‘A witch-hunt’ Discuss this view of McCarthyism
In characterising McCarthyism as a ‘witch hunt’, the above view invites one to consider whether the internal communist threat and persecution of such during 1940s and 50s America was justified. A ‘witch hunt’ would suggest that McCarthyism represented a random, irrational targeting of innocent people in a hysterical fashion, and was therefore an aberration, and something to be condemned. There has indeed been a historiographical consensus that McCarthyism represented an intensive attack on innocent Americans. However, in the light of recent evidence presented by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, it appears that the majority of those persecuted were indeed communists, and many had been engaged in espionage for the Soviet Union.  Although such new evidence has exposed the existence of communism and espionage in America during the Cold War, this does not automatically justify McCarthyism, and indeed, it will be seen how the movement did reflect some characteristics of a ‘witch hunt’. This essay will seek to examine the characteristics of McCarthyism in light of the new evidence. Yet, in the latter part of the essay, the merits of using such terminology to describe the movement will also be addressed, to ascertain whether there can be any utility in asking if McCarthyism was essentially a ‘witch-hunt’.
Although a witch-hunt would suggest that anti-communist persecution in America randomly targeted the innocent, as Haynes and Klehr have confirmed, internal communism was not a mere invention, imagined by J. Edgar Hoover or Senator Joe himself. There would not have been a McCarthyism without the existence of the American Communist party, and indeed, most of those convicted or dismissed did have a determinable link to communist activity. As the Venona project has confirmed, the presence of Soviet espionage did exist in the 1940s and 1950s. Alger Hiss, who was accused of being a Soviet spy and sentenced to five years imprisonment, indeed appears highly implicated. Klaus Fuchs provided the Soviets with secrets concerning the atomic bomb, and Julis and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for espionage were not innocent. Many of the alleged spies of the McCarthyite era had helped the Soviets and shared secrets. The majority of those persecuted were, or had been members of the American Communist Party and of those victimised few were apolitical. The persecution, rather than sporadic, appears systematic. ‘Red hunters’ knew exactly where to go, seeking out Left-wing labour leaders, civil rights activists, those who collected money for the Spanish republic, or those otherwise engaged in activities that the CP promoted. We can see then, that rather than randomly targeting anyone, the persecution of communists largely only entailed persecuting communists. As ‘witch hunt’ might suggest, such victims were not wholly innocent of the crimes they were charged with.
Yet, although these victims did indeed have communist connections, the perceived threat from communists came not directly from ideology itself, but from the apparent danger to national security that they were seen to pose. Although those persecuted were not innocent of the charge of communism, it can be argued that the majority did not present the massive national security threat that figures such as McCarthy and Hoover charged. Consequently, it could be conceived that the irrationality and hysteria surrounding such charges provide McCarthyism with some key characteristics of a ‘witch hunt’. Yes, it is clear that some genuinely damaging espionage activity took place. The information provided by Fuchs allowed the Soviets to produce an atomic bomb possibly a few years earlier than would have occurred. The Rosenbergs provided the KGB with valuable military information about radar, jet planes and advanced weapon systems. Nevertheless, it can be asked if this minority of cases was justified to warrant the widespread and...
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