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James T. Keane | Jim McDermottFebruary 09, 2009

One of the most persistent legends about America has it that Robert C. Hartnett, S.J., America’s editor in chief from 1948 to 1955, was ordered by his provincial superiors in May 1954 to stop criticizing the fiercely anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy and that, a year later, they removed him as editor for what he had written.

That legend of his removal is false; but the truth behind Hartnett’s ongoing battle with McCarthy is that in an era when attacking McCarthy was professional suicide, Hartnett did so repeatedly. Many of his fellow Catholics, including many Jesuits, did not approve. Yet Hartnett’s holy boldness had another side that would prove his undoing.

The Everlasting Man

Robert C. Hartnett, S.J., came to America as editor in chief on Nov. 30, 1948, his new doctoral degree in philosophy from Fordham University in hand. A tall, broad-shouldered man, Hartnett had the ability to write nuanced essays accessible to readers without a Ph.D. He had abundant gifts as a speaker and an apologist, too. Indeed, he was a controversialist in the classic style of Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton or Frank Sheed, who loved to match wits with all comers on almost any question, but especially in defense of the church, and his wit was usually devastating. When the polemicist Paul Blanshard attacked the church in his 1949 book, American Freedom and Catholic Power, Hartnett took him on not only in America but on shared podiums and platforms. Time magazine described Hartnett in one such performance as “personable, brilliant.” He was viewed by Jesuit provincial superiors and the America staff as “a certain kind of genius” with an “extraordinary capacity to work.”

As editor in chief, though, Hartnett was an autocrat of Shakespearean dimension. In theory he saw the other editors as advisors, but in practice he had a tendency to treat them as debate opponents, giving no quarter to their ideas and demanding that his own interpretation be applied to most everything they wrote. Little seemed to satisfy him; according to the magazine’s board of Jesuit overseers, he would make “tactless comments like ‘No one on the staff can write’” and often rewrote editors’ copy. He also sent many written complaints about various staff issues to John J. McMahon, S.J., the superior of the Jesuits of the New York Province and a member of America’s supervisory board. These letters were usually five or six single-spaced, typed pages, with important phrases or whole passages underlined or capitalized. Using language more appropriate for a prosecutor, he said employees had “given testimony” to him, and that he was providing “evidence.” And once he focused on a “problem,” he had trouble letting it go.

The magazine’s board regularly praised Hartnett for his talent and work ethic, but showed concern over his treatment of the editors. In 1952 McMahon noted “the Editor’s failure to discuss questions calmly, to listen to advice, to recognize value in the ideas of others.” A year prior McMahon had written, with no little wit, “The Editor has made it clear to the Fathers Provincial how much he esteems the men under him; how loyally they cooperate and how indefatigably they work…. Perhaps he could take occasion to say the same thing to the men themselves.” The (irony and the point) were lost on Hartnett.

Up Jumped the Devil

When Senator Joseph P. McCarthy stood up at a meeting of the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, W.Va., in February 1950 and claimed to have in his hand the identities of 205 Communist infiltrators working in the State Department, he was an unlikely candidate to become the favorite son of American Catholics. Although McCarthy was a lifelong practicing Catholic, a veteran of World War II and a Marquette University-educated lawyer, his career in public life had been grimy with mudslinging from the start. He won the Senate primary by accusing his opponent, the respected four-term Republican Senator Robert LaFollette, of draft dodging and war profiteering. McCarthy also claimed that he had flown 32 missions as a soldier, when in fact he had a desk job, flying only in training exercises. Halfway through his first term as a senator he was already facing accusations about his war record, tax evasion and possible bribes from Pepsi-Cola. Critics called him “The Pepsi-Cola Kid. ”

But in February 1950, McCarthy’s accusation tapped into festering American anxiety. During the previous year the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb earlier than had been thought possible, and the Communist leader Mao Zedong evicted the Kuomintang from mainland China. The year 1950 would uncover acts of domestic espionage, including those of Alger Hiss, a high-level State Department agent, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Communists were coming; many feared they were already among us.

American Catholics had a special investment in this conflict. Church encyclicals had long condemned specific propositions of Communism; even so, the political status of American Catholics remained in some quarters an open question. Blanshard’s screed against American Catholicism was a bestseller in 1949 and 1950, as well as a Book of the Month Club selection. When the Yale Law School sponsored a public debate between Blanshard and Hartnett in early 1950, the question posed was: “Is the Catholic Church fundamentally hostile to American democracy?” For a group still being asked to prove its trustworthiness, anti-Communism was a means of signaling loyalty. For many Catholics, McCarthy’s relentless pursuit of traitors over the next four years expressed the passion of their commitment to the United States.

