Tag Archives: Richard Nixon

The Space Race: to go boldly where no one has gone boldly before.

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Apollo 11 crew: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin. (Author: NASA; Source: here)

‘When the eagle landed on the moon, I was speechless overwhelmed, like most of the world. Couldn’t say a word. I think all I said was, “Wow! Jeez!” Not exactly immortal. Well, I was nothing if not human.’ Walter Cronkite, CBS anchor during the Moon landing in 1969

The Space Race: to go boldly where no one has gone boldly before.

In May, 1961, just after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba which had seen the humiliation of the USA’s attempts to oust Fidel Castro, John F. Kennedy, President of the USA, made a rather important announcement. He declared that, ‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth’. In doing this, Kennedy was taking a huge gamble because the USA was languishing far behind the USSR in the Space Race at the time, as it had done since 1957 and would do throughout nearly all of the 1960s. It is fair to say that the only part of the race which the USA did win was that last and most prestigious event of 20th July, 1969, when the news that, ‘The Eagle has landed’, was heard all over the earth. In his speech which was requesting funds for the project at the start of the decade, JFK firmly placed the ‘Space Race’ in the broader context of the Cold War. His speech was made just as Alan Shepherd had become the first US astronaut to go into space but this was a relatively short mission which fell well short of matching the feat of the Soviet Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who had orbited the earth in April of that same year. To quote Kennedy at some length, he said:

“If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.

Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will be our last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world, but as shown by the feat of astronaut Shepherd, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful. But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

It is a most important decision that we must make as a nation. But all of you have lived through the last four years and have seen the significance of space and the adventures in space, and no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be of mastery of space.”

JFK later said, “…we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The significance of the Cold War is clear in the language used here: the USA’s role as leader of the ‘free world’, the significance of the lead obtained by the USSR and the potential glamour from landing on the moon are some of the points to note. The Space Race of the sixties was played out against the backdrop of many important events and struggles including the Bay of Pigs Fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, Khrushchev’s replacement by Leonid Brezhnev, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The Space Race was at the cutting edge of the ideological battle of the age and it was highly symbolic in the battle for ‘hearts and minds’,  as well as the battle for victory in terms of technological ability and individual courage. In this it was an essential part of ‘peaceful coexistence’, the new phase of the Cold War which had been initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956.

In a meaningful sense, the Space Race became a ‘live’ issue on 4th October, 1957. A rocket was launched from Kazakhstan in the USSR and sometime later a simple, ‘……beep……..beep………beep……’ was heard on radios across the world. ‘Sputnik’ (meaning ‘Travelling Companion’ or ‘Fellow Traveller’), had been launched, the first satellite, and it was orbiting the earth. The Soviet Union had taken the first step into space, developing rockets with power never considered possible before. Sputnik had a huge impact on the West, and the USA in particular, as Moscow and Communism seemed to be moving ahead of the West in leaps and bounds. A country which just thirty years earlier had effectively been a backward, peasant economy had gone into space ahead of the developed countries of the capitalist world and people were frightened of what the future might hold. If they had achieved such progress in three decades, and after suffering so badly in WWII, what might they achieve by the end of the century?  Amongst the leaders of Communism in Moscow and the other capitals of Eastern Europe, the experience of putting a satellite into space  gave a massive boost to confidence and self-belief. The belief that the USSR was moving ahead of the USA in technology and performance during the 1950s was picked up in the claim of a ‘missile gap’ in favour of the Communists, a key area of concern to both sides in considering the balance of power. As Khrushchev rejoiced in the success of Sputnik, dark clouds gathered around Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican President of the USA and serious questions began to be asked about his policies and his style.

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Sputnik – 1. If you see one today, it will be a copy as the original burnt up on 4th January, 1958, after travelling 60 million km in three months. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Following on from Sputnik, both sides tried to push forward with their rocket development and other aspects of the Space Race. At each point, the headlines went in favour of the Soviet Union. One particularly significant moment came with the USA’s attempt to respond to Sputnik by launching a tiny satellite on a Vanguard rocket in December, 1957. The cameras were present to record what was supposed to be the start of the USA’s fightback – but instead they filmed a humiliation. Shown live on TV, the rocket exploded on the launch pad, leading to one of the great headlines of the decade: ‘Oh, What a Flopnik’. Things looked bad and things were actually getting worse for the West thanks to a Russian dog – but better thanks to a former Nazi scientist.

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The explosion of the Vanguard TV3 in  December, 1957, was a source of great embarrassment in Washington. (Author: US Navy; Source: here)

In Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, was delighted by the success of Sputnik but he wanted something even more dramatic to mark the 40th anniversary of the ‘Russian Revolution’. The result of this was that the decision was taken to send a dog into space and so it was that ‘Laika’, a stray mongrel from the streets of Moscow, became famous around the globe. She was launched on Sputnik 2 on 3rd November, 1957. The power of the propaganda was more than enough to justify the decision, as it was an extraordinary sign of how far the USSR had come in four decades of Communist rule. Laika almost certainly died from overheating on the day of the launch, as there had been no food or drink in her capsule for several days. It was known that she would die anyway as the technology for re-entry had not been developed at that point. The purpose of the flight (and the subsequent tests on other animals) was to see if people could survive a launch and weightlessness as well as the impact on the body. In doing this, Laika was a ‘heroine’ who paved the way for many future developments. Maybe she would have been delighted to have found her face on a stamp and a statue made in her honour although she certainly suffered for those honours.

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Laika – the first dog in space. Rarely has such a cute looking mongrel dominated the news headlines around the world. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

In 1958, President Eisenhower took a momentous decision in an attempt to show the USA’s commitment to joining in the Space Race. He set up NASA, the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration’, which was charged with developing the research, technology, science and training needed to match the achievements of the Soviet programme. NASA would eventually succeed but in the early years, the USSR generally remained ahead of the Americans, as they put several more dogs into space. But the Americans did launch more powerful and reliable rockets, taking various monkeys into space in 1958 and 1959, the most famous of which was called Baker, who survived the flight, returned to earth and lived until 1984. If only he could have talked…

