Monday, July 18, 2016

Mythmakers & Joe McCarthy

The name of Sen. Joe McCarthy became synonymous with his method. From him issued forth a seemingly endless string of extravagant, reckless, ill-substantiated and false allegations that called into question the loyalty and legitimacy of his targets. In his time, he was able to exploit a paranoid age to fashion from these slurs a celebrity status for himself, McCarthy, the commie-fighting folk-hero. He eventually self-destructed when his own nonsense caught up to him; today, as did his critics then, we call what he did "McCarthyism," and no one thinks of anything heroic when that word comes to mind. Ever since that time though, there have been McCarthy apologists, cranks who insist "Joe McCarthy was right." They floated around the nut-right fringe for decades and no one paid them much mind but these days, it seems there are few nut-right fringe views the right-wing Rage Machine won't try to mainstream. A number of high-profile works have appeared that take up the McCarthy torch from the various John Birchers, anti-Semites and anti-water-flouridationists who have kept it lit since the 1950s. In the Spring of 2008, longtime conservative commentator M. Stanton Evans had just published a "McCarthy was right" book and I wrote this piece as a response (actually, I cannibalized it from an older article and fashioned it into a review of Evans' book). While it adequately covers some of the history, I don't think it is, overall, a very good article. Make of it what you will.

In an age in which a not-insignificant percentage of the public can be led to believe George Bush Jr. was really behind the attack on the World Trade Center, Vincent Foster was murdered by Hillary Clinton, and Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was allied with al Qaida, the occasional efforts of some less-than-useful writers to rehabilitate the reputation of the late commie-combating Senator Joseph McCarthy could, unfortunately, be viewed as par for the course. The last few years have seen a mini-genre of that flavor emerge. The efforts of Arthur Herman appeared, just as quickly to collapse under scrutiny and fall by the wayside. Ann Coulter, one of the most prominent of the nut right's assorted brainless polemicists, dipped her poisonous pen into this well and offered a worshipful screed of McCarthy-as-martyred-hero. It succeeded only in making her an even bigger laughingstock than she was before. Now, along comes M. Stanton Evans with yet another revisionist history. Like the rest, he's here to tell us the late Wisconsin Senator who became an -ism really was right after all and that those people who criticized him sure were mean.

With "Blacklisted by History", Evans pulls a fast one before we even get past the cover. The subtitle of this, his latest dreary tome, is "The Untold Story of Senator Joseph McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies." The promise of an "untold story" is a common one in revisionist literature and it at least has the benefit of alerting the serious student of the subject under examination to start reaching for his wallet. Still, it seems a particularly egregious fiction when it comes to something written about so shopworn a subject as Joe McCarthy. McCarthy's time in the spotlight lasted only about four years, yet we've had over 50 years of books, movies and other assorted commentary about it. Every piece of his story, no matter how minute, has been told and retold endlessly. Ann Coulter assured us that, in spite of this saturation coverage, everything we know about "Tailgunner Joe" was an "hegemonic lie" but Ann Coulter is mad as a hatter and only those similarly afflicted find analytical value in the ravings of hatemongering lunatics. What she offered and what Evans is offering now isn't anything "new" or, as Evans would have it, "untold"--it's just a re-re-retread of already-well-trod ground, a politically-motivated rewrite of McCarthy's story that begins with the premise that McCarthy was something between a well-intentioned fellow with a legitimate beef and an outright hero worthy of high praise and martyrdom and works backward to try to "prove" the preconceived conclusion, indulging in whatever intellectual dishonesty, omission and falsifications are required to achieve the desired result. And it takes quite a bit of all of that. This is why the revisionists' work has been consistently rejected across the political spectrum--even in this insanely conservative age, they represent an extreme fringe and even the conservative scholars of the Cold War (the serious ones, that is) dismiss them out of hand. History's verdict of McCarthy is correct.

Joseph McCarthy's personal anti-communist crusade would rage throughout the federal government for four years and in the process forever link his name in the public mind with wild and unsubstantiated accusations, baseless smears and irresponsible charges.

