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“Joe McCarthy’s First Victim”

ISSUE:  Summer 2001

Joseph McCarthy’s detractors used to enjoy noting the irony that one of the worst senators in American history had replaced one of the best. In a year of political upsets, McCarthy’s defeat of “Young Bob” La Follette in the 1946 Wisconsin Republican Primary had been the biggest surprise of them all. La Follette was heir to Wisconsin’s famous political dynasty and one of the most distinguished senators of his or any other time. If Young Bob could be beaten, reporters said, anyone could be beaten. Before Wheeling, Joe McCarthy was still known primarily as the man who had defeated “Young Bob” La Follette.

But the irony ran deeper than a single senatorial succession in the heart of Midwestern progressivism. For it was La Follette, not McCarthy, who had made the “Red Menace” the central issue of the 1946 campaign, a fact that haunted Young Bob to the end of his days. According to close associates, La Follette had McCarthy on his mind when he committed suicide in 1953. The shared anti-communism between two men otherwise radically dissimilar is a significant story in its own right, for it sheds new light on an old problem in American historiography—the relationship between Progressivism and McCarthyism.

Robert La Follette, Jr.—everyone called him Young Bob—was the son of Wisconsin’s legendary progressive governor and senator, Fighting Bob La Follette. When Fighting Bob died in 1925, Young Bob succeeded him, becoming the youngest senator since Henry Clay. He rose to national prominence during the Great Depression upon the strength of his economic recovery programs and his defense of labor rights and civil liberties. Before foreign policy drove them apart, La Follette was one of FDR’s favorite senators. Rexford Tugwell, a charter member of FDR’s Brain Trust, once recalled, “If Franklin had not been a Roosevelt, I am quite certain he would have liked to be a La Follette.” Over the years, Roosevelt talked up Young Bob as a possible successor in the White House, as a vice-presidential running mate, as a secretary of state, and as a Supreme Court justice. Not bad, considering the fact that La Follette wasn’t even a Democrat or, when you think of him as a Supreme Court possibility, a lawyer.

Despite his maverick ways, Young Bob was one of the Senate’s most esteemed members—admired by colleagues and reporters alike. One notable admirer was reporter-turned-novelist Allen Drury, who in his classic Washington novel, Advise and Consent, partly modeled after La Follette one of the main characters, the tragic Brigham Anderson.


La Follette actually earned his anti-Communist stripes before he entered the Senate. He first confronted the issue in 1924, when he managed his father’s campaign for the presidency under the banner of the Progressive third party. Sensing that a genuine worker’s party might be in the making, American Communists wanted in.

Young Bob worked to keep them out. Just as the Communists were about to endorse his father’s candidacy, Young Bob helped draft a statement repudiating Communist support. Then he persuaded his reluctant father to issue it. By denying Communists a place at the table, Young Bob may have helped stunt the growth of the party in its fledgling, formative years. With a few weeks of work at the age of 29, Young Bob probably did more harm to the Communist Party than McCarthy did in a lifetime. Incidentally, the statement Young Bob drafted acquired a life of its own, and as late as 1949, anti-Communist liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., were citing it as a classic expression of why liberals and Communists could never work together.


Once in the Senate, however, La Follette was more often the target of red-baiting than a red-baiter himself, which was not surprising considering the bold stands he took over the years. During the 20’s—the era of Coolidge prosperity—he called for the redistribution of the nation’s wealth to lessen the gap between the haves and have-nots and for government ownership of the railroad and munitions industries. He introduced a resolution to ban from the Senate anyone who spent more than $25,000 campaigning for office, and he petitioned President Coolidge on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti.

During the 30’s, he stood well to the left of the New Deal. He was the Senate’s earliest advocate of bold federal action to combat the depression, and his proposals to boost mass purchasing power upped the ante in every relief and public works debate during the New Deal. FDR would propose three billion for public works, La Follette would propose six, and Congress would settle somewhere in between. La Follette left his stamp on a host of other New Deal measures, including social security.

Young Bob was second only to Robert F. Wagner of New York as the foremost champion of organized labor in the Senate. As chairman of the Senate Civil Liberties Committee between 1936 and 1940, he helped expose the heavy-handed, often brutal tactics many of the nation’s leading industries used to crush labor unions. La Follette deservedly earned high marks for his conduct of the investigation, although he frequently had to fend off charges that he was harboring Communists on his staff of investigators—charges that were hard to take seriously in the 30’s but that returned to haunt him in later years.

