The Post-McCarthy Atmosphere

The Post-McCarthy Atmosphere

During the past few months ex-Senator Harry Cain has defended the Fifth Amendment; a Senate Committee has expressed doubts about the workings of the Attorney General’s “Subversive List”; the State Department, in an orgy of issuing passports as an aftermath of the Shachtman decision, has remembered the days of its lost glory only in the case of Paul Robeson. And in Iowa a minister grappled with a townsman and took away his anti-Communist picket sign as the junketeering Russian farm experts came within sight. At times, it all seemed like the Red Skelton skit in which a drunk comes home to a room in which the furniture has been nailed to the ceiling.

As a result, the happy notion has been appearing in some circles that the hysteria has passed and the United States is now entering a period of rational reform in the area of civil liberties. Almost all writers agree that major problems remain, but their attitude could be summed up in this statement of John B. Oakes in the New York Times Magazine:

…if the change of atmosphere indicates that we may be emerging from an era of mutual mistrust, recrimination and misunderstanding, that in itself would be a noteworthy development. It would mean that a more rational and temperate discussion of the internal security problem might become possible than has been possible for several years.

Basic to this attitude is an implicit, and significant, assumption. It is assumed that the repression in civil liberties is identical with its more hysterical manifestations, that the recent unpleasantness was a case of “mutual mistrust, recrimination and misunderstanding.” Given this starting point, optimism is quite logical and reform is the corollary of the passing of the McCarthyite mood. But what is omitted from this analysis is a failure to recognize the profound change with regard to civil liberties which has taken place in the past decade, the fact that any “temperate discussion,” any reform, will operate according to a set of premises and within institutions new to American democracy and hostile to civil liberties.

Because of this, we are confronted with the paradox that an immediate consequence of some of the reforms which may take place will be to legitimize anti-libertarian principles even at the moment that their administration is made more lenient or rational. Thus, when the Senate Committee objected to the malfunctioning of the Attorney General’s List, it implied an acceptance of the “principle” of such lists. And when the press cried out at the denial of a commission to Ensign Landy, it did so largely on the grounds that the criterion of guilt by kinship (prolonged association with one’s mother) had, in this case, been misapplied. Presumably, if someone did engage in a “prolonged association” with his “...

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