THERE ARE not many men whose very names have added to the language. And considering some of them --Nicolas Chauvin, Captain Boycott, Elbridge Gerry (of gerrymander fame)--one must admit that by and large they are a rather unsavory lot. Well, Joseph Raymond McCarthy, junior senator from Wisconsin from 1948 to 1957, has now joined this company. All that remains is for the word to be written in lower case, as it is with the rest, and then the man will have slipped into history and only "mccarthyism" will remain.
Thomas C. Reeves seems to have been aware of the inevitable fate awaiting the subject of this biography, for The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy is quite a successful effort to have the last word on the man before he becomes just an ism. But in the way of those who seek to have the last word, he seems to feel it necessary to rap the knuckles of those--Richard Rovere and Jack Anderson among them--who had words before him. This wouldn't be worth mentioning except that for all its research, and in spite of its great length and considerable detail, the book presents a portrait of its subject that does not differ essentially from the ones already presented. There was, it seems, only one Joe McCarthy, and he was just as bad as we have all been told.
In a number of ways, Thomas C. Reeves is the ideal biographer for McCarthy. His tenure as professor of history at the University of Wisconsin gave him ample time and opportunity to gather material on the politician's background in his native state, and this portion of the book (its first hundred-plus pages) is the most incisive and revealing of all. He makes it evident that, just as it was with Richard M. Nixon, the pattern of behavior for which McCarthy became notorious was well-established before he became a national figure.
To begin with, on a number of occasions Reeves goes into rather peculiar contortions in order to view his subject in the best possible light. For example, he tells us that as a boy, "Joe was . . . aggressive. Tim (his father) taught his son to box when Joe was about twelve, and neighborhood boys sometimes avoided the McCarthy farm because of Joe's strength and love of a scrap." Now, a less charitably inclined biographer might simply conclude from this that McCarthy was a bully and say as much--but not Reeves. And again, viewing "Tail- Gunner Joe's" sorry service record--the foot he broke on shipboard that he claimed ever afterward as a war wound, the strafing he gave the tail of his own dive bomber, his recommendation of himself for the Distinguished Flying Cross--Reeves tends to be forgiving: "But in fairness it must be said that he served the corps and his country ably and with distinction. He risked his life on several occasions and not entirely for the later political dividends."
Well, maybe. But it does appear from the evidence here that everything he did was for political gain from the time he ran for district judge and in a bitterly disputed election became the youngest justice in the state. Using that office as a springboard and, soaring high on that virtually fictitious war record, he dove directly into the United States Senate in 1948. Yet it was two years before he caused much of a splash. That happened after he had fought a dirty battle with a newspaper in his home state, The Madison Capital Times. The publication had been after him from the start, attacking him for his campaign practices, judicial conduct, and election- law irregularities. In 1949, he counterattacked with a vengeance, charging that the paper's city editor was "the Red mouthpiece for the Communist Party in Wisconsin." He claimed that the man had once been a member of the Party but was only able to tie him to a number of organizations that the attorney general's list had labeled "Communist-front." That, however, was all that was necessary to get him more publicity than he had ever gotten before in his home state. The lesson was not lost on him; he had found his true vocation.
It was only a few months later that Joe McCarthy, out on the stump for Republican candidates, gave his famous Wheeling speech in which he stated that he had the names of 205--or was it 57? or 83?--known Communists in the State Department. And thus the personal crusade that was dubbed by The Washington Post's Herblock as "McCarthyism" got under way. The source for McCarthy's wild charge was a 1946 letter from James Byrnes, who was then secretary of state, which had been published in the Congressional Record, saying that a certain number of the department's employees were not recommended for permanent peacetime employment. The senator got the number wrong; he had no idea how many (if any) of these had been retained; and he simply chose to assume that they were considered undesirable because they were active members of the Communist Party.