La Follette made just about every professional anti-Communist’s “Who’s Who” of reds and radicals. But many of his beliefs defied easy pigeon holing. He was the Senate’s biggest spender, but also a believer in balanced budgets, and he never proposed a spending bill without explaining where the money would come from. He wanted to use the tax system to redistribute wealth but also believed that all citizens, no matter how poor, should pay at least some income taxes so they would recognize their stake in government. His faith in the wisdom of an informed public was almost absolute. He was willing to put to a vote not only membership on the Supreme Court but also the matter of war or peace. Time and time again he tried to strip away the veil of secrecy that concealed the inner workings of government. He also believed people had a right to know some things about one another. In 1933, he managed to insert into the tax code a short-lived provision that opened federal income taxes to public inspection.

La Follette’s brand of progressivism, though prominent during the first half of the 20th century, simply has no counterpart in politics today. Some of his ideas, like limiting campaign spending, persist, while others, like food stamps, have been written into law. But no public figure since La Follette’s time has embodied the whole package.

Some of La Follette’s personal qualities are pretty rare too. After he was defeated by McCarthy, several corporations sought to cash in on his lofty stature in Congress by taking him on as a consultant. But he was probably of limited usefulness to his new bosses because he was reluctant to lobby his former colleagues on Capitol Hill. There was no law against it; he just didn’t think it was right.

La Follette had blind spots, to be sure. He paid little attention to the plight of African Americans. Before Pearl Harbor, he made as honest and logical a case as could be made against American entry into World War II. But he was wrong.


It was toward the end of World War II that he turned his attention to the threat of communism, at home and abroad. In the spring of 1945, three months after Yalta, he became one of the first prominent liberals to sound the alarm over Soviet expansionism. Arguing from the perspective of his father and other progressives who viewed imperialism as the cause of modern war, La Follette criticized the Russians for imposing “made in Moscow” governments on the Central and Eastern European nations they had liberated from the Nazis. Unlike other Soviet critics, however, La Follette held Great Britain to the same standard, saying it was about time that Churchill granted independence to India and other British possessions.

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, it is hard to believe that criticizing the Soviet Union could ever have been politically risky. But in the spring of 1945, La Follette was roundly criticized by liberals and conservatives alike for attacking the Soviets.

By the time he faced off against McCarthy in the 1946 Wisconsin Republican Primary, La Follette was coupling criticism of Soviet expansionism with warnings about the Red menace at home. He charged that Communists and fellow-travelers, which he likened to “vermin,” had infiltrated organized labor, the news media, and even the government.

McCarthy, meanwhile, said little or nothing about the Communist issue, but instead portrayed La Follette as a cozy insider who had fallen out of touch with his constituents and who had used his influence to line his own pockets.

La Follette bitterly resented the personal attacks. But he felt so strongly about the Communist threat and so certain that the Democrats couldn’t be trusted to confront it that after McCarthy narrowly defeated him in the primary he not only voted for McCarthy in the general election, but wrote a couple of widely publicized articles for state distribution charging the Democrats with being soft on communism. Shortly after the election, La Follette made the startling allegation, in an article for Collier’s magazine, that Communists had infiltrated Congress. He knew, he said, because they had gotten on the staff of his Civil Liberties Committee in the 30’s and on the staffs of a couple other congressional committees with which he was familiar.


The La Follette-McCarthy connection ended dramatically. By 1953, McCarthy was at the height of his prominence, and La Follette was becoming obsessed by the very thought of him. In the weeks leading up to his death, La Follette feared that McCarthy would summon him to testify before his Senate committee about the charges he had made during the 1946 campaign about Communist infiltration. “Who were the Communists on your Civil Liberties Committee?” La Follette imagined McCarthy asking him. “And what did you do about them?” La Follette worried about how he would answer such questions. Perhaps, he confided to friends, he would have to admit that he hadn’t done enough. Maybe, he said, he should have called in the FBI.

La Follette ended his torment on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 1953, three weeks after he turned 58. A little after 11 that morning, he left the little office he maintained in the National Press Building, went home, and shot himself with a target pistol his father had given him as a child.


So how did it come to pass that one of the nation’s foremost champions of civil liberties and progressive causes devoted the final act of his political career to the Red Menace? It wasn’t that he’d had a conversion experience or undergone a conservative makeover. He was just as liberal at the end of his life as he had been during the heyday of the New Deal.