Unstoppable Force, Immovable Object

At the inception of McCarthy’s hunt for Communist subversives, America was open to both sides of the question. “The Senator from Wisconsin has tried to prove too much,” the editors wrote on April 22, 1950. “But if he can produce well-informed witnesses to prove something, we contend, against much of the public press, that he should have his innings.” A month later, in “Is the Red Peril a Distraction?” they argued that finding fault in others was not sufficient action for Catholics; one needed to participate in something positive. Furthermore, they stated, “we ought to be very careful…not to identify ourselves too closely with anti-Communists like Senator McCarthy, who has never identified himself closely with the Catholic social movement.”

Over the next two years, the magazine published many articles about the domestic and international challenges of communism. About McCarthy himself it remained open, attacking Time for turning a biographical piece about him into a hatchet job, and criticizing the Democrats for downplaying the very sort of serious breach in security from the State Department that concerned McCarthy. It also noted with concern “hatemongers in the guise of anti-Communists” and criticized McCarthy for his “boorish manners.”

Then, in late 1952, McCarthy publicly referred to Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate, as “Alger, I mean, Adlai, Stevenson,” and said that the Communist Daily Worker had just endorsed Stevenson’s candidacy. Hartnett espoused many of the ideals of the Democratic Party; in fact, some critics had accused him of being in President Harry S. Truman’s pocket. Hartnett found that The Worker had made no such endorsement. So he took McCarthy on, calling the insinuation a “cheap stunt” that exemplified “what are euphemistically called McCarthy’s ‘methods’.”

This was a bold move; in 1952 one risked much, even one’s career and livelihood, in attacking McCarthy. He responded in kind, calling Hartnett’s criticism “completely and viciously false” and condemning the magazine for having failed in its “heavy duty to the vast number of good Catholic people who assume that at least in a Jesuit-operated magazine they can read the truth.” In private he also put pressure on McMahon, the provincial, to rein Hartnett in. McMahon offered only a polite reply, saying he had read McCarthy’s letter “with interest.” Hartnett, however, published McCarthy’s letter in America and wrote a detailed response to his every criticism. McCarthy’s address, he said, was a “tissue of innuendoes.”

Boom Goes the Dynamite

The magazine then returned to its prior equilibrium, discussing McCarthy along with a range of other issues, and frequently calling on anti-Communists to be concerned not simply with the domestic scene but international issues as well. In a piece on April 18, 1953, about academic freedom, Hartnett condemned academia for the “inexcusable mistake” of “rallying to the defense of ‘persecuted’ professors, including (so it turns out) the pinks and even the Reds.”

Then, in October 1953, McCarthy began an investigation into possible Communist infiltration of the Army, including the secretary of the Army. This new move provoked consternation even within his own party; to take on the secretary was implicitly to attack fellow-Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The next spring Hartnett wrote an editorial opining that McCarthy’s actions encroached upon the jurisdiction of the executive branch, and calling on President Eisenhower to protect the balance of powers. Two weeks later a second editorial by Hartnett argued that anyone who asserts that his or her approach is the only approach regarding Communism has lost perspective—dangerously so.

It took the letter columns of two successive issues to present the responses to these editorials. Reactions ranged widely from “I am proud of America” to “It is my conviction that your charge to the effect that Sen. McCarthy is splitting the Republican party, etc., is a lot of first-rate potash.” Hartnett himself proved unable to hold back from the fray, attacking critics for considering theirs the only orthodox point of view. “The McCarthy issue is one of conflicting opinions,” he admonished.

A month later Hartnett returned to the issue again. In substance his editorial reworked old material, suggesting that the McCarthy hearings challenged the balance of powers. But he took the further step of suggesting that McCarthy’s actions amounted to a “peaceful overthrow” of the presidency. Hartnett published this editorial without showing it to any other editor.

The piece was political dynamite. The Associated Press immediately picked up the story. America’s phone lines were flooded with calls, and letters poured in, many of them written on the back of America subscription cards: “Remember McCarthy in your prayers, not scandalize him in your weekly.” “Wake up. You are not helping the faith.” “No irony when I say that I would not have your paper as a gift.” “I WANT NO MORE AMERICAS.”

