“Traitors’ words ne’er yet hurt honest cause.”
The destruction of Sen. Joe McCarthy, says M. Stanton Evans, was never about what he did:
The real issue has always been the larger question of what happened to America—and the world—at the midpoint of the twentieth century, what it meant, and who was responsible for it. The point of the standard treatments . . . isn’t merely that McCarthy was mistaken, but that the perspective he represented itself was evil and needs everywhere to be combated.
If Joe McCarthy’s understanding of the world was evil, then everything he did was evil and justified whatever good men did to get rid of him.
Mr. Evans not only takes on the “real issue”; he grabs it by the throat. What happened to America, he insists, was that her New Deal crusade to save the world from the Axis menace put us in the arms of an even greater communist menace, the danger of which Democrats and liberals insufficiently understood. How could they understand, since they shared with the rest of the left what Walter Lippmann called “The Dominant Dogma of the Age”—that government has the capacity to make us happy?
Joe McCarthy, a Catholic poor-boy-made-good from Middle America, a guy most Americans instinctively rooted for (I remember my father saying, “He’s doing the right thing”), called out our progressives on their ordering of the world in favor of what, by 1950 or so, was clearly the Other Side. He called them out hard, offended them, insulted them, and caused them to do worse things than those of which they accused him. “They got him,” Mr. Evans says, “but it’s equally true that, before this happened, he got them—or at least a sizable number of them.” Therein lies the tale.
The conventional wisdom about McCarthy is that he ran over innocent people like a runaway train; that he was a “fraud and a hoax,” in the words of Sen. Millard Tydings; that he inspired hate and fear, and injured countless lives by accusing innocent men and women of communist connections; that he knew little about the subjects he most passionately persecuted people for; that he played fast and loose with the constitutional rights of his enemies; and that he was brought down after demeaning the integrity of the very institutions he claimed to protect. He is the only senator ever to inspire a caption: McCarthyism, an Orwellian term used today by people who wish only to discredit their opponents, almost as generic as fascist, or, as hopeful neoconservatives want us to learn to say, Islamofascist. No American, not even Benedict Arnold or John Wilkes Booth, has been so utterly, as Mr. Evans says, “blacklisted by history.”
Because Mr. Evans waited 50 years after McCarthy’s censure by his Senate colleagues, he has had more access to FBI, National Archives, and other presidential and private sources than anyone before him who has written about his subject. He has not, however, produced a work of history or biography so much as a journalist’s brief. Here is a master newspaperman at work: digging, interviewing the record, pulling apart and putting together the details of deeds done mostly by the politicians who ran our imperfect national government in the 1950’s. He has little good to say about the journalists and historians who have written about McCarthy before; but then, his argument is not so much with them as it is with the “progressive history lesson,” against which Mr. Evans has been contending his whole life. Blacklisted by History, in fact, should be construed as the single-case version of his big-picture work, The Theme Is Freedom: Religion, Politics and the American Tradition, among the best books of the postliberal era.
Evans’ argument here comes down to this: Sen. Joe McCarthy was superior to his enemies. He was pugnacious, difficult, uncontrollable, imprudent. But
His record needs to be set over against that of his opponents, from Tydings and the State Department to Joe Welch and Stevens-Adams. On that kind of balance sheet, it’s plain that McCarthy was far more sinned against than sinning, and that on the central issues he was chiefly right and his opponents chiefly in error.
Commie studies have not gone well for their apologists and sympathizers for the past couple of decades. For a long time, they could say almost anything about McCarthy or anticommunists in general and still get it published in mainstream journals and respectable presses. The first is still true, but the second is starting to even up. The end of the Cold War, instead of vindicating the anti-anti-communist liberal internationalists, has undermined them—not that they have noticed. For a while, Venona, the Soviet archives, documents smuggled out of communist countries, the opening of too-long-closed American sources, and surprising honesty from members of the evil empire seemed likely to blow the conventional wisdom about American anticommunism to smithereens. As a friend said in 1995, “And here we thought there was a commie under every bed; come to find out, there was one under only every other bed. All the rest were working for the Federal Government.”
Despite the efforts of historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Allan Weinstein, Arthur Herman, and others; the decades-long determination of Herbert Romerstein and the late Ralph de Toledano to tell the truth; and the early efforts of Bill Buckley and Brent Bozell to put this all in perspective, the tales of witch-hunting go on and on. Communist Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which lied about both the Puritans and the 50’s, is still more celebrated than excommunist Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, which told the truth about what all thugs do. As recently as 2005, our popular culture could still allow George Clooney to portray the liar Edward R. Murrow as a hero, and the hero Joe McCarthy as a liar.
