The Ghost of Joe McCarthy

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Last week,
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got people's juices going when
he announced in the Senate "the word is out." Republican
presidential candidate Mitt Romney had not been paying his taxes
for at least a decade; and to show this was the case, various
Democratic dignitaries, including Nancy Pelosi, suggested that
Reid was divulging self-evident charges even if they still hadn't
been proved. The trick may have worked because Romney, being Romney,
had no effective rejoinder and his poll numbers have continued
to plummet. (He is now about ten points behind the present disaster
in the White House, according to FOX and CBS polls.)

The best
the GOP could muster as a response to Reid's apparently made-up
but tactically useful charge is belaboring a historical comparison.
As Rich Lowry correctly notes (The Incredible Lightness of Reid),
"Republicans have condemned Reid's unsupported allegations
as modern-day McCarthyism." Then, as testimony to the fact
he had taken a freshman college course from an instructor with
conventional liberal views. Lowry goes on to observe: "Old
Tail Gunner Joe was deflated at the Army-McCarthy hearings when
he was confronted with the famous question, u2018Have you no decency,
Sir?'"

Lowry gets
part of the story right: In 1954 the junior Senator from Wisconsin
and a World War Two marine veteran (he had been a tail gunner
on a plane in the Pacific during the War), Joseph R. McCarthy,
was censured by the Senate for making what seemed unsubstantiated
charges against the Army. McCarthy accused the military of allowing
itself to be infiltrated by Soviet agents. The accuser then was
a tongue-loose alcoholic, who would die of cirrhosis three years
later. And he did behave during the hearings like the "swash-buckler"
that one of his critics (and a mentor of mine, hardly a man of
the Left) Will Herberg thought he had become by 1954. After one
of Joe's longer rants, probably delivered under the influence,
the attorney then representing the U.S.A. Joseph N. Welch uttered
his famous rhetorical line questioning whether the junior senator
had any decency left. The line of course was cribbed from Cicero's
denunciation of Catiline, which we studied in high school Latin.
Although often depicted as a conservative as well as blueblood,
Welch had spent years working for the Communist front organization,
the National Lawyers Guild. Why such a moving target was the counsel
for the army during the senatorial hearings, remains for me a
mystery.

The problem
with these comparisons, as
Ann Coulter points out
and M. Stanton Evans demonstrates in
a heavily documented book of many hundreds of pages Blacklisted
by History
(Random House, 2007), is that McCarthy's charges,
when he started out as an anti-Communist, were substantially correct.
The list he waved in his hand in the Wheeling, West Virginia speech,
in February 1950, inaugurating his anti-Communist crusade, contained
the names of 205 suspected Communist agents. They were mostly
the names given as suspected agents by (Democratic) Secretary
of State James Byrnes in 1946. As late as 1956 Truman continued
to deny the Communist affiliations of state department official,
Alger Hiss, although those affiliations (and Hiss's perjury) had
been proved in a court of law during Truman's presidency. In 1946
Truman pushed successfully into the US Directorship of the IMF
a blatant Soviet agent (at the time there was overwhelming evidence
for this soon to be confirmed charge), Harry Dexter White.

Coulter ascribes
the failure of her fellow-Republicans to appreciate the justification
for at least some of McCarthy's accusations to the failure "of
Republicans to read." Presumably if her fellow-Reps had read
Evans, the defense of the Senator done by WFB and his brother-in-law
L. Brent Bozell McCarthy
and His Enemies
in 1954, and her own journalistic distillation,
they would know the truth. Ann might also have noticed that support
for McCarthy and a general adherence to what Buckley praised as
"McCarthyism" was the defining principle of the postwar
conservative movement that sprang up around National Review
in 1955. Back then McCarthyism and anti-Communism went together
as an inseparable pair in the emerging New Right.

This may
be as relevant for our analysis as the fact that anti-McCarthyism
and a defense of the presidency of Harry Truman were basic to
the historical perspective of those who took over the conservative
movement in the 1980s. From the Cold War liberal perspective of
the neoconservatives, there was no need for a McCarthyite attack
on Communist agents in high place. Although such a problem may
have existed, President Truman was on top of the issue. Once he
had destroyed fascism and Japanese militarism and had begun to
reeducate our defeated enemies, he could deal with the new foreign
threat. In fact he was already doing just that, when McCarthy
and other Republicans began pushing him around.

Or so Ronald
Radosh, a veteran anti-Communist of the moderate Left, explains
in a very establishment review of Evans's massive tome in National
Review (December 17, 2007). McCarthy was supposedly a derailer
of the good (read social democratic) war against Communism, who
brought unnecessary rightwing baggage with him. Radosh does everything
that is comme il faut in today's journalism, and Ann Coulter therefore
expresses no surprise that his broadside was published in the
"increasingly irrelevant National Review." (December
5, 2007). All that Radosh omits in what Coulter describes as his
desperate effort "to apologize to the Left" is bringing
up the Left's accusation that McCarthy and his followers created
a Nazi-like witch hunt that lasted through the Red Scare Decade,
aka the 1950s.

Contrary
to the authorized account, universities were increasingly dominated
by the Left throughout that period. The pro-McCarthyite professor
of political science and Buckley's teacher at Yale Willmoore Kendall
was pushed out of his tenured position by hectoring tactics, until
he finally allowed himself to be bought out. Having attended Yale
after the supposed horrors of the McCarthy decade, I can report
that neither the history nor political science department contained
a single figure of the Right. The only effect of the fictitious
rightwing purge that I can determine, except for the fact that
Communist or former Communist film-writers had to operate temporarily
behind the scenes, is that the Left got to increase its hold on
our social and cultural institutions. From the 1960s on, this
became increasingly obvious.

Surveying
the anti-McCarthyite effusions coming from GOP sources in the
wake of Reid's attack, I would have to give the prize for saying
the dumbest thing to that Truman Democrat and neoconservative
par excellence, Charles Krauthammer. In a stem-winder against
Reid last week on FOX, Krauthammer proclaimed that the Senator
Majority Leader was descending to the especially iniquitous depths
of demagoguery perhaps reached only by guess whom? Krauthammer
appeals to our selective historical memory by declaring that McCarthy
in his address in Wheeling waved an empty piece of paper on which
he pretended to have a list of Communist agents. As Evans and
others have proved beyond any doubt, that paper was not empty
and those who were listed may well have been Soviet agents, as
recognized even by officials in the Truman administration.

Once on a
trip with my family to a vacation spot on a lake in the North
Woods, we stopped in Ripon, Wisconsin to visit one of the two
birthplaces of the Republican Party (the other being Jackson,
Michigan). In the museum we noticed a particularly florid display
surrounding a devotional picture of Tail Gunner Joe (his home
in Appleton was only a forty minute-drive from there). The museum
curator who saw me examining this display ran up to explain away
this source of embarrassment. "They just keep bringing this
stuff here, the people who liked him," the curator pointed
out." And then to show he was on the side of History, he
added: "They say he was the worst disgrace the Republican
Party ever had to deal with." My rejoinder at the time was
"I wouldn't believe that for a moment." What I would
answer now is "Joe wasn't half as bad as our recent GOP presidential
candidates! Even when pickled, he gave the impression of being
alive."

August
14, 2012

Paul
Gottfried [send him mail]
is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown
College and author of Multiculturalism
and the Politics of Guilt
, The
Strange Death of Marxism
,
Conservatism
in America: Making Sense of the American Right
, and Encounters:
My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers
.
His latest book, Leo
Strauss and the American Conservative Movement: A Critical Appraisal
,
was just published by Cambridge University Press.

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