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David Aaronovitch thinks the unthinkable about Joe McCarthy

From the latest Radio Times:

McCarthyism: There Were Reds Under the Bed

In the light of recent spy revelations, David Aaronovitch uncovers dramatic evidence that the notorious Communist hunter Joseph McCarthy may have been right after all about Soviet infiltration into the US government.

That’s this coming Sunday, July 25th, at 1.30pm, on BBC Radio 4.

Google, google. Here is more about the programme:

David Aaronovitch thinks the unthinkable about the McCarthy period.

The hunt for the so called ‘Reds under the beds’ during the Cold War is generally regarded as a deeply regrettable blot on U.S history. But the release of classified documents reveals that Joseph McCarthy was right after all about the extent of Soviet infiltration into the highest reaches of the U.S government.

Thanks to the public release of top secret FBI decryptions of Soviet communications, as well as the release under the fifty year rule of FBI records and Soviet archives, we now know that the Communist spying McCarthy fought against was extensive, reaching to the highest level of the State department and the White House.

We reveal that many of McCarthy’s anticommunist investigations were in fact on target. His fears about the effect Soviet infiltration might be having on US foreign policy, particularly in the Far East were also well founded.

The decrypts also reveal that people such as Rosenberg, Alger Hiss and even Robert Oppenheimer were indeed working with the Soviets. We explore why much of this information, available for years to the FBI, was not made public. We also examine how its suppression prevented the prosecution of suspects.

Finally, we explore the extent to which Joseph McCarthy, with his unsavoury methods and smear tactics, could have done himself a disservice, resulting in his name being forever synonymous with paranoia and the ruthless suppression of free speech.

Hearing from former FBI, CIA and KGB operatives as well as formerly blacklisted writers, David Aaronovitch, himself from a family of communists tells the untold story of Soviet influence and espionage in the United States.

Interesting. Phrases like “thinking the unthinkable”, coming from the BBC, generally signify something drearily conformist, of the sort that it is almost unthinkable to contest, like the claim that, I don’t know, economic growth is not all good, or that pollution pollutes. Not this time, I think you will agree.

Although, I distrust that last bit, about McCarthy’s “unsavoury tactics” being to blame for his failure. It was McCarthy’s fault that the Bolsheviks weren’t unmasked? I wait to be convinced that what saved the Bolsheviks of that time and place was Joe McCarthy’s ineptness. I prefer the more obvious explanation, which is that the very Bolsheviks who had, as McCarthy rightly claimed, dug themselves into the US government were the ones who stopped him.

I also rather resent the timing of this revelation. Now, they tell us? I think that one of the habits of the bad guys is to concede the truth, but only when it’s too late to do much good. The purpose of such admissions is not the truth for the sake of it, but to establish what honest fellows the bad guys are, so that their current or next pack of lies will also be believed, until that too is unmasked, too late, and so on. But maybe that’s to be too cynical, at any rate in this matter. I am not familiar with Aaronovitch’s writings and thinkings over the years. Maybe he’s a good guy.

I’ll certainly be having a listen to this. Either at 1.30pm on Sunday, or failing that, soon after.

20 comments to David Aaronovitch thinks the unthinkable about Joe McCarthy

  • John B

    I also rather resent the timing of this revelation. Now, they tell us? I think that one of the habits of the bad guys is to concede the truth, but only when it’s too late to do much good.

    Yes, absolutely. The truth is allowed to surface when the lies have done their work. Further, anything that is let out of the bag one can be sure is for a purpose. Why else would it be allowed to happen?!

    In Britain, as well, a former head of MI5 was an, as yet unacknowledged, Soviet agent, if logic is to be believed.
    And Harold Wilson?
    It sometimes seems it is all a mind manipulating game.
    You can be certain the BBC programme will be some kind of whitewash regarding which one will very much have to peer between the lines to get any semblance of truth.
    (The propagandist who lies when he tells the truth!)

  • I’m sorry, but in what way is this a ‘revelation’? It has been known for half a century and was confirmed nearly twenty years ago when Yeltsin opened up the Soviet archives.

    For the BBC to present it in this manner is another example of the duplicity and mendacity with which the enemy has always dealt with McCarthy.

  • Robert Speirs

    Makes the “yes, we did!” bumperstickers you see on Priuses here in the States seem a bit ambivalent, to say the least. The Journolist revelations are now safe because Obama doesn’t think he needs the media any more.

  • I’m sorry, but in what way is this a ‘revelation’?

    It is only a ‘revelation’ in the sense the establishment is acknowledging (in a ‘nuanced’ kind of way, of course) what anyone actually interesting in the subject has known for quite some time.

  • RAB

    Well quite, Cats and Perry.

    Thirty minutes at 1.30pm on a Sunday afternoon on Radio 4 is hardly shouting it from the rooftops now is it?

    I’ve been in battle with Alger Hiss deniers for 30 years or so.

  • Let me play the Devil’s advocate here for a moment, but does the fact that McCarthy was right on target mean that he was a good guy or that his methods were acceptable? I really am asking, since I have no idea.

