Book Review Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy
M. Stanton Evans
New York: Crown Forum, 2007
A half-century ago, the American people were sharply divided over Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, with the right wing of the Republican Party standing firmly beside him, while he was condemned by most of the media, the academic community, and most “centrists.” Since the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, however, the Left’s ideological sway over American thought has been such that the condemnatory view has become well-nigh universal. Hence the title “Blacklisted by History.”
In the book under review, M. Stanton Evans notes that even many on the American right have become accustomed to speak of “McCarthyism of the left” whenever they want to point out a particularly egregious bit of demagoguery or abuse by their opponents. Unknowingly, they have adopted the perspective, historical understanding and language of an ideology alien to their own. This is not especially exceptional, since much conventional wisdom in the United States since the 1960s is derived from the Left’s worldview. This includes the specification of who now are American heroes, and who the villains.
The thrust of Evans’ book is that the conventional view of McCarthy is a caricature. “McCarthy’s alleged stock-in-trade was spreading hysteria about an ersatz internal Communist threat and smearing innocent people as subversives without a shred of fact to go on.” The record, Evans says, shows otherwise.
There is occasion to see those years with passion. If it is true, as the consortium of French intellectuals who wrote The Blackbook of Communism estimate, that Communism presided over the murder of 85 to 100 million people, there is arguably every reason to be infuriated by any passivity toward the subject. And yet, in reasoned dialogue about even the more heinous subjects, thoughtful people value the analyst of even temper, the scholar who will dispassionately lay out the facts and hold his emotions in check. M. Stanton Evans is precisely such a scholar, in this book reviewing the issue of Communist subversion and the McCarthy record regarding it with calm understatement.
The principal question about Evans’ book must, of course, be “does anybody care?” It is generally comfortable to throw oneself into the flow of contemporary thinking, and requires a stubborn frame of mind to do otherwise. Anyone who seriously and conscientiously wants to know about Senator McCarthy will find this book indispensable. The book’s very existence is in effect a challenge to the world to question what it so adamantly knows to be true. Evans and his publisher must be counting on there being such a readership, even if small.
M. Stanton Evans is well qualified to write this history. Now an older man, he was already an adult during the years of McCarthy’s “security in government” crusade. He was for several years the editor of the Indianapolis News, is the author of seven books, and was founder and for twenty-five years the director of the National Journalism Center.
His research has been enhanced considerably by the recent release of important records. As is well known, the Venona decrypts containing the secret messages between the Soviet Union and its agents became public in 1995—and these provide much confirmation of what McCarthy asserted based on the evidence available to him at the time. Freedom of Information Act requests and legal actions have opened up “the huge, formerly secret counterintelligence archive of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” And in 2003, “the U.S. Senate released for publication the long-secret transcripts of executive hearings conducted by McCarthy when he headed the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the early 1950s.” This means that there is much that earlier books have not been able to take into account. Unfortunately, this cornucopia of new information is lessened, as Evans tells us, by the disappearance of some records and the systematic stripping, several years ago, of many files.
The book is well written and readable, but that won’t make it a volume to pick up for casual or light reading. The subject requires a detailed examination of information and events, and as such will be fascinating to someone (and only someone) who wants to study the subject. The value of the book lies in its meticulous thoroughness. That will prevent us from attempting any sort of restatement of the book’s content, since to do so wouldn’t do it justice. We will content ourselves with a few random observations:
1. Evans hews closely to the issue McCarthy pursued—the Communist penetration of the federal government in the United States during the 1930s and ’40s, leading to a fatal skewing of some vastly important American policies and to a continuing internal security problem in the 1950s. This means that Evans is not attempting to discuss the much broader context within which the Communist-penetration issue arose. In a review such as this one, it is perhaps worth mentioning what that context was.
In preparation for his book Liberalism in Contemporary America, this reviewer read virtually all the issues of The New Republic, and a great many of The Nation, between the years 1914 and 1985. What he found was to him astonishing, since he hadn’t known the extent of it: that for the thirty years between the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the advent of the Cold War immediately following World War II the overwhelming portion of America’s “intelligentsia” was deeply infatuated with the Soviet Union and its ideological expression in Communism. This was true of a great many “men of ideas” of the period, whether they formally joined the Communist Party or not.
This carried with it an abiding condonation of Communism (even though because of such things as the Stalin purge trials and the Hitler-Stalin Pact a good many intellectuals saw their way clear over time to break away from the infatuation). Whereas Hitler and German National Socialism were viewed as profoundly evil, Communism was seen through essentially rose-colored lenses. This was a double standard that is with us even today in countless contexts relating to the history of the twentieth century.
Nor is it enough just to point to the far-Left intellectual culture. The condonation was absorbed and carried on by a great many people who, though almost certainly not classifying themselves as “intellectuals,” quite naturally gravitated into the orbit of “respectable” opinion. An understanding of American attitudes in the twentieth century requires an understanding of the “moderates,” who by no means have been non-judgmental toward those to their right, but who have adopted with good temper the insights of the Left. Thus, in the context of the times, any condemnation of Communism was bound to seem out of bounds. Only extremists and demagogues would raise their voices about it.