In the beginning, he told a few reporters to pay no attention to his claim, that it was "just a political speech to a bunch of Republicans." Did he have any names? Just two, he confided. Actually, he had none at the time, but the China Lobby was soon to supply them. And of course these names became almost household words during the '50s as he dragged them through the mud-- Philip C. Jessup, Owen Lattimore, Joseph Grew, Harlow Shapley, John Stewart Service, and others. These were the men, he was assured, who had "given" China to the Reds. McCarthy, who, as his biographer makes clear, was totally ignorant of both international and domestic communism, was converted into a true believer and began his bitter campaign against the Truman administration's State Department in general and its old China desk in particular.
He kept it alive for nearly four years, during which the Korean War began, and the flames of anti-Communist hysteria were fanned by him, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and various free-lance pyromaniacs into a blazing conflagration. Whether they believed in McCarthyism or not, many Republicans were more than willing to take advantage of it. Joe became the party's hired gun, riding into states all over the country to give speeches, wave his photostats and make his calculated charges of Communist infiltration of the government (he was always careful of what he said when not protected by congressional immunity). And he was effective: many Republicans owed their election to him and their parroting of his line; and he personally disposed of at least two enemies in the Senate.
Even Dwight Eisenhower overcame his distaste for the man and his methods and made limited use of the loyalty issue in his 1952 presidential campaign. Yet the Republican Party and Eisenhower made the mistake of thinking they could control McCarthy. And the senator, in turn, made a major miscalculation when he attempted to "prove" Communist infiltration of the United States Army. The hottest item he came up with was an army dentist who had declined to sign the attorney general's list on Fifth Amendment grounds. He was hauled before McCarthy and two days later discharged from the Army. The officer who had signed his honorable discharge (there were no grounds to give him any other kind), was then brought in and publicly humiliated for permitting this "spy" to escape into civilian life. This did not sit well with Eisenhower or the Army.
Joe McCarthy rose to his position of power quite simply because he was good copy. More than that, he knew how to handle the press of his day: He found that reporters and editors were far more interested in printing his accusations than they were in following up on them, and so kept right on making accusations. However, when McCarthy met the Army in the famous hearings before his committee in 1954, it was in full view of the American public, for the five weeks of the hearings were televised in their entirety.
This sort of coverage was inimical to his style: his droning voice and nervous giggle, his constant interruptions with "point of order, point of order," even his scowling, blue-jawed visage convinced viewers that he was what the liberal press had said he was all along--a bully. And if the McCarthy-Army hearings had a villain, they also had a hero. The Boston trial lawyer Joseph Welch, as special counsel to the Army, was more than a match for him. Kindly-seeming, relaxed, even fatherly, Welch fit the white-hat role as though he had been cast for it, and he played it for all he was worth. His honest personal indignation at McCarthy's attempt to smear a young lawyer in his firm is as stirring to read today as it was to hear when it was broadcast.
When the hearings ended and the smoke cleared, McCarthy's career was in a shambles. The public was revolted by his performance. The Senate decided at last to listen to his critics in its number and censure proceedings were initiated against him. McCarthy had actually gone a bit haywire. His drinking, always a problem, had gotten completely out of hand during the Army hearings and the censure proceedings. He passed the remaining two and a half years in the Senate in an alcoholic haze. He died, apparently of cirrhosis of the liver, on May 2, 1957.
Author Thomas C. Reeves says that his "life was profoundly tragic," which is certainly open to question, but he goes on to sum him up quite justly: "His native intelligence and his industry were largely squandered. He brought far more pain into the world than any man should. He was above all a reckless adventurer, an improviser, a bluffer. . . ."
That was the McCarthy style, and it was because of his style that he was finally brought down. What about the substance of his charges? No indictments resulted from them, although many people were forced out of government service, and there was one suicide. There are those who will say that laws should be passed to protect us from such as Joseph R. McCarthy, just as there were those who said that laws should be passed to protect us from the Communists. But at its best, democracy is sloppy. A system of government that is too efficient and too well-protected is no longer democratic. A Joe McCarthy, a Richard Nixon, the tolerance of a radical political minority--this is the price we pay for democracy in America. And although in human terms the expense may be great, looked at historically it seems well worth the price.