The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 18, 2017

Unamerican Activities
Daniel J. Flynn - 04/24/08

A Review of M. Stanton Evans’s Blacklisted By History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies (New York: Crown Forum, 2007), 672 pages, $29.95.

Before finishing the history major at the University of Massachusetts, I was required to write a paper on any U.S. senator, with three categorical exceptions. Current senators were off limits. So too were senators who had later become president. Finally, there was the “Joe McCarthy rule.” The ink had been exhausted over the Wisconsin senator, the rationale went, so there was nothing new to discover.

No de jure ban on McCarthy scholarship exists among real historians as it did among wannabes at UMass. But a de facto ban persists.

“He did not discover a single Communist anywhere,” claims historian Thomas Reeves. “Each of McCarthy’s charges was fraudulent,” writes Robert Griffith in The Politics of Fear on McCarthy’s initial broadside against the State Department. Richard Rovere in Senator Joe McCarthy contends that his subject “had failed to identify even one Communist in the State Department.” David Oshinsky concludes in A Conspiracy So Immense that McCarthy “never uncovered a Communist.”

Case closed. What more is there to know?

Quite a bit, argues M. Stanton Evans in Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies. Contradicting Rovere, Oshinsky, Reeves, and company, Evans imparts that McCarthy did not correctly finger a single Communist, but a multitude of them. Evans starts with a round list of ten: Solomon Adler, Cedric Belfrage, T.A. Bisson, Frank Coe, Lauchlin Currie, Harold Glasser, David Karr, Mary Jane Keeney, Leonard Mims, and Franz Neumann. “[W]hen the Venona file was published in 1995, all these McCarthy cases were right there in the decrypts, and each named significantly in the Soviet cables,” Evans explains. “From these identifications (and collateral data from the Kremlin archives) it’s apparent that, rather than being blameless martyrs, all were indeed Communists, Soviet agents, or assets of the KGB, just as McCarthy had suggested and generally speaking even more so.”

Thus, in its first pages, Blacklisted by History rebuts a central theme of nearly all previous books on McCarthy. Given that Venona ceased intercepting cables before McCarthy even became a U.S. senator, it is interesting that the program confirms any, let alone ten, McCarthy cases. In documenting numerous instances of—gasp!—McCarthy getting it right and his academic detractors getting it wrong, Evans ensures that the conversation on McCarthy continues and does so on the basis of information that rebuts assumptions and reorients starting points.

In the world of McCarthy biographies, the senator transforms from real man to fictionalized symbol, an amalgamation of the various anti-communist bogeymen of the era. Evans details how major media outlets identify Senator McCarthy as a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But McCarthy wasn’t really interested in Communists in Hollywood or local classrooms. McCarthy’s scope was more limited. “His main goal, oft-stated and sanctioned by the law, was to get his suspects out of the federal government and its policy-making system; all the battles in which he was engaged revolved around this central purpose,” writes Evans.

It is with this purpose in mind that McCarthy charged the State Department with harboring Communists in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950, thrusting him into the spotlight as America’s most prominent red hunter. Despite Evans interviewing several surviving witnesses to McCarthy’s speech, resolving the controversy over whether McCarthy charged the State Department with housing “57” Communists or “205” Communists seems unlikely to be settled in this or any other treatment. Eyewitness perspectives are as varied as are those in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

Where Evans can offer more clarity is in the bizarre nature of the consequent congressional investigation of the State Department that morphed into an investigation of the accuser rather than the accused. Indeed, Maryland Senator Millard Tydings, the chairman of the committee, tellingly bellowed to his Wisconsin colleague: “[S]o far as I am concerned in this committee you are going to get one of the most complete investigations ever given in the history of this republic.” But McCarthy was not supposed to be the subject of the investigation, the State Department was.

Senators demanded that McCarthy name names. After his suggestions to present them in executive session were rebuffed, opposition senators deemed “naming names” a smear and a disgrace. Tydings himself repeatedly boasted of possessing a recording of McCarthy’s Wheeling speech, a smoking gun that he would reveal at the most opportune time. He never did. Under oath, Tydings conceded that he possessed no such recording. Tydings claimed that four committees of the previous congress had cleared the State Department of charges that it harbored Communists, but that claim too proved fallacious. So contemptuous of McCarthy were Democratic colleagues that the Wisconsin senator had trouble finishing whole sentences without interruption.

Evans dubs the proceedings “a breathtaking venture in deception,” a verdict confirmed by the author’s juxtaposition of the committee’s final report with State Department press releases and internal documents. Large swaths of the former were taken verbatim from the latter. Rare in the annals of congressional oversight, the subject of the investigation actually got to author, without attribution of course, the final report on itself.

Compounding the initial corruption of congressional oversight, the report then served as the basis for much of the subsequent anti-McCarthy oeuvre. Evans writes, “With no conspicuous exceptions, mainstream bios and histories of the era have taken their cues from Tydings and/or the orations of [Rep. Frank] Karsten and his colleagues, repeating as supposed fact their statements on the Wheeling numbers, the Lee list, and other alleged proofs of McCarthy’s lying. Readers of these works have no way of knowing—and the authors themselves didn’t seem to know—that the whole thing was concocted by the State Department.” But now they know, with Evans’s scholarship removing any excuse future historians have for relying on a State Department-produced document to exonerate the State Department.

McCarthy skyrocketed in influence after the Wheeling speech. The 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings ensured as rapid a fall.

