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Un-American Activities


Joseph McCarthy rose to power suddenly in February 1950 and fell almost as suddenly four and a half years later. During those years he was the most potent rabble-rouser in the land, his name a byword for demagogic slander. He was “the first American ever to be discussed and described as being himself a menace to the comity of nations and the strength of alliances,” Richard Rovere wrote in 1959, and “the first American ever to be actively hated and feared by foreigners in large numbers.”1 At his death in 1957, at age forty-eight, he seemed a relic, a malign emblem of the anxieties that beset the United States in the first years of the cold war.

Even at his peak McCarthy was a confusing, self-contradictory figure. He said he would “fight for America,” but had no coherent political vision or program. In his speeches and his televised hearings—the committee hearing was his venue of choice—he exuded righteous passion, decrying “treason” and “appeasement” in the quavering voice that still echoes in the minds of those old enough to have heard him; yet off camera and away from the microphone he was gregarious and affable, sometimes rushing over to pump the hands of the very persons he had just defamed. While some feared he was a home-grown totalitarian bent on a dictatorial mission, he didn’t pander to the usual prejudices: racism, anti-Semitism, or xenophobia. Nor did he try to build a grass-roots movement.

Indeed McCarthy’s themes, betrayal and disloyalty, were precisely those exploited by a Republican Party embittered by the loss of five consecutive presidential elections from 1932 to 1948—the last being Truman’s upset victory over Thomas E. Dewey. As early as 1946, the year McCarthy was first elected to the Senate, the GOP had linked the spread of global communism to the policies of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. During the next few years, Stalin consolidated an empire and obtained nuclear weapons, and China was “lost” to Communists. American troops had to be sent to Korea. Some Republicans began sounding the cry of treason in high places. McCarthy set himself apart from the pack chiefly by his boldness, his recklessness, and his flair for melodrama. While others inveighed against secret Communist cells, McCarthy implicated General George Marshall and Secretary of State Dean Acheson in an “immense” Kremlin-directed conspiracy.

Americans have historically been susceptible to conspiracy theories, and McCarthy’s claim that the enemy was already within the citadel offered a seductively simple cure: chase the Reds from their nests in Washington, D.C., and the Communist peril would disappear. However deluded the argument was, it made sense to many people who deplored military interventions overseas and opposed aiding embattled democracies in Europe but wanted a crackdown at home: the purging of Communists from trade unions and universities, the careful monitoring of “subversive” books and Hollywood films.

Arthur Herman’s strange new study is both a biography and a “reexamination” of McCarthy’s place in postwar American politics. As an account of the bare facts of McCarthy’s life it is a competent retelling of the story narrated in much greater detail in two excellent studies, by David Oshinsky and by Thomas Reeves, both published in the early 1980s.2 Unlike those scholars, Herman, an adjunct professor of history at George Mason University, is frankly admiring of his subject, and he seeks to vindicate McCarthy’s claim to being the leader of a serious, responsible movement. Herman contends that McCarthy’s “real role in the story of cold war anticommunism, and his place in the making of modern American political culture, remains unexplored and unexplained.” But his book offers almost nothing in the way of new evidence or fresh perspectives. On the contrary, it rehashes arguments advanced by McCarthyites half a century ago. Like them, Herman wantonly attacks and at times slanders Democrats and liberals, accusing them of having “shared a common vision of government” with the Communists who infiltrated the New Deal. Like them, he condones McCarthy’s crude assaults on Dean Acheson. Like them he casually traffics in distortions and defamations.

Herman’s book is, in short, the most brazen example I know of a growing conservative historiography that seems to proceed from the belief that for too long parti pris liberals have shaped our understanding of the recent past, so it is up to partisans of the right to redress the imbalance and even the score—not by offering new evidence or careful analysis but by exposing the pretensions and hypocrisies of “the other side.”

Joe McCarthy was born in 1908 on a farm outside Appleton, Wisconsin, one of seven children in a hard-working, churchgoing Irish Catholic family of farmers. Herman adds no new information to previous accounts of McCarthy’s youth. We are told, once again, that he was energetic and industrious and started his own business, raising chickens while still in his teens. When the venture failed he enrolled in high school, at age twenty-one, and completed the four-year curriculum in a nine-month orgy of cramming that prefigured his frantic Senate investigations. At Marquette University he became a popular campus figure, a debater, and a boxer. In 1935, with a law degree from Marquette—and having expunged the last traces of his brogue—he entered private practice while trying to start a political career. A Democrat in a Republican state, he employed devious campaign tactics, and a large sum of borrowed money, to unseat an aging circuit judge. Once in office, he speedily cleared his overfilled docket, winning praise for his efficiency even as he disregarded legal fine points.

When World War II began, he enlisted in the Marines and was trained as an intelligence officer. Assigned to a desk job with a bomber squadron at Guadalcanal, he gambled (with daring and skill) and also ran a liquor-smuggling operation until he and a partner quarreled over the profits and had a vicious fistfight that left both on the ground bleeding. After a fellow officer taught him how to fire a machine gun, McCarthy volunteered for bombing missions; he later inflated their number so as to extract a Distinguished Flying Cross. He also proudly displayed a letter of commendation signed by Admiral Nimitz but evidently written by McCarthy himself. Addicted to the grandiose effect, he affected a limp to draw attention to a “combat” injury he had in fact sustained while clowning on a ship’s ladder.

