Looking at what VENONA (a US Counter-Intelligence program) revealed about Soviet espionage in the United States, were the accusations of rampant Communism in the US government by Senator Joe McCarthy and House of Un-American Affairs Committee justified?

Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC/HCUA) were prominent actors during the Second Red Scare in the United States, however neither were the instigators of it. Anti-communist sentiment that had already reared in the early 1900s rose again throughout the 1940s and 1950s as the hope of a post-war international consensus collapsed. McCarthy’s largely unsubstantiated rhetoric helped perpetuate the red scare to such an extent that the Truman administration felt it necessary to extend a wartime government employee loyalty program formalised in 1947. At its peak, this program screened 5 million federal workers between 1947 and 1956 alone (Storrs, 2015, online). This veritable witch hunt was also eagerly participated in by the HUAC and overall resulted in what is thought to be almost 15000 dismissals or resignations (Storrs, 2015, online). Additionally, in excess of 250 organisations were designated as subversive by the Attorney General and thousands of volumes written by ‘un-American’ authors purged from government libraries (Stone, 2005, pp.1392-1399). This period of history is often characterised as a type of national mass hysteria, but evidence for a more nuanced perspective of the era has grown. As the Cold War came to a close, a slew of new evidence from intelligence sources on both sides of the collapsed iron curtain came to light which evidenced the true extent of the Soviet infiltration of the US and the West at large. Much of this evidence came from the (partially) declassified US VENONA counter-intelligence project which exposed a fraction of the hundreds of Soviet spies in the US government and military. Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg opined “You are free to describe McCarthyism as a witch hunt…if you are willing to concede that actual witches existed in our midst” (Larry, 2020, online). Whilst this may be technically true, it does not vindicate the actions and accusations of McCarthy and the HUAC- only that they acknowledged the wider threat. This paper will examine what VENONA and similar research revealed and analyse to what extent, if at all, they justify the sweeping accusations made by the hardline Wisconsinite and committee.      

In the 1930s and 40s Texas Democrat Martin Dies chaired the newly minted HUAC using methods that Mccarthy would later be famed for- ‘red-baiting’, public accusations of anti-americanism, and accusing New Deal supporters of being too soft against the communist threat (Larry, 2020, online). Whilst President Roosevelt dismissed Dies’ fanaticism, the idea of communist infiltration of the US government gained prominence and the Republican Party rode the wave of fear to gain power in 1946. Joseph McCarthy, a Republican himself, began as an unknown from Wisconsin, defeating a fellow anti-communist Robert “Young Bob” Lafolette Jr, who himself likely stunted the growth of early American communism by dissasociating his progressive worker’s ideals from it (Maney, 2001, p.530). McCarthy would go on in 1950 to claim vast communist infiltration of the US government, highlighting the State Department specifically and stoking national hysteria (Storrs, 2015, online), however it is clear that the Second Red Scare predated and outlasted him. MCCarthy stated that “I have here in my hand a list of 205…names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working on and shaping policy in the State Department” (Stone, 2005, p.1395). While this was a bold claim, that list in its entirety was never shown and it is doubtful as to whether it ever existed, but he did publicly accuse 81 people in a Senate speech in 1950, adding almost dozens of additional names (or case numbers) to the Tydings Committee set up to evaluate his accusations (Haynes, 2007, online). In addition to these accusations, McCarthy accused many others as being part of a communist conspiracy or direct Soviet agents on an ad hoc basis. The only issue is that McCarthy would have had little access to sensitive counterintelligence resources, and certainly would have had zero knowledge of or access to the secretive VENONA project which was not even used in court proceedings. It is likely that the majority of McCarthy’s cases were drawn from the ‘Lee List’ compiled by the House Committee on Appropriations, which consisted of 108 unresolved security cases and was made accessible to the Tydings Subcommittee (Haynes, 2007, online).  

