Friday, January 8, 2010

"A Great American Patriot"

JFK's feelings became abundantly clear during a reunion banquet at Harvard. When an after-dinner speaker remarked that he was proud Harvard had never graduated an Alger Hiss and even prouder that it had never produced a Joe McCarthy, JFK exploded in anger. Rising at his seat, he shouted, "How dare you couple the name of a great American patriot with that of a traitor!" The other diners lapsed into shocked silence, and JFK departed without hearing the rest of the program.
From the biography, "John F. Kennedy" by Joyce Milton

M. Stanton Evans' book about the life and times of Senator Joe McCarthy, "Blacklisted By History" helps explain JFK's outrage. Ann Coulter's verdict (Ann being Ann) - "The greatest book since the Bible!" Well, maybe. Its thesis is strongly revisionist, trashing the current distorted narrative of McCarthy as a devious destroyer of innocent lives. It's supported by exhaustive research - Evans spent more than a decade writing it. Rich in detail and documentation, it can be used as a source of information even by readers disagreeing with its conclusions.

Evans includes a brief biography of his subject and he debunks the caricature of McCarthy as a loutish, drunken brute. But the bulk of his efforts are devoted to an examination of McCarthy's cases - their merits, how they were investigated, handled and resolved. Indeed, McCarthy is absent from large portions of the narrative as Evans details the specifics and scope of Communist infiltration of the government during the 30s, 40s and 50s. He cites current accessible sources of information that were not available in the fifties. These include the Venona decrypts -Soviet messages intercepted and decoded by U.S. intelligence agencies beginning in the 40s; Soviet data obtained from Communist satellite countries after the fall of Communism; and voluminous FBI counterintelligence archives. Evans writes,

(What these sources) reveal about the clandestine Cold War record is remarkably consistent. Severally and jointly, all of them tell us that the Soviet Union was running a worldwide espionage and influence operation aimed at infiltrating the societies and governments of the West. These efforts were geared to obtaining diplomatic and other official information useful to the Kremlin, securing weapons technology and data, acquiring industrial know-how, and influencing the policies of target nations in favor of the Soviet interest.

Also confirmed by the new materials is something known from other sources but frequently contested: that the Communist Party USA was a faithful creature of the Soviet Union. Far from being mere indigenous radicals working for peace and social justice, as sometimes argued, the party and its members were subservient tools of Moscow—and those who weren’t subservient didn’t stay very long as members. The party was funded by the USSR, sent its delegates to Russia to be vetted and receive instructions, and was withal a functioning part of the Kremlin apparatus, enmeshed in spying, policy sabotage and disinformation projects at the behest of Stalin and his agents. From a composite of all these data, it’s evident the Soviet/Communist operation in the United States, as elsewhere, was vast, sophisticated, and effective, nowhere more so than in seeking positions of official influence. The Red networks reached into virtually every important aspect of the U.S. government, up to very high levels, the State Department notably included. All of which was obviously congruent with the warnings of McCarthy and others who sounded the alarm about such matters in the late 1940s and early ’50s. There was in fact an immense conspiracy afoot, there were secret Communists burrowing in the woodwork, and these Communists were, in case after case, devoted agents of the Soviet Union.

Whittaker Chambers had previously disclosed this vast CP involvement in Soviet infiltration in his 1950 autobiography, "Witness". "Blacklisted In History" adds to and elaborates this.
Key advisory posts were filled by Communist sympathizers or outright Soviet agents and there is ample evidence of their influence in policy decisions. Evans details several instances of these. Just a few examples - A potential pre-war peace deal with Japan was derailed on the grounds that we would be abandoning our alliance with Chinese nationalist Chiang-Kai Shek. Without a truce in place, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and directed their war efforts toward the Pacific rather than the Soviet Union.
Once the war was over, we flipped and did abandon Chiang, paving the way for the Communist takeover of China.
In Yugoslavia during the WW2, the decision was made to support the anti-Nazi, pro-Communist Marshall Tito. Support for the anti-Nazi, anti-Communist Serbian Draha Mihailovich was dropped despite Mihailovich having entered the fight against the fascists three months earlier than had Tito. After the war, Tito became ruler of Yugoslavia.
The Yalta and Potsdam conferences, with Communist advisors like Soviet agent Alger Hiss among the American contingent, produced results highly favorable for the Russians- control of half of Europe.
In each of these cases, as Evans shows, there were influential pro-Red forces in the government pushing for the outcomes that were ultimately realized. This disgraceful scandal is not mitigated by the (remote) possibility that these outcomes would have resulted even without those forces in place. McCarthy recognized the scandal for what it was and fought to prevent its continuation.
In late 1949, after the fall of China, Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a policy pronouncement which essentially conceded Korea and Taiwan to the Communists, saying it was inevitable and no big deal. That it did not happen may or may not have been related to Joe McCarthy's emergence onto the scene a few weeks later.