NASA actually had something to work with thanks largely to a man called Wernher von Braun (Full name Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun (1912-77), a man with the rare distinction of having the great satirist Tom Lehrer write a song about him.) Von Braun was born in a place called Wirsitz just before the Great war, a place which was then part of the German Empire but is today in Poland. Without going to a full explanation of what he did, von Braun became a rocket scientist who worked for the Nazis with his most famous work being the development of  the V-2 rockets, the world’s first ballistic missiles. Over 1400 were launched at Britain from Autumn 1944, and 500 hit London. The rockets weighed 13 tonnes and hit the ground at about 3000 mph, causing over 9000 deaths in the capital.  The worst strike came on 25th November when a V-2 hit a Woolworth’s store in New Cross, killing 168 people. The threat of the rockets was eventually neutralised as the Allies over-ran France, the Low Countries and evenetually Germany itself to secure victory in the west in early May, 1945. Wehner von Braun surrendered to American forces on 3rd May, 1945, and was soon in the USA continuing his work. The truth is that the Nazis loved rockets and were far ahead of any other country in their technological achievements and their developments they made would be central to the Space Race in the Cold War. After the war ended there was basically a carve up of the Nazi scientific community, some going to the USSR, others to the USA and some few to Britain. Luckily for NASA, Wernher von Braun made his way to the USA and was the man charged with sorting out the mess after the failed launch in December, 1957. The rise of the American space programme can really be traced back to the developments made by von Braun who went on to develop the Saturn rockets which would power the Apollo programme. The Space Race really was almost  a case of ‘our Nazi scientists against your Nazi scientists’ as they were central to the early developments in the USSR as well.

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Wernher von Braun in his NASA office in 1964. He is standing in front of a number of models of the Saturn rockets which powered the Apollo missions. (Author: NASA; Source: here)

The Soviet Union had deported some 6000-7000 people from Germany at the end of the war as a part of  ‘Operation Osoaviakhim’ which was designed to set up a rocket programme for Joseph Stalin. Recent records indicate that 177 of these were specifically engineers and scientists who had been part of the Nazi rockets programme. Men such as Helmut Gröttrup, an expert on the V-2s flight control system, were instrumental in setting up a Soviet rocket programme in the years after the war. Although Gröttrup and most of the other scientists returned to Germany by the early 1950s, they had a central role in establishing what became the Soviet rocket system.   They left the Soviet trained colleagues to continue the work. The USSR really led the space race during the 1950s and their achievements came simply by building rockets which were more reliable and more powerful than those developed by the USA. In 1959 they had even decided to aim for the moon, quite literally as it turned out. They built a rocket and launched it at the moon, to check that they could both launch something that powerful and to do it with the required accuracy to later travel to the moon. This happened on 12th-14th September 1959 – and the rocket landed just 84 seconds late according to calculations – all of which were made without computers in those days – not bad. This is a section from a report carried in the ‘New York Times’ about the event. It shows the fear and anxiety such events created.

U.S. Failures Recalled

“Some statements also compared the Soviet achievement to last year’s moon-shot failures in the United States. Still other commentators contended that the Soviet feat was made possible by rocket fuels and equipment superior to those of the United States.

But most of all, Soviet propaganda seized upon the event as being of special significance to the forthcoming Eisenhower-Khrushchev talks. The Soviet leader will arrive in Washington tomorrow at the dramatic height of world attention to the Soviet moon strike.

The Premier is certain to offer the event as proof of Soviet might, skill and determination to surpass the United States in all other fields of production and technology.”

Despite the improvement in NASA’s work, the next giant step was again taken by the USSR when, on 12th April, 1961, Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) became the first man to travel into space. He was an officer in the USSR air force and he became a national and an international hero, another sign of Soviet power – and, being considered a rather handsome man, a pin up for many people. His flight lasted 108 minutes during which time he orbited the earth once. Gagarin’s achievement stunned the world and Khrushchev was keen to exploit the propaganda opportunities so he travelled the world promoting the Soviet system and receiving great acclaim. Sadly, he died in an air crash in 1968. Two years later, the USSR achieved another first when Valentina Tereshkova (b. 1937) became the first woman in space, a distinction she achieved on 16 June, 1963.

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Yuri Gagarin (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Valentina Tereshkova with one of the great sixties hairstyles (Author: Alexander Mokletsov; Source: here)

As with the situation in the immediate aftermath of Sputnik, Washington was desperate to respond to the extraordinary achievement that saw Gagarin orbit the earth in April 1961.  There was a response but in some ways, the journey made by Alan Shepherd (1923-98) on 5th May, 1961, only highlighted the gap that seemed to exist. Shepherd was brave but he could only travel using the rocket power available and he was not able to complete a full orbit of the earth, travelling little more than 100 miles on a 15 minute flight, but he was still lauded and treated as a hero on his return. The USA was making progress but was still seemed to be falling further behind the Soviet space programme. In 1971, Alan Shepherd did go one step further than Gagarin, though, by becoming the fifth man to walk on the moon. He also became the first man to hit a golf ball on the moon – and if anyone asks, he hit a 6 iron which went a very long way, apparently.

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Astronaut Alan Shepherd the first American in space (Author: NASA; Source: here)

It is important to remember what else was going on around the time of these events in the Space Race. The U2 spy plane incident, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs Fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK and a shift in sporting power at the Olympics were just some of the things that were happening as the struggle for supremacy in space was unfolding. These were high profile events that were causing major changes in the way the two sides viewed each other and the way they were perceived by other countries, especially the ‘new’ countries emerging in what was called the Third World . For the the USA, there was a belief in the need for containment of Communism, the continuation of the policy begun under Harry Truman. As Moscow kept grabbing the headlines and seemed to have the technological advantage, there was a very real fear in the West that these countries would choose to go with communism, seeing that as the way to better protection and a share in the ultimate victory. The developments of the Space Race were not some trivial sideshow; for the politicians, they had a huge impact on politics, technology, the arms race, war, negotiations and the media.

In the end, though, NASA and the USA was able to claim the greatest prize of the Space Race through the Moon landing on 20th July, 1969. The primary reasons for this are rooted in two things: the economy and technology. After Eisenhower’s decision to create NASA, the full weight of the economic machine was put behind the effort to develop the technology needed to catch up with the USSR. At the same time, the Arms Race was also in full flow and capitalism proved far more adept at meeting these twin demands than did Communism. For the USSR, Gagarin was really the high-point of its achievements, and from that point on they were not able to make the same progress. From 1963 onwards, there was a momentum shift towards the USA really because of its industrial might. In the USSR by contrast, the final years of Khrushchev’s time in power were marked by the realisation that the country was failing to develop industrially, and indeed, the whole system was in danger of collapse. The USSR faced many urgent needs and it had no chance of meeting them all: supporting the Red Army and developing nuclear weapons in the Arms Race, supporting its satellites in Eastern Europe through COMECON and doing something to raise the living standards of its own people were just some of the challenges to be met by an industrial system that was creaking at the seams. Industrially the country needed to invest and develop but the pressures were such that this was not possible because the re-structuring needed would mean that they ran the risk of falling further behind the USA, with a potentially catastrophic short-fall in military hardware being the result.  Instead of the re-structuring, some things got cut-back and it was the Space Race that suffered. While NASA was developing the Apollo programme as a response to the inspiration of Kennedy’s vision, the USSR was stagnating in its work which was not really surprising in a country which had food queues and shortages of even the most basic products for its people. Gagarin and Tereshkova might have gone into space but most ordinary Russians had no chance of getting a fridge or a car during the same decade.

