The Magazine

McCarthy=Bad

But the truth is more complicated.

Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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Blacklisted by History

The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies

by M. Stanton Evans

Crown Forum, 672 pp., $29.95

McCarthyism, n. 1. the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, esp. of pro-Communist activity, in many instances unsupported by proof or based on slight, doubtful, or irrelevant evidence. 2. unfairness in investigative technique.--Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1989).

M. Stanton Evans is a conservative who has been highly esteemed for nearly half-a-century as a journalist, author, and teacher. But his seventh book is not likely to be greeted by undiluted approbation, even from fellow conservatives. That's because Evans has assumed a Sisyphean task. He writes that "the real Joe McCarthy has vanished into the mists of fable and recycled error, so that it takes the equivalent of a dragnet search to find him. This book is my attempt to do so."

A rehabilitation of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy is something like an attempt to unveil the sterling qualities of Caligula, Attila, or Torquemada. But none of these famous villains spawned an "ism" worthy of a dictionary definition. "McCarthyism" is ingrained in the contemporary political lexicon, used so frequently--by conservatives as well as liberals--that it is no longer necessary to define its meaning.

In the 2006 campaign, Newt Gingrich compared attacks on Sen. George Allen in Virginia to McCarthyism. The Boston Globe said the 2006 campaign by the Republican candidate for Massachusetts governor "has a flavor of McCarthyism." In March of this year, conservative radio talker Glenn Beck said an attack on him by MSNBC's left-wing Keith Olbermann "smacks of the same McCarthyism [Edward R.] Murrow fought so valiantly against." In August, Rabbi Michael Feinberg called a campaign against an Arabic-themed public school in New York City "the lowest of McCarthyite tactics."

All those comparisons adhere to Webster's dictionary definition, but the aura of McCarthyism is more profound. In his posthumous account of the Korean war (The Coldest Winter) David Halberstam writes that "what was to be known as McCarthyism, a powerful new political virus," was spawned by Dean Acheson's maladroit defense of Alger Hiss. At another point, Halberstam refers to "the ugliness of the McCarthy period." Still later, he cites "the ugly fratricidal charges that became known as the McCarthy period." Halberstam dates the start of the "McCarthy period" immediately after Democratic setbacks in the 1950 midterm elections by an electorate angry over the Korean war, with the reign of fear continuing through the '50s. But isn't this decade renowned for complacency and good feeling, preceding the roaring '60s?

It takes M. Stanton Evans's meticulous investigative journalism to show what Joe McCarthy's short stay on the national stage (a little under five years, from February 1950 to December 1954) really was about. Government officials, from both parties,

were not eager to have the unvarnished facts about the level of Communist penetration on their watch, and their failure to do much about it, set clearly before the nation. Joe McCarthy . . . managed to focus the blazing spotlight of public notice on these issues in a way nobody had ever done before him. He and his charges were viewed in certain quarters as a serious menace to be dealt with quickly, and in most decisive fashion. And so in fact they would be.

Hounded by united Democrats, McCarthy ultimately was done in by the first Republican president in 20 years.

The demonization of McCarthy was essentially a three-part indictment. First, he labeled as security risks and drove from public life officials (especially skilled Foreign Service professionals) whose only sin was liberalism. Second, he accused innocents of being Communists, sometimes in cases of mistaken identity. And third, he degraded the political process by accusing major rivals of treason.

Evans makes a convincing case that McCarthy is innocent on all three counts, and he does so with a painstaking case-by-case approach. The jacket blurb says it took over six years to write Blacklisted by History, but in fact, the 73-year-old Evans, born and bred in the conservative movement, has spent his whole career thinking about Joe. A relentless researcher, Evans was frustrated by the mysterious disappearance of government files and even newspaper clippings. But he tracked down much of the missing data, helped immeasurably by the Venona files of decrypted secret Soviet communications and by the new accessibility of both FBI reports and Soviet archives.