“The tone and tendency of liberalism . . . is to attack the institutions of the
country under the name of reform and to make war on the manners and
customs of the people under the pretext of progress.”

—Benjamin Disraeli

On April 14, 1996, the Washington Post published a 2,700-word article by liberal journalist Nicholas von Hoffman entitled “Was McCarthy Right about the Left?  The Reds Were Under the Bed While the Liberals Looked Away.”  The article did not quite say that “McCar-thy was right,” as some people soon claimed, but it came close.  The occasion for Von Hoffman’s piece and its reversal of half a century of liberal demonization of Joe McCarthy was the recent appearance of a large body of evidence (including the release in 1995 of the “Venona” documents—transcripts of encrypted communications between the Soviets and their intelligence services in this country in the 1940’s that the U.S. government intercepted and deciphered) that confirms the truth of much of what McCarthy and other anticommunists of the 1950’s alleged.

As a result of this evidence, it is now almost universally acknowledged that the Communist Party in the United States was a highly disciplined tool subsidized and controlled by the Soviet Union.  Up to at least the 1950’s, its membership included an underground apparatus that the Soviets used for espionage and subversion against the United States.  Several federal agencies really had been deeply penetrated by communists and Soviet spies, and these spies—several hundred of them—included Alger Hiss, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aide Lauchlin Currie, deputy head of the Office of Strategic Services Dwight Chapin Lee, Treasury Department official Harry Dexter White, and many others.  Soviet spies infiltrated the Manhattan Project and passed atomic secrets to the Soviets; these spies included Julius Rosenberg and his ring.  Nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer is now known to have been at one time a member of the Communist Party and to have placed other communists in sensitive positions in the Manhattan Project.  Soviet agents or people very sympathetic to Soviet communism—including what was perhaps the single most controversial name identified by McCarthy, Asia scholar Owen Lattimore—were influential in undermining U.S. support for Chiang Kai-shek and helping the communists take over China.

From the 1940’s to the 1990’s, the hard left and establishment liberalism strenuously rejected every one of these claims and vilified anyone—Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, Louis Budenz, the congressional investigating committees, and, above all, Joe McCarthy—who made them.  The left defended Hiss and the Rosenbergs as innocent martyrs of unscrupulous, politically motivated right wingers or of sheer paranoia and dismissed reports of Soviet and domestic communist influence on U.S. foreign policy as fantasy, ideology, and smears.  The revelations of recent years have destroyed those claims.  Virtually every icon and myth of the anti-anticommunist left has now been shattered by indisputable facts.  The left was wrong.  The McCarthyites—and maybe McCarthy himself—were right.

Having been dragged kicking and screaming to the recognition that almost everything they claimed about the subversion issue not only was false but actually endangered our national safety by denying the threat existed at all, the left has to try to salvage itself.  In particular, it has to deal with McCarthy, long the Satan of antiliberalism, because, if McCarthy (and by extension “McCarthyism”) was right, liberalism has a rather serious problem.

Ted Morgan’s massive new book, Reds, can be read as a protracted and somewhat desperate effort to consider McCarthy and McCarthyism in the context of what we now can no longer question about communist subversion, and that is one reason his book has been warmly greeted by liberals as well as neoconservatives (assuming you think there is a difference).  Thomas Powers in the New York Review of Books and neoconservatives Ronald Radosh in the Washington Post and Arnold Beichman in the Washington Times have all, along with most other reviewers of similar orientations, praised the book, not least because Mr. Morgan does not conclude that “McCarthy was right.”

Morgan’s answer to the liberal dilemma about McCarthy is to argue that, while Soviet and communist subversion was real, McCarthy was irrelevant as well as dangerous and obnoxious.  Morgan devotes some 200 pages to McCarthy himself, but his book is more than just an account of the Wisconsin senator.  It is really a history of what he calls “McCarthyism,” which he defines in his Preamble (presumably his book is intended as a kind of new constitution) as “1.  The political practice of publicizing accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence.  2.  The use of dubious methods of investigation in order to suppress opposition.”  Morgan is not especially consistent in this definition, and, 566 pages later, he changes it to “the use of false information in the pursuit of a fictitious enemy.”  His thesis is that “McCarthyism,” whatever it is, existed long before Joe McCarthy and continues to exist to this day; he is far less concerned to substantiate the realities of Soviet-communist subversion than to show how unsavory anyone who pointed to those realities was.

To Morgan’s credit, he makes no effort to minimize or evade what the communists were doing.  “We now know,” he writes, “that the American Communist Party . . . was busily establishing a subculture that acted in hidden ways, attracting not only a loyal membership, but a number of agents assigned to special tasks.”  (Actually, those who followed the congressional investigations of the 1930’s through the 1950’s knew that long before the Venona documents were released.)  Soviet funds “continued to keep the American party afloat.”