  • Eric

    You can be right for the wrong reasons, and a guess that turns out to be right is still a guess. McCarthy didn’t have the evidence he needed to make the accusations he made.

  • Richard

    Regarding McCarthy’s information/evidence, there’s a British doctor who’s put out a series of videos on YouTube wherein he describes some of his interactions with Soviet-allied radicals in the 50s and 60s while he was working with heroin addicts. One thing he claims is that McCarthy was set up to believe that the level of Communist infiltration in the US government was much more extensive than it actually was, so that he would look like a paranoid fool denouncing it.

    His name is Ian Dunbar, and the book is “More than a Puff of Smoke”. I’m not sure how it all checks out, but I do know other medical professionals who lived through that era and agree with his description of the medical community in that period and its attitudes towards drug addicts and the burgeoning governmental health care industry.

  • Anyone who didn’t already know this could do worse than to read “The Venona Secrets” (Romerstein & Breindel) published ten years ago.

  • John B

    Perhaps the collectivist establishment is putting this out on a:

    “Oh look what we have found out, it seems the silly man may have been right all along even though he even had us believing the opposite because of his ranting madness. Oh dear, if only we had known . . . ” basis.
    Thereby proclaiming their innocence of that which they had known all along, and even consolidating blame onto J. McCarthy for the fact “we got it wrong”.
    Never mind it was them doing the communist penetrations in the first place.

    (Most folk don’t read books like Venon Secrets, or The FBI-KGB WAR: Robert J. Lamphere.
    And you only have to fool enough of the people enough of the time.)

  • CaptDMO

    And there’s always “Blacklisted By History”
    M(edford). Stanton Evans 2007
    Crown Publishing (under Random House)
    ISBN 978-1-4000-8150-9

  • The Stan Evans book is excellent. One point that never seems to get made is that the Communist spies were also connected with some of the most corrupt elements inside the Democratic party. Tommy “The Cork” was the ringleader for the payoffs and the political machine connections. He was also the guy who lead the early fight to discredit McCarthy.

    Why does this all sound so familiar ?

  • Brad

    I’ve always felt that McCarthy was right about the communists, but he didn’t have to be such a fascist about it – the old an enemy of an enemy scenario. I’ve never seen McCarthy embraced by libertarians/minarchists, though I’ve not specifically looked. Being right shouldn’t turn one into a zealot. Using Statist machinery as he did turned the kernel of an issue into a Statist Right medicine show.

  • Paul

    “Treason” by Ann Coulter. She’s been all over the the lie of “mccarthyism” since 2003. Of course with all that research she does, the footnotes and references she uses to back up what she speaks of….she has to be one of those Rtwing radicals…racists…whatever.

  • manuel II paleologos

    I am not familiar with Aaronovitch’s writings and thinkings over the years. Maybe he’s a good guy.

    The only reason I used to buy the Independent was because of his opinion pieces and I quite often would only read that and throw the rest away. Luckily he moved to the Times.

    He’s particularly strong on ridiculing (often anti-semitic) conspiracy theories. I recently finished his “Voodoo Histories”, a run through many of the past century’s most enduring daft theories. Good stuff and well worth a read, although it’s hard to really categorise what’s a “conspiracy theory” and what isn’t, and I got a bit lost in his lovingly detailed account of Stalin’s show trials.

    My problem with dealing with such idiots (especially moon landing and 9/11 hoaxers) is just keeping my temper; he does a wonderful job of patiently allowing their theories to collapse under the weight of their own stupidities.

    So yes, a good guy.

  • Paul Marks

    Joe McCarthy – the last taboo. The Wisconsin moderate Progressive (in favour of housing subsidies and other things I DETEST), the anti segregationist (that has got “forgotten”) and the long time anti Nazi (so much so that the German areas in Wisconsin would never vote for him).

    Transformed (thanks to the education system, the mainstream media and the rest of the power elite) into a Devil figure – all because of his struggle both with Communists in American and with those who thought it was to embarrising (and vulgar) to investigate.

    Glenn Beck (who will read anything – from Karl Marx’s “Capital” to Ludwig Von Mises’ “Human Action”) refused FOR YEARS to read Stanton Evans “Blacklisted by History” out of FEAR THAT HE MIGHT AGREE WITH IT ( actually admitted that live on air).

    As M. Stanton Evans has spent most of his final years on this Earth researching these matters it is best I quote him. Having spent hundred of pages on McCarthy and his enemies – including Joe McCarthy’s blunders and character flaws. Evans says this in his conclusion.

    “So they finally got him…. but it’s equally true that he got them – or at least a sizealble number of them. In case after significant case – Service, Vincent, Lattimore, Jessup, Brunauer, O. Edmund Clubb and scores of others – McCarthy’s targets were driven from the field, and with them the Amerasia/IPR agenda for more Far East capitulations. It is doubtful that any other American figure, outside the confines of the White House, had more impact on Cold War history. Whether that impact was for good or ill, of course, depends on one’s perspective”.

