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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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.