Correcting the Record on McCarthy

There are three reasons that a response to Victor Davis Hanson’s recent commentary on American Greatness, “How Bad Ideas Become Wonderful” seems necessary. One, Hanson’s views will profoundly influence what self-described conservatives think about any issue since Hanson is among the most popular conservative celebrities today. His face and voice are present on Fox News, while just about every conservative publication or website with nationwide circulation features his opinions. Two, I happen to agree with almost everything Hanson says about current affairs and therefore am puzzled that we so often disagree about the past. Three, some of the historical statements made by Hanson in his recent piece in American Greatness seem so wrong that it may be my duty to point them out. Hanson’s mistakes, as I’ve suggested, carry much more weight than those that might appear in a conventionally woke publication or on an Alt-right website. They will likely become the record of the past that younger conservatives absorb.

In his latest commentary, we learn that “Joe McCarthy is back” in the person of Joe Biden. When Biden identified “MAGA Republicans” as the enemy, he was apparently imitating the Wisconsin Senator who in 1950 launched what the Left describes as a “witch hunt” or “red scare” against suspected Communist agents. All that was missing from Biden’s performance at Independence Hall was, according to Hanson, “the purported list of names” that McCarthy waved at his audience in Wheeling, West Virginia in February 1950. It was there and then that the Republican senator launched his campaign to expose Communist agents throughout the government.

As M. Stanton Evans meticulously shows in his exhaustive investigation of McCarthy’s charges, Blacklisted by History, most of the accusations leveled by McCarthy against particular individuals and groups had some basis in fact. Soviet spies and informers had indeed penetrated to the very top of the federal administration; and a network of agents had been used since the 1940s to carry sensitive information to Stalin’s government. Much of this can be learned from the Venona Files, decoded messages sent by Soviet agents to Stalin’s regime, which later came into the possession of the CIA and were finally made public in 1995 and 1996. These files included revelations about leaked atomic secrets. Even a far from sympathetic biographer Arthur L. Herman fully concedes in Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator that serious security problems existed when McCarthy came on the scene. Contrary to what Hanson and the entire Left believe, McCarthy, according to Herman, was calling attention to dangerous security risks that unfortunately existed, even if the senator engaged in unseemly theatrics and drank too much. The Truman administration, according to its many critics, was not removing security threats quickly enough, most of which developed under the far from vigilantly anti-Communist Roosevelt presidency.  

Although I share Hanson’s opinion of the president’s rhetoric against “MAGA Republicans,” his dredging up of McCarthy and the McCarthy era as a precedent for it works badly. McCarthyism was a possible overreaction to a genuine threat to the survival of the United States when the country was embroiled in a struggle with Stalin’s Russia. Moreover, an anti-Communist reaction understandably set in among most Americans after Eastern Europe had fallen under brutal Soviet domination, after the Communists had come to power in China, and after it was brought to light that the government had been riddled with Communists and Soviet appeasers.

Even during the height of the senator’s career as an anti-Communist, he never unleashed the comprehensive tyranny on this country that the left threatens today, with its interconnected network in politics, administration, media, and education.

It seems misleading to compare Biden and McCarthy without indicating that they were addressing entirely different situations. While McCarthy was pointing, however simplistically, to a genuine foreign danger, Biden was talking about his political opponents and blaming them collectively for the occupation of the Capitol building on January 6. McCarthy was addressing a local women’s club when he waved around his list of suspected Communist agents. Moreover, he didn’t have a compliant media across the Western world eager to defend him. Most journalists disagreed vehemently with him, and some, like Drew Pearson, made lucrative careers out of mocking him.     

Equally relevant, today’s woke America and the conglomeration of powers that direct it are far more pervasively oppressive than the supposed decade of the Red Scare. In December 1954, McCarthy was censured by his fellow Senators (most of whom were Democrats) for his abusive behavior toward his colleagues and thereafter had little influence on American politics. Even during the height of the senator’s career as an anti-Communist, which lasted less than four years, he never unleashed the comprehensive tyranny on this country that the left threatens today, with its interconnected network in politics, administration, media, and education.

American universities were generally in the hands of left-of-center faculties and administrators throughout the 1950s. William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, which was published in 1951 about the author’s undergraduate experience, depicts Yale’s faculty of the late 1940s as overwhelmingly on the left. That did not change after the rise of McCarthyism, and when I was at Yale in the mid-1960s, anti-anti-Communism was the dominant ideology among the faculty with whom I had contact. The only strongly anti-Communist faculty member I encountered, Charles Moser, a professor of Slavic languages, was denied tenure, despite copious scholarly publications, after he refused to host a visiting Soviet dignitary (whom he had reason to believe was an informer). Most of my leftist teachers had risen professionally during the 1950s, but still bewailed the “red scare.”

Please note that leftist bugaboo frequently and inaccurately confounded with McCarthy, the House Unamerican Activities Committee, which investigated domestic subversion, went back to 1938. In its early years, it harassed those suspected of being sympathetic to fascism. It was the fact that an institution that had served the Left was eventually turned to anti-Communist purposes that put it in the anti-anti-communist Left’s crosshairs. It’s also hard for me to get weepy over the Hollywood Ten, the movie script writers who in the 1950s supposedly fell victim to what Communist sympathizer, Lilian Hellman, decried as “the scoundrel times.” Some of those scriptwriters like Dalton Trumbo had joined the Communist Party and freely offered themselves as Communist propagandists. Moreover, as Sean McMeekin shows in “Big Screen Bolshevism,” Hollywood was full of scriptwriters who cleaved to Communist party lines throughout the Second World War. One would have tripped over such types attending a convention of Hollywood scriptwriters circa 1947.  Although some of these cinematic propagandists later lost commissions, presumably this fate befell them for a graver offense than using gender-specific pronouns or suggesting that all lives matter. They had gilded the lily for an aggressive mass-murdering tyrant.   

Hanson is right to look out for budding tyranny. But he should reconsider his history.