Entries from December 1999

Our S.O.B.

David Frum December 20th, 1999 at 12:00 am Comments Off

>No name in American history has been as thoroughly
blackened as that of Senator Joe McCarthy. Julius Rosenberg’s defenders can
still be tallied in the thousands. George Wallace received sympathetic
treatment in a made-for-TV movie. Aaron Burr has Gore Vidal. Even Benedict
Arnold has been the subject of a revisionist biography. But Tailgunner Joe’s
reputation has sunk lower today than at the time of his death, and it had sunk
pretty low by then. The verdict has been rendered, seemingly beyond all hope of
appeal.

>Until now.

Arthur Herman, a
program coordinator at the Smithsonian Institution and an adjunct professor at
George Mason University, has filed a brief for the defense that is
simultaneously audacious in its argument and painstaking in its scholarship. It
is a work of vindication all the more powerful for standing so nearly alone,
its only company a new novel by William F. Buckley Jr. And it challenges us to
rethink our understanding not only of McCarthy’s moment, but of our own.

>Herman, it should be said straight off, can do only so much
with McCarthy the man. Herman freely admits that McCarthy was careless with his
facts and reckless in his rhetoric, and that these flaws-bad to start with-were
exacerbated by boozing. Herman’s McCarthy is crude, ignorant, bullying, and
possibly even mentally ill: McCarthy’s manic mood swings, his gambling, the
chaos in which he worked, his ability to go for days without sleep-these all
look to Herman like the symptoms of a hypomanic disorder. But if McCarthy never
rose to the marble-statue level of statesmanship, he was, Herman contends,
something more than the vicious demagogue he has been made out to be.

>To appreciate Herman’s view of McCarthy, it is essential to
understand McCarthy’s times. In February 1950, when McCarthy delivered the
speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that launched his career, the United States
had been locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union for almost three and a half
years. The Soviet atomic bomb, the Berlin airlift, NATO, the Henry Wallace
campaign for president, the Czech coup, the Marshall plan, and the Truman Doctrine
all predated McCarthy’s debut. So did most of the great spy revelations: those
of Igor Gouzenko, Elizabeth Bentley, and Whittaker Chambers. So did the purge
of Communists from organized labor. The country did not require McCarthy, in
other words, to convince it that the Soviet Union and its domestic sympathizers
were a threat that had to be repulsed. But repulsed how? It was this
uncertainty that roiled American politics between McCarthy’s emergence in 1950
and his censure and disgrace in 1954.

>The Truman Democrats who waged the Cold War in its earliest
days tended to see the confrontation with the Soviet Union in terms of power
politics: as a struggle not entirely dissimilar to that between the Allies and
Imperial Germany or Great Britain and Napoleon. The Soviet threat was in the
eyes of these men essentially a military and strategic one, and the proper
tools of self-defense were military and strategic as well: bigger armies and
navies, economic aid to impoverished allies, pacts, and treaties. Ideology
mattered too, of course-even George Kennan acknowledged that. But as the Truman
Democrats saw it, Soviet ideology was a snare, a con, that offered the promise
of a better world to the naive and hungry, only to conceal the reality of a
ruthless dictatorship.

>This scornful interpretation of Marxism-Leninism carried
the important implication that succumbing to Marxism-Leninism was at worst an
intellectual error produced by an excess of tender-heartedness, at best a
reasonable response to deprivation. The refusal to take Communism seriously as
a system of ideas was the origin of the strangely indulgent attitude that the
Truman Democrats seemed to take toward officials who might otherwise have
seemed to present glaring security risks. At least 57 people whom congressional
investigators deemed "poor risks" were still employed by the State
Department in 1948. (This is the origin of McCarthy’s famous wandering
statistic of the number of Communist sympathizers at State.) As of 1951, Herman
reports, "the State Department [loyalty] board had never separated anyone
as a loyalty risk, even though 54 people had been allowed to resign in
disloyalty cases and another three had been found disloyal but were still in
the department pending appeal . . . [T]he State Department had bent over
backward to avoid dismissing anyone for Communist associations or pro-Communist
views, and was willing to allow people of doubtful loyalty, as it was then
defined, to remain rather than have to get rid of them."

>McCarthy is held in odium for his accusations that men like
George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson accepted security risks into their
department because of some lack of loyalty to the United States. Herman has no
more time for those accusations than the severest of McCarthy’s detractors. But
something hindered those two wise men from acting as vigorously as they ought
to have done to protect their department and their country against those risks,
and Herman’s defense of McCarthy is based on exposing what that something was.
He quotes Raymond Moley, one of FDR’s early advisers, confessing in 1953 that
McCarthy "was the product of the fright and anger of a ‘deceived and
injured public,’ who had been lied to regarding the Soviet threat both at home
and abroad."

