Lies That Altered U.S. History (Part 2)



Event: Red Scare/McCarthyism

Lie: “I have here in my hand a list of 205… a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” –Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Wheeling, W. Va, Feb. 9, 1950 (accuracy of the number presented is not certain)

American fears of all things red dates back to the late 1800s and the immigrant push from southern Europe and their bringing socialistic tendencies to the United States. Various immigration quotas were set in place to curb this influx, but the seeds of anxiety had been planted, fed, and raised since. During the 1930s, it was fashionable for members of Hollywood and the wealthy elite to frequent communist parties, but in 1940, Congress would pass the Smith Act which made it illegal to assist any groups “who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of the government of the United States by force or violence.” By 1950, the United States had witnessed the Soviet Union envelop all of Eastern Europe into its sphere of influence, Churchill issue his “Iron Curtain” speech, the passage of Executive Order 9835 (loyalty oaths for all federal employees), the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood Ten, the trial of Alger Hiss, China “falling to communism,” and the Soviet Union detonating its first atomic bomb.

For men like Joseph McCarthy, there was only answer to the menacing spread of communism across the globe and the specter of atomic death: Communists had infiltrated America.

Telegram from Sen. McCarthy to Pres. Truman

Telegram from Sen. McCarthy to Pres. Truman

Unfortunately for McCarthy, the places he found communists were in his alcohol-induced hazes. After telling a group of Republican Women on Feb. 9 that he had a list of 205 suspected communists–the list was probably a blank scrap of paper–he fired off a telegram to President Truman where he claimed the number was 57. On the 20th, he addressed the Senate and announced 81 communists. Even if we are to accept the 205 count inaccurate, McCarthy could never settle on a single number and refused to list the names on his document or provide specific evidence.

Lasting Impact: It’s a shame no one stood up and shouted, “Liar, liar pants on fire.” No one did and McCarthy’s four years of terror warped America in ways unimaginable. Victor Navasky said this of McCarthyism in his book Naming Names

The social costs of what came to be called McCarthyism have yet to be computed. By conferring its prestige on the red hunt, the state did more than bring misery to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Communists, former Communists, fellow travelers, and unlucky liberals. It weakened American culture and it weakened itself.

Our modern-day witch hunt destroyed the lives of people far removed from politics as hblock2state and local governments ran their own personal hunts. Men and women lost their jobs, found their names on countless blacklists, and watched as their children were ostracized by society around them. Libraries yanked copies of such subversive titles as Robin Hood because it proposed the notion of “stealing from the rich to give to the poor.” Unions were condemned as anti-American, and the AFL and CIO were forced to merge in 1955 just to survive. But the political ramifications were just as severe. No one would dare open debate on trade with China. In the aftermath of the Korean War, though people’s private thoughts may have harbored it, no one would speak out and question the U.S.’s role in Southeast Asia. McCarthyism taught America not to question the state, and that the average, good American didn’t criticize, conformed, and ostracized those who were different.

Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Belief. Had it not been for McCarthy’s public assault on the Army in 1954 and his apparent drunken stupor live in every American home with a television, McCarthy’s reign of terror may very well have lasted into the 1960s. Imagine a deeper seated Red Scare during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For Joseph McCarthy, his belief that communists had entrenched themselves in the highest levels of government altered how we believe our own leaders today. Repeat the lie long enough, and it eventually becomes truth.


North Vietnamese motor boats attacking the USS Maddox

North Vietnamese motor boats attacking the USS Maddox

Event: Gulf of Tonkin

Lie: “Last night I announced to the American people that the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters, and therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations.”–Lyndon Johnson

Troop increases in Vietnam post-Tonkin Resolution

Troop increases in Vietnam post-Tonkin Resolution

Lyndon Johnson was a product of his time. While not an avid historian as other presidents had been, Johnson understood that foreign policy issues would come to define his administration. He’d watched as Franklin D. Roosevelt had tried to sway America off of its isolationist island during the 1930s (and how only an attack against the U.S. at Pearl Harbor would swing America into war). He watched as Truman’s last years as president were marred by the specter that “he’d lost China to the communists.” Closer to home, he was there as Kennedy struggled to deal with Castro in Cuba and had first hand experience with Eisenhower and Kennedy’s Vietnam crisis and eventual war. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson had no choice but to confront the hand grenade sitting squarely in his lap. The 1964 election was the moment that pulled the pin and left Johnson holding what would ultimately make or destroy his presidency. In taped phone records, Johnson admits that he didn’t “think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out.” (Source) However, history had shown Johnson that he had no choice and he decided that he “wouldn’t be the President that let Southeast Asia go the way China went.”

Johnson needed his own Pearl Harbor, a USS Maine to rally Americans to a cause that he knew would ultimately doom America.

Lasting Impact: That the incident with the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin was 17_News_Fight_if_we_must_3-12-26-01completely manipulated, misconstrued, and misrepresented to Congress is without a doubt. That Congress–414 to 0 in the House and 88 to 2 in the Senate–passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the President carte blanche power to wage war in Vietnam as he saw fit shouldn’t surprise anyone either. Just look at how willing Congress was to authorize war with Mexico in 1848 and Spain in 1898 on dubious grounds to see that our political leaders don’t really understand their history. This is the lasting impact. The idea that we don’t understand our history and that, post-McCarthy, no one was willing to question leadership. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution briefly signed away a power specifically handed to Congress–war powers–to the Commander-in-Chief, and for six tenuous years we had exactly what the Framers of the Constitution hoped would never happen. James Madison said this of keeping war away from the President:

“The constitution supposes, what the history of all governments demonstrates, that the executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the legislature.”

And that legislature abdicated its duty to the American citizen.

Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Integrity. When we elect our political leaders there is an inherent belief on our part that these men and women will represent us with a certain level of integrity. We believe them. We trust them. It is a strange belief and trust in someone we have never spent any time with, someone we do not really know on a personal level. We accept their lies because we believe that they have what is best for us in mind. The Gulf of Tonkin shook that view of integrity. Not into our cores, our psyche, yet, but a growing distrust in the “other”–the party contrary to ours–began to fester. And yet, despite a nagging question inside us, we still believe in our leaders. We still hold in them an integrity that they may not have earned, and their lies have a strange way of solidifying that belief.

Read Part 3 “Lies That Altered U.S. History” here

Read Part 1 “Lies That Altered U.S. History” here


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