Not All Conservatives Are Defenders of Joseph McCarthy
On April 6, 2019, AT published the article, “On Joe McCarthy, Washington Post Gets It Embarrassingly Wrong,” by the estimable Jack Cashill. It drew hundreds of comments, which were overwhelmingly laudatory of McCarthy. The relatively few anti-McCarthy comments were pounced on by the McCarthy partisans.
McCarthy’s (few) detractors in the comments section of that article included this writer. My comments against McCarthy drew lots of ire and opprobrium from his fans. I thought that it would be best to write a rejoinder.
Perhaps my disdain for McCarthy is almost genetic, for it comes from my late father’s personal knowledge of him. My father, Lt. Col. Anthony R. Nollet, was a Marine Corps aviator and knew McCarthy well, they having served together in the same squadron that flew Douglas Dauntless SBD dive-bombers in the South Pacific. McCarthy was the Air Intelligence Officer for that squadron. My father passed on to posterity three stories about McCarthy, based on his personal observations. Perhaps this “oral history” has predisposed me to despise McCarthy.
THE CARD SHARP
McCarthy was a ferocious poker player -- and a cheater and a welsher on his poker debts. He left the South Pacific owing his fellow officers some $4,000 in unredeemed markers from poker games.
Today, that would be less than a month’s pay for an O-2 with under two years military experience, which is what McCarthy and most of his fellow officers were. But during world War II, the monthly basic pay for such officers was all of $166.67. At this salary rate, McCarthy left the South Pacific owing two years pay.
There was, of course, no way that the Marine Corps could force McCarthy to honor his debts. This is because gambling for money was illegal, and the Marine Corps cannot enforce illegal contracts. The only factor compelling any officer to discharge such debts is his own integrity. Honorable officers pay their gambling debts and dishonorable ones don’t. McCarthy didn’t.
And don’t ask me for evidence, either, for there is none. The last surviving aviator of the Black Sheep Squadron, the sister squadron of my father’s SBD squadron, died five years ago, and probably all my father’s squadronmates likewise have passed on. Perhaps some of the enlisted men are still with us.
But there is indirect evidence. The two great poker players of 20th-Century American politics were Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy. Nixon was so good at it he was able to use his winnings from the Pacific War to finance his first campaign for Congress. And McCarthy was so good that before the war, he was able to finance his way through the Marquette University Law School with winnings acquired in the gambling halls of Wisconsin. Historian Arthur Herman describes McCarthy’s poker style as “demonic.” That is, McCarthy played poker the same way he played his politics: with bluster, boisterousness, intimidation, and lots of bluffing for high stakes. Herman also says that McCarthy cheated whenever he thought he could get away with it and thought it was a hoot whenever he was caught. It is easy to envision such a man eagerly participating in the poker games of the Marine Air Wing in which he and my father served. (Nixon at least couldn’t have defaulted on his poker debts, since he was able to bring back enough money from the Pacific to run for Congress.)
After the war, my father and McCarthy found themselves together again -- in Camp Pendleton, California. The Marine Corps thought that a former Wisconsin judge like McCarthy would be perfect to serve in the base’s Legal Department pending his discharge. My father was there awaiting the decision on whether he wouldn’t be demobilized and discharged.
A Marine corporal was facing court-martial for beating up an illegal Mexican immigrant. Nowadays, such offenses would be within the jurisdiction of the State of California, but not so in 1945. McCarthy was assigned to be the corporal’s defense attorney.
McCarthy found a typically devious and, well, McCarthyite way to win a trial victory: he went to the Mexican’s hospital room and said to him, “Here, spic, take this $50 and get
Don’t ask for evidence here, either. There isn’t even indirect evidence. I now regret that I never thought to ask my father how he knew of the story. Perhaps McCarthy boasted of it; it would be like him.
THE DRINKING MAN
Fast-forward eight years, to 1953. By this time, my father had not only been permitted to remain in the Marine Corps, he had also earned a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering. And on March 5, 1953 (the day Stalin died), Polish pilot Francizek Jarecki defected by flying his MiG-15bis from Poland to the Danish island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. They sent my father to help evaluate the MiG-15.
When my father returned to the USA, they sent him to Washington to give testimony about the MiG to Congress. And when in the Capitol Building, he was surprised to run into his old squadronmate from the South Pacific, none other than Joseph R. McCarthy himself, now a U.S. senator.
McCarthy remembered his old comrade and greeted him most jovially. He said, “‘Ello there, ‘Owlet [sic], ‘ow’re you doing?” Perhaps one reason McCarthy mangled the pronunciation of my father’s name is that even though it was only midday, McCarthy was already stinking drunk.
And no, don’t ask me for evidence about that one, either. There would have been no witnesses. Although indirect evidence does exist for this one as well, in that McCarthy is well known to have died a roaring, angry alcoholic.
I already know what McCarthy’s partisans are going to say: “Where’s the proof? If there’s no proof, then it can’t be true.” And I reply by stipulating that of course there is no proof in the formal sense. But I will add that I hope that McCarthy’s partisans can sympathize with me that if my father said it, then I take it to the bank. No matter how correct McCarthy was about Communists in the United States government -- and for the most part, he was correct -- he was still a scoundrel.
I’ll go farther. I say that not only was McCarthy a scoundrel, he was the worst internal enemy that the United States ever had during the Cold War. Through his demagoguery, his bullying, his reckless accusations -- a few of them against innocent men -- and his alcohol-fueled rages, he gave respectable conservatism and anti-Communism a black name from which they arguably have not recovered to this day. Even seventy years later, shrieks of “McCarthyism!” continue to be the Left’s favorite “dog whistle” to stifle conservative opposition. McCarthy made our eventual victory in the Cold War harder and more costly, because we conservatives had to fight on with his albatross around our necks.
So hail and farewell, Joe McCarthy. We did it without you. More precisely, we did it despite you. That is, we triumphed over Communism and won the Cold War anyway, and we did it despite all the difficulties that you threw in our way by bringing our cause into such disrepute. My father saw right through you and had your number.
Thanks for nothing, Tail Gunner Joe.
The author is an Iowa truck driver known to some AT readers as "Kzintosh."