The Soviets sponsored subversion in the United States almost from the day they came to power, and, by the time of the Depression, “the Communist subculture flourished and gained the self-sufficiency of a state within a state, with its own unions, housing projects, insurance company, legal defense system, and youth organizations.”

In their scope and effectiveness, the Soviet espionage operations in wartime America were without historical precedent.  Never did one country steal so many political, diplomatic, scientific, and military secrets from another.

Morgan’s account of Soviet subversion cannot be faulted, but most of it is not original to his book, and recounting it is not his real purpose.  His real purpose is to perpetuate the demonization of anticommunists that the left has long engineered.

It is difficult to find one single word of praise or even much of a balanced judgment for any of the major anticommunist figures of the era.  Martin Dies, the Texas congressman whose “Dies Committee” pioneered congressional investigations of subversive activities, was “a Southern racist who despised blacks, foreigners, and big government.  He had a crude and blustering manner, a venal nature, and a second-rate mind,” even though “he turned out to be surprisingly effective in uncovering the concealed activities of the party.”  Anticommunist Sen. William Jenner was “a small-town Indiana lawyer with a Manichaean mind, incapable of shadings.”  J. Edgar Hoover “harbored a pathological conviction that Negroes were immoral animals with uncontrollable sexual appetites,” a statement for which Morgan offers no evidence.  (Hoover, in fact, seems to have harbored merely the conventional, paternalistic racial views of his era and background.)  Hoover’s “hounding of [Martin Luther] King was a textbook example of McCarthyism.”  Morgan notes at least three times that Roy Cohn, chief counsel to McCarthy’s Government Operations Committee, died of AIDS and calls him “the arrogant little squirt with friends in high places, the show-off with the orange tuxedo.”  Not once in his book does Morgan use this kind of language to describe a single one of the whole list of traitors, spies, tyrants, dupes, and outright fools who either worked consciously for the communists or allowed themselves to be used by them.  His real hatred, however, is reserved for the archdemon himself.

Morgan wastes many pages rehashing the divorce cases McCarthy handled as a Wisconsin judge and finds he was generally loathe to grant divorces when young children were involved.  That is as good as it gets.  “Joe,” as Morgan habitually refers to McCarthy (he calls every other figure in the book by his surname) “revealed the twin engines that propelled him, ambition and greed.”  His war record, his political campaigns, his finances, his Senate activities before 1950, his drinking, and his marriage—which Morgan suggests (without evidence) was a political convenience meant to avoid accusations of homosexuality prompted by his relationship with Cohn—are recounted in excruciating detail.  But Morgan’s main interest in McCarthy is as an incompetent, dishonest, dangerous, and ineffective leader of anticommunist efforts.  Not once does he cite Cohn’s 1968 book on McCarthy, William F. Buckley and L. Brent Bozell’s 1954 McCarthy and His Enemies, or the most recent biography of the senator, Arthur Herman’s Joseph McCarthy, let alone any other sympathetic secondary work.

McCarthy’s flaws have long been known to his supporters even more than to his enemies, but many of those flaws, as Arthur Herman has shown, were hardly unique to him and also characterized much of what his enemies said and wrote about him.  Nor does the myth that McCarthy “destroyed hundreds of innocent lives” bear scrutiny.  After reading Morgan’s bitterly hostile but exhaustive account of him and his career, it is impossible to identify one single innocent individual whom McCarthy seriously harmed through his rhetoric and investigations.  There were people who seem not to have been so innocent who lost government jobs, but no one went to jail or was ruined.  Indeed, after all his snorting about McCarthy, Morgan acknowledges that, “in spite of McCarthy’s hectoring tactics, not a single witness who appeared before his subcommittee was imprisoned for perjury, contempt, espionage, or subversion” and at last confesses that “There was never a wholesale purge, either in universities or in the entertainment world.”

Morgan’s fundamental indictment against McCarthy is that the danger from the Communist Party and the Soviet underground was essentially over by the time he arrived on the scene.  “McCarthy’s contribution to this dismantling of the Communist Party” was, “except for inducing hysteria in the general population, little or nothing.”  Aside from the foolish claim that the American population in the early 1950’s was in a state of “hysteria,” this thesis represents some progress, since we have now moved from the assertion that “McCarthy never found any communists” (which Morgan acknowledges is untrue) to “The communists he found were already known.”  Morgan is able to make this claim because the Venona documents supposedly show that, by the early 1950’s, the Soviets decided that the American party was no longer a useful vehicle for espionage, having reached that conclusion after the Truman internal-security program and the prosecution of Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act essentially broke the party and exposed it as a Soviet tool.  Therefore, by the time McCarthy started alleging in 1950 that there were communists in the State Department, the communists were all gone.

But even if we were to accept this view of the effectiveness of the Truman program and the prosecution of the party, it does not follow that McCarthy’s efforts were useless.  However effective the Truman program may have been, Soviet-sponsored internal subversion assisted by American communists and their sympathizers and dupes continued until the very end of the Cold War.

