. . . McCarthy was right, but his methods backfired and caused otherwise sensible people to conclude that the "witch hunt" was nothing more than that. From Wikipedia, here:In 1995, when the VENONA transcripts were declassified, it was learned that regardless of the specific number, McCarthy consistently underestimated the extent of Soviet espionage. VENONA specifically references at least 349 people in the United States--including citizens, immigrants, and permanent residents--who cooperated in various ways with Soviet intelligence agencies.And here:
It is generally believed that McCarthy had no access to VENONA intelligence, deriving his information from other sources. VENONA does confirm that some individuals investigated by McCarthy were indeed Soviet agents. For example, Mary Jane Keeney was identified by McCarthy simply as "a communist"; in fact she and her husband were both Soviet agents. Another individual named by McCarthy was Lauchlin Currie, a special assistant to President Roosevelt. He was confirmed by VENONA to be a Soviet Agent.The VENONA documents, and the extent of their significance, were not made public until 1995. They show that the US and others were targeted in major espionage campaigns by the Soviet Union as early as 1942.
The decrypts include 349 individuals who were maintaining a covert relationship with the Soviet Union. It can be safely assumed that more than 349 agents were active, as that number is from a small sample of the total intercepted message traffic. Among those identified are Alger Hiss, believed to have been the agent "ALES"; Harry Dexter White, the second-highest official in the Treasury Department; Lauchlin Currie, a personal aide to Franklin Roosevelt; and Maurice Halperin, a section head in the Office of Strategic Services. Almost every military and diplomatic agency of any importance was compromised to some extent, including, of course, the Manhattan Project. Even today, the identities of fewer than half of the 349 agents are known with any certainty. Agents who were never identified include "Mole", a senior Washington official who passed information on American diplomatic policy, and "Quantum", a scientist on the Manhattan Project.
Some known spies, including Theodore Hall, were neither prosecuted nor publicly implicated, because the VENONA evidence against them could not be made public. VENONA evidence has also clarified the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, making it clear that Julius was guilty of espionage while Ethel was guilty of cooperating, while also showing that their contributions to Soviet nuclear espionage were less important than was publicly alleged at the time. In fact, Ethel had been only an accomplice, and Julius' information was probably not as valuable as that provided by sources like "Quantum" and "Pers" (both still unidentified.)
This is an extremely different picture from the one that which had developed over most of 50 years in the absence of solid evidence. While critics debate the identity of individual agents, the overall picture of infiltration is more difficult to refute. The release of the VENONA information has forced reevaluation of the Red Scare in the US....
Now comes David Berstein of The Volokh Conspiracy, who is reviewing Martin Redish's book, The Logic of Persecution: Free Expression and the McCarthy Era. Among the many things Bernstein has learned while doing research for his review are these:
The use of "questionable tactics" should not diminish the fact that the enemy was in our midst. The "scare" wasn't a scare -- it was about the real thing.
. . . .
(2) Hollywood scriptwriters who were members of the Communist Party (CPUSA) were expected to use their positions to promote Communist doctrine and the Party's agenda, or, if that was not possible, at least to work to exclude anti-Soviet sentiment. (And I already knew, but you might not have, that each of the Hollywood Ten was a member of the CPUSA.)
(3) The first federal prosecution under the Smith Act (later used to prosecute CPUSA leaders) was the prosecution of eighteen leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party 1941. The CPUSA not only applauded this action; Party leaders assisted in the prosecution.
(4) The Smith Act prosecutions of CPUSA leaders were largely a result of the fact that top government officials had recently learned from decoded "Venona cables" between the Soviet Union and its agents and affiliates abroad that the Soviet Union used American Communists to engage in wide scale espionage against the United States. The CPUSA leaders were not prosecuted for espionage and related charges (conspiracy) because that would have involved revealing that the U.S. had deciphered the Soviets' code, and also much of the additional evidence the government had was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Instead, the government resurrected the Smith Act, and proceeded with prosecutions of highly dubious constitutionality (though upheld by the Supreme Court, which implicitly recognized that these prosecutions were "special").
(5) Not only did the CPUSA recruit spies for the Soviet Union through its "secret apparatus," it was prepared to engage in violence on behalf of the Soviet Union.
(6) The Smith Act prosecutions and other government and private anti-Communist activity destroyed the usefulness of the CPUSA to the Soviet Union for espionage.
(7) Many of the questionable tactics used by the government against domestic Communists in the late 1940s and 1950s, including Smith Act prosecutions, were previously used by the government against domestic Nazis and fascists in the late 1930s and early 1940s by the Roosevelt Administration.
(8) Alger Hiss was not prosecuted for spying because the statute of limitations had expired.
(9) During the "Red Decade" of the 1930s, Hollywood Communists ran their own blacklist againist their political enemies. Because the studio bosses didn't support this blacklist, it wasn't as effective as the 1950s blacklist of Communists, but it seriously harmed careers nevertheless. Also, many in Hollyood boycotted those who testified before HUAC, allegedly as revenge for "naming names". But is there any serious doubt that the boycotters' attitudes would be very different if their targets had discussed with Congress Nazi, as opposed to Communist, infiltration of Hollywood?
(10) Then there's this quote from historian Ellen Schrecker, who is generally sympathetic to the Communists, regarding the blacklist, which conflicts with the theme of a couple of major Hollywood movies: "Most of the men and women who lost their jobs or were otherwise victimized were not apolitical folks who had somehow gotten on the wrong mailing lists or signed the wrong petitions. ...Whether or not they should have been victimized, they certainly were not misidentified." On the other hand, anti-Communist historian Klehr states that "many innocent people were harassed." But Redish concludes that "for the most part, it seems that the blacklists were accurate."
(11) Much of what is now labeled "McCarthyism" consisted of spontaneous action by private individuals and groups to boycott Stalinists. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a sound source that persuasively explains to what extent these private actors interacted with the government. For example, I still don't have a firm sense to what extent the Hollywood blacklist was the result of a fear of bad publicitly and threats to boycott the industry from various anti-Communist groups, and to what extent it was motivated by fear of potential government regulation.