Could It Happen Again?
McCarthyism. The very word conjures up the image of someone using smear tactics to question a person's patriotism and to silence dissent. Could such political persecution happen again in our country?
That is the question some Americans pondered last week when the U.S. Senate unsealed 4,000 pages of transcripts from secret sessions held by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953-54. He used these closed hearings to weed out witnesses who refused to be intimidated and as dress rehearsals for public hearings.
What are the lessons to be learned from this poisonous period in our nation's past?
One is how quickly our fragile freedoms can be eroded. McCarthy rose to power in 1950 on a tsunami of anti-communist hysteria, brandishing a list of "known communists" in the State Department, and held public trials to enhance his own political clout. He fell from power only when his attacks against the U.S. Army -- broadcast to millions of Americans in their living rooms -- exposed his indecent persecution of innocent people. The Senate censured him in December 1954. Discredited and disgraced, he died three years later, at age 47.
Nevertheless, his influence lasted for more than a decade. Loyalty oaths, indictments and blacklists destroyed the reputations and careers of thousands of innocent people. Fear of internal sabotage and infiltration of all institutions crushed dissent. A pervasive atmosphere of fear quarantined permissible debate.
Anti-communism, in short, turned into a political weapon. In his splendid "Story of American Freedom," historian Eric Foner reminds us that "Anti-communism became a tool wielded by white supremacists against black civil rights, employers against unions, and upholders of sexual morality and traditional gender roles against homosexuality..." It was, he writes, "an inauspicious time to raise questions about the imperfections of American freedom."
Another lesson is that most official secrets and lies eventually see the light of day. Some repentant former official writes a revelatory memoir. A new administration opens up the archives and historians and journalists excavate deeply buried secrets. It took only days, for example, for the world to learn that Secretary of State Colin Powell had received forged and faked evidence when he made his case for war in Iraq at the U.N. Security Council.
The Bush administration, infamous for its excessive secrecy, should take this caveat to heart. Attorney General John Ashcroft has encouraged federal agencies to reject Freedom of Information Act requests; President Bush has illegally sealed the papers of former presidents; and the USA Patriot Act has expanded government surveillance powers and trampled upon the privacy rights of American citizens.
Could the chill of fear that froze political debate in the 1950s occur again? In an interview with National Public Radio, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., says, "History is a powerful teacher . . . I think there's greater awareness of McCarthyism and there's greater resistance against those who would try to still voices that they disagree with."
He's partly right. As of last week, more than 100 communities had passed resolutions against cooperating with the USA Patriot Act. San Mateo and Marin counties, as well as the city of Sausalito, recently added their names to the growing list. Librarians in Santa Cruz and other communities, moreover, are shredding the library-use records of their patrons, rather than give them up to John Ashcroft.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who initiated the release of the transcripts, thinks the newly released McCarthy papers provide a timely reminder of the danger posed by fear itself. "We hope that the excesses of McCarthyism will serve as a cautionary tale for future generations."
But Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the only senator who voted against the USA Patriot Act, is far more pessimistic. In an interview with NPR, he warns that "This is a dark hour for civil liberties in America. What I'm hearing from Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, South Asians and others, suggests a climate of fear toward our government that is unprecedented."
Last lesson to be learned: Never take civil rights and liberties for granted. Freedom, as it turns out, requires constant struggle, not only on the battlefield, but here at home as well.