The cost of the whole space programme was, indeed, extraordinary, and something that the USA was quite simply better able to handle than the less economically advanced Soviet Union. In the early days of computer technology, almost nothing was available to the USSR and the advantage increasingly lay with the USA as each new stage demanded more and more technological skill and development of resources. The overall cost of putting a man on the moon has been estimated at $150 billion in current values, a level of funding which the USSR could never match. In the long run, attempting to match the NASA programme, developing nuclear weapons, maintaining its huge army and supporting its Communist allies were all factors which contributed to the collapse of the USSR in the 1980s. However, the journey from Sputnik and Laika to Armstrong and Aldrin was far from smooth, even for the wealthiest country in history. There were many disasters and setbacks on the way, none more so than the explosions which cost many lives. The most famous and tragic disaster involved Apollo 1 which exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 1967 with the deaths of the three astronauts on board. When put alongside the loss of two Space Shuttles later on, it is a reminder of just how high the costs can be in undertaking space travel.

Overall, the balance of successes in the Space Race lay with Moscow until Apollo 11 pulled it out of the fire for the USA. On 20th July, 1969, Neil Armstrong (b. 1930), Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (b. 1930) and Michael Collins (b. 1930 – who was also the first Italian in space as he’d been born in Rome) achieved this feat together. Collins remained in the capsule while Armstrong and Aldrin landed and then, of course, walked on the moon. Don’t get distracted by all the conspiracy theories, shadows, wind, photos and everything else – if you want that, you’ll have to go somewhere else. It’s just worth noting the huge propaganda victory that it was, the way it saved NASA and seemed to restore American confidence in both the Space Race and the Cold War. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the chaos of the Vietnam War, violence linked with the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power salutes of the Mexico Olympics and the shock of events like Woodstock, all tearing at ‘middle America, ‘The Eagle has landed’ was a boost that was desperately needed in Washington.

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One of those controversial photos from the moon landing: Buzz Aldrin and the US flag. If you want conspiracy theories about footprints, fluttering flags, shadows and where was the camera, then there is a load of stuff on the internet. 

And how interesting to note that ‘Man on the Moon’ was Jack Kennedy’s ‘dream’ but it was Richard Nixon who was there to shake hands with Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. Funny how things happen sometimes.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘A Man on the Moon’ by Andrew Chaikin; ‘Space Race: The Battle to Rule the Heavens’ by Deborah Cadbury (Harper Perennial, 2007); ‘Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race’ by  Von Hardesty and Gene Eisman (National Geographic Society, 2007); ‘NASA: the Complete Illustrated History’, by Michael Gorn and Buzz Aldrin; ‘First Man: The life of Neil A. Armstrong’ by James Hansen (Pocket Books, 2006); ‘Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys’ by Michael Collins (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Ltd, 2009).

Film: ‘Apollo 13’ (Universal Pictures, 1995), ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ (HBO, 1998) and ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’ (Channel 4 DVD, 2007)

TV/DVD: ‘The Cold War’ by Jeremy Isaacs (CNN), especially Episode 8 ‘Sputnik’ but the whole series gives a context for the importance of the Space Race; ‘Discovery Channel: NASA’s Greatest Missions’ is a four box set which is a celebration of fifty years of NASA.

 

 

 

Richard Nixon: “There can be no whitewash in the White House”.

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Richard Nixon, 37th President of the USA, with Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, 1972. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Richard Nixon: “There can be no whitewash in the White House.”

“When the President does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” Richard M. Nixon

Watergate. No matter where you start when looking at the life of Richard Nixon (1913-1994), you end up back at ‘Watergate’. If you’ve ever wondered why the media always seem to stick the word ‘gate’ on the end of any scandal, then it’s down to Nixon and events between 1972 and 1974. (Actually, if you’ve ever wondered why there is someone called ‘Milhouse Van Houten’ in ‘The Simpsons’, I suggest that you look no further than Nixon, as that was his middle name – although he spelt it ‘Milhous’.) Nixon was involved in many other important events, like the Vietnam War and détente with the USSR and China, but we’ll leave those out of this section so as to concentrate on this central moment. Be warned here – you will need to be alert and ready to check out a number of other things if you want to understand what went on but it is worth it. Nixon is a fascinating character and his life reads as a modern parable, an insight into how power and obsession can corrupt and destroy the most capable people. First of all, a few pictures of our subject with some key people; Nixon knew everybody.

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Nixon as Vice-President to President Eisenhower (Author: White House; Source: here)

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Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover (Author: White House; Source: here )

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Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev (Author: NARA; Source: here)

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Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev (Author: Oliver F. Atkins; Source: here)

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Nixon and Mao Zedong (Author: White House; Source: here)

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Nixon and Elvis Presley (Author: Oliver F. Atkins ; Source: here)

 