This is why Mr. Evans’ book is so important. If he had approached me and other older conservatives in, say, 1998, and said that he was researching a book that would defend Senator McCarthy in all particulars, we probably would have said, “Let it go. The Cold War is over. The bad guys are on the run.” But Evans was right to persevere. If the real issue is to be put to the refiner’s fire, the hardest tests of that issue must be met head on. If Joe McCarthy was merely a runaway train, we must admit the fact. But if we let the Other Side get away with portraying him in a red suit and horns, carrying a pitchfork, the real issue remains open, as Clooney has shown. A new generation of historians is already trying to rehabilitate Harry Dexter White, Ted Hall, Laughlin Currie, and others as patriots in their own hearts, even though they without question spied for Stalin. There is still, almost beyond belief, a cottage industry (subsidized by New York University) trying to reestablish the innocence of Alger Hiss.
Mr. Evans proceeds from what he likes to call “the record.” There is no speculation about McCarthy’s psychological health (or, for that matter, that of his enemies), no convoluted Richard Rovere-like explanations about unhealthy ambitions or unhealthy friendships; not even much comment about his alcohol intake, which even the record suggests was indeed unhealthy. About motives, Mr. Evans confines himself to the conviction that “McCarthy cast the struggle starkly in religious terms—the confrontation of atheistic communism with the Christian civilization of the West.” Such words may sound quaint today, but McCarthy was a serious, believing Catholic at a time when Bishop Fulton Sheen was just starting to make it respectable to be one. Rather, Mr. Evans asks, was McCarthy right or wrong on the facts and the merits of each case? How have his critics known that what they said about him was true? How can we know?
This is probably the soundest rhetorical strategy Evans could have chosen. In pursuit of answers to these deceptively simple questions, he leads his readers through the “data” that make up every significant episode of the McCarthy story from Wheeling, West Virginia, through his censure by his fellow senators. Because McCarthy knew more about communists in government and had better sources than most of his opponents, Mr. Evans’ careful reconstruction of events puts him up, on the substance of things, about 90 percent of the time. The Tydings Committee, for example, was convened in early 1950 to investigate security matters in the State Department but, instead, in collusion with the State Department, investigated McCarthy. Mr. Evans shows that it was “false in virtually every aspect [of its findings], and where not conclusively so is sharply contrary to the available record.” Senator Tydings was an unlikely attack dog, having been a thorn in FDR’s side during the court-packing episode of 1937-38; but, by 1950, the stakes for Dean Acheson’s State Department and Harry Truman’s presidency were so high that they enlisted the entire party to cover up their failed security policies.
Millard Tydings failed to be reelected in 1952, becoming a McCarthy “victim” in part because of a widely circulated composite photograph of him with Earl Browder, the former Communist Party chief. It turns out that McCarthy had nothing to do with the doctored photograph. On the other hand, Tydings himself had appeared in the Senate with what he claimed was a phonograph record of McCarthy giving wild numbers pertaining to false communist lists in his Wheeling speech. Such a record never existed. Tydings lied, as he was later forced to admit under oath. Who practiced “McCarthyism”?
Mr. Evans exposes this sort of thing again and again. But to take on the toughest of the toughest, let us turn briefly to the two episodes that hurt McCarthy most in the eyes of the general public. The first is the case of Annie Lee Moss, the poor black woman who is often cast as the most pathetic of McCarthyism’s martyrs. She worked for the General Accounting Office (1945-49), and thereafter for the Army as a code clerk until called before the McCarthy subcommittee on March 11, 1954. This summons was not out of the blue. She had been identified by good FBI sources, under oath, as a communist for several years. In front of the committee and television cameras, she played the victim: barely literate (yet a code clerk!), never heard of Marx, didn’t know what a communist was, maybe it was a case of mistaken identity. There were, after all, three Annie Lee Mosses in the D.C. phone book. Except there weren’t, as a young M. Stanton Evans checked out at the time as a cub reporter. They had the right woman, and she was a communist, and the Army had known about it for years. Nobody has written the true story of Annie Lee Moss until now. Her Emmy-worthy performance may never be explained. Two pieces of the backstory are also interesting to contemplate. McCarthy wasn’t even present for most of her testimony. And the Supreme Court handed down Brown v Board of Education barely two months later, which may have affected the context.
The second case is the Army-McCarthy hearings, which I, along with about 20 million other Americans, watched all that spring. Even as a 14-year-old, I knew that the emotional drama that was unfolding had little to do with facts, which, as Mr. Evans proves, went mostly in McCarthy’s favor. It was about who could play the television medium better, a contest won hands-down by Army lawyer Joseph Welch, whose acting ability was later validated in the James Stewart movie Anatomy of a Murder. Most Americans, polls showed at the time, didn’t know that the hearings originated in Army charges against McCarthy, not in his persecution of honorable officers. It is true that the dumbest thing McCarthy ever did was to attack George C. Marshall on the floor of the Senate on June 14, 1951. Almost without doubt, this action made up future President Eisenhower’s mind about McCarthy. The one man who could bring McCarthy down decided that it should be done.
