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New PBS Documentary "McCarthy" Highlights a Tumultuous Time in Our History

The new American Experience documentary “McCarthy," premiering January 6 on PBS, details the meteoric rise and fall of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Through interviews with historical scholars and first-hand witnesses, this impeccably-sourced film tells the harrowing story of McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the fear of a sinister communist threat—real or imagined—that gripped the American people during the Second Red Scare. By revisiting this tumultuous period in American history, viewers can reflect on our nation’s controversial past and draw clearly defined parallels between McCarthy’s time and our current political climate.

Ahead of the film’s release, I had the exciting opportunity to speak with its director, Sharon Grimberg, about the value of public television as a historical platform, the importance of reaching younger viewers, and what we can learn from the McCarthy era in modern-day America.

Q: What value, in your opinion, does public television have as a platform for teaching history?

A: Well, I worked for American Experience on staff for fifteen years. From my experience, I felt like we took on a lot of topics that are not taken on by other broadcasters, so what we really try to do is spend a lot of time really digging in and doing the research and telling stories in a very kind of in depth and thoughtful way and giving producers the time to think about the best way to tell a story. It’s harder for people to do in other broadcast networks—I don’t want to denigrate anybody else, but PBS is very committed to doing programming that’s thoughtful and also reaching people both in the home and in the classroom, reaching kids in all sorts of communities. In the past they’ve even taken pieces of the story and created a teaching module around them. So many people have said to me, “Sharon, my son just watched one of your films at school.” There’s definitely a commitment to catering to a broad range of viewers including kids in classrooms, and creating content that works for different communities. 

Q: In what ways do you think public broadcast documentaries like “McCarthy” positively impact the field of history?

A: I think the way that there’s a push and pull is that for a TV documentary to work, it has to have a narrative story, and not all historical scholarship is written that way, right? So I think there is a way in which there’s something to learn from telling stories narratively, because I think it is more accessible to people. But the thing about a documentary is that you can watch a two-hour documentary about McCarthy and you’re going to walk away knowing something, whereas there’s a lot of really great scholarship about this era and the Red Scare—for example David Oshinsky wrote a very, very fine book, really well-constructed and thoughtful—but it’s a much bigger commitment for the average person. On the other hand, maybe the film will encourage people to do more reading—pick up a book on the topic and make that bigger time commitment.

On this topic, there’s one story that always stands out to me. Years ago I was in Georgia, and my father got a speeding ticket when he was driving me here. We had to go to the police station, and when we got there, there was a police officer who was reading the collected works of Ibsen, and I asked her why. It was because she had just seen the play dramatized on PBS. She had gone to the library and gotten his collected works, because she had seen his play The Dollhouse on television. It just felt to me that there is this kind of synergy of what goes on television: someone who might not necessarily have picked up that particular book had gone to the library and gotten herself a copy, and there she was in this rural, one-room police house reading Ibsen. I do think, if you’re taken somewhere you haven’t been taken before, it opens new doors for you, and that’s what TV can do.

Q: When making historical content for public television, how do you appeal to younger audiences?

A: That’s such an interesting question. I have to say that when I was making this McCarthy film, younger people had no idea who Joseph McCarthy was—absolutely none. So I was very conscious when I was making this film about what people do and don’t know, and wanted to fill in the gaps around what people hadn’t already learned. It’s a very complicated story, and I wanted people to understand why there was a communist community in America during the 1950s: what appealed to people about communism, why they might have agreed with it at that particular moment, and why in the 1950s that might have seemed so scary. Why a woman who was a schoolteacher would be fired from her job, no questions asked, because she was a member of the communist party or even just a communist-dominated labor union. I wanted people to understand the context of those things—hoping that people who don’t come in with a lot of knowledge would understand the complexity of the time. You would need a certain level of interest to turn on the program, but I would hope that kids who see part of the film in the classroom would be intrigued.

Q: The documentary mentions how Joseph McCarthy actually started as a Democrat. Were his Republican views purely opportunistic, and if so, is this sort of flip-flopping a common behavioral pattern among demagogues?

A: It’s very hard to know exactly what he was thinking, but that’s certainly what David Oshinsky would say. He was looking at this whole landscape and he was very ambitious, and he was working as a judge for a while, but that wasn’t going to work out for him. His campaign aide even said to him once, “Why are you so glum? Even if you lose this campaign, you’re still going to be a judge.” He replied, “I don’t want to be a judge all my life—what are you thinking?” He saw that he had the chance to win the seat, and so that’s why he switched sides, I think. He was very ambitious, and I think he saw an opportunity.