The House of Un-American Activities Committee also took a broad brush approach to anti-communism, and was more concerned with supposed cultural or social subversion than actual espionage and sabotage activities conducted on behalf of a foreign communist power. It had a significant focus on Hollywood and conducted detailed investigations into purported communists in the film industry. The Hollywood blacklist was enacted to deny employment to these suspected communists who worked as musicians, directors, and actors. When the ‘Hollywood Ten’ were cited for refusing to testify before the HUAC after invoking their First Amendment right to freedom of association, they were sentenced to 6 months in prison after the Supreme Court refused to hear their case (Ceplair and Englund, 1980, pp.54-61). Many of these accusations were based on previous membership in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) which grew during the Great Depression and peaked during WW2, and therefore had a notable number of ex-members or ex-affiliates in professional occupations during the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond.

The Attorney General expanded the list of organisations supposedly involved in illegal activity  to hundreds of organisations. These included organisations such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, which aimed to “promote the general welfare and to improve the economic, social, political, cultural, and spiritual conditions of the people of the South, without regard to race, creed, colour, or national origin” (Gellhorn, 1947, p.1193). Although ostensibly a legal organisation with no elicit ties, it was deemed a subversive organisation by a committee report which notes a communist delegation to one of its meetings. The report, however, neglected to mention that the delegation consisted of only 0.4% of the total number of delegates present (Gellhorn, 1947, p.1199). Other groups that were added to the ever-growing list included the National Council of Jewish Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and many other groups that were mainstream but reformist organisations (Storrs, 2015, online). Even association with these organisations could be used as a bar for employment or as a justification for exclusion from public housing or veterans’ benefits. Naturally, civic organisations declined in membership as a result and even the joining of non-blacklisted civic organisations or activist groups was discouraged as it earmarked someone who would apparently be an easy target for communist recruiters. As such, defence attorneys encouraged clients to state that engaging in such activities was an anathema to them (Goldstein, 2008, p.118). 

However the HUAC didn’t solely exist to question the motives and ideologies of the social elite, and it did on occasion focus on actual issues of national security. In 1948 former members of CPUSA Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers stated that they had acted almost akin to agent handlers, managing spies within Washington including dozens of government officials, most notably Alger Hiss (Storrs, 2015, online). Alger Hiss was a former aide to the State Department who had been instrumental in the formation of the United Nations Charter, but by the time of his trial it had been over double the statute of limitations for espionage and he was only be able to be indicted on perjury. But this ‘trial of the century’ was not cut and dry- and certainly not with the information available to the legal proceedings. As anti-communist fervour heightened in 1950, the Truman administration increased the breadth of the loyalty program to allow directors of certain agencies to dismiss employees on security grounds, such as anything that could be used as blackmail. This included homosexuality, alcoholism, or relative and friends that were involved in a communist or blacklisted organisation (Storrs, 2013, pp.286-292). By 1953, the new Eisenhower administration applied this additional security measure to every civil service job alongside lower standards of evidence needed for dismissal and the expanded FBI kept tabs on many civil servants who had faced investigation. During this period of intense scrutiny, a small number of actual Soviet spies were being convicted, and in the case of the Rosenbergs- executed. Klaus Fuchs was arrested in the UK for leaking details of the Manhattan Project to the Soviets, as well as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Harry Gold amongst others. Three years after the Alger Hiss trial, in 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage. Clearly, even with the available information at the time, it was clear that the US- and its nuclear program specifically- had a spy problem.

Vehement anti-communism did not decline precipitously, however it waned throughout the 1950s as McCarthy’s accusations grew wilder. In his new position as chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations he held hearings on library programs, notably the Voice of America. The book burnings that followed, allegations of a relationship between Protestantism and communism, and accusations of detractors such as Edward Murrow as having communist sympathies caused his popularity to decline significantly (Storrs, 2015, online). Similarly, the HUAC lost its prestige, and by 1959 was labelled as “the most un-American thing in this country today” by none other than former president Harry Truman (Charles Rivers Editors, 2015, p.1). As the Second Red Scare abated, the most intense period of McCarthyism drew to a close. Despite this, the hindsight provided by future research, the VENONA Project, and the fall of the Soviet Union would unveil a level of communist infiltration of the US and its institutions that almost fits the claims perpetuated by McCarthy and the HUAC.   

