March 4, 2006
Good Night and Good RiddanceBy J.R. Dunn
So George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck is not on anyone's lips to win Best Picture Sunday night. All the same, the response to Clooney's film demonstrates that the McCarthy myth still possesses considerable potency, even among people who think his name was 'Eugene' and that he died just last year.
The myth of Joe McCarthy has two distinct aspects, each reflecting opposite wings of the political spectrum. There's the commonly—accepted image of McCarthy as a would—be Hitler who unleashed a nationwide reign of terror in which hundreds of innocent people were imprisoned, thousands fired from their jobs, and a still larger number silenced, leaving an entire generation traumatized. That's the story accepted by Clooney, Hollywood at large, the media, the academy and the Left in general.
The other side is McCarthy as hero, the man who defied a government full of appeasers to confront an underground threat to the American way of life, a fearless figure who exposed secret Communists, broke up spy networks, and awoke a sleeping nation. Through a mix of tragic personal flaws and political chicanery, he collapsed in the very hour of his triumph, leaving a shining example for patriots to follow. That McCarthy is accepted by a much smaller number, including paleoconservatives of the 50s generation, political extremists like the Birchers, William F. Buckley (with considerable reservations), and, most recently, Ann Coulter.�
Historians say that it takes about fifty years for a clear picture of an event to arise from thefog of conflicting interpretations. It's been fifty years and more since the close of the McCarthy era. So let's add another facet to the legend: that McCarthy was a cheap, vulgar opportunist who found a convenient, career—saving hobby horse to ride and who, apart from his reputation, had little effect on the events of his time.
A single question will clear away the largest field of doubts, a question that somehow never gets asked by either the Devil—in—human—form or Right—wing Prometheus schools, for the simple reason that it's an embarrassment to both. Namely, how many people did McCarthy target? That is, how many were investigated, subpoenaed, brought in front of the committee, and publicly badgered? (McCarthy did little else, as far as imprisoning, exiling, or God forbid, executing anyone. This was one of the least deadly demagogues known to history.)
The answer? About fourteen.�
Depending on how you characterize certain witnesses, that's the total. Fourteen. Not fourteen hundred, not fourteen thousand.
This is at least several hundred too few to constitute the 'reign of terror' the Left entertains itself with, and several thousand too few to comprise the Great Cleansing the old Right likes to contemplate.
True, hundreds in government and the academy lost their jobs (a little over 600, according to government sources, most of them Communist Party members), and a handful went to jail. But this was the work of others, chief among them J. Parnell Thomas, chairman of the House Committee on Un—American Activities in the late 40s. Thomas (who later served time on corruption charges alongside men he sent to prison) caused much more in the way of mischief than McCarthy — including tormenting Hollywood actors —— but 'the Thomas era' just doesn't have the same ring, does it?
It will also disappoint both sides to learn that McCarthy started out as a New Deal Democrat. He switched parties pragmatically. Wisconsin, cradle of the Progressive Party, had little in the way of opportunity for Democrats.
McCarthy himself dealt a serious blow to the Progressives by defeating Robert LaFollette, Jr. for the senate. LaFollette killed himself shortly afterward, but that can't fairly be laid to McCarthy — LaFollette was emotionally unbalanced, suffering many of the problems that afflict the sons of great figures, and the same thing probably would have occurred whoever was involved.�
As a senator, McCarthy was over his head. He cast around for any available gimmick to draw attention to himself, but succeeded only in drumming up ridicule and disdain. An attempt to have the sugar ration eased for the Coca—Cola Company earned him the nickname 'Coca—Cola kid'. This was followed by a strange episode in which McCarthy pilloried a number of Army investigators who had brutalized SS prisoners into signing false confessions of war crimes. McCarthy was quite correct, and several officers were punished, but the victims were awfully hard to generate sympathy for.�
McCarthy was looking forward to a losing reelection battle, with nothing to show the voters back home. It was at that point that the issue of Communism in government was raised (by the dean of Notre Dame, the story goes). McCarthy didn't need to be prodded twice.�
By 1950, Communism was old news. Five years earlier, in October 1945, Soviet code clerk Igor Gouzenko had defected in Ottawa, revealing that Canada and the U.S. had been infiltrated by Soviet spy rings. The news shook both countries, and marked the effective end of the wartime alliance with the USSR.