Remarkably enough, it all began as merely a publicity stunt by a publicity hound looking to get his name in the paper.

It was born on January 7, 1950 at the Colony Restaurant in Washington. McCarthy was discussing his political future over dinner with staffer Charles Kraus, attorney William Roberts and Father Edmund Walsh, arch-anti-commie of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. McCarthy was dismayed that, with only two years left in his term, he'd done nothing as Senator to attract the national attention he craved. He needed a hot-button issue to get the spotlight on him. Throughout the course of the meal and in conversations after, a number of ideas were kicked around, all rejected as being of insufficient heat. Eventually, Walsh, in a move that changed history, suggested communism as an issue. McCarthy brightened immediately. A perfect way to make some headlines, no doubt. "The government is full of Communists," he declared. "The thing to do is hammer at them."

And thus began his career as an "anti-communist."

Within a few weeks, McCarthy went public, offering extravagant charges in various public forums around the country.

He began with a speech on Feb. 9, 1950 to the Women's Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia in which he claimed that a number of individuals known to be Communists were then working in the State Department and shaping U.S. policy. The actual number of these individuals offered by McCarthy became a subject of much controversy. A reporter for the Wheeling Intelligencer who was present for the speech wrote an item for the next day's paper, in which McCarthy was quoted as saying:

"...I have here in my hand a list of 205--a list of names that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party, and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy in the State Department."

McCarthy's rough notes of the speech include this comment but the notes were extremely rough and totally unreliable at other points, rendering them of no real evidentiary value. In any case, McCarthy, as everyone agreed, was largely speaking extemporaneously and not from a written speech. The only recording that was made of the event (by a local radio station) was erased the next day. The exact content of the speech is lost to history. The controversy regarding it has many aspects but they aren't particularly relevant here.
Without going into too many details, the best available evidence suggests that McCarthy, in describing how many Communists were known to be in the State Department, used both the number 205 and, at a different point, the number 57.

The 205 number comes from a letter written, in 1946, by then-Secretary of State James Byrnes to a congressman regarding several thousand government employees transferring into the State Department from other wartime agencies. 284 of them had been flagged as potential security risks and out of that, 79 had, at that time, been discharged, leaving 205.

The source of the number 57 requires a bit more background. In 1947, the staff of the very conservative House Appropriations Committee had prepared a collection of dossiers, drawn from security files provided by the Truman administration. This was known as the "Lee list," named after the committee's chief clerk Robert Lee, and it consisted of 108 individuals--past, current, and potential government employees, as of 1947--whom the partisans on the committee and of the administration review board considered to be of mostly questionable "loyalty." The number 57 came from an administration official (John Peurifoy) who had, in 1948, testified to a different committee that, at that time, there were 57 of these 108 individuals employed by the government.

McCarthy seems to have used both these numbers at Wheeling. The controversy over the numbers, however, is of little consequence and has been unnecessarily run into the ground by McCarthy's critics over the years. Score one for Evans for noting this. Relevant here are two things:

1) McCarthy made some extremely sensational and potentially explosive charges and

2) McCarthy, after making such momentous charges, wasn't even sure of what he, himself, had said. He hadn't worked from a written speech and, over time, told several contradictory versions of what his speech had contained. Once, he told the Senate: "I do not believe I mentioned the figure 205. I believe I said over 200." But on perhaps dozens of other occasions, he not only admitted using the number but went into detail on the point. For example:

"Up in West Virginia, we read to the audience a letter written by Jimmy Byrnes, the then-Secretary of State, to Congressman Sabath, in which he said that out of the 3,000 employees screened--employees who were being transferred from other departments into the State Department--they found 284 unfit for government service. He said of the 284 we discharged 79, leaving a total of 205. That night, I called upon [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson and the President to tell us where those 205 were, why they kept them in if the President's own board says they were unfit for service." (McCarthy, from U.S. News & World Report, 7 Sept., 1951)