The Manhattan Project was the epicentre of Soviet espionage within the United States, to the extent that they “were able to build an atomic bomb several years before they otherwise would have” (Klehr, 2015, online). The US had anticipated its hegemony in the atomic sphere to last for a significant length of time, which led to information about Soviet advancements in the field being dismissed out of hand. It is no surprise that the Soviet Union focused so much attention on the Manhattan Project as a lopsided balance of power could lead to nuclear blackmail (Kern et al, 2010, p.706). To this end, agent handlers worked to recruit spies across the West through means of ideology, blackmail, and financial incentives, with domestic communist parties such as CPUSA used as recruitment hubs and centres for underground activity. Alongside spies such as the Rosenbergs, Gold, and Greenglass were others such as Alan Nunn May who provided samples of the uranium isotope to Russian intelligence. CPUSA itself was receiving over 3 million USD each year from the Soviet Union in subsidies which only declined as its leadership distanced itself from Glasnost  and Perestroika (Klehr, 2015, online). 

But arguably the biggest public information coup in regards to the communist infiltration of the US occurred when the Soviet Union fell and its archives temporarily and partially opened to researchers, and subsequently the US counter-intelligence VENONA project was partially declassified. The declassification of the VENONA project evidenced that some select parties (HUAC and McCarthy not included) were, to a much more significant extent, aware of the level of communist infiltration into the government. KGB and GRU stations across the US communicated through encrypted and enciphered cables sent via Western Union. The best practice was to use a diplomatic pouch, however to summarise the intelligence in a more timely fashion cabled reports could be sent using an encryption method consisting of a sheet of papers containing random number groups known as a one-time pad. The first number on the page signified the first number of the message, which would notify the cypher clerk in Moscow as to which one-time pad was used for the cypher (Klehr, 2015, online). This was theoretically impossible to crack, however duplicate first numbers and human error in using the pads twice instead of once allowed US cryptanalysts to crack 2900 messages sent between 1941 and 1946. However this was not an instant process and it took 25 years for the program to break only pieces of the twice-used cyphers (Klehr, 2015, online).

Through the VENONA program and other counter-intelligence activities it is known that around 350 Americans, many in senior positions, had worked for Soviet intelligence during WW2. Of these, 125 have been identified and 200 remain unknown to this day. Even the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had been pockmarked with at least 16 spies including a chief counsellor to Director William Donovan (Klehr, 2015, online). Other organisations that were infiltrated included the Justice Department, Censorship Office, Signal Corps, War Department, and Office of War Information amongst others. The deputy head of the Treasury Department and key figure in the construction of the post-war economic order, Harry Dexter White, was also an accused Soviet informant. Whilst the VENONA project confirmed his status as a spy, this was not public knowledge until the declassification of its records. However whilst VENONA was a closely kept state secret and was not used in any court proceedings, it was also known to the Soviets- another example of how deep Soviet infiltration of the West was. A Russian language specialist who worked in the project, William Weisband, was a Soviet spy, and the British SIS liaison officer was none other than the double agent Kim Philby (Klehr, 2015, online). Due to this early awareness of the project, the Soviets could frustrate the FBI’s counter-intelligence efforts by ceasing communication with any leaked spies. The FBI did manage to follow up some of the intelligence through the exposed codenames, many of which reflected their identity such as ‘MLAD’ or ‘youngster’ for Theodore Hall who was 19 on his recruitment (OSTI, 2021, online). Upon being called to the HUAC, many suspected spies remained silent which both implicated their guilt but prevented any self-incrimination, and as there was little admissible evidence the response was often limited to forcing them out of government service. Even the evidence against Alger Hiss was reinforced through the unveiling of an agent codenamed ‘ALES’ in a VENONA intercept and research into the KGB archives, matching Hiss’ timelines during his visit to Yalta and position in the US Treasury (Mark, 2009, p.38), although this has not stopped a small but ardent group of his defenders from arguing against it.   

