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The senator behind the scare

Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt, Michael J. Ybarra, Steerforth Press: 856 pp., $35

September 26, 2004|Ronald Radosh | Ronald Radosh, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, is author of "The Rosenberg File" (with Joyce Milton), "The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism" and the forthcoming "Red Star Over Hollywood: The Film Colony's Long Romance With the Left."

Everyone knows Joe McCarthy. His name is synonymous with the search for Reds under every bed, with unleashing a hysterical and paranoid search for un-American demons bent on betraying the republic. But who today remembers Pat McCarran, the senator who made McCarthy possible?

Now, thanks to Michael J. Ybarra's magisterial and beautifully written book, "Washington Gone Crazy," McCarran's disquieting place in our history is restored. While it was, of course, McCarthy who screamed about "twenty years of treason," it was McCarran whose legislative and political victories put a brake on the liberal agenda of the Truman administration in the 1950s. Having entered the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol as part of FDR's 1932 landslide, he created the all-powerful Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, forced the Asia expert Owen Lattimore (whom McCarthy falsely called the "top Soviet spy" in America) to be indicted for perjury, got American officials fired from employment at the United Nations and sponsored the Internal Security Act, which required all Communists to register with the U.S. government and created detention camps to hold them in case of a national emergency.

Aside from communism, McCarran's other main obsession was immigration and his fear that Communists would easily enter the country. And so he introduced the most restrictive immigration law in America's history, the McCarran-Walter Act, whose immigration provisions remained intact until 1965 and whose ideological bans were lifted only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.

Ybarra, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, meticulously traces McCarran's rise to power and tells the often sordid story of the havoc he unleashed. Ybarra also offers a compelling portrait of the turn-of-the-20th-century Nevada from which McCarran arose. The result is a gripping picture of an extraordinary politician and the unscrupulous, greedy and petty men with whom he would wield enormous influence over the country.

Ybarra's book is indispensable as a more nuanced assessment of a crucial and still contested period of our recent history. He is sober in his judgments and has well absorbed the recent scholarship that has cast new light on the American Communist Party's relationship with the Soviet Union. He recognizes, for example, that in the aftermath of World War II the threat of communist expansion abroad was real. To be sure, demagogic politicians were tempted to exaggerate it, but responsible government officials of the time tried hard, if not always successfully, to balance the needs of national security with those of civil liberties.

Ybarra does not minimize the actual infiltration of government that some American Communists had managed to achieve during the war years. Nor does he ignore the espionage of those who had entered the government's top ranks. He knows that anti-Communist witnesses like Whitaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley were largely "telling the truth" when they sought to expose the extensive intelligence network the Soviet Union ran through its operatives in the American Communist Party. Of course, "not all Communists were subversive," Ybarra writes, "but in ways small and large, many of them were."

The left, for its part, argued at the time that the threat from communism was phony and was manufactured by unscrupulous politicians as a smoke screen to conceal their own powerful reactionary ambitions. The issue tormented American liberals, who sought, for the most part, to resist Soviet designs by backing an expansion of worldwide democracy and supporting careful steps to remove actual Communists from government employment, while opposing the techniques favored by demagogues like McCarthy and McCarran, who in the name of anti-communism sought to take measures that severely restricted the liberties of all Americans.

Just who was Pat McCarran? Born in 1876 to a hardworking Irish immigrant family who bought a ranch by a river canyon near Nevada's Truckee Meadows, young Pat raised and herded sheep as thousands of gold prospectors passed by, walking the rails after failing to make their fortune with the Comstock Lode. The nearest town was Reno -- a good 15 miles upstream, an entire day's trip over rough roads. When he finally began school at the age of 10, he would have to wake up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows and handle other farm chores. Hard work, ambition and his parents' desire to see their son educated led him to the University of Nevada.

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