McCarthyism Revisited?


Many high school students have read George Orwell’s futuristic book, 1984, which was actually written in 1949. For those not familiar with this work, here’s a very short summary:

A man loses his identity while living under a repressive regime. In a story based on George Orwell's classic novel, Winston Smith (John Hurt) is a government employee whose job involves the rewriting of history in a manner that casts his fictional country's leaders in a charitable light. In this closely monitored society, there is no escape from Big Brother.


The book describes a society where the state and corporate mass media have both become complicit in fostering a climate of outrage, mistrust, and insecurity in which there seems to be, as Orwell wrote, “no loyalty except loyalty to the Party.”

The book was written just in time for a controversial part of American History to unfold, often referred to as the McCarthyism era. Other than through thinly veiled comments or a Saturday Night Live skit, very few folks under the age of 75 understand the events of this historical era, or have a true appreciation for the term McCarthyism—a less than flattering name given to the anti-communist crusades of 1950-1954, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

From his perch as chair of the Government Operations Committee, and through the House Select Committee on Un-American Activities (which investigated communism), McCarthy launched a wave of investigations to ferret out supposed communist subversion of government agencies. Under McCarthy, there was a witch-hunt that oddly resembled that of Salem’s own. Armed with his favorite question — “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” — McCarthy terrorized his targets and silenced his critics. Thousands of people lost their jobs as a result, often based on nothing more than innuendo or chance associations.


Given the summary of Orwell’s 1984 and the historical account of McCarthy, they pair together like chocolate syrup and ice-cream on a hot day in what could be the sensational script from a 1940’s radio melodrama, but unfortunately, Sen. Joseph McCarthy was very much real as were the repercussions of his actions.

Any high school student in a civics class, can review the text of the Constitution and see that it contains very few specific provisions protecting individual rights. Likely, this is because the framers believed in 1) a limited central government and 2) that enumerated rights could be limiting. Nonetheless, James Madison, which as a Founding Father had as much influence in crafting, ratifying, and interpreting the Bill of Rights—which named 10 specific provisions of protections for individuals.


The image below, courtesy of USHistory.org, displays each of the 10 Amendments in a graph for easy interpretation:




The very first right given in the first Amendment is that of Free Speech. Certainly, there have been many court cases, including dozens of landmark Supreme Court cases, that look to define this right specifically and broadly. Many of the cases support the principle that if the speech does not cause a ‘clear and present danger’ (Schenck v. United States (1919)), incite ‘fighting words which, by being said, cause injury or cause an immediate breach of the peace’ (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)), or other like outcomes, it is protected.

So given that precedent pre-dates Sen. McCarthy, was the Senator constitutionally out of line?

Some, at the time would have answered, “YES!” The freshman Senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, thought so and while not calling McCarthy by name, made her point well, “it is high time we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.”


So impassioned by what she thought was dangerous allegations and partisan fighting cause by McCarthy’s hunt, Senator Smith wrote a speech she named the “Declaration of Conscience.” After passing out copies of the speech to the press gallery, Smith approached the Senate floor and began sharing her remarks. The speech in its entirety is available at the above link, but I will share what stood out as both notable and, perhaps, even timely.


A forum for hate and character assassination

It is ironical that we senators can in debate in the Senate, directly or indirectly, by any form of words, impute to any American who is not a senator any conduct or motive unworthy or un­becoming an American-and without that non-Senator American having any legal redress against us-yet if we say the same thing in the Senate about our colleagues we can be stopped on the grounds of being out of order.

It is strange that we can verbally attack anyone else without restraint and with full pro­tection, and yet we hold ourselves above the same type of criticism here on the Senate floor. Surely the United States Senate is big enough to take self-criticism and self-appraisal. Surely we should be able to take the same kind of character attacks that we "dish out" to outsiders.


I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some real soul searching and to weigh our consciences as to the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America and the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges.


I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. I think that it is high time that we remembered that the Constitution, as amended, speaks not only of the freedom of speech but also of trial by jury instead of trial by accusation. Whether it be a criminal prosecution in court or a character prosecution in the Senate, there is little practical distinction when the life of a person has been ruined.


"THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF AMERICANISM"

Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism-

The Right to Criticize. The right to hold unpopular beliefs. The right to protest. The right of independent thought.

The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us does not? Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own. Otherwise thought control would have set in.


The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as "Communists" or "Fascists" by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others. The American people are sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared and guilty people whitewashed.


"THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF CALUMNY"

Yet to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to the nation. The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I do not want to see the Republican party ride to politi­cal victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny: Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.


I do not believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.

"IRRESPONSIBLE SENSATIONALISM"

As a United States senator, I am not proud of the way in which the Senate has been made a publicity platform for irresponsible sensationalism. I am not proud of the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle. I am not proud of the obviously staged, undignified counter-charges which have been attempted in retaliation from the other side of the aisle.


I do not like the way the Senate has been made a rendezvous for vilification, for selfish political gain at the sacrifice of individual reputations and national unity. I am not proud of the way we smear outsiders from the floor of the Senate and hide behind the cloak of congressional immunity and still place ourselves beyond criticism on the floor of the Senate.


As an American, I am shocked at the way Republicans and Democrats alike are playing directly into the Communist design of "confuse, divide, and conquer." As an American, I do not want a Democratic administration "whitewash" or "cover up" any more than I want a Republican smear or witch hunt.


STATEMENT OF SEVEN REPUBLICAN SENATORS (DECLARATION OF CONSCIENCE)

1. We are Republicans. But we are Americans first. It is as Americans that we express our concern with the growing confusion that threatens the security and stability of our country. Democrats and Republicans alike have con­tributed to that confusion.

2. The Democratic administration has initially created the confusion by its lack of effective leadership, by its contradictory grave warnings and optimistic assurances, by its complacency to the threat of communism here at home, by its over-sensitiveness to rightful criticism, by its petty bitterness against its critics.

3. Certain elements of the Republican party have materially added to this confusion in the hopes of riding the Republican party to victory through the selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance. There are enough mistakes of the Democrats for Republicans to criticize constructively without resorting to political smears.

4. To this extent, Democrats and Republicans alike have unwittingly, but undeniably, played directly into the Communist design of "confuse, divide, and conquer."

5. It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on in­dividual freedom. It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques---techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life. _____________

Rather than providing additional commentary, I want to pose some questions for your consideration:


  • Are there parallels to be made between Orwell’s 1984, McCarthyism, the Declaration of Conscience, and the polarization that exists between political parties today?

  • What are the lessons learned by studying history?

  • How can we ensure that history does not repeat itself?

  • Is there enough patriotism left to mend the fracture that we have created in our “cherished… American way of life”?


If you found Sen. Margaret Chase Smith as interesting as I did, here is another article for further reading:

The Senator Who Stood Up to Joseph McCarthy When No One Else Would https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/senator-who-stood-joseph-mccarthy-when-no-one-else-would-180970279/


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