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Steve Hansen: Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s actions must be put into the context of his time

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Posted: Tuesday, December 2, 2014 12:00 am

Last week, the Lodi News-Sentinel reported a Los Angeles Times story about a lady who believed she was wrongly convicted of a felony during the so-called “McCarthy era.”

After more than a half-century, the 98-year-old woman would like to see her record cleared.

But was Sen. Joseph McCarthy really the monster that many portrayed him to be?

His story arises from America’s 20th century past. Here is a brief historical synopsis:

During and after World War II, Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr. never trusted the motivations of the Soviet Union and warned his fellow countrymen about their intentions. After all, its dictator, Joseph Stalin, had murdered more of his perceived enemies than Adolf Hitler ever imagined perpetrating on his adversaries.

With the approval of President Roosevelt, post-war Russia gobbled up parts of Europe. However, Patton had different ideas and wanted to rid the world of the despotic Stalin while the Russian leader was vulnerable.

But after the defeat of Japan and Germany in 1945, Americans were tired of war and wanted the rivers of blood to end. The controversial general was stripped of his power, and died in December of that year from injuries suffered when his Cadillac limousine collided with an Army deuce-and-a-half truck.

The communist menace of which Patton had fortuitously warned came to pass. In 1948, Stalin tried to force the U.S. out of Berlin with a blockade. Nationalist China (where I was living at the time) fell in 1949 to Mao Tse-tung, and the communist North attacked South Korea in 1950.

The United States was now under a “red scare,” perpetuated by our Cold War enemies. At the same time, Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were discovered passing important secrets to the Russians on how to construct an atomic bomb. The couple were executed for espionage in 1953.

In addition, Hungarian-born Dr. Edward Teller, known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, was thought by some to have communist sympathies. The theoretical physicist denied such leanings and was never charged with any crime.

Americans were paranoid about communist world domination. Several Soviet spies were being exposed and convicted. As an outcome of this concern came the infamous McCarthy hearings, chaired by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. During his reign of power, dozens of Americans were accused of either being members of the Communist Party or sympathetic toward its cause. Several were “blackballed” — especially those from the Hollywood scene.

By 1954, most thought McCarthy had overstepped his bounds, and the Senate voted to censure him. He died from liver failure in 1957.

For years afterwards, many historical pundits painted McCarthy as a crazed demagogue who accused innocent people of wrongdoing. The result of his committee’s accusations had destroyed prosperous lives and careers.

But that demagogic narrative began to crack in 1995. Thanks to the demands of Democratic Sen. Patrick Moynihan, almost 3,000 classified documents were released to the public from what was known as the Venona project. This covert operation consisted of intercepted radio transmissions from KGB agents, who were secretly located in our nation’s capital, to their Soviet contacts in Moscow.

Other documents, released by the Russians in the 1990s, confirmed much of what the Venona project had uncovered. Information became available affirming the suspicion that the United States government had indeed, been infiltrated by Americanand foreign-born Soviet agents who were attempting to advance the causes of Joseph Stalin.

For those interested in the details, an excellent 663-page book, published in 2007 by journalist M. Stanton Evans, describes the facts of this exposed treachery — providing several names and positions of government officials, along with others located outside of the Washington circle who were also involved.

Despite today’s convincing evidence that Sen. McCarthy may not be the villain his opponents have claimed, most school textbooks continue to promote the belief that his hearings were a dark and shameful time in American history.

As is still true today, whenever the popular media either deliberately or unintentionally ignore one side of a story or attempt to demonize an individual, this is the point where all need to be curiously suspicious and search for additional relevant information.

Whatever one’s view of the controversial senator is, the legacy of Joseph McCarthy still deserves to have the timeframe in which he lived understood and all other facts pertinent to his story revealed.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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