The Magazine

McCarthy's Historian

Tailgunner Foe, retried at the Bar of History

Dec 20, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 14 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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Joseph McCarthy

Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator

by Arthur Herman

Free Press, 403 pp., $ 26


Nearly half a century after his death, the wraith of Joe McCarthy has returned to arouse fear and loathing in the hearts of American liberals. Aided immeasurably by his own self-destructiveness, they long ago buried him and reduced his legacy to a dictionary definition of unfairness. Even conservatives routinely apply the label of McCarthyism to the most despicable behavior of their opponents. But now the junior senator from Wisconsin is rising Rasputin-like from his ideological grave.


It started with the release of the Venona decryptions last year, leading left-wing journalist Nicholas von Hoff-man to muse that maybe McCarthy was right after all about Communist agents in the U.S. government. Next came The Redhunter, a William F. Buckley Jr. novel depicting McCarthy as a sympathetic and tragic though often reprehensible advocate of a great cause. But now comes a little-known academic with a forceful vindication of McCarthyism, if not McCarthy: Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator, by Arthur Herman.


In the November 28 New York Times Sunday magazine, leftist journalist Jacob Weisberg contended that Arthur Herman, adjunct professor of history at George Mason University, "sets out to rehabilitate" McCarthy. In fact, Herman is attempting much less and yet much more. No one can condone McCarthy's behavior, and Herman doesn't try. His audacious mission is rather to strip away two generations of propaganda and myth-making that vilified McCarthy and elevated the likes of Dean Acheson to such Olympian heights that current Republican presidential candidates compete in celebrating his memory. This biographer contends that McCarthy, the loser in the high-stakes political game, was right and Acheson, the winner, was wrong.


That does not require cleansing of McCarthy's personal reputation. Herman acknowledges the senator's "lies or distortions." He depicts FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as contemptuous of McCarthy's exaggeration of the pro-Communist Owen Lattimore as the leading Soviet spy in America. "Those who knew McCarthy," Herman writes, "were constantly discovering to their astonishment how little McCarthy knew about theory or practice of Communism itself." Indeed, by the time he exploded on the national scene with his 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, claiming proof of Communists in the State Department, McCarthy "had largely lost the confidence of even his fellow party members." After Wheeling, McCarthy "did distort" the lists of alleged subversives at State, says Herman. "When cornered or challenged, he preferred to exaggerate -- even lie -- about what cards he actually had in his hand. During his short and meteoric career as the Senate's leading red-baiter, McCarthy learned to bluff his way through in hopes that subsequent research would confirm the bulk of it."


All this fits the old stereotype of McCarthyism. But Herman breaks new ground in arguing forcefully that McCarthy did uncover State Department officials who were "really too inclined to accept Communism's premises to resist its conclusions." A prime example is Philip C. Jessup, an establishment expert on international law who was given the rank of ambassador-at-large in 1949 by Acheson. Jessup is remembered as one of the early victims of McCarthyism, but Herman contends that this top Acheson adviser "could with the best intentions direct policy towards ends that actually promoted Communist rather than American interests."


The issue is broader than Herman's characterization of Jessup as a "well-meaning dupe." He adds: "At the core of the Jessup case was the clash between liberals and conservatives over how to conduct the Cold War." Herman sides with McCarthy and his Senate Republican allies William Jenner of Indiana and Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska against such elegant foreign service professionals as George Kennan and Charles Bohlen. The senators, consigned to oblivion in the Cold War's history as neanderthals, "instinctively grasped that trying to deal with the Soviets as a conventional power, in conventional geopolitical terms, would be to lose the larger struggle."