The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy
by Tom Wicker
Harcourt, 224 pp., $22
After several decades as the poster boy for American villainy, Joseph McCarthy has once again become a subject of controversy.
For years after censure by his Senate colleagues in 1954, McCarthy's legacy was defined by the name he gave to an era and to a political tactic. To accuse someone of McCarthyism is to suggest that he has made reckless, baseless accusations, smeared an opponent, or violated the norms of civilized political combat.
Hardly anyone outside the ranks of paranoid anti-Communists has had a kind word to say for the onetime Republican senator from Wisconsin. George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck is a recent expression of the prevailing sentiment: Only the bravery and honesty of such media titans as Edward R. Murrow enabled America to avoid the creeping fascism he represented. Among such left-wing aca demics as Ellen Schrecker, McCarthyism remains a handy symbol of America's predilection to meet dissent with repression.
Beginning in the 1990s, however, Russian and American archives began to disgorge startling new information about the extent of Soviet espionage directed against the United States and the key role in that activity played by the American Communist party. Suddenly, McCarthy had some unlikely defenders. The left-wing journalist Nicholas von Hoffman considered the possibility that he had been more right than wrong about subversion. Since 1999 Arthur Herman has written a sympathetic biography and Ann Coulter launched a full-throated defense of McCarthy while denouncing his liberal critics as traitors. The new evidence does not require that Joe McCarthy be rehabilitated, but it has forced even those who continue to regard him as a demagogue to rethink why he became such a force in American life.
Tom Wicker, the former reporter and columnist for the New York Times, has written a modest and limited account of the junior senator from Wisconsin. Shooting Star is not based on original research and mines no new archival evidence. Short and impressionistic, marred by occasional errors of fact and ignorance of recent scholarship, it nevertheless offers a plausible and sensible interpretation of the life and influence of the man Wicker believes to have been, arguably, "the most destructive demagogue in American history."
For all the hysteria he generated, McCarthy had a very brief time in the limelight. Barely known before a speech to a Lincoln Day gathering in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, he returned to obscurity less, than five years later after his colleagues censured him. But he made quite an impression in that brief period, accusing scores of government employees of Communist sympathies and hurling charges and smears at everyone from Adlai Stevenson to General George Marshall. While he was never without fierce critics, he successfully ignored or shook off evidence that his aim was frequently wild and his targets either badly chosen or not guilty of what he claimed about them.
When McCarthy made his famous speech, he was as unimportant as a freshman senator could be. How and why did he become a household name? Wicker notes that Joe McCarthy did not invent anticommunism, nor was the Wheeling speech his first use of it. He had accused his Democratic opponent in 1946 of Communist sympathies and he had denounced the Madison Capital Times for channeling the Daily Worker. Nor was he the first to use the Communist issue. Other Republicans had been tarring the Roosevelt and Truman administrations with charges of having turned a blind eye to subversion for several years. Why, then, did McCarthy's charge that the State Department had been harboring more than 200 card-carrying Communists resonate so strongly?
Wicker suggests, quite plausibly, that McCarthy was simply more reckless than most of his anti-Communist counterparts, going beyond insinuations of Communist sympathies or suggestions that a handful of employees were suspect. He claimed to have documentary proof for his charges that subversion was widespread. He did not. He based his charge on an outdated list of people about whom there were security questions and went well beyond that document to argue that his cases were genuine party members. When he first went after the China scholar Owen Lattimore, he made him out to be the top Communist spy in the government, and Alger Hiss's boss, even though he had not a shred of evidence to support such a charge. Undaunted, he flayed Lattimore for other alleged sins, some of which had just as little evidentiary support.
Ever since his college days at Marquette, McCarthy had been a successful poker player with a penchant for reckless betting and wild bluffs. He first ran for district attorney after only one year as a lawyer. After enlisting in the Marines during World War II, he maneuvered a shipboard accident into a Purple Heart, and a handful of rides on an airplane in combat situations into an undeserved Distinguished Flying Cross. Although he'd spent most of his time in the South Pacific as a ground intelligence officer, he reveled in the self-chosen nickname: "Tailgunner Joe."
His 1946 election was also truly audacious. Abandoning the Democratic party in 1944, he first ran in a primary against an incumbent Republican senator while on leave from the Marines. Two years later he took on one of the icons of Wisconsin politics, Senator Robert LaFollette Jr. McCarthy was the beneficiary of LaFollette's decision to merge his Progressive party into the Republican party and the ensuing resentment felt towards him by longtime conservatives. LaFollette barely campaigned and, damaged by internal party feuding, lost the primary by 5,000 votes. After overwhelming the hapless Democratic candidate, Joe McCarthy, whose only previous elected office was as a county judge, entered the United States Senate.
McCarthy's disdain for the rules and courtesies of the Senate infuriated his colleagues, both Republican and Democratic. He was rude, insulting, and boorish. His perverse defense of SS troops convicted of massacring American prisoners of war in Belgium presaged his later attack on the U.S. Army, and was hardly an issue likely to endear him to many Americans. Media observers rated him one of the worst senators. But after the Wheeling speech, Joe McCarthy was a household name.
Recklessness alone hardly accounted for the reaction he generated. McCarthy himself was surprised and flustered by the attention that suddenly came his way. Wicker notes that, in the previous two years, the top leadership of the American Communist party had been convicted of conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence, and the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb, ending America's nuclear monopoly. Two months before the Wheeling speech, Mao Zedong's Communists had seized power in China. One month before, Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury for denying turning State Department material over to a Communist spy ring. Early in February 1950 Klaus Fuchs confessed to giving the Soviet Union atomic bomb secrets from Los Alamos.
That trusted government employees could be spies was not some theoretical possibility. Few Americans were willing to tolerate Communist sympathizers working in the federal government. Substantial numbers worried that a Democratic administration was loath to ferret out more embarrassing details about how much subversion had taken place during its long control of the executive branch.
Had the Democrats reacted differently, McCarthy might not have gotten as much traction as he did. The weakest portion of Wicker's analysis is his account of the Tydings Committee, the Senate body set up to investigate the charges. Its goal was to discredit McCarthy and protect the Truman administration, not uncover the truth about Soviet espionage. While many of McCarthy's specific charges could be debunked--most notably his absurd claim, soon recanted, that Lattimore was a top Soviet spy--the Tydings Committee ignored evidence of Lattimore's pro-Soviet views and refused to confront evidence that high officials in the Justice and State Departments had conspired to cover up espionage in a case dating from 1945, which Wicker ignores.
While the Tydings Committee dismissed allegations that State Department officers had worked to undermine American opposition to the Chinese Communists, American troops were soon in battle with Communist forces in Korea.
Wicker debunks some of the more alarmist claims about McCarthy. Despite the damage he did, he never created a reign of terror and his influence, while not negligible, has been overestimated. From the moment he became prominent, famous and powerful figures in politics, the press, and the intellectual world launched attacks on him. Wicker notes that, although he has been credited with bringing down several Democratic incumbents who criticized him--including Millard Tydings of Maryland and two Democratic majority leaders, Scott Lucas of Illinois and Ernest McFarland of Arizona--such claims are overstated. Many of the people he endorsed actually ran behind other Republicans in their states. His influence was already beginning to wane by the time Murrow went after him.
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.