The Hidden Truth About Joseph McCarthy

Daniel J. Flynn

    For generations of American students, the name Joe McCarthy and not Joe Stalin has been synonymous with evil. A practitioner of “black arts,” a “demon,” “ogreish,” and a “seditionist” are a few of the descriptions of him handed down to us from his first major biographer. The passage of time hasn’t tempered these hysterical reactions.
    The late senator, the story goes, created a climate of fear in the early 1950s by conducting a witchhunt that called liberals “Communists” and Communists “spies.” We now know better. The witches were real. Today, even many of McCarthy’s most extreme and ridiculed statements—alleging “a conspiracy on a scale so immense” or lambasting “twenty years of treason” in Democratic administrations—seem, if anything, to understate the pervasiveness of Communist infiltration of the U.S. government and the enormity of its damage. 
    Documents from the Soviet Union’s archives, USSR spy  messages deciphered by the U.S. government’s Venona program, and declassified FBI files and wiretaps all prove that hundreds of U.S. officials were agents of an international Communist conspiracy. If these previously inaccessible documents shed light on only a few of McCarthy’s specific charges, they certainly vindicate his general charge that security in the U.S. government was lax and that large numbers of Communists penetrated positions of great importance. 
    Alger Hiss, Roosevelt foreign policy advisor and first secretary general of the United Nations; Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the Treasury and Truman’s appointee as director of the International Monetary Fund; and Lauchlin Currie, administrative assistant to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, have all been confirmed, among hundreds of others, to have been agents of the USSR. In addition to the multitudes of executive branch agents, we also know of at least three Congressmen working clandestinely for the Soviet Union during this time period. 
    Government was hardly the only domain targeted by Soviet espionage. Influential media figures like I.F. Stone of The Nation, Michael Straight, editor of The New Republic, and Pulitzer Prize Winner Walter Duranty of The New York Times were actually agents of the Soviet Union. Prominent unions like the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Screen Actors Guild were dominated by Communists. Even major industrialists like Armand Hammer did their part by laundering Soviet money to domestic U.S. Communists. 
    Despite many of these new revelations, academic opinion of “tail-gunner Joe,” the central enemy of domestic subversion in the early 1950s, has remained static. This consensus had gone unchallenged within academic circles until the release of Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator by George Mason University History Professor Arthur Herman. 
    In Joseph McCarthy, Arthur Herman writes that the “standard claim that McCarthy had never exposed a real Communist in the government” is “demonstrably false.” A perusal of the major books on McCarthy reveals that this statement itself sets Herman’s work apart.  
    McCarthy’s “critics were right,” Rutgers Professor David Oshinsky remarks in A Conspiracy So Immense, “he never uncovered a Communist.” Thomas Reeves of the University of Wisconsin opines in The Life and Times of  Joe McCarthy that “McCarthy did not have a single name.” Robert Griffith maintains in The Politics of Fear, “Each of McCarthy’s charges was fraudulent.” “It happened to be a fact,” boasted Richard Rovere in Senator Joe McCarthy, “that not one certifiable Communist had been disclosed as working for the government” as a result of the junior senator from Wisconsin’s efforts.
    Herman dissents and offers up Owen Lattimore, Edward Posniak, Mary Jane Keeney, Gustavo Duran, and John Carter Vincent as among the cases in which McCarthy had things essentially right. 
    Among one of the first names McCarthy named was that of Mary Jane Keeney. Mrs. Keeney worked in various sensitive overseas State Department jobs during the 1940s before settling in at the United Nations. Intercepted Venona cables, as well as her own diaries, prove that Keeney and her husband were Soviet agents. In February of 1950 McCarthy understated matters by labeling this agent of a foreign power merely a Communist. By the end of that year she was forced out of her post at the United Nations.  
    For anti-anticommunists, McCarthy’s charges against Gustavo Duran stood as “proof of the insanity of the red scare.” Michael Straight, Duran’s brother-in-law and editor of The New Republic, would use the pages of his magazine to promote Duran’s supposed innocence and McCarthy’s assumed recklessness. Testimony by many attesting to Duran’s Stalinism and work for the Spanish Communist secret police during the Spanish Civil War—even a picture of him in a Communist uniform—was dismissed as Francoist propaganda. One would think that Straight’s later admission to being a Soviet agent should have at least sparked a second look into this McCarthy allegation by historians.
    Besides Herman, there haven’t been any takers. Herman asserts that Duran was “not only a Communist but a central figure in Stalin’s cold-blooded purge of his Trotskyite and anarchist allies during the Spanish Civil War.” Later, Duran’s supporters would lamely point out that Duran, like Mrs. Keeney, was technically no longer a State Department employee since he worked at the United Nations. The fact that he, like Keeney, was paid by the State Department and was definitely a Communist didn’t factor into their passage of judgement on McCarthy’s charges against Duran. 
