Wisconsin Republican Joseph R. McCarthy first won election to the Senate in 1946 during a campaign marked by much anticommunist Red-baiting. Partially in response to Republican Party victories, President Harry S. Truman tried to demonstrate his own concern about the threat of Communism by setting up a loyalty program for federal employees. He also asked the Justice Department to compile an official list of 78 subversive organizations. As the midterm election year got underway, former State Department official Alger Hiss, suspected of espionage, was convicted of perjury. McCarthy, in a speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, mounted an attack on Truman’s foreign policy agenda by charging that the State Department and its Secretary, Dean Acheson, harbored “traitorous” Communists. Although McCarthy displayed a list of names, he never made the list public. The President responded the following month in a news conference by charging that McCarthy’s attacks were in effect sabotaging the nation’s bipartisan foreign policy efforts and thus aiding the Soviet Union. This transcript of the Truman press conference reveals the paranoid atmosphere that prevailed in the political arena and affected public discourse and policy.
Reaction of President Harry Truman to Loyalty Investigation, “News Conference at Key West,” March 30, 1950
Q. Mr. President, do you think Senator McCarthy is getting anywhere in his attempt to win the case against the State Department?
The President. What’s that?
Q. Do you think that Senator McCarthy can show any disloyalty exists in the State Department?
The President. I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy.
Q. Would you care to elaborate on that?
The President. I don’t think it needs any elaboration—I don’t think it needs any elaboration.
Q. Brother, will that hit page one tomorrow!
Q. If you think we are going to bust down the fence on what you have got later, that’s a pretty good starter. [Laughter]
Q. Mr. President, could we quote that one phrase, “I think the greatest asset the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy”?
The President. Now let me give you a little preliminary, and then I will tell you what I think you ought to do. Let me tell you what the situation is.
We started out in 1945, when I became President, and the two wars were still going on, and the Russians were our allies, just the same as the British and the French and Brazil and the South American countries. And we won the war together.
We organized the United Nations in April 1945, and one of the first questions that was asked me, after I was sworn in at 7:09 o’clock on the 12th of April, was whether or not the San Francisco conference on the United Nations should go ahead. And I said it certainly will. It went ahead and we finally succeeded in getting a charter and getting it agreed to by I think 51 nations, if I remember correctly.
Then our objective was to—as quickly as possible—get peace in the world. We made certain agreements with the Russians and the British and the French and the Chinese. We kept those agreements to the letter. They have nearly all been—those agreements where the Russians were involved—been broken by the Russians. And it became perfectly evident that they had no intention of carrying out the fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter and the agreements which had been made at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam. And it became evident that there was an endeavor on the part of the Kremlin to control the world.
A procedure was instituted which came to be known as the cold war. The airlift to Berlin was only one phase of it. People became alarmed here in the United States then, that there might be people whose sympathies were with the Communist ideal of government—which is not communism under any circumstances, it is totalitarianism of the worst brand. There isn’t any difference between the totalitarian Russian Government and the Hitler government and the Franco government in Spain. They are all alike. They are police state governments.
In 1947 I instituted a loyalty program for Government employees, and that loyalty procedure program was set up in such a way that the rights of individuals were respected.
In a survey of the 2,200,000 employees at that time, I think there were some 205—something like that—who left the service. I don’t know—a great many of them left of their own accord.
Q. How many, Mr. President?
The President. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 205. Does anybody remember those figures exactly? It’s a very small figure.
Q. Very small.
The President. An infinitesimal part of 1 percent. We will get the figures for you.
And then, for political background, the Republicans have been trying vainly to find an issue on which to make a bid for the control of the Congress for next year. They tried “statism.” They tried “welfare state.” They tried “socialism.” And there are a certain number of members of the Republican Party who are trying to dig up that old malodorous dead horse called “isolationism.” And in order to do that, they are perfectly willing to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States. And this fiasco which has been going on in the Senate is the very best asset that the Kremlin could have in the operation of the cold war. And that is what I mean when I say that McCarthy’s antics are the best asset that the Kremlin can have.
