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 that are nutty enough that the contemporary right-wing Rage Machine won't try to mainstream them. 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 commentary 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.
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 attorney
William Roberts, Charles Kraus (one of his staffers), 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
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
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
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 right-wing 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
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
"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
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." Of course, McCarthy pulled straight out of an orifice the idea that this group was still working in the State
Department--the Byrnes letter referred to events in 1946, four years earlier
(and McCarthy had no list of them). 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." It's worth noting that, while he 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 McCarthy that morning requesting the names
and promising an investigation. They wired him again 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 became
painfully apparent almost immediately.
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
clear, as he would elsewhere freely cite the list as an important source
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.
Evans feigns cluelessness about all of this:
"Whatever his [McCarthy's] motive, his failure to cite the 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
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 ago? 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
In addition to lying about the source of the dossiers, McCarthy distorted
the information in them beyond recognition, again an indication that he
was trying to conceal his source. 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
Actually, the authors significantly understate McCarthy's distortions
in his presentation. A much better and more detailed account of the incredible
distortions, omissions and outright lies offered by the Senator in his
presentation 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 and he spins it like a top:
"...as 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."
Unmentioned by Evans is that, at the same time McCarthy was falsifying
the information in the files (in a way that, in spite of 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.
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.
 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,
"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.