Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got people’s juices going when he announced in the Senate “the word is out.” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had not been paying his taxes for at least a decade; and to show this was the case, various Democratic dignitaries, including Nancy Pelosi, suggested that Reid was divulging self-evident charges even if they still hadn’t been proved. The trick may have worked because Romney, being Romney, had no effective rejoinder and his poll numbers have continued to plummet. (He is now about ten points behind the present disaster in the White House, according to FOX and CBS polls.)
The best the GOP could muster as a response to Reid’s apparently made-up but tactically useful charge is belaboring a historical comparison. As Rich Lowry correctly notes (The Incredible Lightness of Reid), “Republicans have condemned Reid’s unsupported allegations as modern-day McCarthyism.” Then, as testimony to the fact he had taken a freshman college course from an instructor with conventional liberal views. Lowry goes on to observe: “Old Tail Gunner Joe was deflated at the Army-McCarthy hearings when he was confronted with the famous question, ‘Have you no decency, Sir?’”
Lowry gets part of the story right: In 1954 the junior Senator from Wisconsin and a World War Two marine veteran (he had been a tail gunner on a plane in the Pacific during the War), Joseph R. McCarthy, was censured by the Senate for making what seemed unsubstantiated charges against the Army. McCarthy accused the military of allowing itself to be infiltrated by Soviet agents. The accuser then was a tongue-loose alcoholic, who would die of cirrhosis three years later. And he did behave during the hearings like the “swash-buckler” that one of his critics (and a mentor of mine, hardly a man of the Left) Will Herberg thought he had become by 1954. After one of Joe’s longer rants, probably delivered under the influence, the attorney then representing the U.S.A. Joseph N. Welch uttered his famous rhetorical line questioning whether the junior senator had any decency left. The line of course was cribbed from Cicero’s denunciation of Catiline, which we studied in high school Latin. Although often depicted as a conservative as well as blueblood, Welch had spent years working for the Communist front organization, the National Lawyers Guild. Why such a moving target was the counsel for the army during the senatorial hearings, remains for me a mystery.
The problem with these comparisons, as Ann Coulter points out and M. Stanton Evans demonstrates in a heavily documented book of many hundreds of pages Blacklisted by History (Random House, 2007), is that McCarthy’s charges, when he started out as an anti-Communist, were substantially correct. The list he waved in his hand in the Wheeling, West Virginia speech, in February 1950, inaugurating his anti-Communist crusade, contained the names of 205 suspected Communist agents. They were mostly the names given as suspected agents by (Democratic) Secretary of State James Byrnes in 1946. As late as 1956 Truman continued to deny the Communist affiliations of state department official, Alger Hiss, although those affiliations (and Hiss’s perjury) had been proved in a court of law during Truman’s presidency. In 1946 Truman pushed successfully into the US Directorship of the IMF a blatant Soviet agent (at the time there was overwhelming evidence for this soon to be confirmed charge), Harry Dexter White.
Coulter ascribes the failure of her fellow-Republicans to appreciate the justification for at least some of McCarthy’s accusations to the failure “of Republicans to read.” Presumably if her fellow-Reps had read Evans, the defense of the Senator done by WFB and his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell McCarthy and His Enemies in 1954, and her own journalistic distillation, they would know the truth. Ann might also have noticed that support for McCarthy and a general adherence to what Buckley praised as “McCarthyism” was the defining principle of the postwar conservative movement that sprang up around National Review in 1955. Back then McCarthyism and anti-Communism went together as an inseparable pair in the emerging New Right.
This may be as relevant for our analysis as the fact that anti-McCarthyism and a defense of the presidency of Harry Truman were basic to the historical perspective of those who took over the conservative movement in the 1980s. From the Cold War liberal perspective of the neoconservatives, there was no need for a McCarthyite attack on Communist agents in high place. Although such a problem may have existed, President Truman was on top of the issue. Once he had destroyed fascism and Japanese militarism and had begun to reeducate our defeated enemies, he could deal with the new foreign threat. In fact he was already doing just that, when McCarthy and other Republicans began pushing him around.
Or so Ronald Radosh, a veteran anti-Communist of the moderate Left, explains in a very establishment review of Evans’s massive tome in National Review (December 17, 2007). McCarthy was supposedly a derailer of the good (read social democratic) war against Communism, who brought unnecessary rightwing baggage with him. Radosh does everything that is comme il faut in today’s journalism, and Ann Coulter therefore expresses no surprise that his broadside was published in the “increasingly irrelevant National Review.” (December 5, 2007). All that Radosh omits in what Coulter describes as his desperate effort “to apologize to the Left” is bringing up the Left’s accusation that McCarthy and his followers created a Nazi-like witch hunt that lasted through the Red Scare Decade, aka the 1950s.
Contrary to the authorized account, universities were increasingly dominated by the Left throughout that period. The pro-McCarthyite professor of political science and Buckley’s teacher at Yale Willmoore Kendall was pushed out of his tenured position by hectoring tactics, until he finally allowed himself to be bought out. Having attended Yale after the supposed horrors of the McCarthy decade, I can report that neither the history nor political science department contained a single figure of the Right. The only effect of the fictitious rightwing purge that I can determine, except for the fact that Communist or former Communist film-writers had to operate temporarily behind the scenes, is that the Left got to increase its hold on our social and cultural institutions. From the 1960s on, this became increasingly obvious.
Surveying the anti-McCarthyite effusions coming from GOP sources in the wake of Reid’s attack, I would have to give the prize for saying the dumbest thing to that Truman Democrat and neoconservative par excellence, Charles Krauthammer. In a stem-winder against Reid last week on FOX, Krauthammer proclaimed that the Senator Majority Leader was descending to the especially iniquitous depths of demagoguery perhaps reached only by guess whom? Krauthammer appeals to our selective historical memory by declaring that McCarthy in his address in Wheeling waved an empty piece of paper on which he pretended to have a list of Communist agents. As Evans and others have proved beyond any doubt, that paper was not empty and those who were listed may well have been Soviet agents, as recognized even by officials in the Truman administration.
Once on a trip with my family to a vacation spot on a lake in the North Woods, we stopped in Ripon, Wisconsin to visit one of the two birthplaces of the Republican Party (the other being Jackson, Michigan). In the museum we noticed a particularly florid display surrounding a devotional picture of Tail Gunner Joe (his home in Appleton was only a forty minute-drive from there). The museum curator who saw me examining this display ran up to explain away this source of embarrassment. “They just keep bringing this stuff here, the people who liked him,” the curator pointed out.” And then to show he was on the side of History, he added: “They say he was the worst disgrace the Republican Party ever had to deal with.” My rejoinder at the time was “I wouldn’t believe that for a moment.” What I would answer now is “Joe wasn’t half as bad as our recent GOP presidential candidates! Even when pickled, he gave the impression of being alive.”
Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, The Strange Death of Marxism, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, and Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers. His latest book, Leo Strauss and the American Conservative Movement: A Critical Appraisal, was just published by Cambridge University Press.