In this crazy political era of unprecedented polarization (with the possible exception of the Civil War), I wouldn’t be surprised to find defenders of former Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy (R), best known for the “HUAC” (House on Un-American Activities’ Committee – Senate, too) Congressional hearings he held in the cold-war 1950s, accusing everyone from government officials, to military personnel, to people in the entertainment industry of being Communist spies or sympathizers. To this day, the term McCarthyism is known for attacking reputations with unfounded accusations and extortion, because when McCarthy and his gang would call someone to the hearing, the only way to shake the taint of being under suspicion of being a Communist was to give names of others. Terrifying. He certainly is the poster-boy of paranoid right-wing nut jobs in Congress, from which many of late have followed or carried the mantle. Today the Republicans just use their media outlets so they don’t need a single Senator McCarthy to promote the latest boogeyman scare to make sure their base is afraid of some group at all times.
McCarthy riled up an already nervous country following World War II, which caused the mere mention of a name associated with his investigations to become shrouded in suspicion and, thereby, blacklisted from finding work. The entertainment industry was one of his major targets, although no one was safe. Coupled with some pretty aggressive battles at that time (shortly after the Screen Actors Guild union was established) between the powerful studios and its writers and actors, McCarthy’s “red scare” also became a convenient ploy in contract negotiations. If you are looking for a good movie about the period from the entertainers’ perspective, “The Front” is a great movie to see the truth and its absurdity of McCarthy’s investigations.
I first became interested in Joseph McCarthy when I watched old movies with Mom. Every now and then she would tell me some actor had been “blacklisted.” Wikipedia has an impressive list of hundreds of names of writers, producers, actors and musicians who were targeted. Everyone from musicians like Harry Belafonte and folk singer Pete Seeger to composer Leonard Bernstein, Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude) and Will Geer (Grandpa Walton) were blacklisted from getting any work. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were rumored among a list that was never released but anyone even leaning to the left politically was under threat of being called a Commie. Bogie and Bacall (damn, I love that dame. Rest in peace.) were some of the few who eventually spoke out against the hearings. That took tremendous courage.
Now, if anyone thinks I am going too far in making parallels to the Republicans of today, I submit the “birther” accusation against Obama’s birthplace, the whole Clinton Whitewater investigation accusing them of murder, Benghazi, voter (not election) fraud, “Fast and Furious” and claiming Sandy Hook was faked in order to take our guns, just off the top of my head. But what may be the most McCarthyesque moment was in 2008, when then Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann said on MSNBC’s Chris Matthews’ Show that she wanted to, “”find out if they (congresional members) are pro-America or anti–America.” She was serious!
To this day, I consider that cold-war era head council to the U.S. Army, Joseph Nye Welch, a brave hero when he said while under questioning by Senator McCarthy the following:
Wish he, Bacall and some other people with cojones would stand up and ask this of the entire Republican Congress today. Shameful.