A Century-Long Witch Hunt-And the Witches It Exposed

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Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America , by Ted Morgan. Random House, 685 pages, $35.

Way before Ann Coulter decided that a book accusing millions of fellow citizens of being traitors would be career-enhancing, another prominent Washingtonian was up to the same trick. Only with a twist. Instead of writing a best-seller and going on talk shows (they didn’t exist yet), he ordered a lengthy list of Americans who were, could be, or knew someone who knew someone else who maybe was entertaining thoughts of overthrowing the government of the United States by force.Commies,in other words.

At his instigation, all manner of stratagems were deployed to rout them out. In the process, a number of lives were ruined, and for a while the Constitution went out the window.

The culprit behind thissordidness? Woodrow Wilson.

What, you may wonder, is the sainted 28th President of the United States (much less the blousy Ms. Coulter) doing in a review of a book about Joe McCarthy, who blessedly drank himself to death in 1956? Well, it’s a long story (685 small-type pages, to be exact), and in Reds: McCarthyism inTwentieth-Century America , Ted Morgan, who specializes in brilliantly crafted, extraordinary sagas (F.D.R., Churchill, the French, Somerset Maugham, Jay Lovestone, on and on), tells the tale as it always ought to have been told-which is to say, from start to finish.

Woodrow comes in at the start. According to Mr. Morgan (who used to be known as Sanche de Gramont-another long story), Wilson was the guy who began the Red-hunting that put Joe in business three decades later-though the dipsomaniacal junior Senator from Wisconsin, who had trouble enough keeping straight how many Commies worked forthegovernment (some days there were 57, others 143, 231 or 269), almost certainly didn’t realize it.

This was not the only forgotten accomplishment of the father of the League of Nations. Thanks to Wilson’s efforts, an obscure Justice Department factotum named J. Edgar Hoover commenced a march to bigger things; the United States invaded the newly minted Soviet Union (the enterprise-understandably unmentioned in Democratic Party hagiography-did not end well); and a movement was born promoting the notion that America should export its Creator-granted specialness to less well-endowed nations, whether they wanted it or not. To Woodrow Wilson do Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Midge Decter and the entire neocon movement owe an unrepayable debt.

As does Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel and henchman. Subsequently celebrated as convicted felon and bosom pal of Barbara Walters, Cohn bows into the narrative on page 429. By then, there’s little for him and his boss to do: The once rootin’-tootin’ U.S. Communist Party had already been snipped into impotency by, among others, the House Un-American Activities Committee, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, a young Senator from California named Richard Nixon-and Josef Stalin, whose talent for wholesale killing put off would-be recruits.

Joe McCarthy wasn’t deterred. Having already seen the profit of phonying up his own record as a Marine tail-gunner (he claimed to have blasted Japs from the sky, but his only recorded K.I.A.’s some machine-gunned coconuts), he compensated for the lack of actual enemies by inventing imaginary ones. And as it turned out, few were willing to point out that the emperor was starkers.

Dwight Eisenhower, who had the moral authority to stop him with a single press conference, sure wasn’t: Though privately he loathed McCarthy, publicly he did nothing-even when close friends such as C.I.A. director General Walter Bedell Smith, his wartime chief of staff, were being disemboweled by the McCarthyite wolves. The handful who possessed the cojones to stand up to him, like Oregon’s Wayne Morse (later one of two Senators to vote against the Tonkin Gulf resolution that brought us Vietnam) and CBS’s Edward R. Murrow, whose half-hour broadside Bill Paley had the guts to televise, did so at their peril. Because courtesy of the Cold War, the Russian A-bomb, the Korean War and Mao Tse-tung, fat, jowly, permanently sweaty Joe McCarthy, the one-time quickie divorce lawyer made good, had the country by the throat.

Unless you lived through those times, Ted Morgan’s beautifully rendered account of the multiple horrors done may strike you like a Lyndon LaRouche manifesto about Queen Elizabeth running the international drug trade. George C. Marshall part and parcel of the Communist Conspiracy … Harvard president James B. Conant a fellow traveler … the West Point Debate and Council Forum a vipers’ nest. Sure , Senator. And the next time those pointy-eared fellas from Roswell take you for a ride, don’t forget to bring along the Thorazine.

But Joe McCarthy actually said those things, and good, decent, otherwise well-informed Americans took them as holy writ. One such family resided at 1559 Crest Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where every evening meal was preceded by prayers on Senator McCarthy’s behalf. I know-I was the 7-year-old, head bowed, at the end of the table.

