The Magazine

Say it ain't so, Joe

Senator McCarthy, wrong and wright.

Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By HARVEY KLEHR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Shooting Star

The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy

by Tom Wicker

Harcourt, 224 pp., $22

After several decades as the poster boy for American villainy, Joseph McCarthy has once again become a subject of controversy.

For years after censure by his Senate colleagues in 1954, McCarthy's legacy was defined by the name he gave to an era and to a political tactic. To accuse someone of McCarthyism is to suggest that he has made reckless, baseless accusations, smeared an opponent, or violated the norms of civilized political combat.

Hardly anyone outside the ranks of paranoid anti-Communists has had a kind word to say for the onetime Republican senator from Wisconsin. George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck is a recent expression of the prevailing sentiment: Only the bravery and honesty of such media titans as Edward R. Murrow enabled America to avoid the creeping fascism he represented. Among such left-wing aca demics as Ellen Schrecker, McCarthyism remains a handy symbol of America's predilection to meet dissent with repression.

Beginning in the 1990s, however, Russian and American archives began to disgorge startling new information about the extent of Soviet espionage directed against the United States and the key role in that activity played by the American Communist party. Suddenly, McCarthy had some unlikely defenders. The left-wing journalist Nicholas von Hoffman considered the possibility that he had been more right than wrong about subversion. Since 1999 Arthur Herman has written a sympathetic biography and Ann Coulter launched a full-throated defense of McCarthy while denouncing his liberal critics as traitors. The new evidence does not require that Joe McCarthy be rehabilitated, but it has forced even those who continue to regard him as a demagogue to rethink why he became such a force in American life.

Tom Wicker, the former reporter and columnist for the New York Times, has written a modest and limited account of the junior senator from Wisconsin. Shooting Star is not based on original research and mines no new archival evidence. Short and impressionistic, marred by occasional errors of fact and ignorance of recent scholarship, it nevertheless offers a plausible and sensible interpretation of the life and influence of the man Wicker believes to have been, arguably, "the most destructive demagogue in American history."

For all the hysteria he generated, McCarthy had a very brief time in the limelight. Barely known before a speech to a Lincoln Day gathering in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, he returned to obscurity less, than five years later after his colleagues censured him. But he made quite an impression in that brief period, accusing scores of government employees of Communist sympathies and hurling charges and smears at everyone from Adlai Stevenson to General George Marshall. While he was never without fierce critics, he successfully ignored or shook off evidence that his aim was frequently wild and his targets either badly chosen or not guilty of what he claimed about them.

When McCarthy made his famous speech, he was as unimportant as a freshman senator could be. How and why did he become a household name? Wicker notes that Joe McCarthy did not invent anticommunism, nor was the Wheeling speech his first use of it. He had accused his Democratic opponent in 1946 of Communist sympathies and he had denounced the Madison Capital Times for channeling the Daily Worker. Nor was he the first to use the Communist issue. Other Republicans had been tarring the Roosevelt and Truman administrations with charges of having turned a blind eye to subversion for several years. Why, then, did McCarthy's charge that the State Department had been harboring more than 200 card-carrying Communists resonate so strongly?

Wicker suggests, quite plausibly, that McCarthy was simply more reckless than most of his anti-Communist counterparts, going beyond insinuations of Communist sympathies or suggestions that a handful of employees were suspect. He claimed to have documentary proof for his charges that subversion was widespread. He did not. He based his charge on an outdated list of people about whom there were security questions and went well beyond that document to argue that his cases were genuine party members. When he first went after the China scholar Owen Lattimore, he made him out to be the top Communist spy in the government, and Alger Hiss's boss, even though he had not a shred of evidence to support such a charge. Undaunted, he flayed Lattimore for other alleged sins, some of which had just as little evidentiary support.