The exhumation of Joe McCarthy

Some on the US right believe he offers a model for how to fight a war against Islamic fundamentalism

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The grave of Senator Joe McCarthy has been pillaged. In the think tanks of the Republican right, in the broadcasts of Fox News, and in the pages of some of the most popular books in America, he lives again. From the mid-1950s until 2001, there was a consensus in America that McCarthyism was a brief period of political psychosis. The Senator's drunken belief that the democratic American left consisted mainly of closet Reds working to subvert the United States was seen as risible; a sulphuric firework that threatened American civil liberties and democracy for a moment but then deservedly died away.

The grave of Senator Joe McCarthy has been pillaged. In the think tanks of the Republican right, in the broadcasts of Fox News, and in the pages of some of the most popular books in America, he lives again. From the mid-1950s until 2001, there was a consensus in America that McCarthyism was a brief period of political psychosis. The Senator's drunken belief that the democratic American left consisted mainly of closet Reds working to subvert the United States was seen as risible; a sulphuric firework that threatened American civil liberties and democracy for a moment but then deservedly died away.

No longer. The fourth best-selling book in the US last year - Ann Coulter's Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism - was an explicit apologia for McCarthy. "What this country needed [in the 1950s] was Joe McCarthy," she says. "Amid all the mandatory condemnations of Joe McCarthy, the little detail about his being right always seems to get lost. His fundamental thesis was absolutely correct... He was not terrorising people purposelessly. His targets were Soviet sympathisers and Soviet spies." She describes the Hollywood blacklisting of suspected Communists as "honourable", and concludes, "McCarthy's gravest error was in underestimating the problem of Communist subversion."

She is not a lone madwoman. The rehabilitation of McCarthy is currently a major theme on the US right. William Buckley Jr, the grande dame of American conservative intellectuals, has published a tedious but aggressive novel, The Redhunter, which glorifies the Senator. The historian Arthur Herman has published an acclaimed revisionist biography which says McCarthy's fears "weren't paranoid delusions. They were true." Campaigning group Accuracy in Academia recently staged a conference entitled "Rethinking McCarthy". Henry Kissinger has noted - echoing Coulter - that McCarthy "did not go far enough."

Is it possible that there was a vast Communist plot to subvert American democracy, and only McCarthy understood the depth of the problem? The new McCarthyites claim their reappraisal was triggered by new evidence: the declassification of a series of documents from the Soviet archives known as the Verona cables. These documents do indeed show that some of the individuals defended by the 1950s left and savaged by McCarthy were actually Soviet spies. The most prominent is the left's old cause célèbre, Alger Hiss.

This is a serious blow, and it should be honestly acknowledged. A minority of people on the left are still inclined to see 1950s Stalinists as misguided idealists, decent believers in equality and liberty who somehow went astray. This is unsustainable. By the time Hiss was offering his secrets to Stalin's agents, the news about the gulags - vast concentration camps which slaughtered over 15 million innocent people - was out and beyond dispute. The US has many flaws, but it is lunatic to believe it is domestically equivalent to this; there are no mass graves in Kansas.

Too much of the left for too long implied there was moral equivalence between the two sides in the Cold War. They're wrong: the defence of a basically free society is not the same as the defence of a totalitarian state. A society where minorities can organise and fight for recognition is not the same as a society where minorities are herded up and executed. Hiss was not swapping secrets between two equally bad tribes.

But it's a wild leap to say that these cables therefore vindicate McCarthy. A handful of his allegations have turned out to have been right. A handful of Mystic Meg's predictions no doubt end up being accurate too. McCarthy made so many accusations - with virtually no evidence - that it would be extraordinary if he did not hit the target a few times.

More than this, it is a blatant distortion of the historical record to claim that only McCarthy was opposed to Communist spies. Most of the democratic left saw the menace of Stalinism and the crucial importance of defending America's imperfect democracy. If anything, McCarthy damaged the cause of anti-Communism by associating it with paranoid madness.

Some people will see this as an arcane historical debate. They are wrong. The Verona cables were decoded in 1995, but they have only been vigorously debated since 11 September 2001. There's a reason: at the start of a long war against Islamic fundamentalism, Americans are thinking about the launch of their last long war. How McCarthy is viewed provides us with an indication of how the "War on Terror" will proceed.

If the errors of the early stages of the Cold War are not acknowledged now, they will be repeated. The history of the 1950s is a must-read today. The first lesson is clear: within America, dissent must be defended vigorously from Coulter-style charges of treachery. The way to defend democracy is not to shut it down but to embrace it. Public debate and a frank analysis of American mistakes will make the battle against Islamic fundamentalism more efficient, not less.

In particular, it will help us to distinguish between when the US acts in a legitimate war against Islamic fundamentalism, and when it uses this as a pretext aggressively to extend its own business interests. This blurring went on throughout the Cold War: uppity democracies trying to fend off US business exploitation, like Guatemala, were crushed in the name of the war on communism. The neo-McCarthyites must not be allowed to silence opponents of aggressive US businesses with a howl of "Treachery!" It is one thing to die fighting Stalinism or Bin Laden; it is another to kill for the United Fruit Company or Halliburton.

The second lesson is that to oppose Islamic fundamentalism, Americans must repudiate their own far right. A Cold War in which America was led by McCarthy and his acolytes might not have been winnable at all. An America that jailed people for their political beliefs or that launched "limited nuclear wars" (another McCarthy obsession) might have been an America that collapsed under its own lunacies before the Soviet Union did. The US side in the Cold War was at its weakest - and its most morally indefensible - when it was fought by the President politically closest to McCarthy: Richard Nixon.

The third lesson is that the US and Britain should not back the far right abroad - foreign McCarthys - in the mistaken belief that they will help us to prevail. The Cold War led the US to overthrow many decent democratic regimes that it feared were pro-Soviet (or simply found economically inconvenient): Salvador Allende in Chile, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran. This damaged the American cause by making it - in foreign policy terms - for a time as totalitarian as the Soviet Union.

The same mistake may be repeated today. If the US continues to back fascistic dictatorships like the House of Saud, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and now Colonel Gaddafi, in the mistaken belief that they will help us in the "War on Terror", then the US will continue to haemorrhage its moral superiority over Islamic fundamentalists. The best way to defend democracy is to spread democracy, not supress it in the interests of fair-weather friends.

The corpse of Joe McCarthy is being paraded before us. The more extreme wing of the US right believe he offers us a model for how to fight a war against Islamic fundamentalism. They're right - and it's a model that leads straight to liquidated democracy and defeat.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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