Reexamining the Life and Legacy of
America's Most Hated Senator
By Arthur Herman
Free Press. 404 pp. $26
Reviewed by David Greenberg
Generally, we assume that the passage of time brings "perspective," that it helps us to see once-contentious issues with newfound clarity. Sometimes, though, time's passage distorts as much as it clarifies; it can enshrine a single point of view as the "correct" version of events while obscuring more complicated truths. It can render as a clean, heroic story of triumph and progress what was in fact a messy congeries of not just courage but cowardice, not just gains but losses, not just rightness but also monstrous errors.
Such has been the case with the end of the Cold War. The demise of the Soviet Union has brought not so much sober reconsideration of the era as unalloyed and often unseemly triumphalism. America waged a noble battle against the evil of Stalinism, and now that it has won, many ex-Cold Warriors are taking victory as ratification of all that was done, right and wrong, in the name of anti-communism. Though some historians are writing judicious assessments of the era, we mainly seem to be using the occasion as an excuse to gloat.
Worse than unbecoming, this in-your-face school of history tends to produce bad scholarship; the End of History threatens to bring about the end of history. Arthur Herman's tendentious Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator represents what one can only hope will be the nadir of this trend. A model of muddy thinking, the book contends that just because some U.S. officials spied for the Soviet Union (as we now know definitively), McCarthy's campaign against communists in government was ipso facto a force for good. Whatever his excesses, Herman writes, McCarthy has "been proved more right than wrong in terms of the larger picture."
In a brisk narrative, Herman, an adjunct professor of history at George Mason University, traces the familiar tale of McCarthy's rise and fall. An Irish Catholic from rural Wisconsin, McCarthy won election to the U.S. Senate in 1946 at age 37, contributing to the Republican Party's historic takeover of Congress that year. In early 1950, just after Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury and Klaus Fuchs arrested for espionage, McCarthy delivered his now-famous speech in which he alleged that 205 Communist Party members (the number would fluctuate) were working in the State Department -- a claim no one ever proved. As the Red Scare mounted, McCarthy polarized the country with his ever more outrageous charges of official treachery. Initially supported by Republicans, he eventually alienated party regulars by refusing to mute his attacks once Dwight Eisenhower assumed the presidency. He finally discredited himself by going after the U.S. Army, a bungled assault that led to his censure by the Senate. He died three years later, in 1957.
Even as Herman hews to this basic narrative of McCarthy's life, he seeks to alter the dominant view of the senator as a ruthless opportunist. Never mind that Thomas C. Reeves has already written a somewhat sympathetic revisionist biography, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy, that has added "balance" to the historical record; Herman forges beyond balance to exonerate the senator wherever possible. He even employs contradictory arguments in the senator's defense. In some places, for example, Herman takes pains to acquit McCarthy of particular misdeeds, blaming instead Jean Kerr, McCarthy's wife, or Roy Cohn, his staff attorney; in these cases, he suggests that McCarthy did nothing terrible. Yet elsewhere Herman concedes that McCarthy did lie, distort facts and promote wild conspiracy theories; in those instances Herman reverts to his assertion that McCarthy's ends justified his means, however reprehensible. Herman can't decide whether he thinks McCarthy basically a good man or a knave who pursued a just cause.
Such slipshod thinking pervades Herman's book, which seems written in a spirit of zeal to denounce liberals and opportunism to cash in on a flashy idea. Most egregiously, Herman fails to argue even his book's central contention: that "the so-called Red Scare" as he calls it was justified. To buttress this claim, he notes the new documentary information from Soviet archives confirming that some communist spies indeed infiltrated the American government. But many logical steps lie between noting the presence of spies and countenancing a full-blown effort to root them out no matter the cost, and Herman never bothers to make the necessary arguments on behalf of the latter.
After all: Not all Red Scare victims were communists. Not all communists served the Soviet government. Not all Soviet collaborators necessarily imperiled America's national security. Not all Soviet sympathizers, while blameworthy for their moral blindness, deserved to lose their jobs. And even American citizens who were Soviet agents deserved the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. In his effort to legitimize the Red Scare, Herman winds up claiming that an American communist in the 1950s should have lost his job because of his private beliefs. That's a belief as un-American as they come, and, as proud victors in the Cold War, Americans left and right should be careful not to accede to its seductive allure.
David Greenberg, a Richard Hofstadter Fellow in American History at Columbia University, is writing a book about Richard Nixon's place in American culture.