This self-mythologizing had a purpose. While still in uniform he was plotting his way to Washington. He hastily became a Republican, painted the words “Headquarters, McCarthy for US Senator” on his tent, and in 1944 orchestrated a sophisticated absentee campaign, largely financed by an investment windfall on which he had failed to pay state income taxes. (McCarthy would remain a stock market gambler; in his Senate years he was a regular at the race track.) He returned to Wisconsin in time to present himself in a captain’s uniform and circulate campaign literature in which he styled himself “Tail Gunner Joe.” Although he lost the election he attracted enough publicity to run again, in 1946, this time under more favorable conditions. The war had ended, and the Democrats were vulnerable after their abnormally long stay in power, especially as the country awkwardly readjusted to peacetime. The moment was right for an energetic young go-getter back from the war.

McCarthy challenged the incumbent Robert La Follette Jr., a nationally known politician who had been elected repeatedly on the Progressive Party ticket but had decided to seek the GOP nomination. In the primary, McCarthy smeared his opponent as pro-Communist even as La Follette, who was strongly anti-Communist, fended off attacks from CIO unions that were then dominated by the Communist Party, USA. It was a mismatch in any case. La Follette had alienated his progressive constituency by labeling himself a Republican and was a poor campaigner, more at home on Capitol Hill than in the clubs and meeting rooms of Wisconsin. McCarthy secured heavy financial backing from well-to-do Wisconsin Republicans and courted voters in Milwaukee’s ethnic labor wards. After narrowly winning the primary, he coasted to victory in November and at age thirty-eight became the youngest member of the Senate.

McCarthy was one of several new senators who would establish themselves as hard-line anti-Communists in the days ahead. He found allies in John Bricker, William Knowland, William Jenner, and George “Molly” Malone, and became friendly with two freshman congressmen, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, fellow Irishmen and World War II veterans. Kennedy and McCarthy, both rakish bachelors, made the circuit of Washington parties together, and McCarthy became a welcome guest at Kennedy’s Georgetown brownstone and at the family compound on Cape Cod.3 Joseph P. Kennedy was an early admirer of his, and in 1953, at the height of McCarthy’s Red-hunting crusade, Robert Kennedy joined his staff.

McCarthy’s early Senate years were not distinguished. At one point he was rated the worst US senator in a poll of the Washington press. He dabbled in various issues and fleetingly grabbed headlines in 1949 for his part in the Malmédy investigation. This involved German SS officers who had been convicted of war crimes, including a massacre at Malmédy in France, but only, they alleged, after having been tortured by their American captors and forced to give false confessions. McCarthy, taking up the SS men’s cause—and thereby appealing to Wisconsin’s substantial German population—organized hearings which quickly became a circus as he lectured and hectored witnesses, clashed with his Senate colleagues, and for good measure denounced the American judges at Nuremberg. It was a preview of the antics to follow.


In 1950, under the tutelage of several Georgetown priests—and, for a time, of Whittaker Chambers—McCarthy developed an interest in the Communist “problem.” “He had run out of other issues that could be used to vault his name into headlines and help insure his reelection [in 1952],” writes Thomas Reeves. On February 9, 1950, three weeks after Alger Hiss was convicted on a technical perjury charge that masked the actual crime of espionage, McCarthy delivered a Lincoln Day speech to Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia. Much of it was lifted from a speech Nixon recently had made in Congress, recounting his triumphant prosecution of Hiss. McCarthy spiced up his presentation by alleging that 205 “members of the Communist Party…are still working [in] and [are] shaping the policy of the State Department.”4 In the next days McCarthy reiterated the charge, getting more publicity.

Where did the figure 205 come from? In all likelihood McCarthy had drawn on an in-house security investigation authorized in 1946 by James F. Byrnes, then Truman’s secretary of state. It had turned up a total of 284 cases of employees of various wartime agencies who were being transferred to the State Department and were considered possible security risks for one reason or another. Of these, 79 had been “separated from the service,” 26 because they were foreigners ineligible for such jobs. Deducting 79 from 284 left 205. So the equation went in 1946. Four years later, the numbers looked different. “Only about 40 of these suspects remained on the job,” Oshinsky writes. More important, Byrnes’s report said nothing about Communists. Nor did it suggest that any of the suspects had been “shaping policy.” These complications didn’t trouble McCarthy. Oshinsky writes: “As a gambling man he was simply raising on a poor hand, searching for an ace or two before his bluff was called.”

  1. 1

    Richard H. Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy (Harcourt, Brace, 1959), p. 10.

  2. 2

    See David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (Free Press, 1983); Thomas C. Reeves, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy (Stein and Day, 1982).

  3. 3

    Thomas J. Whalen, Kennedy versus Lodge (Northeastern University Press, 2000), p. 141.

  4. 4

    Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792̱1974, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Roger Bruns (Chelsea House, 1983), Vol. 5, p. 34.

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