I asked a historian of communism and anticommunism what books to read regarding the dread figure of Joe McCarthy, and got this assessment of M. Stanton Evans’s Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and his Fight Against America’s Enemies (Three Rivers Press, 2007) that presented an exhaustive new biography of the demonic Senator from Wisconsin: it was too sympathetic to McCarthy, said this academic whose judgment I respect. Perhaps he is correct: I don’t know.
This blog is about how an independent scholar views the wreckage of the academic literature on the infamous anticommunist. I write because furious accusations against former allies have at times roiled the Right, though leftists and moderates have no doubt as to the beastliness of the bully, drunk, and wild man of the Midwest, along with his unsavory associates, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine. The proposed National Standards for the teaching of US history emphasized the plague of “McCarthyism” that presumably created a climate of fear and suppressed dissent until the nirvana of the 1960s and the widespread protest of the Viet Nam war. The fight over McCarthy’s veracity and character is tied up with the propriety of the US entering the Viet Nam conflict, a matter that continues to engage the field of diplomatic history.
As I have noted many times on this website, the blandness of academics in the humanities rubs me the wrong way. Even many “radicals” are conformist and timid– seemingly afraid of their shadows, lest they cast doubts on their earnestness in the eyes of the affinity group that maintains their careers. I speak from extensive experience.
Return to McCarthy and his latest champion: the journalist M. Stanton Evans. Perhaps to maintain his credibility, Evans was not reluctant to criticize the Senator for errors of judgment, for instance in attacking George Marshall and James Wechsler, superfluous targets in McCarthy’s attempts to uncover communist and fellow traveler infiltration of US policy circles, especially the State Department that “lost China.” But in order to discredit the Evans book, should not a historian go back to his sources and show that Evans misread or otherwise exaggerated their significance? That could take years unless a platoon of advanced graduate students is in tow. A “liberal” English professor wrote to me indignantly that Evans, a native son of Indiana, was sure that fluoridation of water was a communist plot, and that Evans was probably a Klansman.
I tend to view the hatred of McCarthy as a class problem. McCarthy, the son of a farmer, was an Irish Catholic who was never part of the Northeastern Ivy League-generated establishment of moderate men. Indeed, his “populist” energy and support was diminished by UC Berkeley political scientist Michael Rogin, who made the influential judgment that agrarian populist constituencies cannot account for “McCarthyism”, but rather that “traditional conservative elites” backed the Senator. (Rogin did not distinguish between moderate conservatives–i.e., liberals, and the more disreputable type.)
Well of course. Agrarian populism was dead at the time that McCarthy entered the Senate, having been co-opted by the progressive movement at the beginning of the 20th century. While reading Evans, it occurred to me that the focus on the changing of the guard in 1952 that elected Eisenhower and threw out the Truman administration, was crucial to the drama that followed, one leading to McCarthy’s televised fight with the Army and his subsequent censure and early death. For Evans sees the moderate Eisenhower at odds with McCarthy and his mission. The new president was tied to the New Deal state, as was the Truman administration before him.
It seems to me that McCarthy and his followers were analogous to the current breach between Tea Party conservatives (small business men and white workers) and “the Republican establishment”. It is also the case that the Midwestern, Southern, and Western “cowboys” were the targets of wrathful professors in the Ivy League, who blamed frontiersmen and other “expansionists” for the rape of the land and non-whites in their helter-skelter rugged individualist advance against Indians,, Mexicans, and Nature (see https://clarespark.com/2014/01/08/the-frontiersmansettler-as-all-purpose-scapegoat/). It is the 21st century, and only the names have changed.
I cannot explain the transformation of myself from conforming good girl and obedient wife and daughter to the libertarian/classical liberal iconoclast evident on this website. It was probably my years at Pacifica radio, where I strongly bonded with a diverse audience of autodidacts, and I continue to feel that my relative privilege and leisure allow me to seek and relate my research and reading without retaliation from a peer group of academics. “Win or lose, one must fight” said a human rights activist of my acquaintance. The warrior spirit is socialized out of academia, though subtly and sometimes invisibly to outside observers. It was a shock for me to go from wild and wooly Pacifica to the decorum and silence of my fellow graduate students in U.S. history, who, in order to get a job, did what they were told.
I don’t know enough from the various McCarthy biographies I have read to account for his persistence and downfall. But I do know that there are more “moderates” on the Right than is generally acknowledged, and that valiant seekers of truth are hard to come by. Read Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857): “NO TRUST” by which Melville meant not to be taken in by illegitimate authority–especially those unregulated characters elevated by the Industrial Revolution.
And don’t miss this important essay by historian Harvey Klehr: http://www.frontpagemag.com/2013/harvey-klehr/setting-the-record-on-joe-mccarthy-straight/. A more recent article is http://reason.com/blog/2014/04/22/four-great-myths-of-the-mccarthy-era, authored by Jesse Walker (an anarchist when I knew him). Finally, there can be no reliable biography of Joseph McCarthy until his papers at Marquette University are unsealed. See http://www.marquette.edu/library/archives/Mss/JRM/JRM-main.shtml.