In a less-than-clever maneuver, McCarthy would later enter into the congressional record the text of a speech he asserted was the Wheeling speech, claiming his text "was taken from a recording of the speech." In reality, he never, in fact, had any such recording and what he entered into the record was a different speech, one he'd made in Reno days after Wheeling. When this was exposed, McCarthy justified what he'd done by claiming the two speeches were identical but the Reno speech only uses the 57 number and makes no mention of 205 or anything regarding the Byrnes letter. Fred Woltman, a Scripps-Howard reporter, veteran anti-commie and McCarthy friend (who eventually became a critic), later admitted that, many times, he'd "heard McCarthy and his advisors wrack their brains for some lead as to what he said in that Wheeling speech." (quoted by Richard Rovere in "Senator Joe McCarthy")

This sort of recklessness would characterize the entirety of McCarthy's time in the public spotlight.
In Denver, the day after Wheeling, he told reporters his comments from the day before had been misquoted and that he'd actually said "205 bad security risks," instead of 205 Communists. He also told them that he had, in the words of an AP dispatch, "a complete list of 207 'bad risks' still working in the State Department," which was entirely false; the Byrnes letter, as noted, was several years old and McCarthy had no list of those described in it. McCarthy also repeated his charge that there were "57 card-carrying Communists" in the State Department. He offered to show his list to reporters and made a great show of going through his briefcase for it. A picture of this farce was taken and also ran in the Denver Post. Eventually, he declared he must have left it in his luggage on the plane. When he arrived in Salt Lake City and this wasn't a credible excuse any more, he refused to show the list to the assembled newsmen, saying he would only give it to the Secretary of State. But, at the same time, he asserted that the Secretary already knew the names.

In Salt Lake City, later that evening, McCarthy characterized his Wheeling speech thusly: "Last night, I discussed the Communists in the State Department. I stated I had the names of 57 card-carrying members of the Communist party" working in the Department. In a radio appearance, he said "Now I want to tell [the Sec. of State] this: If he wants to call me tonight at the Utah Hotel, I will be glad to give him the names of those 57 card-carrying Communists." While McCarthy was running his mouth like this on a local radio station he knew no one in D.C. would ever hear, the State Department had actually wired him that morning requesting the names and promising an investigation. Another wire followed the next morning and he replied. Referencing the information from the Byrnes letter (the 205), he said that "the records are not available to me" on that group, this being only a day after he'd apparently told the press he had a "complete list" of them. He did insist, in his response, that "I have in my possession the names of 57 Communists who are in the State Department at present... Despite this State Department blackout, we have been able to compile a list of 57 Communists in the State Department." This, like his other comments about the 57, was also a lie. McCarthy claimed these people were "in the State Department at present" but the John Peurifoy testimony from which the number was derived was, at that point, two years old. Contrary to McCarthy's representations, the "Lee list" wasn't of "card-carrying members of the Communist party" either--it listed 108 individuals whom a very partisan right-wing congressional committee believed to be security risks, mostly because of their politics or alleged politics or the alleged politics of people they knew or their politics as alleged by someone who knew someone who knew them 10 years ago (no kidding; some of it is really that bad). McCarthy was also misrepresenting the source of "his" list as well, a matter to which I'll return momentarily.

The next stop on his traveling sideshow was Reno, where he alleged that the State Department "is thoroughly infested with Communists" but--perhaps finally becoming somewhat aware of how over-the-line he'd been--somewhat softened his charges: "I have in my hand 57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist party but who, nevertheless, are still helping to shape our foreign policy." This, allowing that the 57 "appear to be" commies, rather than flat-out saying they are commies (as he'd done at every stop until Reno), was the softest version of these charges he made in these appearances. Tellingly, this is the speech he later tried to pawn off in the congressional record as identical to Wheeling.

