Paul Nehru Tennassee
WCL Representative in Washington DC & the United Nations, NY

Liberal democratic political systems in matured developed nation-states are as vulnerable to pathological governance as the least developed nation-states in the South or Eastern and Central Europe. One such example of pathological governance prevailed during the 1940s and 1950s in the USA. Even though the period has been stamped as McCarthyism, after Senator Joseph McCarthy who played a leading role in the persecution of American citizens, it was true that the Executive Branch and Agencies of the Federal Government were equally guilty. As a matter of fact, the Federal Government, through its Presidential Orders, helped to establish a legal framework that forged and legitimized an anti-communist consensus that enabled most Americans to condone, and others to participate in the serious violation of human rights that characterized the McCarthy era. But, it was not only the State that degenerated. The "fourth estate," the media, was the government’s partner that amplified the messages that came out of Washington DC, Presidential Orders, Congressional Hearings and Prosecutions. In the process, the media helped build the "ideological scaffolding"for McCarthyism. At the same time, there were outstanding examples of opposition from individuals and groups within civil society, to what was perceived by many, as the capture of the State by politicians and interest groups with strong fascist tendencies.


The Trade Union Movement was suspect in the USA since the 1870s, as the home of anarchists, socialists, and communists. Red baiting was a tactic used by the private sector to confront unions. An array of forces pitted against labor included private detective companies, local and state police, FBI and the military intelligence. The capture of state by the communists in Russia and their advocacy of global domination influenced the Red Scare of 1919-1920. The Justice Department rounded up foreign-born radicals. Hysteria was whipped-up for an entire year against left wing agitation and labor unrest. Many striking workers were deported.

The American Legion, an organization of veterans, was founded in 1919 and adopted a very strong anti-communist posture. It played an important role during three decades of the twentieth century in forging the emergence of an informal anti-communist network. It included conservative members of the American Federation of Labor. The American Legion and conservative politicians alleged that Roosevelt’s New Deal was infiltrated by communists and were using Federal Agencies to advance Stalin’s objectives. The Legion called on Congress to hold hearings on the allegations. There were a few, but they did not make a significant impact.

At the end of the 1930s, a new Alliance against the New Deal was forged between conservative Southern Democrats and Conservative Republicans. It led to the establishment in Congress of the House Un-American Committee (HUAC). The first HUAC Chair was a xenophobic Texas Democrat, Martin Dies. Hearings were held and the focus was on labor unions and New Deal Agencies. Testimonies included ex-communists, American Legion officials, representatives of other right-wing organizations and CIO’s labor opponents. The Committee pursued the line that communists had infiltrated the government. Illegal red squads raided local Communist Party offices in Philadelphia and Washington DC and were able to obtain membership lists that were used to embarrass the Roosevelt Administration as numerous names included Federal employees. In 1939, the Hatch Act barred communists, Nazis and others from government employment. Then, in 1940, the Voorhist Act required groups with foreign affiliations to register with government. It was hoped that the American Communist Party would be forced to sever its ties with Moscow. In the said year, the Smith Act made it illegal to teach or advocate the overthrow of government or to join any organization that did.

The focus of the domestic anti-communist campaigns by the anti-communist network was centered around the American Communist Party (CP). As such, when Stalin signed a pact with the Nazis in 1939 and the Communist Party (CP) advocated the intensification of class warfare and was critical of the American government, it alienated its progressive members, sympathizers and allies. The Roosevelt Administration perceived the Communist Party (CP) as a threat to national security. Its leader, Earl Browder was jailed for passport violation and others of foreign birth were deported. FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was authorized to put the Communist Party (CP) under surveillance.

The 1940s saw a qualitative growth in the anti-communist network and the rise of professional anti-communists who sold their services to the HUAC and various groups within the network. Professionals included Benjamin Mandel who was a CP activist in the 1920s, and left in the 1930s to become in the 1940s Staff Research Director of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), and also Father John Cronin, a leading Catholic anti-communist who wrote a pamphlet for the Chamber of Commerce and was the liaison between the FBI and HUAC member, Richard Nixon.


