Angry Liberal Skewers Anti-Communist Sen. McCarran

A reader might wonder why author Michael Ybarra has devoted 818 pages to the life and times of a U.S. senator dead for half a century and largely forgotten,–but for the Las Vegas airport named for him and the statue of him in the U.S. Capitol. What motivates, the reader asks, the former New Republic correspondent to dwell on details of geography, associates and enemies, and life in the Washington, D.C., of the ’40s to a degree similar to what Robert Caro does in his three big books on the life of Lyndon B. Johnson? Caro, is writing about a President of the United States, while Ybarra is writing about Patrick McCarran (D.-Nev.), who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1944 until his death a decade later and was the author of key legislation on immigration and subversive activities. A significant figure, but certainly no LBJ. The reason for Ybarra’s obsession with McCarran is revealed in the title of his finished work: Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt in his column, pundit Joseph Alsop used the phrase “Washington Gone Crazy” to refer to the pursuit of Communist spies within government by congressional investigating committees and the FBI in the ’40s and ’50s. With Americans 50 years removed from the censure of the politician most closely identified with the anti-Communist crusade, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R.-Wis.), it is only natural that we find ourselves deluged with books, scholarly works and televised discussions, and even declassified documents from the era. It is also no surprise that the bulk of these half-century works make McCarthy a mean-spirited villain and describe the anti-Communist movement using such terms as “character assassination,” “scoundrel time,” and, inevitably, “witch hunt.” Ybarra argues that McCarran, as a member of the majority party in the Senate and chairman of a committee that oversaw ten of every 18 Senate bills, was far more “threatening” to civil liberties than the junior Republican lawmaker from Wisconsin. The author’s premier indictments of the Nevadan include his authorship of the McCarran Internal Security Act, the most far-reaching legislation in history aimed at curbing subversives in the United States, and the McCarran Walter Act, which enforced strict limitations on displaced persons and immigrants coming into America. McCarran also was responsible for creating the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee which, according to the author, “cowed the State Department into sacrificing the careers of diplomats accused of helping the Communists take over China.” In a conclusion that is usually reserved for the better-known McCarthy, Ybarra decides that the sometimes-mean-spirited McCarran “broke careers and lives” and “did the real damage” to America rather than the Communist undercover agents he pursued. Strong medicine, but so much of it is pure moonshine. The possible exceptions are the author’s Caro-esque vignettes about Nevada in early statehood days, the office routine in McCarran’s Room No. 409 in the Senate Office Building, (top aide Eva Adams, we learn, “had all kinds of boyfriends” but had to be home for a nine o’clock call every night from the senator. . . “after that she could go out. Finally, we learn everything about the senator’s five children, including as Ybarra tells us, that “two were unhappy nuns, two were drunks, and one was a cripple.” [This latter was Ybarra’s way of describing daughter Norine McCarran, who had encephalitis as a child and spent her life paging books at the Library of Congress and living with her parents]. For all his obsession with historical detail, Ybarra has his errors and omissions. He refers to the nomination of “Carl Vinson to the Supreme Court” (Carl was a congressman from Georgia, the chief justice was Fred Vinson) and has no mention of the Nevadan who knew McCarran since childhood and went on to be governor and senator himself–Paul Laxalt. Yet curiously, he quotes Laxalt’s sheepherder father and journalist brother Robert, who covered McCarron’s funeral in 1954. The son of illiterate Irish immigrants, McCarran quit the University of Nevada to help his family as a sheepherder. He later read for the law with a Nevada attorney and studied for oral exams by orating to his sheep by campfire. Devout Roman Catholic McCarran represented silent movie queen Mary Pickford in one of the first celebrity cases that made Reno the divorce capital of the U.S. Never close to the Democratic powers in the Silver State, McCarran won election as state legislator, district attorney, and justice of the state supreme court, but failed in bids for nomination as congressman and senator. Only on his third try in 1932 was McCarran given a seemingly useless Democratic nomination against a Republican senator. To everyone’s surprise, he rode presidential nominee Franklin Roosevelt’s coattails and won. McCarran broke with FDR in the first month of his presidency over New Deal legislation the senator felt was encroaching on state’s rights. In later years, he would oppose his fellow Democrat in the White House on Roosevelt’s plan to enlarge the Supreme Court and to get the U.S. more involved in the defense of Europe before World War II. When the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee came open in 1941, McCarran and fellow Democrat Fred Van Nuys of Indiana had equal seniority. But the Roosevelt White House–in contrast to the Bush White House’s attitude on Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s (R.) taking the same chairmanship despite disagreements with the President–made it clear that Van Nuys rather than the conservative McCarran was the President’s choice. Only after Van Nuys’ death in 1944, did McCarran finally become chairman of the Judiciary Committee. McCarran feuded as fervently with Harry Truman, the two having developed a mutual disgust since their days as freshman senators. “I]t seems like heresy,” McCarran wrote a friend, “to again ask for the nomination of that party, knowing that when he asks for that nomination that he cannot support those who call themselves Democrats, but in reality are nothing but Communists to the very core.” The senator’s mortal sin, Ybarra suggests, was the McCarran-Walter Act to limit immigration, which was co-sponsored with a fellow Democrat, Rep. Francis Walter (Pa.), and enacted by Congress over the veto of Truman, who branded it “about the worst piece of legislation that has ever been placed on the books.” Officially known as the Immigration and Nationalities Act if 1952, the bill codified and strengthened decades of patchwork immigration regulations that were already on the books. Passed by voice vote in the Senate and by a vote of 206 to 68 in the House, it formalized the quotas for immigrants from individual countries and streamlined the procedure for deporting undesirable aliens–gangsters as well as suspected subversives. Almost grudgingly, the author admits that McCarran-Walter ended the last racial barrier in U.S. immigration: “It let Asians become citizens.” He fails to mention that it also ended the discriminatory rules that favored male over female immigrants. (McCarran-Walter was finally weakened by liberalized immigration laws in 1965 and in 1990, the U.S. scrapped its requirement that immigrants be asked if they were Communists.) “A sound immigration and naturalization system is essential to the preservation of our way of life,” McCarran said during the debate on his immigration bill. The words might well be spoken by advocates of a tougher line on immigration today. History has shown that McCarran and others were correct to say the U.S. was infiltrated and threatened from within by hostile forces from abroad. The response of his bills and committee was a logical one, as one could argue similar measures would be today to fight world terrorism. For recognizing this, however, Pat McCarran is crucified by Ybarra as demonic because, in his words, “something terrible and wrenching happened to American society during the middle of the century.”