So what was the story? Were there 205 "members of the Communist party" in the State Department or were they "205 bad security risks"? Did he have a list of these more-than-200-whatevers or did he not have access to this info, as he wired the President? Were there "57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party" making policy in the State Department, as he'd said on Feb. 10th then again on the 11th or was there "57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist party," as he said in Reno? Were these names already known by the Secretary of State, as he claimed on Feb. 9 then again on the 11th, or did the Secretary lack the names, as McCarthy suggested on the 10th? He was never able to get his story straight twice running. In the end, it didn't matter. McCarthy got his issue. By the time he returned to Washington, he'd become the center of national attention--a degree of attention, as it turned out, for which he was utterly unprepared.

"[McCarthy's] knowledge and understanding of Communism were sparse," wrote Woltman, a conclusion that would echo time and time again from those who knew the Senator. "Essentially he's no investigator. He's a headline-maker."

McCarthy biographer Thomas Reeves summarized: "McCarthy was not a serious student of anything, lacked any intellectual or moral sophistication, and was an alcoholic by the time he reached his maximum fame. True, some of his charges, while not original, were on target. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and an assortment of right-wing journalists slipped him information from time to time, and thus it was natural that the senator would come up with some correct information. But most of McCarthy's activities had very little to do with actual Reds in high places and much to do with the politics of the period and Joe's own peculiar personality."

Richard Fried, in NIGHTMARE IN RED, offers this: "He once dumbfounded his mentors [the anti-commies who sometimes worked with him] by professing ignorance of Earl Browder, former head of the CP. One tutor recalled that Joe ‘didn't know a communist from a street cleaner.'"

In real time, the truth behind such after-the-fact assessments were painfully apparent from the beginning.

On February 20, McCarthy laid out his charges to the Senate in a long, rambling, frequently contradictory and nearly incoherent speech in which both the number accused and the nature of the accusations radically shifted yet again. Now, the number was suddenly 81, and while he said he was "only giving the Senate... persons whom I consider to be Communists in the State Department," many of them suddenly weren't presently employed by the State Department. "A sizeable number of them are not" so employed--and had, in fact, never been so employed. After all of his hardcore ranting about all the card-carrying commies at State and his assertion that he was "only" giving the Senate those cases, he also, at one point, backed off on that question, allowing that, upon further investigation, "some of these persons"--the cases he was offering--"will get a clean bill of health." Obviously unfamiliar with the information he, himself, was relaying, he went through the alleged 81 cases, which, as it turned out, didn't number 81 either--he skipped several of them entirely and others turned out to be duplicative (he repeated cases he'd already covered). The actual number of cases he presented was 66. Many of the individuals worked for the United Nations, not the State Department. Some were just people who had applied for State Department jobs years earlier. One was suspect only because he worked under one of the others on McCarthy's list. One had been, years earlier, a Commerce Department employee (no connection to State). One--my  personal favorite--was suspect because "there is nothing in the files to disprove his Communist connections." And so on.

Echoing his earlier wire to the President ("despite this State Department blackout..."), McCarthy grandly proclaimed he'd "penetrated Truman's Iron Curtain of secrecy," acquiring the files he was using via the efforts of "some good, loyal Americans in the State Department" whose jobs "would be worth nothing if [their] names were given." That all sounds very dark and conspiratorial but in reality, the source of nearly all of these "cases" was the "Lee list." McCarthy hadn't penetrated any "Iron Curtain" to get them, nor had any State employees risked their necks by secreting them to him in the dead of night; the "Lee list" dossiers were drawn from files openly provided by the administration itself to the House of Representatives three years earlier. They'd been bandied about the capitol for years. McCarthy had portrayed his information as current, then had weaved this spy-novel-style fiction about his primary source, which was, in reality, just a long-out-of-date committee file.

Evans, in writing about this, chooses to blow a lot of smoke:

"...arguably his [McCarthy's] single biggest miscue [in his oration to the Senate] was an error of omission--not telling his colleagues he was mining data from this list [the Lee list]. The reasons for this aren't entirely clear, as he would elsewhere freely cite the list as an important source of information..."

