SENATE action 30 years ago yesterday effectively ended an unfortunate era in the United States. On that day the Senate censured controversial Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his activities, which revolved around public accusations without proof that many Americans were communists, and that the federal government was subverted by communists.
To many Americans today, the McCarthy era is ancient history. To those of us who lived through it, it may seem like only yesterday. In any case, it is an impelling reminder that it is not enough merely to want to protect a democracy from subversion by communist or other alien ideologies, important as that is. It is also vital that the search for proof be responsible and that no accusation be made without solid evidence of guilt.
With only the barest shreds of evidence, Senator McCarthy and his associates publicly bandied about numbers of communists supposed to be in the federal government. They wildly and inaccurately accused decent people of subversive activities and ultimately produced a national atmosphere in which accusation often became tantamount to conviction.
In that kind of atmosphere charges become nearly impossible to disprove in the public's thought, whatever the evidence, as occurred during McCarthy's time. Individual rights are trammeled. And the unthinking insistence on simplistic answers - in McCarthy's case attributing all national deficiencies to communists - obscures a country's actual problems and delays their solution.
It is unlikely that the United States today could be spellbound by a neo-McCarthyism. The public now is used to far more supportive facts and analysis than during his era. In the economic area, the executive branch of government and Congress produce reams of statistical information, which is evaluated both by government specialists and independent analysts. In military spending, figures and cogent analyses are similarly prolific. The McCarthy tactics of sweeping generalities, unsupported by evidence, would be highly unlikely to be effective now.
Nevertheless, in this as in other areas of democracy, vigilance is ever necessary. It is a price of liberty.