BY HARRY KOPP
The Foreign Service Journal published a number of articles and editorials on the events of the McCarthy era. To retrieve them, go to http://www.afsa.org/fsj-special-collections#ibmch.
–Compiled by FSJ Publications Coordinator Dmitry Filipoff
The wave of truth-telling by government employees, in defiance of a White House order not to cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry, stunned The New Yorker’s Susan B. Glasser. “This,” she wrote, “is bravery of a sort that has become so rare in our public life as to be almost unimaginable.”
Whether Ms. Glasser’s judgment is correct depends on the reach of one’s imagination, but there should be no debate about the bravery, or the rarity.
In August 2019 a public servant who saw something wrong blew the whistle and called a foul. The whistleblower’s complaint dealt with the president’s apparent linkage of military aid to Ukraine to that government’s willingness to state publicly its intention to investigate (a) activities in Ukraine of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter and (b) alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
By October the House of Representatives had opened its impeachment inquiry, which White House Counsel Pat Cipollone tried to kill in its cradle: “President Trump and his Administration,” he wrote to the House, “reject your baseless, unconstitutional efforts to overturn the democratic process. … President Trump cannot permit his Administration to participate in this partisan inquiry under these circumstances.”
Yet the witnesses kept coming, responding to congressional subpoenas: Foreign Service officers, military officers, members of the Civil Service, noncareer professionals and even some political appointees testified before the House Intelligence Committee.
In so doing, they stayed true to their oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But at a cost: they risked their careers and brought down upon themselves a torrent of insults, lies and threats, some of which came from the president of the United States. The endpoint of their action remains unknown.
The Foreign Service, Civil Service and armed services all recognize that elected officials, who take the same oath to support and defend the Constitution, derive political authority directly from the people. That authority is to be respected and deferred to: We do not have a government of a million Supreme Court justices, each understanding the Constitution in their own way. If the bravery shown by the officials who have testified is rare, it is because a conflict of the sort that now divides the government is rare. So rare, in fact, that it is tempting to say we have never seen anything quite like it.
Tempting, but wrong. Comparisons can be drawn between the present situation and the period, roughly from 1947 to 1954, when the State Department generally, and the U.S. Foreign Service in particular, were accused of acting against U.S. interests and placing national security at risk. The accusations then came from the legislative branch; and although they were bipartisan, the charges leveled by Republican members, principally Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, are most remembered for their ferocity and recklessness.
McCarthy’s attacks on State were part of a long American history of intermittent, frenzied searches for radicals plotting to subvert the country or sell it out to foreign powers. Between 1900 and 1940, government inquisitors had gone after anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, Bolsheviks and, briefly, Nazis. After the war, Senator William Jenner (R-Ind.) wanted to “impeach President [Harry] Truman and find out who is the secret invisible government.” Today’s nightmarish vision of a “deep state” of conspirators with vague but malevolent aims fits squarely in this tradition.
Joe McCarthy was no thinker. As Robert Griffith wrote, he did not attack ideas, he attacked people—with invective, innuendo, lies and nicknames. He warned of “a conspiracy so immense and infamy so black as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” He called General of the Army and Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall Jr. “a pathetic thing … completely unfit” for office, an “instrument of the Soviet conspiracy,” a man who had “an affinity for Chinese Reds.” Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a natty dresser, was the “Red Dean of Fashion” (a poor rhyme with Acheson).
McCarthy blamed the Department of State and the Foreign Service for the communist victory in China’s civil war. The staff of State’s Far Eastern Division—today’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs—were “individuals who are loyal to the ideals and designs of communism rather than those of the free, God-fearing half of the world.” He accused Foreign Service officers who had served in China of disloyalty and treason, citing against them their knowledge of and contacts with actual Chinese communists.
Almost without exception, the department failed to defend its people. Instead, it pursued them with multiple, largely bogus investigations. Some of the China specialists—there were 13, almost all of whom spoke Chinese—were fired without pension, their reputations smeared. Those who remained in the Service were never allowed again to work in or on Asian affairs. Their knowledge and experience were lost to the country, and for years no one dared take their place.
McCarthy had broad support in the Republican Party, including Senators William Jenner and Styles Bridges of New Hampshire and Pat McCarran of Nevada. Even Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, the tallest pillar in the Republican establishment, bought into the lie, decrying “a pro-Communist group in the State Department who … promoted at every opportunity the Communist cause in China.”
McCarthy’s charges of disloyalty were intertwined with a campaign to rid the State Department of “sexual perverts”—gay men, and a very few gay women—who were said to be vulnerable to blackmail and therefore security risks. David Johnson, in his invaluable book The Lavender Scare (2006), writes that “the constant pairing of ‘Communists and queers’ led many to see them as indistinguishable threats.” Senator Bridges argued that homosexuals in the State Department “did not get there by osmosis, or by accident. They got there because Russia wanted them there.”
Although Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1949-1953) defended State’s people as “honorable, loyal and clean-living American men and women,” the department’s leadership for the most part joined in the persecution. Acheson’s Deputy Under Secretary for Management, Carlisle Humelsine, told a congressional committee that “in the public mind, [homosexuality] seems to be a psychological illness or sickness generally associated with the Foreign Service and the Department of State.” Between 1950 and 1953, according to the department’s official History of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, State’s security office had 610 employees fired as alleged homosexuals, and another 117 fired for all other reasons.
What sets the present situation apart from the McCarthy era is not the bravery of the officials who speak out but the support they are receiving from their colleagues, from many members of Congress and from the public.
Ambassador (ret.) William J. Burns, in an article published online in Foreign Affairs on Oct. 14, compared the leadership of the Department of State today to that of the McCarthy era and found them equal in spinelessness. There will be no argument here with that judgment.
What sets the present situation apart from the McCarthy era is not the bravery of the officials who speak out—for those persecuted by McCarthy and his supporters were also brave—but the support they are receiving from their colleagues, from many members of Congress and from the public. That support gives hope to and for the Foreign Service and American government.
The targets of slander and persecution in the McCarthy era were isolated, with nowhere to turn. Gay men and women had no friends in politics and no support in society. Their colleagues at work were encouraged to denounce them, often anonymously, to the security office. Whether the accusations were true or false, when pressed to resign, nearly all did so, and quietly. No newspaper took up their cause. Only the very well-connected could stifle and survive such attacks.
The China hands and others accused of disloyalty fought back, but for the most part they fought alone. John (Jack) Service, John Carter Vincent, O. Edmund Clubb, John Paton Davies Jr., John Emmerson and the others spent years enmeshed in hearings on the Hill and multiple administrative loyalty investigations and reviews in the executive branch.
Jack Service was arrested in 1945 and charged with passing classified information (some of his own reports from China) to a journalist. A grand jury refused to indict him, by a vote of 20-0. He was then cleared of disloyalty in at least eight investigations by loyalty boards at State. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles fired him in 1951. Reinstated by a Supreme Court decision in 1957, he was assigned to Liverpool and retired in 1962. John Paton Davies passed nine security reviews, but Secretary Dulles fired him anyway in 1954. Others had similar experiences.
Members of the Foreign Service facing dismissal for disloyalty or as security risks had nowhere to turn. The American Foreign Service Association acted then as part of management: it offered no help and little sympathy. Its chairmen and presidents issued no statements and made no speeches; its executive committees and boards of directors passed no resolutions; and the minutes of their meetings record no discussions of the wreckage being visited upon the Service. (The Foreign Service Journal, however, published a number of editorials and articles in support of the China hands—see above for a list. The AFSA Board of Directors signed on to the editorial of January 1953.)
Today’s situation is different. The threat to the integrity of American foreign policy—and to the integrity of the foreign-affairs professionals of the Foreign Service, Civil Service and armed services—is widely recognized. The disparagement and belittling of expertise, the attacks on the competence and loyalty of particular individuals, the substitution in foreign affairs of private parties with obscure motives and paymasters for sworn and commissioned officers of the United States are widely challenged.
Those under fire have the support of their colleagues. “We have your back, and we will assist and defend you when you need help,” AFSA President Eric Rubin wrote not long ago in these pages. AFSA has in-house counsel and a legal defense fund, supported by donations, for this purpose.
There is broad support, too, from much of the media and the public. Witnesses can speak with candor to committees of Congress.
The lessons of history are often lessons we already knew but need to be taught again and again. Among the lessons of the McCarthy era are that demagogues and bullies can be stopped but not appeased, and that their damage to people and institutions endures long after they have lost their grip on public attention.
President Truman established, and President Eisenhower expanded, loyalty and security boards that subjected millions of employees to investigation, yet the Republican right was not appeased. Hundreds of people were fired, yet cries of perfidy and perversion did not diminish. McCarthy was stopped only when he attacked a target—the United States Army—with the heft and will to fight back. At last, in 1954, many of his friends deserted him. He lost a vote of censure in the Senate, and his power rapidly evaporated.
The assault on the China hands, and on men such as General Marshall and Secretary Acheson, was an assault on knowledge, honesty, complexity and seriousness. George Kennan, a pessimist who was rarely disappointed, wrote in 1955 that “the postwar security programs” had brought “humiliation, bewilderment and the deepest sort of discouragement to hundreds of [Foreign Service] officers.” Fear of challenging accepted opinion, or reporting bad news, entered State Department culture and lingered for years. McCarthy, said another writer, was “like a flashbulb witnessed up close, seen much later when one’s eyes were closed.”
In time the era passed. In January 1973, AFSA’s board of directors held a luncheon in the ceremonial space of the eighth floor of the Department of State to honor the China hands. As The Foreign Service Journal reported, 300 places were reserved in a week, and another 500 seats were taken up in an auditorium to hear the speakers, John Service and historian Barbara Tuchman. Television networks filmed the event and broadcast it nationally.
Press coverage was extensive—“Honor Came a Bit Late” said The New York Times. Ms. Tuchman said of the honorees: “Your colleagues and predecessors were hounded because able and honest performance of their profession collided with the hysterics of the cold war, manipulated by a man so absolutely without principles as to be abnormal.”
When Ms. Tuchman spoke, the McCarthy era was close to 20 years in the past. Today’s honest performers and truth tellers will not have to wait 20 years for the honor they deserve. We honor them now.