Dick Levinson knows the tumultuous political climate of the past five years didn’t appear out of thin air.
When he heard political pundits claim President Donald Trump was unlike any leader who came before, he was troubled that they didn’t seem to be aware of Trump’s connections to another prominent Republican: Sen. Joe McCarthy, who spearheaded the Red Scare of the 1950s.
Levinson, who works as librarian II at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and his colleagues are hosting “Trust No One: Joe McCarthy and the Politics of Fear.” The lecture series about the legacy of McCarthy is designed to put current events into perspective.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this program is that Joe McCarthy is really the guy who wrote the political playbook that was used throughout the Trump presidency and is now used by politicians in both political parties,” said Levinson, who is Jewish.
McCarthy was the namesake of McCarthyism, the practice of lobbying sensational accusations of treason, subversion and communist activity at political opponents. The right-wing politician from Wisconsin warned the American public that communists had infiltrated American society and sought world domination. He gave a speech claiming to know the number of card-carrying communists in the State Department.
“That number was constantly fluctuating, and every time people in the media attempted to pin McCarthy down about what he was doing or why the figures were always changing, he always had some lie and he always had some excuse,” Levinson said.
With the help of aide Roy Cohn, who went on to mentor Trump; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; and other Republicans in Congress, McCarthy launched a series of probes into largely baseless allegations of communist activity in the State Department, the White House, the Treasury Department and the Army.
Politicians, government officials and other federal employees whose political views were deemed suspicious were interrogated and jailed, despite the fact that they had committed no crimes, or fired and barred from future employment, a process known as blacklisting. Congress subpoenaed hundreds of people to testify before investigative bodies like the House Un-American Activities Committee under threat of jail or blacklisting.
As the anti-communist campaign gained traction, schools, film studios, manufacturers and other employers began using the same scrutiny McCarthy and his allies directed at civil servants toward their own employees. College professors, school teachers, writers, labor organizers and anyone with left-of-center political views were targeted for blacklists.
Peter Siskind, associate provost and professor of history at Arcadia University, said that while McCarthy did not engage in overt anti-Semitism, many of his actions covertly targeted Jews, who were already easy to scapegoat. Many of the workers he went after during his investigation of the Signal Corps complex in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, were disproportionately Jews who had lived and studied in New York.
“There’s no question that anti-Semitic innuendo and actual focus on Jewish figures and Jewish activists was a part of Joe McCarthy’s arsenal, if you will,” Siskind said.
Levinson said one Jewish Philadelphia resident reached out to tell him that her parents were among the accused during the Red Scare and that investigators followed their movements and interviewed their coworkers about their behavior.
McCarthy eventually met his downfall during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. Siskind, who is Jewish, said that when attorney Joseph Welch rebuked McCarthy for his lack of decency during the televised hearings, about 400 people in the hearing room applauded. Soon after, politicians who had been afraid to speak out were able to censure him.
David Nasaw, professor emeritus of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a lecturer in the series, said the effects of McCarthy’s witchhunt lasted long after he lost power. He succeeded in emptying the State Department of experts on China and Vietnam, leaving government leaders devoid of knowledge of East Asia during the Vietnam War, Nasaw said. Nasaw, who is Jewish, said McCarthy also used investigations as political weapons to portray Democrats as soft on communism. He attacked the social welfare programs of the New Deal for being communist, generating an overall distrust of government intervention among the public.
“Why are we the only country in the world without any national health program? Because McCarthy successfully lambasted those who supported such programs as doing so because they were communist or communist-adjacent,” Nasaw said. Siskind added that segregationists tried to discredit civil rights activists with accusations of communist activity.
Siskind will present his lecture, “Death by A Thousand Cuts: How A Broken Promise Destroyed Joe McCarthy,” on April 28 at 7:30 p.m. The last installment in the series, “The Strange Afterlife of Roy Cohn,” will take place on May 10 and be presented by Marie Brenner, writer-at-large for Vanity Fair. Registration is available at freelibrary.org/blog/post/4494.