McCarthy and His Friends
The unconvincing rehabilitation of Tail Gunner Joe
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, 672 pages, $29.95
Here is a précis of what is now known, based on evidence revealed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, about what is broadly referred to as the McCarthy Era. State Department official Alger Hiss, whose espionage case actually predated the rise of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), was indeed a Soviet spy. Apostates from communism Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, who exposed significant breaches of national security to the FBI, were neither fantasists nor fabulists; both accurately recounted the names of government employees subsidized by the Soviet Union. Julius Rosenberg, one half of the ne plus ultra case of Cold War martyrdom, was indeed guilty of espionage. The American effort to develop an atomic bomb was thick with Russian spies, another of whom, a heretofore unknown American named George Koval, was revealed only last November when he was posthumously honored at a champagne reception by Russian President Vladimir Putin. America's Communist Party, frequently defended as an indigenous political movement wholly independent of Moscow, took both direction and rubles from every Soviet leader dating back to Lenin.
These revelations have led some historians and cultural commentators to wonder if perhaps Joseph McCarthy, the red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin who was both architect and demolisher of his eponymous era, was more right than wrong. In 1996 the liberal journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, writing in The Washington Post, asked if, after years of hand wringing over his malign influence, McCarthy was in the end "right about the left." Based on disclosures from Soviet and American archives, von Hoffman concluded that "enough new information has come to light about the communists in the U.S. government that we may now say that point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was still closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him." In a foreword to the 1996 edition of his 1954 book McCarthy and His Enemies, the ur-text of McCarthy's defenders, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote with evident triumphalism that "a gradual and painful process of historical rectification" was under way, one that would in many respects vindicate the senator's crusade.
Twelve years later, the veteran conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans has selectively aggregated these revelations in an attempt at providing that vindication. In Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies, Evans, a columnist for Human Events and former director of the National Journalism Center, attempts to fulfill the mandate of his father, John Birch Society member Medford Evans, author of one of the first book-length McCarthy apologias, The Assassination of Joe McCarthy. "The restoration of McCarthy," the elder Evans wrote, "is a necessary part of the restoration of America." Since his father's restoration efforts were unsuccessful, it has fallen to Evans fils to enshrine the late senator in the pantheon of great Americans, arguing that McCarthy was wrongly maligned by the liberal establishment and largely right in his reading of the communist threat. He contends, quite rightly, that most of those who refer to the period "know little of McCarthy, and would be hard-pressed to back their view[s] with plausible specifics, or indeed with anything whatever." But it is unlikely that Evans' full-throated, frequently overzealous attempt to contextualize McCarthy's charges will convince anyone but Birch Society dead-enders.
Evans' stated purpose is to rescue McCarthy from the historians, to resurrect the "warrior" who has "vanished into the mists of fable and recycled error." While McCarthy's "straight-ahead, take-no-prisoners views and methods did lead him to make mistakes of facts and judgment," what matters, writes Evans, is whether the senator was "right or wrong about the cases." And as has been previously demonstrated by other revisionist historians, McCarthy was broadly correct; most of those accused were members of the Communist Party. But what does this add up to? Was the assemblage of New Deal liberals, fellow travelers, and communist agents that McCarthy tossed together "the product of a great conspiracy," as he famously bellowed on the Senate floor, "a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man"? McCarthy's scattershot approach to the facts greatly damaged the cause of anti-communism and greatly emboldened, even legitimized, communism's apologists. It also raised serious civil liberties questions: Should you lose a government job merely for your political opinions? How far left could you drift and remain employed?
Evans' recapitulation of events begins plausibly enough, with an outline of what readers probably already know: The Soviet Union operated a sophisticated network of agents in the United States, many of whom—including Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, Justice Department employee Judith Coplon, and White House economist Lauchlin Currie—passed secrets to Moscow. But what of those specifically accused by McCarthy of being either security risks or agents of the Kremlin? Here Evans is on shakier ground.
Take his treatment of one of the better-known McCarthy cases. In 1950, the senator denounced the China scholar Owen Lattimore as Russia's "top spy" in the State Department, an influential "China hand" who deliberately "lost" that country to Mao's communists by seeking to undermine Washington's support for Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. McCarthy's initial accusations, such as his risible claim that Lattimore acted as Alger Hiss' "boss," were demonstrably false, something McCarthy himself quickly realized, beating a hasty retreat from his wilder charges. It was a damaging concession, red meat to the growing ranks of McCarthy haters, but one which receives just a single sentence in Evans' narrative.
Evans does demonstrate that Lattimore was an "indefatigable shill for Moscow." There is little new here, though it is still a much needed corrective to the widely held view, successfully advanced by Lattimore himself, that he was in fact a generic New Deal liberal and an anti-communist. McCarthy grilled Lattimore on his previous writings, such as his view that Soviet forced collectivization "represent[ed] a kind of ownership more valuable to them than the old private ownership under which they were unable to own or even hire machines."
But was he a spy? To Evans, the existence of speculative FBI documents (his "FBI file contains numerous allegations that Lattimore was both a Communist…and an espionage agent"), none of which offers proof that he was engaged in spying for the Soviets, is enough to vindicate McCarthy's charges.