Providing the extensive backdrop to the McCarthy saga is one significant achievement of Evans' book. Another is the systematic detailing of the investigations and hearings with which not only McCarthy, but a host of other influential actors were involved - J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Dies (McCarthy's red-hunting predecessor), Pat McCarran, Richard Nixon, Millard Tydings, Hubert Humphrey, Scoop Jackson, Everett Dirksen, Barry Goldwater, and many, many more. Among these was Robert F. Kennedy who was so impressed with McCarthy that he named him godfather to his first child, Kathleen. In 1953 McCarthy was appointed chairman of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He chose Roy Cohn as chief counsel and Robert Kennedy as an assistant counsel to the subcommittee. Evans speculates about what a reversal of those roles might have meant.

The mind boggles at what might have happened if young Robert Kennedy (then twenty-seven) had become, as he and his father devoutly wished, the chief counsel to new committee chairman Joe McCarthy. Kennedy’s own political career would doubtless have been different in many ways, and Joe McCarthy’s would have been quite different also. And the historians who idolize the first and condemn the second would have an even more awkward task before them in squaring this improbable circle.

No patience to read the whole book? Try the chapter covering the case of Annie Lee Moss. Though not McCarthy's most important case it's his most famous, made so by TV and newspaper coverage which depicted her as a pitiful victim of McCarthyism. The legend of Annie Lee Moss (as Evans calls it) has also been propagated through the years by its association with CBS news correspondent Edward R. Murrow, recently in George Clooney's 2005 fantasy film, "Good Night and Good Luck".
The case is a microcosm of the McCarthy phenomenon. There's the blatant security breach, McCarthy's reliably well-informed and on-target accusation, the dishonesty and obfuscation practiced by his opponents, and the perpetuation of a myth that continues to this day.

Ann Coulter devotes part of her book, "Treason" to defending McCarthy. She brings up the Moss case and lays out a small portion of the evidence against her. (Evans is much more thorough). Dorothy Rabinowitz, in a Wall Street Journal column responding to Coulter's book, tore into her about McCarthy. In doing so, she tried to refute Coulter's argument against Moss. As Evans points out, Rabinowitz' op-ed was misinformed and misleading. The considerable respect I have for Rabinowitz' judgement took a hit after I read her piece.

Another revealing and entertaining episode in Evans' book is his narrative of the circumstances that led to Army counsel Joe Welch's famous (infamous?) line "Have you left no sense of decency, sir?!" The transcript of the back and forth between Welch and Roy Cohn and Welch and McCarthy is by turns hilarious and maddening. Welch comes across as a flamboyant demagogue, raising irrelevant issues and distorting others (sound familiar?). Yet, Welch was applauded after his contrived outburst and to many he remains a heroic figure.

One major shortcoming of "Blacklisted By History" is that while the author concedes that McCarthy made mistakes, he doesn't elaborate on their severity. For example Evans offers this summation.

That McCarthy made his share of errors, some contributing to his downfall, is true enough. A number of such have been noted in these pages: errors of detail in the presentation of his cases; the Marshall speech, a huge error of judgment and to some degree as well of fact; the unprovable “espionage” charge against Owen Lattimore; the emotional blowup with Zwicker; the use of harsh invective against various foes (though no harsher than the invective used against him). And errors, too, of omission: failure to tell the Senate he was mining data from the Lee list; not reining in Roy Cohn when he was badgering the Army about Schine.