‘Watergate’ was the name of a building or rather a complex of buildings in Washington DC, the US capital, which included the headquarters of the Democratic Party in the USA. It contained a hotel, apartment blocks, shops and offices, parts of which were used by the Democrats. (It’s worth noting that it’s in the ‘Foggy Bottom’ section of the city. Things like that don’t normally bother me, and I know it shouldn’t be funny, but somehow it is.) Anyway, in the summer of 1972, as the campaign for that year’s Presidential Election was getting underway, a group of men broke into Watergate. They were caught, tried and imprisoned but there was a slight problem: it was noticed that nothing had been stolen even though they had been in the building for some time. Although this seemed a little strange, the police did not seem too bothered and things looked set to drift away into a low level story. The story went quiet for a while but two journalists with ‘The Washington Post’, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, set about an investigation that eventually revealed one of the most important cover-ups in history. Their work led to the White House and to the Oval office itself, to the President. In simple terms, Richard Nixon had wanted to know exactly what Senator George McGovern and the Democrats planned to do so that he could match and beat their ideas, so guaranteeing victory. And to do this, he was willing to authorise criminal activity, oversee a major cover up to make sure it never came out and mislead the US Congress and the people in the process. It would eventually bring him down.
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The Watergate Complex, Washington, D.C.. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But why did Nixon do this in 1972? The answers to this question take us into the heart of one of the most fascinating politicians of the century as, on paper, it just did not make sense. In the summer of 1972, Nixon was miles ahead of McGovern in the polls. Nixon was walking towards a second term in office on the back of his foreign policy which had seen dramatic breakthroughs in relations with the Communist superpowers, both the USSR and China. The Democrats were in disarray after lots of in-fighting over several years, much of it linked with the Vietnam War and the rise of ‘issues’ to do with civil rights, feminism and gay rights. Senator George McGovern was chosen to fight Nixon but he was always trailing in the polls; he led a divided party and lacked support and credibility with the media and on the country. In November 1972, Nixon cruised to the expected and massive victory, winning 49 of the 50 states and receiving over 60% of the vote. The result was never in doubt, a landslide, and Nixon rode back into the White House on a high tide of public approval. Yet, less than two years later, in August 1974, Nixon would be forced to resign as he faced impeachment (being put on trial as President for lies, cover-ups and misleading congress) for spying on the Democrats. Why did he do it when he was so strong? Why had he taken such a risk when he held such a strong hand?

Although the above things are true, life is rarely simple especially when power is involved – and ego – and dreams – and fear – and status. History is usually shaped by people operating at the most basic human levels, and many powerful people are flawed, confused and as mixed up as the majority of people. History is often the equivalent of ‘dogs pissing up trees and blokes measuring their willies’, as it has been put, quite crudely but accurately. In other words, history is often about control and status: the control of territory and the status that comes from being more powerful than others. ‘Mine is bigger than yours, I control a bigger space than you…I am better than you and have more power than you…I am great.’ Basic it may be but Nixon fits these images rather well and the language he used was much stronger than ‘pissing’ and ‘willies’, I can tell you.

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Richard Nixon campaigning for re-election in 1972. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

To understand why President Nixon, the most powerful man in the world, who was at the height of that power in 1972, should choose to take such a huge risk as to bug his rival’s offices requires some background. The truth is that many powerful people do not always feel powerful – or secure or in control. And at times, those in power also come to believe that they are beyond normal restrictions and rules, able to demand and get what they want as their extraordinary influence becomes ‘normal’, just a part of their job. Others in power need to push the boundaries and limits so as to get a ‘buzz’, an adrenalin rush, a sense of danger to fight off boredom or routine. Stars of sport, film and music often live lives of glamour that others envy and desire but it can simply become a routine – while at the same time being something fragile and easily lost. Some turn to drugs, others to sex, others to crime – the patterns are well established. Boredom and a desire to control are an interesting combination, especially when mixed with a desire for greatness, the wish to take what you have and make it a sort of monument to your achievements. Think of this as we look at Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Richard Nixon came from a poor Californian family. Born in 1913, he was a bright child growing up as one of four brothers. Two brothers, Arthur and Harold died young (Arthur aged 7 and Harold at 24). Harold’s death in particular hit Richard hard creating a passion for action, achievement, strength. His actions and behaviour were tinged with vulnerability and the sense that nothing could be taken for granted; death or other shocks could come from anywhere. Alongside this, the key influence in his life was his mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon, feeding his huge determination and commanding great loyalty as well as fear. Nixon’s upbringing as a Quaker was also significant, rather puritanical and based on strict values, so that the family had a hatred of drinking and swearing, both of which became rather important later on.

The young Nixon was a very bright student, winning a scholarship to the famous Harvard University which he could not take up because the family was so poor. This missed opportunity denied him a natural way forward in life and fed in to a sense of injustice and the idea of the world being against him. It was one of the things that would later feed in to his hatred of the posh, privileged, well-to-do East Coast families who had such influence in Washington. Those privileged classes would come to be epitomised by the Kennedy family from Massachusetts.

Despite the setback of not getting to Harvard, Nixon went to a local college and did very well although he had to carry on working at the family store. In 1934, he won a scholarship to Law School, eventually becoming a lawyer. He served in the Navy (just like the future President Jack Kennedy) during World War II before winning election to the House of Representatives in 1946. He was soon making a name for himself by becoming involved in one of the high-profile spy cases of the post-war era. Nixon joined the investigations of the HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Commission), looking into the accusations against Alger Hiss, whose story is worth knowing as it provides important background for the rise of Joe McCarthy.

Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was an official with the US Federal Government who had been involved in setting up the United Nations, amongst other things. In 1948 he was accused of being part of a Communist group which had infiltrated the government. Hiss denied it but was put on trial. He denied all charges. A document allegedly produced on his typewriter was presented as key evidence, although such a thing could quite easily have been faked. Hiss was eventually found guilty of perjury (lying and misleading the court) but not guilty of the actual charges. Hiss’s conviction came on 25th January, 1950, just two weeks before McCarthy would make his claim of wide scale Communist infiltration into the US Government. Hiss went to prison for nearly four years and his career was ruined, one of the first to suffer as part of the new ‘Red Scare’ of the post-war years.

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Alger Hiss on trial. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Richard Nixon was one of the politicians who was convinced that communists had become powerful within the government. He fought hard against President Truman over his actions in Korea, claiming the President had been too weak and too slow in standing up to Communist expansionism. Likewise, he was one of those who accused Truman of being responsible for the “loss of China” when Jiang Jieshi’s Chinese nationalists, who had been supported by the USA, were defeated by Chairman Mao’s communist forces. The Chinese Revolution saw China, the largest population in the world, become Communist on 1st October, 1949, a clear sign to many in the West that Communism was on the march and the so called ‘domino-effect’ was happening. The facts were that China bordered the USSR, controlled most of the Asian coast of the Pacific and reached south to border French Indo-China and India, and these were all of concern to the US administration. The blame for the fall of China was put on Truman for being too soft on Communism abroad and at home. Richard Nixon was one of the anti-Red politicians and he went on to become a firm supporter of Joe McCarthy and the Communist ‘witch hunts’.

Ambitious for power, Nixon used his higher profile and status within the Republican Party to run for Senator of California in the elections of 1950. In the wake of the Hiss trial and that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, another very high profile spying case, many American voters were anxious about anyone with even slightly ‘left of centre’ policies. Nixon made out that his opponent, Helen Douglas was, if not a Red, then certainly a ‘pink’; his actual phrase about the former actress was that she was ‘pink, right down to her underwear’, meaning perhaps that she kept her ‘true’ Communist sympathies hidden away. Nixon won but Douglas’ nickname for him, ‘Tricky Dicky’, would stay with him for the rest of his life. But he had made a huge step in his political career by becoming a Senator at the age of just 33.

