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.”

McCarthy subsequently whittled the 205 down to 81 and then to 57, insisting this last was the figure he’d cited in the first place. The new number, like the original one, derived from old files. In 1947 a Congressional committee had examined FBI documents on 108 “past, present, and prospective” employees. According to Herman, they “discovered more than enough information to suggest they were ‘poor risks.”‘ Forty-two were fired, which left “at least 57 people…still circulating in the State Department at the beginning of 1948.” The exact figure would have been 66; but Herman fudges it downward so as to preserve McCarthy’s magic 57.

Worse, Herman neglects to point out that a “poor risk” was a loaded term in those years, since its basis was the list of no fewer than eighty-two “subversive” organizations listed in 1947 by Truman’s attorney general, Tom Clark. The Industrial Workers of the World (whose power had peaked in 1912), Depression-era organizations such as the American League Against War and Fascism and the League of American Writers, and even the fiercely anti-Soviet Socialist Worker’s Party were all on the list.

Shaken by McCarthy’s charges and the publicity they were receiving, the Democrats formed a committee chaired by Maryland’s Millard Tydings, a war hero and conservative who headed the Armed Services Committee and had solid credentials as an anti-Communist. Under pressure to make good on his allegations, McCarthy suddenly promised to identify “Moscow’s top spy,” installed “at the top of the whole ring of which [Alger] Hiss was a part.” He then named Owen Lattimore, a Far East policy specialist who was currently director of the School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins. Previously Lattimore had edited (from 1933 to 1941) the left-wing journal Pacific Affairs, a scholarly publication of the Institute of Pacific Relations, and had written many books. He had also been FDR’s China adviser in 1941, had accompanied Vice President Henry Wallace on a tour of China and Russia in 1944, and had been on the staff of the Office of War Information. But he had never had a desk at the State Department, and there was no evidence he was a Soviet agent. McCarthy depicted Lattimore as a Svengali, “the voice for the mind of Acheson.” In reality, as Reeves observes, “Acheson had not heard of Owen Lattimore until McCarthy put his name in headlines” in 1950. McCarthy, who had declared himself “willing to let his reputation ‘stand and fall’ on the Lattimore case,” scrambled for reinforcements, summoning repentant ex-Communists such as Louis Budenz and Freda Utley, to testify against Lattimore. But they offered only hearsay of the most dubious kind.

After a five-month investigation, the Tydings Committee released a report. Running to some three hundred pages, it concluded that McCarthy’s claims were “a fraud and a hoax” and rebuked him for squandering legislative resources at a critical moment of the cold war. Unchastened, McCarthy replied that “the most loyal stooges of the Kremlin could not have done a better job of giving a clean bill of health to Stalin’s fifth column in this country.” This would always be his tactic: to label any and all criticism as serving the Communist conspiracy. Two years later, a second committee, chaired by Senator Pat McCarran, the Democrats’ version of McCarthy, concluded that Lattimore had been a “conscious articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy”—an exaggerated way of saying that he was, as James Rorty and Moshe Decter put it in their early study of McCarthy, an “influential Party-lining propagandist,”5 who, like all too many people, had defended the Moscow trials in the late 1930s.

Herman goes much further. Lattimore, he says, was implicated in Communist intelligence operations and had an “intimate association” with Lauchlin Currie, FDR’s China adviser, who has recently been identified in Moscow and Washington documents as a Soviet agent. “It was Currie who sent Lattimore to China as FDR’s representative and later as part of the Wallace mission,” Herman writes. “It was also Currie who instructed Lattimore to hire the Cambridge spy Michael Greenberg as his assistant at Pacific Affairs.” Herman provides no evidence for either assertion, however, noting only that “the complex threads running between the Institute of Pacific Relations, Soviet and Communist Chinese intelligence, and the CPUSA are all to be found in [Harvey] Klehr and [Ronald] Radosh,” coauthors of an account of the Amerasia spy case. But as Ronald Radosh has pointed out, “nowhere in our book do we claim or suggest that Lattimore was a Soviet agent, or that he knowingly recruited Soviet agents to work at his journal and his think tank.”6 They reach the same conclusion as Rorty and Decter and find Lattimore guilty only of concealing his excessive enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and Chinese Communists.7

