Victor Navasky Tallies up the Cost of McCarthyism
The social costs of what came to be called McCarthyism have yet to be computed. By conferring its prestige on the red hunt, the state did more than bring misery to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Communists, former Communists, fellow travelers, and unlucky liberals. It weakened American culture and it weakened itself.
Unlike the Palmer Raids of the early 1920s, which were violent hit-and-run affairs that had no long-term effect, the vigilante spirit Joseph McCarthy represented still lives on in legislation accepted as a part of the American political way. The morale of the United States' newly reliable and devoted civil service was savagely undermined in the 1950s, and the purge of the Foreign Service contributed to our disastrous miscalculations in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and the consequent human wreckage. The congressional investigations of the 1940s and 1950s fueled the anti- Communist hysteria which eventually led to the investment of thousands of billions of dollars in a nuclear arsenal, with risks that boggle the minds of even those who specialize in "thinking about the unthinkable." Unable to tolerate a little subversion (however one defines it)-if that is the price of freedom, dignity, and experimentation-we lost our edge, our distinctiveness. McCarthyism decimated its target-the American Communist Party, whose membership fell from about seventy-five thousand just after World War II to less than ten thousand in 1957 (probably a high percentage of these lost were FBI informants) - but the real casualties of that assault were the walking wounded of the liberal left and the already impaired momentum of the New Deal. No wonder a new general of radical idealists came up through the peace and civil-rights movements rather than the Democratic Party.
The damage was compounded by the state's chosen instruments of destruction, the professional informers - those ex-Communists whom the sociologist Edward Shils described in 1956 as a host of frustrated, previously, anonymous failures, . . .
It is no easier to measure the impact of McCarthyism on culture than on politics, although emblems of the terror were ever on display. In the literary community, for example, generally thought to be more permissive than the mass media . . . the distinguished editor-in-chief of the distinguished publisher Little, Brown & Co. was forced to resign because he refused to repudiate his progressive politics and he became unemployable. Such liberal publications as the New York Post and the New Republic refused to accept ads for the transcript of the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Albert Maltz's short story "The Happiest Man on Earth," which had won the O'Henry Memorial Short Story Award in 1938 and been republished seventy-six times in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, didn't get reprinted again from the time he entered prison in 1950 until 1963. Ring Lardner, Jr., had to go to England to find a publisher for his critically acclaimed novel The Ecstasy of Owen Muir. . . . The FBI had a permanent motion-picture crew stationed across the street from the Four Continents Bookstore in New York, which specialized in literature sympathetic to the Soviet Union's brand of Marxism. How to measure a thousand such pollutions of the cultural environment?