Moreover, by Morgan’s own account, Truman adopted the measures that supposedly broke the party only because of the political pressure arising precisely from what Morgan denounces as “McCarthyism.”  Truman referred in a private letter to “the Communist ‘bugaboo’” at the very time the major revelations about the bugaboo were about to break and, in a famous remark, dismissed the Alger Hiss case as a “red herring” (even though the White House had received but ignored information warning about the spy ring to which Hiss belonged three years before Chambers exposed him).  He continued to regard the whole issue as merely a partisan Republican attack on him and the Democrats.  As Morgan writes,

For Truman, Communism was not a danger to the country, but a potent political issue that the Republicans were using against him. . . . His strategy was to take the issue away from Congress.  He prepared for the 1948 presidential campaign by mounting a loyalty program that would be the domestic panel of his containment policy. . . . In this way he would outflank the Red-hunters in Congress.

Well, of course, that is how democracy is supposed to work.  The “McCarthyites,” from Martin Dies to J. Edgar Hoover to Richard Nixon and his colleagues on the Un-American Activities Committee, created the issue of subversion and espionage in the federal government, and Truman, out of purely political motives, responded with what Morgan claims was a policy that destroyed the effectiveness of the Communist Party.  Without this “McCarthyism,” there would have been no response at all from Truman.  And that means that the nation owes an immense debt to the very “McCarthyism” Morgan spends most of his book denouncing and trying to discredit.

As for McCarthy himself, it was certainly not known in the early 1950’s (or, indeed, until the 1990’s) that the Communist Party and its infiltration of the government and other institutions of American society were no longer a threat, if indeed they had ceased to be a threat.  What was known was that Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and several others had turned out to be spies or communists or agents of influence for the communists; that communists had seized Eastern Europe and China; that communist-backed insurgencies were popping up in various countries around the world; that North Korea invaded South Korea and the United States was again at war; and that, thanks to people like Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and their comrades, Joseph Stalin had the bomb.  And it was also known that, every time anyone suggested that communist infiltration and influence in the government were a lot more serious than most Americans knew, he found himself denounced and vilified as a “fascist,” a “witch hunter,” and an “hysteric.”

Some men, preeminently Joe McCar-thy, did not respond that way and actually sought, sometimes in a fumbling and amateurish way, to deal seriously with the threat.  Because of them, and only because of them, this danger was eventually recognized and, to some degree, countered.  What Joe McCarthy, more than any other anticommunist leader of the era, accomplished was to communicate to the mass of Americans that they faced a serious danger of subversion and that their national leadership was either blind to the danger or actually in league with it.

The liberal denial and refusal to take Soviet-communist subversion seriously created reasonable suspicions that something at the very core of liberalism was deeply rotten, and the mass following that McCarthy soon attracted was the predictable and justifiable response of a public that had every reason to be worried and frightened by communist aggression abroad and communist subversion at home, as well as—and more especially—by the refusal of the establishment liberalism of the day to perceive the situation or to do anything about it.

And that is why McCarthy and “McCarthyism” were and remain dangerous to liberalism.  Essentially, for all the mistakes McCarthy made in speech and action, his real accomplishment was not to expose communism but to expose liberalism.  He showed that liberalism’s refusal to deal with communist subversion grew out of its very core, that liberals could not recognize—let alone resist—communists even when they shared the same offices because, at bottom, liberalism and communism are virtually indistinguishable.

McCarthy seems to have understood this intuitively, and much of his following at least sensed that this is what he was trying to tell them; but he was not, perhaps, able to see the truth and express it very clearly.  Whittaker Chambers, who did see the situation clearly, expressed it much more effectively than McCarthy ever did.  “I saw,” he wrote in Witness,

that the New Deal was only superficially a reform movement.  I had to acknowledge the truth of what its more forthright protagonists, sometimes defiantly, averred: the New Deal was a genuine revolution. . . . Whether the revolutionists prefer to call themselves Fabians, who seek power by the inevitability of gradualism, or Bolsheviks, who seek power by the dictatorship of the proletariat, the struggle is for power.

And, as Chambers also came to grasp, precisely because of the fundamental similarity between liberalism and communism, “every move against the Communists was felt by the liberals as a move against themselves.”

What McCarthy was implicitly proposing, in other words, was nothing less than a counterrevolution against liberalism, which is why liberalism and its current incarnation in “neoconservatism” cannot to this day acknowledge that he was “right.”  Ted Morgan’s book, for all its acknowledgement of McCarthy’s claims about communism having been “right,” is a major but, in the end, almost laughably unsuccessful effort to preserve the myth that the truth Joe McCarthy tried to tell us about liberalism was not really true. 


[Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America, by Ted Morgan (New York: Random House;) 704 pp., $35.00]