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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.