- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003


By Ted Morgan

Random House, $35, 704 pages


I forget the name of the movie in which a fedora-hatted reporter, having covered some big murder, rushes into a phone booth, dials his newspaper and yells into the phone, “Gimme rewrite, honey.” Of course, this all happened in the pre-computer, pre-cell-phone era when the earphoned rewrite man at his typewriter in the city room was one of a newspaper’s most valued members. It was his job to turn the oral report of the on-the-scene reporter into an organized, colorful and suitably embellished news story.

Ted Morgan, one of our ablest biographers and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, has, to expand my metaphor, done a rewrite-man’s job by creating an encyclopedic history of America’s long battle with the Soviet espionage directed against our civic institutions, a battle marred on occasion by violations of civil liberties.

The author has done some assiduous digging into archives, government reports and Congressional hearings, and has reorganized, somewhat idiosyncratically, the pioneering research about American communism by such historians as Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, Richard Gid Powers and Allen Weinstein. I should say that the publications of these historians were quite revelatory, even sensational, since many of them were based on freshly opened Soviet sources and the Venona decryptions, which uncovered 349 American citizens and residents involved with Soviet intelligence. (Only 171 of the 349 agents were ever identified; the other 178 are still known only by their code names.)

Mr. Morgan has applied the subtitle of his book retroactively, redefining the post-World War I era of the notorious Palmer raids against a budding Bolshevik conspiracy as an example of “McCarthyism,” which is quite a stretch. On that “big tent” definition, much of American history — say, the four Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and his abuse of the Copperhead leader Vallandigham during the Civil War or the World War I jailing of Eugene V. Debs — might also be considered a sort of premature McCarthyism. My definition of McCarthyism is much simpler and, chronologically, more limited: McCarthyism means calling people Communists who aren’t Communists.

The premise of his book, says Mr. Morgan, is that the Cold War began in 1917 with the Russian Revolution, bloomed in 1924 when so-called commercial relations with Russia began, and flowered with President Roosevelt’s recognition in 1933 of the Soviet Union, which then began to recruit spies using the Communist Party as the recruiter. The McCarthy period — that is, the years when the Wisconsin senator was front-page news — lasted from 1950 to 1954, when the Senate finished him off with a resolution of censure.

However, Mr. Morgan believes that McCarthyism has now reappeared in the United States thanks to Attorney General John Ashcroft. This is an extraordinary misjudgment of the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism policies and a distortion of the meaning of McCarthyism, which was concerned with Communists in and out of government.

The author’s misjudgment is all the more puzzling in light of his measured assessment of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its flamboyant chairman, Martin Dies. Mr. Morgan judges the Dies Committee in words once applied to Cardinal Richelieu, France’s great 17th-century prime minister: It did “too much harm to be praised and too much good to be damned.” By contrast, the lapidary liberal judgment on the HUAC to this very day is that it deserves nothing but condemnation.

Especially striking is Mr. Morgan’s finding that McCarthy had “many estimable qualities and followed a well-trod American path, that of the farm boy who succeeds in politics thanks to midnight oil and pluck, with more than a pinch of unscrupulousness thrown in.” He was also “a liar of pathological proportions.” He also “used his [senatorial] office to collect money in underhanded ways.” Worst of all, McCarthy’s facts were “often wrong.” Estimable qualities?

Included in Mr. Morgan’s category of McCarthyist villains is J. Edgar Hoover, singled out for his hounding of the Rev. Martin Luther King, which the author calls “a textbook example of McCarthyism: the use of false information in the irrational pursuit of a fictitious enemy.”

I have one serious criticism of Mr. Morgan: his atrocious and useless footnotes. He gives sources — books and Congressional reports — but never a page number, so of what value are the 40 pages of footnotes? In one case, he attributes to a book by Irwin Ross the statement that Vice President Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign manager was a Communist. There are but two references in Mr. Ross’ book, “The Loneliest Campaign,” to the campaign manager, and neither refers to him as a Communist. It is no longer in question that the campaign manager was a Communist Party member, but the footnoted attribution is simply incorrect. Perhaps such errors will be remedied in subsequent editions — they should be.

A lot of work has gone into this huge book and there is much to be gained in reading it, if only as a reminder of the enduring problem of civil liberties in America. The United States has been targeted for destruction once by the Soviet Union and today by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Few other countries have been so burdened.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide