Commentary Magazine


The Nightmare Decade, by Fred J. Cook

Joe McCarthy (Revisited)

The Nightmare Decade.
by Fred J. Cook.
Random House. 614 pp. $10.00.

“There is a new generation of young Americans, many of whom have only the vaguest ideas about Joseph R. McCarthy and what the McCarthyism of the 1950′s represented.” Here, unwittingly encapsulated in the opening sentence of Fred J. Cook’s The Nightmare Decade, is evidence of the book’s major drawback: its excessive reliance upon, and often startling similarity to, the standard McCarthy works of the past twenty years. In 1966, for example, Earl Latham began his scholarly account of the McCarthy era, The Communist Controversy in Washington, by noting: “There is a new generation of people who have no memory of the tensions about Communism in the years from the confrontation of Hiss and Chambers to the condemnation of Senator McCarthy. . . .” Is it simply coincidental that two prominent researchers, working independently, would open their manuscripts in such a similar fashion? Perhaps too much has already been written about McCarthy; perhaps every new idea, every new phrase, is at least vaguely reminiscent of a past one.

If this were the case, however, Cook’s shallow, tiresome book could easily be explained in terms of the overexposure of its subject. But in fact there is still much to be learned about the enigmatic McCarthy. Historians know very little about the Senator’s early years; and those who have studied his later career in great detail are by no means agreed on his motivations and ambitions. Unfortunately, Cook has little to add to our understanding of these matters. In fact, for this “major new biography of Senator McCarthy” he did not interview a single individual; he also seems to have ignored the valuable manuscript collections, state and local newspapers, campaign material and financial reports on file at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, as well as a multitude of academic-studies dealing with McCarthy’s life and career. In short, he has given us a cut-and-paste effort based largely upon a few well-known secondary sources.

Cook’s description of the first forty-odd years of McCarthy’s life is taken almost exclusively from a single book, McCarthy: The Man, The Senator, The ‘Ism, by Jack Anderson and Ronald May. Written almost two decades ago, this valuable work provides a detailed summary of the Senator’s early career; in Cook’s hands, however, it becomes an overworked tool from which every conceivable story, fact, and anecdote is carefully gleaned. From Anderson and May, for example, we learn that McCarthy was born “in an eight-room, white clapboard house on the 142-acre McCarthy farm, located in Grand Chute Township . . . near the north shore of Lake Winnebago”; as a boy, “Big-chested and short-armed, he reminded his brothers of a cub bear and they took pleasure in telling him so.” Compare Cook who tells us that McCarthy was born “in an eight-room, white clapboard house located on a 142-acre worn-out farm in Grand Chute Township near the north shore of Lake Winnebago”; as a boy, “Barrel-chested with short, heavy arms, he resembled nothing so much as a bear cub and his older brothers . . . took delight in ridiculing him.”

Anderson and May describe McCarthy, the college boxer, as “a wild slugger who would rush out of his corner at the first sound of the bell. . . . Even when he was against the ropes with blood dripping and both eyes blackened he kept smiling. . . .” Again compare Cook who describes McCarthy, the college boxer, as “a wild slugger” who “at the sound of the bell . . . would rush from his corner. . . . Backed up against the ropes, both eyes blackened, blood dripping from his slashed face, he would wave his gloves and taunt, ‘Come on! come on!’”

Other phrases and anecdotes, just as disturbingly close to the earlier work, are scattered throughout The Nightmare Decade. Thus when discussing McCarthy’s 1946 Senatorial campaign against Robert LaFollette, Jr., Anderson and May recall an interesting political ploy—the handwritten note:

A half million of these popped up in the mailboxes of Wisconsinites bearing the message: “Dear—: Your vote Tuesday will be greatly appreciated by Joe McCarthy.” The last two words of the message were dropped to the bottom of the page to simulate McCarthy’s personal signature, even though it was signed by hundreds of different hands.

Now Cook on the same incident:

. . . some half-million postcards flooded the mails, reaching virtually every voter in Wisconsin. The salutation was personal: “Dear—,” followed by this message: “Your vote Tuesday will be greatly appreciated by Joe McCarthy.” The McCarthy name was dropped down to the bottom of the note and handwritten to simulate his signature. Hundreds of different hands signed the name. . . .

And, as a final example, when considering Senator McCarthy’s role in the public-housing furor of the late 1940′s, Cook crudely paraphrases a complicated statement from the New York Post (quoted directly in Anderson and May), without indicating that the passage is not his own. The original Post paragraph states:

With a Senator like Flanders who spoke in broad philosophical terms, McCarthy would interrupt repeatedly to ask his impression of the meaning of some words on the fifth line of page 27, offering revisions, modifications, and corrections of his own, until Flanders was dizzy. Then he would purringly sympathize with Flanders for not knowing what the measure was all about. With a Senator like Sparkman who understood the technicalities of the bill, McCarthy would resort to rhetorical broadsides about “socialism.”

Here is Cook:

With a proponent of the bill like the mild-mannered Flanders, he would interrupt, asking for interpretations of obscure paragraphs and offering modifications of his own until Flanders became lost in the maze. McCarthy would then sympathize with him, a purr in his voice, for not being able to understand so complicated a measure. With a true housing expert like Alabama’s Senator John Sparkman, McCarthy did not attempt such obfuscation, but would interrupt to fire oratorical broadsides about the dangers of such “socialistic” legislation.

But Cook’s uncritical reliance on secondary sources proves ultimately self-defeating. Since he leans almost totally on Anderson and May for his analysis of McCarthy’s formative years, he must accept at face value the validity of hundreds of facts and anecdotes, some of which have been seriously questioned by other historians. In addition, he opens himself to many glaring factual errors and gross oversimplifications.

For example, when describing the LaFollettes of Wisconsin he writes that they “had originally been Republicans, but Fighting Bob, finding his party ruled by a dynasty of selfish and corrupt business interests, had been compelled to go outside the organization to achieve much needed reforms. He had organized the Wisconsin Progressive party, and he and his sons, Robert and Philip, had run as Progressives. . . .”

In fact, however, Fighting Bob LaFollette never organized the Wisconsin Progressive party. He died in 1925, and this new organization was not formed until 1934. The elder LaFollette, while campaigning for the Presidency on an Independent Progressive ticket in 1924, never strayed from the state Republican party. Some nine years after his death, his two sons organized the Wisconsin Progressive party; and their primary reason for doing so was not to thwart “a dynasty of selfish and corrupt business interests,” but rather to insure their future political success. For during the New Deal years, as Leon Epstein has noted in Politics in Wisconsin, the GOP was “simply not the party for a family accustomed to winning office.” In forming the WPP, the brothers carefully initiated a strong working alliance with the Roosevelt administration, an alliance made possible by the fact that the LaFollettes were no longer Republicans.

Cook also sets forth a distorted interpretation of the LaFollette-McCarthy campaign of 1946 when he asserts that “the final turning edge in LaFollette’s defeat was supplied by the Communists. . . .” As he tells it, “Young Bob” delivered a major foreign-policy address before the Senate in May 1945—condemning Soviet aggression and questioning the UN’s ability to solve world problems—which infuriated large segments of the Communist-dominated Wisconsin CIO. To even the score, “in the weeks before the election, the Wisconsin edition of the CIO News . . . brainwashed union members with a barrage of anti-LaFollette propaganda. A series of headlines blasted away: “union calls Lafollette attack a betrayal, blasts lafollette plea for tolerance toward nazi germany, fascist leaders.” To begin with, Cook fails to mention that LaFollette’s speech was condemned not only by Communists, but also by most important editorial organs in Wisconsin. The liberal Milwaukee Journal said the Senator was “sabotaging the work being done at San Francisco” in order to “enthrone the isolationism which became so tragic a failure after the First World War,” while the conservative Wisconsin State Journal wrote that “. . . probably the major reasons in Russia’s sometime lone-wolf role are . . . performances like Senator LaFollette’s which still draw alarming applause.” Secondly, if Cook had bothered to check the original sources, instead of relying on secondary material, he would have discovered that the two headlines he quoted were published on June 11 and June 18, 1945—fourteen months before primary election day. Indeed, during the last three months of the campaign, the Wisconsin CIO News made only two significant references to the Senator. Its major concern, in fact, was not LaFollette, but rather a local politician named Edmund Burrowicz who, as an official of the Communist-dominated Fur and Leather Workers, was trying to unseat a conservative Democratic representative from Milwaukee’s Fourth Congressional District.

