It’s hard to find a historian these days who will say anything good about Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957). For that matter it’s hard to find anyone who will. There is nearly universal agreement that the fellow was bad news. Still the question must be asked: Is this fair? Is this accurate? Or do we simply “run with the herd” on this? Jump on the anti-McCarthy bandwagon and end all further inquiry into the matter? Or, should we re-open the case, so to speak, and take a fresh look? Have his faults been exaggerated and his virtues ignored? Can we say that maybe, just maybe, it ain’t all that simple? Not “black and white?” Good vs evil?
“Have you no decency sir?” This question was directed toward McCarthy by attorney Joseph Welch in the 1954 Army vs McCarthy hearings, an episode that effectively ended the anti-Communist crusade of the controversial Wisconsin senator. It’s a question worth exploring.
First, let’s look at the facts. Joseph McCarthy, the “infamous” senator from Wisconsin, was a Republican US senator between the years 1947 and 1957 and rose to national prominence immediately after a speech given in Wheeling, WV in February, 1950 in which he announced the presence of Communists in the state department. No recording of the speech exists. Exactly what he said on that occasion remains a matter of dispute. From that point forward, over the next three and a half years, he was the most publicized and best known US American politician except for presidents Truman and Eisenhower. His principal goal was to identify and remove Communists or Communist sympathizers in the US government, particularly those in sensitive government positions. Nowadays the term “McCarthyism” is a negative term used to describe a person(s) employing reckless, callous methods to identify alleged wrongdoers within a large group resulting in irreparable damage done to innocent people and instituting a climate of fear. After an official Senate censure in 1954, McCarthy faded from public view and died in 1957 at the age of 49 from liver disease due to an excessive consumption of alcohol.
I’m suggesting that we reopen the case” and look again at the various charges made against the Senator by his many opponents and see if, sixty years later, they still hold up. During the period of his fame and intense activity (1950-1954), the vast majority of his opponents were Democrats in Congress and in the state department, the liberal intelligentsia and the mainline big-city newspapers. McCarthy was constantly under fire and burdened himself by investigations designed to bring him down. His many critics, then and now, have said that:
- 1. “Tailgunner Joe” (as he was often called) never served in the military during WW II. False. At the outbreak of WW II, in his early thirties, he volunteered for the Marine Corps and served in the PTO or Pacific Theatre. Exactly how many combat missions he flew is still debated but the general consensus is that he flew twelve, maybe thirteen. He later exaggerated the number of missions upon application for the DSC (Distinguished Flying Cross) which he did receive. Still his exaggerated tales of military service pale when compared to the exaggerated tales offered by other US politicians in those days such as Lyndon Johnson, who managed to get a Silver Star for spending about fifteen minutes in the air on a routine flight where it was highly doubtful that his plane ever came under fire! When McCarthy became a US senator in 1946 at the age of 39, he was the first veteran of WW II to enter that body.
- 2. He never identified a single real, honest-to-God Communist. His accusations and grandstanding was all for naught, say his critics then and now, “sound and fury signifying nothing.” ONLY the innocent suffered as McCarthy and his colleagues in various congressional hearings dragged their reputations through the mud. He could never locate any real Communists, so it goes, but merely fanned the flames of anti-Communist hysteria. Real Communists seemed strangely elusive and out-of-reach for this big bully of a Senator. So said his critics.
Again False. Among those McCarthy identified as dangerous Communists were T.A. Bisson, Mary Jane Keeney, Cedric Belfrage, Solomon Adler, Franz Neumann, Leonard Mins, Gustavo Duran, and William Remington. All, at various times in their lives, McCarthy believed, were committed Communists and serious security risks or worse .
Remington, for example, came under suspicion by the US government after WW II (long before McCarthy) for passing classified info to the Soviets. He was charged by the FBI in the late forties but the charges were dropped. Due to the urging of McCarthy, Roy Cohn, (McCarthy’s legal assistant) and others, his case was reopened and Remington, who had held several government positions, was finally brought to trial in 1954, found guilty, sentenced and sent to prison to serve a three year sentence. He was murdered while in prison.
Mary Jane Keeny, an employee of the United Nations representing the US government, was pegged as a Communist by McCarthy in February 1950. She and her husband Joe were part of the “Silvermaster Spy Ring” connected to the GRU, or Soviet military intelligence. The two had long been under suspicion by the US government when McCarthy mentioned her in a speech. She was dismissed from her job. In 1952 the Keenys were convicted on contempt of Congress before a senate committee but their convictions were later reversed on appeal. Later research into declassified documents in the 1990s by cold war historian John E. Haynes firmly established their treasonous espionage activities.
In both cases McCarthy examined their files and was incensed that such persons were still working for the US government. In the Keeny case, McCarthy had no idea at the time as to the extent of their treason; it was far worse than even he suspected. They never served a day in jail but, due to the work of the Senator, they also never again served in a government position, an outcome that likely suited him just fine. He knew that getting convictions against such persons was a long-term, expensive process. Simply getting them out of the civil service would have to do.
Solomon Adler, though never called in person to the Senate floor, was named twice by the controversial Senator in the hearings. Adler, an unapologetic admirer of Mao, was part of the US state-department China circle in the nineteen-forties. When the heat turned in his direction in 1950 he bolted the USA and went to England, the place of his birth. Later, in 1960, he returned to mainland China and spent the remainder of his life in service to his adopted country living to a ripe old age . Look him up on Wiki-pedia. Sounds like a “Commie” to me.
Of course, three names do not let McCarthy of the hook completely. He mentioned lots of folks in the hearings, most of whom easily escaped further Senate notice. But NOT FBI notice. Or the notice of McCarthy supporters who were convinced that he was on the right track.
McCarthy moved through a long list of names and got almost no support from Millard Tydings, the Democrat Chairman of the sub-committee assigned to handle the McCarthy business. Why? More on that later.
- Joe McCarthy called General George C. Marshall a “traitor” and a “Communist.” Again false. No way. Though the textbooks often say it, he never used those words. But…. his June 14, 1951 anti-Marshall speech on the Senate floor was probably his greatest tactical error. The upstart young Senator from Wisconsin was David against Washington’s Goliath this time. Caught up in the heat of the moment McCarthy let loose a blistering diatribe against the sainted general that would cause his enemies to go into overdrive and his friends to cringe. But, to the thoughtful, it was obvious that McCarthy was squarely on target regarding much of what he said. Among other things, in his late 1945 visit to China, McCarthy believed, the sainted general had been swayed by advisors and associates such as Solomon Adler negatively disposed to Nationalist leader Chiang Kai -shek and had been manipulated into disastrous decisions that hurt Chaing and helped Mao Tse-tung. The triumph of Communism in mainland China had occurred only a few weeks before McCarthy’s initial speech in Wheeling. In one fell swoop, another one fourth of the world’s population went under the hammer and sickle. Those were dark days indeed for the cause of freedom and democracy.
McCarthy was not Marshall’s only critic. In a disaster of that magnitude, heads will roll. Ordinarily. But not this time. The sainted general and his China associates in this episode would keep theirs. Marshall was, in the view of millions, beyond criticism, a pillar of virtue. And his associates? Innocent by association. But not in the eyes of Joe McCarthy. Right or wrong, the Irish Catholic street-brawler from Wisconsin had clearly crossed a line in this speech. And his enemies would not forget it. And, in the coming years, nor would many lazy historians compiling their dubious US history textbooks, books for which one pays a hundred dollars one year and is lucky to resell the next year for a fraction of that!
More on McCarthy next time. More charges and more rebuttals.
Sources: BLACKLISTED BY HISTORY, M. Stanton Evans, Wiki-pedia, and JOSEPH MCCARTHY: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator by Arthur Hermann.