Q: There are striking parallels between the McCarthy era and modern political discourse in terms of polarization and enmity between the two parties. Do you think this documentary will raise awareness of this repeated historical pattern?

A: I hope that it makes people think about the way in which democracy works, and the way in which we all have a part in that. Everybody comes with preconceptions, and it’s very easy to drown out people who oppose you instead of taking the time to figure out “why does this person see things so differently from the way I do?” That to me seems like a big take-home.

There was one story, one that didn’t make the final cut, about this guy called Harold Michaels who was a young Republican in Wisconsin. He had worked as a volunteer helping McCarthy get elected and worked on his reelection in 1952, but by 1954 he was completely disgusted with McCarthy. He had been a lifelong Republican, but he was one of the few to look around at what was happening and say, “This isn’t right.” So he ended up campaigning for McCarthy’s opponent in the next election. They didn’t get quite enough votes, but they made a good effort. So here’s somebody who was in the middle and shifted his perspective.

Q: The documentary mentions how the rest of the Republican party was wary of McCarthy, but continued to support him because “they had no other alternative.” Margaret Chase Smith was, in fact, the only Republican to stand up to him. In a political climate that is, once again, strikingly similar, what can we learn from Republicans’ reaction to McCarthy?

A: The thing that always sticks in my mind is the Edward Murrow broadcast, in which he says something like “this is no time for people to be quiet.” We cannot abdicate our responsibilities as citizens of a democracy; we have to protect freedom at home, and we are the beacon of freedom around the world. But we can’t defend freedom around the world if we’re not defending it here. What he’s saying is, democracy is fragile, and we are responsible for protecting other people’s freedoms and ensuring that America remains true to its founding ideals.

McCarthy did overstep bounds, and he became so reckless and thoughtless that people who hadn’t done anything were hurt. I think, if anything, we don’t do enough to explain what happened to some of the people called before his committee—one man even killed himself.  There were real, horrible consequences for people who, sometimes, had done nothing but be part of a communist-dominated union. They weren’t traitors to their country; they were just left-leaning. But he so overstepped his bounds that people began to have a distaste for that sort of ideology. Some of my historians in the film would say that he made anti-communism so distasteful that the government actually backed too far away from it, because of what had happened to ordinary people. It was counter-productive to be that reckless with ordinary people’s lives.

One story that really stuck out to me was when a graduate student named Leon was charged with contempt of congress for refusing to answer McCarthy’s questions. He was brought to trial, but the case was thrown out on a technicality when McCarthy walked into the room and a group of Irish Catholic spectators began to cheer. The judge threw out the case because the jury had been tainted by cheering, and then held a bench hearing where he found that McCarthy didn’t have jurisdiction over the case. Even though the case was throw out, Leon couldn’t find a job after, so he moved to Canada for over a decade. Leon’s experience really illustrates that most of those targeted by McCarthy were uninfluential people—they didn't have access to state secrets, they were just ordinary, left-leaning citizens.

I think that, overall, what the film says to people is that democracy is fragile, and we all have a responsibility to protect it. The ordinary person does that by voting and protesting and writing letters, and elected representatives by acting correctly.

Q: What did you find most interesting or surprising when you were creating this film?

A: What I found interesting is that America was very, very divided back then, and you could see that in the way that Republicans and Democrats treated each other in the Senate. It was a very divided time, venomous and acrimonious. You could see that in archives, even—representatives got horrible letters from constituents, which is different from today because the sort of thing wasn’t broadcasted on social media.

Another thing is that even though McCarthy was chastised in the McCarthy hearings and then censured by the Senate, if you look at the polling all through the fall of 1954, there was still a very solid 30% of the country that supported him. It didn’t waver.

There is a whole lot of baggage that comes with how we understand things: you can point to anyone on the political spectrum and see that people come to things with their preconceived notions and worldview intact. You trust your sources because they fit into your worldview, and that doesn’t allow you to shift your position much because that’s what you bring to the table.

I was very struck with that. Despite everything, there were a lot of people who still felt he was fighting a good fight. And that’s why I wanted the film to end the way it does—with Splits saying that he was a patriot—because a lot of people still felt that way.

Q: Finally, what do you hope your audience will take away from “McCarthy?”

A: I think that I would say what I said before—that democracy is fragile and we’re all responsible. That, to me, seems an enduring truth. We can’t count on always living in a democracy, but we need to work at it to make sure that the vulnerable aren’t exploited, that the powerful don’t usurp too much power, and that the justice system is working fairly. Those things don’t happen unless we keep are eyes open and we’re active. We as citizens have a responsibility to keep our eyes open, listen, and speak up when we see things that aren’t right.