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Senator McCarthy’s glory years—the four years following his incredible speech in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1950—are more carefully described in The Nightmare Decade. But again, Cook tells us little that we didn’t already know. We learn that McCarthy was virtually spoon-fed the Communist subversion issue at a dinner engagement with three Catholic friends at Washington’s Colony restaurant; that his performance before the U.S. Senate on the evening of February 20, 1950 was an “outrageous” con job matched only by his masterful testimony before the Tydings Committee; that his accusations against Dorothy Kenyon, Philip Jessup, and Owen Lattimore did “incalculable harm” to the nation and its institutions; that an elated and rejuvenated Republican party, sensing McCarthy’s power after the political defeat of Millard Tydings, rewarded him with one of the most powerful committee appointments in the Senate; that few men in public life had the guts to confront the McCarthy issue. Yet neither the story nor the way Cook presents it is new, as a quick glance at the writings of Richard Rovere, Eric Goldman, Earl Latham, and many others will easily attest.

There is one theme in Cook’s account, however, which merits additional attention. This is that Joseph McCarthy “pulled together more successfully than any other politician in our history all the elements of an incipient American fascism.” According to Cook, the Senator himself was “for the most part in the game for kicks. . . . He reveled in the uproar he created, but seemed to lack any coherent or serious national purpose.” But unlike other demagogues, who “threatened rather than served the purposes of the big business-press-religious complex that forms the nation’s Establishment . . . Joe McCarthy . . . was useful to those forces—useful because he had the ability to induce a popular frenzy against the liberal elements his backers feared.”

Cook begins his discussion of this thesis with an analysis of the role of the press during the McCarthy era. He notes, quite correctly, that the Senator’s “image as the champion of pure Americanism” came in large measure from Colonel McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, the Hearst and Scripps-Howard newspaper chains, and assorted right-wing cranks like Gerald L. K. Smith and Upton Close. But whether these sources represent anything close to the “press Establishment,” is a matter open to serious doubt. In this connection it should be remembered that in 1952, at the height of McCarthy’s power, the Senator was being vehemently attacked by, among other papers and magazines, the New York Times, the New York Post, the New York Herald-Tribune, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Washington Post, the Milwaukee Journal, Time, Life, Newsweek, the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Nation and the New Republic.

The same criticism can be applied to Cook’s description of pro-McCarthy sentiment within the “religious Establishment”—most notably the Catholic Church. He strings together two or three anecdotes with a couple of quotes from Cardinal Spellman, and then asserts that the Senator “was anointed by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.” What Cook overlooks, however, is that the hierarchy was represented not only by the Spellmans but also by the Bishop Sheils, and the Catholic intellectual community included not only the Buckleys and Bozells, but also the gentlemen who wrote for Commonweal. Furthermore, while most sociological studies and opinion polls showed Catholics to be more pro-McCarthy than non-Catholics, religion was no more significant in determining support for McCarthy than factors pertaining to level of education or type of occupation. Indeed, my own study of the voting patterns of Polish Catholics in Milwaukee’s working-class wards during the 1952 elections—a group allegedly ripe for McCarthy’s hysterical anti-Communist appeal—showed the Senator receiving only 28 per cent of the ballots cast, while every other Republican on the ticket garnered at least 38 per cent.

The final member of Cook’s tripartite Establishment is big business which allegedly backed McCarthy’s crusade to the hilt. He notes that “it has become fashionable to belittle McCarthy’s appeal to those of big money as a matter of little consequence involving only a few crackpot millionaires. It is a delusional view.” Yet of the six millionaires he cites to prove his point—Joseph Kennedy, Colonel McCormick, and Texas oilmen H. L. Hunt, Hugh Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison, and Sid Richardson—at least five, and possibly all six, could be considered political “crackpots.” Actually, the facts indicate that most top corporate executives and successful businessmen feared rather than respected McCarthy. As sociologists and political scientists have long noted, the majority of the business community viewed McCarthyism as a dangerous mass movement designed to upset the existing status hierarchy. This is quite obvious from both public-opinion polls and the editorial comments of publications like Business Week, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal.

In reality, McCarthy’s greatest source of moral (and possibly financial) support came from the small businessman who felt himself being rendered virtually impotent as an effective social or political force in modern America by the growth of large corporations, massive industrial unions, and a highly centralized federal bureaucracy. The small businessman tended to identify with politicians who attacked the institutions which were destroying old-style living patterns and Joseph McCarthy was just such a politician. He challenged the largest and most impersonal organizations in America—the State Department, the Army, and, at times, a few of the nation’s great industrial and journalistic enterprises—thereby making himself in a certain sense the hero of the little man, his ally in cutting down to size the well-dressed, well-educated, self-assured managers of modern society.

In short, Cook’s book is—to use the kindest epithet—derivative rather than first-hand and crudely ideological rather than scholarly in its approach. Accordingly, it provides us with no help in trying to assess the true meaning of McCarthyism and its impact on our population and on our political institutions.

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