It has been bewildering to witness the personal attacks made against senior State Department officials and members of the U.S. National Security Council (NSC).
In particular, the accusations made by Trump allies against the top Ukraine expert on the NSC, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, that he was disloyal to the United States, had me pull my copy of David McCullough’s prizewinning book Truman off the shelf. Because, it is not the first time in American history that knowledge on a topic was exploited as a justification for greater scrutiny, character assassination and ultimately the firing of U.S. officials. In the 1950s, the House on Un-American Activities Committee accused officials at the State Department of being disloyal because they were specialists—in other words, they knew the history, culture or language of the country they monitored.
Unfortunately, the long-term costs to America’s foreign policy were significant, with the purges of the 1950s being directly related to foreign policy mistakes made in the 1960s. What can we learn from this ill-fated time and how can we ensure that we do not see the revival of the tactic of defaming competence?
At the start of the Cold War and in the 1947 fall elections, leaders in the Republican Party found communism to be an electorally-wining theme. This in turn put pressure on President Harry S. Truman to ask his Attorney General and the director of the FBI, the infamous J. Edgar Hoover, to instigate a Federal Employees Loyalty and Security Program. McCullough’s account records that Truman thought that too much was being made of “the Communist bugaboo,” because the country had “too many sane people” in it to really believe that communism was a serious internal threat. Yet, Truman did not want to appear to be soft on communism at home while he was advocating a new hard approach abroad.
Thus, Hoover and like-minded conservatives on Capitol Hill commenced an investigation, via the House on Un-American Activities Committee, of Truman’s State Department because they thought it was the core of the “disloyalty problem.” For example, the Republican Speaker of the House at the time, Joe Martin, declared that communist ideology had penetrated the government through the State Department. In December 1949, Republicans in both houses of Congress (including Senators Richard Nixon of California and Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin), called on Truman to fire his Secretary of State Dean Acheson because of the supposed infiltration of communists everywhere.
However, of the 3 million federal employees that the House on Un-American Activities Committee investigated, 212 were dismissed from their posts but never indicted because no evidence of espionage was found. Nor was any evidence found on the 81 “card-carrying Communists” in the State Department charged by Senator McCarthy.
The Kremlin’s Asset
Similarly to McCarthy, Trump does not produce evidence against those he defames, by for example, labeling them “Never Trumpers” or “human scum.” In another parallel between Trump and McCarthy, the press printed whatever McCarthy said, with the most sensational allegations often getting the biggest headlines. And, just like some Republicans are critical of Trump’s quid pro quo dealings but prefer not to publicly denounce Trump, so Republicans silently supported McCarthy’s attacks on the Truman administration’s State Department even though they knew his accusations were pure fraud.
A fourth similarity between Trump and McCarthy is that McCarthy’s distortion and lies tactics were successful in convincing the public that Truman’s government was significantly infiltrated by communists. In fact, half of Americans at the time held a favorable opinion of the Senator from Wisconsin despite his ever more outrageous accusations. Like McCarthy, Trump is a political brawler whose constant lying and character assassinations appear to find approval with roughly 90% of registered Republicans. When Truman was asked about whether he thought McCarthy was helping the country or not with his assault on alleged communist-sympathizers, he said, “I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy.”
Stumbling into war
Although none of the individuals that McCarthy accused were convicted of any offense, they still resigned or were forced out of the State Department, which had long-term detrimental effects on U.S. foreign policy. For example, one member of the NSC in the 1960s argued that Lyndon Johnson’s decisions to escalate the Vietnam War is partly explained by the quality of advice that he received. This advice overwhelmingly depicted communism as a uniform movement when in fact Vietnamese communism was more nationalist than Marxist and certainly different from Soviet or Sino communism.
Why did Johnson’s advisers get it so wrong? Because staff at the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs had been purged of its best China and East Asia expertise as a result of McCarthyism and accusations of disloyalty. For McCarthy, expertise in a country that happened to also be communist equaled a desire to influence U.S. policy in a way that favored that country’s communist ideology. Moreover, the staff that remained in the State Department after the McCarthy purges had learned the lesson that communist movements in Asia must be resisted at all costs. Absent the advice from specialists on Asian history, culture or language, the U.S. became more deeply involved in the Vietnam War.
Removing experts like Lt. Col. Vindman because he is accused of being more loyal to Ukraine than to the United States will certainly affect America’s ability to fully understand what is going on in the eastern part of that country. Will it mean that in the future poor decisions will be made as regards Russia’s intervention in the Donbas region of Ukraine? Perhaps not, but if history is anything to go by, the long-term effects of eliminating competence is dire. Let us hope it will not lead the U.S. into a tragedy like the Vietnam War.