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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Reading List: Blacklisted by History

Evans, M. Stanton. Blacklisted by History. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4000-8106-6.
In this book, the author, one of the lions of conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century, undertakes one of the most daunting tasks a historian can attempt: a dispassionate re-examination of one of the most reviled figures in modern American history, Senator Joseph McCarthy. So universal is the disdain for McCarthy by figures across the political spectrum, and so uniform is his presentation as an ogre in historical accounts, the media, and popular culture, that he has grown into a kind of legend used to scare people and intimidate those who shudder at being accused of “McCarthyism”. If you ask people about McCarthy, you'll often hear that he used the House Un-American Activities Committee to conduct witch hunts, smearing the reputations of innocent people with accusations of communism, that he destroyed the careers of people in Hollywood and caused the notorious blacklist of screen writers, and so on. None of this is so: McCarthy was in the Senate, and hence had nothing to do with activities of the House committee, which was entirely responsible for the investigation of Hollywood, in which McCarthy played no part whatsoever. The focus of his committee, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Government Operations Committee of the U.S. Senate was on security policy and enforcement within first the State Department and later, the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army. McCarthy's hearings were not focussed on smoking out covert communists in the government, but rather investigating why communists and other security risks who had already been identified by investigations by the FBI and their employers' own internal security apparatus remained on the payroll, in sensitive policy-making positions, for years after evidence of their dubious connections and activities were brought to the attention of their employers and in direct contravention of the published security policies of both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.

Any book about McCarthy published in the present environment must first start out by cutting through a great deal of misinformation and propaganda which is just simply false on the face of it, but which is accepted as conventional wisdom by a great many people. The author starts by telling the actual story of McCarthy, which is little known and pretty interesting. McCarthy was born on a Wisconsin farm in 1908 and dropped out of junior high school at the age of 14 to help his parents with the farm. At age 20, he entered a high school and managed to complete the full four year curriculum in nine months, earning his diploma. Between 1930 and 1935 he worked his way through college and law school, receiving his law degree and being admitted to the Wisconsin bar in 1935. In 1939 he ran for an elective post of circuit judge and defeated a well-known incumbent, becoming, at age 30, the youngest judge in the state of Wisconsin. In 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II following Pearl Harbor, McCarthy, although exempt from the draft due to his position as a sitting judge, resigned from the bench and enlisted in the Marine Corps, being commissioned as a second lieutenant (based upon his education) upon completion of boot camp. He served in the South Pacific as an intelligence officer with a dive bomber squadron, and flew a dozen missions as a tailgunner/photographer, earning the sobriquet “Tail-Gunner Joe”.

While still in the Marine Corps, McCarthy sought the Wisconsin Republican Senate nomination in 1944 and lost, but then in 1946 mounted a primary challenge to three-term incumbent senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr., scion of Winconsin's first family of Republican politics, narrowly defeating him in the primary, and then won the general election in a landslide, with more than 61% of the vote. Arriving in Washington, McCarthy was perceived to be a rather undistinguished moderate Republican back-bencher, and garnered little attention by the press.

All of this changed on February 9th, 1950, when he gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virgina in which he accused the State Department of being infested with communists, and claimed to have a list in his hand of known communists who continued to work at State after their identities had been made known to the Secretary of State. Just what McCarthy actually said in Wheeling remains a matter of controversy to this day, and is covered in gruelling detail in this book. This speech, and encore performances a few days later in Salt Lake City and Reno catapulted McCarthy onto the public stage, with intense scrutiny in the press and an uproar in Congress, leading to duelling committee investigations: those exploring the charges he made, and those looking into McCarthy himself, precisely what he said where and when, and how he obtained his information on security risks within the government. Oddly, from the outset, the focus within the Senate and executive branch seemed to be more on the latter than the former, with one inquiry digging into McCarthy's checkbook and his income tax returns and those of members of his family dating back to 1935—more than a decade before he was elected to the Senate.

The content of the hearings chaired by McCarthy are also often misreported and misunderstood. McCarthy was not primarily interested in uncovering Reds and their sympathisers within the government: that had already been done by investigations by the FBI and agency security organisations and duly reported to the executive departments involved. The focus of McCarthy's investigation was why, once these risks were identified, often with extensive documentation covering a period of many years, nothing was done, with those identified as security risks remaining on the job or, in some cases, allowed to resign without any note in their employment file, often to immediately find another post in a different government agency or one of the international institutions which were burgeoning in the postwar years. Such an inquiry was a fundamental exercise of the power of congressional oversight over executive branch agencies, but McCarthy (and other committees looking into such matters) ran into an impenetrable stonewall of assertions of executive privilege by both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In 1954, the Washington Post editorialised, “The President's authority under the Constitution to withhold from Congress confidences, presidential information, the disclosure of which would be incompatible with the public interest, is altogether beyond question”. The situational ethics of the legacy press is well illustrated by comparing this Post editorial to those two decades later when Nixon asserted the same privilege against a congressional investigation.

Indeed, the entire McCarthy episode reveals how well established, already at the mid-century point, the ruling class government/media/academia axis was. Faced with an assault largely directed at “their kind” (East Coast, Ivy League, old money, creatures of the capital) by an uncouth self-made upstart from the windswept plains, they closed ranks, launched serial investigations and media campaigns, covered up, destroyed evidence, stonewalled, and otherwise aimed to obstruct and finally destroy McCarthy. This came to fruition when McCarthy was condemned by a Senate resolution on December 2nd, 1954. (Oddly, the usual word “censure” was not used in the resolution.) Although McCarthy remained in the Senate until his death at age 48 in 1957, he was shunned in the Senate and largely ignored by the press.

The perspective of half a century later allows a retrospective on the rise and fall of McCarthy which wasn't possible in earlier accounts. Many documents relevant to McCarthy's charges, including the VENONA decrypts of Soviet cable traffic, FBI security files, and agency loyalty board investigations have been declassified in recent years (albeit, in some cases, with lengthy “redactions”—blacked out passages), and the author makes extensive use of these primary sources in the present work. In essence, what they demonstrate is that McCarthy was right: that the documents he sought in vain, blocked by claims of executive privilege, gag orders, cover-ups, and destruction of evidence were, in fact, persuasive evidence that the individuals he identified were genuine security risks who, under existing policy, should not have been employed in the sensitive positions they held. Because the entire “McCarthy era”, from his initial speech to condemnation and downfall, was less than five years in length, and involved numerous investigations, counter-investigations, and re-investigations of many of the same individuals, regarding which abundant source documents have become available, the detailed accounts in this massive book (672 pages in the trade paperback edition) can become tedious on occasion. Still, if you want to understand what really happened at this crucial episode of the early Cold War, and the background behind the defining moment of the era: the conquest of China by Mao's communists, this is an essential source.

In the Kindle edition, the footnotes, which appear at the bottom of the page in the print edition, are linked to reference numbers in the text with a numbering scheme distinct from that used for source references. Each note contains a link to return to the text at the location of the note. Source citations appear at the end of the book and are not linked in the main text. The Kindle edition includes no index.

Posted at November 16, 2010 14:32