Saturday, March 13, 2004

Senator Joseph McCarthy: Another Look

There are a few key events or people throughout history who define historical epochs or who shape the attitudes of future generations. For the modern conservative movement, Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) is definitely one such figure. “McCarthyist” or “McCarthyism” is an epithet likely to be tossed at any conservative who cares vigorously to inquire into the validity of popular liberal beliefs. A “McCarthyist” is someone who (so the thinking goes) unscrupulously questions opponents or accuses them of disloyalty in order to suppress their opinions.

But who was this man?

Considering how thoroughly vilified McCarthy is today, one needs to be aware of how popular he was at one time. According to some sources, Senator McCarthy was viewed by many—at least early in his career—as “a national hero.”
A Gallup poll taken May 21, 1950, showed that among the general public he had four supporters for every three detractors. In a later Gallup poll, taken in January 1954, 50 per cent of the public viewed him favorably, and 29 per cent viewed him unfavorably. McCarthy was the one man in Washington, D.C., who bucked the bipartisan pressure to be polite to America’s enemies and to “get along by going along.” He was the one man who took anti-Communism seriously and was willing to do something about it. 1
Sadly, there are enough loose threads in his life and, more importantly, in his methods, that, even today, 50-some years later, McCarthy’s name can hardly be mentioned before someone writes him off as a disgusting fraud. I’m afraid they do so, however, without properly examining the evidence.

We should be more careful.

The Dorling-Kindersley 20th Century Day by Day speaks of McCarthy’s “famous claim [made in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950]: ‘I have here in my hand a list of 205 that are known . . . as being members of the Communist Party.’”

It is my understanding that this quote is inaccurate.
In the Wheeling speech, McCarthy referred to a letter that Secretary of State James Byrnes sent to Congressman Adolph Sabath in 1946. In that letter, Byrnes said that State Department security investigators had declared 284 persons unfit to hold jobs in the department because of communist connections and other reasons, but that only 79 had been discharged, leaving 205 still on the State Department’s payroll. McCarthy told his Wheeling audience that while he did not have the names of the 205 mentioned in the Byrnes letter, he did have the names of 57 who were either members of or loyal to the Communist Party. On February 20, 1950, McCarthy gave the Senate information about 81 individuals—the 57 referred to at Wheeling and 24 others of less importance and about whom the evidence was less conclusive. The enemies of McCarthy have juggled these numbers around to make the senator appear to be erratic and to distract attention from the paramount question: Were there still persons in the State Department betraying this nation? McCarthy was not being inconsistent in his use of the numbers; the 57 and 81 were part of the 205 mentioned in the Byrnes letter. 2
One of the key points we ought to be concerned about—anyone who is concerned about McCarthy and the McCarthy era ought to be concerned about—is whether McCarthy’s charges were accurate. We ought to concern ourselves with McCarthy’s methods as well. But if his charges were accurate—as so many historians seem to imply they were not—should we ignore the charges while focusing solely on McCarthy’s methods?

