Recently I have seen claims made on some blogs that those who support the invasion of Ukraine by Russia under orders of its president, V.V. Putin, are experiencing suppression and discrimination that resembles the McCarthyism of the late 1940s and early 1950s in the US. This is also supposedly applying not only to those who fully support the invasion, but also to those who merely oppose the US assisting Ukraine in resisting the invasion, with the US supposedly not justified in doing so because of all its own past bad behaviors from the War in Vietnam to the invasion of Iraq, to its supposed expanding NATO with a goal of supposedly adding Ukraine to that alliance.
It is certainly true that feelings are running high on this issue, and many who make these arguments are getting very strong pushback and even perfervid denunciations of their morality, much less their logic. However, there are circles, especially among some of the stronger followers of Donald Trump, including quite a few GOP members of Congress, where such views are accepted and supported to varying degrees. But the question must be faced, not in terms of some whataboutism regarding past bad US behaviors in foreign affairs of which there have been many. But rather more directly this matter of a possible neo-McCarthyism. Are at least some of those taking the side of Putin suffering egregiously for their views in ways that resemble the old McCarthyism? At least one similarity is that those who suffered under the old McCarthyism were accused of being pro-Soviet/Russian, and those supposedly suffering now are also accused of being pro-Russian, if not necessarily pro-Soviet.
I think, however, that if one goes back to look at what was involved in the old McCarthyism, what is going on now does not live up to the awfulness of that period. People suffered substantially more back then who faced accusations than do those now who are being criticized for supporting the invasion.
We must first recognize that McCarthyism, per se, what came about due to the activities of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy (WI-R) were a special subset appearing a few years after the initiation of a broader phenomenon. This was the general development of an intense anti-Soviet communism in the late 1940a in connection with the beginning of the Cold War between the US and USSR after the ending of their WW II alliance against the Axis powers. This initially came out of the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) along with the FBI, with Sen. McCarthy only getting in on the action in the early 1950s, although the dramatic nature of his activities became the driving force of the movement and basically took it over and drove it once he got going.
The initial HUAC hearings emphasized the matter of outright spying by alleged Soviet agents, this not having been viewed as much of a problem during the WW II alliance. One of the most (in)famous cases was that of Alger Hiss of the State Department, with Richard Nixon initiating his national political career by going after Hiss. At the time, most on the liberal/left viewed Hiss as innocent and Nixon as nasty bad guy. Well, Nixon was a nasty bad guy, but it turns out that almost certainly Hiss really was a Soviet agent, this becoming clear after the declassification of the Venona transcripts in the 1980s. These were decryptions of Soviet messages sent during WW II that were made by the Army Signals Intelligence Service, a predecessor to the National Security Agency (NSA).
Another case from that period, which was aggravated during the McCarthy period, involved Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were convicted and executed for being “atom spies.” As with Hiss, many defended them and argued and believed they were innocent. This included their two sons, one of whom I know and received a PhD in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison when I did, Michael Meeropol. He and his older brother, Robert, had to face that indeed their father was an atom spy for the Soviets once the Venona transcripts came out, although how important a spy hw was remains a matter of debate. But it remains clear that their mother was wrongly convicted, with her brother, David Greenglass, falsely testifying against her, claiming she typed materials for Julius that were typed by Greenglass’s wife. Many years later, Greenglass admitted doing this, saying, “you do not sleep with your sister.” At most Ethel was aware to some extent of what her husband was doing, but it now appears she was not actively involved in it at all.
That they were convicted at the height of full McCarthyism in the early 1950s is certainly responsible for that they ended up being executed, not simply jailed. Much more serious atom spy, Klaus Fuchs, was jailed and then traded sometime later to the Soviets, dying in East Germany eventually. It is not just that Ethel was outright innocent almost certainly, and they should not have been executed, but their execution was a botch, especially that of Ethel, one of those electrocutions that went awry and on and on in a horrible way. This was a horrible travesty, and their sons are fully justified in continuing to call for undoing the conviction of their late mother.
Another case that came out of HUAC before McCarthy got going involved the Hollywood Ten. They were not accused of spying for the Soviets, but it was viewed that as Communists, or “comsymps” close to Communists, they represented a noxious cultural influence that should be suppressed. They ended up being blacklisted and prevented from working in Hollywood for an extended period, although eventually most of them would come to be rehabilitated. We must note that at this time it became illegal to actually belong to the US Communist Party, although there was no obvious reason why that should be the case. Spying for a foreign power is one thing, but simply belonging to a party or saying things that people do not like is quite another. But this set the model that McCarthy would follow later: those accused of being Communists or comsymps would lose their jobs and otherwise be prevented from expressing themselves. I note that a major informant for HUAC in the Hollywood Ten case was Ronald Reagan.
McCarthy added some particularly obnoxious elements to all this, along with a much heightened publicity to all of it, with the atmosphere worsened during the Korean War of the early 1950s. Another element he added was outright falsification, accusing people who were not at all Communists or even particularly friendly to communism, some of them outright anti-communists, but who somehow or other knew or were associated with somebody who supposedly was. His falsifications began with the event that first got him a lot of publicity, a speech he gave in West Virginia in which he claimed to have a piece of paper in his pocket with 44 names of Soviet agents in the State Department. He had no such list, and beyond Hiss only two more people there would be found to have been such spies.
In any case, McCarthy held long hearings in his Senate committee, making regular accusations against all sorts of people, with many of them indeed losing their jobs and otherwise facing ostracism and broader mistreatment. This was bad enough against people who merely held leftist views, but it extended to people who did not even do so. Many suffered during this period until McCarthy was stopped and denounced by his fellow senators. He went to far when he went after the US Army.
So is what is going on now with those who support Putin’s invasion equivalent to what I have just described? I do not think so. I am unaware of any of the defenders of Putin losing their jobs for doing so. I am unaware of any of them being prevented from expressing their views, although there may be some venues that have refused to publish or allow them to express them. And within some circles they are receiving praise. They are simply not facing anything remotely resembling what happened back then.
Now there are people who are arguably suffering unreasonably at this time for all this. This is ethnic Russians, especially in the arts, who have been disallowed from performing and removed from positions, symphony conductors, musical peformers, and the like, although some prominent Russian sports figures seem to have escaped losing their positions. One can argue that maybe those supporting the invasion deserve to lose their positions, but in some cases this has happened to ones who have publicly criticized the invasion. Not enough.
A prominent example is Anna Netrebko, considerd by many to be the leading opera soprano in the world at the present time. She is actually an ethnic Moldovan, not a Russian, but she first became famous performing in Russian opera companies. Furthermore, V.V. Putin himself is known to have been a great fan of hers. Nevertheless, she criticized the invasion after it happened. But that was not enough, and she has been effectively banned from performing in western opera performances, which leaves her in a full limbo as she is now also unable to perform in Russia.
I find this development to be unfortunate. But rather than McCarthyism, what it resembles is the anti-German hysteria that swept both US nd UK during WW I. That led to many families and organizations to Anglicize their German names to avoid persecution. Probably the most prominent such family was the Battenbergs in Britain who became the Mountbattens, the family of the late Prince Philip.