Commentary Magazine


Joseph McCarthy by Arthur Herman

Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator
by Arthur Herman
Free Press. 404 pp. $26.00

All conservatives are anti-Communists, but they are not all anti-Communists of the same kind. Over the years, conservatives have disagreed among themselves not only on how to deal with the Communist threat but even on the precise nature of that threat. But over no issue have their disagreements been more pointed or heated than the career and legacy of Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious junior Senator from Wisconsin whose name has become synonymous—at least on the Left—with the entire anti-Communist cause of the post-World War II period.

The majority of conservatives, it seems fair to say, have concluded that McCarthy’s demagoguery blighted the anti-Communist movement. Accordingly, they have distanced themselves from the “McCarthyism” that, in the mouths of anti-anti-Communists then and since, has become a term of abuse for the struggle against the Communist threat. But there have always been dissenters from this general consensus, and in his new book, Arthur Herman, an adjunct professor of history at George Mason University, argues their cause. From Herman’s pages, Joseph McCarthy emerges, for all his faults, as more sinned against than sinner, and his cause as one to which, with some reservations, good people had reason to repair. Seldom, surely, has there been a less promising venture in historical revisionism.

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Joseph McCarthy was elected to the Senate in 1946, but he first impinged on the nation’s consciousness with a speech on February 9, 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia. There, he claimed to have in his possession a list of 205 (or perhaps 57) known Communists (or at least security risks) employed by the State Department (or at any rate involved in the formation of foreign policy). The imprecision was typical of McCarthy; no one recorded the speech, and in subsequent references to it the Senator continuously revised just what it was he had said.

For the next four years, McCarthy’s endlessly escalating charges of Communist espionage and secret influence on government policymaking were constantly in the news, and he himself was the center of a political controversy perhaps unmatched in American history for its bitterness. Then, just as suddenly as he had entered upon the political stage, he was ushered off: following his censure by the Senate in late 1954, he faded from public sight. Less than three years later, his health ruined by alcohol, he died of liver failure.

It is important to specify the nature of McCarthy’s cause. By 1950, most Americans agreed that the U.S. faced, in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China, a serious threat of worldwide Communist aggression, and this widespread agreement became near-unanimous after the invasion of South Korea by the North four months after McCarthy’s speech in Wheeling. What made McCarthy controversial was his insistence that Communist successes in Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere could be explained only by American perfidy.

According to McCarthy, liberals in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations had proved themselves incapable of meeting the threats of aggression abroad and subversion at home because of their ideological affinities with the Communist movement. Some liberals, he conceded, were merely naive or credulous, but others—the great majority, it seemed—were in varying degrees collaborators in the Communist conspiracy, more naturally the Communists’ cobelligerents than their enemies. Or, as McCarthy put it with typical vulgarity, Democrats were at heart “Commie-crats.”

Enter now Arthur Herman. In tracing McCarthy’s anti-Communist career both as a member of the Republican minority and, following GOP presidential and congressional victories in 1952, as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Herman puts forward, gingerly and with qualifications, the same argument the Wisconsin Senator made so crudely. Not only does he try to see the political landscape as McCarthy saw it, an entirely defensible and even necessary enterprise in a historian, but he proceeds intermittently to offer judgments that coincide, if in gentler terms, with his subject’s.

For example, in comparing the views of Adlai Stevenson during his tenure at the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in the 1930′s with the views of Stevenson’s fellow staffers, the Communist-party members John Abt and Nathan Witt, Herman writes:

Liberals like Stevenson were untroubled by the radical Marxist ideas of men like Abt and Witt. In fact, they discovered that they shared a common vision of government, in which an enlightened elite would take over state agencies and use them to intervene in workings of the marketplace for good.

Or here, more generally, is Herman on the lesson McCarthy learned from liberal reaction to the Hiss case:

[T]he New Deal establishment liberal, for all his professed anti-Soviet views, seemed unable to deal effectively with the kind of ideological challenge Communism represented. Inevitably, he would buckle and give the Communist what he wanted, thanks to his seemingly fatal attraction to the goals and aims, if not necessarily the methods, of Communism.

Herman allows that this charge might seem “absurd and outrageous,” only to add a moment later that “the historical record reflected again and again the same dismal result.” And he ends this chapter on an ominous note:

In his Wheeling speech, . . . McCarthy proclaimed that the most important difference “between our Western Christian world and the atheistic Communist world is not political, . . . it is moral.” The question in his mind, and in the minds of many other Americans, was which side the liberals were really on.

