How Often Did Joe McCarthy Get It Right?

As the title says. It’s indisputable that there were Soviet agents in the U.S. government and nuclear weapons programs in the 1950s. With the declassification of materials after the end of the Cold War, particularly the Venona program, we now know there were more than were publicly acknowledged at the time. And “Tailgunner Joe” accused a lot of people of being Soviet agents, or at least of having Communist ties. It seems quite plausible that he got it right at least a few times, if only by accident. So, how many actual, verifiable (or at least plausibly likely) Soviet agents did Sen. Joe McCarthy uncover?

Here is a long(ish) article that looks at your question (too long to excerpt it all here):

I think it is important though to distinguish between actual spies sending US secrets back to Moscow and people who just believed in communism. In America, in theory, you are free to start a communist party and run for government all while espousing communist notions. Nothing illegal or wrong about that.

It is impossible to tell, since he never made the list public, and the number of people on the list varied with the wind. One reference.
That doesn’t mean that there were no Communist spies - Hiss and the Rosenbergs were almost certainly. Just that McCarthy didn’t seem to have found any.

There were exactly 57 card carrying members of the communist party in the Defense Department.

Other than in generating the general background level of hysteria, I’m really not sure that McCarthy had any specific impact on the Rosenberg case. Nor on the closely tied one of Harry Gold.

While not introduced into evidence, those were convictions (fair or unfair) ultimately driven by the VENONA decrypts. And I’ve never seen the remotest evidence that McCarthy had ever the slightest (even unofficial) awareness of those.

McCarthy arguably did more to hurt efforts to locate actual spies and recruitment than help it by dint of creating a furor over nonissues. Beyond the Rosenberg ring and Klaus Fuchs, Alger Hiss, Theodore Hall, et cetera, the Soviets maintained a constant presence and efforts to recruit people in the military, State Department, and critical national security contractors, as well as run an “Illegals” program of deep cover operatives (albeit without the dramatic operations as portrayed in The Americans and with little apparent success) all the way to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Post-Soviet Russia has maintained a significant intelligence presence even increasing recruitment in the last decade as is evident by recent disclosures. McCarthy, who resigned in disgrace in 1954 and died from conditions relating to his alcoholism a few years later, uncovered none of this.


It’s behind a paywall, so I can’t read it. However, AFAIK, Joe McCarthy didn’t actually investigate any of the specific individuals named in the excerpt you quote. Again, I agree it’s indisputable that there were Soviet agents in the U.S. government in the 1950s. My question is if Senator Joseph McCarthy actually uncovered any of them.

During the Tydings Committee hearings, McCarthy directly accused nine specific individuals called before the committee of subversive activities. He heavily implied, if not outright accused, George Marshall of being a traitor. He investigated the Voice of America and a number of its employees, insinuating or accusing them of subversive activities. And so on. He outright accused a lot of people, and made insinuations against a lot more, of subversion, espionage, and treason. Were any of the specific charges or insinuations he made true (or at least plausibly likely)?

Espionage I do not think so. Certainly there were Soviet spies in the US but I don’t think McCarthy uncovered any.

Treason has a very specific legal definition and not many people have been convicted of it. Indeed here’s a list and none of them were due to McCarthy.

Subversion…depends what you mean? If I believe in communism and try to spread communist ideology here in the US am I guilty of subversion? Seems to me it is perfectly legal for me to do that. Of course McCarthy did not think so and went on a witch hunt.

I don’t think so either, but I’m wondering if there’s a definitive answer.

Right, but, again, Venona, etc. I don’t know if McCarthy outright accused anyone of specific of treason, but he certainly implied it of George Marshall, among others, and it’s at least possible that evidence has since come to light that substantiates some of his implications.

The question is more what McCarthy meant by it, but let’s say violation of 18 U.S. Code S. 2381 - 2391. Or any U.S. law for that matter.

What I’m asking is, were any of Joseph McCarthy’s specific accusations of criminal activity actually borne out by any substantial evidence? Did he ever actually uncover any actual crimes?

The answer seems to be “no.” My impression when I asked the question was “no”. But, I’m not an expert on the period or the man, and, as I stated in my original post, given that Soviet agents were actually active, it seemed to me at least in the realm of possibility that he may have investigated or accused at least one person who really was guilty, by sheer coincidence if nothing else.

