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PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE McCarthy

Susan Bellows, author David M. Oshinsky, journalist Jelani Cobb and writer/director/producer Sharon Grimberg, who participated in the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

By Valerie Milano

Beverly Hills, CA (The Hollywood Times) 10/24/19 – Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism were discussed in detail at a PBS 2019 TCA Summer Press Tours panel taking place at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills on Tuesday, July 30th.  Present were Susan Bellows, the senior producer at PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE; David Oshinsky, professor of history at New York University and author of A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, on which this film is based in part; Jelani Cobb, professor of journalism at Columbia University and staff writer at The New Yorker; and Sharon Grimberg, the writer, director, and producer of “McCarthy.”

Joseph McCarthy is one of the most fascinating and reviled figures in American history.  Everybody in the West during the Cold War wanted to be the premier Red baiter–but there was only one Joe McCarthy!  His remarkable rise and precipitous fall while carrying out a zealous anti Communist crusade that would sorely test the limits of American decency and democracy is documented in the latest two-hour segment of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

Set against the backdrop of the intensifying Cold War as anti Communist fervor that swept across America, the film features witnesses who provide firsthand accounts of McCarthy and his era.  These witnesses include relatives, contemporaries, and those who were interrogated as part of his aggressive witch hunt.

Might there be a tie-in between the McCarthy documentary and the current political climate in the U.S.?  Work on this documentary was begun way before the 2016 election, but it might give some broader historical perspective on the rise of demagogues against a widespread backdrop of fear and suspicion on the world stage.

They say that demagogues always have one virtue, and that is that they’re easily understood.  Force of personality also plays a major part.  Yet it is quite clear from television broadcasts of McCarthy bullying his growing list of enemies while belching loudly that he had been drinking.  This may have been the beginning of the end for him.

According to director Sharon Grinberg, McCarthy was somebody who lied constantly and vociferously.  He did it so often that it was hard to fact check him.  But there were many journalists who did stand up to McCarthy early in his career.  It wasn’t just Edward R. Murrow in 1954, but many journalists did.  And they got very rough treatment for doing it.

Why was President Eisenhower’s posture arguably so timid during this tempestuous time?  The post-WWII Republican Party of 1952 was very badly split, and Eisenhower didn’t want to dirty his hands with the McCarthy controversy even though the U.S. Army in which he himself had served so devotedly came under attack.

It has been three quarters of a century since the McCarthy era ended.  Does the term “McCarthyism” mean now what it meant then?
According to David Oshinsky, “McCarthyism” has become sort of a pejorative.  What it has come to mean is the irresponsible smearing of innocent people, which may be rather vague.

The term “McCarthyism” generally is associated with Herb Block, the great cartoonist from the Washington Post.  Block and others saw McCarthy as a none too intelligent man who just happened to hook onto an issue.

Speaking of Herb Block, what about the media’s role in all of this?  There were people who were fighting back against McCarthy.  But McCarthy’s exponential lies made for good copy that could sell papers.

When certain government documents from McCarthy’s time were declassified, they showed that there had in fact been a large number of Soviet sympathizers and agents working within the government.  Historians now take for granted that Alger Hiss was guilty and was a spy and that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as traitors to the United States for espionage, were guilty as charged.  So even if McCarthy did things the wrong way, was he in essence wrong?

“Yes.  That makes [McCarthy] even more wrong, because the problem is that he’s talking about something that actually has happened and he’s deferring attention from what has to be necessarily a very subtle, very skillful,” said Jelani Cobb.

“Having a bull in the china shop who’s making reckless allegations makes it that much more difficult for you to point out when someone is actually conducting espionage or someone is actually performing acts on behalf of a hostile foreign government.  And so even the people who were committed to anti Communism understood that what McCarthy was doing  did no one any favors,” Cobb concluded.

The people McCarthy accused weren’t always people with access to state secrets.  They were people like Langston Hughes and Dashiell Hammett and engineers at the Voice of America.  They weren’t people who had secrets to share or access to classified information.

So by casting this incredibly wide net, bringing all these people in who couldn’t possibly be betraying the country, McCarthy put the whole anti Communist spying enterprise in a dubious light and cast a shadow on the whole enterprise.  It actually made people pull back from it.

What the documentary tries to make clear is that there was a different sense of Communism in the 1930s and 1940s.  In that era, there is no doubt that many did infiltrate into the federal government, particularly during World War II when we needed so many people in the government and we had very lax security rules.  After World War II, a fairly strict federal security program came into being under President Harry Truman.

For better or for worse, Joseph McCarthy is part of the American experience.  The PBS documentary should shed new light upon him for a new generation as well as for many older viewers who might still remember him.