The final word on Joe McCarthy

Published 5:05 pm Monday, December 17, 2007

“History,” Napoleon remarked, “is a lie agreed upon.” This bit of wisdom is superbly illustrated by the conventional wisdom concerning the Communist Party of the United States of America.

We are supposed to believe that the CPUSA was never more than an insignificant flea on the American body politic, and that the charges concerning its alleged influence and activities in the 1930s and 1940s were simply wild exaggerations concocted by cynical politicians — most notably Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., McCarthy himself was duly censured by the Senate in 1954, and America has slowly drifted back to sleep on the subject.

The facts are dramatically different, as I had occasion to learn personally when I served as associate counsel to the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee in 1956-1957, investigating “the scope of Soviet activity in the United States.” (The subcommittee had nothing to do with McCarthy’s committee, which was the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee of the Senate’s Government Operations Committee.)

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The CPUSA in the ‘30s and ‘40s was a small but hardworking group of people, most of whom were practically full-time participants in its activities. The latter included propaganda of all sorts, as well as infiltration of innocent organizations, and (where possible) espionage and policy subversion — all on behalf of the Soviet Union, for which the Party was, for all practical purposes, simply a busy and obedient agent. It is hard for most people to imagine the influence that even a relatively small number of dedicated people can have, but the CPUSA exerted significant power in its heyday — a heyday, be it remembered, in which the Soviet Union impressed many people as the wave of the future, destined to overwhelm a weak and fading West, including the United States,

In those days, Communists were represented abundantly (but almost always silently and invisibly) in the U.S. government. Until the outbreak of the Cold War in 1946, there seemed, to many of the liberals who ran the government, no great harm in this. But when the Soviet Union became America’s chief rival in the postwar world, the liberals looked retroactively guilty of a serious indifference. Their enemies sought to condemn them for it, and the liberals themselves moved swiftly to counterattack.

Thus began the great controversy over Communism in government, which roared on from 1946 to 1954. The liberals took the position that the degree of Communist infiltration of government was greatly exaggerated, and depicted McCarthy as the chief exaggerator. In public eyes, the controversy seemed more or less settled in 1954, when the Senate officially “censured” McCarthy — not, to be sure, for his basic charges, but for his alleged assault on the dignity of a Senate panel. Still, the purpose was served.

I have long since given up hoping that the above reasonably accurate description of the so-called “McCarthy controversy” will overtake, at least in my time, the version of events I described at the outset: the “lie agreed upon.” But I rejoice to report that Crown Forum (a trademark of Random House) has just published “Blacklisted by History — the Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies,” by M. Stanton Evans. For anyone who wants, and has never been able to find, a true account of that epic battle, or who lived through it and simply wants to refresh those now distant recollections, this is the book for you.

Evans, a veteran journalist, doesn’t shout. He displays, instead, a deadly meticulousness that is, at last, overwhelmingly convincing. After a generous look at the history preceding the controversy, he takes us through its various episodes step by step, refuting each canard that has passed, these many decades, for the truth.

He has performed a precious and indispensable service for the public record.

(William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.)