McCarthy's speech about General George C. Marshall was a 70,000 word diatribe directed against a war hero with an impeccable record of loyalty. It was his most disastrous misstep and hastened his downfall. Yet Evans provides no excerpts from the speech which contained some truly outrageous claims - for example, that the Marshall Plan was inspired by U.S. Communist Party leader Earl Browder. [Correction, 1/11/10 - The preceding sentence is inaccurate - see comments below]

Marshall did deserve criticism for his laxity in managing the situation in China. As Evans writes,

FDR’s secret Yalta deal with Stalin, McCarthy noted, gave the Soviets control of Manchuria’s ports and railway system, while inviting them at virtually no cost to themselves to take possession of this all-important Chinese province. This handover of Manchuria, the speech asserted, was the basis for much that happened later in China, as the Soviets looted the province of Japanese arms and ammunition, then turned much of this plunder over to their Yenan allies. The speech spotlighted the role of Marshall in this disastrous sequence and the China debacle that followed, most notably his mission there in 1946 on behalf of President Truman.

McCarthy's excessively strident attack obscured all this, spotlighting his own demagoguery instead. Evans also writes of McCarthy's "invective against various foes" but gives no examples.
Evans may have wanted to counter the current overwhelming negative picture of McCarthy by de-emphasizing his darker side. However, his book would have been stronger, more complete, by including some evidence that that negativity was not wholly without merit. Evans' thesis would still be valid - that McCarthy, though far from perfect, was more right than not and certainly more right than his opponents. That the characteristics that made him reckless also equipped him with the qualities necessary to fight his noble cause.

That McCarthy was a flawed champion of the cause he served is not in doubt (and who among us isn’t?). It would have been better had he been less impulsive, more nuanced, more subtle in his judgments. On the other hand, somebody more nuanced and refined wouldn’t have dreamed of grappling with the forces deployed against him. Those forces were powerful, smart, and tough, and they played for keeps. Taking them on was the task, not for a Supreme Court justice, but for a warrior. McCarthy, to his dying breath, was that.
Measured by the total record of his cases and political battles, McCarthy, whatever his faults, was a good man and true—better and truer by far than the tag teams of cover-up artists and backstage plotters who connived unceasingly to destroy him. The truth he served, moreover, was of the greatest import—the exposure of people who meant to do us grievous harm, and of long-standing indifference toward this menace by many at high official levels.

And what were the beneficial results of McCarthy's efforts? Evans reels them off.

Had McCarthy done nothing more during his uproarious heyday in the Senate, his role in blowing the lid off the Amerasia scandal would deserve the plaudits of a grateful nation. This not only because of the intrinsic meaning of the case, but because it was the gateway to still other unthinkable revelations from the darker precincts of the Cold War. And let there be no mistake that it was McCarthy who led the charge—constantly hammering on the case, digging up security data on Service, and otherwise exerting pressure on the Amerasia crowd and those complicit in its doings. Hoover and his agents knew the facts—knew far more than did McCarthy—but had to do their fighting behind the scenes, in a secret war of dueling memos.
(Amerasia was a 40s Communist, Asian affairs periodical into which confidential State Department documents somehow found their way).

It’s true that, ultimately, they got him; but it’s equally true that, before this happened, he got them—or at least a sizable number of them. In case after significant case—Service, Vincent, Lattimore, Jessup, Brunauer, O. Edmund Clubb, and scores of others—McCarthy’s targets were driven from the field, and with them the Amerasia/IPR agenda for more Far East capitulations. It’s doubtful that any other American figure, outside the confines of the White House, had more impact on the course of Cold War history.