But God either wasn’t listening, or He was a registered Democrat. In 1954, the object of our nightly novena set his sights on a bridge too far in the person of Joseph N. Welch, Esq., a patrician of bristling rectitude, who was then lending his legal talents to McCarthy’s latest target, that notorious Moscow cat’s paw the United States Army. McCarthy’s blunder was outing a young assistant on Welch’s staff as a onetime member of the National Lawyers Guild-a C.P. front group-despite a pledge to Welch that he wouldn’t.

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” Welch rasped in the committee hearing room, as television cameras zoomed in on his adversary’s fidgety derangement. “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

The reign of Joseph Raymond McCarthy ended at that moment. His colleagues pronounced censure-the Senate’s harshest penalty-on him a few months later, and on May 2, 1957, he died of “acute hepatic failure” (a nice way of saying booze made cheesecloth of his liver) at the age of 48.

Liberals, however, have yet to get over him. Because hated Joe said Commie spies were everywhere, it appears to be imprinted on every bleeding lefty heart that there were none anywhere. Or at least not many. Who were harmless anyway. An equally fervent, McCarthy-inspired codicil states that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were framed. Or if they weren’t, didn’t tell the Russians anything they didn’t know already. Or even if they did, were merely misguided idealists. As for Alger Hiss, that’s not worth discussing; everyone on the West Side knows he was innocent.

One of the great pleasures of Ted Morgan’s book is that its scorn for Joe McCarthy is matched ounce for witty ounce by contempt for naïfs. There truly were tons of Reds in places like New York, Washington, Los Alamos and Hollywood during the Communist Party’s 1930’s and 40’s salad days, and they weren’t spending all their time going to faculty teas and being nice to the needy. Mr. Morgan derives this intelligence from a source that took exhaustive, contemporaneous notes of the many hoops traversed by folk like Alger Hiss at the K.G.B.’s behest. Namely, the K.G.B. itself.

The “Venona Files,” as the documents are called, were 20 years from being released the only time I ever encountered one of their subjects. It was 1975, Saigon was on the verge of falling, and I was headed to Washington aboard the Eastern shuttle. In a right-side aisle seat a few rows up, I noticed an elegantly dressed, imperially slim, balding gentleman meticulously examining the contents of a battered brown brief case. Just as in his many newspaper pictures, he was preternaturally clean.

As the plane cleared out on landing, I introduced myself. “Sir,” I said, “I have to tell you that I think you are guilty as sin, but that I do appreciate the trouble you’ve been giving the government all these years.” Alger Hiss, I remember, politely smiled.

Mr. Hiss went to the great Harvard Law School in the sky admitting nothing. And the “-ism” Joe McCarthy bequeathed to us endures. In the 60’s, the tradition was carried on by J. Edgar Hoover, who searched prodigiously, if vainly, for Communism in the ranks of the civil-rights movement; while in the anti-war 70’s, the torch was borne by Richard Nixon and his “Plumbers” (who made Roy Cohn look like a wuss).

Joe himself has been enjoying a revival of late. William F. Buckley gave him a flattering cameo in a recent novel; in 1999, Arthur Herman, a program coordinator at the Smithsonian Institution, penned a friendly revisionist history of his doings ( Joseph Mccarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator ); David Frum, the former Dubya speechwriter who coined “axis of evil,” had a kind word or two for him in The National Review ; and the ubiquitous Ms. Coulter fairly gushes over his shade in the pages of Treason : “Joe McCarthy bought America another thirty years,” she writes. “For this, he sacrificed his life, his reputation, his name.”

Those who tread in Joe’s footsteps these days are infinitely slicker than the addled Senator, and the collapse of the Soviet Union has imposed on them a few minor tactical adjustments. But whether the message is delivered in a White House briefing, or a Tom DeLay speech, or a Rush Limbaugh broadcast, the essential recipe remains: Cook up an imaginary threat (Iraq’s fading, but Syria, Iran and North Korea will do in a pinch); scare the bejesus out of people with visions of nightmares about to be unleashed; brand those who squawk cowards or worse; talk gravely about the urgency of “balancing” civil liberties with security; act as if civility is for sissies; and voila -you’re ready to rent the green baize for the witness table.

It’s almost enough to make you miss Alger Hiss.

Robert Sam Anson reviews books regularly for The Observer .

A Century-Long Witch Hunt-And the Witches It Exposed