As careless as the charges against him were, it was at least conceivable that Owen Lattimore was involved in espionage. When McCarthy unleashed a furious 60,000-word philippic against Gen. George Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff during World War II and President Truman's secretary of defense, he ensured his own downfall, handing his opponents the material for his censure on a silver platter. In a rare concession, Evans judges the attack on Marshall a mistake, but even this judgment is milquetoasty and loaded with qualifiers. Evans provides almost no representative selections from McCarthy's speech about Marshall, thus insulating the reader from the true biliousness and absurdity of the senator's attack. If Evans had so chosen, readers would have seen a hero of World War II besmirched with contemptible claims of treason and with the bizarre suggestion that the Marshall Plan for the economic revitalization of Europe was inspired by U.S. Communist Party boss Earl Browder. To McCarthy, Marshall was responsible for every foreign policy blunder since Pearl Harbor; he was a man who made "common cause with Stalin on the strategy of the war in Europe and marched side by side with him thereafter."
Evans also partially concedes that McCarthy's bizarre attacks on New York Post Editor James Wechsler, a communist turned liberal anti-communist, were ill-conceived. In 1934, as a student at Columbia University, Wechsler joined the Young Communists League and left the party three years later, after an eye-opening trip to the Soviet Union. When Wechsler testified before McCarthy's Senate committee, the senator's deep paranoia was on prominent display. He suggested that Wechsler's well-documented hostility to Stalin was an elaborate ruse. As his quarry shifted in his chair, McCarthy speculated that Post editorials critical of his committee were planted by the Manchurian editor: "Perhaps the most effective way of [propagandizing for communism] would be to claim that we deserted the party and, if we got in control of the paper, use that paper to attack and smear anybody who actually was fighting Communism." Evans omits these fantasies from his account, again providing an imprecise picture of the often bizarre proceedings.
It is baffling that Evans' series of mini-concessions doesn't convince him that McCarthy deserves his reputation as a liability to anti-communism, especially taken together with other unflattering details found in the senator's vita. McCarthy lied about his time in the Marines, telling daring tales of action as a tail gunner even though his actual combat experience was minimal. Evans dismisses this prevarication in a sentence, arguing that McCarthy should be applauded for serving his country voluntarily since, as a Wisconsin judge, he was exempt from conscription. Early in his political career, McCarthy courted controversy when he stood up for members of the SS who were on trial for war crimes, accused of executing American soldiers at the French town of Malmédy; McCarthy argued that the accused had been mistreated by their American captors and that evidence was obtained by coercion. The charges, levied by SS men awaiting the hangman's noose, with no corroborating witnesses, were dubious. The deep conscientiousness that McCarthy displayed regarding the rights of fascists—he once wrote to a friend that the Nazi leaders on trial at Nuremberg were "so-called war criminals" whose "only crime was attempting to win the war"—was hard to discern in his dealings with American leftists accused of espionage. None of this troubles Evans, who cites the Malmédy case to demonstrate McCarthy's intellectual depth and compares him to those who blew the whistle on abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
But the most frustrating habit of Blacklisted by History is the subtle conflation of New Deal liberals, radical fellow travelers, and actual spies, a move that recalls McCarthy's own signature tactic. It is difficult to sympathize with most of those willingly duped by Soviet communism, all of whom were aware of the country's nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany, its purge trials in the 1930s, and its forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians. But there is a more interesting moral question that Evans might have considered, if only briefly. If the percentage of fellow travelers in and around government was much larger than the percentage in the general population (as it clearly was), what was the civil libertarian to do? How many front organizations, joined either with forethought or in ignorance, must one be affiliated with before qualifying as a security risk? And as in the case of James Wechsler, what is the statute of limitations on youthful flirtations with Marxism?
It's easy to dismiss the more partisan attacks on McCarthy by critics who contend, for example, that no one called before his committee was a party member. It is more difficult to ignore the objections of Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-Wash.), the Cold War hawk who, in 1953, resigned from McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and ridiculed the senator during his showdown with the Army the following year. Or Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, who in the 1970s said McCarthy's attack on George Marshall consisted of "scurrilous and indefensible remarks whose evil effects persist to this day."
And then there is the opinion of the former Soviet spy, accuser of Alger Hiss, and stalwart anti-communist Whittaker Chambers. Evans frequently refers to Chambers' testimony but is mum on his ultimate judgment of McCarthy. While Chambers prepped the senator in the early days of his anti-red campaign, he was soon disabused of his enthusiasm. When asked to provide a jacket blurb for Buckley's apologia for McCarthy, Chambers declined, responding that McCarthy's "inaccuracies and distortions, his tendency to sacrifice the greater objectivity for the momentary effect, will lead him and [the anti-communist cause] into trouble."
In the book's last chapter, Evans concedes that "McCarthy made his share of errors, some contributing to his downfall." The book is peppered with small caveats like this one, but Evans never seriously considers the significant and convincing body of evidence assembled by McCarthy's critics.
A book can be radically wrong in its conclusions and devilishly selective in its presentation of evidence yet still be useful. Blacklisted by History sketches the fellow-traveling milieu of postwar Washington, populated by eggheads who, for reasons both idealistic and sinister, were attracted to the Sovietophilic fringes of the left. But since it does not set this scene in a broader context, present McCarthy in his own words, carefully distinguish between those sympathetic to left-wing causes and those paid to do Stalin's bidding, or consider the effect of McCarthy's very un-American assault on civil liberties, it is not a book to be read in isolation.
As in the case of Hiss and the Rosenbergs, consensus is often wrong. But no matter how hard M. Stanton Evans might try, Joe McCarthy will never be rehabilitated as an American hero. And despite the ominous warnings of Evans' father, America is a better place for it.
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of Reason.