Hagel and the New McCarthyism

Since Chuck Hagel’s name was floated as possible Secretary of Defense, the former Republican senator has been subjected to vilification to blacklist him from public service, a new form of McCarthyism that replaces suspected leftist sympathies with insufficient support for Israel, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

I was born just early enough to have some faint but direct memories of the stain on American history that became known as McCarthyism. One recollection is of my parents watching on television in 1954 substantial portions of the Army-McCarthy hearings, which was the first Congressional inquiry to be nationally televised.

Although I was too young to understand it at the time, those hearings marked the beginning of the end of Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting campaign of slander. Before the end of the year he would be formally censured by the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wisconsin, who led the “Red Scare” hearings of the 1950s.

One important factor in stopping McCarthy’s reputation-ruining rampage was the working of media in those early days of the television era. Media coverage of the 1954 hearings, which lasted several weeks and in which accusations and counter-accusations were made and confronted in concentrated form within a single hearing room, made it impossible to turn a blind eye to what McCarthyism was about. The gavel-to-gavel television coverage, bringing such a dramatic event into living rooms across the country for the first time, was especially influential.

Another important factor was the willingness of visible figures to call McCarthy to account and to shame him, clearly and directly. A key figure was Joseph Welch, the prominent lawyer who served as chief counsel for the U.S. Army at the hearings. When McCarthy attempted to apply his usual method of innuendo and guilt-by-association to a junior lawyer at Welch’s firm, Welch labeled McCarthy’s tactics as “reckless cruelty” and spoke the most eloquent and memorable line of the hearings:

“You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The stars do not always align today in a way that encourages a calling to account of latter-day equivalents of McCarthyism. The mass media are far more diffuse, with a million ways to impugn someone via the Internet and with talk shows inflicting more of the impact of television and radio than live broadcasts of Congressional hearings.

Then there is the matter of the willingness of visible figures to speak up and to call a spade a spade, clearly and explicitly. The Israeli journalist, academic and businessman Bernard Avishai writes about the dearth of such willingness as it relates to the most prominent current instance of McCarthyite-style tactics: the defamation (often under the disguise of what Avishai calls “fake campaigns against defamation”) of those who dare to question Israeli policies or U.S. abetting of those policies. The defamation is practiced by an assortment of protagonists who claim to have Israeli interests at heart but instead are enforcing unquestioning support for policies of the right-wing Israeli government of the day, which is something different.

Avishai, who is slightly younger than I am, also begins by noting the similarity of the current phenomenon to the original McCarthyism. Today’s defamation includes the dragging up of whatever can be used to sink nominations as well as reputations. This process features, but is not limited to, reckless and unjustified charges of anti-Semitism.

And like the original McCarthyism, the process relies not just on the direct defaming of selected targets but also on intimidation of many others who might otherwise question not only the Israeli and U.S. policies involved but also the intimidation process itself. Avishai’s piece is an especially earnest and trenchant call for speaking out on this subject; I could quote at length from it but instead will just urge that the piece itself be read.

Avishai’s occasion for writing is the tumult over the possible nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. As I and others have observed, this matter has gotten so much attention that how it is resolved will have a major effect in either boosting the new McCarthyism or setting it back. It is encouraging that many prominent figures have come to Hagel’s defense. But the President still has not acted.

Even if the Hagel matter comes out well, that is not enough. There is still the need for prominent people to name and shame, directly and explicitly, the new McCarthyism practiced by groups and people claiming to be lovers of Israel, and to name and shame it not just with respect to any one nominee or any one issue.

When Joseph Welch shamed McCarthy, the gallery in the hearing room burst into applause. I believe many as-yet-passive observers will applaud if the same thing is done to the new McCarthyism.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

7 comments for “Hagel and the New McCarthyism

  1. incontinent reader
    December 30, 2012 at 18:15

    Comparing the present vilification and blacklisting with McCarthyism is most apt, and your call to focus our attention beyond the nomination and confirmation of Hagel to exposing, confronting, and shaming the new McCarthyism- and having prominent persons (i.e. “wise men”) do so directly and explicitly- is welcome indeed.