In 1952, Richard Nixon took a major step up the political ladder when he was the surprise choice as running mate for the Republican candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was standing for the presidency. Eisenhower had a military background and had no links to either political party. In 1952 it was known he would probably stand for election but it was unclear if he would be a Republican or a Democrat. Whichever he chose, he was certain to be the favourite as he was a national hero after commanding Allied Forces at D-day and being the first leader of NATO. Nixon was chosen to be Vice-President as he was the young rising star of the Republican Party. He was the darling of the right-wing (McCarthy supporters loved him) while Eisenhower was a ‘softer’ Republican. Nixon would go on to play a key role in the Eisenhower administration over the next eight years, taking a major interest in foreign policy. Nixon was intelligent and ambitious but he did have a darker, nasty side. One incident worth noting in all this is that there were accusations made against Nixon in 1952 regarding his expenses and campaign funds. It’s not the fact that he was accused but the way he handled that is so interesting. Nixon went on TV to make a statement and he took his six year-old daughter’s dog, called ‘Checkers’, with him. In these early days of TV, he manipulated the situation by creating the image of a lovely, happy, nice man, playing with a lovely happy, cute dog. ‘Aaaahhhh’, the people sighed, ‘How could a man with such a nice dog be anything but trustworthy?’ And so he got away with it, possibly setting a dangerous precedent and creating a sense of his own cleverness and talent.

Eisenhower and Nixon at Dinner with King Saud

Eisenhower and Nixon with King Saud of Saudi Arabia in 1957.(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Throughout this time, Nixon was striving for power. Nothing was ever quite enough to satisfy his drive to overcome his impoverished background and prove his intelligence. In foreign affairs in particular he developed an expertise beyond that of most members of the Government. He was popular but wanted more; for the greatness he desired, the greatness that would really get back at East Coast liberals and privileged classes, Nixon needed the top job as President. And for true greatness, he knew that he would need to be re-elected so as to serve two terms. In 1960, as Eisenhower stood down after eight years, Nixon was chosen to be the Republican candidate and it seemed to be his job for the taking. In challenging Nixon, the Democrats went to the son of one of the richest men in the USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, (usually known as JFK or ‘Jack’).

Jack Kennedy was privileged, one of those East Coast clans that Nixon had decided to hate from nearly three decades earlier. The head of the Kennedy dynasty, Joseph Kennedy Snr., was a multi-millionaire and one of the richest men in the USA. He was from an Irish-Catholic family who had made it big in Boston, Massachusetts, building a fortune from finance (gambling on the stock market) and alcohol (he gained rights to distribute Scottish whisky after prohibition). He was also rumoured to have links with the Mafia and other gangsters during the prohibition era and was certainly well connected in official circles too. Such a wealthy and privileged background saw the Kennedy children have a golden life, the best schools and a couple of years living in London when Joe Kennedy became the US Ambassador. But despite the many advantages dealt to JFK by birth, Nixon was a far better politician, more experienced, a better debater and with a stronger grasp of policy, and he was a clear favourite to win the White House in 1960.

The turning point in 1960 is always said to be the first of the televised debates. Fifty years before they appeared in the UK, these debates started in the USA, with Nixon-Kennedy becoming prime time viewing. Little planning was considered at the time but what happened in the first debate set in train a process which has turned such events into a small industry. Arguments about who stands where, the height and angles of the podium, who speaks first, the colour of ties, the amount of make-up and the heat of the studio are just some of the factors considered. And it all goes back to 1960. So, what happened and how does it link with Watergate?

Richard Nixon was not as tall as Jack Kennedy. He was not as handsome as Kennedy. He did not dress as well as Kennedy. But Nixon knew far more than Kennedy and could run rings round him with his arguments and grasp of facts. And Kennedy knew all this. And his advisers did. And his Dad did. So during the campaign and in the build-up to the debates, Joe Kennedy hired a TV crew to go round with his son, filming events and then distributing them to the news shows. They showed them and it became free advertising for Kennedy. Most of these clips showed him smiling, greeting happy crowds and standing alongside his beautiful wife, Jacqueline.

President_and_Mrs._Kennedy_in_motorcade,_03_May_1961

John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. (Author: Abbie Rowe; Source: here)

The first TV debate was held on 26th September 1960. The view on this debate is that Nixon did not perform well, giving a mediocre performance by his high standards, but he had been ill, coming out of hospital only a few days earlier after a bout of ‘flu’. But most people still believed he out-performed Kennedy in the debate about domestic affairs. Certainly those listening on radio believed that Nixon won the debate. But TV audiences differed. They gave it to Kennedy, not for his arguments but because of looks and image. Kennedy stood straight and tall while Nixon slouched over the podium. Kennedy looked cool and smart while Nixon sweated badly in a creased suit. Kennedy smiled and cracked jokes while Nixon scowled and gave long detailed answers that went over some people’s heads. In its simplest form, many TV viewers said they would rather go for a beer with Kennedy than with Nixon.

What was going on? Well, one reason why Kennedy stood tall was because he had a bad back, a chronic injury from WWII, while Nixon slumped forward as he was recovering from flu. But people judged by such looks. Next, Kennedy was simply taller and better-looking than Nixon, and he had grown up with a different sense of style and the experience of meeting many people. Nixon, in contrast, also had a terrible problem with sweating, something that plagued him throughout his career. Under the hot TV lights, recovering from flu, it was worse than ever at that debate. People did not see or judge based on sweat on the radio, of course, but it affected the opinions of the TV viewers. Kennedy was more charming than Nixon but he had less to say, so he went for short, simple answers that made sense to people rather than dealing with the big, complicated issues which Nixon did. Kennedy’s witty openers won people over while Nixon’s analysis lost them. The reality is that people who don’t understand the issues get one vote each, just as those who do understand the issues get one vote each. Kennedy won that first TV debate through image not content and many people did not bother to watch the other three debates, which Nixon was thought to have won. They made their minds up early: Kennedy would do. It was a classic case of perception being more important than reality.