McCarthy wasn't committing some minor "error of omission" in this matter though, and his motive seems pretty obvious--he was actively trying to mislead both the Senate and, by extension, the public he'd regaled with his wild charges, about the source of his information. This seemingly obvious fact tends to be given insufficient weight in the standard histories. The "Lee list" was a series of numbered cases. McCarthy, in presenting the information in the "Lee list" files, renumbered all of those cases. This made an orderly accounting of the charges much more difficult, and obfuscation, of which McCarthy proved a master, seems to be the only possible motive. Senator Homer Ferguson apparently deduced the "Lee list" origins of McCarthy's cases and asked McCarthy why he "had taken them out of order" (a reference to the renumbering). McCarthy replied "I did take them in order. I get the impression that the Senator may have a file of his own." Essentially a denial that he was using the "Lee list" at all.  McCarthy also presented findings by those who had assembled the files as though they were things he, himself, had learned. Again, his game seems pretty obvious.

In addition, McCarthy distorted the information in the files beyond recognition. In his recitation, he verbally transforms rumors and allegations into established fact, changes words like "liberal" into "communistically inclined," repeats charges recorded in the files without mentioning that the files also say those same charges were subsequently investigated and found to be without merit, and so on. William F. Buckley and Brent Bozell, in "McCarthy and His Enemies" (one of the earliest and still the best of the McCarthy apologies) mention this:

"A comparison of the dossier from which McCarthy got his material with McCarthy's own version of this material reveals that in 38 cases, he was guilty of exaggeration. On some occasions, 'fellow-traveller' had turned into 'Communist'; on others, 'alleged pro-Communist' had developed into 'pro-Communist.'"

Actually, the authors significantly understate the mendacity of McCarthy's presentation. A much better and more detailed account of these distortions, omissions and outright lies is provided by Robert Griffith in "The Politics of Fear." Among other things, Griffith illustrates McCarthy's method by reprinting the actual "Lee list" information of a McCarthy subject and comparing it to McCarthy's characterization. This is "Lee list" case #40:

"The employee is with the Office of Information and Educational Exchange in New York City. His application is very sketchy. There has been no investigation. (C-8) is a reference. Though he is 43 years of age, his file reflects no history prior to June 1941."

Here's how McCarthy presented the same case to the Senate:

"This individual is 43 years of age. He is with the Office of Information and Education. According to his file, he is a known Communist. I am not evaluating the information myself. I am merely giving what is in the file."

Evans says almost nothing about this behavior and he spins it like a top:

" his critics would note, if the security information said someone had been identified as a Communist, he tended to cite the identification as fact--no 'allegedly' about it. In prosecutorial mode, he pushed the evidence hard to make an indictment and seldom erred through understatement."[1]

Unmentioned by Evans is that, at the same time McCarthy was falsifying this information (in a way that, contrary to Evans' gross mischaracterization, would get a prosecutor fired), he was also assuring the Senate that he was giving them the straight story about the files. Even Buckley and Bozell concede that McCarthy "deserves to be censured" for telling the Senate that, in his presentation of the information, "I have given Senators the fullest, most complete, fairest resume of the files that I possibly could." He'd done no such thing.

Evans feigns cluelessness about all of this:

"Whatever his [McCarthy's] motive, his failure to cite the [Lee] list in the beginning allowed his critics to make this a salient issue--deflecting notice from what the security information said to the procedural question of where, exactly, it had come from (a tactic used in many later conflicts)."

Suggesting that the worst possible interpretation of information in an old, out-of-date committee file raises questions about security procedures in the State Department three years earlier? Not very sexy. Not the sort of thing that gets one's name in the paper. It sounds much snappier if you charge, as McCarthy had repeatedly, that you have the names of a number of card-carrying Communists who were then making policy in the State Department. To state the obvious, the relevance of McCarthy's source, bearing as it does directly on the accuracy of his charges, is self-evident in this matter. It's unclear by what logic Evans deduces that a question of such critical relevance is some sort of diversionary tactic or a mere "procedural question." Probably the same sort of "logic" that told him it would be a good idea to waste six years of his life writing an "untold" story of Joseph McCarthy.