    However, the sophistication of today’s McCarthyism, and its depth and breadth of influence in government, the media and NGOs, makes it a much harder nut to crack than 60 years ago. Moreover, it will require the President himself to recognize how imbedded it is within his Administration and his policies. Like so many others, he is a cautious political animal who, up to now, has been unwilling to spend political capital or risk getting bloodied, though every time he has caved on critical issues of policy or principle, the perception is that he has been bled and rendered impotent. (Indeed, one wonders whether the Lobby might have something on him that he should have been so unwilling to cross their Rubicon or breach their “separation wall”.) So, the sixty-four thousand dollar question is will he finally develop some spine and rise to the occasion, or, will he fold yet again? And, if he hesitates, will those “prominent persons” set aside political expediency, political correctness and the culture of “the emperor’s new clothes”, to speak the truth, and speak it without fear? Will they now demand that the President stand up to the new McCarthyism, when for so long they themselves seemed to lack the courage or willingness to do it?

    The general perception is that power is lost when face is lost. So, very few who wield power are willing to change course, admit they were wrong, and face the “music of embarrassment”, even though real power cannot be predicated on, or sustained by illegitimate words and deeds, or a failure to face up to the facts. So, if the “wise men” are to do it right, they themselves will need the humility and courage to tell the emperor to buy a real pair of pants- and tell him not to be afraid to wear them. (Wasn’t fear itself supposed to be the only thing to fear?) The reality is that the body politic has reached a stage where the infection from McCarthyism is now septicemic, or why else would we be engaged in over three dozen wars or conflicts of aggression around the world, or allow our foreign policy to be manipulated by Israel and other foreign powers, or by the neoconservatives, or by a national security complex, when it is not only not in our own national interest, but has been causing our economy to hemorrhage to the extent of trillions of dollars, and our national values to be eroded on a scale that cannot be measured.

    What is at stake is the survival of a democracy and Constitutional system that has been highjacked, compromised and placed in a strait jacket, and where both parties and all three branches of the government are captive. It has become an existential issue for the nation, and time has run out on gaming the system or playing Hamlet.

    • F. G. Sanford
      December 31, 2012 at 00:55

      Beautifully said!

  2. tedbohne
    December 30, 2012 at 11:35

    i didn’t think Chuck Hagel was this sort of rodent!

  3. Norman
    December 29, 2012 at 23:40

    After reading your comments I think she is a good choice. She should thank you for publicizing her.

  4. Coleen Rowley
    December 29, 2012 at 12:26

    Let me add that the political selling ploy that obviously accompanies the promotion of Michele Flournoy over Hagel effectively serves to dupe the “feminist” contingent. The neo-cons are not dummies when it comes to using such identity politics and blind loyalty psychology to get their way on war. The last three Secretaries of State (and their wanna-bes) who have risen to become the most powerful females thus far in US history, the “first black President” and now even using the “gays” (against Hagel) are all examples. As is the first female to win the Academy Award for Best Director, the beautiful Kathryn Bigelow being used by the Military Industrial Congressional Media Hollywood Complex to sell war and torture. Figurehead members of gender, race (and probably eventually sexual identification) “minorities” are being exploited to effectively sell US-NATO-Israel’s permanent wars of aggression, killing and quest for “full spectrum dominance” to the “progressives.”

    Perhaps this is the perfect kinder gentler accompaniment to McCarthyism!

    See https://consortiumnews.com/2012/06/18/amnestys-shilling-for-us-wars/ and https://consortiumnews.com/2012/05/14/reflecting-on-mothers-day-and-war/

  5. Hillary
    December 29, 2012 at 08:19

    “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
    These famous words that carried the day back then should be resurrected today in a desperate attempt to bring to an end the imperial ambitions of a neocon PNAC agenda “gone wild” now followed by the US.
    Where is our “Mr.Welch” today ?

  6. Nelson Wight
    December 28, 2012 at 18:05


Comments are closed.