Living-Room Cold War: Broadcasting McCarthyism

Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture , by Thomas Doherty. Columbia University Press, 305 pages, $27.95.

It is often said that television came into its own as a political medium during the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. We now know that the old story is misleading in several ways. Kennedy’s aura of youthful, radiant health was an illusion sustained by a secret regimen of pills and shots. The decisive edge in the election-one of the closest in American history-came not from Kennedy’s poised patrician grace, but from the backroom chicanery of his father’s political associates. Furthermore, as Thomas Doherty reminds us in Cold War, Cool Medium, his engaging survey of the conjunction of television and McCarthyism, television had already emerged as “the grand cathedral for the secular ritual of American democracy” six years earlier, when a glowering, sputtering junior Senator from Wisconsin undid himself and the doctrine that bears his name before an audience of 20 million.

Senator Joe McCarthy’s legend looms so large that he’s credited with things he never actually did, like investigating Hollywood (that was the House Committee on Un-American Activities), collaring a Communist spy (he never caught a single one) or initiating a “loyalty” program that expelled thousands of loosely defined “loyalty risks” from government (that was President Harry Truman, and the purge was mostly complete before 1950). The major successes of domestic anti-Communism-the spies caught, the Communist Party eviscerated-belong to others. But no one before or since has made quite the same all-pervading stink as McCarthy.

Lacking any positive vision of American life, he battened on the sectional, social and class fault lines that divided Americans, catalyzing them into a single fanatic crusade. In McCarthy’s updated demonology, an Eastern, internationalist, Anglophile, Ivy League–educated diplomat was as good as red, and probably pink in the trousers to boot. His fantasies cast liberals as “dupes” at best-at worst, as the willing agents of a Communist conspiracy poised to take over the world. His gift for publicity affixed his name to a tendency that preceded and outlasted him by decades.

Mr. Doherty’s wide-ranging, impressionistic portrait of the era climaxes at the fateful moment when television-battered by the blacklist, easily cowed by sponsor pressure or public protest of any kind-stopped appeasing McCarthy and struck back, hard. Though he’d said many preposterous things by February 1954 and been exposed repeatedly by the print media (his most infamous charge called General George Marshall, architect of the plan to stem the Soviet advance in Western Europe through economic aid, a Soviet agent at the center of “a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man”), his public-approval rating remained high. But on March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow began the counterattack. That evening’s episode of his documentary news program See It Now was a montage of clips exposing the Senator’s snarling, bullying excesses, followed by a short statement condemning McCarthyism in measured but firm language. It was the first explicit act of defiance by television, and it quickly proved decisive.

Two days later, the Eisenhower administration stopped appeasing McCarthy and joined the fight. The ensuing Army-McCarthy hearings, staged to air out charges that McCarthy’s controversial young lawyer Roy M. Cohn had sought preferential treatment for a draftee private (his colleague and very close confidant, G. David Schine), provided the scaffold from which McCarthy happily hung himself. The public watched him up close for the 36 days of the hearing, and recoiled. Shortly afterward came Senatorial condemnation and his effective neutralization as a force in American politics.

Mr. Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and a noted film historian, deftly recaps this familiar story. Not surprisingly, some of the book’s strongest material is contained in his close readings of the fraught cultural subtexts surrounding the anti-Communist hysteria. He sifts through material as familiar as I Love Lucy and Liberace’s unwavering fidelity to mother and bachelorhood, along with less-well-remembered dustups over the ethnic sitcom The Goldbergs and the syndicated anti-Communist spook series I Led Three Lives, to illustrate the racial and psychosexual dynamite smuggled into many popular entertainments. He explains how the blacklist worked and concludes that it amounted to a “classic protection racket,” enriching the self-appointed adventurers that vetted loyalty risks, and revisits the now-forgotten televisual triumphs of Eisenhower and Nixon. Hewing to a kind of muscular centrism, he sympathetically details the travails of an actor hounded into suicide by a loyalty committee run amok, but also (again, familiarly) scolds Lillian Hellman for harping on the sufferings of McCarthy’s victims while implicitly excusing the far greater abuses of the Soviet gulag. In the name of free expression, he denounces both McCarthyism and the proto–political correctness of the NAACP’s boycott of Amos ‘n’ Andy, which he calls McCarthyism’s “mirror image.”

Mr. Doherty makes more of television’s eventual turn against McCarthy than he should. Conventional wisdom, he tells us, casts television “as a co-conspirator in the conformities and repressions of Cold War America.” In fact, he argues, “During the Cold War, through television, America became a more open and tolerant place.” There’s some truth to this: Variety shows like Ed Sullivan’s showed remarkable courage by showcasing black and white talent together. But television’s influence in the 50’s is hard to gauge, and its legacy is too mixed to justify Mr. Doherty’s warm embrace. He also shows that television was slavish in its deference to McCarthyism for the first three years, and even the heroic confrontation established troubling precedents.

Just as the liberal establishment “contained” McCarthyism by stiffening its own militant anti-Communism, inciting a generation of Ivy League tough guys to prove in the jungles of Vietnam how “hard” they were on Communism, so television beat McCarthyism by adopting some of the Senator’s favorite smear tactics. (“There is a quality in the man,” Leslie Fielder once wrote, “that makes McCarthys of us all.”) Murrow used out-of-context clips that distorted the issues to convict an opponent on purely visceral, emotional grounds. The attack burnished the myth of the “liberal” media, but it really demonstrated a new kind of specifically televisual power. The Army-McCarthy hearings made McCarthy look like something worse than a scoundrel-they made him look like a loser. As anyone who has sat through Cokie Roberts’ smug dismissals of all substance and principle can attest, the “cool medium” can cut tyrants down to size-while enabling a tyranny of its own.

While the cool-medium thesis that Mr. Doherty imports from Marshall McLuhan to explain McCarthy’s inevitable failure on television seems plausible at first, objections soon spring to mind. The hot and scabrous style of the Irish brawler has made a comeback on the allegedly cool medium. By assaulting the cautious pieties of institutional liberalism, Fox News has grabbed the ratings, the dollars and the aura of brash insurgency that millions of Americans today mistake for-yes-“cool.” The inexcusable Ann Coulter has scored a best-seller by glorying in McCarthyism; she’s revived the sentiments expressed in the McCarthy-era hymn “Nobody Loves Joe But the Pee-pul.”

Though scuppered by his own audacity, McCarthy nonetheless helped to shift the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus sharply rightward for a generation. Today, his open admirers and unacknowledged epigones conduct a war on dissent whose methods he would have recognized. Call it McCarthy’s revenge on the fancy-pants, the liberals, the professors-and the cool medium of television, which built him up, knocked him down and may yet serve his ends.

Wesley Yang has reviewed books for Salon, the Washington City Paper and the San Francisco Chronicle.