Two days after this miserable performance, the Senate authorized an investigation into these charges. The Tydings committee assigned to carry out the task was a very partisan body and though Evans and its critics have heaped a great deal of scorn upon it--often deservedly so--the fact is that McCarthy couldn't substantiate his charges and after his public shenanigans, the committee reached the only conclusion open to it; a thorough repudiation of McCarthy. Unfortunately, the damage was already done; in the atmosphere of early Cold War fear and paranoia, McCarthy's star was in ascendancy. He would continue to rage for four years, making charges carelessly and as a matter of routine, including in his target package pretty much anyone who disagreed with him until, finally, even his own Republican party turned on him. He fell from grace, was censured by his colleagues and ended his life in obscurity, drinking himself to death at age 48.

In this ignorant, backwards age that is the Bush America, Evans and the other McCarthy revisionists have a built-in audience and the internet offers them a powerful new tool with which to spread their nonsense. Still, it's difficult to imagine this particular thesis ever gaining any sort of widespread acceptance. McCarthy's history is just too well-documented, his reputation to much of a lost cause. One suspects books like Evans' aren't really written to convince anyone. They're aimed at the true believers, those in the rightist subculture who don't really care about the real world, who only want to be told they're right and that those with their views always have been. Whatever the case, the best that can be said of these efforts to rehabilitate McCarthy is that, the more resources rightists like Evans pour into the projects, the less they'll have for causing trouble for the rest of us.


[1] These sorts of misrepresentations are legion throughout Evans' text. In a manner not unlike that of McCarthy himself, the author buries material inconvenient to his premise that McCarthy is a hero, distorts the available record beyond recognition and isn't above outright lying to make his case. A good example of that turns up in his handling of the Esther Brunauer charges. McCarthy had charged that:

"Esther Caulkin Brunauer was very active in launching an organization called the American Union for Concerted Peace Efforts... [The AUCPE] was cited [by HUAC] as a Communist-front organization, the leader of which was the editor of the Daily Worker."

Brunauer admitted her involvement with the group, even said she took great pride in it. She said it was a patriotic enterprise, denied it was a communist front and denied that Clarence Hathaway (the Daily Worker editor in question) ever had any connection to it.

Evans pretends as though McCarthy's only "mistake" was in mentioning Hathaway as "the leader" instead of "a leader":

"So, sorting out the details, we find that McCarthy upgraded Clarence Hathaway to 'a' leader in the Peace Efforts agitation to 'the' leader, obviously a different connotation in terms of Communist influence. Over against this we may place the categorical statements of Mrs. Brunauer and the Tydings panel that Clarence Hathaway had no involvement with the enterprise whatever. Thus neither side in this dispute earned top marks for precision. Readers may judge for themselves which of the two errors was more misleading."

That's what passes for a caustic remark from Evans. Readers will judge for themselves how appropriate was Evans sarcasm when learning that the AUCPE, the organization to which Brunauer was connected, had, in fact, never "been cited as a Communist-front organization" by HUAC and that Hathaway had, in fact, never been involved in it at all. The common speculation is that McCarthy may have confused her organization with another, the Union of Concerted Peace Efforts, which had been cited by HUAC as a front and did have Hathaway as a leader. Whatever the case may be there though (and it's probably just as likely that McCarthy intentionally chose to exploit the similarly named orgs in making his case, figuring no one would ever know the difference), the fact is that what Brunauer said was correct, what McCarthy had charged was a lie and Evans knowingly lies in his comments on the matter in order to "defend" McCarthy. We can ascertain this last because the facts regarding this accusation aren't new--they were detailed in "McCarthy and His Enemies," a McCarthy apology written all the way back in 1954 by William F. Buckley and Brent Bozell. Evans has read that book; he references it throughout in his own. He read it, so he knew the truth and chose to lie.

That's the "scholarship" on display in this latest McCarthy apology.