Joe McCarthy: Despicable or Prophetic?

A recent column I wrote on communism in Hollywood in the 1940s elicited strong reaction toward the person of Joe McCarthy. This was somewhat perplexing, given that McCarthy was not the front-and-center figure investigating Hollywood communism. Yet, it wasn’t surprising, given that any mention of the Stalinist sympathies of American communists prompts liberals into reflexive accusations of McCarthyism.

For the record, the investigation of communism in Hollywood was led by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which (for most of its existence) was chaired by anti-communist Democrats. The first and last heads of HCUAA (commonly but incorrectly abbreviated as “HUAC”) were Democrats: Martin Dies (Texas) and Richard Ichord (Missouri). There is much history there, but I’d like to focus here on Joe McCarthy.

“McCarthy ruined many careers and many lives,” one reader emailed me. “His name is a disgrace to America. He was a despicable human being.”

To be sure, there is no way I can here adequately resolve McCarthy’s vilification or vindication. I have colleagues I respect on both sides of that debate. My general judgment is that Joe McCarthy certainly had his failings, clearly was not always right, but also—we’ve learned—was more often right than his detractors imagined, feared, or would grudgingly concede.

Before briefly considering both sides, one thing must be understood by everyone, especially liberals: Joe McCarthy and the Senate and House of Representatives were fully justified in investigating domestic communism. (Senator McCarthy was never a member of “HUAC.”) Communist Party USA members literally swore a loyalty oath to Stalin’s Soviet Union, pledging to work to “insure the triumph of Soviet Power in the United States.” One of the Hollywood Ten, Edward Dymytryk, the only one who openly regretted joining the Party, was appalled when fellow Party members told him that in a war between the United States and USSR, they would fight for Moscow. They devotedly sided with an ideology that killed over 100 million, double the combined tolls of World War I and II.

Communist Party USA, which secretly and illegally received an annual subsidy from Moscow, was not just another political party. Its members actively worked against America and for Stalin. They were committed to overthrowing the U.S. government and replacing it with what Communist Party head William Z. Foster termed a “Soviet America.” Congress, of course, is constitutionally tasked with investigating domestic security threats. Thus, Democrats and Republicans alike believed they had to investigate this. To not do so would violate their sworn oaths—to America. Joe McCarthy was one of them.

Fair enough. The question, however, was how McCarthy then proceeded in that task.

As for his failings, liberals need no persuading. They view McCarthy as a fire-breathing monster who wrecked careers with unfounded innuendo. It is conservatives who usually need swaying on McCarthy’s failings. I would point them to the original 1954 classic by William F. Buckley Jr. and L. Brent Bozell, McCarthy and His Enemies, which listed 86 objections to the senator and his methods.

As to where McCarthy was right, I recommend the 2007 book by M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies. The material on China is astounding. The information on what really happened with McCarthy’s notorious list of communists is stunning. The section on Edward R. Murrow and Annie Lee Moss is maddening. The chapter, “The Caveman in the Sewer,” is infuriating. Evans listed numerous names of real communists who did terrible damage. And that’s just a brief snapshot of a 663-page book.

To be sure, Evans’ book has its critics, including Cold War historians I respect. Nonetheless, Evans marshalled a lifetime of research on McCarthy, producing the most eye-opening revisionist history on the man. If his book is only half right, that would be enough to force some major reappraisals by liberals who have long viewed Joe McCarthy as a worse demon than Joe Stalin. Liberals who refuse to read this book do so at peril to their service to truth.

Of course, the McCarthy debate will continue. Yet, information declassified and now available long after his death resolves the most important dispute: The anti-communist senator was justified in his fears that communists had indeed heavily penetrated the country. The latest research, particularly by Larry Ceplair, Steven Englund, and Allan Ryskind, estimate 200-300 communists operating in Hollywood in the late 1940s, always under concealment. And the crucial Venona decryptions yield over 350 communists in U.S. government positions during World War II, poised to do Stalin’s devastating work in Europe.

Joe McCarthy was right about this: these communists—along with the non-communist leftists they influenced—caused some serious damage. In fact, there may have been more of them causing more damage than even he feared.

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.