>The significance of these injuries continues to be
minimized even to this day. But they misshaped the post-war world. As Herman
writes,

>a good example is how Soviet agents in
the Treasury, including Harry Dexter White, Solomon Adler, Frank Coe, and
Harold Glasser, managed to stall the Roosevelt administration’s dispatch of $
200 million in gold to the Chinese Nationalists to prop up their faltering
currency. White and the others convinced Treasury Secretary Morgenthau that the
gold was largely unnecessary or would be stolen, and urged caution in delivery.
By July 1944, of $ 200 million promised, only $ 12 million had reached China.
At the other end, Adler and Coe introduced a secret Communist agent, Chi
Ch’ao-ting, into the Nationalist government as adviser on monetary policy. By the
time shipments resumed under Truman in May 1945, it was too late. The
Nationalist yen had collapsed, and rampant inflation and a worthless currency
(all under Ting’s direction) set the stage for Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat in the
coming civil war.

>In men like White or Alger Hiss, the liberal politicians
and civic leaders of the 1950s imagined they saw something of themselves
reflected back, and this vision crippled them. Richard Gid Powers-the
biographer of J. Edgar Hoover-published in 1996 a study of liberal
anti-Communism that celebrated the liberal intellectuals who had opposed
McCarthyism as fervently as Soviet Communism. Its curiously equivocal title,
Not Without Honor, conveys exactly Herman’s point: that modern liberals cannot
escape a certain feeling of ambivalence and even guilt about their rejection of
Communism. Joe McCarthy may have been a brawler and a dissembler, but the
people who rallied to him grasped this one point: The men he denounced lacked
the stomach to see the anti-Communist struggle through to the end. Herman
quotes a stern judgment on those liberals by one of McCarthy’s intellectual
defenders: "They looked upon the face of evil and pronounced it
half-good."

>Herman’s book does a fine job of exploring individual cases
and exposing the falseness of the allegation that McCarthyism led to the
punishment and humiliation of innocent people. He does a fine job, too, of
catching McCarthy’s political opponents in behavior every bit as unscrupulous
as the junior senator’s. The New Dealers were as quick with accusations of Nazi
sympathies as McCarthy was with his charges of Communist influence-quicker,
actually: It was President Truman himself who accused his opponent in the 1948
election of being a "front man" for the same "cliques" that
had backed Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and Tojo in Japan. Under a
Republican administration, Truman charged, "our democratic institutions of
free labor and free enterprise" would be endangered. Herman recounts a
story of Truman sitting in the Oval Office with an aide, listening to a
recording of one of his more vicious speeches. "After listening to a
particularly nasty and mean-spirited line come out of his own mouth, Truman
exclaimed, ‘Did I say that?’ Then he smiled. ‘Demagoguery-that’s part of the game.’"

>By the early 1950s, however, Truman- and McCarthy-style
demagoguery was ceasing to be part of the game, replaced by the new, cooler
demagoguery of television. McCarthy’s final collapse had a dozen causes. The
Republican president elected in 1952 had no use for McCarthy, and laid far
subtler traps for him than the embattled Truman had ever been able to lay. The
loyalty mechanisms instituted in the late 1940s diminished the supply of
outrages for McCarthy to trumpet. McCarthy’s last great crusade-the investigation
of a Communist dentist named Irving Peress at the Fort Monmouth, New Jersey
army base-was doomed to flunk the ridiculousness test. The abuse of government
power by McCarthy’s sinister aide, Roy Cohn, to ease the military service of
the man with whom he was infatuated, David Schine, offended the sensibilities
of the patriotic and egalitarian postwar era. Alcohol addled McCarthy’s wits,
which were not that sharp to begin with. It was television, however, that
sealed McCarthy’s fate. Demagogues in the television era must not sweat, or
yell, or sneer, and McCarthy was guilty of all three. They must do their work
in a soft voice, in a tone of regret. Army attorney Joseph Welch understood
that, and used the new medium to devastating effect against his blustery
opponent in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954.

>The ensuing Senate vote to condemn McCarthy crushed his
political career, although he retained his seat for two years more and did not
die until 1957. At first, the censure seemed to hold out hopes of a calmer and
broader anti-Communist consensus. The president who took office in 1961
belonged to a family of McCarthy’s friends and supporters: Senator John F.
Kennedy even scheduled surgery to avoid having to cast a vote for or against the
censure. But the new style of anti-Communism proved no more durable than
populist McCarthyite crusades. The Kennedy administration, Herman perceptively
observes, "preferred to play it cool and understated-and to play it alone.
They kept Congress out of as many decisions as possible, and when the [Vietnam]
war turned against them, McNamara and Johnson did not hesitate to lie."
Those lies broke the back of the anti-Communist consensus once and for all. The
Vietnam War ended in "the nightmare McCarthy had conjured up more than a
decade earlier, of American liberals and radicals allying themselves with
domestic Communists on one side and with foreign totalitarians on the other.
But in 1968 no one dared say a word: That would have smacked of
McCarthyism." And when the climactic battles of the Cold War were waged in
the 1980s they were waged without any consensus at all, by only half of the
ideological spectrum, over the bitter protests of a liberalism whose eagerness
for accommodation with the Soviet Union matched anything seen in the heyday of
the Popular Front.

>Despite periodic flutters of hope, Herman himself in the
end accepts that McCarthy’s reputation cannot be saved. But what can and should
be salvaged is the honor of the conservative anti-Communism that unwisely
accepted McCarthy as its champion. This careful and lucid book does that work
of salvage as ably and eloquently as any of the conservatives who ever
misplaced their hopes in Senator McCarthy could wish.