Overall, Herman concludes that while McCarthy got a lot of the details wrong, he was more right than wrong on the central question of Communist influence on government policy and liberal complicity in that influence. He is similarly generous in describing McCarthy’s behavior as a congressional investigator and political combatant. True, he duly notes—he could hardly do otherwise—McCarthy’s multiple lies and distortions, habitual questioning of his opponents’ loyalty and patriotism, and crude bullying tactics as an inquisitor: in short, his routine conduct of politics as mud-wrestling. But although he records McCarthy’s conduct, he does not—as I have just done—characterize it, except in the most hesitant manner.

Take, as just one of countless examples, Herman’s account of McCarthy’s venomous attack in June 1951 on George C. Marshall, army chief of staff during World War II and Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense under Truman. Both McCarthy’s brutal rhetoric (“If Marshall were merely stupid, the laws of probability would have dictated that at least some of his decisions would have served this country’s interest”) and his absurdly slanderous conclusion (that the general had been at the center of a conspiracy between liberals and Communists “on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man”) evoke from Herman only the astonishingly mild reproof that McCarthy had this time gone “too far.” Even then, Herman cannot resist adding that “in his own unreasonable way [McCarthy] had raised a reasonable issue.” But there was nothing reasonable or excusable in what McCarthy had done, and one wonders at the judgment of a biographer who cannot bring himself to say so.

When he is not excusing by faint and qualified reprimand, Herman finds other ways to extenuate McCarthy’s habitually reckless behavior, giving his subject the benefit of every doubt or, where there is no doubt, retreating to tu quoque. Thus, Herman labors mightily to demonstrate that McCarthy gave only as good as he got, and that his liberal opponents were no less inclined to engage in “McCarthyite” tactics than was the Senator himself. It is true enough that one can find many instances of unfair behavior among a variety of McCarthy’s enemies; but in the gallery of anti-McCarthyites there is no figure of comparable importance who could begin to match, in consistency or breadth, the Senator’s record for demagogic behavior.

Finally, Herman argues that McCarthyism can be understood only in the context of the intense postwar struggle for control of Congress and the White House after almost two decades of Democratic supremacy. Republican conservatives seized on anti-Communism, including its McCarthyite variant, both because they believed that liberal Democrats had been, at best, “unconscionably lax” in responding to the Communist threat and because they saw it as an avenue to political advantage. Liberals, for their part—at least in Herman’s view—hated and feared conservatives more than they hated and feared Communists, and they tended to see attacks on Communism as not-so-hidden attacks on themselves.

This view of the situation is by no means wholly wrong, but it is seriously oversimplified, and it distorts the author’s understanding of McCarthy’s career. Not a few conservatives with impeccable anti-Communist (and anti-liberal) credentials—Whittaker Chambers and Russell Kirk, for example—decided sooner or later that McCarthy’s irresponsibility played into the hands of the anti-anti-Communists. By 1950, moreover, there was a serious anti-Communist movement on the Left that, duly committed to the legacy of the New Deal, nonetheless fought both McCarthy and the fellow travelers in its own ranks with equal intensity. Herman pays passing attention to these inconvenient facts but never really assimilates them into his analysis; and no wonder, for they endanger his revisionist defense of his subject.

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The Irony of McCarthy is that he raised the specter of Communist subversion after it no longer was what it had indeed been in the era of the Popular Front: a clear and present danger to the nation’s security. Conservatives of the 1950′s were not wrong to criticize an earlier generation of liberals for their inadequate understanding of and response to the Communist threat, but they misread the postwar liberals’ often excessive defensiveness on the subject as evidence that nothing had changed. McCarthy himself was so blind on the subject as to suggest that even the Eisenhower administration, which saw him as an embarrassment and sought to contain him, was soft on Communism. That ruined his credibility, and his political self-destruction under the withering attack of Joseph Welch in the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 revealed him as the anachronism he had long since become.

But it was not because of his political misjudgments or even his excessive zeal that McCarthy is remembered, in the words of Herman’s subtitle, as “America’s most hated Senator.” He was hated because he practiced politics with a casual cruelty and an insouciant viciousness unsurpassed in our history. In the process, he came close to wrecking the anti-Communist cause he purported to advance. Had Herman paid closer attention to his own evidence, he might have come to understand that.

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About the Author

James Nuechterlein, a former professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.