When Republicans had been the beneficiaries of McCarthy’s crusade—proof of which came in the defeats of Senate antagonists Millard Tydings, William Benton, Scott Lucas, and Ernest McFarland—they rejoiced. When Republicans became the targets of McCarthy’s crusade, in the form of the Army-McCarthy hearings during Eisenhower’s second year in office, they recoiled. What drove Democrats and Republicans was the mistaken assumption that McCarthy’s was a partisan crusade instead of a crusade against Communists in government. When GOP stalwarts recognized that McCarthy’s tenacity could just as easily harm their party as it had harmed the Democrats, their support for the balding and burly lawmaker eroded.

A second cause of McCarthy’s downfall was his impolitic choice of targets, the United States Army. Though the Army had figured prominently in the Rosenberg case, whose coda had come in the execution of the two principle defendants the year prior to Army-McCarthy, its standing as a beloved American institution granted it immunity from criticism. McCarthy took the side of Army officers seeking to rid their own ranks of Reds. But this was easily spun as an attack on the U.S. Army by Pentagon and White House officials who, bizarrely and repeatedly, blocked the dismissal of security and loyalty risks.

When McCarthy questioned Army employees at the base at Monmouth, New Jersey regarding whether they had committed espionage, several took the Fifth Amendment. Irving Peress, an army dentist proved to be a Communist Party member, actually gained promotion—prompting the conservative rally cry “Who Promoted Peress?”—after his affiliation with the totalitarian cult came to light. Evans informs readers that one “Monmouth employee had signed out at one time or another for more than 2,700 documents,” the vast majority of which remained missing. McCarthy’s sources on such matters were often soldiers themselves, frustrated by bureaucratic officiousness preventing them from ejecting subversives.

Rather than punish the security and loyalty risks, the Eisenhower administration, like the Truman administration before it, punished the whistleblowers. The secretary of the army, questioning whether Monmouth Commanding General Kirke Lawton was fit for command, refused to meet with him, passed him over for promotion, and placed him on disability despite no signs of ill health. The underlings of the secretary of the army got the message. Henceforth, they generally refused to fully cooperate with McCarthy’s investigation.

What Army-McCarthy ultimately boiled down to was a showdown between branches of government. Transcripts of the Pentagon bureaucracy’s machinations involving the obstruction of a congressional investigation were sent to the White House, from where President Eisenhower claimed executive privilege. Noting the subsequent reversal of principle regarding executive privilege, Evans, specifically citing the Washington Post’s about-face, explained: “It turned out that what had been a sacred constitutional precept when invoked by Ike against Joe McCarthy wasn’t so sacred when invoked by Nixon against Sam Ervin.”

The earlier ill-advised broadside against General Marshall, media attacks such as Edward R. Murrow’s creative editing of the senator over the airwaves, the arrogance of Roy Cohn, and the Army-McCarthy hearings led to McCarthy’s downfall. The McCarthy phenomena, which began in Wheeling on February 9, 1950 ended nearly five years later, when the Senate, with the support of half of the Republican caucus, condemned him in December of 1954. Two and a half years later, the Capitol Rotunda played host to a public viewing of the junior senator from Wisconsin’s casket.

McCarthy died, but the controversy lived on. Some blamed his ghost, haunting Democrats to atone for past weaknesses on Communism, for Vietnam. Others saw Richard Nixon, who gained fame as Alger Hiss’s interrogator, as McCarthy reincarnate, and punished accordingly. The dead senator’s name mutated into an insult, and anyone accused by him was judged innocent by association.

Alas, McCarthy’s main sin was tardiness, not inaccuracy. Arriving on the scene in 1950, after the Communist Party had been decimated in the post–Earl Browder upheaval, McCarthy encountered an espionage apparatus in disarray. His aggressiveness made it all the more so.

While Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, and James Burnham gained a level of respect as anticommunists, those anticommunists never foolish enough to have supported the Communists are almost uniformly portrayed as clumsy oafs whose zeal clouded their judgment. Another criterion that helps determine whether intellectuals’ anoint anti-Communists as heroes or goats involved the dichotomy between men of action and men of ideas. Intellectuals, naturally, favor the latter. From the sidelines, the anticommunist intellectuals were free from the mud and grime. But on the field, Pat McCarran, J. Edgar Hoover, and Joe McCarthy got dirty. The opposition’s game plan remained the same regardless of the adversary: declare a witch hunt, focus on inaccuracies, smear the accuser, and hubristically portray Communists as defenders of civil liberties.

A. Mitchell Palmer reappears as Martin Dies, Dies morphs into J. Parnell Thomas, and Thomas reincarnates as Joe McCarthy. McCarthy was the last and largest of these figures, so it is his name that graces history’s text and not merely its footnotes. But remove the variable “McCarthy,” and insert some theoretic anti-Communist, and all the nastiness said of McCarthy would be said of them too. We know this because McCarthy’s red-hunting antecedents bore the same scars, endured the same smears, and suffered the same fates.

Blacklisted by History is even-handed enough to note that McCarthy deserved criticism for his attack on George Marshall, for his mischaracterization of Owen Lattimore as the Soviet Union’s “top Soviet espionage agent” in America, for not reining in Roy Cohn, and for browbeating General Zwicker in front of a television audience, among other transgressions. But this is Joe McCarthy who Evans writes about, and to note his virtues alongside his vices is an endeavor that itself invites blacklisting.

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