Blacklisted by History:
The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy
and His Fight Against America’s Enemies
By M. Stanton Evans
Crown Forum. 663 pp. $29.95
By John Earl Haynes
Eight years after Arthur Herman, here comes Stan Evans with another effort to pull off what most historians would regard as a Herculean (if not Sisyphean) task: the rehabilitation of Joe McCarthy.
As did his predecessor, Evans does an excellent job of correcting excesses in the historical record — the unthinking, near-hysterical, and far too common demonization of McCarthy. Indeed, Evans’s book is more detailed, and he conducted more original and diligent research into primary documentation than did Herman in his account of “America’s most hated senator.”
So comprehensive is Evans’s research that it will be a foolish historian who does not consult Blacklisted by History when a question arises over some person or event that comes into the McCarthy story. Unlike Herman, however, whose bottom-line appraisal was positive but qualified, Stan Evans’s defense is more full-throated. While granting that McCarthy was “a flawed champion of the cause he served,” Evans judges that the cause needed a “warrior” like McCarthy, and finds that McCarthy had a highly positive impact on public opinion, on America’s Asian policy, and on government security policy.
The American Communist Party was a clear and present danger, as McCarthy and Evans would have it, in the early Cold War. But its chief threat was that of political subversion, not espionage, and therein lies the dividing line between a positive view of McCarthy and a negative appraisal. Had American Communists and their allies retained the influence they had achieved in the labor movement and the broad New Deal coalition, it is difficult to imagine that the United States would have undergone the political mobilization necessary in the crucial, early years of the Cold War. And the absolutely vital, perhaps irreplaceable, political elements in this mobilization were the leaders who would come to be derided in the 1960s as “Cold War liberals.”
From 1946 to 1950, a civil war raged within labor and liberal institutions over the postwar direction of their movement. Initially, it looked as if Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party, with its secret Communist leadership, might wrest Roosevelt’s mantle from a faltering Harry Truman and the Democratic Party. But after an uncertain start, Truman reformulated the New Deal for the postwar era, and adopted a policy of confronting Moscow that transformed him into the greatest of the Cold War’s liberal presidents. By the time the 1948 election was over, Wallace and his followers had ceased to be a viable alternative to Truman and the Democrats. Soon afterwards, the last bastions of Communist institutional strength were leveled when the CIO expelled its Communist-led unions.
In addition to ideological rejection of Communism, one must note a practical aspect of the Democratic Party’s embrace of Cold War liberalism. From 1945 onward Republicans had been unrelenting in their criticism of the covert presence of Communists in the New Deal coalition. Many Democratic professionals realized that in the context of the developing Cold War, continued tolerance of the Communist presence opened the party to devastating Republican attack.
The heroes in this political marginalization of the extreme left were such figures as Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt from Americans for Democratic Action; liberal Democratic politicians such as Hubert Humphrey and Paul Douglas; and labor leaders such as Walter Reuther and Philip Murray. Yet they were not McCarthy’s allies — indeed, these were the kind of people against whom McCarthy railed.
By the time McCarthy’s Wheeling, West Virginia speech in February 1950 launched what came to be labeled “McCarthyism,” an anti-Communist consensus dominated the American landscape. The Democratic Party was firmly in the hands of Cold War liberals; the CIO free of Communist influence; and only remnants remained of the once-significant Communist role in mainstream politics, civic institutions, and the labor movement. Yet McCarthy threatened the anti-Communist consensus that liberals had helped create because he attempted to make anti-Communism a partisan cudgel.
His chief means to this end was the shockingly high level of Soviet infiltration of US government agencies that had existed during World War II. By the time McCarthy was making his allegations, however, the most significant Soviet espionage networks had been all but destroyed and/or neutralized thanks to defections, American counter-intelligence, the FBI’s full-court press against the CPUSA, and President Truman’s loyalty-security program for government employees. Still, McCarthy not only persisted, but sought to paint FDR’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal as a disguised Communist plot, while depicting such prominent administration officials as Dean Acheson and George C. Marshall as participants in or dupes of a Communist conspiracy.
To be sure, though it is often alleged that Wisconsin’s junior senator never uncovered a single Communist, McCarthy did identify a number of party members in the US government, including Annie Lee Moss, a civilian Army employee, who is discussed at some length in Evans’s book (and for good reason, as Moss is frequently cited as an example of McCarthy at his worst). But McCarthy did not establish his national standing by correctly identifying this low-level Army employee as a security risk. He made it, to quote McCarthy in a speech on George Marshall, by thundering in June 1951:
How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. . . .
Certainly, several US officials, including some very high ones in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, displayed great naïveté toward Soviet espionage, and internal security policies until the late 1940s were notably weak. But there is no evidence to justify McCarthy’s allegation of wholesale administration or Democratic complicity in this treachery. Officials (like Alger Hiss) who spied or attempted to influence US policy on behalf of the Soviet Union, also betrayed Roosevelt, Truman, their administrations, and their colleagues, in addition to violating the nation as a whole.
Normal democratic politics cannot proceed when one side regards and depicts the other as the enemy of fundamental values, and somehow illegitimate. Yet that is what McCarthy attempted to do, via demagoguery and malign partisan zeal. That he did not succeed, or even come close, hardly mitigates the fact that his role was an irretrievably negative one. It is true, and Stan Evans makes the case, that McCarthy was not a satanic monster who terrorized the nation and seriously threatened its democratic values. But he was a hindrance, rather than an asset, to a rational anti-Communist consensus, and is not deserving of the vindication that Evans seeks to confer.