It may be thin consolation for history's acknowledged villains, but sooner or later someone will buck the trend and write something half-decent about you. Joseph McCarthy is surely the most reviled politician in US history, and understandably so. No matter that conspiracy theories and witch-hunts are as old as America itself. The Senate hearings he conducted into supposed communists in the US government violated everything the country most admired in itself. Fairness, tolerance and the presumption of innocence are supposed to be the American way. McCarthy abused them all. Yet, as Arthur Herman demonstrates, it was not quite so simple.
In some ways, McCarthy is a truly modern figure. He was addicted to headlines and shamelessly exploited the media to secure them. But in the end, he became the first American politician to be brought down by the newest of the media, television. And the style of congressional committee he pioneered - thuggish, self-aggrandising and nakedly political - lives to this day, as anyone will testify who witnessed the battle to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court or the absurdly partisan hearings into the Whitewater affair.
In the late Forties and early Fifties, when Russia stole the bomb, China was "lost" and Korea invaded, anti-communism gripped the public imagination. In the hands of a more capable politician it might have carried McCarthy far. But for the recklessly impulsive junior senator from Wisconsin, the cause led to disaster on an epic scale. Herman's description of McCarthy's fall is moving, the story of a man abandoned by erstwhile friends, ravaged by drink, and uncomprehending of how every effort to defend himself only dug the pit deeper.
History has partially vindicated McCarthy. The Venona decrypts of top-secret Soviet cable traffic, and other material available since the end of the Cold War, have proved beyond doubt the guilt of Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs and others. Communists and their sympathisers had infiltrated many areas of American government, just as McCarthy insisted. He was correct, too, that government vetting and security procedures were far too lax.
But America has always had its establishment - in McCarthy's day, that East Coast coterie of "Wise Men", such as Dean Acheson and Averell Harriman, and the high-minded Washington newspaper columnists with whom they socialised. They knew best how to deal with communists; for McCarthy, the vulgar demagogue, their revulsion was almost physical. "He was working class, they were varsity class," Herman writes. "He was hairy, loud and sweaty; they were cool, clean and antiseptic." Even for his own party, he was too much to stomach. McCarthy's error was to turn his probe against the Pentagon when a Republican general was in the White House. From that point, Dwight Eisenhower was out to destroy him.
With McCarthy's disgrace in the Senate censure vote of December 1954, the Red Scare was to all intents and purposes over. The indirect consequences of McCarthyism, however, were arguably far more costly to America. His antics had discredited Congress in its constitutional role of overseer of the executive - allowing the heirs of the Wise Men in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to lead America into Vietnam, virtually unquestioned. McCarthy's excesses permitted Eisenhower to withhold evidence from his committee, inventing the doctrine of "executive privilege" that reached its pernicious climax in the Watergate scandal.
McCarthy was a self-promoter, a bully and a liar. He was the bane of liberals and intellectuals. But he never sent a single person to jail, and ruined a few dozen careers at most. Ten days before the Senate's censure in Washington, Andrei Vishinsky, the state prosecutor in Stalin's trumped-up show trials - which prefigured the deaths of millions in the Gulag - died in Moscow. Yet Vishinsky's name is forgotten, while McCarthyism is shorthand the world over for political purge. Is it rehabilitation to suggest that this is just a little unfair?
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