Nixon lost the 1960 election, ‘his’ election, to Kennedy, the rich boy from the East Coast who had all the help and luck in the world. He lost by 120 000 votes or just 0.2% of the vote. Nixon was devastated. Privilege, looks and luck had beaten him; he felt cheated and betrayed by the system. After considering alternative options, he stepped back from front-line politics. He was not yet 50 and could find a new way forward. He considered standing again in 1964 but sympathy for the Democrats following Kennedy’s assassination meant there was no way the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, could lose, so Nixon stayed in the wilderness. The Kennedy assassination served to remind him of the way unpredictable events could shatter your plans. Nixon stayed away from Washington politics but maintained his interest and involvement in foreign affairs. He was a major critic of Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, for instance, demanding more force against the Viet Minh and the North Vietnamese. With the war not going well and with a lot of support from businessmen and some Republicans, a return to the Presidency looked like a possibility in 1968.

1968 saw the Vietnam War going badly for the USA and when President Johnson announced that he would not seek the Democrat nomination to run in 1968, Nixon got involved. The Democrats were struggling and needed a candidate to unite them otherwise Republican victory looked possible. Things suddenly turned against Nixon and the Republicans when Bobby Kennedy, the popular younger brother of Jack Kennedy, announced that he would stand for the Democrat nomination. History looked as if it might repeat itself at the election and a second presidential defeat for Nixon to a Kennedy would mark the end of his Presidential ambitions and his political career. But the ‘gods’ (or the ‘devils’) smiled on Nixon, as Bobby Kennedy became the fourth high-profile assassination in the USA in the 1960s. Following JFK in November 1963, Malcolm X in February 1965 and Martin Luther King in April 1968, Bobby Kennedy was killed in June 1968 in Los Angeles, having just won the Democrat nomination for California.

In the absence of Kennedy, the Democrats were divided. Hubert Humphrey was the candidate but Senator George Wallace of Alabama stood as an independent Democrat, really as an alternative for the Southern Democrats. The Democrat vote was split, allowing Richard Nixon to become President. He defeated Humphrey by just 500 000 votes. Nixon won comfortably on States (31 – 19 against the combined number for Humphrey and Wallace) but on votes he won only 43% and he was only 0.7% ahead of Humphrey. In total he was over 9 million votes (or 13%) behind when the two Democrats were added together. This would trouble him greatly in the approach to the 1972 election, seeking re-election, with a second term, and the dream of greatness, within his grasp. Insecurity walked with him at his Inauguration in January 1969.

Richard_Nixon_1969_inauguration

Nixon’s inauguration, January, 1969. (Author: Oliver F. Atkins; Source: here)

When it came to the next election in 1972, Nixon was frantically busy in the months leading up to it. As well as the ordinary day to day aspects of being President, he was trying to get ‘peace with honour’ in Vietnam so that the US could withdraw without appearing to have lost or deserted its ally in South Vietnam. He was trying to address issues in the Cold War by improving relations with both China and the USSR, building tension between them through negotiations and trying to get their help in putting pressure on the Communists of North Vietnam to cut a deal. His visits to Chairman Mao Zedong in China and Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow had captured the world’s imagination. He had been given pandas by Mao, vodka and hugs by Brezhnev and there were deals on nuclear weapons to be signed. In the midst of all this, Nixon felt a mix of elation, power and anxiety. He was so busy he often lost track of what was going on so he took to taping all of his conversations and meetings in the Oval Office (his main office) in the White House. He was also keen to get on with the ‘big’ stuff of government, Vietnam and the Cold War, without having to worry about the election too much. But the memories of 1960, the fateful assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, the close-run election of 1968 and his own deep insecurities and desperate dream of being ‘special’ would not let go. And so he approved the bugging of the Watergate Building in the summer of 1972.

A group of ex-CIA agents and Cuban exiles did it. They were called ‘The Plumbers’ and they broke in to the Watergate Building to bug the Democrat offices on 17th June, 1972. They got caught when a piece of tape was found holding a door lock closed. No one thought too much of this burglary except for young journalist with ‘The Washington Post’, called Bob Woodward, who became suspicious because nothing seemed to have been taken during the ‘burglary. The idea of this being a ‘burglary’ did not quite add up. Still no one seemed too bothered and it looked like it would all fall away even after the ‘plumbers’ were convicted. Another journalist, Carl Bernstein, joined Woodward to investigate the story but they made little progress at first. Eventually an FBI Informant, using the codename ‘Deep Throat’, a reference to a porn movie of the time, gave them details that linked the incident to the White House and so developed one of the most famous political tales of all time. Enquiries continued into 1973 and 1974 which led to high-profile arrests and took the story into the ‘Oval Office’ itself. Nixon was implicated and two of his senior aides, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, ended up in prison.

The investigation had not been able to find Nixon’s role in ‘Watergate’ as there was no clear trail to him. However, Nixon’s fate was sealed when a junior official in the White House, Alexander Butterfield, said that the President had tapes of all of his conversations. The Supreme Court demanded these tapes but they were refused. Eventually they got some, then a few more, then others with sections missing. In early August 1974, the ‘smoking gun’ tape was passed to prosecutors, giving clear evidence that Nixon had known about and authorised the break in. In the chaos that followed, the noose tightened around Nixon, especially as many of the tapes could not be played on TV because they contained so much swearing and profanity. Edited versions with the famous ‘expletive deleted’ subtitle horrified and scandalised the USA. Along with revelations about Nixon’s heavy drinking, the swearing would have had his mother turning in her grave. The imagined disappointment that Mrs. Nixon might have felt were as nothing compared with the anger and humiliation her son experienced when Richard Nixon was forced to resign from the Presidency. At 9 pm, East Coast Time, on 8th August, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only US president to be forced to resign. All his dreams and ambitions had ended in the ultimate disgrace.

Richard_Nixon's_resignation_speech

Nixon’s resignation speech, 8th August, 1974. (Author: White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library; Source: here)

Nixon was immediately replaced by his vice-president, Gerald Ford, who went on to lose the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia. Ford’s first act as President was to give a full pardon to Nixon. In the Communist world, Brezhnev and Mao were bewildered by what had happened as it seemed as nothing compared to what they considered logical and reasonable. The people of America felt anger, betrayal and horror at what had happened. Woodward and Bernstein were awarded prize after prize for their journalism.

And Nixon went home to California where he had lots of time to think. No doubt he went back over the things that had brought him to Watergate. Jealousy, fear of failure, ambition and the dream of being special were just some of the things that would have gone through his head. And some important faces, too, from his mother and brothers, to Alger Hiss and Joe McCarthy, to Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

Maybe his most nagging thought in those dark times was, ‘If only I didn’t sweat so much…’ It’s strange how life often turns on such small matters.

