Exhuming McCarthy

Dean Acheson called it "the revolt of the primitives"—that headlong lurch to the right in the late 1940s and early 1950s that culminated in Joseph McCarthy's charge that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were riddled with communists and fellow travelers. "I have here in my hand," McCarthy intoned, "a list of 205 names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department." McCarthy's claims were ultimately discredited, of course—along with the senator himself. But today the story is taking a new turn. A growing number of writers and intellectuals are beginning to argue that for all McCarthy's bluster and swagger, he may have been right after all. And I don't just mean writers on the right. Editorializing in the Washington Post in 1996, Nicholas Von Hoffman concluded that "point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was still closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him." Still more dramatically, the London Observer opined that historians who had vilified McCarthy for two generations "are now facing the unpleasant truth that he was right." If you haven't already heard the first echoes of this new McCarthyism debate, you will soon enough. A number of recently published books have reopened questions about the early days of the Cold War. And a raft of new volumes, which reexamine the character of McCarthyism and mid-century Soviet espionage, await publication later this year. These volumes range from Allen Weinstein's scholarly and judicious The Haunted Wood to more polemical and tendentious treatments like The Venona Secrets, by old House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) staffer Herbert Romerstein and the late Eric Breindel. The biggest splash will undoubtedly be reserved for the upcoming novel about Joe McCarthy by his old pal William F. Buckley, who cut his teeth defending McCarthy in his 1954 book McCarthy and his Enemies.

The new rush of interest in McCarthy has been sparked by the end of the Cold War, which has occasioned the release of previously secret documents from Soviet and American archives. But as the findings bubble up into the public consciousness, twisted and spun by publicists and polemicists, they have begun to coalesce into a generalized Red Scare revisionism in which liberalism, the Democratic Party, the left, and the New Deal all are retroactively besmirched by an association with—or at least gullibility about—the communist menace. This must have been what George Will had in mind when he penned his endorsement of Yale University Press's "Annals of Communism" series—the multivolume collection of many of the new documents that are now streaming out of Soviet and American Cold War archives. The material, Will writes, demonstrates that the "the left was on the losing side of history and deserved to be."

Much of the new writing on McCarthy and the Red Scare seeks to paint liberalism in general as a philosophy that is careless of the national interest, prone to being hoodwinked by malevolent forces, and even capable of sinister acts of betrayal. In other words, the McCarthy revisionists are setting out to do what McCarthyites and red-baiters sought to do to liberalism half a century ago. And while the New McCarthyites are (so far) but pale versions of the originals, they pose a dual threat: the New McCarthyism seeks not only to discredit Cold War liberalism by revising history, but also to attack liberal internationalism in foreign policy today by using the tactics pioneered by the red-baiters of a half century ago.


Paper Chase

No doubt, the new materials streaming forth from Soviet and American archives have closed the books on a number of the perennial historical debates about the early Cold War. The so-called Venona intercepts—recently declassified transcripts of decoded Soviet espionage transmissions from the mid-1940s—clearly demonstrate the reality of Soviet espionage in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. These and other new materials also show that the Com munist Party of the United States (CP USA) was sub stantially funded by the Soviet Union, and that it was, at least at its upper levels, consistently controlled from Moscow. For some on the left who never fully accepted these realities, such revelations have occasioned a deep anguish. Responding to the release of the Venona material in the Nation in 1995, for instance, longtime Julius and Ethel Rosenberg defenders Walter and Miriam Schneir wrote that the documents contained "so much amazing, sad, disturbing material, one hardly knows where to begin," and they reluctantly concluded that at least Julius Rosenberg had indeed run a spy ring that transferred material to the Soviets.

If the right has anything to crow about, it is admissions like these. Many on the left invested a great deal in the belief that the Rosenbergs—and to a lesser degree, Alger Hiss—had been framed. The certainty in those propositions has, of course, steadily eroded over the decades. Hiss enjoyed a brief resurgence of respect ability after his nemesis Richard M. Nixon was disgraced in Water gate. But since the publication of Allen Weinstein's Perjury in 1978, only a very small band, largely centering around the Nation, has continued to defend his innocence. Belief in the innocence of the Rosenbergs held out slightly longer, only really collapsing with the publication of Ronald Radosh's The Rosenberg File in 1983. (In a new twist, recently uncovered evidence has suggested that Ethel Rosen berg was in fact innocent of espionage and that the accusations against her were originally devised to pressure her husband.)

But it is easy to exaggerate how many defenders Hiss and the Rosen bergs continue to have outside the confines of the Nation, and more importantly, how crucial this continued defense is for the larger questions at hand. Little of the "new" information being brought forth today is really new at all. As the historian James T. Patterson—hardly a lefty—wrote in a recent review of Harvey Klehr's and John Earl Haynes's Soviet World of American Communism, the thesis the authors pursue is "neither new nor surprising." The details now being unearthed are genuine historical findings, certainly—but only the details. Piece those details together and they add up to a big picture that was addressed and written about as early as the 1940s. And this picture was written about not by right-wingers like Bill Buckley and Whittaker Chambers, but by liberals and social democrats like Irving Howe, Lewis Coser, Theodore Draper, and many others.