McCarthy first brought to the Senate his concerns about Communist infiltrators in government in February 1950. As a result, the Senate established the Tydings Committee in order to conduct “a full and complete study and investigation as to whether persons who are disloyal to the United States are, or have been, employed by the Department of State.”
After 31 days of hearings, during which McCarthy presented public evidence on nine persons (Dorothy Kenyon, Haldore Hanson, Philip Jessup, Esther Brunauer, Frederick Schuman, Harlow Shapley, Gustavo Duran, John Stewart Service, and Owen Lattimore), the Tydings Committee labeled McCarthy’s charges a “fraud” and a “hoax,” said that the individuals on his list were neither communist nor pro-communist, and concluded that the State Department had an effective security program. . . .
Did the . . . Committee carry out its mandate? . . . [During McCarthy’s attempts to present the committee with the evidence in his hands,] Tydings and his Democratic colleagues, Brien McMahon and Theodore Green, subjected McCarthy to considerable interruptions and heckling. . . . So persistent were the interruptions and statements of the Democratic trio during the first two days of the hearings that McCarthy was allowed only a total of 17 and one-half minutes of direct testimony. 3
According to James Drummey,
While the Democrats were hostile to McCarthy and to any witnesses who could confirm his charges, they fawned over the six individuals who appeared before the committee to deny McCarthy’s accusations. Tydings, McMahon, and Green not only treated Philip Jessup like a hero, . . . but refused to let McCarthy present his full case against Jessup or to cross-examine him. Furthermore, the committee majority declined to call more than 20 witnesses whom Senator Bourke Hickenlooper thought were important to the investigation.
And when Senator Lodge read into the record 19 questions that he thought should be answered before the committee exonerated the State Department’s security system, not only did the Democrats ignore the questions, but some member of the committee or the staff deleted from the official transcript of the hearings the 19 questions, as well as other testimony that made the committee look bad. The deleted material amounted to 35 typewritten pages.
It is clear then that . . . the words “fraud” and “hoax” more accurately describe the Tydings Report than they do McCarthy’s charges. . . .
[Ultimately, o]f the 110 names that McCarthy gave the Tydings Committee to be investigated, 62 of them were employed by the State Department at the time of the hearings. The committee cleared everyone on McCarthy’s list, but within a year the State Department started proceedings against 49 of the 62. By the end of 1954, 81 of those on McCarthy’s list had left the government either by dismissal or resignation. 4
Clearly, there is little reason, at this date, to speak, as many do, of McCarthy “witch hunts"—a term that, as Eric Fettman notes, implies there was no reason for investigation (since “witches don’t exist").
[G]rowing historical evidence underscores that, whatever his rhetorical and investigative excesses—and they were substantial—McCarthy was a lot closer to the truth about Communism than were his foes.
Communists were well-organized, and they did manage to penetrate the highest levels of Washington, planting themselves into positions where they either significantly influenced U.S. policy or passed classified information to the Soviets, or both. . . .
In a famous 1952 essay in Commentary, Irving Kristol excoriated the left for too often “joining hands with the Communists” and refusing to condemn Stalinist outrages.
“There is one thing that the American people know about Sen. McCarthy,” wrote Kristol. “He, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.”
Ironically, McCarthy himself had little to do with the excesses of anti-Communism. Blacklisting of celebrities had begun in 1947, three years before he even gave his first anti-Communist speech; the extensive system of loyalty reviews and security probes was instituted by President Harry Truman in the same year. . . .
But McCarthy, with his whining voice, heavy jowls and often-bullying manner, writes historian Richard Gid Powers, “gave the enemies of anti-Communism what they had been looking for since the beginning of the Cold War: a contemporary name and face for their old stereotype of the anti-Communist fascist.” 5
McCarthy may have provided left-wingers with a stereotypical public relations nightmare whom people would love to hate, but his methods gave them plenty of solid ammunition as well.

Sympathetic observers believe McCarthy was—at least early in his anti-Communist career—trying to protect the innocent from false accusation:
Four times during McCarthy’s February 20th speech, Senator Scott Lucas demanded that McCarthy make the 81 names public, but McCarthy refused to do so, responding that “if I were to give all the names involved, it might leave a wrong impression. If we should label one man a communist when he is not a communist, I think it would be too bad.” What McCarthy did was to identify the individuals only by case numbers, not by their names.
By the way, it took McCarthy some six hours to make that February 20th speech because of harassment by hostile senators, four of whom—Scott Lucas, Brien McMahon, Garrett Withers, and Herbert Lehman—interrupted him a total of 123 times. It should also be noted that McCarthy was not indicting the entire State Department. He said that “the vast majority of the employees of the State Department are loyal” and that he was only after the ones who had demonstrated a loyalty to the Soviet Union or to the Communist Party.
Further, McCarthy admitted that “some of these individuals whose cases I am giving the Senate are no longer in the State Department. A sizable number of them are not. Some of them have transferred to other government work, work allied with the State Department. Others have been transferred to the United Nations." 6
But the final impression I’m left with is that McCarthy lacked either the skill, resources, or integrity to pursue with finesse only those who deserved to be pursued and to lay off those whose behavior deserved no censure.

Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian of the U.S. Senate Historical Office, describes what he found when he studied the transcripts of 160 executive sessions (or closed hearings) of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations during McCarthy’s chairmanship from 1953 to 1954:
Convinced that subversion and espionage were rampant in the federal government, Senator McCarthy ascribed policies with which he disagreed to either stupidity or sabotage. He tended not to call an agency’s top officials to explain these polices, but worked from the bottom up, starting with lower-level employees. With little hard evidence, he expected to drag confessions out of reluctant witnesses, or to get them to perjure themselves. If a witness took the Fifth Amendment, he interpreted it as an admission of guilt.
After a closed hearing adjourned, the chairman would advise witnesses that they were free to talk to the waiting reporters if they chose, but that he would not reveal their names publicly. Most witnesses, shaken by the experience, fled without meeting the press. Senator McCarthy would then step into the hallway and deliver his version of the testimony. Somehow the names of the witnesses regularly made their way into print despite his assurances. A review of reports in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune—one skeptical and the other supportive of McCarthy’s claims—reconstructed what he told reporters. His accounts appear grossly exaggerated when compared to transcripts.
How the senator chose which witnesses to take into public became clearer as the hearings progressed. Those who willingly confessed past politics and named names, and those who took the Fifth Amendment, were more likely to appear at a later public hearing than those who defended themselves rationally and articulately. . . .
In Human Events, M. Staunton Evans cited evidence against Annie Lee Moss in defense of Senator McCarthy. Moss, Pentagon communications clerk, failed to attend an executive session prior to her public appearance due to ill health. When she appeared at a televised public session, she hardly seemed a threat to the republic.
McCarthy recognized a public relations disaster when he saw one and quickly left the hearing room. Had she testified first in an executive session, it is unlikely that she would have been called back publicly. 7 Her case contrasts with that of another African American woman, Doris Walters Powell, whom McCarthy erroneously pegged as a communist, drove from her government job, and crowed about to the press, but never brought to a public hearing.
Ronald Radosh in the National Review pointed to McCarthy’s questioning of Michael and Ann Sidorovich, whose names appear in the VENONA transcripts. (For more information on VENONA, see Under oath, both denied any espionage. If they committed perjury, McCarthy failed to make anything of it. Their brief testimony contrasts with the chairman’s extensive effort to prove that Aaron Coleman, an Army Signal Corps engineer at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, had lied when he denied riding in a car pool with Julius Rosenberg. It later emerged that Rosenberg had taken Coleman’s place in the car pool, and they had never overlapped. The 4,500 pages of transcripts are replete with such examples of inept investigating. 8
The point in all of this: There were definite reasons to fear and dislike the man and perhaps even to hate his methods.
The phrase “McCarthyism” [comes] from the senator’s impatience for due process and the rights of witnesses. This impatience [led] to McCarthy’s use of “executive” sessions to question witnesses. (The term was previously reserved primarily to debate treaties and other “executive” business.) . . . These sessions were not really closed, as cronies and favored reporters of McCarthy were allowed in. The names of witnesses and McCarthy’s associated interpretations were often, therefore, printed in the press.
McCarthy also ignored Senate rules requiring a vote of subcommittee members in order to bring in witnesses. Instead, he issued blank subpoenas which his staff members could issue at will.
Generally witnesses were not given fair notice in advance.
These hearings were often away from Washington and were therefore chaired solely by McCarthy with no peer-oversight.
During these sessions McCarthy would inform witnesses of their right to refuse to answer questions. Later he’d contact their employer and have them fired if they did [refuse to answer]. To this effect he coined the term “Fifth-Amendment Communists.” . . .
Under parliamentary procedure, a point of order takes precedence over all other business. It is properly used only to call attention to a violation of the rules under which the meeting’s business is being conducted. McCarthy abused it, calling for a “point of order” whenever he liked, as a way to interrupt proceedings and seize the floor himself. During the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy’s nasal call, “Point of order, Mr. Chairman, point of order” became a national catchphrase and an emblem of the era. 9
Still, despite his shortcomings, McCarthy appears to have been more right than wrong. Yet all we ever hear about is how wrong he was.

