But the truth is more complicated.
Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
Blacklisted by History
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,
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.
McCarthy's oft-stated goal, says Evans, "was to get his suspects out of the federal government and its policy-making system." So the book begins by listing 10 senior government officials (the most prominent of whom was the Soviet agent Lauchlin Currie, an executive assistant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt) who, because they were "targets" of McCarthy, "must have been mere innocent victims of his mid-century reign of terror." But, Evans continues, "all these McCarthy cases were right there in the Soviet cables." Venona, plus supporting data from Kremlin archives, shows that "rather than being blameless martyrs, all were indeed Communists, Soviet agents or assets of the KGB, just as McCarthy had suggested."
McCarthy correctly saw a State Department infested with Soviet agents and sympathizers, influencing U.S. foreign policy--in particular, abandonment of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist regime in China. John Stewart Service, a State Department "China hand," is widely viewed as a top-level martyr driven out of the department by McCarthy's accusations. Evans depicts Service living in the provisional Chinese capital of Chungking during World War II with two Soviet agents. Purportedly an adviser to Chiang, Service was sending reports back to Washington degrading Chiang and extolling Mao Zedong's Communists. Evans has obtained 1,200 pages of Services's dispatches, including one asserting that "the Communist political program is simple democracy . . . much more American than Russian."
The most familiar case of supposed mistaken identity by McCarthy--really the only such case--involves an elderly black woman from Washington named Annie Lee Moss, employed by the Army as a code clerk. When McCarthy brought her before his investigative committee, then in its last days, she was identified by the FBI as a Communist party member dealing with classified material to demonstrate faulty security procedures.
Democrats claimed McCarthy had the wrong Annie Lee Moss. But there was no other Annie Lee Moss, Evans makes clear. The woman testifying was a Communist, the Army belatedly admitted, with "party membership book number 37269." But that did not demolish what Evans calls "The Legend of Annie Moss." Her "mistaken identity" has been central in assaults against McCarthy dating from Edward R. Murrow's famous See It Now program in 1954 to George Clooney's 2005 panegyric of Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck.
The clearest evidence of McCarthy's accusing political rivals of treason is his June 14, 1951, speech in which he said that Gen. George C. Marshall was supporting "a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man"--that is, a Communist conspiracy. (A recent book critical of McCarthy by David M. Oshinsky is sarcastically titled A Conspiracy So Immense.) More than John Stewart Service and the China hands, or Annie Lee Moss and her "mistaken identity," that single speech on Marshall is the core of the case for McCarthyism.
Evans lists a few instances of McCarthy at his worst, headed by the Marshall speech--which was actually a journalist's book manuscript handed to McCarthy and impulsively read into the record. Yet even on this issue, Evans says McCarthy had a point. He never accused General Marshall of pro-Communist sentiments, only that he was influenced by Soviet agents and Soviet sympathizers: "Marshall everywhere and always made wrong decisions or urged mistaken courses."
Readers of Blacklisted by History may be surprised by how fastidious and detailed McCarthy was (with the exception of the Marshall speech) in assembling information about security risks in government. Readers are likely to be even more startled by the ferocity of the assault on him by the Truman administration and the unified Democratic majority in the Senate once he emerged from obscurity--in Wheeling, West Virginia, on the night of February 9, 1950--by declaring the existence of Communist security risks in the State Department.
The early stage of the Democratic attempt to destroy McCarthy was led by Sen. Millard E. Tydings of Maryland, a haughty grandee of the then-dominant southern Democratic bloc. Ruthless in hand-to-hand political combat, Tydings is shown by Evans refusing to let McCarthy testify, and omitting Republican material from the printed transcript. Tydings brought onto the Senate floor a purported phonograph record of the Wheeling speech, noting that McCarthy allegedly claimed 205 Communists were in the State Department (a number perpetuated in history despite McCarthy's denials and lack of substantiation). Tydings admitted, in a subsequent court proceeding, that the unplayed record was from a McCarthy interview in Denver, not his speech in Wheeling.
Almost immediately after the Wheeling speech, the assault on McCarthy began from fellow senators who hardly knew him, and from Truman administration officials who did not know him at all. That hostility replicated the automatic reaction of the nation's majority political party that Alger Hiss could not have been a spy, that State Department official (and Soviet agent) Lawrence Duggan could not have been a traitor, and that former Communist courier Elizabeth Bentley could not be believed.
"Even among those who at last accepted the guilt of Hiss," Evans writes, "he was usually viewed as an aberration, not the precursor of a species." To accept "a wide-ranging plot consisting of multiple Alger Hisses, as alleged by McCarthy," was "unthinkable. . . . McCarthy was a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party, as the issues of infiltration and security laxness all had their genesis under Roosevelt and Truman."