The Lattimore hearing should have finished McCarthy. Instead it propelled him forward. He had discovered his métier, the investigative hearing, with its air of performance and dramatized conflict and its parade of cowering witnesses. Many more such circuses would follow—no fewer than five “concerned exclusively with the problem of whether Senator McCarthy was telling the truth about others,” wrote Rovere, “or, mutatis mutandis, others were telling the truth about Senator McCarthy.”

It is a sign of the partisan bitterness of this period that McCarthy’s charges, though they could only weaken the US government in the face of Communist expansion abroad, were nonetheless condoned by senior Republicans, including the party’s leader Robert Taft, who dissociated himself from McCarthy’s most extreme pronouncements, such as his attack on George Marshall, but saw that his cry of treason made him a uniquely valuable asset to the party, a missile to be launched at the Democrats, particularly during elections. In 1948 Thomas E. Dewey, the complacent front-runner, had soft-pedaled the subversion theme and lost the election. The GOP was not about to repeat that mistake. In 1950 McCarthy barnstormed for Republican legislators across the country and helped topple his former nemesis Tydings by means of tactics so rough they occasioned a congressional investigation the following year.

McCarthy attained his highest point of influence during the presidential election of 1952. Addressing the Republican nominating convention, which chose the moderate Dwight Eisenhower over the Old Guard stalwart Robert Taft, McCarthy declared that “one Communist in a defense plant is one Communist too many. One Communist on the faculty of one university is one Communist too many. One Communist in the State Department…would still be one Communist too many….” The bombast served only to highlight an embarrassing fact: the 205 or 57 Kremlin agents in the State Department had shrunk to “one” hypothetical Communist.

But McCarthy’s crusade did not depend on uncovering new Communists. The pretext of investigating “security procedures” enabled him to attack an executive branch staffed by the “egg-sucking phony liberals” and the “Communists and queers” who in “twenty years of treason” had sold America out to the Kremlin. Herman thinks this attack was not only justified but necessary. “For McCarthy and his supporters, the problem America faced was not so much failure at the top as betrayal,” he writes, since “a liberal establishment had permitted America’s enemies to direct its foreign policy” and had shown “its own inability to act to protect the national interest.”

But which enemies does he have in mind? Only three Communists—Currie, Hiss, who had been in charge of the United Nations desk at the State Department, and Harry Dexter White, an assistant secretary of the Treasury under FDR and later an executive at the International Monetary Fund—had filled important federal posts. Currie left the government in 1945, after FDR’s death. The others resigned in 1946, in Hiss’s case under pressure from State Department security investigators. All this became public in 1948, long before McCarthy discovered communism. He failed to locate any fresh Red scalps for the simple reason that almost none were to be found.

Stranger still, he mounted his anti-Communist campaign well after the Democrats developed a strongly anti-Soviet policy, which dated back to the first months of 1945, when it had first become clear that the Yalta accords were breaking down. In February 1946 George Kennan had sent his famous “long telegram” from Moscow warning that harmonious relations with the Soviets were not going to be possible. In September Truman fired Henry Wallace, his secretary of commerce, for making a pro-Soviet foreign policy speech. In 1947 a federal grand jury heard testimony on the underground operations of the American Communist Party, which resulted in indictments in July 1948 against the top leadership of the Party under the Smith Act. These same sessions inspired the congressional hearings that led to Hiss’s indictment five months later, shortly after Truman used the Communist issue to destroy Wallace’s third-party bid in the presidential election of 1948. In the summer of 1949, weeks after the first Hiss trial ended in a hung jury, Dean Acheson, newly installed as secretary of state, had gone before Congress to plead for an enlarged budget, citing—among other factors—the peril posed in Europe by the “internal Communist threat.”8 So intently did Truman try to com-bat communism that a later genera-tion would accuse him of creating a “national-security” state and of sowing the seeds of McCarthyism.

