Joseph R McCarthy: ‘Ancestor’ Of Trump’s Paranoid Style Of Politics

Republican Senator Joseph R McCarthy died in 1957 but the terms McCarthyism and McCarthy’s tactics entered the political lexicon to describe witch hunts involving public accusations of disloyalty or subversion without sufficient proof

Joseph R McCarthy was an obscure Republican Senator

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Joseph R McCarthy was an obscure Republican Senator until he began using dubious means to prosecute government employees after publicly accusing them of disloyalty. In February 1950, he claimed to have a list of 205 card-carrying Communists in the United States (US) State Department.

What followed were witch hunts that gained McCarthy notoriety. McCarthy would hold hearings on Communist subversion as the Senate Permanent Investigation Subcommittee chairman and probe ‘Communist infiltration’ of the armed forces.

The witch hunts coincided with heightened paranoia about Communism. The obsession came to be referred to as the ‘Red Scare’ amid the Cold War—the rivalry between the capitalist US, the Marxist-Communist state of the Soviet Union, and their allies that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

McCarthy died in May 1957 three years after the US Senate censured him. But the terms McCarthyism and McCarthy’s tactics would enter the political lexicon to describe witch hunts involving public accusations of disloyalty or subversion without sufficient proof and unfair methods of probe to suppress opposition.

McCarthyism gained fresh currency when President Donald Trump took office in 2017. Trumpism, or ‘hysterical intolerance‘, as the City University of New York Professor Peter Beinart described it in The Atlantic, drew parallels with McCarthyism as the former US president built his political career ‘on demagoguery, intimidation, and a cult of personality—not tangible achievements or coherent ideas.’

McCarthyism was back in the spotlight thanks to Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed movie Oppenheimer based on American quantum physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was a celebrated hero of science, who headed the research and development of the atomic bomb amid fears that Hitler’s Nazi Germany would do it first during the Second World War, before McCarthy brought him down.

Oppenheimer was suspected of being a Soviet spy amid fears over the strides the Soviets had made in atomic weaponry. He chose to defend himself at a secret hearing against charges of being a security risk and became a victim of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Oppenheimer ignored fellow physicist Albert Einstein’s suggestion against doing so. Einstein thought Oppenheimer had no obligation to subject himself to the witch hunt and to a kangaroo court.

Oppenheimer was publicly humiliated in 1954. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) deemed Oppenheimer to be a security risk by a vote of 2 to 1 as he spoke out against a nuclear arms race. Oppenheimer earned the ire of the American national security establishment when he called the atomic bomb a weapon for aggressors and criticized the building of a ‘super’ hydrogen bomb.

Oppenheimer argued the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, which along with that on Nagasaki left an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people dead, was used ‘against an essentially defeated enemy.’

The AEC would eventually revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954 after 19 days of secret hearings. It blocked his access to atomic secrets and ended his career. Oppenheimer died 13 years later in 1967 at 62. His resistance to early work on the hydrogen bomb was cited as a key element in the case.

But no evidence came to light to back the spy charge. The 1954 revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance was eventually nullified in December 2022. Oppenheimer was cleared of the charges which were found to be the result of a ‘flawed process’ violating regulations. Evidence showed the process was biased and unfair while affirming Oppenheimer’s loyalty and patriotism.

Oppenheimer’s early views on the hydrogen bomb were found to have had an adverse effect on the recruitment of scientists and the progress of the scientific effort. But material declassified in 2014 suggested that Oppenheimer opposed the hydrogen bomb project on the basis of technical and military grounds. The opposition had nothing to do with Oppenheimer’s Soviet sympathies.

Oppenheimer was cleared of the allegations of spying months before the movie on him was released. Kai Bird, the co-author of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer that the movie is based on, told The New York Times that he was overwhelmed with emotion over the clearance.

In a separate op-ed in the Times titled ‘The Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer’, Bird on July 17, 2023, called Oppenheimer’s life story relevant to current political predicaments as a political movement characterized by rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues destroyed the scientist.

Bird called the witch-hunters of the 1950s direct ancestors of current American political actors of a paranoid style. He referred to Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel, who tried to subpoena Oppenheimer in 1954, only to be warned that this could interfere with the impending security hearing.

Bird noted Cohn taught Trump his ‘brash, wholly deranged style of politics‘ while recalling the former president’s fact-challenged comments days before The Economist called plans for Trump’s second term alarming in its July 15-21, 2023, edition. He called this a worldview proudly scornful of science. Bird wrote what happened to Oppenheimer also damaged their ability as a society to debate honestly about scientific theory — the very foundation of the modern world.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

Leave a Reply