In death, Harry Truman has been installed in the American pantheon as an intrepid Cold Warrior; but in life, he was a nasty partisan who dismissed reports of Soviet espionage out of fear it might damage his beloved party. Truman promoted a Treasury official named Harry Dexter White to the top U.S. position at the International Monetary Fund, despite repeated FBI warnings (reported by Evans) that White was a Soviet agent. As late as 1956, Truman was denying that Alger Hiss was a Communist spy. It has also been reported that Truman sloughed off a confidential alert which declared that decoded Soviet cable traffic showed the Russians had penetrated the U.S. government.
Dean Acheson, McCarthy's implacable enemy within the Truman administration, reinvented himself after the fact as a fierce anti-Communist. But when he became secretary of state in 1949, Evans writes, Acheson "was known as an advocate of conciliating Moscow, in sharp contrast to hardliners in the diplomatic corps who wanted to take a tough anti-Red stance in the postwar era." Acheson's promise not to turn his back on Alger Hiss was not an aberration.
It "appeared to be the best of times" for McCarthy after the Republican election victory in 1952 gave him the chairmanship of the principal Senate investigating committee. But, says Evans, President Dwight D. Eisenhower "disliked him, intensely, and the feeling would grow more so as the events of 1953 unfolded." An underlying reason was McCarthy's attack on Eisenhower's mentor, George C. Marshall, but their animosity was mutual. To McCarthy, Eisenhower "represented, not systematic change from Roosevelt and Truman, but something closer to continuity."
McCarthy's brief chairmanship was conducted with a care that belies his historical reputation, but the new Republican president in the White House, and the new Democratic leader in the Senate (Lyndon B. Johnson), were ready to pounce in reaction as they awaited the inevitable false move by their prey. It came when McCarthy imprudently picked a fight with the Army over lax security practices, "provoking a constitutional showdown of epic nature between McCarthy and executive branch officials." McCarthy committed what Evans calls "a grievous error" in angrily reacting to the evasiveness, as a witness, of Brig. Gen. Ralph Zwicker, a decorated combat general, by calling him "a tremendous disgrace to the Army."
The principal surviving image of McCarthy comes from the subsequent televised Army-McCarthy hearings (but mainly from Point of Order, a film documentary that put him in the worst light). The most memorable incident is the melodramatic performance of Joseph Welch, the Army's counsel for the hearings ("Have you left no sense of decency, sir?"), when McCarthy declared that a Welch law partner had belonged to the Communist-front National Lawyers Guild.
This classic example of McCarthyism, however, is not what it seems: Evans has unearthed a New York Times story in which Welch, months earlier, had revealed the lawyer's membership in the Guild as reason for not employing his services in the hearings.
As those hearings, which effectively would end McCarthy's career, were about to begin, Whittaker Chambers wrote a personal letter to his friend and McCarthy's defender, William F. Buckley Jr. Chambers called McCarthy "a political godsend" to the Communists who "divides the ranks of the Right" and "scarcely knows what he is doing." Those and similar quotes from the letter have been showcased by liberals for a half-century and, indeed, have helped discredit McCarthy among conservatives.
But Chambers was ambivalent about McCarthy. In the same letter to Buckley, he wrote that "the Senator represents the one force that all shades of the Left really fear. . . . He alone on the Right, at this moment, visibly imperils" the Left's "seizure of power." That explains the inexorable assault painstakingly described here by Evans, which succeeded not only in destroying McCarthy but in separating him from anti-Communist followers--like me.
In 1953, a 22-year-old second lieutenant at Fort Devens, Mass., awaiting a possible call to combat in Korea that never came, I was sympathetic to McCarthy, as were most of my fellow officers--until an incident in his feud with the Army. McCarthy publicly criticized Maj. Gen. Perry Reichelderfer for failing, when he was commander of the Fort Monmouth laboratories, to fire an employee who once had attended Communist meetings, and in whose residence were found secret documents. McCarthy identified Reichelderfer as chief of the Army Security Agency (ASA).
My fellow officers and I were so shocked that we instantly changed our outlook on McCarthy. We were assigned to the ASA Training Center at Fort Devens in a building protected by barbed wire and security guards. We had been instructed never to tell anybody of our ASA connection. We thought listing General Reichelderfer's ASA command was a security breach, and that demeaning a distinguished officer truly constituted McCarthyism.
More than half-a-century later, it seems to me to be a mistake by McCarthy, but not evidence of any "ism." The combination of forces against Joe McCarthy from the Left, from the news media, from both parties and his own president, had succeeded in aligning people like me against him. Stan Evans has described why we were wrong--because, indeed, McCarthy was fighting "a conspiracy so immense."
Robert D. Novak is the author, most recently, of Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington.