Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them, so the saying goes, but I don’t think that’s true at all. The cynic in me suspects that it’s the people who do learn the lessons of history that repeat them, using the experiences of earlier generations and simply switching things around so that the oppressed become the oppressors.
In the 1950s, McCarthyism was rampant in the USA. In February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy exploited the growing Cold War that had emerged in the wake of World War 2 – where the US and the Soviet Union had been uneasy allies – with a campaign against those who were identified as Communists. Communism was not illegal in the USA, but those who supported Communist aims were seen by many as ‘the enemy within’ – subversives who were a threat to decent thinking and who would spread dangerous, socially divisive ideologies. A few years earlier, the first salvo in this free speech war had been fired by President Harry S. Truman, who imposed ‘loyalty screening’ on federal employees, with disloyalty characterised as “membership in, affiliation with or sympathetic association with any organisation determined by the attorney general to be totalitarian, Fascist, Communist or subversive.” Those found to be disloyal were not going to stay employed for long.
McCarthyism simply expanded this idea to the wider public. With McCarthy’s encouragement, many private companies followed the government’s lead and imposed loyalty screening on their employees. Employers often used a list of ‘subversive’ organisations as collated by the Department of Justice (which totalled 154 different groups at its peak, 110 of which were deemed Communist) and even an interest in human rights or radical literature was enough to see people deemed ‘disloyal’. From 1951 to 1955, the FBI distributed anonymous documents with ‘evidence’ of Communist affiliations amongst teachers, lawyers, union activists and other private individuals, many of whom were then fired without the need for further evidence. Accusation was enough. Meanwhile, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began to subpoena Hollywood stars, writers, directors and producers to testify about their suspected membership of Communist organisations or leftist sympathies; others were quizzed about their co-workers and friends, with several including future President Ronald Reagan eagerly naming names. The HUAC would notoriously ask “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”. Ten early witnesses, later known as The Hollywood Ten, refused to co-operate, and were convicted of Contempt of Congress, and were sentenced to between six months and a year in prison. Future witnesses not wanting to be part of this circus would plead the Fifth Amendment, which protected against self-incrimination. This avoided the possibility of a Contempt conviction, but was career suicide – taking the Fifth was seen as an admission of ‘guilt’. Whether or not the accused were actually Communists hardly matter – again, mere accusation was enough. The Motion Picture Association of America issued a statement that “we will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States.”
The hundreds of accused were effectively blacklisted from officially working in Hollywood – a few, with friends in high places, managed to carry on working under pseudonyms; others left the country to continue their careers, and some never worked again. The only way to avoid being blacklisted was to confess and then name names, an act of penance and betrayal that was almost as devastating for some who crumbled as the blacklist was for its victims. Artists who had perhaps made a past statement that was now interpreted as leftist were made to grovelingly apologise and denounce their past beliefs if they wanted to have any chance of maintain their careers. Often, the apology would make no difference. Their opponents had the smell of blood in their nostrils.
McCarthy compiled a list of books and authors for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations – works that were by suspected Communists that were then removed from libraries while book shops refused to sell them. Some libraries even burned the books. Private groups soon stepped in to fill the gaps where the government could not reach – organisations were set up with the sole intention of sniffing out and exposing Communists. Employees were investigated and questioned about their beliefs. Those who did not come up with the right answers were quickly fired. None of these people had broken the law – they simply had political affiliations that were not those of the powerful elite.
Of course, membership of Communist groups could actually be illegal. The Smith Act of 1940 made it a criminal offence to “knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise or teach the desirability or propriety of overthrowing the Government of the United States or of any State by force or violence, or for anyone to organize any association which teaches, advises or encourages such an overthrow, or for anyone to become a member of or to affiliate with any such association” – a catch-all law that might have seemed to cover all sorts of firth columnists and revolutionaries, but actually was focused almost entirely on scooping up law-abiding people with Socialist sympathies. Many victims were found guilty through mere association with Communists – friends, family members, work colleagues – who they refused to denounce. Others expressed mildly leftist sentiments to do with workers rights or welfare, and were seen as being no different from card-carrying Communist revolutionaries. In the end, the law was used to convict hundreds of people between 1941 and 1957, often on the basis of false accusation and questionable evidence.
While there were protests and outrage against the actions of HUAC and others, among the average American – bombarded by one-sided news reports and media propaganda – this was very popular at the time, while critics were quickly tarred with the same brush as those they were defending. Public-spirited anti-Communist groups were keen to uncover even the slightest hint of political incorrectness (and I use that phrase very deliberately). Suspected subversive thinkers would be reported to employers, hounded out of their jobs and their communities. Communists were seen as being in the control of foreign powers, spreading misinformation (‘fake news’ by today’s parlance) and seeking to take over the country. Leftist meetings were broken up, leftist speakers silenced. In the end, up to twelve thousand people lost their jobs. Hundreds were imprisoned. The number who saw marriages dissolve, families torn apart or who killed themselves is unknown.
But for those who supported McCarthyism and related anti-Communist activities until the movement began to implode at the end of the decade, they were doing good work. By banning books, by closing down avenues of expression, by stopping filmmakers from working and by telling employers that their staff members had unsavoury beliefs, they were protecting the nation from genuinely dangerous elements who would, if left to spread their beliefs, destroy society. People like McCarthy genuinely believed that what they were doing was for the greater moral good. For them, free speech did not extend to those with beliefs different to his own, even if the people who held those beliefs were average Joes with no public influence whatsoever. If the evidence against them was questionable – well, better safe than sorry. McCarthy was, in his own mind, delivering Social Justice.
The witch hunts of the 1950s were hugely effective, if you think that political opponents should be silenced, persecuted and demonised, and that mere accusation is evidence of guilt. If you believe that Wrongthink should be punished as severely – perhaps even more severely – that actual crimes of violence (especially if that violence is directed at people with dangerous ideas), and that public shaming and mob rule is an admirable way of keeping people in line, then McCarthy and his fellow travellers will have much to teach you. You can take those techniques and the ‘reds under the bed’ paranoia and run with it against those you wish to deplatform and de-person – especially with social media to help amplify your righteous outrage.
We can only hope that history repeats itself and that those following in McCarthy’s footsteps will have a final fall from grace as the world opens its eyes to the hate-driven othering of people who do not conform to ideas of correct behaviour. McCarthy was a monster, not a role model, and we’d do well to remember that.