[This review was published in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Spring 2003, pp. 107-112.]


Book Review


Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator

Arthur Herman

Free Press, 2000


            The consensus in the United States for almost half a century has been that Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was a loose cannon and extremist, who in his crusade against "Communists in government" used despicable methods to vilify innocent people.  To summarize the accepted view of him in such strong terms is in no sense an exaggeration.  The noun "McCarthyism" often appears in the writings even of American conservatives when they want to characterize something as grossly unfair or unfounded.

            At no time has this been a true picture of the man or his career.  The caricature was as obviously false in the 1950s as it is to an objective observer today.  A "reexamination of McCarthy's life and legacy," as Arthur Herman is attempting in this book, is made necessary only by the fact that the Left won in the battle with McCarthy, leaving its perspective occupying the field of public opinion.  That even conservatives accept that perspective is itself an indication of the extent to which American society has absorbed the ideological coloration of the Left.


            What would an "objective" reexamination of McCarthy's career require?

            Before we can answer that, we must make some fundamental decisions about what objectivity demands.  Is objective opinion the same thing as respectable opinion, as most people will implicitly insist?  Does it require staying within the myths – the immense mental constructs according to which people understand social reality – that set the parameters of our thinking?

            To a thoughtful person, objectivity requires this conformity to the myths only if those large mental constructs are correct.  If the myths are fashioned out of a selective perception that ignores much that is essential to understanding, a true (as distinguished from a merely apparent) objectivity will require taking full account of the realities that have been ignored.

            This is indeed the situation so far as McCarthy and the anti-Communism he championed are concerned.  Here are some of the realities that are ignored by the conventional wisdom and that an objective view will have to take into account:

            1.  That if Nazism was morally and intellectually despicable, Communism was no less so.  The consortium of French intellectuals who recently wrote The Black Book of Communism estimate from 85 to 100 million victims killed worldwide during its 72 year reign of terror.

            2.  That an appreciation of this fact requires a fundamental reorientation of our thinking.  It means moving radically away from the nearly universally-accepted double standard that interprets countless events through a prism that condemns everything Nazi while either minimizing the role of Communist ideology or crediting Communism forbearingly as a misguided idealism.  If we were to set aside that double standard, the events of much of the past century would look considerably different to us than they do.

            3.  That the predominant intellectual subculture in the United States and Europe from 1917 through 1947 was profoundly infatuated with "the Soviet experiment."  This was so regardless of whether the particular intellectual was formally a member of the Communist Party ("a card-carrying member") or not.  A reading of The New Republic during the 1920s and '30s reveals countless "pilgrimages" to Moscow for May Day. Even though anti-Communists dared not say it, the predominant intellectual subculture was deeply implicated.  For some, the infatuation continued well past 1947; for others, it gave way to the forbearance that is reflected in the double standard.  We know that a few, of course, developed a strong revulsion to Communism and came to provide most of the leadership to the anti-Communist opposition.

            4.  That these first three realities were very little perceived by the elites and professional classes that have held the reins of "respectable opinion" within the United States and Europe.  Even as they poured vast treasure into the Cold War (with its episodic hot wars) against Communist expansion, they were in no sense inclined to take a "hard" or "intemperate" view either of Communism or of the intellectual subculture.  Above all, they have desired to live unruffled lives in a normal world.

            5.  Finally, it is relevant to an objective understanding of McCarthy's career to notice that in the context just described all active anti-Communists, not just McCarthy, were condemned.  The voice of those who saw Communism as evil was largely silenced after McCarthy's "disgrace," but the brave souls who preceded him were damned just as heartily as he was.  There was no way that McCarthy or anyone else, no matter what their personality or "methods" may have been, could take a "strident" stand against Communism without bringing this condemnation down onto their heads.


            It is the merit of Arthur Herman's book that he has seen through to some of this realities. Its demerit is that he hasn't fully faced up to them.  The result is a "reexamination" that has one foot planted in objective fact and the other planted safely within the domain of the "politically correct" conventional wisdom.

            I won't dwell upon this latter aspect.  It is sufficient to notice the extent to which Herman adopts the semantic of the Left: McCarthy was a "Communist baiter," Nixon a "red baiter."  (Can we imagine anyone referring to an opponent of Nazism as a "Nazi baiter"?)  He speaks of the "red scare of 1919-1920."  McCarthy, he says, decided to "pounce."  Blame was "foisted" onto the Owen Lattimore group for the collapse of Korea.  Herman speaks of "the professional anti-Communists" (such as Budenz and Coplon).  And he uses the term "China Lobby" when referring to those who opposed Mao, even though Herman himself informs us that this characterization of them was "invented by the New York Communist Party in 1949."  To the extent Herman speaks this idiom and holds its associated attitudes, his book is in no sense a "reexamination."

