Joseph McCarthy

Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator

by Arthur Herman

Free Press, 403 pp., $ 26

Nearly half a century after his death, the wraith of Joe McCarthy has returned to arouse fear and loathing in the hearts of American liberals. Aided immeasurably by his own self-destructiveness, they long ago buried him and reduced his legacy to a dictionary definition of unfairness. Even conservatives routinely apply the label of McCarthyism to the most despicable behavior of their opponents. But now the junior senator from Wisconsin is rising Rasputin-like from his ideological grave.

It started with the release of the Venona decryptions last year, leading left-wing journalist Nicholas von Hoff-man to muse that maybe McCarthy was right after all about Communist agents in the U.S. government. Next came The Redhunter, a William F. Buckley Jr. novel depicting McCarthy as a sympathetic and tragic though often reprehensible advocate of a great cause. But now comes a little-known academic with a forceful vindication of McCarthyism, if not McCarthy: Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator, by Arthur Herman.

In the November 28 New York Times Sunday magazine, leftist journalist Jacob Weisberg contended that Arthur Herman, adjunct professor of history at George Mason University, "sets out to rehabilitate" McCarthy. In fact, Herman is attempting much less and yet much more. No one can condone McCarthy's behavior, and Herman doesn't try. His audacious mission is rather to strip away two generations of propaganda and myth-making that vilified McCarthy and elevated the likes of Dean Acheson to such Olympian heights that current Republican presidential candidates compete in celebrating his memory. This biographer contends that McCarthy, the loser in the high-stakes political game, was right and Acheson, the winner, was wrong.

That does not require cleansing of McCarthy's personal reputation. Herman acknowledges the senator's "lies or distortions." He depicts FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as contemptuous of McCarthy's exaggeration of the pro-Communist Owen Lattimore as the leading Soviet spy in America. "Those who knew McCarthy," Herman writes, "were constantly discovering to their astonishment how little McCarthy knew about theory or practice of Communism itself." Indeed, by the time he exploded on the national scene with his 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, claiming proof of Communists in the State Department, McCarthy "had largely lost the confidence of even his fellow party members." After Wheeling, McCarthy "did distort" the lists of alleged subversives at State, says Herman. "When cornered or challenged, he preferred to exaggerate -- even lie -- about what cards he actually had in his hand. During his short and meteoric career as the Senate's leading red-baiter, McCarthy learned to bluff his way through in hopes that subsequent research would confirm the bulk of it."

All this fits the old stereotype of McCarthyism. But Herman breaks new ground in arguing forcefully that McCarthy did uncover State Department officials who were "really too inclined to accept Communism's premises to resist its conclusions." A prime example is Philip C. Jessup, an establishment expert on international law who was given the rank of ambassador-at-large in 1949 by Acheson. Jessup is remembered as one of the early victims of McCarthyism, but Herman contends that this top Acheson adviser "could with the best intentions direct policy towards ends that actually promoted Communist rather than American interests."

The issue is broader than Herman's characterization of Jessup as a "well-meaning dupe." He adds: "At the core of the Jessup case was the clash between liberals and conservatives over how to conduct the Cold War." Herman sides with McCarthy and his Senate Republican allies William Jenner of Indiana and Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska against such elegant foreign service professionals as George Kennan and Charles Bohlen. The senators, consigned to oblivion in the Cold War's history as neanderthals, "instinctively grasped that trying to deal with the Soviets as a conventional power, in conventional geopolitical terms, would be to lose the larger struggle."

Herman describes the conventional picture -- of the Truman administration's "Wise Men," headed by Acheson and General George Marshall, leading the nation through the deadly confrontation with Moscow -- as constituting "one of the most persistent myths of the McCarthy era." Defense Secretary James Forrestal was alone in Truman's team in appreciating that "bombers and tanks, and even the atomic bomb, were of no real safeguard against a Marxist ideology."

Nothing has exposed McCarthy to more abuse over the years than his attack on Marshall, who held the State and later the Defense portfolio under Truman. While deified by the establishment as the ideal public servant, Marshall is described by Herman as a dupe of Chou En-Lai and the man who more than anybody else can be said to have "lost China." McCarthy's claim, embodied in his notorious Senate speech attacking Marshall, that the general actually desired the Communist takeover of China, is properly dismissed by Herman as "fallacious." But he adds: "McCarthy in his own unreasonable way had raised a reasonable issue. To what extent had a floundering New Deal establishment, including men like Marshall, helped the Soviet Union become a superpower by their own poorly considered actions?"

Herman's comparison: "He [Joe McCarthy] was working class, while they [the Wise Men] were varsity class. He was hairy, loud and sweaty; they were cool, clean and antiseptic. Acheson reviled him as 'the gauleiter and leader of the mob.'" Nevertheless, at his peak, McCarthy represented millions of ordinary Americans. Their votes, Herman argues, enabled Dwight D. Eisenhower to become the first Republican president in twenty years.

But once Eisenhower was in office, his non-ideological approach to the Soviet Union was an extension of Truman's. The new Republican president's enmity doomed McCarthy, who was burdened by his own and his new aide Roy Cohn's calamitous mistakes. As he faced political destruction and approached death, McCarthy "realized that the anti-Communist cause was fading away, forever tainted with the label of 'McCarthyism,' and that liberalism of the soft, yielding sort he despised was gaining ground." Herman adds: "McCarthy's disgrace had completely vindicated men like Acheson, Marshall, and Jessup in the eyes of the media and opinion makers."

This is strong medicine, defying the bipartisan conventional wisdom. Herman's condemnation of the Wise Men perfectly fits Whittaker Chambers's analysis (in his 1952 autobiography Witness) of the failed Truman approach to Soviet communism. Chambers broke with McCarthy when the senator, typically, misrepresented Chambers's position on Chip Bohlen. In essence, however, Chambers and McCarthy were allies, supported by their fellow citizens, in a cause smothered by the establishment until Ronald Reagan as president inveighed against the Evil Empire. This is McCarthy's legacy, asserted now after all these years.

Robert D. Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a CNN commentator. His latest book, Completing the Revolution, will be published in January.

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