It was in that background that McCarthyism emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s. The anti-communist network intensified their national crusade against domestic communism using tactics that were very similar to those of the communists in the then USSR. A number of factors fuelled the Red Scare in America after the war. The United Front between USSR, USA and UK against Hitler disintegrated after the war. The Truman Administration was convinced that the USSR was committed to global expansion and domination, and that only the USA in the free world was capable of standing up to such a threat. Republican politicians accused Roosevelt of giving Poland to Stalin at Yalta in 1945 and that China was betrayed to Mao’s Communist Party. The establishment of communist dictatorships in Eastern and Central Europe under Russian tutelage fed Americans’ fears and made the attacks on domestic communists, particularly the American CP, justified. Winston Churchill’s memorable "iron curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri, in the presence of Truman, clearly underlined that the Cold War was in full swing. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 deepened the scare. J Edgar Hoover’s 1947 testimony before the HUAC contributed to the vision of many about communist threats as he demonized the USSR and shaped the Red menace and scare. In his words: "Every American communist was, and is, potentially and espionage agent of the USSR."

President Truman’s policymakers did perceive the USSR and communism as a threat to America and the free world. However, Americans had just come out of a depression and a war. How does the President convince the American people to rearm and to allocate resources to fight communism abroad? Besides, his Republican competitors won the Congressional elections of 1946 and accused him of being soft on the communists. The President and his administration deliberately fueled the scare in pursuit of their foreign policy objectives by magnifying the threat of communism at home and abroad. The FBI under Hoover, the anti-communist network and ambitious Republican politicians like Mundt, Parnell, Nixon and others, spearheaded by McCarthy, took full advantage of the conjuncture, and used the scare to let loose seasons of repression and persecution of communists and non-communists alike.

The involvement of the Federal Government, particularly the Executive Branch helped transform the communist threat into a national obsession. Washington defined the elimination of communist influence as a top priority. In the 1940s and 1950s, every agency joined the anti-communist crusade, including the FBI, the State Department, the Post Office Department and the INS. Congress, Federal Bureaucrats and judges debated and implemented policies to deal with domestic communism. In the opinion of Ellen Schrecker: "although the phenomenon got its name from a member of the Senate (McCarthy), it was the Executive Branch of the Government that wielded the most influence over the development of McCarthyism. It stimulated concern about national security and established the main mechanisms through which anti-communist campaign was to operate." This was borne out when in early 1947 President Truman issued a draconian, anti-communist Executive Order.

On March 12, 1947, President Truman addressed a Special Session of Congress and sought aid for Greece and Turkey in his bid to ensure that the USA support "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." At the domestic front, on March 22, 1947, he issued Executive Order No. 9835 in which the procedures for the administration of an employee Loyalty Program in the Executive Branch of the Federal Government was outlined. It stipulated that a loyalty investigation of every person entering any Department or Agency of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government had to be done. As for those already employed, the Order authorized investigations. All personnel, who were found to be "disloyal," were to be dismissed by the Head of their Agency or Department.

Loyalty Boards were established throughout the Federal Government. In practice, it became a witch-hunt as increasingly information on personnel was submitted by the FBI. That Agency prepared secret files that were compiled from unknown informants. The major concern was to verify if any federal employee was a member of the CP or had any association with any acquaintance who might have been a party member. Accusations of direct or indirect connections with the CP could not be contested or disproved by employees since they were denied due process. Informants’ identities were kept secret. During the period when an employee was being investigated, he or she was suspended from work. But it was not only the CP which was on the blacklist as a subversive organization, but also a number of other organizations which the Attorney General arbitrarily had compiled without giving those organizations an opportunity to contest their inclusion on the list. As the persecution intensified and the purge got into full swing, President Truman in April 1950 issued another Executive Order which was even more stringent as it specified that employees should be dismissed if an investigation led to the conclusion that "there is reasonable doubt as to loyalty." This meant that an employee was considered guilty unless he or she could prove their innocence, but of course without a proper trial. The new Executive Order led to the reopening of 565 cases which were already resolved, since it was felt that in light of the new Order, there was doubt. The entire operation was Gestapo-like, arbitrary and despotic.

William J. Schrenk Jr. published a critique of the Executive Order 9835 in the Michigan Law Review in 1948. He pointed out "admitting the likelihood of the program’s legality, it is still open to question on the general ground of wise governmental policy. The serious implications of allowing "guilt by association" with a group denominated as subversive by the Attorney General, and of denying the accused any opportunity of confrontation or cross-examination of witnesses are pointed out eloquently in a recent statement by a group of prominent legal educators." Another critic John Lord O’Brian published his views in the 1948 Harvard Law Review condemning "guilt by association" as a travesty of justice. He also pointed out that the first line of defense against communism was faith in the democratic institutions of America. The National Bar Association of Indiana in 1949 condemned the Order and highlighted that the "Loyalty Order" had operated "to establish guilt by association, to abolish the axiom that all men are innocent until proven guilty and to set up extra legal Boards with decisions not subject to judicial review."

A moral indictment of the Order was also done by A. L. Pomerantz, senior trial Counsel in the prosecution of Nazis in Nuremburg. As early as April 1947, in an address to a Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, he compared E. O. 9835 to Hitler’s Laws of 1933. He highlighted that civil servants in Germany suffered similar fate under Hitler. According to Hitler’s Laws, "no man is allowed to hold employment in Germany who proves by his conduct that he is not willing to serve loyally the German people and the Reich." He said that Hitler first attacked the communists but later moved on to the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. Pomerantz concluded that the Executive Order "was the most ominous and most terrifying law or edict in the entire history of the USA and I don’t except the Alien and Sedition Act."

President Truman and his staff must have been aware that the Executive Orders were in violation of the Constitution of the United States. But yet, they knowingly continued in the implementation of their unconstitutional policies and established a framework that permitted the FBI and the Congressional Committees to mercilessly persecute citizens and undermine the best traditions of American democratic culture.

The McCarthy era is better known for its Congressional Investigating Committees. They were the most important vehicles for extending the anti-communist crusade throughout the USA. Their activities took their focus beyond the small Communist Party to almost all the corners of America. Everyone was affected. The committees paralleled those of the Executive Branch. Congressional hearings were immune from due process requirements; so the Committees used the hearings to denounce, accuse and play to the "crowd" and the media. Two of the most powerful Committees were those of Senator McCarthy’s Permanent Investigating Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee and Pat McCarran’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS). Both conducted similar investigations to HUAC. In over one dozen States and some cities, Committees were established along HUAC LINES. The FBI and the anti-communist network gave technical assistance and provided witnesses for the Committees at all levels.

One of the most disturbing features of the investigations was that witnesses were not only asked whether they were members of the Communist Party, but were also called upon to "finger" other people who were members or associated with members. It was frightening, and violated the First Amendment. One witness, playwright, Lillian Hellman told HUAC: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit the year’s fashion", and added that she refused to "crawl through the mud to be an informer". A major constitutional issue was raised when Ten Hollywood entertainment personalities were brought before the HUAC and they invoked the First Amendment. In doing so, they risked being cited, indicted and tried for contempt of Congress. One month later, the full House of Representatives cited them for contempt. The Hollywood Ten were members of the Communist Party, but they felt that the Supreme Court would defend their rights and overturn the ruling of Congress. That did not happen.

One of the major weapons the Committees used was economic. All those who were brought before the Committees, unless they cooperated, lost their jobs regardless if it was the private sector or other NGOs. The private sector cooperated and supported the Committees in imposing economic sanctions.

The Hollywood Ten were blacklisted and refused employment in the film industry. Hundreds lost their jobs in the broadcasting industry, journalists, teachers, 1,500 sailors and longshoremen, trade unionists, workers with government contractors, industrial workers, postal workers, and even lawyers. It was very difficult to even obtain a lawyer to defend an accused since they were afraid that they would lose their other clients. In some work places, if it was discovered that a person was accused or went before a Committee, a Run Out was organized to chase the worker out of his or her job. Academia also suffered as professors were dismissed. Many sought refuge in Black Colleges in the South where those institutions were desperate for staff.

The entire American political system lost its balance, and governance degenerated to the lowest possible level. The Framers of the Constitution had the foresight to establish checks and balances to prevent any one Branch of Government to abuse power. But it was clear that the men in the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch of Government "fell-down" abysmally. One would have thought that since the politicians failed then the Judiciary and the Courts would rescue the Constitution and restore balance and justice in the political system. But the judges played to the political gallery just like the politicians.

The Hollywood Ten had hoped that the Supreme Court would rule on their invocation of the first Amendment and overturn Congress’s ruling. The Supreme Court refused to hear their case for two years. Finally, they met and upheld the Lower Courts decisions and confirmed the convictions. The majority of the Justices were not prepared to go against popular sympathies which were in tune with the Congressional Committees. The Court invoked the concept of Judicial Restraint and argued that the Congress represented the will of the people and the Court would not overrule the policies of another Branch of Government. In the words of Justice Robert Jackson in 1949: "It would be an unwarranted act of judicial usurpation to strip Congress of its investigative power to assume for the Courts, the function of supervising Congressional Committees."

The Hollywood Ten moved to invoke another provision in the Constitution, the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth defended the privilege that one does not have to testify against oneself. The issue once more took a few years to be heard by the Supreme Court when it was upheld that witnesses were entitled to enjoy the privilege against self-incrimination. The Court, however, did not extend the privilege to witnesses who did not name names. In Senator McCarthy’s words: "A witness’s refusal to answer whether he is a communist on the ground that his answer would tend to incriminate him is most positive proof obtainable that the witness is a communist." Gradually, as the anti-communists begun to lose influence, the US Supreme Court began to act with some propriety. In 1951, the Court ruled that the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations was invalid without a hearing. Justice Douglas’ comment on the government’s trend to "set in motion, a subversive influence of our own design that destroys us from within" was quite apt, but did not exonerate the Judiciary from accusations that it also fell prey to McCarthyism. The Constitution was left undefended, not only by the Executive and the Congress, but also by the Judiciary.

The FBI was the centerpiece in the federal Government’s internal security apparatus. J. Edgar Hoover built up his power and that of the FBI above and beyond both the Executive Branch and the Congress. He was able to influence the general public on the issue of communism. An investigating Committee of the Agency was the first step in verifying who was a communist. Hoover was very unscrupulous with the use of confidential information on citizens. Such information and files were only to be accessed by the Executive Branch. However, leaks from the FBI to journalists and the Congress were regular. In 1951, he developed a Responsibilities Program in response to a request from Liberal Governors who wanted to establish anti-communist credentials to supply information on individuals who worked for their administration. Ex-FBI agents set up an American Business Consultants company. They used information they had while they were at the Bureau to offer their services to Government Agencies, Foundations, Corporations, Universities and the country at large, to identify communists and carryout purges. They published a regular Newsletter called Counterattack.

There were very few confessions so the prosecutors relied on the testimonies of professional anti-communists, ex-communists, undercover agents and others who frequently lied. The Justice Department sometimes dragged its feet in taking cases to Court, but Hoover and the FBI argued that such an approach was evidence that the Truman Administration was lax on the issue of internal security. Hoover disobeyed the Justice Department senior officials, and put surveillance on people without authorization. By 1956, Judges in many Courts became wary of fictitious testimonies, and made prosecutions difficult. In response, the FBI developed a secret program (COINTELPRO) of political sabotage, unauthorized surveillance and disinformation directed against communists and other groups. This was revealed to the American public two decades after the fact.

McCarthy and Hoover were critical of Truman and his administration. John Steward Service of the State Department was accused. At the White House, David Demarest Lloyd, Administrative Assistant to President Truman and Philleo Nash, Advisor to the President, were under investigation. Truman became a victim of his own Executive Orders. He expressed the view that the FBI could become a Gestapo. The year before the 1952 elections, he appointed a nine-member citizens commission to examine the thorny issue of subversion and loyalty in a free society. He was quoted to have said: "We must be sure that our laws and procedures at home are adequate…to preserve our National Security against treason, espionage, sabotage and other subversive acts…. At the same time, we are concerned lest measures taken to protect us from these dangers infringe the liberties guaranteed by our Constitution and stifle the atmosphere of freedom…." Clearly, Truman excelled in "double speak." The appointment of a commission at the end of his term of office was insufficient to rewrite history or to excuse him for having promoted and condoned the violation of the Constitution, human rights and the persecution of American citizens. As for J. Edgar Hoover, he seemed to have been "reborn" in the person of Montesinos of Peru!