 

Find out more

Film: ‘Nixon’ by Oliver Stone (Certificate 15, Eiv, 1995). Typically robust approach to film making by Oliver Stone which emphasises many of the deep-seated flaws in Nixon’s personality with much being made of his childhood and his relationship with his mother.

Film: ‘All the President’s Men’ (Certificate 15, Warner Home Video, 1976). Famous Oscar winning film about the investigation into Watergate by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of ‘The Washington Post’.

Film: ‘Frost-Nixon’ (Certificate 15, Universal pictures UK, 2009). Interesting film version of the play about the interviews between a relatively unknown David Frost and Richard Nixon. Nixon ends up being led into far more revealing comments than expected.

Book: ‘The Arrogance of Power’ by Anthony Summers (Phoenix Press, 2000.) An interesting if clearly critical study of Nixon highlighting many of the Presidents failings and the more murky side of his personality and relationships.

Book: ‘The Presidents: The Transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama’ by Stephen Graubard (Penguin, 2009). A fascinating study of changes in the Presidency including the impact of Nixon.

 

 

 

 

Joe McCarthy: what you can get away with when people are scared.

Welch-McCarthy-Hearings

Joe McCarthy during the Senate investigation into the activities of the US Army, 1954. (Author: US Senate; Source: here)

 

Joe McCarthy: what you can get away with when people are scared.

“I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” Senator Joe McCarthy, 9th February, 1950.

‘Bad’ stuff is so much more interesting than ‘good’ stuff so a decent starting point for a look at the Twentieth Century is a politician from the USA by the name of Joe McCarthy. Although he was not really the biggest ‘baddie’ of the century, McCarthy was a fascinating and important character who shaped the modern political landscape and has divided opinion ever since he came to prominence. He still has many supporters, as any trip around the internet will show, and his message retains great significance today. So let’s leave the ‘big baddies’, like Hitler, Stalin and Mao to one side for the moment and begin with Joseph Raymond McCarthy, the Republican Senator for Wisconsin between 1947 and 1957.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy

(Author: United Press, 1954; Source: Library of Congress)

Of course, Joe McCarthy doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Hitler, Stalin and Mao, but it’s true that he exercised huge power, shaped public opinion and most certainly ruined thousands of people’s lives. There was, to be honest, just something rather sinister and unpleasant about him, and the manner in which he was able to twist opinion and power in the USA in the first half of the 1950s was truly frightening. Although not quite so well known or understood today, McCarthy was, for a few years, amongst the most powerful politicians in the Western world and he reached that position through a mixture of lies, media support and the influence of some very powerful people. When it comes to evil figures in history, like the three already mentioned, it is far too easy to dismiss them as ‘nutters’. For many people, Hitler and Mao are almost ‘joke’ figures and there is a belief that no one would ever support them today because we could see through them. But somehow that does not work with Joe McCarthy who represents something potentially more dangerous exactly because he was so widely supported by main-stream Americans and operated within the democratic system.

Joe McCarthy was only popular and powerful for a rather brief period of four years. In fact, in 1950, the American press actually voted McCarthy as the worst senator in the country. Little did they know that he was on the verge of becoming the dominant figure in US life for the next four years. In that period, the so-called ‘McCarthy Era’, he quite literally shaped US politics, destroyed thousands of ordinary people, helped create a monster of Communism and ensured that the arms and defence industry grew to have quite extraordinary wealth and influence. Clearly, McCarthy had something important to say to the USA in this period and, therefore, he tells us something important about the values of that post-war era. McCarthy is a fascinating character who shows us how some people are prepared to act either to gain power or when they have power. He shows the power of the media and just how far people can be manipulated when they are scared. He was a most unpleasant man, a liar and a bully, who achieved great power. Joe McCarthy’s story is a true warning from history, a reminder of how powerful politicians can be, especially when they work with the media during a time of fear.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy was born in the wonderfully named Grand Chute, Wisconsin in 1908 to devout Catholic parents. Life was tough when he was young but he was considered reasonably bright and, despite some problems which meant he had to finish his formal education early, he went on to get a degree, worked as a lawyer and a judge, and then served with the US Marines in the Pacific during World War II. While he was with the Marines, he had a desk job, only flying safe missions on a few occasions, and rumour has it that he suffered from air sickness. He was certainly no great ‘war hero’, although he did his bit by being there and helping to organise things for those who fought. On his return to the USA, McCarthy needed a new career, so he left the army and abruptly entered politics.

It came as a surprise to some when Joe McCarthy was elected as Republican Senator for the state of Wisconsin (that’s up near the Canadian border, just west of the Great Lakes, where it gets very cold in winter) in 1946. He was one of many men who went into politics in the elections which followed the end of WWII, other examples being Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. One of his campaign tactics was actually to highlight his ‘proud war record’, in an attempt to contrast himself with his opponent, who had not served in the war. He referred to his numerous medals, but these had, in fact, not been awarded but had been given to him at his own request and did not match his actual service record. At this time, McCarthy gave himself the nickname ‘Tail-Gunner Joe’, even though he had never flown on a combat mission. As a Senator, he had a pretty dismal time and he was considered next to useless so that, as the elections of 1950 loomed, McCarthy was facing almost certain defeat. With things looking so bad, he gathered his campaign team together to work out a new strategy. One of them, a Catholic priest, said they needed a project, a focus for the campaign, anything to distract people from McCarthy’s poor record in office. So it was decided that he would launch a campaign against Communism – and so his journey to stardom began.

One thing McCarthy was considered reasonably good at was public speaking. On 9th February, 1950, he gave what was expected to be an unimportant talk to the Republican Women’s Club at Wheeling, West Virginia. Little could those ladies have known what dramas awaited them as they gathered to meet ‘The Pepsi Cola Kid’, another nickname for McCarthy because, as a Senator, he had once received a payment of $20 000 from a man who made the bottles for Pepsi. The day of the talk turned out to be a ‘slow-news day’ and what McCarthy had to say would make the headlines; on another day it might have disappeared. His message shocked the good ladies of Wheeling – and got the attention of everyone else: he claimed that Communist spies were working in the USA and that he alone had a list of 205 who were employed by the US Federal Government. It was a sensational story which the newspapers were delighted to run.

The post-war years from 1945-1949 were a period of rapid deterioration in relations between the USSR and its former western allies, years which provide a key back-drop to the rise of Joe McCarthy. These years saw the rise in tension between the new ‘Superpowers’, the USA and the USSR, which led to the ‘Cold War’, the era that dominated international relations down to 1990 when Communism collapsed. The term ‘Cold War’ was invented to describe this period of extreme tension and conflict which did not develop into a ‘Hot War’, or direct fighting, between the two sides. Various factors and events contributed to the start of the Cold War, some of which are mentioned here but are covered in greater detail elsewhere.

