Idaho in the Age of McCarthy
Edward R. Murrow famously said of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy that he had not created the fear of Communism that swept the nation after World War II but that McCarthy “had merely exploited it, and rather successfully.” Joe McCarthy had lots of help in Idaho.
Next week the Idaho Humanities Council hosts its annual summer institute for teachers at the College of Idaho in Caldwell and Joe McCarthy is on the agenda. Nearly 40 Idaho teachers will spend the week in an intensive, multi-disciplinary look at the age that still carries the name of the junior senator from Wisconsin – McCarthyism. The Institute’s title: “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…Fear, Suspicion and Incivility in Cold War America.”
On Tuesday evening, July 26th, I’ll have the pleasure of presenting a talk on Idaho’s politics in the early 1950’s that will focus on McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate, Idaho Sen. Herman Welker, and the Idaho politician who most suffered the guilt by association and out-and-out smears that defined much of the age, Idaho Sen. Glen Taylor.
My talk – drawing upon the nicknames of both Idaho Senators – is entitled “The Singing Senator and Little Joe from Idaho.” The event is scheduled for 7:00 pm at the College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall. My talk is one of several during the week. You can check the full schedule at the IHC website.
I’m going to make the case that Welker and Taylor, a very conservative Republican and a very liberal Democrat, were the two most controversial political figures in the state’s history. They both came of age in the dawn of the Cold War and each flamed out as McCarthyism began to diminish as a political force. Between these two flamboyant men, one a rough, tough former University of Idaho athlete, the other a homespun, charismatic country music performer, the space was created that was necessary to allow the 32-year-old Frank Church to win a seat in the United States Senate and stay there for 24 years.
If you’re interested in Idaho political history and particularly how the McCarthy period in the early 1950’s influenced the political development of Idaho, you should plan to attend some of the events next week in Caldwell.
Other speakers include Nicholas Thompson, Senior editor of The New Yorker, who has written a fine book on his grandfather, Cold Warrior Paul Nitze a great foreign policy hawk, and George Kennan, one of the great figures in 20th Century American diplomacy. Thompson speaks Sunday night, July 24th.
Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History at Yeshiva University, speaks on Wednesday, July 27th. Professor Schrecker is one of the foremost historians of the Cold War period and has written extensively on McCarthy.
And Idaho native F. Ross Peterson speaks on Thursday, July 28th on McCarthy’s influence on politics across the Mountain West. Dr. Peterson is the author of a great book on Sen. Taylor.
One of the enduring lessons of the McCarthy period, a lesson we continue to struggle with as a nation, is the confusion, as Murrow so eloquently said in 1954, of dissent with disloyalty. Idaho was fertile ground for Red Baiting in the 1950’s. The charge of being “soft on Communism” or entertaining thoughts even slightly out of the mainstream could be enough to torpedo a political career. Making the charge against an opponent, on the other hand, was a proven strategy to advance a career.
The years when Joe McCarthy was a dominate figure in American politics are not among prettiest chapters of our history, but the period is one worth revisiting, understanding and evaluating in the never ending quest to create “a more perfect Union.”