    More so than any other witness, Annie Lee Moss purportedly exposed the cruelty and recklessness of Joseph McCarthy. Moss, who somehow jumped from an Army cafeteria worker to a clerk in the Pentagon code room, was labeled by McCarthy to be a loyalty risk. A middle-aged African American woman who walked to give her testimony with an elderly gait, Moss quickly gained the sympathy of Democrats on McCarthy’s committee. When asked about her knowledge of Karl Marx, Moss asked, “Who’s that?” The copies of The Daily Worker that arrived at her house were sent to the wrong address, she maintained. There were three Annie Lee Mosses in Washington, DC, her defenders intoned, so perhaps McCarthy had gotten the wrong woman.
    McCarthy-haters seized on the Moss case as a club with which to beat anti-Communists. Edward R. Murrow devoted his weekly “See It Now” program to Mrs. Moss’s plight, while Missouri Senator Stu Symington told the witness that if she lost her job with the Army she could always come work for him. Just a year after McCarthy’s death it was revealed that he had indeed got the right woman. There was only one Annie Lee Moss in Washington, DC and it was the same Annie Lee Moss whose name and address appeared on the rolls of the local Communist Party. A former FBI agent even attested to seeing her actual Communist Party membership card from years earlier.  If one U.S. Senator should be destroyed for allegedly making false accusations of Communism, what should the penalty be for another who announces to the world his willingness to give a Communist a job in his office?  
    If a dishonest characterization of McCarthy is the largest common denominator among anti-anticommunists, then hypocrisy is a close second. 
    So-called McCarthyite devices, such as the Smith Act and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, were creations not of Cold Warriors, but of New Deal Democrats. When they were used against fascists or even Trotskyites, Herman reminds readers, the Communists applauded and at times even aided and abetted the government. Only years later when the tables were turned did liberals change their tune about the methods they created. All that mattered was whose ox was being gored. 
    After McCarthy first made his charges public in February of 1950, Senate Democrats demanded that he stop hiding behind closed-door sessions and name names. Once McCarthy did what they asked, these very same Senate Democrats pounced on him for making charges without giving the accused the opportunity to defend themselves. 
    McCarthy’s enemies—supposed champions of civil liberties—tapped his phone, intercepted his incoming personal mail, placed a paid spy in his office, and illegally released his tax returns to the press (resulting in a large refund!). Herman recounts the amusing story of Paul Hughes, one that has been curiously forgotten by most McCarthy biographers. Hughes, a confidence man, convinced members of the Democratic National Committee, famous labor lawyer Joseph Rauh, and the Washington Post that he was a spy in McCarthy’s office and that he had evidence of major lawbreaking by the Senator. Rauh and a DNC leader paid more than $10,000 for the information, and the Post prepared a twelve-part series on the allegations, which included a bizarre tale about McCarthy stockpiling weapons in the basement of the Capitol, with an obvious implication of a coup. After nine-months of feeding absurd stories about McCarthy to liberals hungry for anything that would defame their enemy, Hughes was revealed as a fraud. The massive Post series was killed at the last minute. 
    “McCarthy opponents liked to claim that what made McCarthy reek in the nostrils of American democracy was not what McCarthy was doing but how he did it: the public airing of unsubstantiated charges, the use of smear and innuendo, and ‘confidential informants, dossiers, political spies,’ as Joseph Rauh himself had written,” Herman observes. “The Hughes case proves that some of them were willing to do at least the same to him.” 
    Although McCarthy is charged with a failure to distinguish between liberals and Communists, it was generally liberals, Herman points out, who couldn’t recognize the differences. It was Franklin Roosevelt, after all, who brought Alger Hiss to Yalta and Harry Truman who promoted Harry Dexter White to head the International Monetary Fund. Both Truman and Roosevelt entrusted these Soviet agents with top positions long after they had been told that Hiss and White were involved in espionage. 
    During the time that the Senate was debating whether to condemn McCarthy, Andrei Vishinsky, prosecutor for Stalin’s show trials, passed away after having sent scores of people to their deaths for crimes they didn’t commit. “McCarthy had not sent one person to jail. Yet by a terrible irony of fate,” Herman notes, “it is his name, not Vishinsky’s, that has been universally remembered and reviled as the symbol of an error of terror and suspicion.” 
    This February 9, marks the 50th anniversary of McCarthy’s famous Wheeling, West Virginia, address. The five decades that have passed since this earthshattering speech have seen an unending academic assault not just on McCarthy, but on just about any figure who took the view that Communism was inherently evil. Arthur Herman’s Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of Americas Most Hated Senator is a much needed antidote to the many propagandistic screeds that have made McCarthy a bogeyman in academic circles and beyond. Willing to point out McCarthy’s flaws and his strengths, Herman offers up a view of McCarthy detached from the hysteria surrounding so many other works on the subject. 
    It is folly to think that Joe McCarthy, like  J. Parnell Thomas, Martin Dies, and A. Mitchell Palmer before him, was attacked because he smeared innocents. Joe McCarthy’s real crime was calling Communists precisely what they were: Communists.