Personal experience had something to do with it. La Follette came to believe that Communists had infiltrated the Wisconsin labor movement, and that they had helped defeat him in 1946 because of his anti-Soviet views. As he wrote in the Collier’s article, he also believed that Communists had worked their way into his Civil Liberties Committee in the 30’s.

We now know that La Follette was probably right on both counts. Communists or Communist sympathizers had infiltrated the Wisconsin labor movement and the Civil Liberties Committee. But in both cases, La Follette exaggerated their influence. He was wrong to think that Communists had defeated him in 1946. In truth, Communist infiltration had little to do with his loss to McCarthy. He lost because he had fallen out of touch with his constituents, and in this regard McCarthy had been right about him.

Similarly, we now know that Communists or Communist sympathizers did occupy positions of influence on the Civil Liberties Committee, including the position of chief counsel, and that they leaked confidential committee information and misused subpoena power. Yet there is no evidence that Communists significantly shaped the investigation or its conclusions. Even after correcting for prolabor bias, unauthorized leaks, and other abuses, the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee can hold its own, in terms of procedural fairness and thoroughness of inquiry, with any congressional investigation in modern history.

So La Follette’s anti-Communist zeal derived from first-hand experiences with Communists in the Wisconsin labor movement and on the Civil Liberties Committee. But La Follette was also reacting to something that had nothing to do with communism, and that was the emergence during the 1940’s of interest-group politics, a conspicuous feature of which was a self-conscious and aggressive labor movement. Like his father, La Follette believed in the existence of a “general interest” or “general good” that transcended interests based on class, ethnicity, religion, region, or any other identity. When progressives of the La Follette ilk talked about the people and denounced the special interests, they weren’t just reaching for rhetorical effect. They meant it. But during World War II, nothing was as frustrating for him as the emergence of interest group politics, and for this he seems to have made Communists the scapegoat. Distrust of interest group politics may also help explain some of McCarthy’s appeal, although McCarthy and his supporters appropriated that distrust for their own purposes, directing it toward New Dealers, liberal elites, intellectuals, and other favored targets.

La Follette’s obsession with communism and his reluctance to speak out against McCarthy would seem to suggest the need to reopen the old question about the relationship between Progressivism and McCarthyism. The possibility of a connection was first raised during the 1950’s when scholars like Eric Goldman and Richard Hofstadter, searching for the origins of McCarthyism, thought they perceived a similarity—in terms of political style and nature of electoral support—between McCarthy and the elder La Follette and other turn-of-the-century reformers. Curiously, none of them mentioned the son of Fighting Bob who, by providing a tangible link between Progressivism and the ardent anti-communism of the 50’s, might have bolstered their arguments.

But in calling attention to some of the connections between La Follette and McCarthy, one should avoid the temptation to make too much of a bad thing. The differences between them and what they stood for are more compelling. La Follette was liberal to the end, McCarthy conservative. For La Follette, anti-communism was a political liability, for McCarthy, a career-maker. La Follette may have voted for McCarthy, but even a cursory examination of the election returns suggests that most of La Follette’s supporters did not.

Above all, they differed over what should be done—and what should not be done—to combat communism. Suppression, La Follette argued, was the worst thing you could do. It would not only jeopardize the civil liberties of innocent people, but, as a practical matter, drive Communists further underground and make martyrs of them. The best way to combat Communists, La Follette believed, was to expose their activities, take them on in public, and minimize their appeal by improving the well being of the underprivileged.

To hear La Follette talking, practically in the same breath and without any sense of contradiction, about fighting communism, seeking social and economic justice, and safeguarding civil liberties is to be struck by the double irony of the 1946 Wisconsin Primary: not only did one of the worst senators in history replace one of the best, but an irresponsible anti-Communist replaced a more responsible one.


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Rob Burns's picture
Rob Burns · 8 years ago

I cannot imagine what an responsible anti-communist might be. It is as irresponsible to complain about communist inilbration of Senate committees as it would be to complain about progressive infiltration, conservative iniltration, Republican infilitration, Democratic infilitration, catholic infiltration, or jewish infilitration.

If there was any wrong-doing in those committees, La Follette’s focus should have been on that wrong-doing, and not the particular label for that wrong-doers conscience and contientious viewpoint. From this account, it looks like La Follette Jr. is to blame for the spirit of McCarthyism that followed and has led to a subversion of our republic from which we may never recover.


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