There were some other consequences also, in what might be viewed as collateral McCarthy damage. The Communist agent Mary Jane Keeney would finally lose her job at the United Nations, while the Soviet henchman Sol Adler decided in May 1950, at the fever pitch of the McCarthy furor, that the time had come to quit the Treasury and leave the country. Lauchlin Currie, though no longer holding a federal job, had been hanging around since 1945. He, too, departed in 1950. Perhaps it was mere coincidence that these two Soviet agents decided to skip precisely at this juncture; and perhaps it wasn’t.
Still other direct and indirect examples of McCarthy’s impact might be cited—most notably the firming up of security measures by the Truman administration in late 1951, switching from the unworkable “reasonable grounds” criterion to “reasonable doubt” (as recommended by Hiram Bingham), providing some realistic prospect of ousting egregious risks who lingered on the federal payroll. Such was the trend toward tougher McCarthy-driven security measures that developed in the early 1950s—aka the “reign of terror.”
There are more instances of the McCarthy effect, but a couple relating to the Ike age and McCarthy’s tenure as committee chairman are offered here by way of wrap-up. It’s a remarkable but generally neglected fact that every major McCarthy investigation in the period 1953–54 resulted in some significant change in governmental practice: the State Department files, the business about Baker West, books in overseas reading centers, the loyalty drill at GPO, the Pentagon security daze suggested by Peress and Moss, and so on. In every instance, the officials in charge admitted there had been enormous foul-ups, and moved to take corrective action.
And there were also, as in the Truman era, some indirect consequences of McCarthy’s hearings. As the executive sessions and backup committee records show, McCarthy beginning in mid-1953 was on the trail of Robert Oppenheimer, a fact well known to Ike and his lieutenants. There isn’t much doubt this helped force the hand of the administration, impelling it to move on Oppenheimer before McCarthy did so. Thus Oppenheimer, too, could be added to the list of those who were in some fashion “victims” of McCarthy.

In the end he perished, politically and otherwise, in the rubble he pulled down around him. Yet when the final chapter in the conflict with Moscow was written, amid yet another pile of rubble, he was not without his triumph.

Evans briefly discusses the motivations of McCarthy's enemies and speculates about the causes of McCarthy's near-universal vilification. One point he doesn't make and which I believe is a factor in McCarthy's demonization, is the blase attitude that most people have towards Communism. Despite deserving the title as the most murderous ideology in history, Communism is usually considered to be just an enthusiastic version of Progressivism. A couple of years ago, Mark Steyn wrote a column profiling Pete Seeger (good piece-link below). Steyn noted that the Washington Post had endearingly named the long time folk singer, "America's Favorite Commie". Steyn countered that we don't have a "Best Loved Nazi" or "Best Loved Fascist" or even a "Best Loved Republican". If McCarthy had been a Nazi hunter his image would undoubtedly be quite different today.
Instead we have the portrayal of McCarthy as monster and the term "McCarthyism" defined as "the politically motivated practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence". (Wikipedia). Thus a book showing McCarthy in a positive light has about as much appeal to most people as a discussion of the positive aspects of child abuse.
Hillsdale College history professor John Willson had this to say about "Blacklisted By History",

Let’s predict a couple of things about this very important book. First, it will seldom be reviewed. It will be set up for target practice; that is, second, if it is not altogether ignored, becoming a non-book by the dictates of the heirs of the people who swept its subject into the dustbins of history, viciously spitting on his grave.

The scope of "Blacklisted By History" goes far beyond the meager synopsis I've given it. It's comprised of 600+ pages of fact dense material. It should be read even (especially!) by those intractably convinced of the conventional portrayal of McCarthy. Heed the bumper sticker wisdom, "A Mind Is Like A Parachute. It Works Only When Open".

Steyn's article


  1. Regarding McCarthy's infamous speech denouncing George Marshall, you write that "Evans provides no exerpts from the speech."

    Yeat on p. 413, he provides two such exerpts, including the notorious quotes about "a conspiracy ... so immense" and "If Marshall were merely stupid..."

    You write that McCarthy claimed in this speech that "the Marshall Plan was inspired by U.S. Communist Party leader Earl Browder." Michael Moriarty made the same charge in Reason magazine some time ago, but the speech itself (online at Fordham University's Modern History Sourcebook) contains so such claim, nor any mention of Browder, nor of the Marshall Plan (for which, Evans notes, McCarthy voted).

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I stand corrected. Evans did include that portion of McCarthy's speech. And you're right about the Reason magazine reference. I read that and I took it on face value that Moynihan (not Moriarty) knew what he was writing about. He obviously did not. I wasn't impressed with his critique of Evans' book. Now I'm less so. I appreciate your input. You're obviously more conversant on this subject than I am. I welcome corrections to any other of my misstatements.

  4. You are gracious. My apologies to Michael Moriarty.