In 1945 authors Brent Bozell and William Buckley stated that McCarthy’s record in exposing communists was “not only much better than his critics allege but, given his métier (occupation), extremely good” (Larry, 2020, online). But since the partial declassification of VENONA and glimpse into the KGB archives, it is now possible to more accurately graph the Soviet spies that have been identified at this date against the accusations made by McCarthy. Whilst his likely fabricated list was never revealed in full, his public accusations encompassed around 159 people. Of these, approximately nine now have substantial evidence that they were active in Soviet espionage. These included Lauchlin Currie, an economist and Latin American affairs specialist, and fellow economist Harold Glasser who was an associate of Harry Dexter White (Haynes, 2007, online). A tenth, David Zablodowsky, is still an unknown with no firm evidence either way. However that is not to say that the remainder of the accused had no good reason to be accused- many of them had factors that would increase their likelihood of being a security risk. Some were former or current members of CPUSA, were affiliated with organisations that had communist sympathies, or had been affiliated with a communist youth organisation. Frederick Schuman was known to be sympathetic to communist ideals, however other accused parties such as Stephen Brunauer cleanly separated from the movement upon reaching adulthood (Haynes, 2007, online).

The number of parties accused by McCarthy who were bona fide Soviet agents were negligible, although a larger portion had shown some level of affiliation with communism. However this portion includes officials with enduring communist sympathies, but not necessarily any inclination to subvert the US or commit espionage on another nation’s behalf, as well as those who had limited historical affiliation with the ideology. Furthermore, some on the list such as George Marshall and Drew Pearson posed no known risk at all with no evidence linking them, historically or during their tenure, to the ideology or any affiliated communist groups (Haynes, 2007, online). Similarly, the HUAC’s only real ‘success’ was the hearings of Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers which led to the exposure of many government officials as well as Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss. But despite this, with the evidence from VENONA often several years behind and inadmissible in court, there was little actionable information other than the removal of implicated officials.

There may have been witches in their midst, however neither McCarthy or the House of Un-American Affairs Committee achieved any substantial breakthrough in exposing them. The disciplined, largely ideologically motivated cabal of communist spies and sympathisers within the US government was not exposed through the furore of anti-communist activity during the Second Red Scare. Moreover, whilst the VENONA project and other counter-intelligence activities had identified suspected spies, the HUAC or McCarthy had no more awareness of it than any regular citizen. Of McCarthy’s accusations, many were wholly unsubstantiated and those that did have substance were previously known through the ‘Lee List’ that was already in circulation. Towards the latter end of the 1950s, many of his accusations were neither substantiated nor previously known, but were increasingly erratic and fantastical, levelled at anyone who criticised him. The HUAC expended significant resources on rooting out communist influence in American society to no actual benefit, only succeeding in undermining American democracy through stifling civic life, reformism, and criticism of the status quo. Criticism can be readily levelled at the US administrations prior to 1950 for failing to act upon the threat of Soviet espionage, but the knee-jerk reaction of the Second Red Scare, perpetuated by McCarthy and the HUAC fared little better at combating it and at great socio-political cost. Historian John Haynes opined that “When McCarthy was right, he was not original….when he was original, he was wrong”. Neither McCarthy or the HUAC had the right sources or countermeasures to act upon the Soviet infiltration, and the revelations from the VENONA project only further evidence how disconnected their accusations were from reality.  

Word count: 3070


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Tye, Larry (2020), McCarthyism, online.  http://ezproxy.staffs.ac.uk/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.staffs.ac.uk/newspapers/mccarthyism/docview/2424697882/se-2?accountid=17254 accessed 20/04/2021.


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