On the merits, even the Army-McCarthy hearings go McCarthy’s way. In fact, Mr. Evans asserts, “It’s a remarkable but generally neglected fact that every major McCarthy investigation in the period 1953-54 resulted in some significant change in governmental practice.” Of course, his critics would say—because of McCarthyism. No, says the record: His investigations on balance improved the security mechanisms of the U.S. government, sent into obscurity many people who should have been sent into obscurity, and rarely were conducted with the lack of decorum that causes unwelcome collateral damage. Even the famous “Point of order!” was an unusual tactic. McCarthy wasn’t easy to control, as Robert Taft often pointed out, but was, by many accounts, quite a likeable fellow. Why then, in the words of Arthur Herman, was he “America’s Most Hated Senator”?
The answer, according to Mr. Evans, is not that he unduly or unnecessarily injured or terrorized people. Rather, he conjured the Asian demons the Democrats thought they had stuffed forever in a bottle. It has been a long time since any serious author has brought to the fore the Asian muddle of 1945-49 other than to dismiss it condescendingly as the product of “Asia-Firsters,” who were, according to the accepted version, the last remnant of the old isolationists. Mr. Evans insists on the centrality of the Amerasia case, not only for its implications for national security, but for its negative prospects for Democratic politics. Failure to cap the Amerasia bottle, he says, would have resulted in the spilling of the whole Democratic geopolitical pot. The Democrats had capped the bottle, but then along came Joe, and at a very bad time.
China had become communist in 1949, an event that has been made to seem utterly inevitable in the accepted version. In fact, while the United States was taking extraordinary measures to protect Western Europe from Soviet threats that were perhaps overstated, the anticommunists in China were left high and dry. This was in no small part a result, as McCarthy understood, of advice fed into the Truman administration by traitors and fellow-travelers who portrayed Mao and Chou En-lai as “agrarian reformers.” Had McCarthy succeeded in reopening the Amerasia case, the failure of our Asian Cold War policy would have been apparent even before the Korean War exposed the cost of Mao’s victory.
McCarthy’s Wheeling speech was delivered on February 9, 1950. The Tydings committee hearings began on March 8 (remarkably soon, given that their subject was supposed to be an issue the State Department had already solved) and dragged on into June. On June 25, the army of North Korea crossed the 38th Parallel, and, within weeks, the United States was illegally, if understandably, at war. Despite the best attempts of Tydings, Dean Acheson, and the full power of the Truman administration, Korea made it impossible to silence Joe McCarthy. One wishes Mr. Evans had made this connection clearer.
That the United States messed up in Asia from about 1899 to at least 1975 is beyond reasonable dispute; that the years 1945-49 should have focused the moral and geopolitical issues there at least as clearly as they did in the West is perhaps asking too much of a nation that was then newly embarking upon empire. In retrospect, it isn’t all that surprising that Senator McCarthy should have rubbed things raw by calling into question the loyalty and integrity of such men as John Stuart Service, John Paton Davies, John Carter Vincent, and Owen Lattimore, when so much effort had gone into their exoneration. The souls of the over 50,000 American men and women who died in Korea will cry out for a long time over Truman’s, Marshall’s, and Acheson’s failure to comprehend what was happening in China in 1945. The stakes were indeed high.
Why Ike had to annihilate McCarthy (instead of simply ignoring him after Korea was settled) is a little harder to understand, even given, as Mr. Evans says, how many of his advisors detested the Wisconsin maverick. Sherman Adams, Ike’s chief of staff (who himself was later sacrificed on charges of personal corruption), gave the lynching order in January 1954; there is little doubt of that. Perhaps those around the President were genuinely afraid of McCarthy. More likely—Mr. Evans does not speculate much about it—they, too, wanted the Far East question to go away. Vietnam would be left for other Democrats to mess up. And in the meantime, the Eisenhower White House (in order to cut McCarthy off from his sources) contributed greatly to the corruption of the doctrine of the separation of powers in claiming, and getting away with, excessive “executive privilege,” a lesson ill learned by Vice President Richard Nixon.
Mr. Evans sums up by saying that “McCarthy, whatever his faults, was a good man and true—better and truer by far than the tag teams of cover-up artists and backstage plotters who connived unceasingly to destroy him.” I have asked my younger colleagues what, if any, emotional stake they have in the whole McCarthy episode. “None,” they reply. One of them says that he would have placed McCarthy very low on a list of topics that might be subject to revision. It is to M. Stanton Evans’ everlasting credit that he thus surprises and enlightens the coming generation. Maybe he will also teach them how to give as good as one gets.
[Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies, by M. Stanton Evans (New York: Crown Forum) 663 pp., $29.95]