The most recent research on McCarthy and his era is beginning to move toward a fair understanding of the man and his times, though the cultural shadow remains.
According to the KGB archives [opened only in the mid-1990s], the NKVD had 221 agents in the Roosevelt administration in April 1941 and the Soviet military GRU probably had a like number. [McCarthy] was proved right that the Communist Party, U.S.A., was an arm of the Soviet intelligence apparatus and the Soviet Union considered the US as their “main enemy.” His liberal critics in academe and the mainstream media, who denied there was Communist subversion and made excuses for it, were proved absolutely wrong! 10
To quote from various reviews of Arthur Herman’s Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator 11:
We now know that the Communist spying McCarthy fought against was amazingly extensive—reaching to the highest levels of the White House and the top-secret Manhattan Project. Herman has the facts to show in detail which of McCarthy’s famous anti-Communist investigations were on target (such as the notorious cases of Owen Lattimore and Irving Peress, the Army’s “pink dentist") and which were not (including the case that led to McCarthy’s final break with Whittaker Chambers). When McCarthy accused two American employees of the United Nations of being Communists, he was widely criticized—but he was right. When McCarthy called Owen Lattimore “Moscow’s top spy,” he was again assailed—but we now know Lattimore was a witting aid to Soviet espionage networks. McCarthy often overreached himself. But McCarthy was often right. 12
Herman believes it’s time to reexamine the legacy, and . . . he argues persuasively that “McCarthy was making a good point badly.” Communism represented “a massive and intractable security problem” for the United States during the 1940s and 1950s; furthermore, “Democratic administrations had been unconscionably lax in dealing with an internal Communist threat." 13
Herman is at pains to demonstrate McCarthy’s mendacity, sloppiness in making allegations and his many other flaws on nearly every page. Nonetheless, Herman points out that since the liberal establishment could not disprove McCarthy’s allegations and, in fact, was mortally embarrassed by them, it diverted attention from the charges by attacking McCarthy himself. The effect of this was to obscure the underlying truth of what McCarthy was saying and of what had really occurred. This “crust” around the issue has lasted for nearly fifty years so that as soon as anyone starts to discuss Communists in the government during the 40’s and 50’s, liberals deride them using McCarthy’s name. 14
In the end, you should be aware that
The term “McCarthyism” so broadly covers all of the investigations of the 1940s and 1950s, that it has melded McCarthy’s investigations into those conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. McCarthy’s detractors blame him for investigating Hollywood, which he did not. His supporters praise him for investigating Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, and others whom he did not. 15

1 Scott Speidel, “The Destruction of Joe McCarthy,” National Vanguard Magazine, Number 114 (November-December 1994). Found on 12 March 2004 at Let me note: National Vanguard is a white-supremacist rag published by the National Alliance (see I find the entire white-supremacist viewpoint offensive. Yet as distasteful as I may find someone’s political or social views, I have held it as a solid principle that, if s/he is able to point out some truths I would otherwise overlook, I should pay attention to that which is good and true. I need to listen to that “other side” in order better to discern and argue for the truth. . . . In the context of Senator McCarthy, we need to understand how it might be possible for a man who is so thoroughly vilified today to have achieved what he did in the early 1950s. Was it that people back then were stupid? Or is it possible that Mr. Speidel is speaking the truth? (I have seen many other sites reference the January 1954 poll results.) Return to text.

2 James J. Drummey, “The Real McCarthy Record,” The New American, Vol. 12, No. 18, September 2, 1996. Found on 12 March 2004 at Return to text.

