It was interesting when Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin sparred on the Senate floor recently during Cruz’s twenty-hour attack on Obamacare. Interesting because this showdown highlighted two of the most powerful leaders in the Senate, both of whom have come under charges of “McCarthyism” this year. Do the people of the United States need fear that the notorious legacy of Senator Joe McCarthy is reemerging in our nation’s capitol?
In 1951 Senator Joseph McCarthy led an attack on the Senate Floor against Secretary of Defense, General George Marshall, America’s first five star general and architect of the D-day invasion. Marshall’s patriotism was unquestioned, but that meant nothing to Joe McCarthy, a prolific fabricator of baseless accusations. McCarthy stated he didn’t know “whether General Marshall was aware that he was implementing the will of Stalin,” but he did not think it was “accidental.” McCarthy, simply put, had called General Marshall a traitor.
Senator Ted Cruz made eerily similar comments about our current Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam war veteran and winner of two Purple Hearts, after Hagel’s Senatorial confirmation hearing this year. Cruz falsely claimed, “Hagel’s nomination has been publicly celebrated by the Iranian government.” Cruz also insinuated that Hagel was being paid by North Korea.
In 1952 Senator Joe McCarthy wrote a letter to Time magazine threatening that he would encourage Time’s advertisers to withdraw their business. Due to the tremendous power and influence McCarthy had at the time, this abusive warning was not an idle threat.
In August of this year Senator Dick Durbin sent a letter to hundreds of conservative organizations questioning their level of support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a sponsor of “stand your ground” legislation, which Durbin opposed. In the letter Durbin threatened to convene a Senate hearing to publicly reveal each organization’s level of support for the ALEC and specifically the “stand your ground” legislation. By law these organization are not required to reveal anything about their support or non-support for the ALEC, and Durbin’s letter was a typical McCarthy tactic to use Senatorial power to bully adversaries.
These McCarthy-like abuses by Senators Cruz and Durbin in reality are miniscule when compared to the transgressions of the demagogue they are compared. McCarthy ruined the lives of many people. Innocent professionals and others were vilified for perfectly innocent and legal actions they had taken in the 1930s, twenty years before they were called before McCarthy’s committee.
Some people today, though, argue in favor of Joe McCarthy. They say McCarthy was right, and that McCarthy did not go far enough in his hunt for communist subversives and spies. They base this on the release of KGB files that seem to indicate some (less than 10) of the more than five hundred people called before McCarthy were engaged in espionage activities. “McCarthy was right!” they say.
Or was he? The “The McCarthy was right” argument misses the point and does not vindicate his witch-hunting strategies. That a few spies were in the US government during the 1950s is hardly surprising, nor would it be surprising today. Most people at the time believed McCarthy was right. McCarthy’s fall from grace was not his anti-communistic feelings, but his tactics, and his wild erroneous charges, which the public finally saw for themselves on television during the famous Army-McCarthy hearings. In fact the Senator who brought censorship charges against McCarthy was a fellow republican, Senator Ralph Flanders, who believed in McCarthy’s cause; believed the Government was influenced by communist sympathizers, and believed the US had sold-out the Chinese Nationalists to communism.
What Senator Flanders and the rest of America did not believe in during the 1950s, nor do we believe in today, was the purge like tactics McCarthy admitted to using in his own words, “Even if we do damage some of the honest employees, I must take the only method I know of whereby I think we can secure a housecleaning.”
The ends do not justify the means. Joseph McCarthy was not right in the 1950s. Senator Ted Cruz was not right in 2013. Senator Dick Durbin was not right in 2013. Acts of McCarthyism should never be condoned, then or now.