Demagogue Without a Cause

Shooting Star: The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy

by Tom Wicker
Harcourt, 212 pp., $22.00

Joseph R. McCarthy
Joseph R. McCarthy; drawing by David Levine

Americans under the age of sixty-five are unlikely to have any real idea of what it was like in this country during the reign of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The movie Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow’s stand against McCarthy in CBS television programs, has recently given audiences a glimpse. But it hardly conveyed the pervasive atmosphere of suspicion, the paralysis of political will during the years of McCarthy’s power between 1950 and 1954.

When McCarthy’s agents combed through US libraries overseas, looking for subversive works, the State Department proscribed books by, among others, Jean-Paul Sartre and Langston Hughes. The Voice of America dismissed 830 employees, describing the action as a “retrenchment.” The secretary of the army surrendered to McCarthy’s demands lest he and his people be smeared with the Red brush. Senators who had regarded Joe McCarthy as an ineffectual lightweight before he discovered the Communist issue did not dare cross him after he had campaigned against, and defeated, colleagues he described as “soft on communism.”

An immensely popular president, Dwight Eisenhower, felt unable to make an appointment or adopt a policy without considering whether McCarthy would denounce it as “pro-Communist.” Eisenhower let Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, pursue a vendetta against Robert Oppenheimer for fear of what McCarthy might do if he stopped it. Eisenhower told his press secretary, James Hagerty: “We’ve got to handle this so that all of our scientists are not made out to be Reds. That goddamn McCarthy is just likely to try such a thing.”

Tom Wicker brings this dark time to life. It was also a grotesque time. Consider, for example, McCarthy’s attack on General George C. Marshall. Marshall was for years the most revered of Americans, the chief of staff who directed the victorious American effort in World War II and selflessly let Eisenhower achieve fame as commander of the Allied forces in Europe; he then served as secretary of state under President Truman. McCarthy said General Marshall was part of “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.” He never produced any basis for his charge; it was simply a lump of filth thrown at a national hero. Yet the lie was solemnly debated. And Eisenhower, campaigning for the presidency in 1952, planned to praise Marshall in a speech in Wisconsin, McCarthy’s state, but dropped the passage rather than offend McCarthy.

Much of the tale that Wicker tells is familiar to someone who lived through those times. But much is new to me. For one thing, Wicker has gone through Eisenhower’s record and come up with episodes that can only be called shameful. It was not only that he omitted his kind words for General Marshall in that Wisconsin speech; he spoke himself in a McCarthyesque vein. Two decades of tolerance for…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

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.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.