A recent conference on “Rethinking McCarthy” produced an interesting insight from someone who has studied the communist threat for decades. Herbert Romerstein, author of a forthcoming book on Soviet espionage, says that Senator Joseph McCarthy is largely irrelevant to the phenomenon known as McCarthyism. McCarthy was chairman of a Senate committee that investigated communism for just one year, and he made several important speeches on the subject. Romerstein said that his work was valuable, but other congressional committees did far more work on the problem.
But McCarthy was transformed into a demon by the communists who were desperate to mislead the public about their efforts to penetrate the U.S. Government. Accusing McCarthy of making inaccurate or exaggerated statements, they promoted the term “McCarthyism” in an effort to discredit investigations into the communist movement.
Romerstein worked in various capacities for the U.S. Government for about 25 years, specializing in the fields of internal security and intelligence. He still marvels at the ability of the communists to make “McCarthyism” into a phenomenon that lingers to this day. He found it significant that McCarthy is still vilified while modern-day politicians, such as Vice President Al Gore, get away with major gaffes and exaggerations on a regular basis. Romerstein commented, “Can you imagine an American politician today saying he invented the Internet? Or that he and his wife were the subject of the book Love Story? Or that he discovered Love Canal? No politician would ever do that or say that—unless you?re Al Gore of course. But you don?t hear anything about Goreism. You hear about McCarthyism.”
Romerstein said the term appeared in the title of a 1951 booklet written by a top Communist Party member which attacked Trumanism and McCarthyism. Harry Truman was President at the time and his administration had the power to keep communists out of the government. Romerstein said Truman was more of a threat to the communists than Joe McCarthy ever was, but Truman, a Democrat, didn?t want Republicans in Congress, including McCarthy, to make an issue out of communist penetration of government. So Truman ignored warnings he received about Soviet agents in the government such as Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White.
For the communists, Trumanism wasn?t the real problem. Romerstein said the writer of that communist booklet was kicked out of the party because he made the mistake of attacking both Truman and McCarthy. The writer had undermined the Communist tactic of attacking McCarthy alone and using “McCarthyism” as a means by which to discourage public discussion of the issue.
During the question and answer period, Romerstein was asked what his new book, The Venona Secrets, will reveal. Scheduled for release this fall, the book is named for the program that intercepted Soviet communications to its agents before and after World War II. Romerstein said his research will confirm that Harry Hopkins, “the close personal friend of President Roosevelt—and his closest associate in many ways—was a Soviet spy.” Ironically, this means that Senator Joe McCarthy, who never made any charge against Hopkins, did not know how big the problem of communist penetration of the U.S. Government really was.