News & Politics

The Media and Joe McCarthy

Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) raises his hand in Washington on Feb. 26, 1957. (AP Photo/John Rous)

The mid-20th Century scandal involving Joseph McCarthy’s investigations of communist infiltration into the U.S. government has become an American myth, and “McCarthy” a handy term for a witch-hunter. Like Benedict Arnold,* Joe McCarthy figures, perhaps permanently, in the devil’s hornbook of America’s legendary scoundrels. In the words of the generally staid Encyclopedia Britannica: “The term has since become a byname for defamation of character or reputation by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.”

A serious consideration of the evidence, however, strongly suggests that those who use the term may be the ones guilty of “indiscriminate allegations.” It struck me that I had often used the label “McCarthyism” as if it were an eponymous epithet for a despicable historical figure that did not bear examination or defense. It was a simple fact. I was, of course, influenced chiefly by the media. I used to believe when I was younger in the veracity of print, like the character Mopsa in The Winter’s Tale, who crooned: “I love a ballad in print, alife, for then we are sure they are true.” Mopsa today would implicitly trust the big-ticket TV networks. As a former employee of the CBC, I did precisely that.

Contemporary reassessment of McCarthy’s legacy, a much-needed expansion of William Buckley and L. Brent Bozell’s 1954 McCarthy and His Enemies, was launched by M. Stanton Evans, whose 2007 Blacklisted by History is a massively detailed and scrupulously researched attempt to rescue McCarthy’s reputation. Evans writes: “So deeply etched is the malign image of McCarthy that the ‘ism’ linked to his name is now a standard feature of the language.” He concludes, after some 600 meticulous and fact-filled pages: “The real Joe McCarthy has vanished into the mists of fable and recycled error … It’s plain that McCarthy was more sinned against than sinning, and that on the central issues he was chiefly right and his opponents chiefly in error.”**

More recently, Diana West took up the cudgels in American Betrayal, and has reaped the whirlwind for her effort to rehabilitate the senator from Wisconsin. West alleges a cover-up, “perjury and grand-jury rigging by, among others, high-ranking Washington officials … eager to prevent a national security scandal from engulfing the Truman White House.” Like Evans, the evidence she provides — revelations from official archives in Washington and Moscow, FBI memos disclosing active espionage operations, reference to 5000 pages of Senate hearings and 24,000 pages of declassified records, names of agents in possession of secret documents, as well as tracing “gaps in the record” and significantly missing documents attesting to security risks, such as the Samuel Klaus 1946 memorandum — cannot be readily discounted.

If Evans and West are to be believed — and their argument is certainly persuasive — McCarthy has been unjustly smeared by the press and by antihistorical writing in general. As Wes Vernon writes in Accuracy in Media, “The media’s role in tilting the scales against the most controversial United States senator in the 20th century began the very moment he burst on the national scene in February of 1950.” It continues in one form or another to this day, often “mediated” through the anti-Trump mania that has consumed the Left and the FNM (Fake News Media). Trump is now regarded by the anti-anti-communist syndicate as a kind of McCarthy redivivus — all the more reason to explode the media fable.

But the belief in McCarthy’s treachery has penetrated everywhere. As West writes, “Such hidebound attitudes” now extend to “the modern-day heirs of the anti-Communist legacy.” Indeed, even such prominent conservative writers as David Horowitz, Ron Radosh and Conrad Black cast West unceremoniously into outer darkness — Horowitz pulling and apparently de-archiving Mark Tapson’s favorable review of American Betrayal and replacing it with Ron Radosh’s hatchet job, and absurdly claiming that West organized a “small army” of commenters to FrontPage Magazine to attack his judgment; Radosh descending into ad hominem vilification, linking West to the John Birch Society, and, as former Intelligence Officer Paul Hair points out in The Security and Culture Intelligencer, revelling in faulty evidence, misattributions, mispagings, “glaring mistakes,” and “inexcusable” scholarship; and Black denouncing West as a “right-wing loopy” suffering from “jejune dementedness,” while putting his own ponderous but uncorroborated erudition on exhibit. (He did not, in my view, give the impression of having actually read her book. Others of her detractors appear to have contented themselves with mere skimming.)

It was an unseemly display: three male heavyweights of distinction piling on an honest conservative woman of impeccable repute and author of the excellent The Death of the Grown-Up, subjecting her to the rhetorical version of Cuban sonic torture. To turn a debate into a slugfest reflects poorly on the validity of an argument—and may, unfortunately, merit some punching back. The smart-set conservative movement has now surrendered, writes  J.R. Nyquist in Commentary, “the terra firma of objective morality and reality-based judgment” in order to remain respectable “with an eye to the prevailing Center-Right groupthink.” George Will and Bill Kristol, anyone?

To have taken the attackers at their word, one would have thought West to be spinning a personal fantasy. In fact, though, many sober researchers have independently come to similar conclusions. Bernie Reeves, founder of the Raleigh Spy Conference, refers in American Thinker to “revealing data from Venona that would have exonerated McCarthy.” Reeves, of course, is referencing the Venona Conference, whose proceedings can be examined in Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel’s The Venona Secrets. Similarly, James Drummey concludes in a major study for The New American titled “The Real McCarthy Record”: “He was not perfect; he sometimes made errors of fact or judgment. But his record of accuracy and truthfulness far outshines that of his detractors. His vindication in the eyes of all Americans cannot come soon enough.” And as John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr point out in Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, a prodigious work based on solid documentary evidence, there were in excess of five hundred Americans, both major and minor players, assisting Soviet intelligence agencies. Thus, “It was no witch hunt that led American counterintelligence officials to investigate government employees and others with access to sensitive information for Communist ties.”

I recognize I have neither the authority nor the punctilious scholarship to pronounce definitively on the McCarthy scandal, though it appears increasingly likely to me that he has been brazenly traduced for decades. No doubt he cast too wide a net in his quest to gather and expose political malefactors, but the indications are that he was on the whole correct. The name and the man serve as reminders that muck-raking leftists and elite conservatives are not always that different, that the Fourth Estate cannot be trusted, that the Fifth Estate is almost entirely a gutter institution, and that the only antidote to the intellectual and emotional subversion practiced by the FNM is perpetual skepticism and diligent study. The time seems ripe to further the process of McCarthy’s overdue rehabilitation.

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*While there is no doubt about Arnold’s treachery, some American historians feel there are extenuating circumstances. For example, James Martin in his August 1, 2000 volume Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary  Hero provides a detailed reconsideration of Arnold’s career, including the motives behind his desertion of the revolutionary forces.

**Whittaker Chambers received somewhat the same treatment after his exposure of State Dept. official and temporary secretary-general of the United Nations Alger Hiss as a communist spy. As he wrote in Witness: “[T]he brunt of official wrath was directed, not against Alger Hiss…but against me for venturing to testify.”