This is the milieu into which McCarthy threw himself when he sought to make an issue out of Communist penetration of the government. Not only did his deep moral condemnation of Communism offend the sensibilities of those who joined in the condonation; what is not generally understood is that it also made him an almost existential threat to the entire American Left, to its sizeable penumbra of easy-going adherents, to the literary-artistic world in general (with, of course, many exceptions), and to much of the Democratic Party. The public discussion of McCarthy’s cases often turned on whether someone was “a card-carrying Communist.” But actually much more was at stake. The American Left claims it was “an age of terror.” The terror was not so much that a few people would be revealed as Soviet agents; it was, rather, the unspoken truth that a vast spectrum of American life was, in effect, under attack and stood in danger of being discredited. This made McCarthy the enemy incarnate—just as every other vocal anti- Communist before him, such as Congressman Martin Dies, was perceived to be. Evans’ book examines McCarthy’s career as it focused on much narrower issues—but in fact McCarthy was an actor in a morality play of much wider scope.
2. To anyone who greets the world with benign expectations about human beings, Blacklisted by History will come as something of an eye-opener. It can be seen as an extended study in how sophistry, political and ideological partisanship, demagogic piety, lawyers’ pettifoggery, obfuscation, and the lust for blood can come together to make a “perfect storm.” McCarthy, Evans’ discussion makes clear, was swamped not by a rational discussion of the cases he brought to the attention of the United States Senate and the public, but by what is best seen as a lynch mentality. McCarthy was himself a fighter, and one who through years of stress did not on all occasions restrain his temper or his rhetoric, but—very much contrary to the popular image—the record shows him as generally courteous to his colleagues, mindful of the need to treat properly the witnesses before him, and anxious to follow procedures that would protect the rights of the individuals whose loyalty he had reason to question. His being a fighter put him in the crucible of conflict, no doubt; but the means that were used against him provide, as we say, a case-study in sophistry and all that goes with it. And there is a lesson for students who wish to see through the myths that prevail on so many subjects: It is precisely those who practiced the sophistries who have emerged as the golden boys of the era.
3. It may be presumptuous to predict it, but we venture the opinion that Evans’ meticulous examination of the McCarthy record will not be given a central place in most commentators’ continued discussion of the subject. One of the characteristics of contemporary thought is that on many subjects two diametrically opposite currents of opinion and of investigation go past each other, with one totally oblivious to the other’s existence, making them like two ships passing in the night. This is especially true where “received opinion” adopts the images of the Left’s worldview. In almost all cases, there is a serious body of intellectual work that contests the image, but that never sees the light of day. Among the many examples, which we cite so the reader will not feel the generalization lacks reality: John F. Kennedy continues to be popularly presented in his Camelot image even after an extensive literature, written even by close observers who were in his political camp, has chronicled his sexual profligacy, his marital infidelities, and his sub-rosa connections with the Mafia. In like fashion, the studied revelations about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plagiarism are hidden from public discussion as the United States every year celebrates Martin Luther King Day. Few people are given to understand, for example, that his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall was largely copied from a speech given by a Chicago city councilman at the 1952 Republican National Convention or that his doctoral dissertation at Boston University copied many pages, including even the typos, from an earlier dissertation written by a certain Jack Boozer. The term “politically correct” has come to be used to describe the official version of “respectable” opinion, and that opinion is almost never disturbed by the stream of information running the other way. Responsible librarians and book sellers will want to make a point of making both accessible. If honest discourse is truly to be valued, Blacklisted by History should be among the McCarthy books in every library collection.
4. The intellectual failure involved in such a disconnect speaks poorly of the discourse that is supposed to guide American democracy. A fateful subset of this disconnect is found in what it tells us about the state of scholarship and academic investigation in today’s United States. Evans has made a careful study of the McCarthy record, incorporating into that study the materials that have become available to the public in recent years. Where are the other scholars?
What is perhaps a meaningful crack in the academic consensus came in 2000 with Prof. Arthur Herman’s Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator. Though very much a man of the Left and one who accepts the demonization of McCarthy, Herman breaks the orthodox mold by examining critically several of the standard anti-McCarthy fabrications. We may hope that now, with Evans’ book, there will be others like him.
5. We would be remiss if we didn’t direct readers’ attention to the many informative nuggets in Evans’ book. One of these has to do with something this reviewer hadn’t been aware of before: the demonization of the Yugoslav anti-Communist leader Gen. Draja Mihailovich and simultaneous elevation of Josip Broz (“Tito”) in 1942-3, and how similar this was to the eventual demonization of Chiang Kai-shek in China and praise of Mao Tse-tung. Another has to do with the “Annie Lee Moss case,” the famous incident in which McCarthy was supposed to have accused the wrong person. (Evans shows that indeed McCarthy did have the correct individual, and that she was by no means the simple innocent or inconsequential employee she has been held up to be.) A third tells us of President Dwight Eisenhower’s total gag order on any information that might otherwise have gone from staffers within the Department of Defense to Congress. Evans shows how this sweeping claim of “executive privilege,” warmly received by McCarthy’s critics, was in direct contravention to the Civil Service Act , and how negatively such an assertion of “executive privilege” was treated when attempted by later presidents. These, of course, are but a few. It will be for the reader to discover the others.
Dwight D. Murphey
Use your Facebook login and see what your friends are reading and sharing.
Now bringing you back...