Some journalists and those under their spell believe that the Venona cables, publicly disclosed in 1995, provide an antidote to the poisonous influence of McCarthyism in the 1950s. The cables confirm extensive Soviet espionage in America during the 1940s, and so, the story goes, the late Senator Joseph McCarthy deserves at least partial vindication.
A leader of the social conservatives on the Texas State Board of Education for more than ten years, Don McLeroy, has recently succeeded in adjusting the state’s social studies curriculum in a way that makes the vindication of McCarthy more likely. On March 2, McLeroy lost a very close Republican primary race to hold on to his seat on the board, but his current term runs through the end of 2010. He will be a participant when the board meets on March 10 to continue its work on revising the social studies curriculum.
Prior to the board’s most recent meetings in January, McLeroy had sent a memo to his colleagues on the board in which he wrote that “the latest” on McCarthy “basically vindicated” the senator. In January he offered two amendments that could enhance McCarthy’s reputation and, at the same time, further the senator’s most important partisan goal: establishing that Democratic administrations are vulnerable to foreign threats.
Before making an amendment directly related to the senator, McLeroy reached back to the 1920s. In a debate over which social issues of that decade should be in the curriculum, McLeroy recommended that prohibition, Social Darwinism, race relations, the changing role of women, and nativism should no longer be mandatory, although these topics could be optional; however, he wanted the first “Red Scare” (1917-1920) to be deleted entirely from the curriculum. “It was short-lived and mostly over by 1920,” he said.
“The Red Scare was a result of the Russian Revolution and the push of communism…and there were carry-overs of that all the way up to…the thirties,” board member Patricia Hardy said, arguing that the topic remain in the section. She might have added that the first Red Scare also witnessed the Palmer Raids by then U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and the forced deportation of hundreds of people, along with wholesale witch hunts that foreshadowed events of the 1950s.
Hardy won the argument, but McLeroy immediately followed with a successful amendment requiring study of the Venona cables in a section on McCarthyism and the Cold War. The sequence of his amendments begs this question: If communist threats in America before the long Democratic ascendancy and the New Deal are not worthy of any mention, while McCarthy’s allegations (including his claim of “twenty years of treason” by Democratic administrations) are “basically vindicated,” what conclusions will students reach about McCarthyism, FDR, and Harry Truman?
The original section on McCarthy read: “describe how McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the arms race, and the space race increased Cold War tensions.” McLeroy’s amendment added the phrase “and how the later release of the Verona [sic] Papers confirmed suspicions of Communist influence in the American government.”
McLeroy should not be faulted for including the Venona cables; it is his memo to board members that raises the issues of motive and emphasis in the curriculum. The 3,000 cables do confirm spying or some degree of contact with the Soviets by at least 349 U.S. government employees and others in the 1940s and early 1950s. Ideologues of the left and many scholars of the period have grossly underestimated the reach of Soviet-sponsored espionage during that time and the close ties the Communist Party USA had with Soviet intelligence agencies.
But by the time Senator McCarthy began accusing all and sundry of having communist ties, the American government was aware of the cables, having deciphered some of them as early as 1946. Credit for breaking the Soviet ciphers belongs to the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service of the time (predecessor of the NSA), a group of brilliant analysts who continued to translate the double-encrypted cables for years. The FBI, with more analysts and the ability to do investigations, was able to tie code names to individuals.
While the cables expand the list of spies within the U.S. government who gave highly valuable information (including critical information about nuclear bombs and fighter jets) to the Soviet Union, they could, in some minds, vindicate Senator McCarthy only if they proved that his crude, demagogic, and destructive methods revealed the true spies, or that the senator helped rather than hindered the nation’s ability to confront real security threats.
The very government that McCarthy accused of being infested with spies was able to break the Soviet ciphers, bring the Rosenbergs and others to trial, and force the Soviet Union to sharply curtail espionage activities in the U.S. The wild nature of his claims gave cover to actual spies who could pretend that they, like McCarthy’s targets, were only victims of right-wing extremists.
McCarthy, meanwhile, was recklessly slandering Americans who may have been guilty of naivete and intellectual infatuation, but far removed from any actual spying. The lives and careers of hundreds of people were either ruined or severely damaged by his actions. Among them were Texan John Henry Faulk, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, W.E.B. Du Bois, Linus Pauling, Paul Robeson, Lee Grant, Orson Welles, William L. Shirer, and Charlie Chaplin. Copland and others were further deemed “subversive” because they were homosexuals. Many were simply avowed and outspoken liberals.
FDR, Truman, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and George C. Marshall—all were targets of McCarthy and his supporters, who characterized these men as being dupes of the communists or, in Marshall’s case, a traitor for “losing” China. The senator and his allies created a myth about losing China, which they blamed on a weak or leftist State Department under Marshall that allowed Mao Zedong to take over the nation from Chiang Kai-shek. The China myth poisoned political discourse for years. It was not coincidental that these attacks also worked to discredit Democratic administrations going back two decades.
When McCarthy felt shunned by the Eisenhower administration during its first year, he extended his “twenty years of treason” to “twenty-one,” thus implying that the commander of the D-Day invasion was a traitor. By that time, the senator was like a maniac with an assault rifle, firing randomly in the dark—maybe scaring a bad guy or two, but hitting a hundred other citizens in the process and leaving the town in chaos.
The late broadcaster Edward R. Murrow famously said in his denunciation of McCarthy that Americans “will not walk in fear, one of another [sic]. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.”
The Venona cables indicate that the government—General Omar Bradley, intelligence officials, possibly Truman himself—acquiesced far too long to “an age of unreason” by allowing McCarthy to rant as long as he did without clarifying the record. The more smoke he created, the more the government feared clearing the air, having found some smoldering embers of its own. How much of this reticence was due to caution, and how much to fear, is difficult to determine.
The Venona cables have added yet another layer of complexity to the Cold War period and left us with a dramatic illustration that the jumbled events that make up history are ill-served when ideology—of the left or right—is imposed upon them. That alone is worth teaching. Will students in Texas learn that lesson from their study of the period? Or will they believe in the vindication of Joe McCarthy?