The birth of McCarthyism

Issue 

The birth of McCarthyism

Timewatch: The Un-Americans
SBS Television
Three-part series beginning Monday, August 23, 7.30 p.m. (7.00 in Adelaide)
Reviewed by Allen Myers

"Are Communists People?". It sounds like a joke today, but that headline really appeared on the cover of Life magazine in the period covered by this fascinating BBC documentary.

The Un-Americans blends present-day interviews and a wealth of archival footage to show us the creation of the phenomenon which, in a sort of historical shorthand, is usually called "McCarthyism".

In fact, as The Un-Americans makes clear, Senator Joseph McCarthy was not the inventor of "McCarthyism": he makes only a fleeting appearance in the first episode, which begins with the end of World War II and ends with the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953.

That conclusion is a sharp reminder that the clownish figures (including a cameo appearance by Ronald Reagan) strutting through the newsreels were no laughing matter. I was growing up in the United States mid-west at the time, and so have at least a hazy memory of the atmosphere. But The Un-Americans brings it to life through the recollections of some of the victims.

It is easy — and part of the liberal mythology — to forget how broad the participation in the witch-hunt was. But the newsreel footage abusing people who were yet to face trial, for example, makes it clear that "McCarthyism" involved a great deal more than a few ambitious politicians.

The same point, in a slightly different way, comes through in the recollections of Steve Nelson, a Communist Party leader in Pittsburgh charged with "conspiring to advocate" the overthrow of the US government. Facing 20 years in prison, he wrote to every lawyer in the state of Pennsylvania — some 1400 of them — without finding one willing to defend him.

The Un-Americans is only raw material for an understanding of the period. It makes no attempt to explain how or why the witch-hunt arose, and whose interests were served by it. (Only the first episode was reviewed; it will be interesting to see if this defect is made good later in the series.) But it is indispensable raw material, powerfully presented. Definitely a program not to be missed.

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