Harmful Man, Harmful Myth: The Misplaced Liberal Concern

With Shooting Star, Tom Wicker found an apt title for this absorbing and highly readable account of the life of Senator Joe McCarthy. McCarthy’s rise to national power and his self-destruction all happened within a span of just five years.

Mr. Wicker is a great reporter, so the picture he paints of McCarthy the man, and of the reality of McCarthyism, is both accurate and devastating. The only failing of Mr. Wicker’s book is that he doesn’t acknowledge—or even mention—what I call the myth of McCarthyism. The myth is that the charges made by McCarthy and other anti-communists were all phony, that there was no real internal threat. The myth led liberals to think the only thing they had to worry about at the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. was any danger to civil liberties these agencies might present. This in turn led liberals to ignore their responsibility to make these agencies smarter and more effective. More about this later: now McCarthy the man.

McCarthy entered the world of work as a teenager with only a grade-school education. Energetic and engaging, he enjoyed success both as a chicken farmer and as manager of a Cash-Way store. When he reached 21, he decided that he needed more education and managed to talk his way into a public high school, even though it had no obligation to admit anyone over 19. Thanks to an experimental program that permitted a student to advance at his own pace, McCarthy completed the entire high-school program in nine months.

He then went to Marquette University, graduating from its law school in 1935. There, his academic career was undistinguished, except for his success at debating and poker, where he discovered the uses of bluffing.

He was nothing if not ambitious. One year out of law school, he ran for district attorney. Defeat did not discourage him. Indeed, it seemed to prompt him to raise his sights three years later: Why settle for D.A.? Why not run for judge?

And why not take on someone who seemed clearly more qualified? Judge Edgar Werner had been on the bench for 20 years after serving as both city attorney and district attorney.

Here, McCarthy discovered the uses of the misleading accusation. He charged the judge with enriching himself from the public treasury to the tune of $200,000. In 1939, this sounded like an immense sum. In reality, it represented Werner’s total earnings from 35 years of public service. But an outraged public elected McCarthy, who then became the youngest district judge in Wisconsin history.

With the coming of World War II, he joined the Marines in 1942. He was given a commission as first lieutenant, rose to captain, and was sent to the South Pacific as the intelligence officer of a dive-bomber squadron. He won fame as a poker player—Richard Nixon’s wartime career was distinguished by the same talent—and as a reliable source of distilled spirits for his comrades.

Although he was based on the ground, he talked himself into being allowed to sit in the tail-gunner’s seat on several missions, which he later parlayed into a nickname, “Tailgunner Joe.” He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by a Marine Corps anxious for the favor of a man who had become a U.S. Senator.

McCarthy’s trip to the Senate took two tries. He lost to Alexander Wiley in 1944, but came close enough to run again and win in the great Republican landslide of 1946. That campaign taught him the uses of Red-baiting. B. Carroll Reece, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called the election that year a “fight basically between communism and Republicanism.”

After entering the Senate in 1947, McCarthy’s next three years went relatively unnoticed, except for his spirited defense of the Nazi troops accused of murdering American soldiers in the Malmédy Massacre—a stand that may have provided a hint of the Senator’s ideological proclivities.

By 1950, the nation’s fear of communism had grown much stronger. There had been the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, topped by the overthrow of a democratic regime in Czechoslovakia, the Berlin blockade and the Berlin airlift, the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb, the Alger Hiss case and the communist victory in China. It wasn’t going to take much to fan the resulting anxiety into hysteria. Joe McCarthy did the fanning. In a speech in Wheeling, W.Va., in February, he declared, “I have here in my hand a list of 205 [communists] still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”

It didn’t matter that McCarthy failed to supply proof. People were ready to believe the worst, so that McCarthy quickly became the main spokesman and symbol of a fast-growing anti-Red movement. Bombarded with speaking invitations, he was on the fast track to political power.

In the 1950 and 1952 elections, McCarthy displayed his muscle at the polls. In 1950, he played a major role in the defeat of Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland. Tydings, having survived an attempt by F.D.R. to purge him in 1938, was thought to be ballot-proof, making McCarthy’s success especially impressive. Four other Democrats went down to defeat under attack by McCarthy and other right-wingers. The victims included the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Scott Lucas. In 1952, McCarthy helped bring down Lucas’ successor as majority leader, Ernest McFarland of Arizona. He also played a major role in the defeat of one of his most troublesome enemies, the liberal Senator Bill Benton of Connecticut. But the strongest evidence of his power came when he forced Dwight Eisenhower to delete implied criticism of McCarthy from a speech that Ike was to give in Wisconsin.

