The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, January 16, 2005

Love those Democrats: McCarthyite after McCarthy

One of the outstanding lies amongst the Conventional Wisdoms of American politics is that post-war Red-baiting started - or, at least, really got going - with Joseph McCarthy.

Whereas in fact, the most important factor in the virulence, durability and waywardness of the phenomenon was Truman's decision to co-opt it (notably, with the loyalty oath procedures of Executive Order 9835) for fear of losing the 1948 election: the bully pulpit, indeed!

Democrats had the opportunity to repent at leisure - but you might have thought that the seating of the 84th Congress in January 1955 - with a Dem majority restored in both houses and McCarthy muzzled by censure the previous year - the House leadership would have wished to put an end to the business.

Not a bit of it: HUAC was entrusted to none other than Francis Walter, of McCarran-Walter Act fame. And, whilst Walter's committee was not the circus of J Parnell Thomas, for instance, the enthusiasm for seeking out subversives - and in media-friendly places, too - was still high.

Amongst others in the spotlight was lefty songster Pete Seeger [1], who boldly declined either to take the Fifth or name names. Seeger was convicted of contempt of Congress, but had the conviction overturned [2] on the ground that the subcommittee hearing at which he testified had not been authorised in due form by the full committee.

Seeger was persona non grata on the airwaves before and after his HUAC appearance: eventually, though,
In September 1967, the producers of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and executives at CBS judged that the weather had cleared sufficiently to hire him. So, finally, he appeared, but was not permitted to sing a song critical of President Johnson.

Of course, this was before umpire Walter Cronkite had stepped out from behind the plate and called the game for the gooks...

The political justification for hauling sorry pinko asses out of Hollywood for a grilling would be the Dems' vulnerability on national security: in the climate of fear he himself had done much to create, the popular thought was that Truman had 'lost' China, he'd screwed up in Korea, the Federal government was swarming with subversives. But the use of a patently ineffective method that, when used by a GOP majority, Dems had decried was hardly something to be proud of.

Good thing we don't hear much about it, then...

  1. We have what purports to be a transcript of Seeger's testimony on August 18 1955 to a subcommittee of HUAC.

  2. The Committee by Walter Goodman, p378; the tome has a chapter on HUAC under Walter (p367ff).

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