- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 1999

Why do supposedly sensible conservatives continue to attempt to justify the odious career of Sen. Joseph McCarthy? William F. Buckley Jr. squandered months of literary talent writing a novel published last summer that unconvincingly argued, “Well, he wasn’t that bad …” Now we have scholar Arthur Herman of Bethesda offering a “reassessment of McCarthy’s legacy” that credits him with the “rebirth of American conservatism” that culminated in the Reagan presidency.

I demur. McCarthy was a discredit to serious anti-communism, and his foolishness and excesses provided protective cover for liberals and leftists who were unwilling to entertain the notion that Americans worked on behalf of the Soviet Union, some of them actually spying. Mr. Herman admits that after McCarthy passed from power, the American left could bleat with “moral self-righteousness” and equate “the naming of former Stalinists to congressional committees with the trial and hanging of accused witches in Puritan Salem.” In this respect the “legacy” of Joe McCarthy survives, and it is a malign one.

Indeed, McCarthy’s recklessness tainted, by association, the effective anti-communist work done by such members of Congress as Richard M. Nixon. Contrast their approaches. Nixon methodically built a case against Alger Hiss, not letting his mouth outdistance provable evidence, and persuaded a grand jury to return the indictment that put the former State Department officer in prison. McCarthy had the slipshod habit of issuing press releases and making speeches, and only then looking for the facts.

The professional counterintelligence community and I include working-level agents in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and elsewhere for the most part considered McCarthy a windbag and buffoon who eroded public (and congressional) support for their mission. (By happenstance, I was in counterintelligence training at the Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird in 1956, just after McCarthy crashed in flames. Instructors there, career CI officers, sniffed at the mention of his name.)

Let us give the senator his due in one significant respect. His exposures of lax security in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations riveted public rage on a true scandal. Eventually, the pressures generated by McCarthy forced President Truman to issue personnel security rules for federal workers that made it far more difficult for fellow travelers to infiltrate the government.

But why should history be forgiving of a man who accused the distinguished Gen. George C. Marshall of “always and invariably serving the world policy of the Kremlin?” Mr. Herman reminds me of the ranters of the old China Lobby when he writes, “If any single person can be said to have lost China’ (and perhaps none can), it was George Catlett Marshall.”

McCarthy consistently displayed a penchant for stupidity the sort of fellow who, after shooting himself in the foot, takes careful aim and blasts away his remaining toes.

In his most disgraceful moment (of many) McCarthy berated the Fort Monmouth commander, Brig. Gen. Ralph Zwicker snorting, “General, you should be removed from any command. Any man who has been given the honor of being promoted to general and who says I will protect another general who protected Communists’ is not fit to wear that uniform, General.”

Gen. Zwicker earned battlefield honors at the battle of the Bulge and elsewhere. In defending the outburst, Mr. Herman accuses anti-McCarthy critics of “ignoring the fact that McCarthy had posed the issue as part of a series of hypothetical questions.” His excuse is lame. And, as he correctly notes, the Zwicker episode freed President Dwight D. Eisenhower and sensible Republicans to move decisively against the erratic McCarthy.

As Mr. Herman points out, John Barleycorn as McCarthy’s accomplice during most of his glory days, and “several drinks” at lunch apparently contributed to the Zwicker debacle. Of equal ill service to the senator were the notorious duo of Roy Cohn and David Schine. Mr. Herman suggests that as McCarthy sank into alcoholism, he more or less turned over his investigative committee to these stumbling gumshoes.

Mr. Herman is an adjunct professor at George Mason University and coordinates the Western Civilization Program at the Smithsonian Institute. He grew up in in McCarthy’s home state of Wisconsin, and their shared geographical origins enables him to understand the working-class Catholic milieu from whence the senator came. Most politically aware Americans have locked-in attitudes towards Joe McCarthy. I began this book willing to be convinced that he was a positive force in anti-communism. But my mind did not change. McCarthy was a disaster and a disgrace and conservatism would be well-advised to leave the man be.

Joseph C. Goulden is working on a book on the modern world of attorneys.

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