Political Education

The Liberal Response to McCarthyism

How did liberals respond in the McCarthy era, and how should they have responded? This question is still a source of controversy in the liberal community today. There appear to have been three types of response by liberals to McCarthy:

  • The Libertarian argument
  • The Cold War Liberal response
  • The Plague-on Both-Your-Houses response

Some liberals, such as author Lillian Hellman, argued that liberals should stand up for their Libertarian principles and defend the House UnAmerican Activities Committee/ McCarthy interrogators’ victims. Hellman was a playwright who had attended some Communist gatherings. The House UnAmerican Activities Committee summoned her to testify in 1952. Hellman took the position that Communists have as much right to their opinions as anyone else. To Libertarians, accusing someone who had flirted with American Communism of being a traitor was ridiculous: Dashiel Hammett was not Joseph Stalin. If an American Communist engaged in subversive activities, they should be charged with a crime. The government shouldn’t persecute anyone for their alleged thoughts or opinions.

Cold War liberals, like pragmatic conservatives, disagreed with McCarthy’s tactics but recognized the Communist threat. These liberals saw Communism on the move throughout the world. There was a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and North Korea had invaded South Korea in 1950. At home, Communism was perceived by many to be subverting foreign policy. There was reason to fear Communist infiltration and subversion in sensitive government areas in the public mind.

To these Cold War liberals, such as Hubert Humphrey, being a Communist was seen as guilty of supporting Soviet dictatorship, concentration camps, and censorship. Cold War liberals balked at supporting the American Communist’s right to their views. The Cold Warriors would criticize McCarthy’s tactics but usually carried the disclaimer that they disassociated themselves from Communism. The disclaimer was counterproductive in combating McCarthyism: by denouncing American Communists, the Cold War liberals helped build and support McCarthy’s case. Hubert Humphrey, for example, had fought Communists in Minnesota labor unions. When Humphrey proposed outlawing the American Communist party, he inadvertently helped legitimize McCarthy.

Still, other liberals saw McCarthy’s tactics at best as bad manners and at worst as a threat to civil liberties. These liberals felt that the government should condemn McCarthy’s tactics but that American Communist sympathizers were also at fault. Coming to the defense of such individuals, to some liberals, was to condone Stalinism and its brutality. These liberals felt that both McCarthyites and their free-thinking opponents were irresponsible. By remaining silent throughout the McCarthy era, these liberals said, in effect, ‘a plague on both your houses.

The liberal community was generally confused and disorganized in confronting McCarthyism. Few liberals took the care that Adlai Stevenson took in spelling out a specific stand for combating both Communism and McCarthyism. Stevenson rejected loyalty oaths and McCarthy/HUAC investigations as ineffective and infringing on civil liberties. If a legitimate threat surfaced, Stevenson felt that the appropriate agency to investigate and prosecute was the F.B.I.


Thanks and a tip of the hat to Wikipedia for the image of Alger Hiss.

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