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Joseph McCarthy:
Reexamining the Life and Legacy of
America’s Most Hated Senator

By Arthur Herman
(New York: Free Press, 2000. Pp. vi, 404. $26 cloth.)

McCarthy and His Enemies, Revisited

by Larry I. Bland*

A POLITICAL TRACT DISGUISED AS A SCHOLARLY history, this book is intended to be a contribution to the right-wing side of the current “culture war” in the United States. Nevertheless, it could have been written in 1956 as a companion piece to William Buckley and Brent Bozell’s McCarthy and His Enemies. Contrary to appearances, the author is not McCarthy’s defense lawyer but a cultural historian who received his Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University (1985), is adjunct professor at George Mason University, and coordinator of the Western Civilization Program at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1997 he published The Idea of Decline in Western History.

According to Herman, McCarthy was justified and correct in all important political ideas and actions. The senator’s liberal enemies in academia, government, and the media were elitist gullible fools (at best). Sometimes they were irresponsibly blind (“in complicity with evil”) to the enormous danger communist subversion and propaganda posed to American society, but just as often they were actual traitors or Marxist-inclined dupes. Revisionist and antiwar writers of the 1960s and after are the ideological descendants of this evil crew.The author uses several techniques to defend the senator.

The first is to admit that his hero had certain human flaws, which he then explains away. Was McCarthy an alcoholic? Yes, but not “an abusive or violent drunk.”

Second, tu quoque arguments. Did McCarthy do deed X of dubious fairness or morality? Yes, but the liberals did it first and worse.

Third, everybody-does-it (i.e., lies, distorts, leaks documents, etc.).

Fourth, it was worse elsewhere or at another time (i.e., not that many people were sent to jail or had their careers damaged between 1947 and 1954, and besides the Red Scare of 1919-20 was worse, and McCarthy’s actions were trivial compared to Stalin’s purges and gulags).

Fifth, be certain to select only the most outré, context-less quotes by McCarthy’s critics.

Sixth, be entirely innocent of the content of the past half century of diplomatic history writings when you assert such silly chestnuts such as: Harry Hopkins believed every lie that the Marxists told him, that Alger Hiss played an important role in the “disastrous decisions at Yalta,” or that China was lost when George C. Marshall — encouraged by Commie-symp types like John Stewart Service — embargoed military supplies to Chiang Kai-shek in 1946, thereby causing Mao’s victory and high U.S. casualties in the Korean War.

Finally, assert that every charge you (or Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, et al.) have made against liberals has been proven true by the Venona transcripts or recent documentary revelations.

Most of the author’s sources are secondary, but he also uses contemporary publications, published congressional hearings, a few interviews, and some manuscript collections. The book is nicely published, illustrated, and indexed. Nobody left of Jesse Helms or Strom Thurmond will be convinced by the author’s exegesis, but the book is a must for all conservatives and conspiracy buffs. One presumes that right-wing foundations and corporations will wish to buy it in bulk for distribution to true believers.  

*Larry I. Bland is Director of the Marshall Papers Project at the George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, VA.  ~ Ed.

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