One might have thought that the election of a new President, particularly a man who led the world’s military might against Nazism and Fascism, would have brought relief to the victims of fascistic forces which had gained prominence in America. That was not to be. Richard Nixon, a former member of HUAC was Vice President. Senator Joseph McCarthy and other prominent anti-communists were Republicans. Consistent with his party, Eisenhower on April 27, 1953 issued Executive Order 10450, better known as the Employee and Security Program. The new Order went a step further in tightening the "rope" around the "necks" of federal employees by abolishing all recourse to appeals. The Heads of Agencies and Departments were given final powers. The Civil Service Commission was instructed to develop a Security Investigation Index to cover all employees. George M. Moore, US Civil Service Commissioner, in defense of the Order "barefacedly" argued that it would free the government from disloyal employees and from security risks. Under Executive Order 10450, four thousand three hundred and fifteen (4,315) employees resigned, there were 6,926 separations and 1,743 dismissals attributed to subversive activities.

In the latter half of the 1950s, McCarthy began to be exposed. He treaded on the feet of the Army. The Army Intelligence disseminated information on him regarding allegations of alcoholism and perversion. He also made a fool of himself in the Hearings of a Congressional Committee. It was aired on television. McCarthy lies were exposed to such an extent that he was marginalized in the Senate. One Head of an important American Corporation told President Eisenhower to do something about McCarthy. Finally, the President asked Vice President Nixon to attack McCarthy publicly. Nixon, the only "risen star" of the HUAC did just that in a public statement, but insisted that communism had to be fought, learning from the mistakes of McCarthyism!

The political phenomenon of McCarthyism, which was the extensive practice in the abuse of power by the US Government, clearly qualifies as an example of pathological governance in a developed northern nation-state. The policies adopted in the 1940s and 1950s to fight communism and protect democracy were considered alien to America’s political culture. They were similar to those used in communist dictatorships. Why did both Presidents issue Executive Orders that provided the framework for opportunistic, fanatical and "sick" politicians to legitimize a massive assault on the constitutional rights of American citizens? They did it because they were politicians who pursued their objectives regardless of the cost to citizens or institutions. The two Presidents did not swim against the tide in defense of the American Constitution even though they took a solemn oath to do just that.

Why did the Executive Branch allow the Head of the FBI to amass so much power in violation of administrative and constitutional rules and precepts? Was it because of fear of blackmail based on information collected by the FBI on politicians themselves? Perhaps, the politicians used J. Edgar Hoover to do their "dirty" work in the beginning, and later, he and the FBI got out of control and clearly did their own thing.

The Congress of the USA, instead of restraining the Presidents in issuing Executive Orders in violation of the Constitution, pressured the Presidents to escalate the violations. The Congress then went further than the Presidents and conducted open "witch-hunts" and persecution of citizens in private and public at their workplaces and in their communities. Well, the Presidents were two men, but what happened to the hundreds of men and women who made up the Congress? How can so many men and women in such a short span of time surrender to the McCarthys, Mundts, Nixons, and others? What about their oaths? It was evident that they were afraid that they would lose elections, so they collaborated.

In such a situation, when a nation’s political and administrative leadership and government degenerate, the hope lies in civil society. But even there, America faced grave problems. Civil society was divided. The anti-communist network that evolved during three decades blossomed from within civil society in the 1940s and 1950s as a minority. They wielded influence because they were able to effectively lobby the Congress and the Head of the FBI. But more importantly, because the majority of the citizens were silent, inactive and misinformed by the media on public policy issues. The media played a "Goebbels" role during the McCarthy era. The mainstream media "hanged" citizens in public. The Catholic Church also fell down. Many trade unions abandoned their leaders and members. Communities ostracized their neighbors and their children. For many, it was hell on earth. But perhaps, the collaboration of the private sector in dismissing workers and denying employment to victims of the purge was the policy that made citizens feel real fear. To lose one’s means of livelihood is to lose all. The weapon of unemployment was effectively used by the Executive, the Congress and the FBI.

However, America did emerge from nearly two decades of that "nightmare" and entered the turbulent 1960s, when citizens were awakened as never seen before, East and West, North and South, to fight for their rights and demand that their government be accountable and transparent. The seeds were planted in the previous decades when many organizations and individuals heroically stood up to McCarthyism. One such organization was the National Alliance of Postal Employees (NAPE). But that is a story to be told.