Truman and the Beast

The Politics of Loyalty: The White House and the Communist Issue, 1946-1952

by Alan D. Harper
Greenwood, 318 pp., $13.00

Seeds of Repression: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism

by Athan Theoharis
Quadrangle, 256 pp., $6.95

Herbert Butterfield noticed in the early Charles James Fox an uncontrollable itch to add “the final strokes to the argument of his friends, as though determined to drive the whole logic of the situation to a further extreme—to go one note higher than the top note of the piano.” This observation seems unjust to Fox, whose life is our best argument for the social uses of demagoguery; but it does perfectly describe Joseph R. McCarthy, our strongest recent argument against them.

That image may also explain why no very helpful assessment of what got itself called the Age of McCarthy is possible unless we get the figure of Joe McCarthy as far from center stage as we can. The enormities of the musician who abuses the piano have a way of obscuring the disharmonies of the score which was appointed as entirely appropriate for him to play. Over-attendance upon the excessive can distract us from noticing how bad the normal is.

All three of the works under review come from younger historians whose perspective across fifteen years ought to give us some hope that they can hold McCarthy in just proportion. The first two do not quite succeed. Mr. Griffith seems indeed to suffer a fixation very like the one that used to afflict so many of us who were his seniors at the time: the generation of children which was truly traumatized by that ogre’s face on television may only now be reaching the age to instruct us.

Mr. Harper does better, since his study of Mr. Truman’s Loyalty and Security Program begins five years before most of us ever heard of Joe McCarthy. Even so, McCarthy’s first two years of fame occupy as much space in The Politics of Loyalty as the five which preceded them; and the figure of Mr. Truman, shadowed—to put it delicately—through the first and second acts, is enabled to complete the third in the blinding light of his defiance of the Beast, those having been times that required the blackest of villains before their heroes could be redeemed.

Mr. Theoharis, on the other hand, has so escaped the pieties and sentimentalities of the Fifties as to offer them nothing kinder than a withering smile. Our desire to have the period’s characters rendered in their proper proportions could hardly be better satisfied. McCarthy is relegated in this composition to the place and comparative dimensions of one of Veronese’s dwarfs, since it is Mr. Theoharis’s judgment that Mr. Truman set the tone of the national possession by fear of the Communist danger and that McCarthyism was only Trumanism carried to its logical conclusion.

His argument is not without weaknesses; but none of them seriously affects its essential strength. He has successfully, if not always gracefully, closed the question of major blame. Still, one finds oneself wishing that Mr. Theoharis’s eye for documents were as busy as his head for judgments. There is a deficiency …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

Alive! April 8, 1971