    And.

    “That McCarthy was a flawed champion of the cause he served is not in doubt (and who among us isn’t?). It would have been better had he been less impulsive, more nuanced, more subtle in his judgements. On the other hand somebody more nuanced and refined wouldn’t have dreamed of grappling with the forces deployed against him. Those forces were powerful, smart and tough, and they played for keeps. Taking them on was the task, not for a Supreme Court justice, but for a warrior. McCarthy, to his dying breath was that.

    Measured by the total record of his cases and political battles, McCarthy, whatever his faults, was a good man and true – better by far than the tag teams of cover up artists and backstage plotters who connived unceasingly to destroy him. The truth he served, moreover, was of great import – the exposure of people who meant to do us grievous harm, and of lond standing indifference toward this menace by many at high official levels. In so doing, he summoned the nation to a firm-willed resistance to the Communist challenge both abroad and on the home front. At the peak of his influence, the storm of protest he ignited shook a negligent ruling class to its foundations and scattered a host of furtive agents its lassitude had sheltered.

    In the end he perished [the objective of the "total and eternal destruction of McCarthy" was achieved] politically and otherwise, in the rubble he pulled down around him. Yet when the final chapter in the conflict with Moscow was written he was not without his triumph”.

    That was from the concluding chapter – “Samson in the Heathen Temple”.

    I can only hope that history repeats itself. That even if the Communists succeed in utterly destroying their main present target he manages to, like Samson (who had been blinded and chained in the Temple of his enemies), bring the roof down upon them.

  • Paul Marks

    Eric – it depends what you mean by “McCarthy did not have the evidence”. But NO Joe McCarthy was not “guessing” in the vast majority of cases (although, by the way, in intelligence matters if your “gut” tells you someone is on the other side that feeling may be what saves your life).

    He had seen the evidence (various people had shown him files – knowing that he was one of the few people who would dare act on the information), but he did “have the evidence”, many of the files were not his property.

    Joe McCarthy was not allowed to produce even some NON SECRET government papers – even at his censure “trial” before the U.S. Senate.

    The Executive claimed “Executive Privilege” to prevent McCarthy using the files to defend himself (because it was embarrising to admit how many Communists there were and how they were in such important positions – and the whole thing was so vulgar anyway).

    Oddly enough when President Nixon (then Vice President) tried to use “Executive Privilege” to deny his enemies access to files – the courts decided that they could have access.

    That is a nasty thing about the American legal system – the courts are sometimes political and arbitrary, they do not always follow a consistant line of law (and that includes in private business matters as well government matters).

    Perhaps Joe McCarthy (a supporter of the New Deal) should have listened to those “reactionary” Liberty League people who said that if government can (for example) confiscate privately owned gold (making a mockery of “due process”) it can also undermine “civil liberties”.

    This is what “liberals” still do not understand – the great victim of “McCarthyism” was Joe McCarthy himself, he was not allowed to use (NON secret – let alone the secret Verona stuff) documents to defend himself. Joe McCarthy NEVER treated anyone he investigated that way – if they wanted to produce files to prove their innocence that was fine (indeed it was welcomed – as the committee only had a limited time, and time wasted investigating the innocent was time that could not be spent hunting down the guilty).

    By they way some of McCarthy’s chief tormentors had really weird motives.

    For example Senator Flanders (Republican Vermont) passionatly hated McCarthy (so, of course, he was the correct unbiased person to head an investigation of McCarthy) because McCarthy had promoted Roy Cohn.

    Cohn was a JEW and a HOMOSEXUAL.

    McCarthy was neither – but promoting Cohn was enough for Flanders.

    You see, by the standards of the early 1950s, Joe McCarthy was socially liberal (as a Catholic he regarded certain activities as sinful – but he was not going to persecute people for such sins), that made him object of intense hatred to a bigot like Senator Flanders.

    Do people now understand how the picture drawn of Joe McCarthy (by the education system and the media – especially the entertainment media) is wildly wrong?

  • Wow Paul, I had mostly no idea about any of this. Moreover, I was going to ask about the Hollywood blacklist, but I just found out that it had nothing to do with McCarthy (who was a senator, and the blacklist having been produced by HCUA- a house committee, headed by a Democrat, BTW).

  • Paul Marks

    Yes “McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee investigation of Hollywood”.

    Sometimes these people (the BBC, the New York Times and so on) even say and write “Senator McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee”.

    I can not make up my mind whether these people are trying to decieve – or whether they are truly morons and do not know that a Senator can not be a member of a House of Representatives Committee.

    It is like saying (or writing) “Lord so and so – leading member of the House of Commons Committee investigating……”

    In fact it is worse – as an Irish Lord could (I believe) be a member of the U.K. House of Commons.

  • I await specific evidence of McCarthy’s “unsavoury methods and smear tactics.”

    In the more than two years since Blacklisted by History was published, I have asked everyone who I read make such claims for specifics — direct quotations, dates, sources.

    I have yet to receive a single response.