By 1949, Eastern Europe had come fully under the control of Communist forces, with countries such as Czechoslovakia being forced into an ‘alliance’ with Moscow. The ‘Berlin Blockade’ (1948-49), which had seen Joseph Stalin attempt to force the West out of the former capital of Germany by preventing essential supplies reaching its zones in the city, had raised tensions between the Superpowers but had shown Western competence and raised its commitment in the region. This had raised Stalin’s anger and anxiety about Truman’s plans for Europe.  The formation of NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in April, 1949, raised the tension to new levels as the USA and 11 other countries made a military alliance so that an attack on any one of them by the USSR or any other country would bring a response from all. In addition to this, traditional powers in Western society, groups including politicians, monarchs, churches and businesses, were fiercely opposed to the apparent power of Communism, which seemed to represent the greatest threat to freedom ever seen. In the USA, the threat posed by Communism to the fulfilment of the ‘American dream’ of wealth, freedom and happiness was felt with particular intensity such was the fear of ‘big Government’ and left-wing ideology. Anxiety across the USA reached new levels when China fell to Communism and Chairman Mao Zedong in October 1949. The fact that the USA had been supporting Jiang Jieshi’s nationalists in their struggle against Chairman Mao led many politicians to criticise President Truman for having been too weak and blamed him for the ‘loss of China’, an accusation which had great power and scared many future presidents into adopting a tough anti-Communist stance in the face of other challenges.

President Harry Truman, a Democrat, was in power when McCarthyism started.

(Author: Edmonston Studio; Source: Library of Congress)

Something else which added strength to McCarthy’s claims and seemed to make the rise of Communist influence more frightening for the USA in these years was the fact that there had been numerous allegations of Soviet infiltration into American society before McCarthy came on the scene. The case against the ‘Hollywood Ten’ in 1947, for example, saw a number of film-makers charged with having Communist ‘sympathies’, bringing famous stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall out in support of their colleagues but shaking the confidence of many ‘ordinary’ Americans. Even more importantly, there had been one particular high-profile Communist spying case which reached the courts. Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was charged with spying for the USSR in a case led by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a group set up as far back as 1937 to investigate threats to the US state. The Alger Hiss case brought the future President Richard Nixon, a recently elected member of the House of Representatives, into the public eye, and Hiss was a particular obsession of Nixon’s throughout his life. Hiss was not found guilty of spying for the USSR but he was eventually imprisoned for perjury and his case convinced many people that there were Soviet spies in the US Government. Another case which had a very high-profile in the years around the rise of McCarthy concerned the spying activities of a couple called Julius (1918-1953) and Ethel (1915-1953) Rosenberg who were charged with passing secrets linked with the atom bomb to the Soviet Union; while Hiss was imprisoned, the Rosenbergs were executed in June 1953. The ‘Anti-Communist’ band-wagon was already up and running when McCarthy got on board and drove it to new heights.

Alger Hiss on trial. He was eventually convicted of perjury and sent to prison.

(Author: Unknown, 1950; Source: Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection)

Immediately after McCarthy made his claims about Communists within government, there were, not surprisingly, many questions from the press and others. When he was challenged about his ‘list’, which he claimed contained the names of 205 Communist spies within the US Government, McCarthy changed the number – several times. When asked to reveal his sources, he said he could not do that as he had to protect the people concerned. When asked how he had come to be in possession of such an important document, he gave no explanation, besides speaking of himself as a loyal American who had been trusted to act on the information given him. When accused of making it all up, McCarthy countered that anyone who challenged him must be sympathetic to Communism.  Things should have been clear to all: McCarthy was out of his depth, panicking in the face of electoral defeat and he was making things up. But that is not how things developed.

Something very important happened in the USA in the days and weeks after McCarthy made his speech. The key point is that many people in the media accepted what he had to say and, through them, millions of ordinary Americans came to believe that there was a Communist threat and a high-level conspiracy to cover it all up. It was a classic case of perception and popularity being more powerful than the truth; the people believed McCarthy and they soon showed it in the most effective way they could – by voting for him and against his critics. At the Senate elections of 1950, Joe McCarthy achieved the re-election he had always wanted which in itself was remarkable after he had been such an unpopular and weak Senator for four years. His victory shocked many politicians who knew him to be incompetent and didn’t believe his story. Crucially, the man who had been his most vocal critic and opponent, Senator Millard Tydings, lost his seat in the same round of elections, apparently because of his opposition to McCarthy’s claims. Tydings was a highly respected politician; attributing his defeat to his opposition to McCarthy, other politicians became scared of speaking out – and many went to join the McCarthy camp.  McCarthy’s power was suddenly overwhelming, and politicians lost the confidence to challenge him. When a Senate committee was set up to investigate the extent of Communist infiltration in the US Government, there was only one man who could be chosen to chair it: Joe McCarthy.

And so began a frightening period in modern American history. The ‘McCarthyite Witch Hunts’ were so called because of the parallels with attacks on witches in previous centuries. Just as for the alleged witches of Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th century, being accused was enough to ruin you.  And as with the witch trials, no logical defence was allowed. If you denied the charge you were lying; if you admitted it you were guilty; if anyone defended you, they must be a ‘sympathiser’. And all the time, the media was whipping up the frenzy amongst people who were increasingly hysterical about the latest ‘Red Scare’: the absolute belief grew that Communism was infiltrating American society under the powerful and devious leadership of the feared and hated Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR and of World Communism.

In the four years of McCarthyism’s dominance, 3 million Government employees were investigated for possible ties to Communism. Some 2 000 of these were subsequently suspected of having such connections (about 0.067%, which is not very significant) but not one person was formally proven guilty on any of the charges. However, rather than go the process or answer the charges, over 100 000 people resigned for ‘personal’ reasons so as to avoid being investigated. Large numbers of these people never worked properly again, certainly not for the Government, even though no Communist links were found. Many left the country or even committed suicide; this was serious and frightening stuff. Many people saw their marriages and their lives ruined by the accusations made by McCarthy and his many supporters. McCarthy’s supporters saw the numerous resignations as admissions of guilt, taking them as evidence of Communist links or sympathy for the cause, and they claimed that it was OK if a few innocent people suffered, because the alternative was to risk leaving the guilty at large. The general mood of hysteria was heightened by the cases mentioned earlier: the ‘Hollywood Ten’, Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs. With so much smoke there had to be some fire…surely?