Book blames 1950s Nevada senator for McCarthyism
LAS VEGAS – A new book portrays former U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran of Nevada as a key force behind the 1950s communist witch hunt headed by Sen. Joe McCarthy, whom history credits as being the leading force in the Red Scare.
“Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt,” released last month on the 50th anniversary of McCarran’s death, details in 750 pages the career of a man considered the most powerful Nevadan ever to serve in Washington.
“There are rows upon rows of McCarthy and ‘Red Scare’ books,” said author Michael J. Ybarra. “But few step back and take a look at why things happened the way they did over the long term. This book does that. Instead of looking at three years of McCarthy’s life it goes back at least a decade and looks at the bigger picture.”
Ybarra, a San Francisco journalist who has a degree in political science, said he has a coincidental but personal connection to McCarran. Ybarra was born on the 12th anniversary of McCarran’s September 1954 death. A politician to the end, McCarran suffered a fatal heart attack while campaigning.
Ybarra said his book took seven years to research and write. It is published by Steerforth Press and distributed by Random House.
“The infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy served as the poster boy for America’s anti-communist crusade of the 1950s,” a statement promoting the book says. “But this long-overdue biography makes clear that the real force behind that crusade was the little-remembered Sen. Patrick McCarran.”
While McCarthy captured headlines, “it was the implacable cold warrior from Nevada who, with much less fanfare, turned anti-communism paranoia into harsh legislation and draconian public policy,” the statement says, “abridging civil rights and destroying careers.”
One of McCarran’s targets was former Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun, who Ybarra says backed a candidate to defeat McCarran’s hand-picked choice in the 1952 race for Nevada’s junior Senate seat.
McCarran, who wrote most of the anti-communism laws and conducted many of the hearings as chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, used his power and resources to attack Greenspun, Ybarra writes.
Those efforts included instructing McCarthy to take a trip to Las Vegas in 1952, in which McCarthy publicly called Greenspun an ex-communist.
Greenspun, a Jewish veteran of World War II who fought the Nazis, said McCarthy had no proof, and the allegation backfired.
Ybarra also writes that members of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee under McCarran checked Greenspun’s tax returns and whether he fought for Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. They came up empty-handed.
“Hank Greenspun embodied something that Pat McCarran could not understand or accept – opposition,” said Ybarra, an ex-staff writer for the Wall Street Journal who also has written for the New York Times.
“Greenspun was the only Nevada journalist at the time to oppose McCarran publicly, and it came at the apex of McCarran’s power in 1952. McCarran was obsessed with Greenspun. It was deeper than a matter of principle. McCarran had become power-mad and obsessive. He could not tolerate dissent.”
In the 1952 Democratic U.S. Senate primary, Greenspun wrote editorials supporting upstart Thomas Mechling against the McCarran-backed Alan Bible, who was considered a shoo-in. Mechling, to the shock of many, won.
Democrat McCarran then threw his power and support behind Republican incumbent Sen. G.W. “Molly” Malone to prevent Greenspun from tearing down the McCarran political machine. Malone won.
McCarran’s vendetta against Greenspun included ordering major Las Vegas casinos to pull advertising from the Sun.
“McCarran feared and despised Greenspun,” said University of Nevada, Reno history professor emeritus Jerome Edwards, author of the 1982 book “Pat McCarran: Political Boss of Nevada.”
“Pat McCarran was a complex man. His qualities that were positive and helpful, such as taking charge of things, intensified as he got older to the point where he became bossy, dictatorial and paranoid. He felt a sinister mastermind was out to get him and that Greenspun was a component of that.”
Nevada State Archivist and historian Guy Rocha said McCarran had a vindictive streak.
“He did not tolerate opposition and he punished his enemies,” Rocha said. “But I don’t think he knew the adversary he was taking on when he took on Hank Greenspun.”
Hank’s son, Brian Greenspun, editor and president of the Sun, said his father “liked to tweak the big guys.”
“He saw his role as a newspaperman as one of looking out for the little guy, and he believed the best way to bring down a demagogue was to give him competition,” Brian Greenspun said.
Rocha and Edwards said McCarran, author of an anti-sedition law called the McCarran Internal Security Act, did not get his due as leader of the McCarthyism movement.
The act, in effect, marked immigrants as subversives, communist sympathizers and a threat to national security and attempted to thwart their entry into the United States.
Experts have compared some of McCarran’s early 1950s anti-communist legislation to today’s Patriot Act that has been criticized as a means to get Americans to sacrifice some personal freedom for the sake of federal security.
From a civil liberties point of view, Rocha said, there is a parallel between what McCarran sought in limiting immigration and today’s efforts to keep tabs on potential terrorists.
Brian Greenspun called it troubling that people today apparently are willing to give up liberty and constitutional rights in favor of finding and hunting terrorists.
“Unless we understand that history (of the McCarran/McCarthy era), we will make the same mistakes again,” he said.