Why, then, were McCarthy and his followers wedded to the argument of Democratic treason? Early analysts of McCarthyism, such as Richard Hofstadter, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Peter Viereck, thought the answer had very little to do with communism and much more to do with sociology. McCarthy, in this interpretation, articulated the frustrations of a newly emergent middle class which sought to establish its place in postwar society but felt stymied by the longstanding WASP patriciate, personified by FDR and officials from the Ivy league and Wall Street who had designed and administered the New Deal.9 There was no mistaking the emphasis on class in McCarthy’s assault. At Wheeling he had said:

The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores…but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this nation. It has not been the less fortunate, or members of minority groups who have been traitorous to this nation…but rather those who had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer…the finest homes, the finest college education and the finest jobs in government we can give.

This populist note was taken up by much of the hard-line anti-Communist press, a bastion of pro-McCarthy sentiment: among McCarthy’s supporters were the Hearst journalists Westbrook Pegler, George Sokolsky, and J.B. Matthews, and the China lobbyist Alfred Kohlberg, publisher of the strident anti-Communist monthly Plain Talk. Some lent their services to McCarthy or joined his staff. Garvin Tankersley, an executive at the Washington Times-Herald, the McCormick paper, devised the dirtiest trick in the smear campaign against Millard Tydings: a composite photograph which showed Tydings “listening attentively” to Earl Browder, the longtime secretary of the American Communist Party, and included a caption linking the two as allies. McCarthy’s most notorious speech, his ten-thousand-word defamation of General George Marshall, was written by Forrest Davis, a Washington columnist and former staff writer for The Saturday Evening Post. Brent Bozell, the coauthor with William F. Buckley Jr. of the most sustained defense of McCarthy, McCarthy and His Enemies, a best seller in 1954, went on to write speeches for McCarthy.

These men represented the most extreme factions of cold war anticommunism, which took as their target not the nearly defunct CPUSA but rather anti-Communist liberals, who believed McCarthy was endangering civil liberties and were critical of Red-hunting investigations in general. It was only proof, as Buckley and Bozell put it, that the nation’s “disintegrated ruling elite…had no stomach for battle” against “the enemy in our midst.” That the Communist enemy was scarcely to be found in the US by then was no excuse. A price must be paid for past sins. “Some day,” wrote Buckley and Bozell,

the patience of America may at last be exhausted, and we will strike out against Liberals. Not because they are treacherous like Communists, but because, with James Burnham, we will conclude “that they are mistaken in their predictions, false in their analyses, wrong in their advice, and through the results of their actions injurious to the nation.”

Yet those “injurious” acts included measures such as Social Security and helping to lead the Grand Alliance to victory in World War II.

By this logic, once Eisenhower, a Republican, took office in January 1953, thus putting an end to the twenty ostensibly treasonous years, McCarthy should have been ready to stop his campaign. The new administration made strong overtures toward him. John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, appointed McCarthy’s ally R.W. Scott McLeod, an ex-FBI man and rabid Red-hunter, to head the department’s security program. But McCarthy was not satisfied. He still needed the Communist issue in order to remain a force in politics. When Eisenhower named the Russian specialist Charles E. Bohlen to succeed George Kennan as the ambassador in Moscow, McCarthy, briefed by McLeod on the contents of Bohlen’s FBI dossier—it hinted without serious evidence that Bohlen had “homosexual associations”—contested the nomination and forced a floor debate.

Bohlen was confirmed, but McCarthy roared on. He launched fresh assaults on the State Department and charged that the CIA had been penetrated by the KGB. No one in either party dared take him on. His approval rating soared from 34 percent in the summer of 1953 to 50 percent in December.10 In 1954, the Senate approved funding for his Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations by a vote of 85̱1. He had allies in the executive branch, too, “a secret seditionist cabal,” in Richard Rovere’s phrase, who fed him classified documents, strengthening his hand. The network included Walter Bedell Smith, the former CIA director who had since become Eisenhower’s undersecretary of state.

But the new focus of McCarthy’s attention was the US Army. In autumn 1953, he announced he had uncovered a “Rosenberg spy ring” at Fort Monmouth, a Signal Corps Center in New Jersey. In fact Army Intelligence had already looked into the possibility, as had the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Both had turned up nothing and dropped the investigation. McCarthy, too, came up with nothing. He had much better success exposing the trivial case of Irving Peress, an Army dentist who had been promoted to the rank of major and then received an honorable discharge despite strong evidence that he was a Communist and had lied about it on loyalty forms. The case led to a confrontation with the secretary of the Army, Robert Stevens, who signed an agreement pledging full support to McCarthy.

Stevens’s “surrender” was humiliating both to the Army and to Eisenhower, who was not only the president but the world’s most honored soldier. At last he authorized a counterattack by his vice-president, Richard Nixon, who in a televised speech warned against McCarthy’s “reckless talk and questionable methods.” Giving the job to Nixon, a former ally of McCarthy and Hiss’s congressional prosecutor, insulated the administration from the usual McCarthy rejoinder that only the Kremlin would benefit from such dissent. Soon GOP moderates spoke up. Ralph Flanders of Vermont denounced McCarthy on the Senate floor. “He emits his war whoops,” said Flanders. “He goes forth to battle and proudly returns with the scalp of a pink Army dentist.” In March 1954, Edward R. Murrow narrated the famous “See It Now” television documentary which presented the images still familiar today: McCarthy’s bullying of witnesses, his giggles, his smirking references to the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 as “Alger—I mean Adlai.”

The Army, meanwhile, retaliated by initiating an investigation of David Schine, a member of McCarthy’s staff who had been drafted and was accused of receiving special favors at Fort Dix at the behest of his colleague and friend Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel. Cohn and Schine, both in their twenties, had earlier caused a sensation during a three-week trip to Europe in which they had “investigated” US embassies and information offices from London to Belgrade, holding clamorous press conferences along the way and announcing the discovery of such subversive publications as the liberal Catholic weekly Commonweal, calling it a “Communist Catholic magazine.” McCarthy, by now all but spoiled by drink—he consumed “a quart or more a day,” says Oshinsky—grew increasingly reliant on Cohn and effectively turned over his committee to him. This set the scene for his fall, in the spring of 1954, during the televised hearings that pitted McCarthy and Cohn against the Army’s special counsel Joseph Welch in a series of memorable skirmishes.

The climax came in June. In a back-room meeting the two sides had negotiated a deal: McCarthy promised not to go after Welch’s young law associate Fred Fisher, who had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, a CP front. In return Welch said he would not embarrass Cohn by asking him about the West Point physical exam he had flunked. But when the cameras rolled McCarthy attacked Fisher anyway, prompting Welch to utter the famous words: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” Herman’s treatment of this episode is characteristic. Excusing McCarthy’s actions—“He had forgotten the deal; it is possible, because of his drinking, that he even blacked out on it”—he reserves his fury for Welch, whose tear-stained performance he calls “a sham.” But Welch had good reason to be indignant over the broken agreement, and whatever theatrics he indulged in were mild compared to McCarthy’s own performance since his speech at Wheeling, West Virginia.