Subscribe to The American Prospect


As anyone who is reasonably familiar with the history of the period must know, the premise for most of the McCarthy rehabilitation literature is a sort of blanket historical amnesia. To credit the revisionist argument, you must believe that mid-century liberalism denied the threat of domestic and global communism and took no stand against it. But this was scarcely the case. Not only mainstream liberals, but also most left-liberals and social democrats adopted a staunchly anticommunist stance from the middle 1940s onward. The model here, of course, is Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., whose seminal work The Vital Center identified the dangers of communism and castigated the muddle-headed thinking of those on the left who thought it either possible or advisable to cooperate with communists even while disagreeing with their larger objectives. But Schlesinger was scarcely alone. The social democrat Walter Reuther employed stern and even draconian measures to purge communists from the CIO in the 1940s. And even the perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas supported efforts to ban communists from teaching positions on the grounds that they had surrendered their right to academic freedom through subservience to Moscow.

Von Hoffman's claim that "there was a formulaic, transparent insincerity about much of left-liberal anti-communism" is no more than a foolish libel. In fact, one of the many ironies of the 1950s Red Scare is that the really effective work of purging communists and fellow travelers from the corridors of power and influence was done in the middle and late 1940s, first in the public arena by men like Schlesinger and Reuther, and simultaneously by George Kennan, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and other cold warriors in the Truman administration. Von Hoffman's contention that Truman "wasn't looking very hard" for communists in government is a laughable misstatement.

In any case, the heart of McCarthy's claim was never that there might be Soviet spies in the United States. Nor was it that the hierarchy of the CPUSA was controlled from Moscow, or that some members of the Communist Party were recruited as spies. For McCarthy, these facts were a given; but they were also recognized more or less across the political spectrum. McCarthy's essential claim was both more thoroughgoing and more ridiculous. Centering around the communist victories in China and Eastern Europe in the later 1940s, McCarthy charged that Secretary of State Acheson had sold the country out to the communists; that the Truman administration was riddled with subversion; and that the men who had guided the country for the previous 20 years were dupes of the communists, or worse. The difference between what McCarthy was alleging and what was actually the case is not one of degree; it's fundamental and total. And it stretched from the moment McCarthy began his career as an anticommunist to the day he finally wore out his welcome on the national stage.

Moreover, what has become increasingly clear as the years have passed is how deeply partisan were the motivations for McCarthy's attack. The terrific anxieties of the early Cold War period were a necessary precondition for the McCarthyite Red Scare, but not a sufficient one. McCarthy, in league with many other Republicans, whipped up the frenzy for partisan advantage. Angry that they had been barred from the corridors of power by the Democrats for 20 years, Republicans used everything they could to discredit the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, trampling civil liberties along the way.

Many men and women realized that Soviet communism presented a grave threat to the United States in the international arena yet understood nevertheless that there were dangers too in abandoning the nation's traditions of civil liberties in a blind hunt to unearth not just communists and spies, but everyone who had ever sympathized or associated with them. These people opposed McCarthy and his tactics not out of sympathy for communists or fellow travelers, but out of a keen appreciation of the damage the McCarthyite crusade was having on the nation's political culture. McCarthy's latter-day rehabilitators now deny the legitimacy of such a principled stance.


A 1990s Whittaker Chambers

Even the work of the more tepid revisionists, including those who grant that McCarthy himself made a travesty of anticommunism, often takes on a prosecutorial tone when addressing liberal anticommunists who may have defended fellow travelers on civil-libertarian grounds. Take Ronald Radosh, a former member of the New Left, who has written a number of revisionist studies focusing on the Old Left—ranging from the trial of the Rosenbergs and the "Amerasia" spy case to an upcoming volume of the Spanish Civil War. In his writing on the Cold War, Radosh goes to some length to say that McCarthy, through his antics and lies, did much to discredit what he sees as the quite valid fight against the threat of communist subversion. Still, he contends that there were no principled, civil-libertarian grounds on which to defend party members and fellow travelers. As most liberal anticommunists understood, there was a clear and present danger of Stalinist takeovers in Eastern and even Western Europe. But such was never a realistic possibility in the United States. As Schlesinger famously wrote, international commun ism was a threat to America, not in America. Ignoring these distinctions and the legitimate anticommunist grounds for opposing McCarthyite tactics, Radosh puts forward an argument that sometimes ends up mimicking in structure, if not in moral content, the tack that McCarthy and the HUAC first took—not only demanding that former communists renounce their allegiance, but asking peripheral persons to renounce those who never renounced, and so on.