Even among Jesuits there was backlash. The Brooklyn Tablet and other publications were host to numerous, strong criticisms of America by Jesuits who wanted it made clear that the magazine did not speak for the Society of Jesus. In some Jesuit communities in New York City the divisions were so strong that the topic of the McCarthy editorials simply could not be broached.


On May 29, 1954, McMahon informed Hartnett that America was not to write about McCarthy for two months: “America has stated clearly its position. We think it is best for America to let the matter rest there, at least for the present.” He also reassured Hartnett of the board’s backing. “We do not wish you to interpret this Directive as a vote of no confidence. It is not that. You are not asked to retract or change your position. You still have our support.” McMahon even left open the possibility of America writing about McCarthy in the future, subject to the board’s approval.

Still, Hartnett pushed back strongly: fellow editors felt “a sudden silence would be equivalent to a public announcement” that they had been ordered to stop writing about McCarthy, he said; furthermore, no matter the written indication of support, the silencing of an editor constituted “about the strongest possible disciplinary action against him” short of ordering him to retract. Hartnett suggested the staff be allowed to censor itself: “We ourselves regarded our May 22 editorial as, so to speak, the climax of our criticism of Senator McCarthy…. We took our stand and are grateful that the Provincials support it. They need not fear that we want to become a ding-dong anti-McCarthy sheet.”

The provincials immediately modified their stance. So long as two other members of the staff had seen and approved anything considered, further publication about McCarthy would be allowed. Still, they reminded the staff that “they should not treat of this subject at all unless they seriously judge that the good of the Church and clarification of Catholic principles require it.” Their concern was the discord growing within the church: “The McCarthy-Army controversy has become a matter of dispute even among Catholics, in which bitter recriminations have not failed to injure charity.”

Letters From Rome

John Baptist Janssens, S.J., the superior general of the Jesuits, however, was also troubled, particularly over the public dissension among Jesuits. In a series of letters to the provincials he noted that the magazine’s founding document directed editors to avoid questions of dispute among Catholics, “provided there is no question of danger to the integrity of the faith,” and spoke with concern about the spirit behind some of Hartnett’s work.

It was not the first time the general had broached such concerns with the magazine. In August 1951 he had written to Hartnett directly, after the magazine had published the results of a survey about the opinions of Catholic teachers in Chicago toward African-Americans. The article revealed deep prejudices, but also stirred no little resentment.

After hearing from Janssens, the provincials wrote Hartnett again. They noted a “personal animus that has been allowed to express itself in certain editorials” and also in Hartnett’s initial appeal, which had included the comment “to give the Senator this victory rather hurts.” Their response was direct: “The only thing America should be interested in is that the truth may appear, not in triumphing over a Senator or anyone else.”

While their letter did not rescind their prior cautious permission, the message was clear. On the 27th of June Hartnett wrote to concede that the magazine would no longer speak directly on the issue of McCarthy. It had been “the most trying of my six years as Editor.”

A Ghost Forlorn

McCarthy’s world was in disarray by late 1954. Televised hearings over whether McCarthy had interfered with the operations of the Army had destroyed his credibility. “Joe Must Go” became the new slogan; and in December, the Senate officially condemned his actions. He remained in the Senate a broken man until his death in 1957 from alcoholism.

In the summer and fall of 1954, America followed issues that had arisen from the controversy, particularly the importance of freedom of opinion, but Hartnett was publicly silent about McCarthy. A year later he announced his retirement. His explanation: exhaustion. “The fact of the matter is that I really have not had the stamina you showed and ran out of gas about a year ago,” he wrote to former editor in chief Wilfrid Parsons, S.J.

Despite stories to the contrary, Hartnett’s account is accurate, if slightly opaque. When the America board made its annual visitation to the magazine in February 1955, they found things had changed very much for the better. Hartnett “has meticulously avoided anything that might involve America in a useless or harmful controversy,” Thomas C. Henneberry, S.J., the new superior of the New York Province, reported to the Jesuit superior general. And though Hartnett still had a tendency to debate everything, he also demonstrated a remarkable new respect for the work of his staff. Whereas at their 1954 meeting some of the provincials had suggested replacing Hartnett, Henneberry reported, “There is no present need of making a change.”

