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Ronald Radosh: Is the new biography of Joe McCarthy trustworthy?

[Mr. Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a contributing editor of the New York Sun, has written widely on Communism and anti-Communism.]

During the past decade we have seen a bold new attempt to resurrect the reputation and stature of Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, whose Senate investigations into Communism in the 1950s led to the word “McCarthyism,” a term used ever since to describe those who smeared their opponents falsely, ruined their careers, and practiced guilt by association. The reevaluation began with a 1996 column by liberal journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, who dared to claim that while McCarthy “got it all wrong” he was still “closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him.” In 2000, Arthur Herman produced a revisionist biography of McCarthy. And, most recently, Ann Coulter wrote that McCarthy was right: Liberals back then (as now) were “systematically undermining the nation’s ability to defend itself, while waging a bellicose campaign of lies to blacken McCarthy’s name.”

Now joining the fray is longtime journalist and prominent conservative M. Stanton Evans. Rather than a biography, Evans has written a defense counsel’s brief for his client, whom he seeks to defend against all the slanders made about McCarthy by his political enemies. Like any lawyer’s argument, Evans’s brief has strengths and weaknesses. He has done extensive research, and has managed to prove that many of McCarthy’s main opponents themselves had a highly partisan agenda, bending truth in order to score points. Most important, many of his critics were so upset with McCarthy that they totally ignored or minimized the serious issue of Communist penetration of the highest levels of the government. Evans’s brief, however, is weakened by a lack of balance, and his desire to write an unabashed tribute that seeks to exonerate McCarthy on virtually every count. ...

While McCarthy did identify some Communists who managed to escape the net, he also began to investigate and pillory many who were in no way connected with the Soviets as agents, spies, or couriers. He often failed to distinguish between actual Communists, fellow-travelers, and anti-Communist liberals and social-democrats. It was enough for him to know that they were critical of his methods and tactics: That made them as good as Communists. Many of these people were indeed Communists, fellow-travelers, or dupes. But they were not engaged in any activity except that of public pronouncements that could be accepted or rejected on their merits. Nothing in the area of their work made them a security risk. The way Evans deals with this is highly unsatisfactory: He briefly mentions their sessions with McCarthy and ends with a short, forgettable sentence to the effect that perhaps McCarthy should not have called them. He does not even pause to ask why so many anti-Communist Americans felt nothing but hostility to McCarthy.

This is not a minor matter, because it reveals a great flaw in his book. Consider his treatment of liberal editor James Wechsler. Evans acknowledges that calling Wechsler to testify was a “dubious move,” and that McCarthy “should never have had the editor before the committee.” But Wechsler was called and questioned, and McCarthy’s treatment of him reflects why so many regarded him as a bully and a demagogue. All one has to do is read the transcripts. You will not find them quoted in Evans’s book. What you will find is that McCarthy told the fierce anti-Communist editor that he had not really broken with the Communists, and was “serving them very, very actively.” This was preposterous, since the Communist Daily Worker regularly attacked Wechsler for being anti-Communist. McCarthy thought that was all a big ruse so that Wechsler’s New York Post readers would believe him when he attacked McCarthy in his own paper.

More important to Evans’s book is the issue of Far East scholar Owen Lattimore and the Amerasia spy case of June 1945. (Full disclosure: Harvey Klehr and I are co-authors of The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism, a book from which Evans takes virtually all of his material and which he does not acknowledge.) The now-forgotten Lattimore was, after being attacked by McCarthy, elevated to the pantheon of heroes by two generations of historians and writers. He was an adviser to both Chiang Kai-shek and U.S. policymakers, and gave the advice that it was not in America’s best interests to support Chiang’s troops.

Evans easily proves that, rather than being a righteous martyr, Lattimore was a prototypical fellow-traveler of the Communists, someone who portrayed the Chinese Communists as genuine democrats. Evans easily demolishes the apologists for Lattimore by carefully dissecting what Lattimore wrote. All of that, of course, was available to anyone at the time. Evans writes: “As these quotes [from Lattimore] suggest, Lattimore seldom met a Red atrocity he didn’t like, or couldn’t find an excuse for.” Later, he writes that Lattimore’s writing proves “that he was an indefatigable shill for Moscow.” Lattimore’s real politics are hardly news, and were not at the time.

McCarthy did not stop at exposing Lattimore: He announced that Lattimore was Russia’s “top espionage agent” as well as “Alger Hiss’s boss.” Then, at a closed hearing of the Tydings Committee established to investigate McCarthy, he told the senators: “I am willing to stake my whole case on this man. If I’m wrong about him, then I am discredited as a witness.” A day later, he added that he was “willing to stand or fall on this one.” McCarthy fell, and fell hard. His over-the-top charges only created great sympathy for Lattimore, whose actual views and policy recommendations were completely ignored.

While Lattimore was a shill for the Soviets, he was hardly the spy McCarthy made him out to be. Rather than acknowledge this, Evans seeks to justify McCarthy. He does so by bending evidence to imply, without proof, that perhaps Lattimore was a spy. His biggest proof is that Lattimore’s FBI file bore the title: “Owen Lattimore, Espionage-R” (for Russia). Any historian working with FBI files knows right away that a file category means that the FBI was investigating a possibility, and offers no proof that the person so filed was any kind of agent. Evans even ignores what he quotes J. Edgar Hoover as saying, that the allegations were “unsubstantiated.” ...

Related Links

  • John Earl Haynes: Says the mainstream press is ignoring new book about Joe McCarthy by apologist M. Stanton Evans

  • Does Ann Coulter Know What She's Talking About?
  • Read entire article at National Review Online