Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004 | 10:56 a.m.
A new book about U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran of Nevada paints McCarran as the leader of the 1950s' communist witch hunt and says Sen. Joe McCarthy, whom history credits as being the leading force in the red scare, did McCarran's bidding.
"Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt," slated for release today, the 50th anniversary of McCarran's death, details in 750 pages the career of the man who was considered the most powerful Nevadan ever to serve in Washington, D.C.
"There are rows upon rows of McCarthy and 'red scare' books," said Michael J. Ybarra, the San Francisco-based journalist who wrote the new book. "But few step back and take a look at why things happened they 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, 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 in Nevada.
Ybarra's book, which he said took seven years to research and write, is published by Steerforth Press and distributed by Random House.
The news release promoting the book says: "The infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy served as the poster boy for America's anti-communist crusade of the 1950s, but this long-overdue biography makes clear that the real force behind that crusade was the little-remembered Sen. Patrick McCarran.
"In disturbing detail, Ybarra establishes that while McCarthy was capturing 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 ... abridging civil rights and destroying careers."
One high-profile career in Southern Nevada that McCarran tried to ruin was that of crusading Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun.
McCarran went so far as to conspire with a communist-turned-informant to dig up dirt on Greenspun because Greenspun was brazen enough to back a candidate to defeat McCarran's hand-picked choice in the 1952 race for Nevada's junior seat in the U.S. Senate, Ybarra notes in his book.
McCarran, who wrote most of the the anti-communism laws and conducted many of the hearings as chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, used the full force of his power and resources to attack Greenspun, Ybarra writes.
McCarran's efforts included instructing McCarthy to take a trip to Las Vegas in 1952, where McCarthy, at a public gathering, called Greenspun an ex-communist.
Greenspun was, in fact, a Jewish veteran of World War II who had fought the Nazis, so McCarthy's allegation backfired. Greenspun discredited McCarthy for not having any proof to back his outrageous accusation.
Ybarra also writes that for months the members of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee under McCarran had "chased every lead they could" to find any dirt on Greenspun, checking everything from his tax returns to whether Greenspun had fought in the Spanish Civil War for the Loyalists. 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 even included ordering major Las Vegas casinos to pull their ads 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 agreed that "McCarran had a vindictive streak. He did not tolerate opposition and he punished his enemies.
"But I don't think he knew the adversary he was taking on when he took on Hank Greenspun. And McCarran's response to Greenspun was much too personal."
Hank's son Brian Greenspun, editor and president of the Sun, said: "My 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."
Rocha and Edwards also agree that McCarran did not get his due as the leader of the movement that today is commonly referred to as McCarthyism, especially considering that McCarran wrote the anti-sedition law called the McCarran Internal Security Act.
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 likened 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 give up some personal freedoms for the sake of better federal security.
Rocha says from a civil liberties point of view, "there is a parallel" between what McCarran sought in limiting immigration and today's efforts to keep tabs on suspected potential terrorists.
"Certainly, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, took the matter to a magnitude we did not see during the Cold War," he said. "The question is: How much will we give up for security and are we moving toward a more restrictive climate?"
Brian Greenspun said it is troubling that people today apparently are willing to give up a substantial amount of 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.
"It's not so much that we now are writing about what happened 50 years ago. What concerns me is that 50 years from now reporters may be writing about how we almost gave up our rights today. That's the real danger."