The Magazine

Say it ain't so, Joe

Senator McCarthy, wrong and wright.

Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Ever since his college days at Marquette, McCarthy had been a successful poker player with a penchant for reckless betting and wild bluffs. He first ran for district attorney after only one year as a lawyer. After enlisting in the Marines during World War II, he maneuvered a shipboard accident into a Purple Heart, and a handful of rides on an airplane in combat situations into an undeserved Distinguished Flying Cross. Although he'd spent most of his time in the South Pacific as a ground intelligence officer, he reveled in the self-chosen nickname: "Tailgunner Joe."

His 1946 election was also truly audacious. Abandoning the Democratic party in 1944, he first ran in a primary against an incumbent Republican senator while on leave from the Marines. Two years later he took on one of the icons of Wisconsin politics, Senator Robert LaFollette Jr. McCarthy was the beneficiary of LaFollette's decision to merge his Progressive party into the Republican party and the ensuing resentment felt towards him by longtime conservatives. LaFollette barely campaigned and, damaged by internal party feuding, lost the primary by 5,000 votes. After overwhelming the hapless Democratic candidate, Joe McCarthy, whose only previous elected office was as a county judge, entered the United States Senate.

McCarthy's disdain for the rules and courtesies of the Senate infuriated his colleagues, both Republican and Democratic. He was rude, insulting, and boorish. His perverse defense of SS troops convicted of massacring American prisoners of war in Belgium presaged his later attack on the U.S. Army, and was hardly an issue likely to endear him to many Americans. Media observers rated him one of the worst senators. But after the Wheeling speech, Joe McCarthy was a household name.

Recklessness alone hardly accounted for the reaction he generated. McCarthy himself was surprised and flustered by the attention that suddenly came his way. Wicker notes that, in the previous two years, the top leadership of the American Communist party had been convicted of conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence, and the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb, ending America's nuclear monopoly. Two months before the Wheeling speech, Mao Zedong's Communists had seized power in China. One month before, Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury for denying turning State Department material over to a Communist spy ring. Early in February 1950 Klaus Fuchs confessed to giving the Soviet Union atomic bomb secrets from Los Alamos.

That trusted government employees could be spies was not some theoretical possibility. Few Americans were willing to tolerate Communist sympathizers working in the federal government. Substantial numbers worried that a Democratic administration was loath to ferret out more embarrassing details about how much subversion had taken place during its long control of the executive branch.

Had the Democrats reacted differently, McCarthy might not have gotten as much traction as he did. The weakest portion of Wicker's analysis is his account of the Tydings Committee, the Senate body set up to investigate the charges. Its goal was to discredit McCarthy and protect the Truman administration, not uncover the truth about Soviet espionage. While many of McCarthy's specific charges could be debunked--most notably his absurd claim, soon recanted, that Lattimore was a top Soviet spy--the Tydings Committee ignored evidence of Lattimore's pro-Soviet views and refused to confront evidence that high officials in the Justice and State Departments had conspired to cover up espionage in a case dating from 1945, which Wicker ignores.

While the Tydings Committee dismissed allegations that State Department officers had worked to undermine American opposition to the Chinese Communists, American troops were soon in battle with Communist forces in Korea.

Wicker debunks some of the more alarmist claims about McCarthy. Despite the damage he did, he never created a reign of terror and his influence, while not negligible, has been overestimated. From the moment he became prominent, famous and powerful figures in politics, the press, and the intellectual world launched attacks on him. Wicker notes that, although he has been credited with bringing down several Democratic incumbents who criticized him--including Millard Tydings of Maryland and two Democratic majority leaders, Scott Lucas of Illinois and Ernest McFarland of Arizona--such claims are overstated. Many of the people he endorsed actually ran behind other Republicans in their states. His influence was already beginning to wane by the time Murrow went after him.