But Hartnett suddenly and inexplicably returned to his old ways, “rewriting all that they submit; asserting that only Fr. Masse and himself can write, discussing with individuals the shortcomings of other members of the Staff,” being inaccessible and so on, according to a later memo from Henneberry to Janssens. Three of the editors wrote letters of complaint; so did Hartnett, who said, in Henneberry’s words, “the Staff that in February was very good now cannot write.” Frustrated with what he perceived to be a disproportionate burden being placed on him, and fearing total collapse, Hartnett soon asked to step down. He would go on to be dean of arts and sciences at Loyola University Chicago and later a professor of political science there.

In his February letter, Henneberry noted that while Hartnett steered the magazine clear of further controversy post-McCarthy, “he lives in an atmosphere of puzzlement.” The issues surrounding what had happened haunted him, and he still talked about them privately. His dogged unwillingness to compromise or be satisfied had given Hartnett the courage to take a bold stand against McCarthy; but it had also kept him from trusting his peers. He left America dazed and exhausted, admired but in many ways alone.

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Robert O'Connell
15 years 4 months ago
Fr. Hartnett was my professor and friend at Loyola in the mid sixties. I cannot thank you enough for recognizing him -- and his true love for America, the country as well as the magazine. Fr. Hartnett was the most brilliant professor I ever had, the hardest working, and a man of the most impressive character. He is still my hero.
Leonard Villa
15 years 4 months ago
There's plenty to criticize about Joseph McCarthy without repeating stale or debunked charges to set up the McCarthy- Fr.Hartnett conflict. McCarthy in serving in WWII may not have flown 32 missions (not the first or last pol to exaggerate his record) but he flew at least a dozen where he doubled as photographer/tailgunner hence "Tailgunner Joe." His primary assignment was intelligence officer in the South Pacific. That McCarthy faced all kinds of charges is true. How many of these charges were true is another matter. Tax evasion? The IRS in 1955 gave him a $1,056 refund because he overpaid his taxes. Thomas Reeves deflated the Pepsi Cola charge a long time ago. The 205 number with respect to McCarthy's Wheeling speech is often repeated but is at least a disputed point. It is likely he said 57 (See Denver Post story of Feb.11,1950). The key point, however, in the essay is that Fr.Hartnett was a convinced Democrat espousing "many of the ideals of the Democrat party." McCarthy, a Republican, overreached (mild by today's standards; think about all the demonizing, false charges against Bush)against the Democratic candidate and was called on it by Fr. Hartnett, as a matter of truth. Fair enough. But the backlash against Fr. Hartnett should be given some context: fresh in people's minds were Democrat former Vice-President Henry A. Wallace who publicly apologized for being too trusting of Joseph Stalin;Alger Hiss'treachery;Truman reining in MacArthur who was destroying the North Korean/Chinese communist military offensive;the Rosenberg treason to name a few items,most, if not all of these,had Democrat fingerprints. Moreover,more and more was coming to light how FDR and the New Deal had been compromised by communists directly (infiltration) and indirectly(so-called progressives/fellow travelers). Subsequent events were to show that McCarthy was right about a lot of infiltration, treachery and lax security largely at the hands of Democrats not to mention countless Catholics whose relatives were now being persecuted and subjugated by communists in Eastern Europe handed over to the Soviets as part of post-WW II settlement orchestrated by FDR. This context would lead to the reality that after 1972 any Democratic anti-communists had largely become extinct. The backlash focused on the fact that McCarthy was blowing the whistle and going after all these characters a lot of times rightly sometimes wrongly. He was a hero in their eyes and Fr. Hartnett should stay out of his way. Their mistake was in failing to remember that evil must always be defeated by the truth. Fr. Hartnett was correct about that.
Andrew Russell
15 years 4 months ago
Thank you for your historical article. Sen. McCarthy is part of the history of St. Mary Parish, Appleton, Wisconsin, where I am a member. We are currently celebrating our 150th anniversary as a parish. Your article provides some great historical context.
Richard Walden
15 years ago
Without reviewing the entire public record, I believe that it is beyond dispute that Senator McCarthy was a shameless opportunist who callously ruined the lives of many innocent people in pursuing his own ambitions. We should be thankful for individuals like Fr. Hartnett who place zeal for truth ahead of their own safety. We could have used a few more of these during the years of Reagan's sleepwalking and George W. Bush's dismantling of constitutional structures.

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