And, growing up, it was pretty much taken as a given by my parents and their friends, who were alive and politically active at the height of McCarthyism, that the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss were innocent victims of Cold War paranoia. However, we now know that to be false. So, I know I’ve got a bias against McCarthy, and I wanted to correct it if there was any actual evidence that he was right about…well, anything, pretty much.

McCarthy did not resign in disgrace. He was censured by the Senate in 1954, but continued to serve until his death in 1957.

Just as a note, McCarthy’s subcommittee wasn’t investigating Soviet spies (HUAC had done some of that, but not the Senate subcommittee). It was investigating current or former members of the Communist party working in government. Even McCarthy’s accusations weren’t, like, “I have a list of Soviet spies in the State Department”, it was “I have a list of known Communists in the State Department.”

If you’re looking at the question of whether or not the people McCarthy accused of being Communist were, a few were, many weren’t. Some had been Communist in the past but left the Party. Some were fellow travelers. Some had been members of groups that were being suspected of being Communist front groups or linked to the Party.

I had a relative whose livelihood was destroyed by McCarthy and HUAC. I don’t know how many times he was actually right, but the repercussions of that action still resonate in my family.

I understood that McCarthy and similar operations tended to focus on people whose activity wasn’t exactly secret and conspiratorial, i.e., were unlikely to have been covert Soviet agents, whether agents of influence or anything else. On the basis of a similarly misdirected paranoia, one could just as easily argue that a real Soviet operation (other than straightforward military and diplomatic spying) would be looking to benefit from the activities of people who seemed unimpeachably anti-Communist, but whose activities spread mistrust and suspicion of the existing political set-up and process: i.e., people like McCarthy himself (especially if one of his key advisers was as vulnerable to blackmail as one would have thought Roy Cohn must have been).

Ok, that’s interesting. Thanks. I was under the impression that he had at least implied that some of the folks called before his subcommittee were Soviet agents. So, did he even uncover anyone who was actually a current member of the Communist party, or a current member of a group that we now know to have actually been a Communist front group?

Although enacted after McCarthy’s heyday, the Communist Control Act of 1954 for all intents and purposes made actively advocating communism through an organized group illegal.

It’s pretty well established that McCarthy was engaging in a bit of demagoguery. Not like it had to make complete sense. He did heavily imply, or rather explicitly state, several times that membership in the Communist Party was tantamount to working with the Soviets against the US. That being the case, active ties or mere sympathy towards Communism was sufficient evidence in his book.

Legal to be a communist? Sure. But when I joined the army one of the questions was if I had ever been a member of the communist party or other anti-American groups. If I said yes I would be out. It was a question on the security clearance paperwork. I’m not sure when or if it changed but certainly for a long time you couldn’t join the military or have a clearance and have ties to being a communist. Lying on enlistment papers and security clearance forms could prosecuted. When he went after the military there were crimes involved.

Here’s a thread I had on a related topic from a few years ago, regarding a job application my Dad put in for a federal position in 1943.

McCarthy’s list was drawn from a list of 108 people that the Department of State’s security had identified as security risks. 51 of those people had been fired and 57 were investigated and stayed with the department. Most of those were homosexuals and not suspected of communism. Of those that were suspected of Communism only one, John S Service was later found to be disloyal and fired. He was later rehired. A journalist claimed that just before his death Service admitted to favoring the Communists during the Chinese Civil War.

sidetrack: I like to use the communist analogy as similar to how the British regarded Catholics after the reformation. Sure you could believe the ideology without being an agent for a foreign power, but being a true believer meant following the lead of a foreigner who had political desires and machinations against the home country.

Many of the communist moles in the British services (Philby et al) were starry-eyed converts to a better cause in college who were then played to help Russia. I assume the same applied to the American “traitors”. Some lost their convictions or saw reality, but many did not.
(I recall reading an interview long ago with one of the last defectors to Russia from Britain - funny thing was the thing that made him a true believer, and also may of his fellows - he claimed - was that the new Soviet paradise did not see homosexuality as a crime, unlike Britain. By the time Stalin did decide it was a crime, and by the time some lost their blinders about the new workers’ paradise, it was too late for these people to pull out, so to speak.