3 Ibid. Return to text.

4 Ibid. Return to text.

5 Eric Fettman, “The Real Menace,” New York Post, May 8, 2003. Found at on 11 March 2004. Return to text.

6 Drummey, op. cit. Return to text.

7 Ritchie implies that McCarthy left the hearing solely due to immaterial “public relations” concerns. He does not follow this case to its end so you can understand the full contrast between Moss and Powell—the woman whose case he uses by way of contrast. Moss may have been a public relations disaster, but she was, most definitely, a security threat to the United States . . . and she was in an extremely sensitive post within the Pentagon.
One of the most prominent attacks on McCarthy’s methods came in an episode of the TV documentary series See it Now, by respected journalist Edward R. Murrow, which was broadcast on March 9, 1954. Murrow’s program was devoted to McCarthy’s treatment of Annie Lee Moss, a clerk in the Pentagon code room. McCarthy claimed that she was a member of the Communist Party, and consequently should not be allowed to work in a sensitive Pentagon position. Moss was a very sympathetic figure, an elderly African American woman. When asked by McCarthy’s committee about Karl Marx, she replied “Who’s that?” She stated that there were three entries for “Annie Lee Moss” in the Washington, DC phone book, and suggested that the “Annie Lee Moss” appearing in the membership list of the Communist Party was somebody else, and the fact that this “Annie Lee Moss” was listed with her address was due to a mistake. She also received the Communist periodical The Daily Worker delivered to her house, but contended that this too was the result of a mistaken address. (There was no other “Annie Lee Moss” listed in the phone book, but this fact was not checked at the time.)
The Murrow report sparked off a nationwide popular opinion backlash against McCarthy, which the Senator tried to counter by appearing on the show himself. McCarthy appeared on See It Now about three weeks after the original episode, where he made a number of personal attacks and charges against Murrow. However, his method of delivery had been designed for a live audience, not a nationwide broadcast one; the result of this appearance was a further decline in his popularity. (Found at on 12 March 2004.)
Return to text.

8“In 1995, when Venona transcripts were declassified, it was learned that regardless of the specific number, McCarthy consistently underestimated the extent of Soviet espionage. Venona specifically references at least 349 people in the United States--including citizens, immigrants, and permanent residents--who cooperated in various ways with Soviet intelligence agencies. Among them were some high-ranking officials in the United States government, such as Harry [Dexter] White, who was explicitly named in Venona intercepts. (See Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr.)” —From, found on 12 March 2004. Return to text.

9 Ibid. Return to text.

10 Found at on 11 March 2004. See also: Jon Basil Utley, “Most-hated senator was right,” WorldNetDaily, Tuesday February 8, 2000. Found at on 11 March 2004. For photocopies of the Verona files held by the FBI, see Return to text.

11 I should note that Kirkus Reviews calls it a “well-researched but hectoring book that . . . antagonizes readers through its reductionist views of the American people.” Why does Kirkus speak of reductionism? Because of “the tortuous string of narrow characterizations. . . . FDR envoy to Russia Harry Hopkins is a ‘Communist dupe,’ J. Robert Oppenheimer ‘a conscious Soviet asset,’ General Douglas MacArthur’s insubordination to President Truman ‘a daring experiment.’ . . . Rather than acting as a moral barometer, Army counsel Joseph Welch is a crafty Eastern Establishment regular mainly interested in how he appeared on TV. Edward R. Murrow is no beacon of truth but an opportunist whose manipulative McCarthy interviews are central to ‘the modern media’s exalted self-image.’” The Kirkus review suggests that these reductionist characterizations “override” what value one may find in the historical content of the book. I think Publisher’s Weekly is fairer when it says McCarthy is (fairly) “[d]epicted by Herman as a reckless, uninformed, publicity-seeking, hard-drinking, mocking man, [and, therefore,] doesn’t easily evoke sympathy. But Herman successfully situates the anticommunist zealot in his place and time and among his opponents and supporters.” (Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly reviews found at on 11 March 2004.)
My sense: we need to get beyond the political jockeying for position with respect to McCarthy and face the truth. He was a fallen man. No question. But his personal failures ought never to have permitted the Communists to continue their work unhindered.
Return to text.

12 From the book jacket. Text found at on 11 March 2004. Return to text.

13 John J. Miller review for; ibid. Return to text.

14 Reader review dated December 17, 1999; ibid. Return to text.

15 Donald Ritchie, “Releasing Joe McCarthy,” OAH (Organization of American Historians) Newsletter, August 2003. Found at on 11 March 2004. For more on McCarthy, I highly recommend Drummey’s “The Real McCarthy Record” at Return to text.