Now, if anybody really felt that there were disloyal people in the employ of the Government, the proper and the honorable way to handle the situation would be to come to the President of the United States and say, “This man is a disloyal person. He is in such and such a department.” We will investigate him immediately, and if he were a disloyal person he would be immediately fired.
That is not what they want. They are trying to create an issue, and it is going to be just as big a fiasco as the campaign in New York and other places on these other false and fatuous issues.
With a little bit of intelligence they could find an issue at home without a bit of trouble!
Q. What would it be, Mr. President?
The President. Anything in the domestic line. I will meet them on any subject they want, but to try to sabotage the foreign policy of the United States, in the face of the situation with which we are faced, is just as bad as trying to cut the Army in time of war.
Q. On that question we were just kidding.
The President. And that gave me a chance to give you an answer. To try to sabotage the foreign policy of the United States is just as bad in this cold war as it would be to shoot our soldiers in the back in a hot war.
I am fed up with what is going on, and I am giving you the facts as I see them.
Q. Mr. President, do you consider the Republican Party as a party?
The President. The policy of the Republican Party has endorsed the antics of Mr. McCarthy.
Q. That affects the bipartisan—
The President. That’s what it is for—that’s what it is for. They are anxious for the return of isolationism.
Q. Do you think that this has torpedoed, then, the bipartisan—
The President. It is an endeavor to torpedo the bipartisan foreign policy. They are not going to succeed, because the levelheaded Republicans do not believe that at all, as note Mr. Stimson, Senator Vandenberg, Senator Saltonstall, and a dozen others I could name, who know exactly what is going on and are trying their best to cooperate. And I am going to try to help them prevent it going under.
Q. Well, Mr. President, to carry that out to its logical conclusion, when Dean Acheson will go down in history as one of the great Secretaries of State, nothing that the Democratic Party can do except simply to sit on the sidelines and say, “Well?”
The President. Well, it’s too bad. It’s a dangerous situation, and it has got to be stopped. And every citizen in the United States is going to find out just exactly what the facts are when I get through with this thing.
Q. You will stand up on one side, and they will stand up on the other?
The President. There’s only one side that the people will stay on, and that is the side that will lead to peace. That is all we are after. This is just another fiasco to find an issue. This is not it.
Q. Mr. President, would you like to name any others besides Senator McCarthy who have participated in this attempt to sabotage our foreign policy?
The President. Senator Wherry.
Q. Yes, sir?
The President. Senator Bridges.
Q. Yes, sir?
The President. That’s about as far as I care to go.
Q. Okay, sir.
Q. Now, what I forgot to say was would you like to say anything about Mr. Acheson and Mr. Lattimore, and—what’s his name—the Ambassador at Large?
The President. Jessup. I think I made myself perfectly clear that I think Dean Acheson will go down in history as one of the great Secretaries of State. You know very well that Mr. Jessup is as able and distinguished a citizen as this country has ever produced. Lattimore is a member of the faculty of Johns Hopkins University and is a very well informed person on foreign affairs.
Q. You don’t believe he is a spy?
The President. Why of course not. It’s silly on the face of it.
Q. Mr. President, don’t you think the American people recognize this for what it is?
The President. There is no doubt about it. I am just emphatically bringing it to their attention.
Q. For direct quotes, could we have that, "I think the greatest asset—
The President. I would rather you would say that the greatest asset the Kremlin has is the present approach of those in the Senate who are trying to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy.
Q. Could we have that read back to us?
The President. Sure. Jack?
Mr. Romagna. I’m all balled up.
The President. Take your time—take your time.
The greatest asset that the Kremlin has is the partisan attempt in the Senate to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States.
Q. This may seem redundant, but this is just for the record. The partisan effort, of course, is the effort by the Republicans in the Senate—
The President. Well now, I didn’t say that, “partisan effort.” Leave it at that. Draw your own conclusions.
Source: Reaction of President Harry Truman to Loyalty Investigation “News Conference at Key West” March 30, 1950, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, 1950 (Washington, DC), 234–236 in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Roger Burns, Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792–1974 (New York: Chelsea House, 1963), 31–38, 80–83.
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