            What is new and refreshing about his book, however, is his spelling out of the particulars about a number of issues, large and small, some relating directly to McCarthy and others not, which I will present in no particular order:

            1.  He sheds considerable light on the "doctored photo" episode in the Army-McCarthy hearings.  Herman says that Joseph Welch, the general counsel for the hearings, "seized on a photograph Cohn and McCarthy had entered into evidence showing [Army] Secretary Stevens visiting David Shine at Fort Dix... Welch triumphantly presented to the committee the original photo, which revealed a third figure standing to their right... The implication was clear... [that] McCarthy and his staff had doctored the evidence."

            What Herman reveals is that "in fact the picture had been already altered by Army photographers [his emphasis] when they sent the copy on to McCarthy staffer James Juliana... The missing portion changed nothing; it still showed Stevens and Shine beaming at each other in the same good spirits.  But the press began talking about the ‘faked' and ‘cropped' photograph."

            2.  Edward R. Murrow of CBS's See It Now has become a cultural icon for his programs scathingly attacking McCarthy.  "Murrow showed him belching, picking his nose, ignoring or berating witnesses...."  Herman notes, however, that John Cogley, despite being "McCarthy's most consistently hostile Catholic critic," "sharply attacked Murrow and his producers for their distorted summary and selective use of video clips."  He quotes Cogley, who said "a totally different selection of film would turn Senator McCarthy into a man on a shining white steed – infinitely reasonable, burdened with the onus of single-handedly cleaning out subversives in the face of violent criticism."

            3.  Herman speaks of "the standard claim that McCarthy had never exposed a real Communist in the government," and says it "was demonstrably false," citing specifics.

            4.  He points out that "McCarthy sued and forced a retraction" after the Syracuse Post-Standard reported that McCarthy had requested a faked telegram.

            5.  He tells how McCarthy's enemies in the Senate wrote a report that "implied that McCarthy had solicited... $10,000 from the Lustron Corporation as a bribe, which he had not."  Herman says "the report was a smear, pure and simple."

            6.  Herman says there "was no foundation" to a rumor spread by Nathan Pusey, president of Lawrence University, that "McCarthy liked to carry around a copy of Mein Kampf."

            7.  It is often said that McCarthy accused innocent people of being Communists "on flimsy evidence."  But Herman gives facts to the contrary: "Executive sessions, which opponents represented as McCarthy's secret ‘star chamber' proceedings, helped to protect witnesses by preserving their anonymity... Cohn could point to literally hundreds of subpoenaed witnesses who in executive session were allowed to look at the evidence against them, and if they were able to refute it, were dismissed."

            In the book McCarthy's Fight for America, McCarthy explained how he had not wanted, despite the insistence of Democrats in the Senate, to "name names" publicly at the time of the Tydings Committee's hearings into his charges, because the facts about each case should first be gone through carefully.  He says he only released the names publicly after Senator Tydings told him the hearings would be open – and that it was right after that that Tydings had shifted the hearings into executive session.  The truth of McCarthy's contention about this is crucial, since it goes to the heart of the perception of "McCarthy's methods."  It is significant that Herman explains the whole matter consistently with McCarthy's own explanation: "He had specifically asked Tydings to hold the hearings in executive rather than public session... However, the Democrats had voted to make them open to the public and press.  McCarthy began the day with that assumption, handing out copies of his testimony."

            8.  Some of Herman's deviation from the conventional wisdom comes with regard to things that don't relate directly to McCarthy.  Americans are accustomed to hearing of Hitler's attack on Poland in September 1939, and I have always considered it significant that they are seldom told how Stalin came into Poland from the east, taking half the country.  Herman shows that he has the facts straight when he says "Stalin and Hitler decided to parcel out Poland and the Baltic republics between them."  And he sees the fallacy in the conventional view that World War II was a struggle between the "democracies" and the Axis powers, pointing out instead that the war was "a triangular conflict" in which "Stalin and his allies" made up a third force.

            Part of his discussion takes him back to the Sacco-Vanzetti case, one of the Left's celebrated causes in which two anarchists were supposedly sent to the electric chair even though they were innocent.  "Subsequent ballistic tests conducted in the 1980s," Herman tells us, "confirmed that it was they who had pulled the trigger."

            There are revelations, too, about the Owen Lattimore case; the belatedly Communist background of Michael Straight, editor of The New Republic; the Alger Hiss case; the Rosenberg atomic spying case; and the Annie Lee Moss case.


            Accordingly, despite egregious faults (which include an attempt to superimpose a psychoanalytical explanation onto McCarthy's life), the book makes a valuable contribution and is worth reading.  Perhaps it is the incipient beginning of a true reexamination.


                                                                                              Dwight D. Murphey