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The Sins of Joe McCarthy

Posted on September 29 2009 5:36 pm
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here
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Senator Joe McCarthy, perpetual boogeyman of the Left.

Senator Joe McCarthy, fighting the right war but with the wrong methods.

Several commenters on David Horowitz’s previous “Whose Conspiracy?” post have questioned the article’s remarks about the legacy of Senator Joseph McCarthy. They wanted to know what exactly McCarthy did wrong.

From Horowitz’s review of Ann Coulter’s Treason:

It is a shame that Coulter mars her case with claims that cannot be sustained. In making McCarthy the center of her history, ironically, she has fallen into the very liberal trap she warns about. It is the Left that wants McCarthy to be the center of (and in effect to define) the postwar era so that it can use his recklessness to discredit the anti-Communist cause. In fact, as Coulter herself points out, McCarthy began his anti-Communist crusade after the decisive battles of 1947 and 1948, surfacing only in 1950, after the onset of the Korean War. By then, even Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, knew he had been duped. This is why McCarthy did not unearth any Communists in government or out (they all had been previously identified by the FBI), and why FBI officials engaged in counter-intelligence work despised McCarthy for damaging their efforts. Hopefully, Treason will not have a similar effect.

On the other hand, there are many apercus in this book that are memorable. It was only in reading Coulter’s text that I realized what a fraud Joseph Welch — the hero of all anti-McCarthy histories – was, and how his moment of glory in “exposing” McCarthy was a hypocritical sham. Coulter reminds us that one of McCarthy’s great “sins” was to have identified Owen Lattimore as Stalin’s chief agent in America. In fact, Lattimore was a supporter of Stalin’s and Mao’s political agendas and a willing tool of their policies, and that having been identified as such, he was hired by Harvard.

It is indignantly reported that McCarthy exaggerated. His claim that Owen Lattimore was a Soviet agent – as opposed to behaved like a Soviet agent – is hyperbole deserving of a hundred-year condemnation. But liberals’ threshold for outrage dropped when it came to McCarthy. In fact, McCarthy’s rhetoric was mild by the standards of his time. In President Truman’s 1948 campaign, he railed, ‘If anybody in this country is friendly to the Communists it is the Republicans.’ [Coulter]

Yet even the fact that Lattimore behaved like a Soviet agent is somewhat different from McCarthy’s claim that he was the chief Soviet agent. How did McCarthy’s mis-identifying Lattimore this way serve the anti-Communist cause? In fact, it served to discredit the anti-Communist cause. But Coulter wants us to think of McCarthy as the anti-Communist hero of the era: “In his brief fiery ride across the landscape, Joe McCarthy bought America another thirty years.” Quite the opposite has been argued by many anti-Communists, whom Coulter brusquely dismisses:

“Lost amid all the mandatory condemnations of Joe McCarthy’s name – he gave anti-Communism a bad name, did a disservice to the cause, was an unnecessary distraction – the little detail about his being right always seems to get lost. McCarthy’s fundamental thesis was absolutely correct: The Democratic Party had fallen to the allures of totalitarianism.” But, if this was true, why did the totalitarians abandon the Democratic Party en masse in 1948? The answer is that McCarthy’s thesis was incorrect, and Coulter is just wrong about his political impact. He exploited the anti-Communist sentiment that was already the popular wisdom of the time, and by giving flesh to the fears of open-ended witch-hunts allowed the Communist Left to regroup, and ultimately – in 1972 to be precise – return to the Democratic Party fold.

Many of the inaccurate generalizations of Treason are indeed the hyperbole of Coulterian satire, but unfortunately the most crucial ones are not. I realized this when I saw Ann defending her claims on Chris Matthews’ Hardball:

Chris Matthews: What do you mean by the cover of this book?

Ann Coulter: What I mean is that the Democratic Party, as an entity, has become functionally treasonable, including what you’re talking about, turning over documents to the enemy….

Chris Matthews: Well, should they be prosecuted?

Ann Coulter: I wish it were that easy a problem, but that trivializes the point of my book, which is not that there are just a few dozen traitors out there. It is that the entire party cannot root for America.

Chris Matthews: Well, let’s talk about the leaders of the Democratic Party over the years. Was Jack Kennedy a traitor? Was he guilty of treason?

Ann Coulter: He was not as strong a president as a Republican would have been. But I’m referring, as I say again, I’m referring to a party that is functionally treasonable….

Chris Matthews: Was Jack Kennedy a traitor?

Ann Coulter: No, he was not a traitor.

The problem with Coulter’s book is that she is not willing to concede that McCarthy was, in fact, demagogic in any sense at all, or that his recklessness injured the anti-Communist cause. Ron Radosh, Harvey Klehr and John Haynes have distinguished themselves as historians by documenting the Communist menace that many liberals discounted. But they have also documented the irresponsible antics of McCarthy, which undermined the anti-Communist cause. Coulter dismisses such conservative criticisms of McCarthy as caving in to the liberals. She is wrong.

Also drop by tomorrow for the David Horowitz quote of the day in which another passage from “McCarthy’s Ghost” from Destructive Generation will be featured.

UPDATED: For more read Ron Radosh’s guest post at NewsReal today.

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