President Harry Truman cleared out a large number of suspect officials, but chose to do it under the table, no doubt well aware of the damage exposure would cause the Democrats. Although by 1948 the threat was largely contained, complications in the form of the Hiss case and the exposure of the Rosenberg spy ring made things appear far worse than they actually were.�
It was amid this atmosphere of public doubt that McCarthy began his campaign. It was basically a charade, a performance on behalf of the press. McCarthy had hit it off with the Washington press corps as a man who could match them drink for drink, and he found them easy to cajole.
After releasing wild accusations for the morning papers, he'd retract them for the afternoon editions which, in a budding age of television news, few people read any longer. McCarthy contradicted himself continually, changing numbers, names, departments, what have you, and was never called to account for it.
There were Communists under every bed and in every closet, and always new beds and closets to search. McCarthy was a magician who was never required to produce a rabbit. But apart from the unfortunate handful who came into his sights, he affected nobody. There were no pogroms, no lynchings, no riots. The worst crime that could be attributed to McCarthy and his thuggish aides Roy Cohn and Robert Kennedy was the suicide of a single witness. But even that, nasty as it was, was unintentional. The 'crusade' was in fact pure theater, and the press ate it up.
Contrary to legend, McCarthy did uncover one Communist, a Party member working in the Government Printing Office who had never hid the fact, and was open about this hopes for a revolutionary Socialist America. McCarthy's team eagerly moved in, only to discover that the man had been fired days earlier — for running an illegal bookmaking operation.
(A Marxist bookie, working for the Federal government —— how can anybody not love this country?)
Then came 1954, and McCarthy's downfall, arranged by two lonely, dedicated Liberal groups led by Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch.
Actually, it was arranged by President Eisenhower, outraged by McCarthy's slurs against George Marshall. Murrow had a lot more in common with McCarthy than he'd have cared to admit. Contrary to Good Night and Good Luck, Murrow's program on McCarthy had been in the can for months awaiting broadcast while Murrow made certain he was completely covered. According to McCarthy biographer Arthur Herman,� there's considerably more to the Welch story as well.�
In short order McCarthy was censured (the motion being entered by a Republican senator), and two years later drank himself to death, having accomplished little beyond tarring the honorable and necessary anticommunist effort with a stain that, in some circles, it bears to this day.
It's time to come to terms with McCarthy as he actually was. This will be difficult for the Left. Understandably so — he's been useful to them. But it's reaching the point where bringing up McCarthy resembles somebody in 1950 trying to score a political goal by mentioning J.P. Morgan. Eventually they'll have to let go. To look at the 21st century world through the lens ofMcCarthyism is to view a distorted image. McCarthy's dark legend has hurt Conservatives, but will in time end up hurting the Left even worse.
...although there is one story told by Arthur Herman involving McCarthy's great enemy, Millard Tydings, a Democratic senator from Maryland.
Tydings was a Liberal hero given to speeches insulting and ridiculing McCarthy (at a time when 'millions were afraid to speak above a whisper'). He was also a Dixiecrat, the kind of racist who could scarcely bear to be in the same room with a black person. In 1952, a challenger appeared to run against Tydings. Never one to overlook an opportunity, McCarthy lent him support, money, staffers, and advice. The challenger, a one—termer who is forgotten today, handily unseated Tydings. It was the first time a Dixiecrat senator was revealed as vulnerable.
So on one hand you have the hypocrite Liberal, talking freedom at one moment and racism the next, and on the other, the loudmouth hustler, creepy in his manners, clownish in his gangster suits, striking a blow, almost despite himself, against an evil that had long outlived its time.
Among many other things, J.R. Dunn was the editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.