But 1952 may have been the year that, if the tide didn’t turn against McCarthy, it stopped flowing so powerfully in his favor. Where, in 1950, he had missed beating only one Senator he’d targeted, in 1952 his candidates lost in five races.

Still, his power remained impressive. The Republicans bought national television and radio time for his “Alger, I mean Adlai” attack on Stevenson. And the guest list at his 1953 wedding included Vice President Richard Nixon, White House chief of staff Sherman Adams, C.I.A. director Allen Dulles and Senator John F. Kennedy.

But his White House friends turned on him when he attacked Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens and General Ralph Zwicker on the absurd charge that they had approved the promotion to major of a Trotskyite dentist. The attack was apparently triggered by the Army’s refusal to give an officer’s commission to G. David Schine, in whom McCarthy’s reptilian aide, Roy Cohn, had a “special interest.” It led to a televised hearing during which McCarthy came across as a distinctly unsavory human being, eliciting Joseph Welch’s famous rejoinder: “Have you no decency, sir?”

McCarthy’s increasing addiction to alcohol, now up to a bottle a day, proceeded to propel him on a downward path that brought about his censure by the Senate in 1954 and his death in 1957.

There’s no question that McCarthy and the larger movement that came to be called McCarthyism did immense harm. Innocent people lost their jobs. Talented actors found themselves blacklisted for more than a decade, with few people bothering to ask what difference it makes whether an actor is a communist or not.

I’m sure some young people in Hollywood and Greenwich Village became communists because it seemed hip enough that it might help them get laid. Similar thoughts passed through my mind as I bought my first copy of The Daily Worker at a Sheridan Square newsstand in 1945. And many other liberals were sympathetic to communism for more elevated reasons.

Liberals have always had a soft spot for McCarthy’s victims and have not only understood the harm he did, but have written books and made movies about it.

What they have not understood is the harm done by the myth of McCarthyism: the idea that all the charges made by McCarthy and his allies were false.

There were real spies—not only Alger Hiss at State but Harry Dexter White at Treasury, Lauchlin Currie at the White House and David Greenglass at Los Alamos, who’d been recruited by another Soviet agent, Julius Rosenberg. We know these spies were real because of the Venona intercepts, the encrypted Soviet intelligence messages decoded by our government in the late 1940’s, but not made public until 1995.

Tom Wicker is a good enough reporter to acknowledge the intercepts, but the fact that he does so only in the footnotes minimizes their importance. He also cites a Soviet report that 40 of their top American agents had been neutralized by 1950 and argues that whatever real danger of Soviet spying might have existed earlier, it “was all but over” by the time McCarthy made his Wheeling speech.

But there were other important Soviet agents who were still on the loose. Of the 344 Americans whose codenames were revealed by Venona, less than half could be identified by their real names. Of the 200 who couldn’t be nailed, we know at least two were important atomic spies, one had been a top officer in the O.S.S., one had been a captain in the Navy, and one was enough of an insider to have met privately with Roosevelt and Churchill. Did these people continue to spy?

We may never know the answer, but we do know that Russia continued to spy. Instead of ideologically committed agents, Russia employed spies who worked for money: Eddy Howard, the Walker family, Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames come to mind.

One reason Soviet spies continued to enjoy success was ineptitude at the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., and a big reason for this ineptitude was a failure of criticism. Liberals only criticized these agencies when civil liberties were at risk; conservatives only criticized them when they failed to serve right-wing agendas. The result is that both organizations continued to fail too often all the way to 9/11 and Iraq. Maybe conservatives will never wake up to the problem, but that’s no reason why liberals can’t work as zealously for a smarter, more effective F.B.I. and C.I.A. as they do for the protection of our civil liberties from abuse.

Charles Peters, founder and former editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, is the author of Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing “We Want Willkie!” Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World (PublicAffairs). Harmful Man, Harmful Myth: The Misplaced Liberal Concern