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

McCarthy began to dig his own grave by attacking the executive branch now controlled by the Republican party. The very recklessness that had enabled him to gain everyone's attention led him to antagonize Dwight Eisenhower, to ignore warnings from J. Edgar Hoover that he needed to get his facts right, and to unleash his aides Roy Cohn and David Schine on a jaunt through USIA libraries in Europe that turned into a public relations disaster.

The immediate cause for his downfall was his bullying performance during the Army-McCarthy hearings, the first congressional inquiry to be widely carried on live television. Cohn and McCarthy had pressured the Army to give special privileges, including an officer's commission, to Schine after he was drafted. Infuriated when he faced resistance from Army brass and the Pentagon, McCarthy made a cause out of discovering who had promoted a dentist, Captain Irving Peress, to the rank of major despite his connections to the Communist party. When Brigadier General Ralph Zwicker, a decorated veteran of the Normandy landings, displeased him, McCarthy unleashed a broadside, calling him a disgrace to the uniform he wore.

Not even Roy Cohn could control his boss, who was increasingly prone to heavy drinking. McCarthy breached a private agreement with the Army's counsel, Joseph Welch, that Cohn's avoidance of the draft would not become an issue during the hearings, and neither would the brief membership of a junior attorney in Welch's law firm in a Communist front group years before. Infuriated when Welch was baiting Cohn during a cross-examination, McCarthy mentioned the attorney and his affiliation, ignoring Cohn's frantic efforts to stop him.

That prompted Welch to deliver his famous line, "Have you left no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"

Within weeks after the conclusion of the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Senate began to consider a resolution to censure McCarthy, setting up a select committee to consider charges, and finally recommending that he be cited for contempt towards a previous Senate committee, and for his treatment of Zwicker. Advised by sympathetic colleagues to apologize, McCarthy remained defiant, claiming that the select committee was doing the work of the Communist party. The Senate dropped the Zwicker charge, but added one of calumning the select committee. In early December 1954, the Senate censured him 67-22, with 22 Republicans joining the Democrats (John F. Kennedy didn't vote) to effectively end his career.

Eisenhower quipped that McCarthyism had been transformed into McCarthywasism. He died from complications of alcoholism three years later.

While Wicker's account is generally persuasive, he occasionally overreaches. For example, McCarthy did not ruin J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose travails were unrelated to the Wisconsin senator. Wicker sometimes exaggerates, claiming that McCarthy "never uncovered--much less sent to jail--a single Communist." In fact, McCarthy identified a handful of people who were Communists, and even one or two whom we now know were minor Soviet agents.

Wicker acknowledges that there had been substantial subversion, but insists that other anti-Communists, ranging from government prosecutors to congressional investigators to such truth-tellers as Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers, had exposed most of them. What Wicker fails to understand is that McCarthy was able to feed on the widespread skepticism that many liberals displayed towards Bentley and Chambers, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the guilt of Alger Hiss. That does not excuse his demagoguery, but helps explain why it struck such a chord.

McCarthy's charges resonated because there had been subversion, and the government response to it had been tepid. In fact, the Venona revelations have demonstrated that spying was far more extensive than anyone at the time was willing to admit. Most of the spies had been removed from their jobs by the time McCarthy launched his crusade, but many Americans sensed that the problem had been far worse than the government had let on. And they were right.

McCarthy may have gotten most of the details wrong--and that was no minor matter--but he was correct to argue that Communist subversion had been a significant problem.

Harvey Klehr is the Andrew Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory. His latest book is In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage.