On Feb. 9, 1950, a first-term senator from Wisconsin addressed a Republican women’s group in Wheeling, W.Va.
The senator told his audience about “all the men in the State Department who have been named as active members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring.”
And then Sen. Joseph McCarthy said: “I have here in my hand a list… .”
With those words, McCarthy made himself part of history. By the time he died in 1957, his name was almost synonymous with the anti-communist crusade he waged in the Senate, so that “McCarthyism” came to symbolize an entire era.
He failed to prove his charges of a vast communist conspiracy in government. Repudiated by his own party after the disastrous Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, McCarthy has usually been seen as a blundering bully who led a cruel witch hunt against his innocent opponents.
Even some conservatives have condemned him as “a discredit to serious anti-communism,” as one writer said.
Now, 50 years after McCarthy’s Wheeling speech and almost 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, his career and his charges of Soviet-backed communist subversion are getting renewed attention. William F. Buckley last year published “The Redhunter,” a novel based on McCarthy’s career, and veteran journalist M. Stanton Evans is also at work on a book about McCarthy.
“I think that most of what is out there about him amounts to disinformation the opposite of truth,” said Mr. Evans. “It’s all based on people recycling statements from long ago that were false then and have never been corrected.”
New attention to McCarthy has been spurred by the release of the “Venona Papers” secret Soviet cables intercepted and decoded by U.S. intelligence as well as by documents retrieved from KGB archives in Moscow.
“As we learn more about what actually was going on in government in the 1940s and 1950s, the more we see how accurate McCarthy was,” Mr. Evans said.
Virginia historian Arthur Herman has stirred controversy with his new book, “Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator.”
Mr. Herman has been assailed by critics. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel accused Mr. Herman of “strident partisanship,” The Washington Post decried his “slipshod thinking,” and the Los Angeles Times accused Mr. Herman of an “attempt to exonerate McCarthy” that it condemned as “breathtakingly ludicrous.”
“I’ve been accused of being un-American,” says Mr. Herman, laughing at the irony. Much of the criticism, he says, is “based on the mistaken assumption that because I take McCarthy seriously … that I must be an admirer.”
But while his book acknowledges all of McCarthy’s flaws and errors his fiery temper, his alcoholism, his claim that Gen. George C. Marshall was “serving the world policy of the Kremlin” Mr. Herman contends that evidence now shows that the man known as “Tail-Gunner Joe” was essentially right about Soviet spying.
“The declassification and release of the Venona Papers … have really offered to the general public what was known to the FBI and security officials for decades: that the stories about Soviet spies in the federal government and Soviet espionage networks, secretly supported by the American Commu-
nist Party, weren’t paranoid delusions but were true,” Mr. Herman says.
“In that sense, McCarthy’s hunt for communists in government was not a ‘witch hunt’ there really were witches out there. Not as many as McCarthy claimed, but they were there,” he says.
Mr. Herman, who teaches history at George Mason University, defended his work Friday at a “Rethinking McCarthy” conference sponsored by Accuracy in Academia. There, Mr. Herman noted that McCarthy, an Irish Catholic, played a huge role in shaping the political landscape of the past half-century.
“A very important part of McCarthy as an historical figure is that he really does move American Catholics into the political mainstream,” says Mr. Herman, noting that Robert F. Kennedy joined McCarthy’s staff in 1953. “Suddenly their issues, like anti-communism, are also issues that define America.”
McCarthy’s support came from people who had been shocked by revelations that former State Department official Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy, by the arrest of Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs, and by the communist takeover of China in 1950.
“If you look at the people who believed McCarthy, it was because it was a rational inference for them to draw,” Mr. Herman says of the evidence of Soviet espionage. “Within the context … these were reasonable arguments to make.”
When McCarthy began attacking such popular figures as Marshall and President Eisenhower, however, he lost his popular support, Mr. Herman says.
Critics were also successful in demonizing McCarthy, says Mr. Evans, who makes the comparison to attacks on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for his investigations of the Clinton administration.
“The genius of the opposition was to make McCarthy the issue,” says Mr. Evans.
McCarthy has been unfairly blamed for other anti-communist efforts including the “blacklisting” of communist writers in Hollywood he was not involved in, Mr. Evans says. McCarthy “was looking at the question of security risks in government. He had nothing to do with any [other investigations] at all,” he says.
The long-term political impact of McCarthy’s rise and fall, Mr. Herman says, includes his exposure of the weakness of liberal anti-communism, which became apparent during the Vietnam War.
“American liberalism did have this fundamental flaw, that it did not see communism and Stalinism as the same kind of totalitarian ideology as Nazism and fascism until very late,” Mr. Herman says. “What made [liberals] mad about McCarthy and still makes them mad is that he insisted on pointing this out.”
McCarthy’s career also played a pivotal role in the rise of American conservatism. Barry Goldwater, who “launched the modern conservative political movement … was an intimate friend of McCarthy and a staunch defender of McCarthy,” Mr. Herman notes. “And a lot of the foot soldiers for the Goldwater campaign … were drawn to McCarthy’s populism.
“And that’s McCarthy’s big accomplishment, is that he put together the sort of Taft Republican conservatism with American populism,” Mr. Herman says.
Critics have claimed that McCarthy “never actually exposed a communist,” but Mr. Herman notes the case of Mary Jane Keeney, a State Department employee whom McCarthy accused of being a Soviet agent. In fact, she was employed by State even though the FBI knew she had spied for the KGB.
“McCarthy didn’t know that specifically, but the fact that he could come so close is significant,” Mr. Herman says.
And Mary Jane Keeney’s name was on the sheet of paper that McCarthy waved to the Republican women of Wheeling, W.Va., 50 years ago, when he said, “I have here in my hand a list ….”