That summer, the Senate began the hearings which resulted in McCarthy’s censure in December 1954. Herman points out that McCarthy could have put up a better fight and even possibly prevailed. But once his Senate backers deserted him he sank into depression, further deepened by drink. He mustered a weak, half-hearted defense, and was devastated by the overwhelming vote (67̱22) to “condemn.” It came only eight months after the almost unanimous vote to provide money for McCarthy’s investigations. When his attack on the US Army collapsed, so did the air of menace he had projected. In the years remaining to him he attempted to reincarnate himself, first as a foreign policy sage and then as a born-again La Follette progressive. No one was convinced. In fact no one was listening. For his rampage he needed the dignity of the Senate. Once deprived of it, he was powerless. In the spring of 1955, loyalists11 who organized a “McCarthy Day” in the town of Boscobel expected a crowd of fifty thousand. Instead “fewer than fifteen hundred spectators” showed up, Herman writes, “many of them members of the high school bands who had been marched out to greet him.”


In the end he remained as anomalous a figure as he had seemed at his height, with his curiously mechanical passion, his “motiveless malignancy.” Because he defied the ideological stereotypes of his time, some underestimated his impact. In an influential essay published in 1954, the former Communist Will Herberg suggested that since McCarthy himself had lacked a clear-cut program he was not a revolutionary:

He is against Communism and for—Joe McCarthy. He is, in a way, a genius at it, but he has neither the talent nor the interest for the kind of thing the building of a totalitarian mass movement requires. He exploits and utilizes many of the sinister forces that go into the making of totalitarianism, but he does not seem to be interested in organizing them into a cohesive political force. He addresses vast crowds, gets enthusiastic ovations, but leaves his people as he found them, all for McCarthy and against Communism, but not involved in any movement or organization, and certainly not stirred up to insurgency and disaffection, as Fascist or Communist mobs are. It is not in the nature of McCarthyism, nor in the purpose of Joe McCarthy, to desire or encourage such things.12

But to a younger generation of right-wingers McCarthy suggested a new form of insurgency. One admirer, Pat Buchanan, an adolescent during McCarthy’s peak years, later would praise him for doing “to the American Establishment precisely what the New Deal Democrats had done to corporate America and Wall Street. He shattered, forever, the nation’s confidence in their capacity to govern.”

The notion of government itself as the “enemy” of the republic is a familiar one in US history. But McCarthy was the author of what would become a staple of GOP politics over the next half-century: the raid on government mounted from within government itself. Later practitioners included Richard Nixon (Watergate), Ronald Reagan (Iran-contra), and Newt Gingrich (twice: his part first in the government shutdown of 1995 and then in Bill Clinton’s impeachment). Like McCarthy’s crusade, these later insurgencies were conceived in a spirit of hatred for a liberal elite who were perceived to be usurpers and hence subversives. For McCarthy’s followers the New Deal, with its mildly radical reforms administered by Ivy League graduates, was tantamount to treason. In 1950, after Acheson had voiced sympathy for the convicted Hiss, Nebraska Senator Hugh Butler was beside himself:

I look at that fellow, I watch his smart-aleck manner and his British clothes and that New Dealism in everything he says and does, and I want to shout, “Get out! Get out! You stand for everything that has been wrong in the United States for years!”

This was the essence of McCarthyism, of what Pat Buchanan calls its “boisterous, bellowing call for the overthrow of [America’s] reigning Establishment.”

But as Rovere and others recognized, this rebellion was a form of escapism. Thwarted by the complex realities of the postwar world, McCarthy and company became obsessed with past subversions, real and imagined. The best they could manage in the way of policy was a more vigorous campaign to “clean house” and eliminate “loyalty-security” risks. The Republicans’ call to “roll back” communism was cant, no different in practice from the “containment” they equated with appeasement. Even Herman concedes that John Foster Dulles “never seriously challenged [the] consensus on containment” reached under Acheson, or challenged “the assumptions that underlay it.” He admits too that the strategy worked, and that Acheson, George Kennan, and others “turned out to be correct.” But he never confronts the obvious point: Truman’s policies succeeded in spite of McCarthy, who came dangerously close to undermining the consensus that made those policies possible. That a good many people who should have known better supported his excesses remains a particularly discreditable and cautionary episode in American history.

This Issue

November 30, 2000