That zeal to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to excoriate the entire progressive tradition for the misdeeds of the extreme left is an approach that Radosh shares with a slew of former left-wingers who jumped ship and became conservatives as their hair turned gray. David Horowitz, to take the prime example, was a second-string radical journalist in the 1960s and 1970s who shifted to the political right in the mid-1980s and, in midlife, fashioned himself a second career as a sort of Whittaker Chambers manqué for 1990s conservatism. Horowitz's 1996 autobiography Radical Son chronicled the story of his life from youth as a "red-diaper" baby, through stints as co-editor of Ramparts and his association with the Black Panthers, to his eventual conversion to political conservatism. Almost all of Horowitz's writing since he became a conservative has been dedicated to attacking the principles and persons of the left.

That Horowitz, with his radical left-wing history, has been so readily accepted into the right-wing fold goes to the heart of the matter and connects the McCarthyism of yesteryear with its tamer cousin today. The strength of the ex-communist's supposed moral superiority was always based on a dubious premise: that someone who had been entirely taken in by the party, willingly spied against his country, and obediently followed every zig and zag of the party line was somehow more to be credited than the momentary fellow traveler who attended a few meetings, signed a few petitions, and then walked away after seeing the party for what it was. In other words, the more radical the conversion, the more moral credit the McCarthyite (or New McCarthyite) supposedly accrues. This suits the Horowitzes of the world just fine, because they feel it gives them the credibility to denounce the left—believing that they can make up for youthful credulity with middle-aged ferocity. But just because Horowitz got taken in by the Black Panthers—long after almost everyone else on the left had washed their hands of them—hardly means that the progressives of today's generation have anything to apologize for.


Who Lost China This Time?

But the New McCarthyites are perhaps less damaging when they attack the old Cold War liberals than when they attack the loyalty of Democrats and liberals today. The impulse is the same. Though it flew under the radar of most of the mainstream press, many on the right, including Jesse Helms, have accused Strobe Talbott of being a latter-day Owen Lattimore, or worse. The accusations are most clearly detailed in a 1996 American Spectator article entitled "Strobe Talbott, Russia's Man In Washington." But the most striking example actually turns on our relations with the Chinese (or, as many on the right have again taken to calling them, the "Chi-Coms"), from whence most of the original McCarthyite accusations developed a half century ago.

The Clinton administration's so-called "China gate" scandal is a startling reprisal of much of the red-baiting of the early 1950s. To a reasoned judgment, what happened during the 1996 Clinton re-election campaign is tawdry enough. Driven by an intense desire to win and a lax concern for following the niceties of the election law, the Demo cratic National Com mittee was willing to take money from almost any source it could find. (I pass over for present purposes the fact that the Re pub lican National Com mittee was doing much the same thing at the same time.) But to many Republicans this sorry tale lacked the requisite dramatic intensity. So conservative activists began to construct, from the flimsiest of evidence, a tale in which the Clinton administration had sold the secrets to classified missile defense technology in exchange for a few hundred thousand dollars of campaign contributions. Newt Gingrich charged that President Clinton "had approved turning over missile secrets to the Chinese." California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, claimed the President "betrayed the interests of our country," and Georgia Representative Charlie Norwood charged that Bill Clinton was "guilty of high treason."

Questioning how the Clinton administration has balanced the country's commercial and national security interests is entirely reasonable. But tossing around words like "treason" and the idea of a conscious betrayal of the national interest crosses over the line into a fevered sensibility reminiscent of the junior senator from Wisconsin.



The truth is that with historical hindsight, Cold War liberals end up looking pretty good. Sure, the McCarthyites pegged Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy; and, to their later embarrassment, many of Hiss's colleagues at the State Department had the greatest difficulty bringing themselves to believe that Hiss was a traitor. New documents may prove that this or that low-level government employee had some communist affiliations. But McCarthy and his friends thought almost everybody to their left was either a communist or a dupe of communists. In fact, the list of men who fell under suspicion reads like a pantheon of great American foreign policy hands. It started with Acheson and Harry Truman, proceeded along to George Marshall, and ended up at Eisenhower himself.

One of the great ironies of the McCarthy period, now conveniently forgotten, is that those who were most hysterical about the communist menace were those who opposed almost every policy that actually helped to contain it. The right-wingers who supported McCarthy were opponents of NATO, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and much else. They abhorred the basic wisdom of containment and championed the hysterical foolery of "rollback"—the idea that the U.S. should engage in a military crusade to push the Red Army back to the Russian border, if not farther. As the late historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out at the time, there was always some basic contradiction in the McCarthyite line on communism—they were willing to risk all on a crusade to rid the world of communism and yet unwilling to accede to the prudent internationalism that might lessen the threat. No doubt, during the Cold War some on the left romanticized persons who were unworthy of respect. And new documents may produce new revelations. But none of this should obscure the deeply creditable record of liberal internationalist stewardship of the nation's foreign policy during the early Cold War years. Nor should we let the often reckless courses proposed by the right derail liberal internationalism today. Right-wing distortions notwithstanding, the historical verdict on McCarthy and McCarthyism is almost certain to remain intact.

You may also like