poisoning the water. No Jews? Wild women cast spells. Burn them. And so they did. A stampede is a frightening thing to face.
Into this heated atmosphere, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R, Wisconsin, 1950-1956) appeared to claim that ‘hundreds of ” Communists and Soviet agents had infiltrated to the highest levels of U.S. government. Thousands–teachers, artists, laborers, government employees–either lost their jobs or were blacklisted, unable to find work.
Edward R. Murrow excoriated McCarthy’s methods. Ronald Reagan, President of the Screen Actor’s Guild, condemned guilt without proofs. Arthur Miller’s eloquent play, The Crucible, etched ‘witch hunt’ into America’s intellectual consciousness. Plays, movies, and television programs heaped scorn upon McCarthy and his methods. McCarthyism––a campaign or practice that endorses the use of unfair allegations and investigations––entered the American vocabulary. The battle was joined, and McCarthy lost.
In 1954, Joseph McCarthy, unable to submit evidence, was censured by the US Senate. Shorn of influence, he died a few years later. Thus, I was taught in high school––Joseph McCarthy was a liar and a scumbag.
Though he may well have been a liar and scumbag, it turns out Joseph McCarthy spoke the truth about ‘hundreds’ of Communist agents infiltrated into key US entertainment, government and military positions.
In 1943, U.S. Army cryptanalysts began to decrypt Soviet KGB (then NKVD), GRU and diplomatic codes (Soviet agents transmitted intelligence via the Western Union using one-time encryption pads) originating from the United States before, during and after WWII. Thru brute force cryptanalysis over several years, these analysts were able to read a small percentage of several thousand messages. Over (a long) time, the analysts identified by name 349 Americans who had a covert relationship with Soviet Intelligence.
In addition, the Soviet intelligence cables contained the cryptonyms (not the identity) of hundreds of in-place agents and informants active in Washington, many of whom occupied positions of trust. American counter-intelligence personnel, to say the least, found this worrisome.
While working in Washington, D.C., off-the-record conversations between intelligence officers and congressional staffers were near constant. I have no reason to suspect these conversations started with my arrival in 1982. The contents of VENONA intercepts more than likely were passed on to key Senators, Congressmen and staff.
Senator McCarthy did not fabricate the Communist conspiracy. Three hundred forty-nine named Soviet agents had been or were active in the United States. Soviet intelligence agents discussed hundreds more unnamed agents working for the Soviet Union.
Even liars and scumbags tell the truth now and then. It’s never easy, is it?